During the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of several hiring processes. This has included freelancers, both shifters and remote working, as well as in-house staff, at entry-level and beyond.
The first time it happened it really was an eye-opening process for me. I’ve always thought of myself as quite good at applying for jobs, but being the person actually going through 100 CVs and cover letters was pretty revealing.
We always hear about the hundreds of people applying for every job, but I’d never really thought about that in terms of the human effort to go through them all. Hiring people isn’t my full-time job – like many other editors I have a million and one other things to do outside of that – and I don’t have days to pour over applications.
Essentially, the smallest detail really can throw you onto the reject pile. It’s not out of editors being mean, more that there are only so many hours in a day, and you need a relatively quick way to make decisions.
Some of the stuff is easy enough to work out (we all know that no one likes a spelling error), but there was other stuff I hadn’t thought about. And with a huge lack of feedback for job applicants, it’s not like many of us would ever be told what we’re doing wrong. So, here’s everything I noticed.
• Please put your CV as a PDF: Even if you create your CV in something like Word, Pages or Google Drive (which are all great programmes to use) please, please export it as a PDF. Especially when you’ve been an absolute gem and tailored your CV to your application, it is the absolute worst to see a meticulously crafted CV messed up because my email client is pants / I have a different version of software / don’t have the right fonts. Seriously, everyone loves a PDF.
• Put your cover letter in your email: If it’s the kind of job where you’re sending someone somewhere an email, put the cover letter in the body of the email. When I recently hired for Journo Resources, I had 100 applications to look through. Sure it only takes half a minute to open up a separate document, but half a minute quickly turns into an extra hour when you add it all up, and it makes it harder to flick between applications in your email client. It’s also simply an extra delay to being hit with your greatness – I want to instantly know how good you are, not wait for a document to load.
• Show me, don’t tell me: This is one of the biggest things I’ve noticed that just doesn’t seem to happen very often. Which means it’s a pretty effective way of standing out. When you’re talking about your experience, both in your CV letter and your cover letter, obviously I want to know what tasks you do at your job, but I also want to see the results. If you’re telling me you manage social media accounts, show me how much you’ve grown them by. If you’re saying you do interviews, show me links of who you’ve interviewed and how you got the interviews. If you’ve started a new content stream or strategy, tell me the difference it made.
• Everyone has this CV: So, this is more of an FYI than a blanket ban, but this Microsoft Word template is by far the most popular CV I’ve come across. In my last round of hiring, at least 10 people had picked this as the basis for their CV. That’s not to say it’s not a good template – it gets a lot of things right; it’s all on one page, experience goes above education and it’s clean and tidy. But if the reason you’ve picked it is because you want to stand out on design, it’s probably worth noting you’re not the only person with this CV in the application pile.
• Contact me how I asked to me contacted: Picture the scene, I’ve tweeted out a job description and asked people to email me. I’m then barraged by people replying to the tweet or DMing me, asking me to get in touch with them if I’m interested in them applying. Or they just want to let me know they’ve applied. To a certain extent, I can understand why people do this – they want to stand out and make an editor notice who they are. But, to be blunt, I’m going to get about 100 applications for any decent job. I’ve asked to be contacted in a certain way so I can organise this Herculean task. Contacting me any other way just causes me problems – and no hiring manager is going to have time to chase candidates to apply. By all means, ask questions about the role, but please just apply how you’ve been asked too.
• Check the spelling. Like three times: I did an actual count in my last round of hiring, and 10 per cent of applications had some kind of spelling error. Some people even manage to spell my name wrong, or the name of the company that I’m hiring for. I try to be fairly generous about small slip-ups, but not every hiring manager will be, and when you’re short of time, you need easy ways to cut down your long list. Don’t give someone the chance to throw your application aside, so check things several times. Heck, get someone else to read it too.
