When Joyce Watts was a corporate recruiter for the Northern Trust Bank in Chicago, she once received a 3-by-5-foot re'sume' in an oversized cardboard carton. The applicant said in the cover letter that he didn't want to take a chance his re'sume' would be tossed into "the round file." He listed his mother as a reference.

"It was clever and very cute," says Watts, "but it didn't work. This was a place that was so conservative you had to slip on your jacket to walk to the water fountain. But it might have gotten him a job at an advertising firm or somewhere creativity counts."

Watts, now an assistant dean of placement at the Kellogg School (Northwestern University's graduate business division), sometimes encourages untraditional strategies for landing competitive jobs. So do other career counselors.

"The Backdoor Approach" is being viewed increasingly as smart instead of smart aleck -- the kind of chutzpah even extra-starch corporations like to see in applicants now and then.

"People are trying to find ways to get noticed, to get a job and to get a little fun out of it," says Watts, noting that most recruiters spend no more than 10 seconds on a re'sume' before deciding which pile to put it in. She warns, however, that offbeat applications are a gamble. is to stand out from the crowd and still get the job.

Ironically, intensified interest in career goals in the '80s plus an accompanying desire to fit into the buttoned-down image usually associated with front-door hiring may actually be unlocking more corporate back doors.

"Every major recruiter told us they were sick of seing the same person over and over, the same blue suit with the same yellow tie and the same educational background," says Kathryn Petras, who with her husband Ross spent six months inspecting some of America's top-grade companies, hobnobbing around water coolers, collaring senior execs, even conversing with lowly gofers. They translated their findings into a book, Inside Track: How to Get Into and Succeed in America's Prestige Companies (Vintage, $8.95).

"They referred to it as 'the clone problem.' And they said it's the result of people reading the same How-To-Get-A-Job books that tell 'em, 'This is how to write a re'sume', this is what to say in interviews, blah, blah, blah.' So everyone looks and sounds the same."

While Watts figures much of that molding comes from college placement programs that "establish certain criteria for a job-hunting system most students are plugged into," Ross Petras blames corporate mentality: " . . . personnel departments obviously look for the ideal employe. They get so caught up in that that they forget individual personality. And applicants reading a recruiting book get the wrong idea. If you overdo trying to fit that profile, you blow it."

The clone phenomenon doesn't stop with the job seekers queued outside personnel's front door. Almost every major corporation's annual report and recruiting brochures say it is "dedicated to excellence," that it hires "highly motivated self-starters with strong interpersonal skills," and that it creates an "atmosphere of success."

"Short of having a friend on the inside, it's almost impossible to get the real story on the prestige companies -- the companies where most people really want to work," says Ross Petras. "It's tough getting jobs at them and it's tough to find out what it's like working for them."

Ross Petras ran head-on into that cold corporate reality 10 years ago fresh out of Brown University. Unable to choose between law, foreign service and publishing after scrubbing grad school plans, he sent re'sume's to New York City's big banks. Kathryn Petras, a New York University graduate, wanted a future in retailing or television.

Both knocked on corporate front doors. Kathryn got a retailing job and hated it. The banks told Ross "Thanks but no thanks."

"My father advised us not to go through personnel channels," says Ross Petras, 30, who eventually took the tip and bypassed personnel at one bank, introducing himself to a senior vice president. He tried the same tactic at other banks. "The difference was remarkable . . . from zero interviews in 10 weeks to 10 interviews in 10 weeks." He took a credit officer position at a New York bank.

Disgruntled with retailing, Kathryn Petras also started veering from the norm. "I sent a re'sume' in the form of a press release -- the kind of gimmick every placement counselor warns against. A woman at Channel 5 in New York showed it around the office saying, 'This girl must be a jerk.' A month later, she needed someone to work on a pilot show and didn't want to go through the re'sume' stack. She remembered that dumb girl who sent the press release re'sume' and gave me the job."

Gimmicks aside, the Petrases stress that the alternate path is paved with personal, not personnel, connections. "The key is to establish personal contacts within the company," says Ross Petras, who came across one person who took a job as a security guard at CBS headquarters in New York just to make contacts. "He was dying to get into TV news. He'd constantly pop into the CBS lobby and talk to people. When he got the security job, his friends thought it was ludicrous. But when an editorial desk assistant job opened up, he got it."

The term 'networking' makes us both ill," says Kathryn Petras, 27. "But it is important: Somebody's friend, your next-door neighbor, people who knew somebody who knew somebody else, always prove helpful."

Ross Petras says natural habitats outside the target workplace can be good for bumping into useful contacts. Bars for instance. To run into ABC network folks in New York, for example, he recommends The Ginger Man near Lincoln Center.

"For the book publishing industry," says Kathryn Petras, "the best way in definitely is to know someone: Take a publishing course at NYU and meet one of the teachers" moonlighting from one of the big publishing houses. "Accounting firms routinely hire from college campuses," she says, adding that making outside contact otherwise is tough: "Accountants are at home watching TV."

