I am sick of reading applications. I’ve read almost 800 of them, across three positions, in the last month. I’ve interviewed 19 people on Skype. I’m exhausted.
The first pass through was the hardest: half-empty application forms, cover letters filled with grammatical errors, three-pages resumes, and plenty of people who had no business applying for the job and clearly didn’t read the description.
Being on the other side of the hiring process has shown me the mistakes I once made applying for jobs.
I thought my cover letters were short and to the point but never considered that the recruiter was reading mine in the middle of hundreds of others. I assumed the recruiter was carefully reviewing my resume and savoring every word. I was wrong.
Tortuga is a small company, and we were flooded with applications. I can’t imagine how Google’s HR department even functions.
I’m writing this post so that future applicants can put their best foot forward and not waste my time (or theirs). The post should be helpful to you, but I’m writing it from a totally selfish place.
How do you write a compelling application and avoid being archived?
The Basics: Make It Easy for Me
Assume that I am lazy, a slow reader, and not particularly bright.
If you make my job (reading applications) easier, I will like you more.
If you make me do extra work to read or to evaluate your application, I will like you less.
Let me be more specific.
Know Your Audience
Your application is about me, not you. I know that sounds backwards.
I, the hiring manager, am your audience. I care about my business. I do not care about you (yet). You are a stranger taking up space in my inbox and time on my schedule. Tell me why you’re worth it.
Appeal to my self interest and tell me what you can do for me. That statement sounds selfish because it is. But this is the best way to get an employer’s attention.
I will hire you if you can grow my business and/or make my life easier. I will not hire you just because it’s your dream job.
Get an Interview, Not the Job
Your application can only get you the interview, not the job.
You will not get hired based solely on your application. Have you ever been hired without an interview? No. Assume you will have another opportunity to share details about your work history.
What are the most important accomplishments that make you an obvious candidate for an interview? Put those in your application. Take everything else out.
Show, Don’t Tell
Don’t bother with a teaser like, “I have some great ideas I’d like to share with you by phone…”
I might be cynical but this line feels like a cheap ploy to get an interview and to buy time to think of some ideas. You have as much time as you need to write your application. Pitch me an idea. Even if I don’t hire you for the job, I might pay you to follow through on your idea. Or create a new role for you.
Ideas aren’t valuable, execution is. Share your ideas.
Play the Hits
Your resume should be a one page summary of your career highlights.
Do not write an exhaustive list of every task you’ve done at every job you’ve had.
Keep your resume to one page. Do not let it become a wall of text. To fight this urge, use a visually-pleasing resume template. Resist the urge to use smaller fonts to fit more text on the page.
For every bullet on your resume, ask yourself if it’s impressive. If not, cut it.
List Accomplishments, Not Tasks
The reason your resume is so long is because you are listing tasks, not accomplishments. It should be the other way around.
A bullet list of tasks reads as:
I did a task that took up time in my day so that I could get to 5pm and leave. I did this task because someone told me to. I did not bother to measure the outcome or consider if this task was worth doing.
When I’m hiring, I want to hire someone who can accomplish the goals for the position and who is uniquely suited for the role. Describing your work history as a list of tasks makes you sound like any other cog in the machine. Next!
For bonus points, list your accomplishments in the same units as your paycheck: dollars. Unless, of course, I can pay you in Instagram followers.
Tell a Story
Telling a story in as few words as possible is hard. But humans respond best to stories.
Too many cover letters start with dry facts like name and age. I don’t care about those.
Turn your career and life experiences into a story. What’s the common thread? What happened that changed you? What’s next for you?
A story is easier to follow and to remember than a series of unrelated paragraphs about your work history. Like any good writer, you should leave out the stuff that doesn’t advance the plot or develop a character.
A story is especially important if you aren’t an obvious candidate for the job or if you have a non-traditional career path. If your work history appears unrelated to the job that you applied for, tell me why you’re a fit anyway.
Have a Hook
A story is easier to remember than a bunch of facts. A phrase is even easier to remember than a story.
What’s your hook? What phrase is memorable and unique to you?
“The Harvard guy” isn’t a hook. “The guy who created Facebook” is.
