Job application tips

help wanted

I’m in the process of hiring an assistant, someone who can toil away at the work thing while I’m at school making crafts, and I’ve finally dug down to the bottom of the pile of résumés that began pouring in thirty minutes after I posted the job. (And if you haven’t heard from me yet, it doesn’t mean you won’t—I’m still sorting and procrastinating, as will soon become more obvious.) And do you want to know what’s the most striking thing about most of these hopefuls? They are completely wasting their time. And mine, of course, but mostly their own. Because they’re not only not going to get a job with me, they’re not going to get a job with anyone unless that person is as slovenly and illiterate as these applicants.

Howlers spotted among the hundred-odd submissions include

  • Misspelling or camel-capitalizing my company’s name
    • Notebook
    • Next book
    • Nextbbook
    • NextBook
  • Misspelling the name of a past or present employer
    • FexEx
    • Merril Lynch
    • Pareksy Ctr. [This is at my own college, so I know it’s Paresky]
    • BabyAlpalca.org
    • Rollingstone Magazine
  • Misspelling a degree or job title
    • bachelors | masters
    • B.F.A | G.P.A | F.I.T | C.U.N.Y
    • assitant [I feel that this should be a word, but if it were, it would denote someone who is an undesirable employee]
    • photo- retoucher
    • Communication’s Coordinator
  • Misspelling or improperly camel-capping the name of a piece of software the applicant supposedly knows inside out
    • PhotoShop
    • Quark Express
    • the In Design program
    • Word Press
    • In-Design CS3
    • Abode Photoshop / Abode Illustrator / Abode InDesign [this is presumably marketed as a hamlet]
    • Indesign
    • word, excel [but the same person managed to type PowerPoint]
  • Misspelling or improperly camel-capping the name of the site where the applicant found the listing
    • Media Bistro
    • media bistro
    • MediaBistro.com

At first I read through everything, partly out of a misplaced desire to be fair and partly because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. After a certain point, however, I had to admit that it was taking too long, and I started to be more brutal. One candidate had me at

Hello,.

and eventually I decided that anyone who used the word utilize was out of the running. But the reading becomes more painful, the more words you look at:

  • Past Client includes . . .
  • I am Jewish and recently visited Israel foir the firts time!
  • Assisted employees troubleshoot computer issues. [Oh, do they? I’ll have to try that.]
  • Book photographers, archive photographs digitally, including the creation of contact sheets, and physically. [Wait—what are you doing physically?]
  • I will b moving to New York by the end of the month, and I would like to schedule a meeting with you . . . [I will b not returning ur msg.]
  • since for around 3 years . . . coding basich HTML . . . advanced photoshop knowledge . . . Illustrator/Indesign [in a paragraph in which she claims to be “very detail oriented and an excellent proofreader”]
  • I am willing to assist design related advertising projects by becoming a family of Nextbook Inc. [This person’s first language is not English, but she should have the sense to ask a literate native Anglophone (i.e., not any of the other applicants) to read everything before she sends it out.]
  • I recently came across your company through online and . . . I am extremely interested in assistant art director position available with your company. [Appears native English speaker is.]
  • I am hopeful that we can arrange a mutually convenient time to discuss job the opportunity. [Sister of previous applicant is?]
  • I have worked in Fundraising field [I give up.]
  • I had the chance to travel to New York City and work at their photo/art department. [Whose? The city’s?]
  • Supervise Inters and student workers.
  • Graphic design is the type of job that a person must love because at times, things can become frustrating and where most people will stop, I continue going because I enjoy intricate thinking. [Anybody care to diagram this?]

I am particularly impressed by the lines that are intended to impress me:

  • Constantly listening to music and reading Hemmingway, Kerouac, and Borgues for inspiration . . .
  • as a means of taping into the NYU undergraduate community [I do not condone hazing!]
  • I am confidant that I have the skills needed for this position. [Also? The number of people who can’t tell the difference between compliment/complement and stationary/stationery? Appalling.]
  • I am an excellent candidate for a Assistant at Nextbook, Inc.
  • I cant wait to get started … please call me !!
  • My experience at the [respected publishing company] and [top university] give we a strong advantage . . . Moreover, my experience has allowed me to work as an affective team player . . . [Respected publishing company] has also given we a wealth of experience . . .

And what may be my favorite,

I have a dedicated work ethic and will not finish anything without close to perfection.

Not close enough.

Okay, so it should be clear by now that everyone—and I mean everyone, especially those who fancy themselves copy editors or proofreaders—should be asking competent people to proof their cover letters and résumés before they send them out. No, but really. This means you.

