Here’s a quiet truth that most small business owners I’m friendly with would surely agree with.
When hiring, a certain percentage of job applications are instantly tossed in the trash. It sounds harsh. It is. But it’s also the truth.
If only every person could just once be responsible for the hiring process at a company, it would forever alter their approach to future job searches.
Each business owner or hiring manager has a handful of indicators that they're sensitive to. Many of these you could surely guess, but of course we all have our own personal red flags. In the case of yours truly, these red flags aren’t the ones you might expect.
- It’s not the school they went to (or didn’t).
- It’s not pauses in their work history.
- It’s not their age.
- It’s not the span at their previous job (though I’d make a mental note).
There’s no shortage of nineteen year-old high school dropouts who can program circles around me. I spent thirteen years thinking where I went to college would be the deciding factor in my future success (or lack of). It turns out that, after a certain age, people largely don’t care where you went to school. And for many industries - not all, but many - this disinterest is extended to whether you attended university at all. Either you have the skills, or you don't.
No, what I’m looking for is far simpler. Below, I’ve done my best to compile a handful of presentation-specific tips and considerations that I think will give you the best possible chance of snagging that new job.
One Quick Note. Because I run a small business remotely, I won’t touch on things like physical appearance, mannerisms, and attire. Each of those is important, but not quite relevant when your job application will take the form of an email.
1. Don't Ping Pong
Let’s begin with my biggest hiring pet peeve. I call this the “ping pong effect.” An example of this might be a short and hastily written email that ignores the requested details from the job description, and instead “ping pongs” it back to the hiring manager for the next steps. If I wake up to an inbox of thirty job applications, the ones that omit the things we specifically requested in the job description go, at best, to the bottom of the pile. More likely, they’re deleted.
It’s of course fair game if you need a bit of clarification before taking the time to formally submit an introduction and application. But I internally translate ping pong applications to “I’m willing to get in touch with you, but not willing to spend more than sixty seconds preparing an introduction.” That’s not a great first impression.
Instead, I’d recommend a few things.
Decide if You’re Interested
My family recently moved, and we currently have a small garage of furniture that won’t fit or work in our new home. So my wife has been slowly chipping away at online listings to sell them. It has become a humorous nightly routine for her to share the latest selling drama. You wouldn’t believe the number of responses she receives from people who, in hindsight, don’t actually want to buy the item. I know: it makes little sense, but it’s true. Sure, they’ll tinker with the possibility of buying it, like a person browsing in a store. They’ll send a half-dozen emails, negotiate the price, and even schedule a pickup time in some cases. And yet, so often they don’t show up.
It turns out that they were never seriously interested. The end result is a big waste of time for everyone involved, and a return to step one. The same is true for job applications. When you’re unsure of your intentions, the hiring manager picks up on it instantly. It shines through in the brevity and awkward wording of your email.
Read the Job Description
Have you ever encountered a job description that asks you to mention some arbitrary animal in your introduction email?
“Please reference an elephant somewhere in your introduction email.”
Ever wondered why they do that? They’re not being cute. Think of it as a sorting mechanism. Most people don’t read instructions. They scan and jump right to the end. “Please reference an elephant” is a friendly euphemism for “Come on: READ the actual job description before responding!”
2. Anticipate the Response
Beyond providing the specific information that was requested in the job description, a useful technique is to anticipate the employer’s response. Put yourself in the hiring seat. What else might they be interested to know about you? It’s not difficult.
Here are some things, in no specific order, that you might consider sharing if you feel comfortable.
- Where are you based in the world?
- Are you in school?
- What are your areas of expertise?
- Where do you work currently?
- Do you have any experience in this particular field?
- Can you share examples/links to your projects?
- What’s something you worked on that you’re proud of?
- Do you have any immediate ideas for how you might contribute and help our business out?
Pick a handful of those and include them as part of a friendly cover letter or email. You’re not a robot filling a vacant seat. You’re an interesting human being. It’s okay to show some personality.
