Wednesday 22 August 2012

Cover Letters and Resumes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

It has been quite a while since my last update and I know you guys have missed me.  The reason for this hiatus was partly due to a few trips I have taken over the summer, but also largely due to an increased focus on looking for work.  I have been trying hard to find work, and it isn't easy.  This is because there is generally very little feedback for an application so it is difficult to tell if it your approach that is not working, or just that you are not the right fit for a job.

My wife, Sherri, however has recently seen the other side of a job search, as she has been handling CVs and application pre-screening at her workplace.  This has given me a valuable insight into my own job search.

From the inside

First of all, Sherri's organization posted 5 jobs on various job boards.  From those jobs they received well over 500 applications, many of which were bad, most of which were generic and looked exactly the same. When an application really stood out, she made a note of it, because she needed some sort of criteria by which to grade the applications. When an application was particularly horrible she immediately rejected it.

The good

Some applications stood out, and it was often little flourishes that helped with this.  I would often get a phone call in the middle of the day saying "I saw someone do something on their resume that looked really good.  You should do this"  Examples include:
  • The subject line of the email.  Most people just put down "application for X position".  Generic.  One person wrote "Interesting application for  X position, take a look!" and it really stood out.  It felt like someone she trusted was recommending someone. Top of the pile.
  • The school's logo.  Most people list their education on their CV.  One person, however, put a small image of their school's logo beside their education. It really stood out.  Top of the pile.
  • Talking about the company. Everyone talks about themselves in the cover letter.  A few talked about the company.  "X position caught my eye because of Y.  I really like how Z company has accomplished *specific thing*, and feel that with my experience in blah blah, I could contribute to next year's *specific thing*. "  Shows the applicant did research and is interested in the company. Top of the pile.

The bad

  • Addressing a cover letter 'to whom it may concern'.  In this particular case, the hiring manager's name was included in the job posting.  Usually if it isn't you can find it.  Bottom of the pile.
  • Generic cover letter. Clearly copied and pasted from the last 5 applications.  Highlights skills that weren't asked for, doesn't make mention of the company in any way. In a different job market it wouldn't be so bad, but with 500 competing applications?  Bottom of the pile.
  • Not including a cover letter.  I thought everyone included a cover letter.  Apparently the minority of applications do. Seriously. Having only a resume made it very difficult for her to identify the candidate's skills.  She could see a candidate worked in a place, but it wasn't obvious what the candidate was good at. Bottom of the pile.
  • Don't write a cover letter like this
    Dear company. My name is New Graduate and I am applying for the position of CEO.  I was student council predisent and my mom says I'm a hard worker and handsome. Love, New Graduate.
  • Not following up. Sherri only received 4 phone calls about the jobs.  One was about information before the candidate applied, and one asked to speak to the director, but when the director wasn't in she just hung up. Only two people actually followed up on their application asking if the resume was received, and when the interviews would be scheduled. Those applications were placed at the top of the pile.

The Ugly

  • Giving your life story in the application. "At my last job I didn't talk around the water cooler very much because it's unprofessional. Jimmy and Earl used to chide me about it but I felt it was more important to get my work done quickly.  Then one day Jimmy and Earl pranked me by covering my desk in tinfoil.  What a day!  But I still managed to have the highest sales in my division that quarter"
  • Admitting to not caring about the job in the application. "I don't particularly want to work in accounting, however given that my mom is kicking me out of the basement, this is the best I can do, so if you're interested in giving me an interview..."
  • Misspelling the name of the position in the application. Wait... you're applying to the position of Coptroller?  Sounds like it will get you arrested.
  • Misspelling the name of the organization in your application. You're either lazy or illiterate.  Either way the resume's getting shredded.
And the big winner:
  • Not including a resume. This is for real. Some applications did not even include a resume.  The candidate just sent an email saying they'd like to apply for the job.  Seriously?  What were you expecting? The hiring manager is supposed to contact you to find out what you're good at? The sad part is that there were multiple applications like this.  


You know how every career counselor everywhere has told you to write a personalized cover letter for every application and follow up by phone the next day?  I have heard a lot of people say "Why bother? It won't help. Everyone does it."  But now I see that this is not true.  

Yes there is a ton of competition, but there's also a lot of BAD competition. It gives me hope as I spend another 4 hours researching the culture and hiring manager of the next company I'm applying to. I don't have to be the best at everything, I just have to be better than the riff-raff.


Will said...

This only seems useful if the job is a particularly good one. Putting four or more hours into an application for a company that will pay minimum (or slightly higher) wage is useless. They are looking for bodies to fill a role.

On the other hand, if you do find a job that requires specialized skills (and you have those skills) this is pertinent. I'll take any edge I can get in a job application (even the ridiculous and gimmicky ones like email subject lines and school logos). I completely agree with your bad and ugly examples.

Sherri said...

Nice article, Nathan! Glad my experience could be of use. I should go into the resume-writing and job-search coaching business. But then I'd have to help people find jobs, and it's tough. However, having been on the other side of the fence, hiring the right people is also really tough.

Also, Will: putting time and effort into an application is worth it for ANY job you would actually want to have (maybe not 4 hours each, but a bit of time to do some research, craft a nice cover letter, and tailor your CV, if necessary). And if you wouldn't want to have the job, don't bother applying. Seems simple enough to me!


Anonymous said...

Well, now I'm confused regarding following up. I've heard from some hiring managers that they don't appreciate a follow-up. They always say something to the effect of "I'm busy and can't afford to waste time fielding calls from applicants all day. If we're interested, we'll let you know." Is it really a good idea, or do you just annoy them?

Writing resume said...

Great blog !! very informative. I also agree that people do so many mistakes in their resumes like you said. If anyone wanna get the desired results, then they have to show a different attitude in their resume, cover letter and also in the interview.

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professional resume writing said...

Difficult to tell if it your approach that is not working, or just that you are not the right fit for a job.

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