Applying for jobs is a super stressful process. Having gone through the co-op program in university, I had a little bit of help getting jobs for my working terms (though not as much as most people think!). Now that I’m no longer in the co-op program (bummer) I have to go back to job hunting like every other student. Although, I do get to bring along the things I learned from working with the co-op office which I hope will serve me well in my job search.
The whole job hunting process feels like a game of chance. You throw the dice and hope for the best. SUPER stressful.
Though it may not feel like it, you can turn a lot of the chance into strategy. Instead of just submitting your resume and hoping that someone will call you for an interview, there are ways to strategically increase the likelihood of getting that call. The first step, of course, is the application.
It’s A Numbers Game
Job hunting is a numbers game, especially when you have little or no experience in the field you’re trying to break into. For example, when I was applying for my first co-op term I submitted around 50 applications. From those 50 applications, I got 6 interviews. Of those 6 interviews, I landed 1 job offer.
You read that right.
50 applications and 1 job offer. And I was one of the lucky ones.
The good thing is that it DOES get better once you have a bit of experience under your belt. While applying for my second term, I submitted around 15 applications. I got A LOT of interviews (not quite a 1:1 application to interview ratio but it was pretty darn close). Out of those interviews, I received 3 jobs offers. So those odds are a little better than the first year.
The lesson to take away from this is that the chances of landing any one job are pretty low unless you have inside connections or something. So increase your chances by increasing the number of jobs you’re waiting to hear from. As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” Which leads me nicely into my next point.
I’m sure most of us, if not all of us, have looked at a job posting and thought, “that looks great!” and then proceeded to read the job requirements to find that we SERIOUSLY don’t qualify for that job.
While that may sound crazy, cocky, selfish, etc. It’s not. The company is, obviously, looking for their ideal candidate. But what if their ideal candidate doesn’t apply? What if your personality would lend itself so well to their team dynamic that they decide it’s worth their while to train you? What if they see potential for you later on and decide to make a long-term investment?
You never know.
If they’re really stuck on their requirements and decide that you’re not a good fit, they won’t call you for an interview. That’s it. They’re not going to get in touch with you to give you an earful for applying without the qualifications. They don’t have time for that. They’ll just move onto the next applicant.
Other than the time it will take to send them your resume and cover letter you have nothing to lose. So apply anyway. As Wayne Gretzky said… Yeah, you get the idea.
Resumes and Cover Letters
On the topic of resumes and cover letters, there are a few general guidelines to stick to. But remember what Barbossa says about guidelines:
If you have a REALLY REALLY REALLY good reason to break one of these rules, go ahead. This is just what I found works best for me.
Two Pages, One Page
Your resume, if at all possible, should be no more than two pages long. Your cover letter should be no longer than one page. Why? Because the people who are hiring are probably going to get A LOT of applications. They’re probably not going to sit and read three, four, five pages of resumes and cover letters for each applicant. Nobody has time for that. So keep it short and sweet.
If your resume is longer than two pages, cut stuff. I know it sucks and it feels like you’re hurting your chance of getting the job. Really, though, if a recruiter is going through their pile of fifty applications and yours is the longest in it, they’ll probably either chuck it right away OR skim through very quickly to see why on earth you felt it necessary to send them all that and THEN chuck it if your experience is anything less than incredible and super relevant.
So how do you decide what to keep and what to ditch? Great question.
It depends on the job.
Customize and Tailor to each Job
Yeah, you read that right.
Every. Single. Job.
Each one gets its own customized resume and cover letter tailored to showcase your skills to each recruiter.
The biggest mistake people make when applying for jobs is to submit the same application package every time. If you think about it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The jobs aren’t the same, the requirements aren’t the same, and the recruiters aren’t the same. So why do we feel that we can tell them all the same things and expect to get hired?
The truth is, you’re going to have to develop several different versions of your application package. They don’t all have to be VASTLY different, but they will likely be pretty different. You have many skills and many valuable personality traits (you do!) but not all of them are super relevant to every job.
You are a “product” that you are trying to sell to several different employers. But no one product works perfectly for everyone. So you need to tailor your product to your customers’ needs.
Start with a baseline and then tailor each one from there. As such, my go-to method for creating a resume is to start with everything.
