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How Not To Suck at Applying for a Job

When it comes to landing a job, the magic word is preparation. Take time to research the company for which you are applying and customize your resume to fit the job. Make your resume stand out by focusing on what problems you can solve for your new employer. Ace the interview by knowing yourself, the company, and having a list of questions that show your genuine interest. You want them to feel like theirs is the only job you applied for.

Should You Take That Unpaid InternshipMost people absolutely suck at applying to jobs.

And this is GREAT NEWS.

Why? Because it means that with just the tiniest bit of consideration and work, you should be able to absolutely crush your next job search.

Not too long ago, I was involved in a search for an entry-level marketing position. When I posted the job, I braced for the flood of resumes to pour in. Times still aren’t great; a lot of people looking for work.

I’m not naïve: I expected to get a lot of crap resumes because one place we posted the position was on an untargeted regional job website.

What I didn’t expect is just how many potentially qualified applicants would be TERRIBLE at applying for a job.

From my entirely unscientific personal experience, I’ve categorized the five types of incompetent job applicants. I’ll describe these guys below and talk about how you can avoid being one of them and, in general, be better than 95% of your competition the next time you apply for a job.

The Blind Squirrels

Sometimes even a blind squirrel finds a nut (but probably not a job in a recession).

These days, when an employer posts a job, they will get dozens of applicants who also apply to every single other job they come across. The blind squirrels are the job applicant version of spammers. Spray and pray. Why anybody thinks this works is beyond me. They’re hopeless.

The Sloths

The next level of job applicant amateurs are people who could possibly be qualified for the job but who make no effort to go above and beyond the bare minimum. The send:

  • No cover letter (or a generic one)
  • Nothing in their resume that addresses the job’s specific requirements.

About 95% of applicants for this job DID NOT include a cover letter! We didn’t consider any of them. Keep that statistic in mind. Whenever you think you’re up against tough competition, remember that most people will exert only average or below average effort. If you can do more than that, you’ve already eliminated up to 95% of your competition.

The Me-Me-Mes

When a job applicant takes the time to write a thoughtful cover letter and perhaps even tailor his or her resume to the position, that person is miles ahead of the sloths and squirrels. But there are still plenty of blunders that will ensure the applicant will never get a call back about the job.

Think of this: many hiring managers are going through hundreds of applications a day. They have seconds to spend on each one. What this means is they first look for any reason to immediately disqualify you. No cover letter? Gone. Typos? Forget about it. Still have an AOL email address? That could hurt you, too.

But you may also be sabotaging your own application by focusing too much on yourself.

It’s important to self-promote; you must be able to confidently project your experience and talents. But you can easily take this too far. You see, here’s the golden rule of applying for a job: You want to show the prospective employer, as specifically as possible, how YOU can solve their problems.

The employer does not necessarily care about your 3.9 GPA. What they care about is how you’ll get them more customers or cut their expenses or support an executive so she can be more productive.

This mistake is especially grave in the first paragraph of a cover letter.

Let’s look at some examples:

After an inspiring and rewarding academic career at Some University and experience working for Some Company, I am looking to provide marketing support in a business setting. It would be a wonderful opportunity to be considered a strong candidate for this position.

This is about as bad as it gets. For one, the first sentence just rehashes what we should be able to learn from his resume. And it’s about him. As a hiring manager, I’m thinking: So what? What can you do for me? The second sentence is worse. I’m sure it would be wonderful (for you) to be considered for this position. But it’s not going to happen. You’ve just wasted 30 seconds of my time.

I am writing to you with sincere interest in the marketing position advertised. I am currently looking to take my five years of marketing experience in the non-profit sector and transition into a solid business environment with room for growth.

See a pattern yet? As a first line, it’s OK to state what position you’re applying to, especially at a large employer with many vacancies. Better? Put it in the file name or subject line. In the second sentence, we again she the applicant restate her experience and then state what she’s looking for. Again, I don’t care. At least not yet. As a rule of thumb, save the stories about why you’re applying for the job (you need a new challenge, you need more money, you slept with your old boss and now it’s awkward, etc.) for the interview.

