Headhunter just sounds ruthless.

Yet, professional recruiters, as they are more politely known, can be a valuable asset in any job search. Many people wrongly assume that recruiters work only to fill executive positions, but many recruiters cover a broad range of jobs in multiple industries.

Most recruiters make money through a fee, usually a percentage of the yearly salary for a job, paid by the hiring organization when the position is filled. Some recruiters charge job seekers a fee for registering, but pass on the paid services unless they offer spectacular benefits, such as discounted meetings with a licensed career counselor.

If you decide to use one, recruiters are easy to locate. Check the yellow pages, under "employment," or look on the Internet. In fact, many online job ads are actually placed by recruiting firms. When you apply for a particular job, they may consider whether you might be a good fit for other jobs they are seeking to fill. Also, ask friends and others in your field what recruiters they use. Job fairs, which are frequently advertised in newspapers, are another easy way to meet recruiters.

Before calling a recruiter, know what to expect. The first thing a recruiter is going to want is your resume. If they think they might be able to match you with a job, they'll call you in for an interview and testing. The interview will be similar to a job interview. The most frequently administered tests are for competence in common office computer programs, such as Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint. Many recruiting firms have moved their initial screening processes online, especially for tech jobs. For example, Aquent, a staffing agency specializing in creative and technical jobs, relies on a Web application to gauge potential talent. It uses that information to evaluate applicants' "skills and past experience to define their niche in the job market and set a course to best assist them in their career paths and with their goals and objectives," said Cynthia Escalante, senior creative recruiter in Aquent's D.C. office.

If you're going to use a recruiter, here are a few tips to ensure you get a shot at the best jobs for which you're qualified:

* Specialize. Pick recruiters who work in your field. "For instance, if you are an administrative assistant, you'll be wasting your time calling recruiting firms that specialize in high tech," said Jubal Ince of WashingtonRecruiter.com.

* Get your act together. While many recruiters don't mind spending some time jazzing up your resume, you need to gather the raw materials yourself. For example, Aquent requires an updated resume, writing samples and links to any Web sites the applicant has created.

* Branch out. Use more than one recruiter to improve your odds. "Job seekers have to remember that recruiting firms are there to serve the clients, and are not a job-finding service," Ince said. "With that in mind, it's best for the job seeker to network with as many recruiters as possible, and keep in touch with the ones who seem to be the most professional, well-connected and nice to deal with."

* Take all the tests. Take every test you reasonably think you can pass, and err on the side of confidence. The more certified skills you have, the more likely it is the recruiter will be able to find you a job. When I was registering with temp agencies after I graduated from college, I took several tests for programs I hadn't even used, on the grounds that I had used similar programs. I passed them all. You also will probably do better than you think.

* Stay in touch. "Since recruiters get such a large number of applicants these days, it's always smart to check in with your recruiter at least a couple of times each month," Ince said. "Keep in mind that they may not have any jobs to discuss with you right away, but by keeping in touch, they'll remember to call you as soon as something opens up. Some recruiters will tell you about job leads just to help you out, even if the opening isn't with a client of theirs."

Recruiters won't do your work for you, but they can be a helpful ally in your job search.

New Drive, or New Direction?

You spent years in school and internships preparing for your perfect career, only to find out, three months into the job, that you're sick of it. Whether you found ways to reconnect with your work, or switched to a new livelihood entirely, I'd like to hear how you handled it. E-mail me at slayterme@washpost.com.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online forum to discuss career issues affecting young workers, tomorrow at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com.