What else hurts or harms your chances of getting an interview with a meanie like me?

Objective: Not to sound like an idiot.

I know that all the job advice people these days are telling you to include an objective at the top of your résumé, but I have to tell you, whenever I look at a résumé that has one of those, I assume that I’m dealing with someone who either is a n00b or has not researched the company at which he or she is applying to work. Perhaps an objective line has some purpose when you’re applying to a place so huge that all the résumés are dumped into a database and scanned for keywords, but if your target is a nonprofit arts organization, a small publisher, or, probably, any company having fewer than a hundred employees, the objective line is just one more opportunity to make an ass of yourself.

Saying that your objective is “To obtain a position as an assistant to the art director at Nextbook” tells me a great deal, but none of it is stuff you want me to know. Mostly, it says, “Hi! I’m a tool!”

Telling me that your objective is to “Work as an Executive Assistant at a premiere financial company” makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with you, as well as why you can’t read.

Of the twenty-five résumés that have thus far been withheld from the circular file, only four list objectives. Two of those harm the application; the others are merely uninteresting. None of them do any good. Please make a note of it.

Format

If you are applying to make coffee for someone, how you format your résumé probably doesn’t matter. If you are applying to assist a so-called art director, however, even one who refers to herself as “so-called,” I suggest that you put a little bit of thought into your presentation. I’m not talking about fancy (though I admit that I did squeal when I got a square résumé; cute!), I’m talking about competent. If the job description recommends that you have an interest in typography, you might want to try to look like you know what the word means. I don’t have the energy to list all the horrors I saw on these documents, so let’s just say that I’ve seen every known typographic “don’t” at least fifty times over. A couple of hints:

  • Find out what an en dash is, and then try using some.
  • Pay attention to not only the characters on the page but also the spaces between them. Like, they should be consistent in some way.
  • Learn to use style sheets, so that you can make your heading styles consistent. If you choose to ignore my request for a PDF résumé, try to make sure your Word attachment doesn’t demonstrate to me what a slob you are, formatting everything locally and aligning text using spaces instead of tabs.
  • Don’t Capitalize Everything. I Cannot Emphasize This Enough. It Makes You Look Like a 419 Scammer.
  • Inch marks are not quotation marks.
  • If your résumé contains fake italics and fake bold, and especially if these are applied on top of real italics and real bold, design is not the field for you.
  • Violet 9pt Arial is probably not a good choice for anything.
  • View your PDF before hitting “send” to make sure it’s not full of red dotted underlines where your spell-checker has queried things.

Bullshit

Don’t list “StuffIt” under your skills. That’s just depressing.

Don’t tell me you are “incredibly” anything, unless it’s something you don’t want me to believe. Saying you are “incredibly proficient in Adobe CS3, basic HTML, etc.” says to me, “This person doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.”

Don’t claim to have copyediting or proofreading experience in a résumé riddled with typos.

Don’t say, “My skills are an ideal match for this position” unless you can explain to me why that is true and your work history supports it. Just saying you’re the best candidate does not get you anywhere at all. You might as well shout, “Flippendo!”

References

You needn’t include a list of references unless they’re asked for. Nobody’s going to call your references before interviewing you, so it’s pointless to list people unless they’re known to the person doing the hiring. The one reference I did recognize from among the handful of lists I received is a person whose design taste I find to be deeply flawed; your mileage may vary.

Putting “References available upon request” at the bottom of your résumé tells me nothing. Like, duh.

Once you get an interview, do bring a nice, neat list that you can hand over if asked.

Anybody who hires you without asking for and checking your references gets what he or she deserves.

Salary requirements

It is very informative to me when you include in your cover letter—unasked—both your current salary and your desired salary, the latter being 225 percent of yours and 103 percent of mine. It tells me that you are going to be grumbling about your current job for quite some time.

Portfolio

I looked at or intend to look at the online portfolio of anyone who provided a URL and does not seem to be an idiot. In most cases they help me rule people out, but in two cases they’ve moved their creators from “Low Maybe” to “High Maybe” (on a scale of “NO!” to “High Maybe”). Does this mean you shouldn’t include a portfolio, because it’s more likely to hurt than to help? Well, do you really want to work with someone who’s going to think that your design sucks? I’ll find it out sooner or later, so why not save us both some time? Thanks in advance.

For what it’s worth, Coroflot seems to be a very popular portfolio site.

If you do choose to direct potential employers to your online portfolio or other website, get someone else to make sure it’s not full of typos. Also? Make sure there’s some work on it, please—not just a lot of “coming soon!”

