12 ways to get noticed in that stack of applications

Recently I got my first opportunity to hire people. It was eye-opening to see how many people submitted poorly prepared applications. If you are struggling to get called back for a job, following these simple tips will move you to the top of the stack.

checkRead the job ad first

Look for clues about what type of person they are really after. Not all positions for accountants, coders, or sales reps match mental image of them. A sales rep that worked in the pharmaceutical industry might be a perfect fit or a total mismatch for the job. If you’re a perfect match, say so and give your reasons. If you’re not a match, stop. stopnow Don’t apply. Look for another job.

checkStudy the company/organization and its people

Look at the organization’s website. Read the “About Us” page, and scan the faces and bios of people who already work there. If you studied the ad, you probably can guess who is going to review your application. Write with that specific reader in mind.

Write in the active voice. Make “I” the subject of your sentences, but describe this company as you understand it. A job ad is a dating profile; so write like you’re asking someone out for a date.

Also look at GlassDoor and news reports about the company. Just like you would before any date, know who you might end up in bed with. If you’re not more in love with them afterwards, stop. stopnow Look for another job.

checkBe personable and build rapport

If you are given a person’s name in the job announcement, use it! Don’t write “Dear HR department” or “To whom it may concern…” because you should already know to whom it concerns if you did your homework.

e-Stalk the person with whom you are corresponding. Include details that show you did some research in your cover letter. Build rapport. Write like this is your first and not the 41st application you’ve filled out this month, even if it is. Never submit a template response to a job ad. I guarantee it will go unnoticed.

Of the roughly 75 applications I read, only one person bothered to look me up on idealist, or google me to find this blog and refer to it.

checkMirror the tone of the job announcement

Unless you’re applying for a job in some dreary giant mega corporation where Human Resources writes the job ad (why would you do that?), the person doing the hiring has carefully described what he/she wants in the ad. Use a trick from the Secret Life of Pronouns called language mirroring to hone your introduction letter, grab attention, and connect. Readers identify emotionally with people who write and speak like they do. This won’t get you the job, but it does get you past the first “filter” in the hiring process.

Also mirror the jargon and framing of this job. While hiring for a “Communications Director,” I was amazed how many people applied to be my “Marketing Manager.” Anyone reading 75 applications is looking for certain words and phrases that stand out as relevant. In my job ad, I was clear that we wanted someone who could think about communications with a Learn Startup mindset, and who had experience in both non-profit and for-profit experience. Know how many people were capable of connecting these three things together in the letter? Practically none. One of those who did this had little experience doing communications at all, but I interviewed him/her because this insightful above average listener intrigued me.

checkSay something unique about the company

What do they stand for? What do they struggle with? Show that you’ve read about them and can imagine how you would fit. If you cannot imagine what role you’d play there, then stop. stopnow  Don’t apply. You don’t belong there. 

Employees that deliver value to an organization can always describe the value they offer.

checkFix your own online presence

Is your linkedin page up to date? Do you even have one? If you do, did you connect with anyone there? An empty profile is worse than none at all.

What do people see when they google you? Don’t worry about Facebook – employers won’t check that if you have a solid linkedin page.

I’ll sometimes google a person and the word “fraud” after, just to see what comes up. I just did that for myself, and found that the third link is my philosophy about the perfect job (by coincidence). So I pass the test. Do you?

If you do nothing as a hobby, and have never done anything outside of work that would get someone’s attention, then go get a life whilst you try to get a job. You’ll be a better employee if you have a work/life balance, I promise. If all you want to do in your spare time is farm grubs, be the best damn grub farmer on the Internet. Make sure googling your name reveals something intriguing and attractive.

It turns out one of the people I hired noticed that we had both been NaNoWriMo municipal liaisonsInstantly there was rapport, which further enhanced her already well-written letter. Then I e-stalked her and found no record of her work on NaNoWriMo to match her claims. She quickly fixed it and explained the discrepancy. When you opened the door by mentioning something, be prepared for people like me to step in and look around.

All these examples offer the same lesson: Worry less about your CV, and more about the way you introduce your application – that’s where you’re probably getting triaged.

checkLearn to write!

Your prose doesn’t need suspenders and a bow tie, but it does require a shirt and shoes. Don’t introduce yourself like this actual intro letter did (edited for length):

Hi Marc…   I found your ad on a job board that looked different most of the others out there.  A career that involves creative marketing campaigns and captivating content.  I’m very much want to play an active role in all aspect of identity infusion in a market sector.  I do video, photo, writing…not all in that order.

Those ellipses were the author’s, as are the omitted words, the fragments, the subject-verb disagreements, and the generally incomprehensible pseudo-jargon. But fear not, this person has a college degree and is the author of at least one book! Such sloppy writing is inexcusable! Yet it is this person’s core expertise.

You, my friend, can do better than this person!

Interesting side note: As a group, my “Intrepid Wild Data Scientists” were much clearer communicators (and more succinct) than the communications experts. Data Science requires a higher proficiency in clear, succinct communication than “Communications” does.

checkEmphasize relevant experience over education

I have a PhD in Neuroscience. In practice, having a PhD only means one thing: I know how to find answers to complex problems, and how to I finish what I start. Other than that, advanced degrees are no more a predictor of future job success than forks a solution for global hunger. (Sorry, but the corporate education-industrial complex has been selling false promises lately.)

So instead of thinking that your college courses are what people care about in a CV, move up your relevant experience. I tend to look at the education as an afterthought, after I’ve answered the more important questions of (1) what are they doing currently and (2) why are they looking for a job?

checkEmphasize your strengths with formatting

If you have the luxury of replying to a job ad by email, use proper formatting with bold, bullets, paragraphs with headings, and possibly underline or italic. A little formatting goes a long way, and draws the eye to your core value in pithy phrases that will remain with the reader. Of course you’ll format your cover letter, but it doesn’t hurt to format your email too.

checkProve you want to stick around

Nobody wants to spend 40 hours searching for a hire that leaves in a year. Nonprofits have a typical staff turnover of 18 months. If they could retain employees for 36 months, they’d cut their admin overhead by 40%! So any organization worth its salt looks at applicants and prioritizes those who look like their career goals are aligned with the organization’s role for them.

checkHave a career goal

If you want to be a social worker, say so. But then don’t apply for a data scientist job. And if you’ve never done anything relevant, look into an internship, not a job. I will give interns a chance if they can prove they start what they finish, but for a job, I expect to hire someone with relevant skills.

You don’t need to have all the skills to get the job, but you need to demonstrate that you can learn what you don’t know. Moreover, articulate how taking this job will be one step forward in your blossoming career, if you currently lack some of these skills.

checkBe passionate and be yourself

I must have passed on countless job applications that met the basic job requirements but left me without any sense of what motivates that person. Picking people for jobs is all about matching their passions with the needs of an organization. If you apply and give them nothing that stands out, you’ll remain in the middle of the pile, unless they’re truly desperate.


The corporate HR system is broken, as far as job hiring is concerned. HR posts generic job ads and expects their words to attract perfect one-of-a-kind people. Nobody ever feels like HR helps them get a job. As a new manager, I was shocked when HR suggested that I require 7 years of experience for my data scientist position, when the field has only existed by name for 5 years! Rigid HR policies are the reason so many jobs remain unfilled.

Well, that, and the fact that so few people are able to write anymore.

Your formula for getting a job needs to be (a) meet the minimum HR requirements, (b) focus on writing well, so that your unique self gets noticed, and (c) apply to the places where you have a good sense of how you would fit in.

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