Interesting job hunting tips

I attended an interesting talk given by someone who has been a recruiter for several large firms, both temp agency and principal, for all level of jobs, focusing on the application process. I’ve been to a few of these deals and they tend to always follow a predictable pattern, the gist of which the person running the class is just telling you his or her pet peeves about resumes and applicants. But this one was better than most, the main speaker verified a number of things I had inferred, was at times brutally honest about existing biases, and added some fascinating details. I’ve posted a few tidbits from memory below. Apologies if I got something wrong.

A typical online job posting will start getting applications within a minute or two of going live and will on average garner up to 250 applications for each available opening before the spigot is turned off in some way. Companies are doing their usual post recession penny-pinching where they under-staff and over work their hiring department. This means hiring personnel are so overloaded with applications that the only way they can get a handle on it is to employ a fierce culling process, to knock-out as many as possible as quickly as possible. By the time the hundredth app comes in they may have already stopped reading them, and 100 qualified apps can easily come in in the first few hours of a job being posted.

This next part is key: many in the hiring chain are using tools that scan resumes for keywords. Outside of a handful of senior executive jobs, cover letters are probably a waste of time. Definitely don’t bother with a cover letter explaining how great your hobbies are, do bother to have a short summary at the top of your resume that’s been custom tweaked. If the job posting says something like “HTML a plus,” or “familiarity with TPS reports preferred,” you better have those letters in that summary up front where the tool can pick them up easily. That’s why, for most jobs, stay away from .pdf or any other atypical format. Don’t worry about your resume being pretty or flowery. Your best bet for that tool to work is to stay away from special fonts or different character sizes and stick with plain default text in MSFT word.

When you don’t hear anything back at all, it often means your resume was not even scanned, it might have been unscannable by whatever they are using. You can get an idea how scannable your resume is on many job sites by uploading your res and seeing how well it populates their own format. One more thing, a single dumb obvious typo can get you rejected before a human ever lays eyes on it.

About four out of five applications are rejected at this scanning step. Just FYI, I got wise to this keyword stuff a couple of years ago and my initial acceptance rate jumped from basically zero to about one in 20.

If it passes the scan test it usually gets eyeballed by a human. But that person is grossly overworked and swamped every day. No matter what the company says about how awesome their hiring process is, you are lucky if they’re able to devote more than 20 man-seconds to a given application. Often times this means, if they have a system which uploads and populates their own fields with your submitted data, that’s all they have time to glance at. When a hiring person knocks out a res, they usually click a button that either sends out a generic rejection letter they don’t even see and may have never read, or they pick from a short crappy list of prewritten ones, which is why those letters sometimes don’t seem to make much sense for you and your app specifically.

If you’re starting to get the idea this is all much more automated than it used to be, that the HR or hiring people are under the gun and measured every which way by all kinds of metrics, and applicants might as well be virtual cattle being rushed through vaccination chutes and weigh stations at an industrial ranch, you’re getting the right idea. Most of the people doing the hiring these days are low level HR assistants or third-party contractors. Most of them tend to be fairly young — they’re often being paid pretty lousy, say from nine to $12/hr —  and you better believe conscious or unconscious bias for age, gender, and race is rampant.

If you have an ethnic sounding name, say “LaTonya,” figure something out, if you have a name like “Terri,” you might want to consider spelling it “Terry” or putting “Mr.” in front of it. It’s only after all this that education and experience start to count a little, but only in the sense that they are looking for lack of same to knock you out. That experience and edu data better be brief, easy to find at a glance, and relevant to that specific job. The other two big strike out factors here are if you are currently unemployed — use the term freelance or private consultant or charity work to cover gaps — and if your last three years of work history aren’t specifically relevant to the job being applied for.

On average less than half of the remaining apps get over this initial human eyeball hurdle. If yours is one of them, you’ll probably get a phone interview or an online test, and often times those tests will be as simple as a typing test. If it’s an online deal and you can’t hunt and peck worth a hoot, get someone else to take that part for you. If its a phone interview, look up common interview questions no matter how silly and have those answers at your finger tips ready to regurgitate.

Bear in mind there’s a lot of mythos out there, for example it’s against the law for age to be the determining factor in hiring you, but it’s completely legal to ask how old you are and you better have a simple three-word no BS answer. Having dealt with this issue I’m sorry to say, your best bet for many jobs — if you are just a few years over a benchmark age like 50 or 60 — might be to lie without missing a beat. Just don’t do it in writing; few companies are dumb enough to document that kind of question.

