Writing a captivating job application or resume is the key first step in any job-hunting experience. There are a million dos and don’ts when it comes to resume or application writing. There are entire shelves in the bookstores lined with books containing hundreds of pages of expert opinion and samples. I’m going to break it down to a few very simple and very modular ideas to keep in mind. I’ll discuss the prime objective of a job application, the key areas of the application, and most importantly I’ll discuss why some applications are chosen over others.
So what is the prime objective of a job application? Seems simple enough to answer, but so many people forget it when writing an application. Nobody gets hired from an application. Sure, I get those notices from Careerbuilder.com that says my half-complete application from 12 years ago has caught the attention of some headhunter who wants to pay me three times what I’m really worth. If anyone wants to hire you sight unseen, without at least a telephone call or a meeting, be skeptical, very skeptical! The application isn’t to get you hired; it is to get you interviewed. There are a few exceptions like a portfolio of architectural work, or headshots for an acting gig, but for 99% of us job-seekers, the application is simply a wedge to keep the door open long enough for us to wow them in the interview. Keep in mind your prime objective with an application. Be interesting. Be pertinent. Be qualified and applicable to the position. Be concise. Be brief. Each and every word on the page should have a purpose. If you don’t know what purpose a word is serving then either you don’t need the word, or it is the wrong one. The application should be directly applicable to the job for which you are applying. Key words are extremely important! In this day and age of electronic applications it is not uncommon to get 200 applications for a single entry-level position. Application reviewers are scanning the pages at lightning speed looking for a few key words. If you want the interview, make sure you have those words! So what are the magical words? Depends on the job. Read the advertisement. Google the company. Read the job description if possible. Stop by the office and talk to an employee if you can. Be a customer. Do whatever it takes to see what the company might be looking for in the person they hire, and then make sure your application ideally paints you as that person.
Now you know the purpose of the application is to wedge that foot firmly in the door and get the interview. You know you need to do a little research on the company and the position available, so your resume makes the job of that over-worked application reviewer a little easier. You know to keep it brief and concise and relevant, and your resume will miraculously hang around the desktop a little longer than the rest, and you’ll get one of those shots at an interview. So how does one make their self relevant? Is it in the cover letter? The previous work experience? The education? The knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs)? The references? The answer is YES! All of the above are equally important, and all sections of the application should be congruent yet not repetitive. The KSAs should be evident in the work experience and education. The cover letter should logically follow the progression and history in the application (or at least make good sense why it doesn’t). Of those key words the reviewer is looking for, a few should be sprinkled in the cover letter, they should all be in the KSA or summary portion, and they should be readily apparent in each of the job descriptions of previous employment. If “customer service” is one of your KSAs, and you put in your cover letter that you love working with people, then hopefully a couple of your previous employment descriptions involved customer service and it is included there as well. If your cover letter mentions how you want to put your computer skills to good use, and your KSAs include a bunch of computer skills, then choose and describe previous employment that involved computers, not hammers. If you are applying for a construction job, but all of your previous employment was in database management, you’re going to need to find a creative way to get those construction skills into the job descriptions! Maybe you were the office handyman, or the guy that put together all the office chairs, or hung all the pictures, or created a new controlled climate room for the servers. Whatever it is, make sure the skills needed for the job match the skills you list in the KSAs and are reflected in the previous employment descriptions.
One more quick note on the subsections of the application. If your references are all professors, but you haven’t been a student in 20 years, why haven’t you updated your references? Do your employers and co-workers dislike you? Are you hard to work with? If your education is accounting, why have you been working six years as a stone-mason? There might be a very logical explanation, but it should be readily apparent! Don’t let this key first step be full of red flags! If you worked two weeks at a drive-thru for White Castle in between engineering jobs, maybe that isn’t relevant enough to share, unless you are applying at a drive-thru. If you left a previous job, and the reason was, “Didn’t like my boss,” you are not getting an interview! Surely there is a more positive way to spin that reason. If the reason is, “Will discuss at an interview,” what you really mean is you don’t want to get an interview at all. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot so early in this process, be careful and creative in what you describe. If your boss was a jerk and never appreciated you, so you quit, then maybe that section reads, “seeking employment where my skills can be better utilized.” Put on your most skeptical glasses and give the whole application a once over. Let your mother-in-law read it one time, and fix the things that concern her.
So here we are. You know the purpose of an application is to open the door and wedge your way in. You know your application better be concise yet memorable, and you’ve made sure each section of the application supports the other sections and matches the job description they advertised. Now if ten people all read this same advice, what makes your application stand out above and beyond the rest? What if you just don’t have all the documented experience necessary to wow the reviewer? What if you only have family friends as references? What if you’re making a career change, and there seems to be no way to make your application pop? Should you…….. lie? Should you cheat to get your foot in the door? The answer is no, and maybe! Of course you would never want to be dishonest on an application. Even if you get the job, you might be let go at a later time, or you might work under constant stress of being discovered. Lying is not the answer. BUT, what is a lie really? If you say you did something that never happened, it is clearly a lie, but what if you just change your terminology and vocabulary to be more relevant? Instead of saying you volunteered for your church, maybe you planned and organized a large-scale event? Instead of saying you helped your grandma and her friends setup their computers, maybe you were self-employed providing computer software, hardware, and IT support. Who cares if they paid you in cookies, you did the work, the customers were satisfied, and you received something for your efforts. Doesn’t a warehouse stocker “manage an inventory?” Doesn’t selling Girl Scout Cookies require passion, perseverance, and stellar customer service? You worked the counter at a Subway Restaurant, and you engaged each and every customer, you learned the regulars, you excelled at your job, won the respect of your co-workers and supervisors, you networked and made some important business contacts who will now be happy to be listed as references on your resume. Pick an attorney, an accountant, and a school administrator to write you a letter of reference and be listed on your application. Depending on the job, maybe you should pick a construction foreman, a general contractor, and a city utilities manager. It doesn’t matter, the point is working the counter at Subway does not limit the skills you can put on your application. You utilized a myriad of pertinent and sought after skills such as customer service, inside and outside sales, management, organization skills, punctuality, working in a fast-paced, stressful environment, working with a computer database (the computer cash register with all the topping buttons), cash management, inventory management, etc., etc., etc.
Here’s the real skinny. Don’t say anything in an application you can’t justify in an interview, but at the same time, don’t rule yourself out of a job just because of some misconception or humbleness about what you actually do in a day’s work. Give yourself credit! Give yourself every opportunity to succeed! (9 Famous Fibbers (including Joe Biden!) The application cracks the door, you get your fingernails in there, you don’t let it slam shut, you wow them in the interview, you work your tail off once you have the position, and the rest is history! Never be dishonest, but this is not the time to be humble either. Tell them what they want to hear, and then make sure you can back it up when they meet you!
Be your AWESOME self! Don’t be afraid of an opportunity!