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Applying for a Job – A How-To

Posted by Tom Benedict on 15/12/2011

We’re hiring at work. I can’t go into specifics, but suffice it to say that we have had a lot of applicants. A lot of applicants. So we’ve all been pawing through application packages, trying to make the first cut before the phone screens begin. It’s been fun, since we’re basically window-shopping for our new co-workers. But at the same time it’s a little frustrating. I see people making some really classic mistakes that are killing their chances for getting a phone screen. These mistakes are easy to avoid.

In case you haven’t applied for a job in a while, this is how the process typically works: A call for applicants goes out. This shows up as a newspaper posting, a listing on Craigslist, a listing on a job hunter’s site like, or on the employer’s web site. An applicant then applies for the job with their application package: cover letter, resume, and professional references. This can be via an online form, through email, or through a paper application via the postal service.

This is where it gets brutal. Once a job has closed, the hiring committee (which can consist of only the hiring manager!) reads through the application packages and cuts a lot of them right then and there. Some smaller subset will receive a phone screen, after which even more of them are cut. In the end a very very small subset may be brought out for face-to-face interviews. Of those only one gets the job.

See how many opportunities there are for your application to be tossed in the circular file? [circular file: n – trash can]

The whole trick is not to give the hiring committee reason to “file” your application. It would be great if that decision was made strictly on your job qualifications. Sorry, that’s not the case. All kinds of things affect that decision. Here’s my short list of dos and don’ts:

  • Write a well-crafted cover letter as part of your application package. Tailor it to the job posting. Show enthusiasm for the job and for the place of employment. If, on the other hand, you write it in such away that the hiring committee thinks you didn’t even read the job description, this sends the clear message that you really don’t care. ‘Nuff said.
  • Include a resume and list of professional references, even if not asked. If you are asked and fail to include it, you’re done. Look at it this way: The job posting says, “Please send resume, cover letter, and at least three professional references to the following address.” Sending a cover letter that says, “Resume and references available upon request” is silly! They did request it! You failed to provide it. This sends the clear message: “I have no clue how to follow written directions.” ‘Nuff said.
  • Fill out all the slots on an online application. Don’t just enter “See Resume”. I realize it’s a pain in the ass. I realize it may take you an hour. Want to know how long it takes to read a hundred resumes, phone screen twenty people, and interview three? Hint: It’s longer than an hour. (Real hint: It’s several weeks.) This sends the clear message: “I won’t follow the rules when asked to.” ‘Nuff said.
  • Spell check and grammar check like it’s the new religion. This sends a message of professionalism that employers are looking for. Sending a sloppy cover letter full of misspelled words makes an employer wonder: If this is how seriously you take a job application, how seriously will you take the job? ‘Nuff said.
  • Capitalize appropriately. If your cover letter begins with “i am applying for the job you posted to…” the employer has to wonder if you really are that sloppy, or if you really think you’re the reincarnation of e.e.cummings. Unless you’re applying for a job as a poet, it won’t fly. And if you are applying for a job as a poet, you’re setting yourself up to get slammed during the interview. ‘Nuff said.
  • Use specific language. Avoid vague language. Here’s a vague example: “Modeled, designed, and verified subsystems and assemblies.” That means diddly. It’s technobabble. “Modeled, designed, and verified operation of the guider acquisition electronics and optics” is much, much better. The previous example sends the message that not only can you not walk the walk, you can’t even talk the talk. ‘Nuff said.
  • Get your technical terms right. Here are two examples I’ve seen recently: “network switcher” and “molecular turbo pump”. Neither of these exist. A “switcher” is a type of power supply. A network “switch” is a piece of computer networking hardware. A “molecular turbo pump” sounds like some MEMS device that’s made on a nano scale. A “turbomolecular pump” is a vacuum pump used in the hivac range. As with the previous point, using half-assed terminology sends the clear message that you can’t talk the talk, much less walk the walk. ‘Nuff said.
  • Read a little about your potential employer. If you get so lucky as to have a phone screen, don’t be caught unprepared. If you applied for two mechanical engineering jobs at two *dyne companies, damn well know what each one manufactures before they call. Otherwise you sound like an idiot. ‘Nuff said.
  • Describe yourself, not just your skills. And please, don’t use catch phrases and power words for this. Don’t describe yourself as “dynamic, engaged, and results-driven”. Egads. That describes a robot. Or someone who drank way too much caffeine. Be honest. Something as simple as, “I have a sense of humor, and like to get along with my co-workers,” goes a long way.

And that really is enough said. I cringe when I think how many of the applicants I’ve seen over the years violated one or more of these. (I really cringe when I think how many of these I violated before I wised up!) Do yourself a favor: Before you apply for your next job, ask around. See how many people you know who have been through the hiring process from the hiring end. Ask for their advice. Follow it! The whole point of the application package is to get your foot in the door. If you’re not putting your best foot forward, the door is likely to be slammed in your face.

– Tom


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