“The woman who worked at Facebook” isn’t a hook. “The woman who quadrupled sales in China” is.
Don’t Share Personal Details
Do not start your resume with, or even include, demographic information like your gender, age, or marital status.
Many demographic questions are illegal to ask during interviews. Let’s stay as far away from those as possible.
Demographic details are irrelevant at this stage. I am doing my best to judge candidates on their skills and work history.
Studies have shown racial bias based on the name on a resume. Even the most enlightened of us may have subtle biases for or against different groups in different roles. Leaving out your demographic information helps me assess you solely on your merits.
I avoid looking at the name on an application until I’ve reviewed it. I also ignore the social media links that most hiring software pulls in based on your email address. I don’t look at these profiles (if at all) until I decide who to interview since I’ll see you over Skype anyway.
When I have hundreds of resumes to read, I need filters. Not every resume gets the same level of attention and detail. I don’t have the time. This is a fact of hiring, and you should know the truth.
This section is dedicated to the red flags that tell me I can stop reading and archive your application.
Not Following Application Instructions
Most companies use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to manage recruiting, interviewing, and hiring. Use the application form provided. Follow the directions. Answer all of the questions, even the optional ones.
I appreciate people who show extra interest by following me on Twitter or by getting an email introduction from a mutual friend.
I do not appreciate strangers who cold email me their resume instead of going through the application system that we took the time to set up. Going outside of the system screws up the process, adds work for me, and suggests that you think you’re too good for it.
Poor Grammar or Spelling
I’ll give you one typo because I’m kind and generous.
Proofread your application. Read it out loud to yourself. Ask a friend to read it over for you and give feedback.
Not taking the time to review your application shows me that you don’t care about the job. If you don’t care about the job, I don’t care about your application.
Not Providing Work Samples When Requested
If an application asks for a portfolio or links to past work and you don’t have past work to show, don’t apply. You’re wasting the recruiter’s time.
Applying for the Job After This One
I see this most often with entry-level jobs. People say they are applying with the intention of moving up into another role.
Everyone expects to advance in their career and to move up or around every few years. I get that. But if you already have your eye on the next role and are telling me about it in your application then you clearly don’t care about this role.
Using the Job as a Learning Experience
“I feel like this position would be an incredible learning experience for me.” Don’t use phrases like this, especially if you’re applying to a small company.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car has a training program. Small businesses do not. I cannot pay you to learn how to do the job I hired you to do.
Pay for your own schooling or learn on someone else’s dime and time, even your own. Big companies are a great place to start your career and learn foundational skills. I did that at Google.
Pay for an online course or do a side project in your free time to learn new skills and to have something to show a prospective employer. Show your initiative instead of asking me to provide the opportunity.
Dan Andrews of Tropical MBA put it succinctly in his advice for apprenticeship applicants,
I don’t want to be a ‘big opportunity’ for people. I want to be a ‘natural opportunity’.
I'm referring in this section specifically to the skills needed to do the job to which you applied. Of course, I hope that, if you join Tortuga, you will take on new projects and learn new skills. I will happily pay for and support team members in upgrading and expanding their skills.
Being an Asshole
Pitching new ideas or improvements is helpful. Criticizing what we’re doing now is not.
Trashing a company is not a good way to show that you want to work there. If your application is that obnoxious, no one will want to meet the person who wrote it.
After spending most of this post bashing what people do wrong, I want to praise unique things that people did right.
Unconventional Social Proof
The right social proof can show that you’re part of the community or industry where you’re applying to work. Which types of social proof are relevant will depend on the business.
For Tortuga, a travel company, I was impressed by a candidate who linked to an Airbnb host profile and another who linked to a (top-rated) Amazon review for one of our products.
A TripAdvisor or Yelp review that specifically cites your great work would also be a positive in the travel industry.
It’s Not About You
I wrote this in the hopes that hearing the truth from a CEO and sometimes hiring manager will help you to land your next interview. Selfishly, I hope to get fewer total applications but more high-quality ones.
The bottom line is that your application must focus on how you can help the company. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be in the top 1% of applicants.
You can learn more about working at Tortuga and see our open roles on the Join Team Tortuga page.
Author's Note: I promise that I’m not this obnoxious at work.