3. Not Too Much
While it’s useful to anticipate responses, don’t bother writing a novel. It won’t be read. Think of your own reading habits and how frequently your eyes scan an email. Ten paragraphs of unformatted text is a struggle to get through - particularly when there are twenty-five similar emails right after it.
In these cases, provide a nicely formatted and spaced overview of yourself, but be direct. Edit your emails in the same way you might edit a school essay.
4. Don’t Just Color the Picture
Like many kids who grew up in the 90s, my family often entered coloring contests at restaurants and stores around town. For each submission, my mom’s advice was always the same: “don’t just color the picture.” Little did I know that I’d be repeating it twenty-five years later. This is wildly good advice for all areas of your life.
In the context of a coloring contest, this might refer to embellishing your drawing in some unique way. Most kids know how to color inside the lines. Do something different.
I often find myself making a mental note when I hear variations of this advice. Same idea, different wording. For example…
Sand the Underside of the Drawers
In one of my first Laracon presentations, I referenced a general design philosophy that the team at Pixar (creators of Toy Story, Monsters Inc.) follow. As they put it, “sand the underside of the drawers.” This translates to “Sweat the small details - even if most people will never see it.”
Whatever the “underside of the drawers” is for your line of work, sand it.
The Bare Minimum
A more simplified version of “Don’t just color the picture” is “Do more than the bare minimum.” Or in other words, choose something unexpected that makes you stand out. You’re in a sea of “bare minimum.” Do something different.
Adrian, the head of design at Laracasts, included a variety of design ideas and recommendations as part of his initial Laracasts job application. Many of those ideas have since been implemented into the core site. He didn’t have to do that. It wasn’t expected. But it got him the job. No one else did that.
5. Write Well
It’s so simple. You’re submitting an important application that will potentially change the trajectory of your life. Before you click send, take a few moments to proof it. There shouldn’t be a single typo. Not because the employer expects you to be a machine who never makes a mistake. I’ve published plenty of posts with typos that were later fixed. It happens. But this isn’t a typical post or chat comment. This is your formal job application. Pay attention and read it three times. I promise you: these basic little things can have a dramatic impact, regardless of how superfluous you might find it.
6. Don’t Talk Me Out of It
This next recommendation is a counter-intuitive one that I’ve come across a number of times. Sometimes, I get the impression that the person applying for the job is subconsciously doing their best to talk me out of hiring them. Perhaps this is a personality trait, but it’s something to be aware of.
As a slight detour, I’m in the camp that finds Kanye West’s extreme confidence and narcissism to be incredibly off-putting. And yet, I once heard him in an interview suggest something along the lines of “If you’re not your own greatest fan and supporter, then why would you ever expect anyone else to be?” I don’t know; I think there’s something to that! Maybe take that Kanye spirit and dial it back
thirty forty percent. :)
If I don’t know you, and your email is doing a decent job of explaining why you might not be the best fit for my business, then I’m probably going to take your advice.
7. Do Your Research
Last but not least, it’s easy to become desperate and submit your resume to any business with an inbox. This is your livelihood. You need a job now! So, often, we default to playing the numbers game. If I submit fifty job applications, surely one or two businesses will get back to me.
So you submit your fifty job applications, and even create an email template to save a bit of time. Swap out the employer’s name, attach your resume, and click send. But here’s the thing. That template did save you time. But, speaking as the person doing the hiring, we can smell an email template from a mile away. That same old rule continues to be true. If you put minimal effort into your job application, then you should expect a minimal response.
In several cases, I’ve read an application and thought to myself, “Huh - this person has no clue what we do at Laracasts.”
You might have better success if you only submit three applications, but put significantly more effort into them. Take a few moments to learn specifically who you’re contacting. Get a feel for the business and what they do. Potentially jot down some ideas and suggestions you have that relate to the job you’re applying for.
Remember: this all reduces to a simple trade. The business trades you money with the expectation that your expertise and services will improve their business. So approach it from that angle. I would love to read a job application that included a small bulleted section with the headline, “Here’s how I can help you out.”