Sam Holstein

The Complete Guide To Looking Like A Professional Online

Here’s a hypothetical for you. Imagine you are a senior virtual reality developer working for a medium-size tech firm. Your days are long and you never quite seem to get all your work done. You are searching for a junior team member to help you create advanced virtual reality software so you can go home in the evenings and not have to work. You have two applicants.

Would you rather hire this guy:

Or this guy:

Same guy. Same qualifications. But the choice is obvious.

A professional online appearance is just like a professional appearance in the physical world; it communicates that you’re serious, responsible, and you can get the job done. Qualified, capable candidates with unprofessional digital appearances — bad LinkedIn photos, typos, and poorly designed resumes — frequently get passed over in favor of less qualified candidates who present themselves better. Having an unprofessional digital appearance is like going to a job interview in sweats. You might be the most skilled candidate they’ve ever interviewed, but hiring managers still won’t be impressed.

The good news is that getting a professional digital appearance is easy. All it takes is a half-hour and a half-decent photo of yourself.

Got both of those? Then let’s begin.

STEP 0: Put Yourself in Your Employer’s Shoes

Imagine you’re the person you want to hire you. You’ve got a lot of candidates you could hire, but you are trying to hire the best candidate.

Ask yourself: what does the best candidate look like? Sound like? Act like? What kind of person would you most like to hire? What kind of resume would that person make? What kind of cover letter would that person write?

When recent graduates who are new to the white-collar workforce start applying for jobs, they often regard the desires of hiring managers as unknowable, similar to the mysteries of the universe. In reality, hiring managers are just like the rest of us. Much like a list of qualities you want in a boyfriend, endless lists of “job requirements” are more wishlist than reality. All they really want is someone who is competent, doesn’t cause arguments or create unnecessary problems, and gets all their assigned work done on time. Anything you can do to convince them that’s you will help get you hired.

If you get stuck going through the rest of these steps, here’s what you should do: Ask yourself, “What can I say here that will convince a hiring manager I’m skilled, cooperative, and dependable?”

STEP 1: Get a Professional Email Address

The average reader of this article is young enough that we made our first email addresses as children, without the supervision of our parents. As a result, many of us have personal email accounts with addresses like,, and my childhood email address,

Our old emails are fun and nostalgic. The problem is, many of us use these unprofessional emails for professional purposes, like registering for LinkedIn and job hunting websites, job hunting itself, and any career-building outside of work. Nostalgic though these may be, these email addresses are red flags to professional contacts, red flags that announce “I am too lazy and unprofessional to change my email.”

To avoid possibly scaring away opportunities, make sure you have a professional email address. Do this even if you already have a work or school email. If you have a work email address, you should not be using that for anything that doesn’t have to do with work for a number of reasons. If you have a school email, that has all the same problems as the work email, plus using a school email when you are not in school can come across as particularly immature.

A professional email is one that is based on your real name. These are professional emails based on the name John Michael Doe:

The one exception is if you use a custom email domain for your personal email. Then, you can use an email like Creatives with their own personal websites often do this.

A professional email is NOT:

If you use Google

If you use Google Mail and you are remaking a professional email address, I recommend you use this new, professional-email Google Account for all your Google services. The time will come when a client or professional contact wants to share a document with you over Google. If you have to juggle a professional Google account ( with an unprofessional Google account (, the resulting confusion (“wait, you sent it to, send it to — yeah, I know, I made it in high school — ”) will both make you appear unprofessional and confuse the hell out of whoever you’re working with.

The solution is simple, if a pain in the ass: change all your Google services over to your new professional email and set your old Google email to forward to your new Google email.

Add a professional email signature

Once you’ve got yourself a professional email domain set up, make your email signature professional. A professional email signature looks something like this:

John Doe
(123) 456–7891

Your name is, of course, your name.

Your phone number will by and large be useless, but there’s one important reason you want to include it: if you ever have a phone call or meeting scheduled with someone and you forget about it, you want the other person to have a way to reach you. If you don’t, you will end up stiffing them and that is very bad for business. Don’t say you’ll never forget a meeting — everyone does sometimes.

Your website can be one of many things. It can be a link to your current employer, or a link to your LinkedIn, or a link to your personal portfolio website, or even a link to your Instagram if it makes sense. The purpose of this link is to give people who want to know more a way to learn more, so whatever leads them to learn more about you is what you want to put in your signature.

STEP 2: Fix Up Your LinkedIn

Yeah, LinkedIn is stupid and half the people with a LinkedIn don’t use it. But when a potential employer/client does research on a candidate, their Linkedin is one of the first things they visit. That’s just the way the world works. So, make sure you have a LinkedIn. In addition, make sure it…

Has a professional photo. Professional, in this case, means any photo taken of you that clearly shows your face and shoulders, in a work shirt, with a white, brick wall, or otherwise uniform background. No selfies, no pictures of you in a crowd, and no gray placeholder. It doesn’t need to be studio level quality by any means, just clear enough that you can tell what your face looks like. When people schedule meetings (like interviews) with people they’ve never met physically, they use LinkedIn photos to identify who they’re meeting with.

If the cops told you to identify this man in a lineup, you’d be able to

Has a job history. This job history must be relevant to the field in which you’re looking to work. If you’re a writer, include writing experience. If you’re a VR developer, include VR development experience. In other words: Don’t include the three years you worked as a McDonald’s associate. The purpose of your job history is to convince a future employer that you can do what they want you to do, and your three years of associateship at a fast food joint doesn’t convince anyone you know how to do anything.