Include the basic stuff like your name and contact information, education, and other such things and then move onto your work experience, volunteer experience, extracurriculars, awards, hobbies, etc. Put everything in reverse-chronological order with your most recent stuff at the top.
Got everything on there? Good. You’ve probably (hopefully) got more than two pages worth of stuff there. Save this version as something specific, you’ll come back to this again and again. Once you’ve done that, save another copy under a new name. You may want the name to be specific to whatever job you’re applying for now.
Now, this is where things get tricky. Start cutting.
But how do you know what content is going to help you get the job? How do you know you’re not cutting something the employer wants to see?
You need to find out what they want. And, fortunately, they already told you what they want in their job posting. Seriously, there’s a whole lot more in there than you realize.
Pull up the job posting and give another read through. Do they list any skills that are mandatory? Do they give a list of responsibilities? What else do they say about the job or what their ideal candidate would be like? Use a highlighter or jot down notes if it will help you figure it out. Get into the recruiter’s head a little.
Once you’ve done that, pick the experiences that you have that best exemplify the qualities they’re looking for. If they want customer service experience, talk about that time you helped that cranky old lady pick out a piece of cheesecake that wasn’t too fruity but not super chocolatey either. Dress it up in professionalism and you’ve got something they want! Repeat with every tidbit they gave you to work with. It’ll take some analysis to tease the right information out of the job posting, but it can actually be fun once you really get going. It’ll take time, yeah, but doing your research is going to improve the likelihood of them calling you in for an interview.
Spelling and Grammar
Remember that big stack of 50 applications the recruiter got for this job you’ve applied for? Believe me when I say they’re not going to read them all, even if the resumes are the right length. Again, they just don’t have the time. They need to take that stack of 50 and shortlist it to maybe 10 people (that’s just a guess) to call in for interviews. The step in between for them is to get rid of as many as possible so they can focus on 20 or 25 to pick their chosen 10 from.
One of the main ways they do this is by scanning for spelling and grammar.
Yup. I’m dead serious.
While applying for my second co-op job, I landed an interview with a well-known construction company in my area. Interestingly enough, I had worked with contractors from this company in my first co-op. I didn’t know the people I was interviewing with personally, but I knew some of the industry jargon their guys use and the nickname they give themselves. The interviewer commented on how I knew to call them by their nickname and still spelled the company name correctly in my cover letter (the nickname is a bit of a misnomer, hence the surprise). The interviewer then proceeded to tell me that checking the spelling of the company name was the first thing they did to cut down the number of applicants they would consider. If the name was spelled wrong (and it was one of those names that could very easily be spelled wrong – a Mc and Mac kind of situation) the resume went in the recycling.
Yeah, I definitely wiped my brow and thanked my former self for being careful enough to check the spelling -twice- before submitting my application.
While that may seem unfair because “how do my spelling and grammar affect my ability to *insert job task here that has nothing to do with writing*?” It mightn’t really impact your ability to do the job well, but it says a lot about your personality. Let me explain.
If you don’t take the time to carefully read through your material (ie. Resume and cover letter) to ensure things are spelled correctly and that your grammar is accurate, do you think they’re going to believe that you’re going to take the time to ensure you perform your duties well at work?
Even if you’re super busy and really just need to get that application submitted before the deadline – they don’t know that. All they see to represent you is three sheets of paper with words on them. If you submit those three sheets of paper to represent you, you had better be sure they represent you at your best. Unless you know the recruiter personally, they’ve got nothing else to go off. Everything the think about you, every impression they get is going to be given to them through your resume and cover letter.
Make it count.
One way to make your application really count is to do your research. While this includes reading through the job posting to make sure you advertise what they’re asking for, it goes deeper than that.
When I revise my cover letter for an application, I like to make it personal. I include the name of the recruiter, job description, and all that good stuff, of course, but it’s also valuable to find out what makes the company tick. Find out what their corporate values are. Find out what their mission statement is. If you find anything that lines up with your own personal values, milk it. Who knows? You may even find yourself getting excited to work that job!
For example, if you look up Michelin (yeah, the tire company with the big white mascot) one of their corporate values is giving back to the community. They put on an annual bike safety day in Nova Scotia, among other things. I mentioned that in my cover letter. It showed the recruiter that I did my research, I knew a bit about the company I was applying to, I put the effort in. I also got that job.
