Common Job Application Pitfalls

July 9, 2014


So you’re applying for a job, now what?  The normal thing would be to send them your resume and cover letter—and that would be your first mistake.  I’ve read countless resumes, interviewed many applicants, and mentored many who were seeking a job.  Very few people do it right.  This blog post covers common mistakes when applying for a job, including mistakes in your resume.

I need to state up front that I am specifically talking about engineering jobs, although much of this applies to all jobs.  Just don’t write me angry emails because I got something wrong for people trying to become a cartographer, chef, or bus boy.

Before applying for a job, remember that it’s not just a job but a career.  You will hopefully be working there for 10 to 40 years, so behave like your life and livelihood are at stake—since it is!  This job is super important to you, and you need to show the employer that you realize this.  After all, why should they hire you if it isn’t important to you!?!?  I’m not telling you to grovel.  Just put in the effort that is proportional to the importance.  


So, before sending the company anything do some research.  Find out what kind of company they are.  Become familiar with not just the products/services they offer, but become familiar with their particular market segment as well.  Identify their competitors.  Research the upper management, who they are, where they came from, etc.  If they are a public company, find out how their stock has been doing for at least the past 5 years.  Etc.  You have three main goals in this:  1. Find out if you want to work there.  2. Show that you already have a head start in understanding what makes the company tick.  And 3. Figure out what benefits you bring to the hiring table.

The next step is to write your cover letter and resume.  Yes, you write a unique cover letter and resume for every job you apply for!

The cover letter should include some tidbits from your research—especially any benefits that you can bring to the company.  But even a side comment can be effective.  The purpose of this is to show this company that you have taken some initiative.  That you’re motivated.  That you actually care about the job you are applying for.  This sets you apart from the others that are applying.  The cover letter should be about 25-33% of a page.  Any less and you haven’t properly introduced yourself.  Any more and you risk them just not bothering to read it (tl;dr).

While you don’t need to completely rewrite your resume for every application, you do need to tailor it to the job.  For starters, you need to address as many of the points made in the job posting.  If they say that “analog circuit design is a plus” then you need to emphasize past analog circuit design experience.  Go through the job posting, item by item, and see how you can modify your resume to match.

The next thing is to add the buzzwords.  I begrudgingly mention this, so hear me out on this one.  There are two types of people who will read your resume:  Human Resources and the Engineer.  (Substitute the Engineer for an appropriate person who knows their stuff, for non-engineering jobs.)  HR will filter out resumes based on the posted job description, and your task is to get past HR.  HR will be looking for key words and phrases from the job posting, and if they don’t see it they might filter out your application before the Engineer ever sees it.

For example, you might think that your 30+ years of experience writing Unix/Linux device drivers would imply that you know C/C++ so you don’t need to put it in your resume.  But if the job posting calls out C/C++ then you better put it in.  The same goes for all of the other buzzwords.  If it’s in the job description, then put it in your resume.  Your not doing it for the Engineer that will be reading your resume, you are doing it so that when HR reads it they don’t just throw it out because you didn’t include that buzzword they were looking for.

But care must be taken here.  There is a balance to be struck.

Many people apply for an engineering position and list Microsoft Office as one of their abilities.  The way I read that is, “Person X is so proud of their rudimentary skills that they put it on their resume; so therefore the overall chops of this person must also be rudimentary”.  To put it a bit different, it would be like applying for a chef job and bragging about your talents using Ketchup—it just makes you look stupid.

My rule of thumb is:  If it is in the job posting, then always mention it.  Otherwise, only mention it if it is not implied by other things in the resume or by the overall job description.

Next, make sure that your cover letter and resume is consistent!  Your rules for English might be slightly different from mine.  That’s fine, I can deal with that.  But you must apply your rules consistently.  For example, do you say “C/C++” sometimes and other times say “C / C++”?  Notice the extra spaces in the second example?  Is your indenting consistent?  Abbreviations?  Do you use one date format some places, but another format in other spots?

This sounds very nit-picky, but there is a method to this madness.  Inconsistency shows that you lack attention to detail.  Engineering is all about attention to details.  Landing a good job can be a life-changing event, and if you don’t show an attention to detail when your whole future is at stake then how can the employer expect it on something not so significant?  Everybody says that they have attention to detail, but you need to prove it!

Tailor other parts of your resume also.  Less is sometimes more.  Previous jobs, education, achievements, etc. are all fair game for deleting.  If you just got your degree, then remove anything High School related since it is largely irrelevant.  Delete or play down anything that might take focus away from your suitability for the job.  If you are going for engineering, then maybe you don’t need to mention that summer you spent driving an Ice Cream truck for your Uncle.

Keep in mind that people will look at the dates in your resume, and they will do the math on it.  If there is an inconsistency in your dates, be prepared to explain it.  This is a good time to play down something rather than to delete it outright.  You don’t want someone throwing out your application because of an inconsistency, even before you have a chance to explain it.

I once read a resume where there were lots of jobs and awards listed.  The person was about 30 years old, going for a mid-level engineering job.  The awards sounded impressive, until I did the math on the dates and found out that the awards were from Middle and High School.  This made me look very closely at the whole resume.  One of the jobs listed was “Owner/Operator of a Lawn Maintenance Business”.  The math on that showed that this person mowed lawns when he was in 6th grade.  The real face-palmer was his job as “Manager on the family farm”, when he was about 4 years old.   Sometimes less is more!

Which brings me to the next topic:  Don’t lie.  Don’t exaggerate.  Know your weaknesses, and own up to them.  I have great respect for someone who is willing to say, “I don’t know X, but I am willing to learn”.  And if someone has shown initiative, attention to detail, and makes an effort in proportion to a potentially life-changing event then I am likely to believe that they will learn it!   But even a minor exaggeration will cause me to question the entire resume.

Of course I left out all of the other details about writing a good resume.  Many of those details are important, but the biggest take-away is this:  A resume is not a personal history, it is a personal advertisement—a very important personal advertisement.  Treat it like one and you’ll be miles ahead of your competition!

Doing the research, cover letter, and resume correctly will set you up perfectly for the next step:  The Interview.  This is where you can focus on how your particular set of knowledge and talents can benefit this company.  Of course, this should be the topic for another blog post…









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