Where Logic Meets Love

How Not to Get Hired

Thursday, April 7, 2011

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How Not to Get Hired | Faith Permeating Life
Job hunting has been on my mind a lot lately, even though (thankfully) I'm not currently job hunting myself. Mike is. Every couple of months he gets a new idea for some kind of full-time job he'd like to have and will apply to a job (or two or three, with my prodding). So we're in the midst of that right now. I'm also on a search committee at my work to hire someone who's essentially my replacement for my original job, and I just got done helping with a year-long search process for a much higher-up position. Plus, as I've mentioned, I taught these skills for a year in grad school and have considered finding a volunteer position where I could use them. I already get lots of practice from friends sending me their resumes, and even sending me their friends' resumes. Heck, even my dad had me help him revise his resume.

When I started teaching, I hadn't gone through a ton of job searches myself, so I read every career advice article I could get my hands on. I've been glad to see that in the several searches I've been a part of since then, the search committees have focused on exactly the things I told my students they would. I have also been amazed to see how little effort some people put into their applications. I thought it was just my students not taking their 1-credit course seriously, but I see the same problems in actual job applicants.

In any case, I thought I would use this platform I have to summarize what I usually see going wrong on job applications, and what helps applicants stand out above the rest, in hopes that it might help others who are in the frustrating process of searching for a job.

Basic ways to get rejected
Do this, and you automatically go on my "no interview" list.
  • Don't follow directions. An astounding number of people don't follow the application directions. I used to specifically teach this to my students by bringing in copies of a bookstore application I'd printed off. It said something like, "List three people who have known you professionally for at least a year. If you don't have three people, list people who have known you in other contexts for at least a year." I would say to my students, "Here's a lesson in reading directions. If you don't have three people who have known you professionally for at least a year, what should you do?" They'd start shouting out answers: "Just name one and leave the rest blank." "Write 'N/A.'" "Include people who haven't known you a year." Finally someone would read the directions aloud. For the position my work is seeking right now, our directions say to upload a cover letter and resume as one document where it says "Resume" and literally only about half of the applications, if even that, have cover letters. Which brings me to...
  • Don't bother writing a cover letter. I don't care if the directions say so or not: Write a cover letter. You may think it's obvious why your experience is applicable to the position, but the person looking through resumes may not. Even if they do, they want to know that you understand what's needed for the position. If your experience isn't a perfect match, but you still have the skills and still want the job, the cover letter is your chance to explain that. Even with a super-experienced person, if there's no cover letter I start wondering why they're applying to an entry-level position and whether they'd actually follow through once they heard more about it.
  • Write an objective and forget about it. Whether you should even have an "objective" on your resume is hotly contested, but one thing's for sure: If you're going to have one, make sure it matches the position you're applying for! I've seen objectives for my replacement position ranging from a filmmaker to a paralegal to a chef to, literally, "any job." Nothing screams "I'm desperate and I'm submitting my resume everywhere" like having an out-of-place objective.
  • Ignore the minimum requirements. To some extent, you can have some wiggle room -- if it says 2-3 years of experience and you've got a year plus a summer internship or volunteer work here or there, it can't hurt to apply. But if it says a bachelor's degree is required, and you won't be graduating for a few more years, then don't waste your time applying. Some electronic systems will eliminate you automatically before the hiring manager even goes through the applications.
  • Tell me upfront what salary you expect. General advice is that it's tacky to bring up salary in an interview or basically anytime before you're made an offer. Bringing it up in your cover letter? That'll get you circular filed quick.
  • Make spelling or grammatical mistakes. I know my students thought I was crazy when it came to spelling and grammar, but there's a good reason they'd get an automatic F on any resume or cover letter they turned in with glaring errors. I've seen time and again on search committees where no one even wants to consider a candidate who made any kind of spelling or grammatical mistake on their application. It shows that you don't take your work seriously if you didn't bother to re-read your stuff before submitting it, or worse, that you didn't know it was wrong. Proofread your shit, and have at least two other people look it over as well.

Intermediate ways to get rejected
These things won't get you rejected immediately, but more than likely you'll end up getting passed over for other candidates.
  • List tasks instead of skills. "Answered the phone." "Made pizza." "Patched holes." If the job you're describing isn't the same as the one you're applying for, I want to know that you gained some sort of skills that are going to make you better at this job. And even if it's the exact same type of job, I want to know that you see the job as more than just an endless list of tasks. What were your goals? Where did you go above and beyond? Where did you see results? When I was hired in my original position and part of my job was nothing more than adding workshops to a database, advertising them, and tracking how many people showed up for them, I started devising ways to increase workshop attendance, and over the course of the year, my initiatives increased attendance by 25%. Sure, maybe you can do the job, but if it's between you and someone who's going to go above and beyond the job requirements, I'm picking them.
  • Tell me what you were "responsible for." After spelling and grammatical errors, few things grate on me more than the words "responsible for." These words don't say what you did, they say what you were supposed to do. They don't say what you accomplished, just what you were assigned to. Every person who has had that type of job has been responsible for the same list of tasks. What did you do that makes you better than everyone else?
  • List out-of-date or irrelevant skills. Maybe you've mastered every audio-editing software out there. That's great, but if you're not going to be doing any audio editing in this position, I don't care. Tell me that you can use Microsoft Office. In the same vein, I recently saw a resume listing "Netscape" as software the person could use. Netscape was last released in 2007. If that's the only Internet browser you can use, I'm sure as hell not hiring you.
  • Focus on the negative and make excuses. "I know I'm not as experienced as some other candidates..." "I moved to take care of my mom, and I thought I could get another job quick, but then the job market was so bad, and I kept sending out resumes and getting rejected..." I don't want your sob story. If you've got something to explain, fine, but don't draw unnecessary attention to it -- your cover letter real estate should be mostly, if not all, your strengths, skills, and what you do bring to the position. Don't spend most of it waving a red flag over your weaknesses.
  • Use big, fancy words wherever possible. Trust me, I can pick out the people who got Microsoft Word thesaurus-happy when writing their cover letter. Certainly, you should be professional and avoid text-speak and abbreviations, but that doesn't mean you have to talk like you swallowed a dictionary. Use normal language and stop trying to make every other word a 5-dollar word. I know you don't talk like that (and I don't want to hire you if you do), so stop making yourself look like an idiot.