Cover letter

Length

If you can send your cover letter as a tweet, it’s not long enough. Preceding your punchy BIG TYPE résumé with the single line, “Email me with questions, thoughts, criticisms, and/or praise. Thanks.” does not count. This is not a classroom critique; I want to know if you can write an entire paragraph without revealing yourself as a nutjob. Were I to reply to your application in kind, it would be as a sheet of paper filled with the huge, artfully arranged words “FAIL WHALE.”

If your letter is longer than one printed page, it’s too long. Whatever it is you’re saying at such length is almost certainly digging you into a hole. The circular hole at the top of the basket to the left of my desk.

This goes for résumé length as well, if you are under the age of twenty-five. Really, you’re not fooling anybody when you pad it out with irrelevant crap. If you’re trying to tell me something important by listing all those restaurant jobs—like, you’re going to bring a cake to work every Monday morning—it would be better to say so in your cover letter: I can’t wait to start bringing you cakes every week! Please call me!! Then I’ll know that you’ve done your homework.

If you are over the age of thirty, it may not be appropriate to try to cram your work experience into a single page. Being selective is good, of course, but make sure that whatever is left emphasizes the right things. Don’t squeeze five years of relevant freelance work into ten lines while devoting twenty lines to four years of completely irrelevant full-time jobs.

Salutations

Ideally, I won’t notice yours. If you begin, “Dear Human Resources” or “To Whom It May Concern,” it tells me you’ve got poor reading skills since, in defiance of common sense, I put my name on the ad. Did you Google me? I’m very Googleable. You can find out whether I’m a Mr. or a Ms.; there’s no need to hedge.

Acceptable salutations from total strangers include,

  • Dear Ms. Amos,
  • Dear India Amos,
  • Hello,

People who were referred by people I know are welcome to be more casual—

  • Dear India,
  • Hi, India.
  • Hello, India.

Punctuation counts in all instances (see above under “Hello,.”).

If I know neither you nor the horse you rode in on, starting your letter with “Hi” is an eye-catchingly weird choice. You don’t want to start out with me looking for other ways in which you are weird, because I will find them.

Content

When you write your letter, try to sound like a real person. (See above under “Bullshit.”) I can’t tell you how refreshing it is when I get a letter that sounds like it’s from a human being rather than from Faceless Job Applicant #666. Several of the letters that have succeeded at this are from people who were referred to me by mutual acquaintances—“So-and-so told me that you were looking for someone . . .” The others are from people who wrote to me as one competent professional to another—not smugly, not overconfidently, but professionally, with poise. So maybe the trick is to write as if you have been recommended for the position by someone who is known to the person who is hiring. If you can set aside that desperate must-have-job-so-can-eat-more-brains tone, you’re more likely to get a friendly reading.

What is a cover letter for? It gives me an idea of whether you are smart or sloppy or crazy or pompous or a zombie. It is also the place where you tell me how to interpret your résumé. As in, “I know that most of my paid work has been at this thing, but I’ve also been studying on my own time to learn this other thing.” As in, “My degree is in x, but my real passion is y, and I can prove to you that I’m not just making that up because I’ve been working on interesting side projects a, b, and c.” As in, “All my previous jobs are at high-paying megacorporations, but I’d really like to move into the nonprofit sector, because making faster, shinier widgets is eating my soul.”

Your letter should tell me why you are applying to this job, and that message should be something more specific than, “Because I need a job.” Why are you applying to this place? Did you look at our website? Do you have any interest in the specifics of what we do? Are you paying attention?

Following up

It took me a long time to even begin reading these résumés, because I have been busy, and because I went to TypeCon, and because I was sick, and because looking at the folder filling up with e-mails filled me with dread. So far, I have conducted exactly one interview, which was with someone I had already corresponded with through work. I specified “No calls” in both ads that I placed, and to my surprise, nobody has called. Yay! If they had called, they would have gone into the “NO!” folder. One person did e-mail to follow up, in a nonannoying way; she is still in the running. One person re-sent her application; she is still in the running. One person e-mailed me on my personal account, because we went to the same high school though not at the same time, and although we ended up having a friendly chat, I must say that I found his contacting me on the back-channel manipulative and uncool. Had he been qualified for the job—which he was not—he would have been at a disadvantage for having tried to influence me in that way.

In the immortal words of Morrissey, “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”

I could go on, but I’m hungry and I want to go home. On Monday I will schedule interviews. Honest.

Photo: t-rex help wanted by carbonated / Allison Marchant; some rights reserved.