Often times during this portion you will be asked to provide references that can be contacted and fill out a questionnaire on you. Be absolutely certain your references know this is coming, that they know to score you the max on every single question and category, and know not to add any any comments at all. Don’t play any games with this to try to make it look “real,’ it’s usually a pass-fail thresh-hold and once you pass it’s over and forgotten. If you’re worried that a perfect score will stick out, pick one person only and instruct that one person to pick one notch below the max on one single question out of ten. If any of your references pull the slightest bullshit when you contact them like “Well my credibility is on the line and a perfect score might look suspicious,” don’t use them, they’re wrong, don’t chance it, just find another reference.

If that step is successfully completed, you may be asked to come in for an in-person interview, you will on average be one of three to five people getting that interview per available job. If you are over 35 years-old, odds are good that that person will be younger than you. If you are over 40 years-old, do everything in your power to modify your appearance to look younger — without being too obvious. If you’re male, keep in mind women in particular can usually tell with a single glance if you have a cheap hair-color job. If you’re going to wash the gray away, make it subtle, do it a couple of days before the interview so the roots don’t show but the hard edge has had time to wear away, and use a professional cosmetologist.

Weight — start losing now if you are overweight. I don’t want to get anyone sick here, but if you only have a few days the most effective method of losing a few critical pounds is to research and decide if you are willing to dehydrate yourself over a three-day period. Something as simple as eliminating salt from your diet for a few days can get you started. Remember, same as the phone interview, have your answers to stupid and even offensive questions ready to go. Interviewers can and sometimes do claim they ask an offensive question to see how you respond under pressure.

Here’s an example the speaker gave of a jarring question and good answer: “I see you’re only making $11/hr and yet you are 45 years-old, how do you explain that …?” Good answer: “[Current employer] is just so awesome, the people are the best I’ve ever worked with, and I love the work. But you’re right, even with the help of a few small investments it’s tough to live comfortably on that, which is why I was so excited when I saw you guys were looking!” IOW, lie your ass off. Never, ever badmouth a current or past employer, even if the interviewer leads you on.

This person showed us a few examples of how all that above plays out and the bottom line it adds up to: right now your odds of being hired for a job you are ideally qualified for is on average about 1% – 2%. It gets worse, a lot worse, for large well-known companies with a half decent rep, like Google or Facebook. Those guys can receive hundreds of thousands of applications a year, meaning your odds of being hired there are way, way less than 1%.

I don’t know how much of the above is accurate, but it was consistent with my experience and it sounded plausible to me. What I can be sure of is you will need luck, pure blind luck, on your side and the only way to generate that is to play the odds. You do that by putting in as many customized tailored apps as you can.


  1. Robert B. says

    So… why do companies think this is a good way to find people? Like, why hasn’t any HR person looked at this system and gone “whoops, this system gives us no real evidence on whether it’s a good idea to hire someone, start over?”

    If these companies are really this swamped (twenty seconds per application?!), they would do better to post a job opening, wait three days, pick say twenty or thirty applicants out of the pool of submissions by random number generator, and do some actual work on evaluating them. If everyone in the group you pick is awful, go back to the well and pick some more; otherwise, don’t even read the rest. Sucks if someone really excellent was in the majority you don’t look at, but frankly you weren’t going to hire them anyway, you were going to hire the manipulative liar who best gamed your obviously gameable system. (I’m not saying it’s unethical to game a system this broken, I’m saying that people who are habitually unethical will usually do it better.)

    Either large companies are really stupid, or they’ve decided they don’t actually care about the exact characteristics for their drones as long as they have warm bodies in the cubicles. I could easily believe either, or both.

  2. says

    I don’t know why some do it like this. I don’t remember anyone asking that. All I can say is companies are rather inscrutable and opaque these days, it seems everything little thing has to be a goddamn secret all the time. And usually when a company keeps stuff secret, it’s because they’re worried it might piss people off.

    But I don’t have any problem with someone gaming their system or bending the truth, a company will do both those things at the drop of a hat and that’s saying it nicely. I remember one time I was managing a third party team of inbound agents, and our corporate customer let slip that that account was going away in a few weeks. So I went to the director and asked him if we should let our agents know since some of them were sure to get suddenly and unexpectedly laid off. He said no, since we bill the corporate client by the agent-hour we don’t want to lose a single billable hour, so we don’t want anyone on that team looking and possibly getting another job until we milk every last cent we can by using them. Then he asked me to hi-fi him … like huyeah! We’re ripping their faces off man! Ain’t it cool?

    Agents were told after their last shift that that was their last shift and they should check back on Monday via phone to see if they can be reassigned to another campaign.

