Top 6 Mistakes I see applicants make

Applying White Out

The past few weeks I’ve been blogging about job search strategies and practices from the small business employer end. With our $500 crowdsourcing employment challenge closing today, we’ve been seeing lots of applicants, though few meet our exact needs. What I’ve been seeing is lots of mistakes that I’m hoping others can learn from. While none of these are the sole reason for rejection, they are factors

1) Failing to follow instructions

Read the job post carefully and follow the instructions. Some are in there just to see if you are detailed oriented. The most famous example of this the band Van Halen ( Their contract called for no brown M&Ms back stage. Was this a subtle form of racism? No. This was to make sure they read the instructions thoroughly. I posted a job on Craigslist and asked for 2 things: “Craigslist Submission” in the subject (so I can sort applications via a filter) and a cover letter. After a week only 20% followed those two simple guidelines. Of the applicants 50% didn’t include a cover letter and 25% didn’t use the proper subject.

2) A lousy email address

I wrote about this before, but your email address sends a message. A email address tied to your ISP (,, or with a silly name (football_stud, catlover57) tells me you aren’t professional or have a profound lack of understanding of technology. Either doesn’t send a good impression and in my field, it’s a really bad sign. Best to set up a free Gmail, Hotmail, or yahoo account (or even better an account on your own domain) that has a professional name and sends a professional image. This shouldn’t be the same one you use on Facebook because sure as heck I always check email address via social media to learn more about the applicant.

3) Unprofessional filename and format of submissions

When you attach your resume and cover letter to an email, it’s important to give it a professional sounding name. I get many many submissions that say “Genericresume.doc” or “basiccoverletter”. That tells me you are blindly submitting to anyone who will take your information. Take the two seconds to rename the files to something like “resumeforDoctorDave.doc” and you’ll be sending a better message to your potential employer.

Speaking of that document, be sure your employer can read it. The .doc file format is standard. Some people will send it in .pdf format which is also fine. The problem with .doc files is issues with fonts and formatting, so .pdf is usually your safest bet. The problem with .pdf is that companies that use resume databases may have trouble scanning it. Want to get the A+? Including both formats and explain that you are doing that so that way they don’t wonder what the difference is.

Avoid archaic formats like WordPerfect or unprofessional programs like Microsoft Works or Open Office. While those may be fine for personal use, the currency of business today is .doc and .pdf. To play it safe, email your file to a friend to make sure it’s readable on their computer.

4) An outdated resume

Unless you’ve never used a computer in your life (in which you wouldn’t be reading this anyway), you should know how to modify a Microsoft Word document. A common question I ask any applicant is “Why are you looking to leave your current position”. The most common response :”Oh I left there a few months ago and haven’t had a chance to update my resume”. Oops. What does that tell your potential employer: you are not detail oriented bordering on lazy. Send a complete and current resume. Speaking of that current resume…

5) Things left out

When an employer sees a gap, they’ll naturally ask the reason for the gap and you need to be prepared to explain. When you mention an employer that you didn’t list on your resume, it shows signs of dishonesty and may taint the entire interview. I think it’s better to put it on there and then if asked, explained why you left. Most likely you will have to explain anyways and simply head it off at the pass. I blogged about an applicant who did this once and I simply couldn’t get over the “what else was he hiding?” question. Fact is, in any industry people know each other and many employers do background and credit checks so previous employers do come up. If you got fired or the boss was a total butt-head, noncommittal phrases like “it wasn’t a good fit”, “it didn’t work out”, or plain old “I made a mistake working there” shows the honesty, maturity and professionalism any employer will appreciate.

6) Poor reference checks

If you list references, be sure to know what they will say. Today, many employers are afraid to give a reference yet employers crave them. We want to know more about you that isn’t directly covered in the process. Employment verification isn’t a reference. If your previous employer won’t give a reference, then don’t list them. Ideally you want to list a previous supervisor’s personal phone and be sure they are willing to give that unofficial reference. It’s a waste of my time as an employer to call your old boss and find out they have nothing to say. When a supervisor leaves a company or you leave a previous employer, try to obtain personal contact information and ask them if you can list them as a reference. Remember that during that background or reference check, I don’t need your permission to call those previous employers. If you are “ineligible for rehire” you better explain it during the interview rather than have me find out via phone call. Simply not listing someone there as a reference won’t work.

Don’t just list quality references: know what they are going to say and keep in touch. If someone said they’d be your reference five years ago, call them before your job search and make sure the contact info is up to date. Again, it’s an annoyance to call references only to find out the numbers have changed. In a competitive position, we may simply move onto another applicant whose references do check out before we go on the wild goose chase trying to find these people.

Ideally, after an interview it’s a good idea to call the reference proactively and let them know a company may be calling them. This can be your final chance to correct anything during the interview. For example, let’s say during the interview they were really looking for X and you are deficient in that. While you never want to tell a reference what to say, you can coach them. You might say to them you are concerned you don’t have X. Your reference might state what a quick learner you are, the fact you pick up on new things or simply that while you aren’t good at X, your skills at Y more than compensate. Only have them say this if it’s true though.

Last week I got a call from a coworker I haven’t heard from in almost 8 years. We sorta kept in touch but when an employer called me for a reference check I couldn’t confirm anything she said. It had been so long I barely remembered the guy and I know he didn’t get a job. He called me afterwards and asked what I must have said to have him not get the job. I told him that I said the truth: I barely remembered you.

Best to keep in touch!

There you have six mistakes I see applicants make. If you’ve done one of those, now you know why your search may be failing!

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