Job applications: What a recruiter wants to read and know (and what not).


Applying for a job is always an exciting thing. Usually one does this because it sounds like a fun thing to work at that company. Nice prospects, great salary, wonderful projects etc. Of course you want to be there and make a living at exactly that place!

Try walking in my shoes

I have been involved in hiring people for almost 20 years now. And another disclaimer upfront: My wife is the head of human resources in a digital communication agency, and has been doing this full time for even longer. So I do have a few insights into what happens when your resume lands on many recruiter's tables.

Covering your base

Applications are trying to tell the important and best things about you. They will ideally list experiences and achievements and bring across an idea of what kind of person you are. For my field of expertise it usually is a set of work examples you are responsible for, your portfolio, or often times a link to your portfolio.

Now, obviously as an applicant you are trying to tell the person reading your application, looking at your portfolio and resume as much as possible. Hey, you have someone's attention right now and that is your chance: Tell and show all you have got! … really?

Don't go overboard and stay focused

Recently I had a bunch of applications in my inbox to identify candidates for a lead design position. I had to scan 20+ of those hoping to get a set of 5 or so to be invited for a phone interview. Well, I am not very used to this kind of work, but felt one thing again: it must be a tremendous pain to someone who does this on a daily basis: Some applications are nice and have great things in them, one was even hand-drawn with nice illustrations, but do people really think that a recruiter will read through an application letter which stretches over 20 pages before even getting to the portfolio? And just to be clear: This was no illustrator position but a digital interface art director position. Anyway, I think not many will go through this complete thing and I did not either. It would be irresponsible to spend so much time on one single application. I would just get through 2 of those per hour if I did. That would have been more than a day for the 20 applications. No one has time for that, especially since this was the first level. The next stages where interviews are due has not even been reached yet.

Short, crisp, current and relevant

I am pretty sure you get what I am all about here: You are applying for a job in a field of communications. At least that is what I am assuming. And even if you do not, this is important to understand. There is no point in forcing an epic version of who you are, where you come from and what has made you apply for this job down someones throat. You are applying for a job in interface design? No one needs to see your sketches from art school, with a date in the bottom right corner dating back as far as 1999. What are you communicating? I used to draw things and I loved it so much that I still feel like there is an artist hidden inside of me just waiting to break free? Yay, great you created a website for a Mercedes dealer back in 2002! Good for you. But only because this sounds like a great brand in your track record it does not justify showing a 14 year old layout which is outdated in every single aspect. Let it go and show your best stuff. Recent work. People need to know what you can do now, not what you were able to design back in 2002. There is only one place and time to do that: Applying for a job as Chief Retro Webdesign Officer.

What should be your message?

What are “we” (recruiters) looking for then? Tell me what you did, where you collected experiences. What was challenging, what made you grow, both personally and professionally. What are you burning for and what are you bringing to the table. Personally I cannot stand the text book application texts which feel like totally glitch free copy taken from the ‘job applications 101’. Do not get me wrong, I am not the best writer, but I hate slopyness. Have a friend spell check your texts. Even if he or she is called Microsoft Word. Seriously. And by the way, you can always tell me in these texts as well because I am not a native speaker for English and have only limited access to someone who checks my texts. So please let me know :)

Where were we? I do not need access to your facebook profile, but let me know what really interests you. Reading? Great. What and why? But keep it short. This tells me more about a person than anything else. And even if the rest is not as good as someone else's application: I might remember you for the book recommendation. ;) Stand out for your authenticity, not for chaos and sloppiness, not for something from the past.

But again: Short, crisp, precise. We do not have much time. Unfortunately.

The design perspective

As a designer, I am looking at your resume and the other things you submit from a design perspective as well. And so should you if you are a designer. Which font? Can I print the resume for discussions or non-screen discussions? Is there a TLDR; for me about you? Consider these things and you actually tell me that you know what UX design is. Rather than saying you do know that, prove it right here, right now. You might only get this chance.

Xenophobia counter-work

Personally I have seen weird things: HR people with heavy prejudices about ethnic groups and nationalities. Admittedly they should be fired for being complete idiots, but those people do exist. In case you do know about any of these topics potentially related to you, there are two ways. Ignore them and hope for good and fair people, or encounter them with answers to their worries. This is a highly political topic and I am sure that everyone should be treated equally, but you are dealing with humans with fears and worries. Help them to feel like meeting the most friendly person. One with an exciting background. Let them know why you are adding to the team and not potentially threatening it. Being different can be an additional bit of spice in a team, not a dent in a polished surface.

Your online portfolio

Create a printable mini version

Now, as you have optimised your letter and PDF to the max, you might have an online portfolio. Put 2-3 things in the PDF and offer more on the web. Someone might print out your resume. That means, no images and visuals if you do not put them in the PDF. I am not always near my Mac when talking to people on the phone. I print out the application and go to a calm and relatively private place to talk to applicants. There is simply not screen often times. And I might call a few people in a row. Help me to remember you for the right portfolio after all.

Landing page for recruiters

On the portfolio website think about offering a landing page related to your application. Do not send the recruiter to your website, the one where you are trying to attract new clients for your freelance work. That is not the task at hand here. Instead show that you understand the business of creating things for a target group. The recruiter is your target group now. Show them that you know their needs. They have seen your things already in the PDF. Is there an additional value on the site? Make sure there is or you are guilty of wasting someone's time again.

Pleased to meet you

You have paid attention to all the details? Prepared things in a precise and crisp way? Awesome. I am extremely sure that this gets you far. In case you do not hear from a company in time feel free to ask for an update, but do not be a pest about it. Sometimes it might take a moment for the people in charge to check all applications. Just make sure you care and that you would really love to get to know them.

Good luck for your next application process, and thanks for making every recruiters' life easier! If you have experienced other things and have more advise feel free to let me know for future articles.

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