by Alex Lacey

Looking for a job? Here’s how to convince strangers to help you find one

The 7-step process that I used to get 40 referrals

In an increasingly competitive job market, landing a first-round job interview can be a major challenge in itself. However, there is one surefire way to increase your chances: a referral from someone at the company you want to work for. This is obvious, but what if you don’t know anyone at that company?

In my recent job-search, I received referrals for 40 jobs at 40 hard-to-reach companies despite not knowing anyone at 38 of them. My strategy was simple. I used my free one-month trial of LinkedIn Premium (the Recruiter Lite version) to ask relevant individuals at each company. I asked for a short phone call to hear about their experiences. At the end of the call, I asked them for a referral to work there. Here’s the shocking part: every single person said yes.

Over time, I’ve refined this process to maximum efficiency, and I believe that countless others could benefit from the lessons I’ve learned. So, without further ado, here is a 7-step guide to getting referrals for any job application:

Step 1: Sign up for a free one-month trial of LinkedIn Premium

Every LinkedIn member is eligible for a free one-month trial of LinkedIn Premium, which provides a handful of features not available to free accounts.

By far the best of these features is InMail, which allows you to send messages to anyone among the more than 500 million users on LinkedIn. As far as I’m aware, there has been nothing else in the entire course of human history that gives regular people the ability to directly contact such a large pool of individuals.

There are four versions of LinkedIn Premium that are available for a free one-month trial. Although the “Premium Career” option (normally $30/month) was supposedly designed for job-seekers, I recommend the “Recruiter Lite” (normally $100/month) plan for a few reasons:

  • Unlimited browsing of others’ profiles
  • Advanced search functionality (including a job title filter)
  • 30 InMail messages per month instead of 3
  • Unlimited InMail messages to other LinkedIn Premium members.

Even if your job-search continues after the first free month or you’ve already used your trial in the past, I still believe that these features are worth the price.

I should also note that the LinkedIn Recruiter Lite plan has its own separate interface accessible on the top right of the page, and your InMail message credits will only be available there, not in your regular LinkedIn account.

Step 2: Find people on LinkedIn that you want to contact

For each employer that you’re interested in, you should use the Recruiter Lite search parameters to select 2–3 people that you might reach out to. Finding the right people is not an exact science, but here are some possible criteria:

  • Currently at the company
    You should use this filter for every search. The default is “Current or Past” and you should change it to “Current”. Sometimes, people have two jobs listed as current on their LinkedIn profile. This often means that they switched jobs and never officially “ended” the other job on LinkedIn. In this case, their current job is the one with the most recent start date, which can be determined by clicking on their profile.
  • 1st-degree connections
    If you already know someone at a company, they can give you a “warm introduction” to someone that has the role you desire. This is by far the most common tactic that people use to get referrals. Also although it has a higher rate of success than reaching out to strangers, it is inherently limited by the size of your network. As such, do not rely on this in isolation.
  • LinkedIn premium members
    It costs zero InMail credits to contact someone who also has a LinkedIn Premium subscription. People who have LinkedIn Premium are generally more active on the platform. This means that they’re slightly more likely to respond than a non-premium member. For large companies, I was able to solely contact these members and save up InMail credits for smaller companies. Although it’s not possible to filter a search to premium members only, the algorithm seems to push them to the top of the results. Additionally, the gold LinkedIn logo next to their information makes them quite easy to identify.
  • Job title similarity
    You should use the “position” search filter to find people that have similar job-titles to the one you are seeking. Their referral often carries more weight than a referral from someone else at the company.
  • Seniority
    Give preference to higher-level people, as their referrals also carry more weight. For medium to large companies, it should not be difficult to find someone who has a related role at a higher level with a LinkedIn Premium account. It takes a bit of digging to find out how an employer’s hierarchy works. However, it can often be found by viewing the LinkedIn profiles of senior people that have been at a company for a long time. Their history of various roles at the company can be helpful. It’s important to note that many higher-ups have a lot of sources vying for their attention. Thus the rate of success in contacting them will be significantly lower, but still worth a shot. If they do agree to chat, they’re more likely to be comfortable with giving a referral, than an entry-level employee. This may be because they’re more familiar with the process
  • 2nd-degree connections
    Suppose you have a mutual connection with someone. You can ask your shared connection to give you a formal introduction to them on LinkedIn. If you don’t know your mutual connection well enough to ask for an introduction, you can mention that you both know the person in your message to them.
  • University
    If they attended the same college as you, that’s one instant factor in which you can relate to them. This will make them more likely to agree to take time to speak with you on the phone. In my own experience, I’ve found that graduates from a non-Ivy League schools, such as myself, working in hard-to-reach companies were likely to help. Perhaps this is because they also had to work a bit harder in the application process.
  • Anything else you have in common
    Location, college major, hometown, interests, and so on. Everything on their LinkedIn profile is fair game.