Martie Prashker says training programs, like the one she participated in at Bank of America -- "which takes someone with no background and trains them while paying them" -- are an ideal, though overlooked, ticket to employment.

When Prashker, 26, graduated from Colgate University five years ago, she was looking for the same job opportunities as most of her classmates: a promising career, interesting work, a chance for advancement, good pay. Nine frustrating months of one wrong turn after another left her jobless but wiser.

Prashker changed her approach, from no job research to deep digging, from a shotgun strategy to a narrow focus, from no contacts to new connections through the Colgate placement office and alumni program. Eventually a friend of a friend at Bank of America got her an interview for the company's financial training program.

Today, Prashker is a Bank of America assistant vice president and coauthor of Money Jobs -- Training Programs in Banking, Accounting, Insurance and Brokerage Firms: And How to Get Into Them (Crown, $7.95).

"When you're looking for a job, make the approach as personal as possible -- and know about the company," she advises, recalling one disastrous interview at Dean Witter in New York. "I said, 'So, am I going to get a job?' And he said, 'I might have something for you in M & A.' I said, 'What's M & A?' Anyone in that field knows it means mergers and acquisitions. I didn't get the job."

Kathryn Petras says a complaint heard often from corporate executives was that so many applicants show up ignorant of their industry. "All of them told us if applicants could just talk a little bit about our company . . . " Erica Weiske, a senior finance student at Santa Clara University from Redwood City, Calif., figured thorough research would get her a job: "Senior year comes up on you and suddenly, wow, you go out and buy a suit, get your re'sume' in shape and get going. But you've got to do more than that."

For her senior research paper, Weiske investigated Chevron -- the company she had targeted for a job after graduation this spring. "I got to know Chevron's weaknesses and strengths and I really felt good about getting a global picture of the oil industry and knowing the negatives. People really respect you when you have an understanding of their industry and aren't just a naive student."

Weiske, 22, also talked to Chevron employes, even listened to company rumors and hearsay. "I approached every interview as a research paper," she says. "I tried to dig out the questions that would differentiate me from others."

To boost her chances, Weiske took on an internship at Genentech, a California biotechnology company. "Through the internship, I'm meeting professionals who gave me good information on what to look for in a job and exposed me to a professional environment." Weiske was one of 12 applicants recently chosen for Chevron's accountants development program in San Francisco.

Ron Krannich calls that "professional pull" the most effective backdoor approach to a job in the public sector.

As coauthor of The Complete Guide to Public Employment (Impact, $14.95) and president of Development Concepts Inc., a career training, consulting and publication firm based in Manassas, Va., Krannich is an expert on getting hired by the government.

"Increasingly, the people who go into government are professionals," he says. "Their mobility in moving from one agency to another is more focused on professional contacts than it is going through formal applications, etc."

In fact, he says, the backdoor approach to hiring in federal jobs is active -- "a good 70 percent of the hiring is more informal than you'd think."

The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings influence is like an engraved invitation to creative job searching, says Krannich. "A lot of people are discouraged out there," he says. "They say there are no jobs. The jobs are out there, but it becomes even more important to know about the back door in a period of high competition."

When stalking a government job, it is essential, says Krannich, to follow formal procedures. "There may be examination requirements," he says. "In some cases, you have to file a re'sume' or an SF171 application. The formal process is kind of confusing and it tends to dissuade people from finding the job with government.

"Most people are completing those application forms, following the formal procedures, and waiting and waiting and waiting. Waiting is not a good job search strategy, but that's exactly what the public sector job search requires you to do.

"The most effective people are good at following the formal procedures, but at the same time, they're down there in the trenches, talking to people who are hiring, getting information, letting them know that they are available."

Adding a face to an SF171 can pay off: Krannich knows of cases where "people on the inside" have helped job candidates they liked strengthen their SF171s by using the right buzzwords for a particular agency.

As for "political pull" in the public sector, Krannich warns that the overwhelming majority of federal positions aren't won that way, and many hirings based on merit are "controlled by people resistant to political interference -- trying to use political pull will often kill you" at that level.

"The fact of life both in the public and private sectors is that employers want to minimize the uncertainty of the hiring process. They like to see flesh and blood. Something called 'body warmth' in the process is very important, and you can't get that through the formal procedures alone."

Ross and Kathryn Petras are proof of the "flesh and blood" theory. While researching their book, Ross was offered two jobs and Kathryn three (one with a law firm, despite having no law degree). Neither was looking for a job. "The key is meeting the people who make the decisions," says Kathryn Petras. She likes to tell about movie mogul Steven Spielberg, who has ended his campus talks for years by saying, "If you're ever in town give me a call." Nobody ever takes him up on it, according to Petras. "But this one girl did. She called him in Hollywood. She appeared on his doorstep. He got her a job in film production."

"The characteristic seen time and again in successful employes of prestige companies?" asks Ross Petras. "One word -- persistence."