An Inside Scoop on Getting Hired
By A.D. Freudenheim  

8 November 2003

Last year, when the firm for which I work was looking to hire one or two entry-level people, I wrote about my frustrations with the recruiting process, and particularly with the lackadaisical attitudes of young, post-college job seekers. Almost 18 months later, we are hiring again, at a time when the job market is, by all accounts, not great. We therefore had reason to hope that unlike last summer’s experience, the people applying for jobs now would be doing their very best to make a good impression. Alas, those hopes look like folly.

Therefore, it seemed like it might be useful to provide a few pointers on how to apply for a position, specifically for those folks in their early-twenties who are just breaking into the job market – pointers direct from someone who has reviewed more than 100 applications in the last two weeks, and plenty more beyond that. Here are the 11 top items that catch my eye – and turn me off.

1. Finding ways to distinguish yourself is crucial if you are going to get the job you want. Sometimes, however, making yourself noticeable is less about being goofy or eye-catching than about making an impression as a very solid, smart job seeker who knows how to match his or her skills to an open position. So, while it may seem obvious, the very first thing you need to do is read the job description carefully and only apply for jobs you want. If you don’t want the job, don’t waste my time or yours. If you’re not sure if you want the job, then ask for more information about it before applying. Few things are worse than reviewing an application from someone who seems to have no real interest in the open job.

2. Once you have decided you do want the job in question, make that clear; a good way to start is to follow the directions provided. If the job description says include a cover letter explaining your interest in the position, I will expect to see a cover letter doing just that. If you send a resume with no cover letter, or with a two-line cover letter that says about as much as “I am interested in the position, please call me to set up an interview” ... you are unlikely to receive that call. (And, just in case this is not clear to you already: without an interview you will not get hired.) Your cover letter does not have to be term paper length; two paragraphs will do. But you must make a case for yourself, explaining why the job interests you and addressing elements noted in the job description (or elsewhere in the firm’s materials), and matching our activities with your own skills or interests. Probably, you should send such a cover letter even if the job description does not specifically suggest it.

3. Also, if the job description recommends that you do something specific – e.g., look at the firm’s web site before applying – there is probably a good reason for this. The web site may have details that will help you decide whether you want the job, or give you more information about the business. However, it might also help you in other ways: through the web site you might find that someone you once knew works at the firm; that you went to the same college as one of our employees; or even that one of our clients is a former employer of yours. Knowledge is power, and all of these things could help you submit a stronger application. There may also be more banal, detail-oriented reasons. For instance, the contact name for your application may be androgynous or ambiguous, like “A.D. Freudenheim”; how will you know whether to put “Mr. Freudenheim” or “Ms. Freudenheim” on your cover letter? The web site may have information about “A.D. Freudenheim,” and give you the answer. Submitting an application to the right person with the right salutation will make you look smart; submitting an application to “Mr. or Ms. Freudenheim” will not. (Trust me on this.)

4. Adding an “Objective” section to one’s resume is very of-the-moment, but it does not send the message you may think. Based on my experience, applicants seem to believe that a resume “Objective” says “I know what I want.” On the employer’s side, however, it only looks ridiculous; isn’t the applicant’s objective to get the job, period? Tweaking your “Objective” to reflect the specifics of a job as advertised only makes you look silly; after all, if you don’t want the job as advertised, then why apply? Adding the firm’s name to an “Objective” is even worse (e.g., “Objective: to obtain a position with Smith & Jones Associates.”). It does not send a message of strong intent, it suggests that you are a suck-up. Again: you applied for job with my firm. If getting the job is not your objective, then why are you wasting my time?

5. Likewise, you do not need a “Summary” or “Profile” section on your resume, especially if you are in your twenties and your resume still fits on one page. We are hiring you; we can look at your resume and make assessments of your skills, experiences, and qualifications. And do not worry, we will. Your “Summary” section will not help us, it just takes up space on the page and makes you look silly and pretentious.

