13 easy-to-avoid mistakes which will unnecessarily but significantly diminish your chances when applying for a job

Danny Buerkli
Sep 4, 2019 · 4 min read

I have been involved in a few recruitment rounds over the past years. There are recurring, easy-to-avoid mistakes people make which unnecessarily but very significantly diminish their chances.

Sometimes those mistakes correlate with a lack of competence. But a lot of times it seems to be more due to a #hiddencurriculum issue. People may have never had the benefit of being told these things (or of being in an environment where these are taught as self-evident).

A few remarks upfront:

I’ve seen all of the things listed below happen a lot. These aren’t cherry-picked. All quotes are made up.

Let me be super clear about my intention: I want people to avoid these traps so they can shine and show us what they’re capable of.

We invest a lot of energy at @CPI_foundation into trying to hire in a fair and unbiased way. That’s why we use the @beapplied platform (which lets us review answers to work-related questions anonymously rather than review CVs and cover letters) and structured interviews.

That’s why we care about how people perform once they decide to submit an application with us. We want to get the best candidates and that might well include people who don’t come across in the best possible way for reasons that don’t correlate with competence.

For applications that we run through the @beapplied platform, we ask applicants practical questions (e.g. “how would you handle situation x?”). We then review the anonymized written answers. The way we do this is by reviewing all responses to question 1, then all those to question 2, etc.

This is quite different from the usual CV plus cover letter system. While most items below apply universally in any job application or interview situation, some are more specific to systems that use anonymized written answers.

With all of that out of the way, here we go:

  • Always submit your CV/resume as a PDF, never as a Word file. Word files look unpolished and the formatting often breaks. This is a small thing but do not underestimate just how big of a difference it makes.
  • Do not reveal confidential information about your current or past employers. Don’t. Resist the temptation. It’s done to build a connection and impress but it does the opposite. It immediately makes me worry about what you’ll say about us once you leave.
  • Be kind when you talk about your current or former colleagues. There are ways of talking about difficult situations that don’t sound like you’re slagging off a colleague.
  • Be specific about your contributions when asked. If you’re asked what your contribution to a team was, make sure we understand what you did. Don’t be shy, it’s not bragging, we want to know!
  • Answer the question. If we ask how you would go about doing x, tell us how you would go about doing x. Don’t answer a different question.
  • Keep it simple. Avoid jargon and abbreviations. This is particularly important in writing where we can’t ask clarifying questions. If you’re telling me about how “dealing with the IATR process required NFC buy-in” I will have no idea what you’re talking about.
  • Practical tip: for “tell me about a time when you did x” questions use the ‘STAR’ framework: Situation, Task, Action, Result. Works like a charm because makes sure that you give a clear answer. It also helps because it makes you tell a story rather than just list facts.
  • In written answers (I/III): check your grammar. Use the active voice (“results had to be communicated” -> “we/I communicated the results”). Use a clear structure (paragraphs, bullet points, section titles, …).
  • In written answers (II/III): play it straight. Humour and/or quirky responses rarely work. You can be as witty as you like in person but it often comes across as ill-judged in text.
  • In written answers (III/III): keep it short. Don’t use more words than necessary. We are often impressed by concise answers (both spoken and in writing) that do the job. It demonstrates your ability to think and communicate clearly.
  • Specifically for answers on the @beapplied platform: avoid cross-referencing between your answers (“as I’ve mentioned above…”). Because we batch review all responses to the same question together and because it’s all anonymized we won’t know what you’re referring to.
  • On your CV/resume: use a straight-forward email address (usually some combination of your first and last name), avoid anything that isn’t that (e.g. “joebrumby96@gmail.com”).
  • Outside of a formal job application process, when asking for an informational interview or a ‘coffee chat’: avoid emailing multiple people on the team separately. Even if you customise your emails, don’t forget that we tend to sit next to each other and we talk 😃

That’s it for now. This isn’t a comprehensive list and it’s always hard to get all the nuance across in short posts but hopefully, this is of use to some out there. If you recognize having done some of these things yourself don’t worry too much, I’ve certainly done the same! :)

This post started out as a thread on Twitter. It seemed to resonate and I’ve turned it into a Medium post to make it easier to refer to it.

I was inspired to share this by @jhaushofer (who recently shared a #hiddencurriculum doc he gives to Research Assistants and students: https://twitter.com/jhaushofer/status/1156853146985086976…) and by @patio11 who made a different-but-related point that there’s lots of value in capturing implicit knowledge and making it explicit (https://twitter.com/patio11/status/1069422308526239744…)

Many thanks to my colleagues @MargotGagliani, @_AdrianBrown, and John Burgoyne who helped me pull this together.