Landing your dream sports job is all about winning the interview, right? Acing the interview is crucial but that’s not the hardest part for prepared, polished sports job hunters. Getting in the interview room is the real challenge. Even with an improving job market, finding your way to the top of a digital stack of resumes is no simple feat. Grabbing the attention of company talent scouts demands a little creativity and some extra effort. Up for the task?

Do you go online and submit a stock cover letter and knock off resume to find your next job? If so, you’ve taken an unimaginative, likely unsuccessful attempt at scoring an interview for competitive sports jobs. The digital age brought much efficiency to the career services industry—online applications, searchable job databases, quick filtering and email auto-reply. Few companies spare the time to read every cover letter and resume that hits their inbox. Thus, job seekers are up against automated rejections and must seek out market inefficiencies to stand out from the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of candidates that often apply for a single position. How will your name rise to the top?

Go old school; talk with the folks that can help get your foot in the door. I’m not suggesting you cold call companies you’d like to work for. It sounds bold but that move is usually a non-starter with HR departments. Job referrals work wonders but they’re hard to come by. Exclusive sports job boards offer a nice edge by helping narrow down the applicant playing field. Go ahead and add informational interviews to your job-seeking repertoire. They’re rarely used but oh so useful.

An informational interview is “an informal conversation with someone working in an area that interests you who will give you information and advice.” according to University of California Berkeley. It’s not a job interview and it’s not a forum to ask for a job interview. This information-gathering endeavor allows you to explore a somewhat unfamiliar industry or company with someone that’s well versed in the subject. If you know someone that knows someone at the company you’re interested in, ask your friend for an introduction. If that’s not an option, use the tools you have, like LinkedIn, to message someone that can help you. You may be met with skepticism—people are often wary of “cold call” connections. Comfort cynics with something like: “Don’t worry, I’m not looking for a job interview. I’m looking to learn more about you and your company.” That promise doesn’t mean the time you spend getting to know him or her won’t help advance your career in sports. It just means you’ll have to exercise some patience and play the long game. How can informational interviews help get you what you want? I’m glad you asked!

Stroke their ego.

Most people love talking about themselves. Sharing stories, imparting wisdom and dishing out advice is something even most shy people can muster up the courage to do. Read the book How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie sometime and you’ll see just how self-indulgent most of us really are. Suggesting that your interviewee “must have plenty of amazing experiences to share” or that “you’d love to get some advice on sports careers from someone that’s doing well” will open more doors than you’d expect. Why? Because when you make someone feel important they’re happy to prove you right, sharing what they’ve learned to keep impressing you. Be genuine but be effusive in the praise you dish out. It’ll land you face time with the people that can help change your life.

Ask about the things you can’t find on the internet.

Cyberspace is full of career advice, job descriptions and company information. Some of it’s good but much of it doesn’t answer the questions you really want answered. When you prepare for an informational sports job interview—yes, you need to prep ahead of time—think about what’s important to you rather than asking questions that you readily answer by reading the company’s website. If the person you’re talking to knows about the kind of sports jobs you’re interested in, ask what happens day-to-day. That’s often hard to discern by reading a job description. Find out about the company culture—laid back, all business, micromanagers, telecommuting. Have them predict where the company is heading and how they feel about their own growth potential. And see if they’d recommend the company to close friends and family members. You likely won’t be asking how much they make but you can ask if they feel good work is rewarded with merit increases. The answer to that question will speak volumes. Getting a vibe for office styling—cube farm, open-office space, offices for everyone—and how tight or distant most co-workers are will help you see how you’d fit in. These questions might not be important to you so figure out the ones that are and start finding some answers.

Do it right and, poof, a referral is born!

You’re finishing up an informational interview with someone that’s been helpful and forthcoming. Don’t mess it up by asking for a referral or a recommendation—you just met! Make sure they know you find their company fascinating and that you’re going to spend more time reading through the job description before applying. Graciously thank them for the time they’ve taken to meet up with you. You probably met at a coffee shop or restaurant —buy their lunch, coffee, tea, whatever to show some gratitude.

Before you part ways ask if you can email them a few more questions after you get a chance to think over what you’ve learned. Then, just as you would with a job interview, follow up the next day with a compliment-laced thank you email. OK, here comes the important part. Wait a couple days and email back a few follow-ups, smart questions that show you were paying attention. At the end of your note, plead your case. Something like: “I know we only talked briefly but everything I heard tells me this is the right place for me. So I have to ask, would you consider referring me for the position? No worries if not, you’ve been so helpful already and I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to help me.” You’re showing your appreciation, some genuine interest in the company and that you don’t expect anything more. But you can’t help asking because of how well they sold you on the company. How could your new compadre say no? Snap up that referral, land an interview and snare your dream sports job.

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