You've sent out thirty applications. You haven't heard back anything from one half, and the other half have responded with a disappointing "I regret to inform you that..." What am I doing wrong?
Or alternatively, it's a game you haven't stepped foot into and you're downloading sample resumes online. Where do I even start?
If either of these scenarios describe you, this is the guide to help you nail your next job application. Before we get into anything, it's important to reframe the job application process.
Why businesses hire
When a business' pre-existing labour resources can't afford to achieve business outcomes they need to find talent to help solve their problems. For example:
A business isn't growing fast enough? Hire a Marketer or Social Media Manager.
A business wants to quickly launch their new software? Hire another Software Developer.
The business needs to improve their relationships with their customers? Hire a Customer Success Manager.
A job opening exists because a business has a problem. The classic hiring process of resume, cover letter, and interview only exists to measure an applicant's ability to solve their business problems. Instead of asking "How can I get hired?" ask "How can I prove to them I can solve their business problem? With the latter, you're being more intentional.
Why networking works
Have you ever asked a friend for good places to eat? Or have you searched up ratings on a book or movie? Chances are you've asked someone before for a recommendation. 92% of people are more likely to trust the recommendations of peers over anything else whenever buying something.
Likewise, before a job opening has even been made, organisations fill up the role by hiring internally or hiring someone that's been recommended for the job. It's faster, cheaper, trustworthy and saves them the hassle of sifting through strangers.
After my first job, every job I've been offered has been by someone I knew personally, rather than through submitting an application. Because 85% of all jobs are filled by networking.
Meeting their business need
But maybe your mum's second cousin, three times removed isn't the head of Westpac or anything and you don't know anyone else that well. If that's the case, that might be a gentle nudge to reach out to people to create opportunities.
Then it's about how you can stand out the most in the application process. i.e. Prove you're best able to solve their problems.
When a business is hiring, they will typically be looking for these four pillars:
- Past experience
- Soft skills
- Culture fit
These underpin what constitutes a person competent to solve their business's problem. Each business will value certain aspects more than others, so look carefully at a job description and take note of what is valued more.
Below are two different job descriptions for the exact same role at two different companies. Take note of the language of each.
In the first example, we can see that this company values soft skills and culture fit far more than experience or background. Compared to the second example where experience trumps all.
Through addressing these listed criteria, we can show to them that at the bare minimum we can solve their problems. For your next job application, brainstorm how you meet the pillars and align it with what they are looking for in an individual. In the case of the first job opening example, we could brainstorm something like this:
What if I don't fit all the criteria?
Most smart, ambitious job seekers are held back by a mistaken perception in the hiring process. A dirty little secret of hiring managers is that job descriptions are more like wish lists than set-in-stone requirements. Even if you don't fit every "requirement" a recruiter puts out there, if you can prove you fit the non-negotiables, that can be all it takes. In my journey to Canva, I didn't have years of experience under my belt. Yet, I was able to bypass those requirements by emphasising my culture fit and soft skills. Canva heavily emphasised their values as non-negotiable––even to the extent of guiding their organisational decisions. So I dedicated an entire section on my portfolio to living through their values to speak in their language.
Speak in their language
In the same vein that you wouldn't write the same birthday message word for word for a friend, you shouldn't send the same resume and cover letter to every company. This kind of "spray and pray" approach can run into the risk of sounding cheap and generic.
By taking the extra step to research into the company's mission, their values, programs they've run in the past or past alumni that interest you, and mentioning it in your application can go the extra mile in your application results.
Lean into the why
Simon Sinek's widely proclaimed book, Start With Why underscores that "people don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it". Writing your why and tying it with a company's mission can make you seem tremendously more genuine.
Compare the two sample extracts from a cover letter for the same job opening.
"While completing my studies I worked part-time as an Associate Editor for my university newspaper. My responsibilities in this role included weekly assignments and reviewing editorial from peers. This position has given me key employability skills while also allowing me to experience copywriting and having attention to detail while working in a professional with demanding deadlines."
"Having an artistic background and being heavily engaged in theatre sports from a young age, I have a keen interest in the role of Copywriter for RISING Melbourne. In this role, I would be emphatic to contribute to the festival's brand storytelling and engagement with the community and culture. From my previous involvement as an Associate Editor for my university's newspaper, I have meticulous attention to detail to ensure that in weekly articles nothing to even spelling errors goes to print. I am confident I can achieve project deadlines from experience juggling editorial writing with coursework."
These are both in response to the first job opening we saw in the above section. The improvement example #2 makes on example #1, is less generic because it:
- Engages with the company's purpose and links it to the applicant's interest in the role (their why)
- Uses key language and non-negotiable phrases from the job requirements
- Refers to specifics on the company (e.g. the fact that the festival curator is Hannah Fox) which shows research
By writing in a company's language desist to be generic.
Make grand gestures
Gestures are everything. When you go out of your way and show or do something for the company you're applying for, you stand out. Similar to when you buy flowers or chocolates for a friend or partner out of the blue, you make the other person feel special. People like feeling special.
Making a gesture goes a step above speaking their language in an application because you're going above and beyond and showing the company that unconditionally you are willing to physically engage with them and/or put in the work. You seal the deal and become someone memorable.
Examples of gestures can include:
- Organising coffee dates with people in the company
- Engaging with the company's LinkedIn (i.e. liking/commenting on their posts)
- Going to events run by the organisation
- Specialising your portfolio to the specific company you're applying for
- Shooting a video on why you would be a successful candidate
The benefits of these gestures are two-fold: 1. You show an interest in the company which they take note of and 2. You personalise yourself and your application and demonstrate a strength in soft skills by going out of your way to make these gestures. Not only do you talk the talk, you show you can walk the walk.
As an example of a gesture you may not hear about in "real-life," a person I met landed a role as a Social Media Marketer at Riot Games––a large gaming company. She loves gaming and knew she had to work at that company, but knew nothing about social media marketing. When she sent through the initial job application, for 2-weeks––No response. Deciding to take action into her own hands, she read tonnes of Gary Vaynerchuck to become a social media guru and analysed the company's social media strategy. Knowing that key individuals in the company would be at an upcoming gaming conference, she presented a 20-page strategy on how to fix their strategy and got hired on the spot.
If you're still unconvinced that gestures work? Check out this video on how this guy landed a job at Vox.
The grander the gesture, the more you impress them, the more you stand out.
When applying for jobs, internships, etc. it's easy to run with the spray and pray approach and apply for every job within a 30 km radius... at the risk of becoming forgettable.
The far more successful approach is becoming memorable in front of a few organisations. So before you jump into shooting off your next resume, brainstorm:
- What are 5 organisations or roles you want to apply for and what about them interests me?
- What are their biggest pain points or problems? What type of people are they looking for?
- Who are 5 people I could meet up with to be closer to the organisation?
- What unique skills, characteristics or traits can I offer them to solve these pain points?
- What is a gesture I can make to each of them to become memorable?
Most of the time when we apply for jobs, we believe that 100% of our job outcome is dictated by how well our resume and interview is taken and whether the employer likes us. It seems like a linear process from sending the application to completing the interview.
But there are many ways we can have more control over that final decision through a bit of creativity.