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As a self-employed writer and entrepreneur, I don’t normally have much to do with resumés. I do maintain one of my own, but it’s more of an academic CV that gets used only for academic applications. Otherwise, I’ve never really applied for a job or had a use for my own job-applying materials.
I don’t do much hiring either, but every once in a while I get the chance to sort through applications for non-profit jobs. I got that chance last week, and I learned a lot through the experience.
More than anything else, I learned a few things not to do if I ever apply for a job. And if you’re in that position, pay attention to this essay – I can’t guarantee that everyone will process resumés the way I do, but I’d expect that a lot of these principles will be universal.
How to Immediately Lose Your Chance at the Job
Roughly 20 candidates submitted applications for the job in question, and at least a third were completely off the mark. The funny thing is that almost all of these candidates had college degrees and a fair amount of experience, but so many of them made what seemed to me to be basic, no-excuse mistakes.
Because common sense is not always common, I thought I’d share with you their mistakes. Here’s what they did wrong to get immediately shuffled to the “no” pile:
• Failing to follow the simple instructions of sending a resumé, a cover letter, and three references. I didn’t see this coming, but perhaps I should have. Several people sent only two of the three required items. Did they think I wouldn't notice that one of them is missing?
Another person wrote in to ask, “Do you want my references now or later?” (Answer: We want them now, just as the instructions said.)
Someone else wrote in to ask, “How do I apply for the job?” (Answer: You apply by sending a resumé, a cover letter, and three references. If that’s too difficult for you, you’re not who we’re looking for.)
• Stretching the truth about educational background. Unless you are completely lying about something, I am probably going to see through any manipulation of your educational background, and that is pretty much inexcusable.
For example, someone submitted an application that listed Harvard University as the first line in their educational summary. I assume they thought this fact would be impressive. But looking closer, it was obvious that this person had never attended Harvard. Instead, they took a one-semester, online course through the Harvard Department of Continuing Education.
In case you don't know, continuing education at most U.S. universities is open-enrollment, meaning that anyone can take a class without applying to the university and going through the usual competitive process. The classes are designed for the public, not for college students seeking a degree.
Instead of listing this information on their resumé, they chose to write Harvard University, presumably hoping that someone who doesn’t know better will think they are really smart. You can probably guess what I thought about this idea.
Less egregious but still tacky, someone listed the name of their favorite professor and his academic qualifications. (“I studied with Professor so-and-so, Ph.D., Oxford, England.”) First of all, I know that Oxford is in England. Second of all, I don’t care where your professor got his Ph.D. Where he went to school has nothing to do with your job application.
• Telling me you don’t have time to customize the resumé. Every resumé should always be customized to the job you are applying for. Anything less is lazy. But if you really have to submit one that is somewhat generic, don’t write in and say, “Sorry, I’m too busy to update this. Hopefully you get the idea.” Yes, I do get the idea – but you will not get the job.
• Dramatically embellishing the duties of a normal job. By normal job, I mean a job in retail or in an office. Most of us have done work like that at some point, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It does not count against you in any way to have that on your resumé.
But here’s the thing – I understand how this kind of job works, and it doesn't need to be spelled out. If you are a barista at Starbucks, just say you were a barista. Don’t say something like this person did:
“Created high-quality espresso and filter coffee beverages in a fast-paced, customer focused environment while operating the cash register. Facilitated custom orders and worked the pastry counter.”
Uh, I get the point. It’s better to just say barista.
• Submitting references that are not matched to the position. Your references have to be able to attest to your ability to perform the job you are applying for. In most cases, having a friend or co-working as your reference is not what we need. If it actually gets to the point where I call the people you list, I am going to ask about your weaknesses and what would be challenging for you in this position -- for that, you need to list people who have supervised your work before, preferably in a field somewhat related to what you're applying for.
Most of the references, however, will never be called because I only call them after the first round of interviews. Until then, I’m just glancing at what you have written to see if they seem like a good fit.
• Sounding desperate or whiny in your cover letter. “I really, really want this job. I would be so happy if I got this job.” Of course you want the job. That’s why you’re applying, right? But the thing is that 20 other people want the job too, and we can only pick one. If you are whiny, that’s a red flag to me.
Not as Deadly, but Still Bad
These next mistakes are less serious, but still send off a warning bell as I’m reading the application:
• Listing beginning levels of language study on the resumé. If you are proficient or fluent in more than one language, that fact should definitely be included on your resumé. But if you’ve done one semester of Spanish, you don’t need to tell me about that. Also, if you are planning to study a language in the future, good for you – but the resumé is for what you’ve already done.
