In 2015, Adweek learned that 92 percent of recruiters use social media to find, evaluate, and hire job candidates. The admonition never to post anything on social media that you wouldn’t want your grandmother (or great grandmother) to see holds true even more so today, because recruiters really are looking at your social media and they aren’t afraid of disqualifying an otherwise suitable candidate who posts objectionable material and photos of applicants engaged in inebriated or irresponsible behavior. Conversely, U.S. News reported, in 2015, that “Recruiters use diverse methods to acquire new employees, such as social networks (56 percent), intern hires (55 percent), direct applications (46 percent), outside recruiters (38 percent), internet job boards (37 percent) and their own mobile career site (19 percent).”

Adding to the evaluation gauntlet, job candidates face stiff competition even in an overwhelmingly shallow labor pool. According to EBI, the average job opening receives 250 resumes which will result in only 2 percent of candidates being interviewed for that average position. Recruiters spend an average of six weeks to fill a job opening. The message to job candidates: if you snooze, you lose.

Not only must job candidates compete with the vast madding horde of rival candidates, but they must also pass through the unforgiving checklist of job qualifications. According to EBI, 75 percent of hiring managers use recruiting software that scans resumes for certain keywords and other criteria and disqualify applicants that don’t check off all the boxes. Software doesn’t care that there’s a human being behind every resume, and all recruiters want to find unicorns, those magical, mythical job candidates who are absolutely perfect for the open position.

So, what’s a job seeker to do?

What recruiters really want to know

Assuming a recruiter has contacted you—usually via email—the job candidate then agonizes over every word in her reply message. Writing for The Muse, Richard Moy—a job recruiter himself—states that “people put way too much pressure on themselves to ‘get their responses right.’” In other words, make your responses effective, not perfect. He offers three examples: scheduling a phone interview, a request for a resume, and a request for a conversation. That last differs from a phone interview. In each, Moy offers a simple, straightforward email template that contains two main elements other than the salutation and sign-off: a simple thank-you and a statement of interest or availability.

He notes that requests for resumes don’t necessarily mean that the recruiter is an idiot or likes making job candidates duplicate work or that they don’t believe the resumes originally provided. He reminds candidates that recruiters are human, that technology sometimes fails, and that it’s really not that difficult to attach a digital copy of your resume to an emailed reply.

First contact and your response

Recruiters don’t always rely on responses to advertisements for employment. They scour social media profiles to contact individuals who may not even be searching for employment to find qualified candidates for their clients’ open positions. (Yes, that adds to the stiff competition from rival candidates as mentioned above.) Job board Indeed offers four email templates that cover most responses to initial expressions of interest by a recruiter to consider an applicant for a job. Indeed breaks down the categories into: 1) you want the job; 2) the job under consideration isn’t a good fit; 3) you’re not sure whether the job is a good fit; and, 4) you’re not interested in the job.

Responding to any of those four scenarios, remain polite and professional. Always begin the body of the response with a statement of gratitude (“Thank you for …”) that summarizes the subject of the letter. What follows varies, depending upon the intent. If you want the job or aren’t sure and wish to explore the opportunity in more depth, iterate your specific expertise or qualification(s) that make you a wonderful fit for the job and request a telephone conversation to discuss it. If you don’t want the job, then a polite statement of refusal gets the point across without offense.

Senior recruiter for HomeAway.com Clinton Buelter addresses the circumstance when a recruiter contacts a potential hire who never applied for the job opening he represents. Take a moment to get over your surprise and consider the following: a recruiter approached you, which means something about your profile attracted him to you as a good fit for a job. Before responding to the introductory message, he says, establish the recruiter’s credibility. Therefore, not only does the recruiter use social media to investigate the candidate’s qualifications, but so must the candidate research the recruiter’s legitimacy. Buelter recommends using LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and Crunchbase to establish the recruiter’s credibility and make an educated decision whether to pursue the opportunity. 

Regardless of whether you’re seeking a new position or whether the proposed job is the right fit, Buelter recommends speaking to the recruiter. A personal conversation, face-to-face or over the phone, establishes a personal connection.

What recruiters want

The overwhelming use of social media in job recruitment puts LinkedIn as the top resource used by recruiters for qualifying or pre-qualifying job candidates. Fast Company reports that, in 2016, “87% of recruiters find LinkedIn most effective when vetting candidates during the hiring process.” That does not mean all profiles are created equal. Recruiters look for specific elements in candidate profiles.

Complete and updated information. Recruiters like to know start dates and end dates in candidate’s employment history. Oftentimes entirely unmerited, job gaps send up warning flags that disqualify a candidate from consideration; however, a profile that simply hasn’t been updated also presents a negative impression.

Professional portraits also catch a recruiter’s eye. Selfies and unprofessional looking snapshots convey just the opposite impression a job candidate wishes to convey. Make sure your profile photo is clear, shows your face, isn’t cluttered, and doesn’t suffer from heavy filters and contrast. And never pose with other people: the recruiter wants to match the face to the name.

Recruiters also prefer people with broad social networks: they want people who know people. Successful candidates need not boast of thousands in their networks, but a few hundred shows robust connection to the world.

Discrepancies also matter. When submitting your resume for a job, make sure that the information on the resume does not contradict the information in your profile. Such discrepancies indicate that a job candidate lacks attention to detail.

Clarity matters, too. Recruiters have neither the time nor the inclination to spend analyzing and decrypting content. State job responsibilities, titles, and other qualifications clearly and without industry jargon. If a candidate particularly intrigues a recruiter, then he’ll take the time to read articles and comments that candidate has posted. Once again, the admonition to post only polite content holds true. Polite does not mean content cannot address controversial topics or express contrary opinions; it does mean that salacious, crude, and belligerent language has not place. When reading your posts and articles, recruiters want to see whether you can provide measured, courteous arguments, state yourself clearly, and express yourself like a mature adult who can conduct herself in public with good manners. In other words, be civil.

What doesn’t really matter to recruiters

Recruiters pay attention to a lot of things that factor into their evaluations as to whether a candidate suits a particular job opening. However, U.S. News reports that two items don’t particularly matter: cover letters and cumulative grade point averages.

Cover letters are necessary. They express interest (or not), reiterate a candidate’s qualifications, and demonstrate whether a candidate can express herself clearly and succinctly. They do not need to be particularly eloquent or remotely perfect, except for ensuring a complete lack of grammatical errors. Don’t agonize over the cover letter.

Your high school or college GPA also doesn’t matter. What does matter is whether you graduated and obtained that diploma or degree. After all, the lowest ranking graduate of medical school bears the same title as the valedictorian: doctor. The academic score matters little compared to evidence that you have the skills and experience you claim.

What recruiters need to know differs sometimes from what recruiters want to know—and much of what they want to know is none of their business. What they need to know is your business and it’s also your business to ensure they have it. Recruiters don’t usually decide whom the company hires, but they do influence the decision.