Automated job applications leave enough gray areas and open-ended questions for applicants to make big mistakes in their paperwork. This can lead to early rejection. In some instances, companies will craft job applications in ways that can trap job-seekers into making mistakes. Yes, some companies go out of their way to look for job candidates who can think on their feet — even when filling out a job application.
That is where job application “trap doors” can come into play.
“A huge percentage of applicants drop out on basic things, such as typos, unexplained resume gaps, an expressed interest in working for a different company, or inadequate job experience or education that would not support the demands of the work,” says Amy Feind Reeves, founder of Boston-based Job Coach Amy and a former corporate hiring manager. “The next cut may be for people who could do the job but who don’t look like stars: no major career accomplishments or significant wins. Making it to the interview process means you’re both a great fit and have a track record of success.”
What traps are most risk-laden when filling out a job application, either by company design or by an applicant’s own miscues? These six “job application traps” top the list.
1. Providing salary information
Companies ask job applicants for salary information because they can.
“Frankly, it’s none of the employer’s business how much you earned at a previous company,” said Daniel Foley, SEO executive at MCS Software Rental, in Grand Rapids, Mi. “That information should be between you and the IRS.”
Yet too many job applicants, fearful of getting off on the wrong foot with potential employers, fill the salary query in any way. “Don’t fall into that trap,” said Foley. “If the salary number is too great, you could be out of the running,” he said. “Instead of posting your salary figure, put your starting pay and your ending salary on the application. This tells employers you were highly regarded at your recent job and made more money as a result.”
2. Not following directions
Companies are known to plant “seeds” in their job application instructions to see how well potential staffers pay attention to instructions. It’s a fair point, as an applicant who doesn’t follow directions on a job application is more likely to disregard instructions on the job.
“When hiring for our internal positions, we use one ‘trick’ that has proven to weed out unqualified candidates early,” said Luke Palder, chief executive officer at ProofreadingServices.com, in Boston, Ma. “Deep in the job description, we ask applicants to begin their cover letter with a specific, borderline nonsensical phrase like ‘running shoes.’ Why? When we get flooded with applications, this approach immediately allows us to spot people who follow
directions and pay attention to detail. It’s a great predictor of the skills we’re seeking.”
3. Not tackling tough questions head-on
Recruiters often use job application trap doors to test applicants on what sets them apart from the rest of the crowd. “Companies want to recruit the best talent there is, and weeding out those who are not a good fit starts from the very start of the job application process,” said Joe Flanagan, senior employment advisor at VelvetJobs, in Los Angeles, Ca.
According to Flanagan, one of the biggest job application trap doors is the question, ‘Why did you
leave your last job?’
“If you leave this question blank, or state that you were fired, the recruiter will consider your response to be a major red flag,” he said. “Keep the answer to this question short and positive. For instance, you could say a change in management, or elimination of the role was the reason you left. You could also indicate that you left for personal reasons.”
4. Not customizing your job application
Another major job application trap is not tailoring your cover letter and resume to each company and position. “Take the time to customize your job search documents to each application,” said Kyle Elliott, founder at CaffeinatedKyle.com, a Silicon Valley-based talent recruitment firm.
Taking the time to tailor your cover letter and resume to each job position you apply to doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process.
“Consider setting a timer for 20 minutes for each job application,” Elliot said. “Use this time to highlight why you want the position. Additionally, customize the top third of the resume so it’s aligned with the role you are targeting with a new employer. Be sure to inject any keywords from the job posting into your career summary, too.”
5. “Rushing” the response
In their zeal to land a new job, applicants often operate in sprint mode when they should be taking the long view and treating the job search process as a marathon.
“Take proper time to complete a full job application or write a cover letter, and pause before answering a key recruitment question,” said Pablo Listingart, founder of ComIt, a career development, and training firm. “Taking your time is a small price to pay for an articulate, thoughtful job application response. Those are the responses that recruitment teams remember.”
Listingart, a former career training specialist at IBM and Microsoft, said potential employees should prepare for the application and interview process ahead of time.
“Think critically around the questions that will almost inevitably be asked through the job search process,” he said. “Consider responses that feel authentic, and that communicates something about your unique perspective to the recruitment team. Resumés full of clichés and overused descriptors are impossible to differentiate.”
Even if you mean to say something common, like you’re a hard worker, for example, think of ways to distinguish what it is you’re really saying. “Offer a quick example, or think of a great story that you can tell concisely to exemplify a time when you related to the output of your work, and how you’ve focused on maximizing that output throughout your career,” Listingart said.
The goal is to walk a hiring team through the job application process in a way that resonates much more powerfully.
“The precision of language and the power of story can’t be overstated,” he said. “If I were a job seeker, I’d spend a lot of my hours preparing for concise and precise articulation.”