Last week I got a note from a reader, asking me for advice about how to elicit a response to her online job applications. “With the technology age upon us, I have been actively applying to employment opportunities on numerous websites,” she wrote. “My problem is that I am not getting any type of feedback.” She estimated she had pursued 100 openings in the last year, and received only two responses. Neither had led to a new job. This job seeker wanted my advice about sprucing up her online applications and in particular, how she could get employers to reply to her queries.
I talked to three of my regular career coach sources, Robert Hellmann and Anita Attridge in New York, and David Couper in Los Angeles, and all of them say that two responses to 100 online applications is in fact a strong showing, given the competition.
Couper is the most blunt. “I tell my clients that they’re wasting their time applying online,” he says. “To me you’ve left it too late,” he says. “Once it’s online, millions of other people have seen it.” Often, he says, online job postings are just a way for hiring managers to claim they’ve looked at lots of applicants when, in fact, they have already decided in advance on an internal hire. Other times, a job is posted and then a budget cut ensues and the position is eliminated before it’s been filled.
Hellmann and Attridge are slightly less pessimistic than Couper, and both say they have had clients who landed jobs by applying online. Attridge says the more specific your skill set is and the more closely it’s matched to the online ad, the greater chance you have of success. Within the last six months, a client of Attridge’s, a technical director in information technology, answered an ad that listed the precise skills that he had under his belt. After an initial phone screening, he went for an interview and wound up getting hired. If you’re not a strong match for the listing, Attrdige says, it may not be worth your time to apply.
Hellmann agrees with Couper and Attridge that most online applications are more trouble than they’re worth, but he has come up with some tips for filling them out efficiently. “Think about the application as a bureaucratic formality,” he advises. “It’s a one-size-fits-all form that has every possible thing on it,” he says. You don’t need to write detailed answers to every question.
In fact, there are a number of queries you should not answer. One is about salary. Many forms won’t let you complete them if you leave spaces blank. Hellmann advises putting in $1, $10 or $100, “anything to show you’re not listing your real salary.” Hellmann insists it’s not fair to discuss compensation before you’ve had a real job interview. Likewise, if there is a question about the name of your current boss, do not fill it in. Write, “to be discussed.” Or if you’re out of work, you can also say, “to be discussed.” In addition, Hellmann says it’s inappropriate for an application to request that you list references. In that slot, he says you should write, “available upon strong mutual interest.” Says Hellmann, “only give your references when you’re close to an offer.”
Most applications ask for your current position and then request a description of your job. Hellmann recommends simply writing, “please see résumé.” Though Hellmann cautions that writing out a description of your work could introduce spelling and grammar mistakes, you could also consider cutting and pasting from your résumé or LinkedIn profile, directly onto the form.
Then there is the issue of keywords. Hellmann says you should make sure your résumé “is filled with keywords that come from the job you’re targeting.” If the online job listing asks for an applicant who is “experienced in portfolio analysis,” make sure you have the words “portfolio analysis” on your résumé. Likewise, if the listing says, “social media marketing expertise,” do have “social media marketing” somewhere on your résumé.
An excellent Wall Street Journal story today underlines how important keywords can be, especially if you’re applying to a large company like Starbucks or Procter & Gamble, both of which use automated tracking systems that screen résumés for keywords, former employers, and schools attended. An example from the Journal story: PNC Financial Services Group filters out bank-teller applicants whose résumés don’t show they have had at least two years of cash-handling experience.
Hellmann says it’s always a good idea to include a concise, specific cover letter with your application. Write a letter, he recommends, “that makes it really hard to screen you out.” Address the job requirements directly and list accomplishments that speak to them, preferably as bullets.
All that said, the most effective thing you can do is to find a personal connection to the hiring manager at the company that’s made the posting. That means networking, which can be made easier by tools like Facebook and LinkedIn. But don’t forget your face-to-face network. If you’re interested in a job posting, do ask everyone you know, including family, friends and colleagues, if they know anyone who works at the company posting the job.
Hellmann tells a story that illustrates the importance of having a direct contact. A client of his recently responded to an online job listing for a lawyer with international tax expertise. The client followed Hellmann’s guidance about including a keyword-filled résumé and bulleted cover letter. He did get a response, a form letter rejection. But then he did some research, figured out who the hiring manager was and contacted him directly with another cover letter and résumé. He followed up with a phone call three days later, and now he’s one of the top two candidates for the job.
The bottom line, as I’ve written before: Spend a minimum of your time applying to online listings. Despite the explosion of online job boards and websites promising a quicker path to employment, most people still find jobs through people they know.
Speaking of precise bullets, here’s a recap of how to get a response to an online job application. Read The Bullets And The Complete Forbes Article