Working with a Recruiter to Get a Job: A Beginner’s Guide

The job search process can feel a lot like dating sometimes.

You look online, reach out to friends, go to places where you think you’ll meet just the right new partner. When you meet someone interesting, you arrange a date, dress up, and try to make an amazing first impression.

Sometimes you wish you had looked more closely at their profile. Other times, you think it went well but never hear from them again. And sometimes, there’s a great connection!

The job search, like dating, is complicated. And a recruiter can be your career matchmaker.

Recruiters are job search experts who know all the tricks and have just the right amount of intuition to help you make a great connection. They also know that the job search process can be a hard, vulnerable place to be. And they can bring some humanity, empathy, and transparency to your search. They’re here to help if they can.

Learn more about what recruiters do and how you can work with one in this beginner’s guide.

So what do recruiters actually do?

Third-party agency recruiters, also called staffing agencies, are different from internal corporate recruiters. Boly:Welch, where I work here in Portland, is a third-party agency recruiter.

These recruiters are hired by companies to understand their long-term objectives. They’re hired to save companies time and money in hiring by narrowing the choices to a few top contenders. They source, screen, and connect companies to great talent.

A good recruiter will also understand a candidate’s career goals, background, motivations, and intangible needs. They can look past resumes and job descriptions and bring common sense, expertise, and a human touch to the job search process.

Like any profession, there are some recruiters that perpetuate a lot of negative stereotypes. Sometimes recruiters will never follow up or they’ll send you roles that are clearly not a good fit. If you encounter these, consider them red flags.

Anyone can call themselves a recruiter without knowing much about the jobs they’re recruiting for. Or they might not have the business sense to set expectations and follow up with job seekers. That’s why it’s important for job seekers to understand what it’s like to work with a recruiter. And you should always do your homework on recruiters you meet! Check their website and social media, ask questions, and see if they actually understand their practice area.

What do I get out of working with a recruiter?

The best part of working with a third-party recruiter is that you both have the same goal: finding you a job with a great employer that fits your skills, culture, and background.

A good recruiter can help you:

  • Keep your search confidential instead of sending your resume out into the void.
  • Similarly, recruiters are a direct conduit to the employer for your application, complete with recommendation and references.
  • Tell you about unposted opportunities (as you’ve heard from Mac, up to 80% of roles are never put on job boards).
  • Provide insight into where you stand compared to other candidates interviewing for a position.
  • Differentiate opportunities (and give you the unposted details on a role).
  • Offer nuanced, current market insights on things like salary ranges for different roles.
  • Provide you with honest feedback on your expectations.
  • Review resumes, prep for interviews, and offer salary and benefits negotiation advice.
  • Tap into a huge network of employers.
  • Give ongoing job advice and support – many recruiters have worked with the same candidates for years and have them in mind when the perfect opportunity opens up.
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And, if you meet with a recruiter and they tell you they aren’t the best resource for what you’re looking for right now, they’ll also give you feedback! They can give you tips on your presentation and resume, assist you in strategizing your job search process, and give you an unbiased view of the market, just for taking the time to chat with them.

What are recruiters not telling me?

Good recruiters will be honest and communicative with you, but it helps to know their mindset when you reach out or meet with them. Here are some facts to help you understand a recruiter’s mindset:

  • They must meet their client expectations first and foremost (that’s the hiring organization). They can advocate for you, but are not only representing you.
  • Recruiters are not career coaches. Working with a recruiter should always be free for the candidate, but keep in mind that the employer is paying the bill. If you want a career coach, there are some amazing coaches who have the tools and training to be a huge benefit to your search. As expected, these personalized coaching services do come at a cost to you.
  • Although they might like you and advocate for you, recruiters are also not decision makers on who to move forward in the interview process. They are, however, usually the ones to pass on the good or bad news.
  • It’s not personal when they tell you they can’t be a good resource. They don’t want to waste your time or set false expectations. Since the recruiter is tasked with delivering 110% of the client’s expectations on any particular job placement, candidates should expect to be moved forward or selected only when they are truly the most competitive candidate for the position.
  • Recruiters are typically working on a limited number of positions at any given time. That means, if you are a Marketing Coordinator and they aren’t working on a Marketing Coordinator role, it could be a while before you hear from them. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a good candidate! It simply means that they are working strategically on other positions at the time.
  • Recruiters also focus their energy on the roles they are most likely to fill well and quickly, and typically won’t check back with candidates who aren’t a fit for their current roles, just to say they don’t have anything for you. They are, however, happy to hear from you and provide an update when you have questions.

Should I work with a recruiter?