29 thoughts on “Job application tips

  1. Excellent, witty, and all too true. How some of my former teammates in the last employer’s production department ever found new jobs, with the writing skills they displayed in their email and (gasp!) letters to clients, is tough to imagine.

  2. This is hysterically brilliant, and is now on my list of things to send to people who email me looking for a job.

    With any luck they won’t email YOU …

  3. Many good tips for youngsters and folks who may be back in the market after enjoying a long period of employment.

    It would be interesting to see the job description, or better yet, a post on Job Description Tips. If job hunters followed those same guidelines in not applying to jobs with poorly written job descriptions, that include many of the common errors you discuss, the pool of available jobs would be minimal.

    Interestingly, you want your applicants to research you, but not leverage all their resources and research skills. I’d give that applicant a bonus just for resourcefulness.

  4. Sound advice and funny article to boot. I am happy to see others with a default attitude of sceptisism – people are daft until opposite is proven. Thanks!

  5. @creeping,

    I’m not qualified to give tips on writing job descriptions, as this is the first one I’ve done in probably eight years. I hate doing it; it gives me hives. But I proofread this listing at least six times and asked two other people to read it before I posted it. That’s the way I roll . . .

    The ability to Google my name and find my personal e-mail address does not indicate any special degree of resourcefulness. In fact, anyone who can’t accomplish such a simple task is unqualified for the job. Period. But what you do with that information indicates your capacity for discretion and good judgment. I check my blog stats several times a day; I know this guy’s not the only person who Googled me and found the FAQ. But he is the only one who contacted me at my Gmail account. There’s a reason nobody else did that, and it’s not a lack of nerve.

    Applying for a job is a formal business interaction. Throughout the process, you should be demonstrating your ability to communicate in an appropriate manner. You may not be required to behave like a diplomat once you get the job (if you’re working with me, definitely not), but the person considering you for the job needs to know that you’re capable of it.

    Okay, but what is an appropriate manner? I’m not the sort of person who reads business etiquette books for kicks, so I can’t cite sources, but I’ll bet they all say something along these lines at some point: Don’t bug people at home. You don’t e-mail someone at home about a job for the same reason that you don’t phone someone at home about a job: It’s intrusive. My work colleagues don’t e-mail me on my personal account about work stuff, and vice versa. That’s why it’s called personal.

    If a job applicant crosses that line, I’m going to suspect that he or she is poorly socialized. Probably not somebody I want to work with.

  6. It’s my job to pull resumes off of Monster.com for my company… and what I’d like to tell Mr. and Ms. Job Seeker is, if you are going to include an email address on your resume, please, oh please, for the love of God, make it a professional-sounding email address. Not “LilpieceofAsshley@yahoo.com” or “ThugNtraining@hotmail.com.” And don’t tell me about your hobbies. Especially that you enjoy spending time with your kids “when you have them.” And really? You’re going to tell me on your resume why you left your last job? The winner here was, “I left this job when I punched my boss after being yelled at for no reason. She deserved it.”

  7. Great post! I also agree with poeticgrin about the e-mail addresses. The minute I see something like “sexxyhott@hot….” or “rockinvaginaking@ya…” I move on. LOL I enjoyed this post and glanced at a few others and have bookmarked this blog for future insights and laughs. Take care. SOC

  8. Very valid, and yet, wonderful points! I guess since I will be looking for a job soon, I better take those to heart!

  9. Hilarious post. I never understood how people miss typos on important documents. I read & re-read until there are no mistakes (and if I’m not confident in my own proof-reading abilities…oops, I mean “confidant”, I would definitely have someone else read my resume before sending it out to potential employers).

  10. In my book you cross a line when calling colleagues in their time off, especially if they’re on holiday (my boss called me repeatedly when I was on the other side of the world). You make absolutely sure you have judged the situation correctly, and that the colleague will agree that that is the right thing to do. Basically, you have to know them well before you do that. And for a job interview? NEVER.

  11. Absolutely shocking how many typos managed to get through in your applications! Wild.

    Your post was of particular interest as I have been applying for jobs reently and have used “To Whom It May Concern” – on Craigslist in my area, 90% of people aren’t listing their names. Would you prefer “Hello”?

  12. Hey, Indja!

    Pay no attention to other applicants — I b the perfect fit for the position of assistant to the art director at NecksBack! To disgust, call me!

    Im REady to Get to Work!

    Xensen

    PS. Recently I hired an editor. I received many applications and gave a test to the top nineteen candidates and (as I describe over at rightreading), I discovered that eighteen of nineteen experienced editors could not pick the correct spelling of one of the words from a multiple choice list.

