The single biggest mistake job applicants are making this week

I have previously, some have said flippantly, “advised” previously how NOT to get the job you want and how NOT to recruit the best applicant. Most recently, whilst reviewing applicants for roles we are currently recruiting for, from truck driver/ mechanic through to divisional manager, one thing struck me as common to most of their applications: Nearly all include the same mistake.

OK, I’m absolutely fine that different people have different styles, and that, say, someone who works with his or her hands will probably not be as good at putting together a great application as someone who works in an office, if perhaps for no other reason than time spent writing. I’m also totally happy that people who have stable work histories might not be as good at putting applications together as those that change jobs regularly – I’d rather a stable work history to smooth words any day. These things are not problems.

Before we get to the big one, while reminded of things I‘ve seen in the past week, if you would like to create a first impression of sincerity, trustworthiness, competence and professionalism, here’s some of the little stuff again. Remember, these are random things that have come from just one week of applications:

  • Do NOT address your application to the wrong person – or the wrong company (you’d be amazed just how often this happened, and most commonly for the most senior role!).
  • DO use capital letters in the appropriate places (eg, start of sentences, names etc).
  • DO use punctuation in the appropriate places. Or give it a shot at least.
  • Do NOT use “comic sans” font. Or allow your CV to aimlessly overflow from page to page without structure. Someone might form the impression that you, too, flow from one thing to another without purpose or structure.
  • Do NOT provide so little information that the recruiter can’t do anything with your application – leave mysteries to Agatha Christie et al.
  • Do NOT provide so much information that the recruiter cannot quickly gain an understanding of your qualities and merit. They get bored and confused easily. (Also, unless you’re new to the workforce, perhaps leave off certificate 1 level training for anything – it’s not much to boast about, really. And avoid listing all the 3 hour training courses that only get you a “certificate of attendance”. I attended a cooking demonstration by Gordon Ramsay once, but I can’t, in all honestly, say that I’m a chef because of it. Vegemite on toast is still my limit. Mind you, my swearing has improved…)
  • Do NOT leave unexplained blanks or double-ups in your employment history or just send through a CV that is out of date, unless of course “poor attention to detail” is a job requirement.
  • Do NOT fiddle the truth about what you can do or how brilliant you were at a role and why (or how) you left, often being completely someone else’s fault – the truth will probably come out and, quite understandably, you’ll appear to be dishonest. Because you were. (One appointment I am really happy with was where a client chose to employ a young person who, through the course of her interview, disclosed that she had been sacked from her previous role. With a little encouragement, she explained quite honestly, from her perspective, what happened and accepted the employer’s decision. She was ashamed of her mistake and clearly didn’t want to go through that experience again. Her previous employer confirmed her story. She is now a hard-working, happy, respected employee with a promising future.)
  • Do NOT only go outside of the official application process, as it might indicate that you do not follow instructions. However, once you have followed the process feel free to follow up, professionally and courteously, if you wish, as that demonstrates sincerity and perseverance, also helping you to stand out.
  • DO pay a lot of attention to your CV, as (too often) recruiters will make initial short-listing choices based only on that without ever getting the chance to find out just how great you really are. If you’re not sure, get professional help putting it together. Same for your LinkedIn profile.
  • DO offer recent, relevant professional references from managers and peers who are not your fishing buddies, even if they’re not going to glow. I don’t feel great about references that are unbelievably good. I find them to be unbelievable. Again, it’s the credibility thing.
  • Do NOT go quiet if I ask you a question about your biggest professional mistake. Similarly, don’t claim you’ve never made one or blame others for it. I actually don’t much care about the mistake, but I do care about your openness, honesty and sense of responsibility.
  • Do NOT simultaneously apply for two or more quite different roles with the same employer/ recruiter. Someone might get the impression that you don’t know where your strengths lie (or if you have any) or what you want, or perhaps that you‘re just looking for any old job.
  • Do NOT present yourself as a specialist at everything, because you’re not. You‘re probably very good at some things, so settle for making the most of them. Better to be remembered for being something than ignored for being nothing.
  • As a starting point, a prospective employer does NOT care that you want to emigrate. The selection criteria or indeed the KPIs for the role rarely include emigration. This is not about offering sponsorships. In fact, emigration is a complication that is often traumatic and unsuccessful for the family involved. If you can show that you are brilliant, and can do the job better than anyone else, and that somehow we can all feel comfortable that this will be a successful long-term appointment that works out really well all-round, then, and only then, if it’s a legal and practical possibility, let’s talk about how emigration is likely to be great for you and your family.

But by far the biggest mistake is in making their application all about themselves, with very little direct reference to the employer’s needs. EG: “I am a xx with yy years of experience in zz (generic industry category) specialising in aa, bb, cc, dd, ee, ff, and gg and I am expert in all of them achieving jj and kk (apparently all by oneself).” Guess what – many other people have done and can do great stuff too. Not as great as the things you have done and are still yet to do, obviously, but still, pretty good. You’re not standing out.

From their perspective, the role is firstly about what an employer needs, not what you want. Of course, any decent employer will want to learn about what you need and help you get what you want as far as that is possible, but that’s secondary to what you can do for the employer. It’s not about you, it’s about them. More accurately, it’s about what you can do for them that they actually care about. You supervised an oil-drilling project? That’s great but, in itself, not much help if you’re applying to be a librarian.

Most job advertisements and company websites give out plenty of information which you can address in your application, and this doesn’t have to be difficult and time consuming – you’re going to write a cover letter anyway so why not make it a good one? EG: “I am a xx with yy years of experience in zz (directly applicable industry) specialising in aa and bb (directly applicable skillset). Specifically, I feel my experience/knowledge in jj and kk, where with my team/as a team member we achieved pp and qq (directly addresses the most vital of the role’s requirements within its organisational context, shows achievement, humility and ability to work in a team, cites example/s) should place me well to achieve the outcomes you require”. This is easy stuff – just a couple of sentences on a cover letter. (Applicants may benefit from editing their CV a little too, de-emphasising things that are less relevant and perhaps adding a little more about things that are more relevant, but that almost never happens because it might take fifteen minutes and no job opportunity is worth that…)

In this way, in the last week two applicants (over three roles, two of which involved customer interaction and/or leadership) elevated themselves above all others, despite superficially less impressive CVs. They demonstrated that they paid attention, that they were thoughtful, that they could read and that they valued the employer’s needs. They demonstrated leadership and/or selflessness and/or teamwork. Their spelling and grammar was good and they got their message across concisely and effectively. It might also reasonably be inferred that they are likely to have a good customer focus (a role requirement) and good attention to detail (another role requirement). I would like to know a bit (meaning quite a lot) about deeply held values, motivations and practiced behaviours too, but there will be plenty of time for that in their interviews – remember, the primary purpose of the application is, without misleading or deceiving, to get an interview.

Yes, there is certainly a time to think about what’s in it for you, and whether the employer and the role are likely to be a good fit for you. And CVs and cover letters are definitely about selling yourself. But selling is not about shoving something down someone else’s throat – it’s about understanding and addressing needs. Do that by as briefly as possible:

  • Showing that you understand the business’s priorities and the needs of the role;
  • Showing that you have the solution or are a part of the solution;
  • Showing that working with others, to whatever extent is desirable and true, is not only something that you can do, but is a part of what you routinely do;
  • Showing that you care; and
  • Showing that you can be relied upon (which includes being open and honest);

If there’s a role you really want and really can do, this is a very solid, and actually quite easy, way to give yourself the best possible starting chance.