• Listing a job that you had for less than three months without a good reason for leaving. If it was a short-term contract position, tell me that. If you just left because it didn’t work out, I don’t necessarily think less of you… but you probably shouldn’t put it on your resumé.
• Having an AOL, Hotmail, or Yahoo! email address. It’s not that big of a deal, but it looks a little unprofessional. You should have either a) an edu address if you are a student, b) a regular dot-com address if you work somewhere, or c) a Gmail address. Like it or not, Gmail is the accepted standard for email these days. If you’re still using AOL, you’re basically telling me you’re several years behind the curve.
• Telling me about your big cross-cultural trip to Belgium. If you have traveled widely, you should put that down. Going to a few countries in Europe or to Mexico on your Spring Break, however, doesn’t count. As a rough guide, I’d say if you’ve been to more than 10 countries, that’s notable. If you’ve lived in a real cross-cultural situation for a couple months or more, that’s notable too… but not a week-long trip somewhere.
• Sending me documents I can’t open. Specifically, don’t send Mac-specific files or any files that can’t be opened with universally-accepted software such as Adobe Reader or Microsoft Word. If I ask you to convert them and you don’t know how to do it, you lose even more points. That’s just part of life these days. Speaking of that, see the next one.
• Including Microsoft software on your list of “Technical Skills.” Using MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint is more of a life skill than a technical skill now. If you think it’s pretty cool that you know how to use standard applications, I am going to worry that you don’t know much about computers.
• Listing a GPA that is less than stellar. If you were on the Dean’s List every semester, that’s notable. If your GPA was 3.8 at a school that doesn’t practice the grade inflation that is now common in North America, put it down. But if your GPA was less than 3.5 and you draw attention to it, you’re telling me that you were just an average student. No big deal, but why bother highlighting that fact when other applicants will probably have better grades?
(One related note: extracurricular activities in college are somewhat overrated in the hiring process. See Cal Newport’s provocative article for more about this.)
• Closing your emails to the selection committee with “Rock on.” I use language like that sometimes too, but not when I'm looking to compete for something. I don’t expect excessive formality – you can call me by my first name, and being informal to a point is fine – but “rock on” and “hey dude” are too informal.
• Sending new documents (unless absolutely necessary) after you've applied. If you discover that you made a huge error in your materials, it’s acceptable to write again and ask that the new attachments be used in review. But you should try to prevent that from happening in the first place, and if it was just a minor error, let it go. Don’t send in a series of disjointed emails over the course of a few days that each contain different information. Take the time and do it right, once.
Some Things You SHOULD Do
It's not all bad news. There are a few things you can do that will help you stand out from the standard of mediocrity that some other candidates will remain stuck on.
• Do ask questions. I was surprised that out of 20 candidates for this job, only two wrote in to ask any kind of questions before submitting their materials. I know that many of them probably planned to ask questions if they made it to the first interview round, but to me it shows some initiative to ask a few things before applying. In this case, the job description we provided in advance was somewhat generic (we did this deliberately), so I expected there would be more questions.
• Do be unique and take some kind of risk. This does not excuse you from meeting the prerequisites for the job, nor does it mean the risk should be a big one. But when reviewing dozens of applications that all look the same, we tend to start looking only for negative qualifiers – the things I mentioned above. Assuming you don’t have any of those, it’s good if you can stand out somehow.
Explain why you want the job without sounding whiny. Find a way to add something really cool to your resume that really is relevant to the job. If you do that and aren’t disqualified by something else, you’ll at least be interesting, and being interesting can go a long way.
• When told no, do be polite. I sent 14 “no” responses in one afternoon to everyone who did not make the short list, and only three people ever wrote back. Those who did all said something like, “Thank you for letting me know. Good luck to the successful candidate.” That is classy. You never know what will happen – perhaps the job will open up again, and I will probably think of people who were nice about not being chosen the first time.
Going through this process, at least from my side, was insightful. I cringed when I read the barista's long explanation of "facilitating custom orders" at Starbucks, and I appreciated the candidates who took a few risks without going overboard.
Over the next month we'll have a few rounds of interviews for the six short-listed candidates, and if I learn anything through that experience, I'll write an update here. But for now - some of you out there probably know a lot more about applying for jobs than I do.
What would you add to the conversation?
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