Stumbling blocks to success: Poorly written application materials

I’m going to tackle a sensitive topic today, but I want you to keep an open mind and think carefully about how employers have been responding to your job applications. If you’ve been searching for a while without being invited for interviews, it may be time to do a little investigating into how you are perceived by others when they look at your job application materials.

There are several ways that you could be your own worst enemy in the job search, and one of the crucial issues is how you present yourself and demonstrate your skills in writing. This is an area where there is a great deal of disagreement, even among the experts, and part of that can be attributed to different conventions for application materials in different fields. However, there are some basics that you need to recognize, and they can be hard for some folks to accept:

  • If you’re completing an application form by hand, your handwriting needs to be clear and legible. If your penmanship is poor, you can print. . .or write more slowly. If employers can’t easily read your application, they most likely won’t.
  • If you’re completing an application online, be sure you fill in every required field. Double check that everything is spelled correctly, that the information is accurate, and that you are meeting every requirement before you click submit.
  • If a cover letter and/or resume are required, they must be more than letter perfect. By that I mean that not only must all the words be spelled correctly, the punctuation must be accurate, and the format must be consistent.
  • Your cover letter must be a clear demonstration that you understand the specific job you are applying for, you have the skills to do that job, and you want to work for that organization. It must exhibit confidence, but not arrogance.
  • Your resume must prove that you have developed all (or most) of the required skills for the specific job you are applying for, either through your academic work or actual prior positions (including internships) in the workplace. You resume should show that you also have some of the preferred (or desired) skills. (See my post from 11/13/14 for more on required, preferred, and desired skills.)

If you haven’t been receiving invitations for an interview, it may be time to take a close look at your job application materials and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you tailoring your cover letter and/or resume for each job to make sure you include key words from the job description?
  • Have you asked someone else to review them for errors before you send them out?
  • Have you talked with someone in the industry you hope to join to make sure your format is appropriate?
  • Have you done research online to learn about the current trends in resume formats?
  • Have you eliminated (or toned down) any statements that could be deemed arrogant?

One final tip: Don’t use a resume or business letter template that is included with your software. If may force you to use inappropriately sized fonts, include grid lines that you can’t eliminate (which may interfere with OCR scanning), and be perceived as a lack of ability to create a simple document on your own. You can find more advice about producing cover letters and resumes in some of the lengthiest sections of my book:

  • Tip 38: Create (or update) your resume
  • Appendix I: Creating a resume (which includes guidelines, a checklist, and samples)

    Tip 39: Learn to write good cover letters

  • Appendix J: Creating a letter of application (cover letter) (which includes a template, a checklist, and samples)