I’m not saying that this is the ticket to success or anything, don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying that it’s a tactic that helps. It makes you stand out to whoever reads your resume. And standing out is the key to being one of the fifty that gets selected for an interview.
Just about everybody knows the basics of interview etiquette so I won’t reiterate it here. Rather than discussing what you should wear or how to do your hair or should you bring a copy of your application package with you (YES!) let’s talk about what you should SAY in an interview.
Again, each job it different and therefore each interview will be as well. There is, however, a common approach to preparing for interviews so don’t feel as though you have to go in and just “wing it.” In fact, I strongly recommend that you don’t.
Do Your Research!
Again with the research. There’s no way to know what to say to impress someone unless you know a little bit about them first. You may not be able to find out about your interviewer specifically, but you can almost always find out stuff about the company. Just the same as you did with the resume and cover letter, read the job description, read the employer’s website. Find out what makes them tick. Find out how you can fit in their corporate environment then exude that in your interview. Sometimes interviewers like to ask what you know about the company or why you want to work for them. While “I need a job so I can eat” is a very realistic answer to that second question, that’s probably not what an interviewer wants to hear. That question is a great opportunity to drop your knowledge bomb on them and impress them with how much you know about the job and the company. It’s also a great opportunity to tell them exactly how you can relate to the company’s values and how you think you’ll be an asset to them.
Ever get into an interview where the interviewer asks you one of those, “tell me about a time when…” questions? If you’re anything like me, you probably HATE them with a burning passion. When I get those questions, I immediately break out in a sweat because I know I’m going to fumble my words and end up saying wayyyyyyyy too much about stuff they don’t care about. I never really know if I’ve answered the question afterward despite having rambled on for five minutes and end with, “and, uh, yeah.”
The STAR approach, though it sounds SUPER dumb, will help with this. This approach does require a bit of thinking on your feet, but it’s not too bad once you’ve practiced it a few times. You can definitely prepare answers, or ideas for answers, ahead of time but your responses will really depend on the questions asked.
Unsurprisingly, the name is an acronym. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Results.
When you get one of those pesky questions, “tell me about a time when…” start by outlining the situation you were in, then explain what the task was that you had to complete, explain your approach to completing the task, and finally, discuss what resulted from your actions.
I won’t go into examples here since there are loads to be found through a quick Google search, but I will say that using this approach to answering questions really helps me keep my head in the right place. I usually allow myself a few moments to formulate an answer in my mind, selecting from a few good examples I had thought of ahead of time and then tailoring it to answer the interviewer’s question.
Once you get this technique down pat, you’ll find that interviews are almost a breeze. I’ve actually walked out of interviews feeling disappointed that I WASN’T asked one of these questions. They’re my real bread and butter for impressing recruiters now because I can pack a lot of punch in one answer.
This approach also gives you the opportunity to talk about things you haven’t showcased to the recruiter yet. If I’m in an interview and we’ve talked a bunch about my Formula SAE experience but I feel that I haven’t shown them enough of my ability to work with a diverse team, one of these questions allows me to pick and choose the situation I tell them about.
For example, if the question was something like, “tell me about a time you experienced adversity in the workplace,” I have a multitude of examples. I could talk about the time someone was a jerk to me on my first co-op. I could talk about the time where a union worker totally unsubordinated myself and another more senior engineer on my second work term. I could talk about serving angry customers at a restaurant. But if I really feel like they need to know that I can work with stubborn people and get them to do things they don’t necessarily want to do, I might choose to tell them about the time I was the Assistance Stage Manager for a two-week musical theater camp for ages 8-18. Oh yeah.
Anyway, the point here is that the STAR approach (though, it still sounds dumb) gives you options and a template for your answers. If you practice it, you might come to love it too.
The hardest part of job hunting, perhaps, is the waiting. The application went in, the interview went great, now they’re making their decision.
I wish I had some advice on how to make the waiting easier, but I don’t really. The best advice I have though goes back to the beginning of this topic: it’s a numbers game. So get back in there and apply for more jobs. The more applications you submit, the better your chances are of landing a job, and once you’ve got the experience, things DO get easier.
Best of luck in your hunt!
All my love,