• Stop doing yourself down, especially in the first sentence: First things first, I want to clear something up – you’re great. If you’re applying for a job, your job is to sell yourself and why you’re great. I genuinely want to bang my head against the wall when I see so many great candidates starting their applications by highlighting that they don’t quite fit all the criteria, “but they wanted to throw their hat in the ring anyway”. It hardly ever follows that you’ll fit the entire job description, you just need to fit most of it. Give yourself the best shot by showing an editor what you’re good at – talking about what you have left to learn is a conversation for later. Don’t give someone an excuse to strike you off.
• But do actually understand what they want from the job: In the same breath, don’t let yourself go off-piste. While you’ve probably got a raft of skills in a range of different areas, I want to know how you’ll fit this brief. It can be tempting to talk about your passion for video editing, if that’s what you’re really into, but if I’m hiring for a sub-editor, that’s not what I need to know about. If anything, it’s actually a bit offputting, as you’re left feeling that person isn’t really inspired by the actual job description.
• Explain why you’d be good for the job: Essentially, what I’m saying is read the job description, and explain how you hit those points. As previously mentioned, you don’t have to hit them all, but you need to make it easy for me to see how you’d fit the role and give you lots of ticks on your application. Everybody wants that after all. Look at the words the description uses to explain what they’re looking and mirror that language and tone. Especially when someone who isn’t the hiring manager is combing through to make an initial shortlist, you need to make it obvious that you fulfil the criteria.
• Don’t overblow your enthusiasm: Liking the company you’re applying to work for is really important, but that enthusiasm needs to be genuine. Don’t say you’ve been following a company for a long time if you haven’t, and don’t go overboard on the compliments. It’s not a problem if you’ve only just discovered a company, it’s much more important to be honest, as people will see straight through things which aren’t quite true. And while flattery is obviously nice, if you turn the dial up too far it just comes off as sycophantic and a bit much. Think of it a bit like a compliment a stranger has just told you in a pub. If they’d come across as very weird, it might be a tad too strong.
• Be careful if you’re copy and pasting: It’s not the biggest deal breaker in the world, but formatting is important if you’re putting forward your best self. If you’re taking bits from previous cover letters, or you’ve written different parts in different documents, make sure to clear any formatting when you add it to the body of your email. Online services like Clean Text are free, and make sure you don’t end up sending emails with two slightly different fonts, and a slightly unsettling mismatch of colours, which you can only just notice.
• Don’t put your picture or your date of birth on your CV: To put it simply, you don’t need too. I don’t need to know how old you are or what you look like to know you’d be good at the job. Don’t give people an excuse to discriminate against you because they think you’re too old, too young, or just don’t like the kind of person they’d hang out with at the pub. Dazzle them with your skills. You’re ace, remember.
• Don’t be overly formal: This is something I see a lot. Sure, a job application is a formal process to work out if you’re a good fit, but it isn’t an academic essay. Take a look at the tone of the job description and the company’s website and social media channels to get a steer of how to pitch yourself. Even if it is pretty straight though, don’t overblow it with words you’d need a thesaurus to understand or lengthy arguments or analysis. Your aim is to be clear and concise about why you’re great, and let the person looking through your application have to do as little work as possible to realise that.
• Split up your paragraphs: One last formatting woe, we promise. But there really is nothing quite as intimidating as being halfway through a pile of cover letters and suddenly finding yourself confronted with a block of text as long as your arm. You want to make your pitch easy on the eye, as well as easy to read, so it doesn’t automatically feel like a slog when you’re reading through. As a general rule, small digestible chunks are the way to go, and give me the mental space to think ‘yes this person is great a lot’. It’s the same reason bullet points are great for CVs.
• Don’t call me sir: If there’s one reason I’m most likely to throw an application into the bin in a fit of rage it’s this. Yes, sure, it used to be convention, but it’s 2019, not 1809. I am not a ‘sir’ and there are plenty of people in charge who aren’t a sir. There isn’t even really any need for it – look up who the hiring manager or editor is, or simply put ‘to whom it may concern’. See, easy.
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