Don’t be a Me-Me-Me. Make your cover letter about the employer. What can you do for them?

The Ignoramuses

There’s an old anecdote about applicants to IBM who can’t answer the interviewer’s question: “What does IBM stand for?”

Now that we have the Internet, there’s NO EXCUSE not to research a company before you apply. I’ll make this quick:

  • DO NOT apply for a job without spending at least 10 minutes learning about the company online.
  • DO NOT go to an interview without spending at least a couple hours researching the company, customers, and the industry.

If you don’t, you’ll look like a dumbass, and you probably won’t get the job.

The “I Dunno”s

When you talk to a prospective employer—whether it’s at a formal interview or on an introductory phone call—it’s game time.

You just made it past the most difficult stage of the job search…convincing the employer to give you a call. Now you really don’t want to screw yourself!

When the employer asks you a question—even a dumb question—give a thoughtful answer.

Duh, right?

You’d be surprised how many people say “I don’t know”.

Are a lot of interview questions bullshit? Absolutely. But if you want the job, you still have to answer them.

Interviewer: Where do you want to be in five years?

Applicant: “I don’t know.”

What’s your biggest weakness?

“I don’t know.”

What’s your dream job?

“I don’t know yet. I want to try a lot of things.”

If I’m interviewing, I might let one I don’t know slide if I like you. But any more than that, you’re cooked. I’d rather get an awful answer than I don’t know.

Interviewer: Where do you want to be in five years?

Applicant: “Retired.”

What’s your biggest weakness?

“I’m pretty lazy and require a lot of supervision to get anything done.”

What’s your dream job?

“Your job.”

These are not the best answers to these cliché interview questions, but they’re better than no answer at all.

Here’s the bottom line. When asked an interview question:

  • Give an answer.
  • A considered answer.
  • If you need to, ask for time to think.

In interviews I’ve been on, I’ve created a lot of awkward silences.  But I’ve followed them up with kickass answers.

(Note: This goes for phone interviews too! Employers use short phone interviews to screen candidates. In other words, they want to make sure they’re not wasting their time by having you in for an interview. Take phone interviews seriously; put your game face on.)


Earlier this week I asked Money Under 30 Facebook fans for the best interviewing or job searching advice they’ve received. Look at some of the answers:

From Facebook: Fans give their best job search advice.

I highlighted a few things, some of which we just talked about.

My point?

You know this stuff!

If you’ve ever met with a career office or gotten interviewing advice, somebody has told you these things before. But based on my experience, 95% of people aren’t doing them!

If you want to improve your odds of getting an interview and landing a job, don’t the people I described above. Instead, do this:

Focus your job search

Work backwards. Define 1) the type of job you want and 2) the type of company you want to work for. Decide how picky you’ll be. If you just need a job—any job—to get by, define instead 1) your skills and 2) all the kinds of jobs that you at which you can apply those skills.

Do your homework and prepare

Let’s say you find some jobs you want to apply for. Get to know those companies. Network. Use social media to connect with the companies.

Now, write a kickass resume. Then, make a spreadsheet of the jobs you want to apply for to track your progress.

Apply carefully

Let’s say you’re looking for work full time. If you spend two hours on four job applications a day  you will have better results than if you spend a half hour on 16. You can take this even further. If I found a job that I really wanted, I would probably spend more than 8 hours researching the company, thinking of ways to network, and tailoring my application material to the job.

At the very least:

  • Write a custom cover letter that talks about how you will solve the company’s problems.
  • Tailor your resume to the job. Put your most relevant experience at the top.

At interview time, put your game face on.

Interviews are a big deal, and you should consider every detail.

Yes, what you wear is important, but what you say is even more important. Spend several hours preparing answers to questions you expect to receive and writing out questions to ask the company. Again, prepare to discuss ways you can solve the employer’s problems.

Finally, remember that interviewing is a two way street. You need to be prepared to sell yourself, but you should also listen carefully and ask questions to validate that the job is a good fit for you.

I think that’s enough for today.

But what about you? What have you learned about job searching or interviewing that would help others? Share your advice in a comment!


