(MoneyWatch) In any competitive job market, putting in your application can seem like sending your resume into a black hole. Applying through an online database? That can feel like an even deeper black hole. The key is to make a contact at the company so that you can apply to a person, or at the very least, have a person flag your application for review. "Most companies prioritize referrals over unsolicited candidates because historically, better hires come from referrals over unsolicited candidates. Recruiters spend seconds reviewing a resume. A referral will move you to the top of the pile," says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, partner at Six-Figure Start and co-author of Six Steps to Job Search Success. Here's what to know about finding a contact:
Realize that some contacts are better than others.
In a a perfect world, you know someone works at your potential new company, says Ziv Eliraz, founder of Zao.com, a social recruiting and employee referral company: "The ideal situation though is applying through someone who both knows you well and is trusted by the company." A former boss, colleague, friend, someone from a networking group or classmate are all excellent candidates for a contact. These are folks who are familiar with your work and your character, so they can do more than merely pass on your resume.
But also know that a new contact can be helpful.
Even a fresh contact is better than none at all, says Ceniza-Levine: "Many companies consider time spent on employee referrals to be a service to the employees and not just good hiring practice. So if an employee forwards a resume, as a courtesy to that employee, HR will take a look," she adds. Even if they can't "recommend" you, they can get your resume into the right hands. And that can get your foot in the door for an interview.
Gain new contacts quickly by going online.
Particularly if you're new to the working world, your inner circle may be small. Looking online can help widen your pool. "LinkedIn is an excellent resource for meeting people at specific companies because you can find people who are connected to you already in some way -- you know a mutual connection, you went to the same school, or you previously worked at the same company," says Ceniza-Levine. Use discretion, and avoid asking for too much, too soon. For instance, instead of saying "Please give me a referral" ask "Is there anything you advise doing to make my resume likely to be seen by the hiring manager?" If you're lucky, the company will have an employe referral plan and he or she will be happy to pass your CV along.
Find a contact -- even if you have to send your resume first.
Sometimes, job applications are so time sensitive that you can't find a contact before you send your cover letter. In that case, it may still make sense to follow up by reaching out to a potential contact soon after. You can mention that you've applied to X position, and ask if they suggest anything that you can do to draw attention to your resume. Hopefully, they'll offer to shoot a quick email to the hiring manager. "When you apply through a person, you are helping yourself get above the noise, compared to just filling out a form on the site," notes Eliraz.