  3. pinkpixel says

    I always suspected that the reason I had such a hard time finding work when I was unemployed was that the other applicants were exaggerating about their qualifications and convincing their friends to be references. I considered that I’d be a fool not to do the same, if it meant that I had to go jobless and moneyless for so long, but of course never did that because I was (perhaps unreasonably) afraid I’d be called out on it. Like someone would seriously say, “hey, didn’t you say you were “proficient” at Excel? This looks like the work of someone who’s merely “familiar.” ”

    Fortunately I found a position with an employer who was willing to put more effort into candidate selection, and it was a more specialised field of work where job positions were circulated within the industry only.

    It always seemed to me that the online listings were oddly picky about qualifications and a bit over-optimistic about what skills they thought they could get (giving the paltry salary they were willing to pay). It was like, “we want someone who has several years experience catering for pie-eating contests and teaching preschoolers to play the kazoo, must have a deep-sea spear-fishing license and own equipment, $10 per hour.”

  4. keith says

    Not all companies work like this. I work for a state college, and have hiring experience at other employers. My current position, while not in HR, works very closely with HR and I have significant hiring responsibilities.

    We use an online HR system shared with many other agencies, both in and outside of my state.

    We do not use any keyword filtering, and a real human being reviews every application, including cover letters.

    A typical entry level opening may receive 50-80 applications, of those perhaps 1/2 meet minimum qualifications. The number of people interviewed for any given position will vary, but as a rough rule of thumb the top 3-8 people will have an in person interview. The cutoff depends on candidate quality. Higher level openings with greater experience required will receive fewer applications. We suffered in getting qualified IT desktop technicians several months ago.

    I suspect that the largest companies who recruit primarily through monster/careerbuilder etc do have the hurdles you describe in your post. The majority of smaller employers, colleges, state agencies, etc are not as recognizable and do not receive the same volume of applications. If you have reasonable qualifications, you chances of standing out in the crowd are much better if you target a different type of employer.

    I have very little to hide, so if you want to continue this discussion and pick the brain of somebody on the inside, I am happy to respond.

  5. felicis says

    One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of jobs (every job, save one, I have gotten in the last decade) seem to be given to someone who was pre-determined. The want ad is CYA to avoid charges of nepotism, or (for public-sector jobs) a legal requirement. They already know who they’re going to hire, the rest is just a BS process.

    Note – this isn’t *every* job – lower-wage jobs seem to grab whoever applies next (yeah – that application is ‘on file’, but you’ll need to apply again). But knowing someone who knows someone seems to be the most important part of actually getting an offer.

  6. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    (twenty seconds per application?!),

    Yes. That’s all it takes to glance at an application or resume and tell whether or not they meet the minimum qualifications your job posting asked for. It’s either toss it on the rejects or keep it for an in-depth reading later.

    I screened resumes for technical writers a couple of times, and it was amazing that people could read a very clear set of requirements and still submit a resume that indicated they didn’t even get to the 20% mark on the requirements. Despite my clearly explaining, in a bulleted list of requirements, that the job was not entry level and the documents the new hire was going to create were going to be extremely detailed at the “chip and inside the chip” silicon level, about 90% of the resumes were from people who were not remotely qualified.

    I got … web designers, brochure writers, college students who were only a couple of years away from their degree which would include a course in technical writing … none of those deserved more than the few seconds it took to scan the page and see that they didn’t have what we needed.

    It’s beneficial to have several resumes and not try to make one fit all – un til I retired I had about a 30% success rate (out of 10 resumes submitted, I would get 3 interview requests). In my field, I was very good. But I also custom tailored the resume to make sure the experience that they were looking for was very easy to find.

  7. Robert B. says

    Yes, but that was twenty seconds total, or so I read the OP, not twenty seconds for the first pass. The process described was one where there was no time to even read the resume itself, let alone the cover letter, just the database fields automatically populated by known-to-be-flawed scanning software. I don’t actually see the raw submissions to our hiring process, I’m involved at the process-design and interview stages, but I can imagine rejecting someone after only twenty seconds with their resume. I can’t in my wildest dreams imagine interviewing someone after only twenty seconds with their resume.

  8. greg hilliard says

    Tsp Dho Nimh: In Arizona, you must prove that you have applied for a job on at least four different days to keep your benefits. So many applicants apply for jobs for which they are not qualified, just to keep the money comng in. It’s hard to find enough jobs in your field to match your experience or expected pay.

  9. Dennis N says

    I screened resumes for technical writers a couple of times, and it was amazing that people could read a very clear set of requirements and still submit a resume that indicated they didn’t even get to the 20% mark on the requirements.

    I think this is also because companies often post ridiculously overinflated requirements for the listed salary, see comment #3 from pinkpixel. We’ve been trained to not trust them, knowing the company will never find a person with those skills for that price tag; they will eventually “settle” for the best candidate instead of the unicorn they were looking for initially. So why not apply for a job for which you’re “under-qualified”?

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