Published or updated on November 18, 2011

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Sarah says:

    Dear David,

    Regarding your third point, could please provide examples of the company-centric cover letter? You give us two examples of how NOT to write a CL. A few pointed sentences from the pro-company perspective would be extremely helpful.


  2. Michele says:

    Michele says:

    Thank you for all input comments. I am a twice laid off worker, searching for a position in the corporate world again. I feel lost and abused. It’s crazy what long periods of unemployment can do to the psyche. I stopped going into the local workforce commission office. I felt like a cow going to be slaughtered.

    I have a master’s degree in business and I can’t find a job. I’ve read numerous article’s on resumes and interviewing techniques. I’m currently networking with three people in the same position. I have come to the conclusion it’s better to create a team environment, supporting other’s efforts as well. This action allows me to focus on others and not my grief.



  3. Christine says:

    If you get an interview, 1) Make sure you have the correct address 2) Drive by the day before that way you know where it is that you are going, it will also help you know if there is any construction in the area and it also helps you know what time to leave your house that way your not late or too early. Also keep in mind that if you do drive by at 7pm the night before, and your interview is at 8am, the traffic will be much different, so keep that in mind as well!!!

    My husband started a new job last year, and when the interviewer asked if he had a hard time finding the place, he was confidently able to say no, because I drove by last night to make sure I knew where I was going. Then when my husband landed the job, his boss told him that was one of the main reasons he was hired, it showed that he really wanted the job!!

  4. Zac says:

    Great article! It helped me a lot since I am going to look for a job soon.
    I think being a step ahead like knowing things about the company you are applying for does help a lot since it shows that you are interested. I think it shows that you are not just looking for merely a job but for a possible career.

  5. Reality Bytes says:

    This is true for backside kissing jobs where the only skill set you have is your ability to be nice to people and check your corporate e-mail. Companies that are this “picky” are crap to work for anyway and because they are so actively recruiting someplace you won’t stay long anyway. Most of the jobs on job boards are from “low rent” employers like this who have unrealistic demands and expect the employee to dedicate their lives to the company only to be laid off or fired at a whim.

    If your judging my qualifications on silly generic interview questions and how well I know how spell check works your probably a bunch of ticky tack idiots anyway. Do you really want to work for morons like this when you can open your own company and be your own boss? Yea running a company is much harder than being a wage slave but what do you have to loose vs trying to please a bunch of narrow minded corporate lackeys?

  6. allison says:

    One of the best interview tips I have ever gotten (and seems like a no brainer) is to make sure you have a full tank of gas the day before the interview. The person who told me this that she once had a candidate coming in smelling like a gas station because they dripped some gas on their show and it was very offputting. Also, getting gas in your freshly pressed white shirt seems like a disaster waiting to happen. I also always try to have a breath mint right before an interview. I imagine bad breath can be just as off putting.

    As for the “Blind Squirrel,” the fact is that if collecting unemployment, most states have some sort of minimum job search requirement (2-5 applications a week), but there aren’t always 2-5 jobs that would be a good fit. While on unemployment, I admittingly have applied for jobs that I might not be that interested to meet this requirement. With 9-10% unemployment, I imagine several of those applicatinos can fall into that category. Unfortunately in the eyes of the state, networking and those types of activities don’t count towards your job search, just applications, but the reality is that I will probably get a job from someone I know.

  7. Dennis says:

    I think I spotted a typo:

    “In the second sentence, we again *she* the applicant restate her experience and then state what she’s looking for.”

  8. These are great tips. It always helps to be well prepared and active in your search, as you mentioned. Ultimately, I think it is about who you know most of the time. Sad, but my experience tells me it’s true. There’s no easier way to make you stand out than knowing someone at the company.

  9. Nicole says:

    I really appreciated this post as I am contemplating a job change within the next year. I actually have a question that I hope someone can answer. The advice in this article suggests tailoring your resume for each job application. I think that’s pretty standard, but I have also seen (either here or on another website) that the way to go is with a digital resume like you would use on LinkedIn. That is not really one you can tailor unless you updated your profile each time you applied for a job. I guess my question is which should you use, LinkedIn to show that you are up-to-date, or a tailored resume emailed to the prospective employer, or maybe some combination of both?