  13. @Sarah & Tim: If you don’t know the name of the person who will be reading your résumé, yes, “To Whom It May Concern” is acceptable. “Dear Sir or Madam” is more to my taste, however—there’s less of a nineteenth-century ring to it.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with nineteenth-century epistolary style, as long as you can rock it. I happen to love reading old letter-writing manuals and etiquette books, and I’m a desultory collector thereof, so if I were to receive a cover letter written in a faithfully antique style, I would probably be charmed. In such a case I would even accept being addressed as “Gentlemen.”

  14. I think that I have been referred to this blog before and wandered on my merry way because I don’t have the time to keep up with blogs. However a link to this particular article was posted to a private discussion list that I respect, and I must say, it’s quite the amusing post.

    (No, this comment won’t be copy-edited strictly. I am applying for a job, but not the one that you’re offering; I just don’t have the time.)

    Some thoughts:

    Personally, I’m always annoyed at people who don’t realize that the Bachelor of Arts degree is abbreviated “A.B.” if the college in question uses the Latin. The same thing goes for the A.M. (Master of Arts), although more rarely (as the Latin word order is more flexible there).

    Saying that your objective is to get the job is rather obvious; if you didn’t want the job, you wouldn’t be applying for it. (Unless you have a strange sense of humor and don’t mind wasting other people’s time, that is.) I did once write an essay when applying to grad school that explained that I wanted the degree because I wanted a job, but this worked because I then used that as a jumping-off point for explaining how much I loved the field (which was why I wanted to work in it), etc.

    Formatting is the bane of my existence.

    People in my field don’t have portfolios, but if we did, we wouldn’t accept anything that the applicant hadn’t programmed and formatted themselves and done so very well. (Or we shouldn’t; sadly, interface design is often overlooked.)

    “You don’t want to start out with me looking for other ways in which you are weird, because I will find them.” What’s wrong with being weird?

    Finally, someone looking at my e-mail address probably thinks that the username (CrazyDreamer) is a bit weird until they get to the domain name (crazydreams.org), at which point they realize that I own and operate my own website and it’s part of the branding. At that point they want to know what’s on my website, how I programmed it, why I made certain design choices, etc., and it generally works out to my advantage.

  15. @CrazyDreamer: “What’s wrong with being weird?” Well, yes, you’re right, everybody’s weird, and people who aren’t weird are even weirder. But there’s good-weird and there’s bad-weird. My goal is to not hire a person who is the bad kind of weird.

  16. Thanks, India. Hilarious and cringe-inducing. Yow! I have some students who would benefit from reading this.

    I’m adding “camel-capping” to my vocabulary. I’ve heard it called “intercapitalizing” before, but that’s not nearly as much fun. With a nod to St-Exupéry, could we also call it, “snake that swallowed an elephant—capping”?

    By the way, I technically was awarded an AB at the end of college, but I have taken to listing it as a BA on resumes, because I don’t know if it confuses people. Is the general consensus that it’s okay to say AB?

  17. The A.B. should be generally recognized as the same thing as a B.A. If not, “smile sweetly and explain that because your university uses the Latin, it’s abbreviated funny.” (Sage words of advice from my mother, who happens to be an important associate dean and gets asked this sort of thing a lot.) Unfortunately, even official department webpages at my undergraduate university got the degree abbreviations wrong. Of course, depending on how your resume is formatted, it may be simple to list it as a “Bachelor of Arts (A.B.)” and avoid any potential confusion. But then you wouldn’t get to snark at potential employers . . . err . . .

    This reminds me: I have to find out the official name and abbreviation for the graduate degree I’m in the middle of earning. I suspect that it will be like the strange case of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing, which has the official “short” form of “M.F.A. in Writing”.

  18. I don’t think listing your degree as an AB rather than a BA would confuse anybody, but they might find it pretentious. I, for one, don’t care which abbreviation people use, as long as they don’t bring shame on their alma maters/almae matres by being illiterate in English.

  19. Hello, Ms. India,

    I enjoyed reading every word of your post, especially since it pertains to my hunt for an entry-level publishing job. Now, I’m a little more knowledgeable (and inspired) about what or what not to put in my cover letter and resume. And I am definitely sharing your post with other job-seekers.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  20. […] Quite honestly, when you get 100 applications for the same position, you look for reasons to weed people out.  Simple things like typos in an email can be easy ways to lose out on that interview opportunity, even if you are actually a great teacher. I hope a few of these suggestions might help someone out there when applying for the teaching position they really want.  For more fun job tip reading (not directly related), click here. […]

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