The Way We Work
December 21, 2010 by Brian McDonough

A few years ago, as an editor at a trade newspaper, I took the lead in hiring for a few reporter vacancies and a more technical slot for a web editor.  It was my first time on the receiving end of a resume.  And I was deluged, with 50 or more resumes per job.

It turned out to be pretty easy (but time consuming) to identify the rejects.  A hiring manager has very little time to spend on each email, and anything that indicated that the applicant didn’t read the ad closely, didn’t follow instructions in responding (my personal test:  “no attachments!”), or did anything to waste my time (lame formatting, strange stories in the cover letter) made for a quick rejection.

The best part of the often-grueling hiring process was that it gave me tremendous insight into how to not end up in the reject pile on my next application. For their instructive value, here are the highlights from that pile:

Things I will not do next time I send out my resume:

  1. I will not attach my resume if the ad says “no attachments.” (I will especially not attach a slow-to-open .pdf file.)
  2. I will not address it to “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madam” or “Hiring Executive” if the name of the person I’m sending it to is right there in the ad.
  3. I will not have a nine-page resume.  Especially one covering less than a decade of work history.  (If I do have a nine-page resume, I will not think it necessary to note in my cover letter that I am “detail oriented.”)
  4. I will not use the word “passion” in my cover letter.  The sentence “I have a passion for content management” is either ludicrous hyperbole or … well, let’s just hope it’s hyperbole.
  5. I will avoid saying “I was drawn to your ad,” as though it is not my general need to pay rent, but some sort of cosmic destiny or love-at-first-sight magic.
  6. I will not put a cover letter on top of my cover letter that’s on top of my resume.
  7. I will not send my resume if I’m far out of town and will be out of town for three or more weeks, and thus unavailable for interview.
  8. I will not have my return address be something like koala-tiara@genericmail.com. (Unless the job I am applying for is “Unicorn Princess.”)
  9. When my resume does not get me a response, and the same ad is posted again a week or two later, I will not send the exact same resume and cover letter.  (Because that would be dumb.)
  10. I will not say that I’ve just graduated college, but my degree is useless, and I’m now embarking on a process of successive failures necessary to find out what I really want to do with my life.  Actual quote: “I do not expect to find that ideal job right off the bat. I understand that to have success, there will be some failure along the way. I just hope to walk through the right doors at some point in my life.” (Oddly enough, we did not elect to become that dreamy young man’s next failure.)
brian mcd things I won't do twoWhat really surprised me about the process was that, despite the flood of resumes, no one jumped out as the ideal candidate.  The people who didn’t even make it to the interview phase didn’t lose out because some perfect worker dropped from the heavens.  Many of those rejected would’ve had a shot if the presentation of their cover letters and resumes hadn’t undermined their chances.

I found that somewhat encouraging, because I can’t transform my work experience or education overnight, but a thoughtful approach to how I present them can yield quick and dramatic results.  A few tips about writing a good cover letter, and one more effort at keeping the resume short, compelling and well-formatted can go a long, long way.

If you’ve learned the hard way that your cover letter and resume were turning off potential employers, tell us about it in the comments below. What will you never do in a job application again?

Brian McDonough

Freelance Writer

Brian McDonough has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years, and has managed teams of in-house and freelance writers for newspapers, magazines and web sites.

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  • Janell Williams

    These are all great things to keep in mind, what a great reminder.

    I have found that on oDesk being able to share my experience from here can be a great help. Along with having samples in my portfolio.

  • http://on.fb.me/goXEE3 balendra

    Our application currently does a pretty bad job

  • http://www.transpothi.com Pothi Kalimuthu

    Not sure how many views you have on every article. I always found that if anyone who joins oDesk takes the time to go through all the blog posts, I’m sure we can make a lot of difference in the quality of job applications submitted/received. Until then, I’m happy I have less competition. ;)

  • http://www.oDesk.com Brian McDonough

    Andre — I’m trying to get across the idea that hyperbolic language, especially when it feels rote, hurts the cover letter. Sometimes that “passion” language comes across as stock cliche and the hiring manager is bored and amused (not in a good way) at once.

    Not to say you can’t communicate your passion well; I’d just say make sure you’re doing it in a way that sounds measured and sincere. If you’ve gotten hired that way, then I guess you’re doing it right.

    Thanks for commenting — and for making me define my point better.

  • Andre

    I liked the rest of the article. Solid points. Some common sense, but I’ve heard that common sense isn’t so common anymore…

  • Andre

    If you are passionate about what you do, why not say so? I’ve had employers who actually commended me on identifying my passion, especially after it became evident in my interview that it was a quite fitting description.