    • Virginia says:

      Nicole, having been a hiring manager, you should definitely go with the tailored resume. If (and this is a big “if”) I like what I see, I MAY check you out on LinkedIn, providing of course that I have that kind of time. But that will usually only happen if I am down to 2-3 candidates and am doing a preliminary background check. LinkedIn is great to put yourself out there, but the resume will be very generic, which hiring managers already know. During a job search, especially if you are desperate – whatever the reason – you need to stand out, and LinkedIn’s generic resume simply will not do that for you. What LinkedIn will do is show prospective employers your willingness to network and your attention to details, i.e. have you proofread your profile as carefully as your resume/cover.

      I do recommend reviewing/updating your profile on a weekly basis – you may remember certain details that you forgot initially. Also, I do not recommend putting in too many personal details – you never know if I (the prospective employer) will be offended or otherwise put off. Be personable but very professional.

      Bottom line – take the time to do the tailored resume/cover – LinkedIn and other sites like it are just bonuses to help you network.

  10. Bill says:

    When looking for a new opportunity, I always think “do I see myself retiring here?”. If the answer is no, I move on to the next one.

    Also, keep a file for ALL resumes/applications you submit. If your desperate and looking, make sure you dont go after the same company multiple times.

  11. Rachel says:

    A lot of good advice here!

  12. Megan says:

    I found this post very encouraging and helpful to anyone looking for a job. Since you don’t see hundreds of other people applying for the same position you are, it’s easy to accidentally assume the employer will spend as much time reading your application as you took putting it together – never ever true.

    A year ago I pursued and was being considered for a really great position in graphic design, but I hadn’t been in the job-hunting market in over three years. I was really concerned about putting on just the right face for the interview so that the employer would think I could do the job. I talked to my dad the night before the interview for some support, and he gave me the best advice I’ve ever received. He said, “Just be yourself.” So I took that and ran with it, figuring being myself is the thing I know how to do best, rather than trying to be what I thought the interviewer was looking for. I did get the job, and the employer told me that while he was impressed with my portfolio and work experience, my personality was what sold him that I would be a right fit for the job. So, it wouldn’t have paid off to pretend to be someone else in order to land a position that wasn’t me.

    So the tip I now give all my friends before interviews is “I like you because you’re you, so be yourself and they’ll like you too”.

  13. CP says:

    I agree with most of this. However, many employers don’t want cover letters and actually ask you not to submit one. Most cover letters are bullshit fests, regardless of how they’re written. Also, most big companies have their initial candidate screening done by HR people, and the last thing they want is to have to read through thousands of BS cover letters, in addition to thousands of resumes. They basically want to know that you are at least moderately qualified and you can spell.

    Also, in regards to the blind squirrel bit, through experience I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to be discriminating about which jobs you apply to if you’re looking for a job while employed. The person who’s been unemployed for a few months is desperate, which often leads to the blind squirrel effect. It’s not their fault, they just need a paycheck and don’t have time to cherry-pick jobs in an economy that isn’t creating many jobs to begin with. I’ve looked for jobs under both circumstances (while employed and while unemployed), and both methods work if you do everything else right (correct punctuation in anything you write, light research on the company, proper attire in an interview and avoiding “I dunnos” are essential). I would also definitely follow up after an interview if I liked what I saw and heard.

    • David Weliver says:

      Good points, CP, especially about getting desperate in these tough times. I’m fortunate enough not to know what that feels like but it sheds perspective on people applying for anything and everything.

      Also I’ve been involved with smaller employers, but I do realize larger employers may not want them at all. And that reminds me of something I meant to include in the post: FOLLOW DIRECTIONS.

      If the job ad asks for a cover letter, send one. If it does not, DO NOT send one.

      My wife was filling a position and posted an ad that requested both a writing sample and references up front (it was a very specific job for a recent law school graduate). Only 3 out of 17 applicants followed the directions!

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