6. On the technology front, we will expect you to know how to use a word processor, a web browser, and an e-mail program – at a minimum. (This is particularly true if you are in your twenties and grew up with personal computers and the internet.) Therefore, if you have any of the following listed as “skills,” “technical skills,” “computer skills,” or some variant thereof, you are hereby strongly encouraged to change it: internet; internet research; Google; Google research; web browsing; web research; Netscape; Internet Explorer; e-mail; Outlook; Eudora; Lotus; Lotus Notes; Word; Microsoft Word; Excel; Microsoft Excel; PowerPoint; Office; Microsoft Office; or Word Perfect.

This is an abbreviated list – but, sadly, every one of these has appeared on some resume that has come across my desk in recent weeks. I have some bad news for you job hunters: I mean it when I say that we expect you to know how to use these programs. If you are applying for a white-collar, “professional” job then these are not “skills” any more than knowing how to read and write would be considered talents. Take them off your resume; all they do is draw attention to the fact that you are missing (computer) skills that distinguish you from the pack. What skills might those be? The ability to do something that not everyone applying for the job might be capable of, or to use specialized software applications, e.g., Adobe PhotoShop or other image creation/management software; sophisticated web design programs like DreamWeaver or create embedded web functions like Macromedia Flash; and crucial database skills in programs or languages like SQL or Microsoft Access.

If you can’t quite let go of the idea of saying something about your basic computer skills, then put it in that context: “Fluent knowledge of all standard office computing applications” would get your point across nicely. If we use something out-of-the-ordinary, then we will ask you if you know how to use it; and if we hire you, we will train you in how to use this software if you don’t already know.

7. Travel. Ah, travel! We like to hire people who have seen a bit of the world, particularly since many of our clients and projects have international elements to them. But ... your travel experiences should not look like they were for spring break during college, and should preferably include countries that are foreign in more than just name. Canada? Not a great “foreign” travel experience, unless you went trekking to some part of the country must of us have likely never seen ourselves. Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Australia, the Seychelles – places like that are fascinating, but make an effort to show us why it is relevant to your understanding of the world, and not just to your ability to drink Corona or scuba dive around a coral reef.

8. Occasionally, we get name droppers. There is value in name dropping, to be sure – but only if you drop the right names! Sending us a cover letter with improbable names (or references) in the fields of fashion, movies, or politics likely won't help you. If you want to list people like Bill Clinton, Ralph Lauren, or Warren Beatty as references or a means to get in the door, you need to: a) make sure that these are names that will resonate with us; b) make damn sure that they can actually say something specific about you and your work abilities; and c) do not include generic letters-of-reference from these people with your application. Photocopying a “To Whom It May Concern” letter will hurt your chances, not help them. I check references, I will check yours, and I will want to speak directly with the person you list, regardless of their social status.

9. If you do come in for an interview, be prepared for it. Interviews are as much for your benefit as ours. You have submitted an application, which means you should be interested in the job, and know a little bit about both the job and firm. That should not be the end of the line. Ask questions! Express interest! Make conversation! We are not looking to hire a robot; we want a colleague, someone with whom we will feel comfortable working, and someone we think will be good for the job. Show us why that person is you! It is acceptable to be nervous, but don’t let your nervousness get in the way of finding out whether you want the job or like the people for whom you might work.

10. Post-interview, always send a thank-you note - one to each of the people with whom you have met. These notes should be specific and detailed about your interview discussions, showing that you can recall something of the conversation – and if you remain interested in the job, then the note should reiterate that interest. Can these thank you notes be e-mailed? Well, yes. But putting something on paper and into the mail is preferable; it shows you made an effort beyond the easy option of e-mailing. Not sending a thank you at all sends a message of disinterest – and at my firm more than a few people have performed very well in interviews only to be dropped from the process because they never sent a thank-you note.

11. Lastly, back to the beginning, and to the central point from my column last year: when applying, you have to want the job, you should be honest in saying so, and you should approach us (your potential employer) with a demeanor that makes this clear. If you do not express excitement or interest in the application you submit and in person, that lack of enthusiasm will show.

All of which means what, exactly? You guessed it. Your lack of enthusiasm – along with a failure to address the other pitfalls listed above – will stop us dead in our tracks, and that will be that. Back to the classifieds for you.

A 2004 Update: the CBS News article on The Echo Boomers, taken from a 60 Minutes story in October 2004, seems to be speaking particularly to this generation of job applicants. Well worth reading.   Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.