Hi, I’m Josh Symonds

I blog about Ruby on Rails, coding, and servers

How Not to Apply for a Job

Reading time 4 minutes

I’ve been looking about two weeks now for a really fantastic designer for GirlsGuideTo – a designer that’s as fabulous as the site itself. Somewhat surprisingly, given how many people are unemployed or underemployed, my search has been really difficult. And not because of a dearth of responses: in fact, quite the opposite. I estimate I’ve received more than a hundred resumes in response to Craigslist postings, LinkedIn listings, and advertising in Dribbbble. And most surprising to me is the fact that the vast majority of these responses just aren’t very good.

I’m sure that many of these resumes and coverletters come from experienced, seasoned professionals with a genuine and burning desire to be paid – a desire that is equally matched by my hunger to pay them for the amazing work they can do. But frankly, you wouldn’t know it from reading their letters. 99.9% of them are just… bad. So, I’ve taken the time to distill the mountain of resumes in my inbox into three succinct lessons. If you’re going to apply for a job, please take them to heart before writing your potential employer. Not only will you increase the chances you’ll actually be hired, but they will definitely thank you for breaking the tide of mediocrity that is surely washing over them. If you’re the one to stand out, believe me… you’ll get noticed.

Don’t Copy and Paste

Easily the most common mistake I see – the one that is most likely to make me entirely skip a candidate – is that the cover letter is copied and pasted. It either doesn’t include my company name (GirlsGuideTo is somewhat distinctive), or even more embarrassing, is addressed to a different company’s name. I can always tell when I’m reading a copy/pasted letter. It’s generic and boring; it enumerates talents and skills that I have no need for and didn’t include in my job listing.

I took the time to hand-craft the job posting you read. I know you’re probably applying to lots of jobs, and I sympathize that being without work – or trying to find a new job – is arduous and unpleasant. But if you want to be seriously considered, you must include three things in your cover letter:

  1. The name of the company you’re applying to,
  2. The position in the company you’re applying for,
  3. Why your skills make you a perfect fit for that position.

The third one is obviously the most complicated but also the most necessary. The degree to which you customize your cover letter for the target job will be directly proportional to the number of people that respond positively to it. Believe me, I can tell which people actually wrote even a few choice words actually responding to my listing.

They are the ones that I will write back.

Don’t Make Me Find You

If you’re an Internet professional – web designer, programmer, usability expert, whatever – you must have an online presence. It can be as simple as your LinkedIn profile, but ideally should be a portfolio, with your own personalized URL, summarizing the work you’ve done, hopefully with lots of links and (even better) pictures. You should link to this summary of you in your cover letter. Be proud of it; include it in the first or second sentence. Say something like, “You can find my resume, and my portfolio, online at http://myattractivenamehere.com. But the parts that are most directly pertinent to you are…” And then go on to list the jobs that you’ve done that make you perfect for me!

Don’t include a list of twenty links in your coverletter, saying they’re you’re work. If I’m feeling gracious I might click on the first two. Chances are they won’t be what I’m looking for, and then I’ll consign your resume to the dustbin of defeat. (This outcome might have been averted if you had twenty thumbnails I could quickly glance over on your portfolio, though.)

And for Heaven’s sake include some kind of link to yourself! Anything at all works. If you’re really an Internet professional and not just some high school student – or even if you ARE a high school student – you should have an online presence somewhere. If you don’t include links in your resume or your cover letter, the chances of me Googling you to find them are absolutely zero. As are the chances of you landing this job.

Don’t Make Me Read Your Resume

This is a harsh truth, but one I’ve heard again and again from people who have to make hiring decisions:

We don’t read resumes unless we’ve already decided we’re interested in a candidate.

Your cover letter is going to be your one and only chance to sell yourself. Go all out. If you have skills that you feel are directly applicable to the position, mention them in the cover letter, and then explain why those skills make you suited for the work. Your previous experiences that give you unique and valuable insight into the job should be front and center, in the letter itself.

And most likely, the second place I go, after reading your cover letter, won’t be your resume either. It’ll be your online presence, either your portfolio or sample sites you’ve linked me to. I’ll only open your resume after I’ve already decided you’re most likely a good fit – and to be honest, I probably won’t read it very closely anyway, since by that point I’ve already made a decision.

I know this seems unfair. You might be perfect for me; your resume even lists your numerous and varied accomplishments that make you my ideal match. But your competitor, with a very similar set of experiences, actually told me her accomplishments in her first paragraph. She drew my attention right to them – I didn’t even have to look in her resume to start being impressed by her. When I open her portfolio, I’ll see that she’s right. She is perfect for me. And then she goes on the shortlist, and you and your perfect resume are skipped over, unopened.

What I’m really trying to say with this small list of “don’ts” is very simply this: don’t get lost in the crowd. I don’t care if the designer we end up choosing is a guy or girl, Chicagoan or San Franciscoan, experienced or freshly graduated. (Also it’s illegal for me to care, but that’s beside the point.) All that really matters to me is that they’re good; and more than being good, they’re not afraid to say, “I’m perfect for you, and here’s why.”

And, honestly, that’s all that matters to any prospective employer from their applicants. If you really want to be hired, then you’ll have to show that you respect the time and energy they’ve invested in conducting a search for someone like you. Write plainly and to impress – cram your cover letter with customized material, responding directly to the job posting. Include links early and often to your online presence. And fill your letter with proof after repeated proof that you are the ideal match they’ve been searching for.

Do all that, and you’ll get a response to each and every one of your applications. And, hopefully, most of those responses will be positive.

Josh Symonds performs devops and server wrangling on cloud-scale infrastructures, deploys amazing web applications with Ruby on Rails, and creates awesome iOS apps with Objective-C and RubyMotion. He is founder and CTO of Symonds & Son, a development shop focused on quality and excellence.

Josh Symonds