OK, enough with the bad stuff. If you avoid all of the above, you're going to get at least a second glance. But the truth is, if there are hundreds of applications (and with the current job market, few advertised positions don't get at least 100 applications), you really have to go above and beyond to stand out and make it to the next level. So here are some things that stand out to me in a positive way.

Advanced tips for getting that edge
Make yourself stand out from the crowd; make the hiring manager sit up and take notice
  • Tailor your resume to the position description. I wish I could say everyone did this, but honestly so few people make the effort that those that do get my attention. Read carefully through the job posting. Make your vocabulary match the company's. Where they list responsibilities of the position, try to demonstrate that you have the experience and/or skills to tackle each aspect of the job. Talk about why this position at this company strikes your interest more than others. It will become clear you've put at least some extra effort into your application and not just sent off your resume to a bunch of different places. Similarly...
  • Be enthusiastic. This may be the single most important thing you can do to stand out. I don't care what the job is -- it could be shoveling poop at the zoo. There are going to be a few rare people who find that job fulfilling and enjoyable, and those people are going to be the top picks for the job. When you're faced with a stack of a hundred people who can all do the job, you want to find the people who will love the job. Happier people make for a happier company, and if you love the company to begin with, that's even better.
  • Stay away from templates. If the job you're applying for requires any sort of computer skills, avoid the Microsoft Word resume templates like the plague, or at least modify them. I can tell right away when someone has above-average computer skills because their resume doesn't look like the last 10 I just went through. Don't overuse bold and italics, but still make use of them where appropriate to provide a visual organization to your resume. Speaking of visual organization...
  • Use bullet points. Even though this won't necessary make you stand out by itself, not using bullet points or at least new lines to break up a list of skills or responsibilities makes it that much more difficult for the hiring manager to focus on and absorb what you're trying to communicate. Make it as easy as possible to skim your resume and cover letter -- which, I promise you, is all they're going to be doing anyway, if they value their time at all.
  • Use a reasonably sized font. Using a tiny font is another thing that won't necessarily preclude you from getting an interview, but it will make me a lot happier if I don't have to squint or manually increase the font size or zoom ratio on my computer. In case you're not getting the theme here, what I'm basically trying to say is, the easier you make it for the hiring manager to review your materials, the happier they're going to be, and the happier they are, the more likely they're going to look favorably on your application, assuming you haven't mucked it up with any of the things mentioned earlier.
  • Save it as a PDF. This may seem like a minor detail, and it is, but if you've ever exchanged Word files between a Mac and a PC, you know that they don't always agree with each other. Without having a guarantee that the person on the other end is going to have the same type of computer -- or the same version of Word, for that matter -- you're better off saving it as a PDF, where everything will be preserved in exactly the format you want. At the very least, don't save it as a .docx file, as there are still people who haven't updated from Word 2003 and will have to hunt down a converter to open your application. They may not even bother.

I know this was a long post, so thanks for sticking with me, and I hope this was of some use to at least one person. There are lots of career advice articles out there, but I think sometimes the discussion can get so focused on whether your resume should be one page or more than one page, or whether or not you should have an objective, and so on, that it can help to just have the basic do's and don'ts set out for you.

I will leave you with one final piece of advice, and this is what I keep telling Mike. Don't try weighing jobs against each other before you've even applied. The only question you should ask yourself is, "If I were offered this job, would I want it?" If the answer's yes, and you meet the minimum requirements, then apply. Better to apply to your first- and second-choice jobs and be offered only your second choice than to apply to only your first choice and get no job offers at all. You can always weigh offers against each other if you get more than one. The more you apply to, the better your chance of finding something you love. This also helps keep you from pinning all your hopes on one job, and then being devastated when you don't get it. Or if you prefer a more faith-based approach: God has a plan for you, and the jobs you don't get aren't part of that plan -- but God can't provide you with the right job if you don't put yourself out there and apply. As the famous Gretzy quote says, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Good luck, and feel free to add your own tips or stories in comments!

P.S. I told Mike what I was writing about tonight, and he wanted to add his own tip: "Marry someone who is good at helping you apply for jobs!" :)


  1. LOL at Mike's tip! Good post, especially as I am sitting here about to apply for a position I saw the other day (but had to check Google Reader first!). Good luck to Mike!

  2. this is all awesome advice. My mom worked for years for a social agency that specialized in helping hard-to-employ people )ex-cons, long time unemployed, mentally ill, disabled, ect) find work and she did all of this stuff and more, even going as far as to do do mock interviews on video and review them with people. i could see you doing that kind of thing, if you enjoy this.

  3. @Rabbit
    Haha, thanks! Good luck with your job search--I know you will be a lot happier when you've found a better job!

    That's exactly the kind of volunteer position I've been looking for. So far I've found two, but they have a minimum number of hours per week you have to work, and they'd all be either a long bus ride after work and get me home really late or I'd have to give up most of my Saturdays to volunteer there. It's still something I'd like to do, but I'm going to try to find something closer to home or work, or wait until we move. When I was teaching I loved reviewing resumes and cover letter and helping students work on interview skills, and I'm sure I'd like it even more with people who are actually seeking help than those forced into a required course :)


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