Keep in mind: This experience does not have to be paid. If you kept a personal blog for four years, you can list that on your resume as writing experience. If you helped your little sister with her English papers, you can list that on your resume as writer tutoring experience. Work is work, whether or not you were paid for it.

When taken this way, it often turns out that people have more experience than they give themselves credit for. Someone applying for a job in digital marketing may not have held a paid digital marketing job before, but if they have an Instagram with 20k+ followers and a YouTube channel with 5k+ subscribers, they certainly have experience.

Make sure every job listing includes a description. Use this space to explain what competencies you displayed at those jobs. In other words, explain what you did at that job. You don’t need to come up with fancy business language for every job description, you just need to write what it is you did while you worked that job. Hiring managers don’t want to translate your business-ese back into plain English; they want to know if you have experience doing what they want done. They can’t know you do unless you tell them what it is you did.

This is an ideal description; it very clearly explains what he did while he held this job.

Does not have anything from high school. Unless you graduated from high school in the last three years or won state awards, no one cares what high school you went to or what clubs you were in while you were there. It’s the definition of irrelevant. If you’re in your mid-twenties and your LinkedIn has stuff from high school, it’s got to go.

Has contact information. Won’t do you any good to have a nice LinkedIn if no one can get in touch with you.

Has an ‘about me’ description. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does have to be personal. Your description is where people look to get a sense of who you are as a person. This is where you want to crack jokes or share your undying love of behavioral psychology.

When the majority of resumes a hiring manager has to read are dreadfully boring, a description like this one adds a refreshing element of humanity.

STEP 3: Re-Record Your Voicemail

If you’re like most westerners with a pulse, you probably send almost all your unknown callers to voicemail. Which means, if someone calls you out of the blue to offer you your dream job, they are going to hear your voicemail.

And if they hear “Hey man, it’s John Doe in the house, leave your message with my peeps at the beep,” they may rethink their decision.

Here’s a much better thing for them to hear: “You’ve reached the voicemail of John Doe. I must not be available right now; go ahead and leave a voicemail, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

My voicemail message is the following:

You’ve reached the voicemail of Megan Holstein. I don’t pick up calls from unknown numbers. If you want to get in touch with me, please send a text message to this number or email to I do check my voicemails, so if you wish to leave a voicemail, please do so after the beep.

STEP 4: Make a Nice Resume

Unfortunately, most recent grads or people getting started have resumes that look like they were typed up by a seventh grader. This wouldn’t be such a problem, except that hiring managers are human, which means they are as susceptible to first impressions as anyone else. And the first impression a black and white Word document in 12 pt Arial makes is very poor.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a graphic designer to spruce up your resume. Google Drive comes with a fabulous, free suite of tools for creating your own spiffy resume.

To do this, open Google Drive, hit New Document, and then click the little arrow and select From Template. The second section of templates is Resume templates. Pick any template you want, because they’re all better than what’s available on Microsoft Word.

Then fill in the blanks — replace the stock text with your text, and you’re golden.

STEP 5: Be Yourself!

Once you take care of the unprofessional email, sloppy LinkedIn, and bad voicemail, the one thing I see people struggle most with in their digital appearance is being themselves. I’ve read many job applications written by smart, personable, creative people that read like an exercise by an English-as-a-second-language student because they were trying to ‘talk businessey’ rather than just being themselves.

Appearing professional is not a vast performance in which we all put on the appropriate costumes and regurgitate our business scripts on cue (however much it might feel like that to the recent business school grad). Appearing professional, digitally and physically, should never be a special effort. Professionalism, then, is not a result of memorizing the appropriate catchphrases and buzzwords, but a result of an internal sense of excellence and responsibility. Allow yourself to feel confident, and professionalism will come naturally to you.

Hiring managers, having usually been out of college for at least a decade, if not more, are aware of this. They can tell the difference between business-ese bullshit and sincere professionalism in a heartbeat, and they are not looking for business-ese.

There are a couple of great opportunities for you to display this easy confidence in your digital appearance:

Your LinkedIn/Resume description. Since your experience and skillset is available elsewhere, this is a great place to paint a picture of who you are as a person. Tell the reader about yourself the way you might tell a new friend. Answer questions like:

Cover letters. When applying for a job, you list your acumen on your resume, and you use your cover letter to speak personally to this individual hiring manager. Write to them as if they’re a real person. Write about the company they work for and what you like about it. Write about how you can see yourself working there. (If appropriate, ask questions in the cover letter that could be answered in a later interview.) While resumes are copy/pasted for every job listing, cover letters should be written on a per-job basis.

Description for social media websites. I promise you, potential clients and employers will see your social media. AI programs already exist that hiring managers can use to comb through every single social media post you’ve ever made and instantly review the ones that concern them most. Which sucks.

But, if you were inclined to make lemonade out of lemons, you might notice this means your social media is an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself in front of hiring managers. A fun Instagram description or witty Twitter intro can make the difference between you seeming like just another person and someone fun, and there is no one on this earth who would rather hire someone boring than someone fun.

Doing these things will no more assure you land your dream job than brushing your teeth will land you your dream spouse. Just as it’s safe to assume you won’t land your dream spouse by letting your teeth fall out, though, it’s safe to assume you won’t land your dream job by leaving your digital appearance to the whims of the internet. So take that half-hour and get it done.

I’d like to shout out to the fella who graciously allowed me to fiddle with his resume and LinkedIn account for a few hours to provide you today’s before and after.