Working with a recruiter can be a great resource in your search. But to make sure you’re not wasting your time, you should do your homework on the agency and recruiter you’re considering. Most recruiters specialize across geographical locations, job titles, and industries. Look for those organizations who work with companies that appeal to you and post the types of positions that fit your skills or interests. Look at their track record of success.

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Speak with trusted friends and professional connections about their experiences with staffing firms. Online reviews can be revealing as well. Keep in mind that reviews typically span both ends of the spectrum. They either loved the agency or a specific recruiter because they got a great job or they were upset by a poor experience (and/or they had unrealistic expectations).

In general, because of the fees that go into using their service, recruiters are expected to identify job candidates who check every box the client is looking for. So recruiters are great for folks on a clear career path, with experience in the field they’re pursuing.

However, they are usually unable to “take a chance” on someone with a nontraditional background for the role they are recruiting for because most clients expect to see the type of professional they asked for in the job description. Recruiters are less helpful for people who:

  • Are looking to switch careers
  • Don’t have much experience
  • Have a spotty work history
  • Don’t have every “must have” the role they apply to requires
  • Looking for roles in industries or fields the recruiter doesn’t work in.

Be critical in evaluating your own background and experiences. You might have better luck applying on your own – or networking your way in – for roles where you don’t meet every requirement. A good recruiter will tell you when they think you should strike out on your own as well as where they can help you meet your goals.

What is the best way to work with a recruiter?

Think of working with an employment agency like using a dating app. If you put in minimal effort and swipe right a few times, you probably won’t get many great matches. Put in the time and effort so they really get to know you and what you’re looking for, and you’re much more likely to be matched with your new long-term partner.

In general, job seekers can start working with a recruiter one of three ways:

Apply for a job on a recruiting agency’s website

If you’re a fit, a recruiter will contact you to start the process. If you’re not right for that job, the recruiter may not contact you right away, but a good agency will hold your resume on file for future opportunities.

Reach out to meet with a recruiter

Most agencies will have an intake process on their website for you to share your resume, job search goals, and areas of interest. You can also reach out to a recruiter who recruits for your industry via LinkedIn, or even Twitter. If your skills are in line with the types of roles they recruit for, a recruiter will contact you to set up an interview and begin recommending roles for you.

Get introduced to a recruiter

Sometimes a professional contact will recommend a specific recruiter to you during your job search, and make an introduction that way. Just like most things in the career space, recruiters trust people they know, and will be more likely to meet with you if you know one of their favorite people.

Here are some more tips to maximize your chances of finding success working with a recruiter:

Only send in one resume

Recruiters consider you for multiple roles, so applying for multiple positions doesn’t increase your chance. In fact, it might make you appear you are taking the “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” approach, which is never well regarded.

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Prepare ahead of time

Prepare for an interview with a recruiter by asking yourself the types of questions a recruiter will ask you: What types of roles are you looking for? What industries, roles, companies, titles, etc. are the best fit for you? What makes you tick at work? What location, salary, and benefits do you need? Take as much time as you would to research a new company and spend that figuring out your responses. If you don’t know yourself well enough to know if it will be a good fit, there’s no way a recruiter will!

Be open and honest

Sometimes candidates are cagey with certain information, and it always ends up hurting their candidacy. You need to be open with your recruiter about your expectations, whether it’s about salary, location, responsibility, etc. They can listen to your pain points—the failures and frustrations in past jobs you want to avoid in your new relationships—and give you advice in your search. On the flip side, if you ever feel like you’re being persuaded to take a role that’s not right for you, say so. Don’t let anyone—recruiters included—pressure you into taking a job you don’t actually want.

Think about timing

Timing really does matter. The best time to reach out to a recruiter is when you’re currently working and okay with your current role, but looking for new opportunities and growth. Recruiters are fairly reactive on the roles they work on, so it might be weeks or months before we get your dream role in-house. Keep in touch and let them know how your search is going. It’s always tougher to start the search when you are miserable, vulnerable or desperate. This can be a recipe for disaster and akin to jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Be responsive

Recruiters will do their best to work around your schedule. Check your email, text, voicemail and get back to them ASAP – you never know if you’ll miss out on an opportunity because you didn’t respond quickly enough. They’re working on your behalf, as quick as you’ll let them. On the flip side, expect recruiters to be responsive too. Yes, they’re usually busy. However, if you check in with them, a good recruiter will follow up with you.

Working with a recruiter can be a great way to advance your job search. But, remember it’s just one avenue, another tool in your job search strategy toolbox. So, take the experience at face value: they can help you find your next position—and that’d be a great outcome for everyone. But in the meantime, keep reaching out, networking and making your search as proactive and human as possible, so you have as many options as you need and deserve!

Recruiters are there to be a resource, but don’t expect to be them to be your only resource. So much of their work, like the best romances, depends on timing and mood and the occasional bit of matchmaking magic.