A complete departure and absolutely nothing to do with Portishead, I promise; or even, particularly, books or music. I was going to call this post "how to get a job" but in truth it's more like "how to apply for a job," or, at best, "how to get an interview." Last year I posted several job positions in Random House of Canada's digital team; for one of them I received – over a 10-day period – over 80 applications. Only two of those, as far as I could tell, were automated responses; the rest all showed some signs of someone having read the job description, assembled a resume and cover letter, and made a decision to send them. In other words, they went to the trouble. But not all of them went to very much trouble, and not all of them put thought into reducing my trouble.
Since I just posted another position and found that I was steeling myself for the same experience, I thought I'd post my ideas on what a well-assembled job application should look like.
(Note to future applicants: you should be able to figure out who I am with a couple of minutes of Googling, which is the very, very least bit of preparation you should do before a job interview. And now that I've posted this, I will expect you to have read this before applying.)
So here are my pushy and opinionated tips for your application package. YMMV, obviously.
1. Remember that you're trying to get an interview
Your cover letter and resume are not there to get you the job. You have to do that on your own. You have to do it in conversation (more on that later). Your cover letter and resume are to get you into an interview – and perhaps somewhat to define the terms of that interview. When you're preparing your materials, and trying to reduce their length, ask yourself this question: will this piece of information get me an interview for this particular job? Yes, you might need to include that period of minimum wage work in a completely different industry to explain a resume gap (we all have them, nowadays), but you don't need four bullet points underneath to explain exactly what you did. Company, title, dates. Move on. For jobs or education or anything else with specific applicability to the job for which you are applying, no more than 3-4 bullet points to summarize the responsibilities of your role and highlight some specific achievements.
2. Keep it brief
Everybody gets so many applications for a job that sifting through them very quickly turns – despite anyone's best intentions – into "give me a reason to reject this application." We'll look for anything: spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, or just being bored (this is especially true in content industries; if you're applying for a writing/marketing job, you absolutely don't want to seem boring). The longer your letter/resume goes on, the higher the chance you'll make a mistake. Here's how you want it to go down: "this looks professional; he/she has pertinent experience; I've reached the end." There's no alternative action left to the hiring manager other than to set up an interview. Your cover letter – properly laid out like a letter with addresses and everything else in the right place – should not exceed a single page. Your resume should ideally not exceed one page; I personally dream of receiving one-page resumes but will settle for two. No more.
Here's how you successfully prepare a brief resume: somewhere (and LinkedIn can be that place) you store a full-length resume. Every job; and for every job a list of your main responsibilities and some key achievements.*
This is your 'master resume'. When you are applying for a specific job, you take this master resume and selectively remove non-applicable pieces. Now, you can't cheat: if only one aspect of your last job was applicable, but it was only 5% of your responsibilities, you can't remove everything else and give the impression that it was 100% of your responsibilities. And you may have to reword things slightly. But the point is that you are not re-writing your resume every time you apply to a job. You are editing it down to size.
That size is 1-2 pages.
* (Why highlight some key achievements? Because it demonstrates that, for you, work is not just showing up at 9am every day and executing some tasks. Rather, you understand that work is for the purpose of achieving things. This is a clue to prospective managers: you are the kind of person who can perceive objectives and align your tasks against those objectives. You are not a task drone. Capable managers dread managing task drones because they are time vampires and cannot participate in change without unleashing contagious anxiety germs into the team.)
3. Show that you read the job posting
This is basic. Don't say "this role" or "this position" in place of the job title. Don't say "Dear Sir/Madam" in place of the name of the hiring manager if it is something you can ascertain from the job posting or some simple detective work (i.e., Google). Don't say "your company" in place of the company in question. All of that shows that you have a generic letter/resume ready to send at the slightest opportunity. That's rude. It will only guarantee that you will not get an interview. Moreover:
4. Show that you thought about the job posting
Seriously. What is it that excites you about this role? Say it. This is what your cover letter is for. Is the job in an industry that is undergoing exciting change? If so: what is it, and why is it exciting? Is the job at an industry-leading company, or an underground boutique startup, or working with a particularly impressive team? Say so and explain why that appeals to you. By doing so, you demonstrate that you are thoughtful about the opportunity and your career, that you have the committment to do some research, and you allow your prospective employer to imagine how you might contribute to the team or the company. If your cover letter is all about you, and not at all about the position or the company or the industry, it's harder for a prospective manager to see how you might fit into the role.
