When it comes to landing a job, the magic word is preparation. Take time to research the company, customize your resume to fit the job, and ace the interview by knowing yourself, the company, and having a list of questions that show your genuine interest.

Most people absolutely suck at applying for 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.

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

What I didn’t expect is just how many potentially qualified applicants were 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 them 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.

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 percent 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 most of your competition.

The Me-Me-Mes

When a job applicant takes the time to write a thoughtful cover letter and perhaps even tailor their 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.

Related: Convince Your Employer You’re Right for the Job, Even with the “Wrong” Degree

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 see 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.

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.

Try these answers instead.

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.

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.)

Related: 3 Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Job

You know this stuff, now use it

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 be like the people I described above. Instead, do this:

Focus your job search

Work backwards. Define the type of job you want and 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 your skills and all the kinds of jobs at which you can apply those skills.

Related: Unhappy at Work? Here’s a Way to Find Your Perfect Career

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 eight hours researching the company, thinking of ways to network, and tailoring my application material to the job.

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.

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.

Related: Should You Move for a Job?

Summary

Knowing how to apply and interview for jobs correctly is obviously the key to getting the best job for you.

That may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people suck at it.

So put in some effort, do your research, and prepare.

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About the author

David Weliver
Total Articles: 306
David Weliver is the founder of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues he faced during his first two decades as an adult. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.