Before I became a full-time writer, I’d been on the job hunt off and on for years. I kept my resumé fresh, I wrote the perfect cover letter, and I applied for jobs that were perfect for me.
Or so I thought.
Years ago, I assisted my boss in processing internship applications. From seeing other people bluster through the process, I immediately identified such serious errors in my own job search that I wondered how I’d ever gotten a job at all.
Then, I got into freelancing, where I had to bid on jobs and nab clients every single week. This daily grind gave me deep insight into the traps and curves of the job search — and how to navigate them.
Here’s what I did wrong in my job search, and how you can learn from my mistakes to land a great job.
Mistake #1: My resumé was bone-dry.
I’d drearily listed my skills and responsibilities at each position, but there was no, shall we say, spice.
I hadn’t described myself as a winner, and I’d managed to downplay every single one of my accomplishments. Talk about self-sabotage!
It was a resumé for a mindless automation.
I rewrote it to emphasize, yes, my achievements, but more so what I’d done for my employer. Which brings me to…
Mistake #2: I used the same cover letter for everything.
I’ll never forget receiving a cover letter from a potential intern that was so generic, it bore absolutely no relation to the job at hand. And that’s when I realized that my own cover letter was terribly generic and stilted.
I just talked about myself rather than what I could do for the employer. One thing I learned from freelancing on Upwork is that no one cares who you are or where got your degree. Sure, it’s important to speak with confidence, but you also have to speak to the client’s main question: “What can you do for me?”
That means a customized cover letter that focuses on their needs. Every. single. time.
Mistake #3: I’d ignored the firm requirements.
I always figured that job listings’ requirements were, as Captain Barbossa would say, “guidelines rather than rules.” With this in mind, I regularly applied for jobs where I didn’t meet the minimum qualifications (e.g. a certain degree), believing that surely once they learned about my experience, they’d still consider me.
Wrong on so many levels.
Like it or not, job listings’ requirements are just that. Most recruiters use software that helps them automatically dump applications that don’t meet the posted requirements. It sucks, but you can have 10 years of marketing experience and be turned down for a job because your degree isn’t technically in Marketing.
Job applications aren’t a place to brag, but they’re definitely a place to follow the rules. Even the most talented people can get rejected thanks to an errant application.
And while my boss and I were willing to overlook a typo, we couldn’t look past glaring inconsistencies between what the job called for and what the applicant highlighted in their application.
How to Create the Perfect Resumé
Ah, resumés, the necessary evil of the job search. They can make or break your search, and they’re remarkably easy to…
Mistake #4: I made excuses to not apply.
Many job listings have a dubious section called “Preferred Qualifications” or something like that. For years, I was mystified by this title. Would I be disqualified if I didn’t meet these qualifications? Did I have to meet all of them? If I did, would I be a shoo-in?
Short answer: No, no, and no.
After I was tasked with writing some job listings, I understood the reason for this section. You have a vision of the candidate you want, but you don’t want to limit your options. Or your HR policy forbids you from requiring certain characteristics. That’s why some job listings have strange “preferred qualifications” such as “Excellent organizational skills.” (This is code for “female.”)
What does this mean for you?
You shouldn’t feel limited by your self-illusions. If you meet the requirements but not all of the “preferred qualifications,” you should still apply. Don’t let negative self-talk get in the way. Remember, good candidates are hard to find, so if you’re really interested in a job, go for it! Let that passion bleed through your application.
The Art of Selling Yourself Short
I’ve done a lot in my life. I’ve worked in a variety of industries. I went to graduate school and received a master’s…
Mistake #5: I fell for the obvious interview question traps.
Ever had an interviewer ask you to describe your greatest weakness? A time you had a conflict with a coworker? Or if you had any questions?
All traps. All of them.
I figured honesty was the best policy. But by being too honest, I missed an opportunity to share what they really wanted to know: How I’d handle the demands of the workplace.
It’s an open secret that there’s conflict between coworkers. That people aren’t good at absolutely everything. Your role in an interview is not to admit this is true for you, too, but rather to portray yourself as a flexible professional.
Never disclose your negative qualities. Even if you’re actively working on overcoming your weaknesses, you always want to frame your skills and experience in a positive light.
Plus, you should always have a question ready to ask. Interviewers simply won’t hire you if you show no interest in the workplace. Think of something to ask. In my experience, asking about project management systems and company culture are safe bets.
Just as you should be confident and strategic in your job search, so should you listen to your instincts. If something feels off about a job or you feel like you wouldn’t fit into a workplace, don’t ignore those suspicions. More often than not, they’re right.
To sum up, the key to a fruitful job search is to express your greatness within the context of each specific job. Don’t simply spread around a boastful resumé and expect job offers to roll in. Instead, fine-tune your application to each position. Envision how your talents can benefit the employers — and how a great job would lead to your personal fulfillment! Let your passion shine, and you’ll likely enjoy much greater success in your job search. Good luck!