There are a lot of factors to consider, but it’s important to not over-analyze each person’s profile in an attempt to find the “perfect” referral. Spend 10 minutes choosing 5–10 people at a company and move on. To stay organized, you can set up a new “project” in the recruiter interface for saving profiles that you want to contact.

Step 3: Send InMail to the people you’ve found

First, before reaching out to anyone, make sure that your LinkedIn profile is completely updated and looks as impressive as possible. Some of the people you contact will look at your profile.

When you are ready to send a message to someone, the content of the message is important. To maximize your chances of receiving a response, ask them for a 15-minute phone call to discuss their experiences with the company. Here’s a stock message you can use:

Hi [their name],
My name is [your name]. I’m currently looking into jobs within [specific industry], and I saw that there was a posting at [their company]. [mention anything you and them have in common, if applicable].
I don’t know too much about what this role looks like at [their company], and I’d love to hear about your experiences. Would you be able to chat on the phone for ~15 minutes sometime this week?
[your name]

Resist the urge to add extra details that aren’t 100% necessary. The recipient will be less likely to read the whole message. If you do add something, make sure it truly increases your likelihood of getting a response

Side note: If you’re a student, always mention it, because people love to help students.

It’s important to remember that this process is inherently hit-and-miss. Some (most) of the people you reach out to will not respond, and that’s okay. Do not over-analyze the situation or let this discourage you.

Step 4: Plan out a time to talk

If the person replies, make sure to be prompt in your response to them. They’ll often ask you to send a few time slots in which you’re available. As a courtesy, provide a wide range of availability in their time-zone. This can be inferred from their location listed on their LinkedIn profile.

People will often want to talk during their work-hours, most commonly on Fridays. This is especially true for consultants, though there are exceptions.

Step 5: Talk to them on the phone

You should be prepared for the call with a few questions for them, as you will be expected to guide the conversation. As with in-person interviews, the general rule-of-thumb is that you want to ask subjective questions. They would likely provide a different answer than someone else. Do not concrete questions that could be answered with a Google Search. Here are some ideas:

  • “How does this role differ from this role at [similar companies]?”
  • “Based on your experience, what is the company culture like compared to other places you’ve worked?”
  • “How does this job compare to [previous job listed on their LinkedIn profile]?”
  • “What does the day-to-day work look like in this role?”
  • “How would you define success in this role?”
  • “If I were to receive this job or a similar job, how do you recommend that I prepare for it?”
  • “Do you have any general advice for me in my job search process?”

Then, after 10–15 minutes, ask the following question:

“I know that the role is super competitive, so do you think it would be valuable for me to seek out a referral from you or someone else at the company?”

You’ll be surprised how often they say yes.

If they agree, you should then ask about how the referral process works, because it varies between employers. In smaller companies, they’ll usually just send your resume to a recruiter. At larger companies, there is often a simple form that they can fill out. In most cases, the company will want you to apply online also. However, employers vary on whether you should submit the application before or after the referral. Make sure you find out. Often, the person you’re speaking with won’t know the details of the referral process offhand, so they’ll need some time to inquire.

Step 6: Follow up

Your communication with each person should continue beyond the initial referral. This is necessary because it facilitates future contact if necessary. Maybe you’ll need a referral again someday, but more importantly, it shows them that their favor meant a lot to you.

I recommend following up the next day with a LinkedIn connection request. This allows you to contact them again in the future after your premium subscription is over), including a message like this one:

“Once again, thank you so much for speaking with me yesterday and referring me to [their company]! I’ll keep you updated on the outcome of the application process.”

In addition, you should update them once the outcome of that specific application has been decided. They’ll often be notified by the recruiter about whether you got the job, but it’s also nice to communicate with them personally. Also you should contact them again once you accept a job offer somewhere.

Step 7: Pay it forward

In the grand scheme of things, this is the most important step. When others ask you for career-help in the future, remember the people who helped you. Give advice. Be a mentor. Go above and beyond for them. Then, further in the future, the people that you helped will do the same for others, and so on.

If you get the chance, please respond in the comment section of this article to let me know how you were able to network to find a job. Eventually, I’d like to publish an updated version of this article that includes information from others too.

And above all else: never give up hope. Rejection will happen. Do not allow yourself to get discouraged. Good luck!