5. Cut out all the top shit
We've all seen the resumes that open with 'Objective', 'Highlights', or 'Profile'. Please don't do that. Really. It's my #1 pet hate. I never, ever read it. Why? Because that isn't what I'm looking for in your resume. That's in your cover letter, where it exists in two or three sentences and doesn't convey the same bland set of meaningless qualities that everyone else touts. Maybe you are an "independent self-starter" or an "effective multitasker," but I'm afraid that these claims are going to be completely ignored because of their use by people who are emphatically not any of those things, usually don't realize it, but nonetheless claimed so at the top of their resume. If you genuinely do possess these qualities, I'm going to be able to infer them from the quickly summarized specific achievements in specific roles on your resume. If you led a set of specific process improvement initiatives with specific results in your last job, I'm going to know that you are an independent self-starter capable of working within and across teams with a results-orientated approach. Show, don't tell.
When I open a resume, I'm fairly quickly looking to get a sense of what you have done, not who you are. Your attitude, intelligence, and approach should all have come across (briefly!) in the cover letter. When I get to the resume, I really, really don't want to come across a trailer. Especially a boring one.
6. [Advanced tip] You know what? Instead, open with something like this:
If you insist upon a summary at the top of your resume, then summarize in a visually coherent manner your experience. Solve the resume problem that, as its reader, I face: trying to figure out what the hell all this stuff is, when you did it, for how long, and how has led us to the current situation.
Now, as you can see, I have a spectacularly complicated professional history because I changed my mind a number of times and it took me until very very recently to find a single job that united my interests in software and writing. For quite a while I was doing several things at once. But if I can assemble this incoherent professional history into a clean infographic (I did it in garden-variety spreadsheet software, by the way) then you probably can too. (If anyone is really interested, I'll post a how-to guide another time.)
7. Resist the temptation to design your resume
Clean and well-organized, please. Clean segregation of distinct jobs or periods in your career. Specific dates (months helps). Most people put working experience ahead of education so that the current/last job is at the top, but if you've only recently finished school, that's fine; by all means put education at the top. (If you use #6 you'll pretty much solve the problem.)
Above, all remember this: resumes have one design problem to solve. That design problem is:
- How should this information be best laid out in order to clearly and quickly communicate it?
It is not:
- What can I do to ensure that my resume stands out from everyone else's resume?
Why not? Remember #2: I'm likely looking for the first possible excuse to put your resume down and move onto the next one. A really really good excuse would be that in order to understand your resume I needed to reorient my entire understanding of visual hierarchy or design conventions. Your task here is to make me think less, not more. You want your resume to look like a job application, not a Futurist manifesto.
- Try not to use glaring colour schemes, background images, etc.
- Your resume should be no more than three colours.
- Two of those colours should be (1) black and (2) white.
- Clue: the pages should be white.
- A third colour may be used discreetly for accents (e.g. headings, dividing lines, etc).
The best-designed resume I have ever seen was put together by a young and talented intern who was applying for a full-time position. It looked something like this:
See how clear that is?
- How should this information be best laid out in order to clearly and quickly communicate it?
Here's a rule of thumb:
If you are a design professional and you are applying for a design job, by all means spend a great deal of time thinking about the design of your resume. If you are not, avoid anything that might risk abominable personal branding exercises, clip art, and idiosyncratic attempts to reinvent our collective perception of time.
8. Send a single attachment
Oh, and that reminds me: I rather like the single-document pdf attachment. So you're including one file with your email (your email, by the way, should be a single sentence, something like "please find attached materials to support my application for the role of Web Analytics Specialist at Steamworks Analytics"). This attachment is a pdf; the first page is your cover letter (properly laid out) and the second (and maybe third) pages are your resume. This single document is wonderful because I can print it easily and quickly for myself or anyone else; pdf has the additional advantage of preserving your resume's coherent (see #7) layout and means it will display consistently on my laptop, phone, or wherever else I'm trying to open it.
9. Read the instructions
It the job posting asks you to include links that showcase your work, include links that showcase your work. Your best work. Ideally recently. If you don't have recent pertinent work: should you really be applying for this job? If it's a job that involves writing copy, you should probably be able to demonstrate that you can write copy, even if your current gig isn't writing copy.
10. Use a professional email address
When I say we end up looking for any reason to reject an application – see #2, above – this includes an email address like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Please.