Optimizing your online job applications
By: Russell Abbatiello
We refer to this common experience as “the resume black hole.” We apply apply and apply online and never hear back. While there are many reasons (some out of your control) why we may not be hearing anything from the employer, how we fill out the online application could be a factor.
Once we fill out an online application, our information uploads to a large database (called an Applicant Tracking System) where it sits …surrounded by 50, 100, 300 other hopeful competitors. How an employer decides whose application to look at first and in what order is very site-dependent. Despite the odds being against us, there are a few things we can do to maximize the chances of our application being seen and noticed.
- First and foremost, it should go without saying that any time you can personalize or humanize your approach…do it! You will be required to submit your application online to make it “official,” but before this or very soon after this, take every opportunity to “become known” to the hiring manager. Have an inside contact submit it directly to a hiring manager or have an insider advocate for you to HR. This can make all the difference. At the very least, try to find out the hiring manager’s name and contact information. Send him or her an email or letter of introduction, putting a personalized touch on your recently submitted application.
- Internal applicants and referrals of internal applicants have a much better chance of rising to the top of the candidate list in the applicant system. Even a job as a TA or GA at IHP gets you “internal status” for all of partners!
- In terms of efficiency, you can save some time by: (1) Using some “autofill” tools so your computer remembers what information goes in what fields. After you complete your first application – your computer should remember what goes where and “autofill” with one click. (2) Creating a spreadsheet template containing all of the most common fields on an application and performing a “copy-paste” over to the application. (3) Have the information for your references ready to go. (4) Click the “save” button after each page in the application since many of these systems “time-out” randomly. (5) Do not use your browser’s “back” button….use instead the Applicant System’s back arrow. (6) Consider creating one universal username and password with 8 characters, 1 capital letter, 1 number, and 1 symbol. (7) Avoid over-clicking the buttons as systems often lag or process slowly. (8) Use a spreadsheet to track all the places you applied to and action steps needed.
- Applying directly on the company’s website is much more effective than through a third-party site like “jobfox” or a recruiter website.
- Be sure you upload all of the required documents. Even if they do not require a cover letter, it is very important to do so anyway! I suggest saving your cover letter, resume, and one powerful letter of recommendation as one file and uploading it as your resume. This way, when the employer goes to evaluate your resume….they can’t help but see your beautiful cover letter and a letter of endorsement from a professional in the field. Be sure to upload your cover letter separately too, if the application requires it.
- Uploading your resume is always better than “copy/paste.” Word .doc and .pdf are your best choices for format. Just check to make sure they are acceptable formats.
- Consider each box on the application acts like a “gate-keeper” – you have to pass each one to get through to the next gate. Do not skip or leave anything blank. A “completed application” is one of the first ways employers “rank” candidates in their systems. Incompletes get screened out immediately.
- The salary box and availability (your schedule) sections are two primary “screen-out” sections. Be sure to state that you are VERY available (nights weekends etc), and be VERY reasonable in your desired salary. Too low or too high can mean an immediate “screen-out” before your resume is even seen by human eyes.
- In the referral source box (how did you hear about the job?) – it is VITAL that you use choose internal referral (employee) and type in his or her name. This can help your application “rank” higher if the employer is using a scoring system (which all systems are capable of doing!).
- Take advantage of any “open-ended” often “optional” sections. For example, “Describe your healthcare experience prior to nursing school.” Use relevant “keywords” and relevant skills in these boxes. Sometimes employers will use keyword searches to “rank” applications in their systems. The applications/resume with the most relevant keywords, scores best…and gets seen earlier than others.
- Apply to jobs where you fulfill all or at least 95% of the requirements (and preferred requirements) of the job. Employers can configure their systems to auto-screen-out any applications that do not meet the basic requirements.
- Some employers configure their systems with “pre-qualifying” questions. If you encounter them and you cannot get all questions “correct ,” your application is likely not going to be seen by human eyes. They will ask questions like, “Do you have a bachelor’s degree,” or “do you have 2 years paid experience as a xxxx.” Answering “no” if these pieces are required is going to hurt your odds dramatically.
- If employers have not “fine-tuned” their system away from default settings, applications will then likely be ranked based on “date received.” That will mean, the earlier you apply, the better!
- Default settings in their systems make it so that any change or edit that you make to your application gets “flagged” and often jumps to the top of page – indicating that an action was taken by you. Take advantage of this by editing your application once a week to get your name up top!
- Be mindful of your stated place of residence. It is common for employers to quickly examine how far away you live from the company. This is an easy screen-out. The further away (especially out-of-state) from the site you live, sometimes the harder it is to get your application seen.
- “Follow-up” is VITAL to the application process. Be sure to place a call to HR or the hiring manager to ensure your application came through successfully. Even better would be to have an “insider” make the call for you!
- You will be tempted to move quickly through the application. Be sure you do not take short-cuts: check grammar, capitalization, no abbreviations, no “see resume,” no misspellings….and no blank boxes.
- Again, be most mindful of the most commonly configured disqualifiers: incomplete application, location, salary expectation/salary history, desired work schedule, referral source, fulfillment of basic and some preferred requirements, education/certifications.
- Smaller companies may be less likely to use ATS systems to screen applications, making it easier to be seen by human beings. Always find ways to get be seen by employers – avoiding the Applicant Tracking Systems altogether, or at least make the online application a mere formality. I like jobs on Craigslist for this reason – most responses to ads go directly to a real person rather than a computer database.
- Consider applying through LinkedIn or other social media. LinkedIn is configured to work well with employer systems. It will convert your profile into a readable format and send directly to the employer. These applications often stand out with a unique identifier in their systems.
- Use common sense: avoid applying to widely diverse positions within the same company. Within a system like Partners, for example, any HR rep from any hospital within Partners can see your entire history of application submissions.
- Maintain only one candidate profile or account per company – more than one can confuse the employer’s system and hurt your chances of being seen.
- Do a check of your digital footprint, i.e. google your name! Clean up anything you do not wish an employer to see. They are very likely to check your profile.
- Have ready some supportive documents just in case you are allowed to upload additional files. Consider writing samples, recommendation letters, or even a “testimonial” sheet that contains excerpts or quotes from references endorsing you.
- Be sure to check email spam folders as many automatic messages from employer systems get sent there!
- If ever you were to receive a quick “auto-rejection” email for a job which you are highly qualified, contact HR for advice on how to better position yourself for getting your application seen.
- Do not submit more than once for the same job. If you are worried about whether it was exported successfully, just call HR to confirm.
As you can see, when we apply online, our application must go through a rigorous “matching” process – comparing our credentials to the requirements of the job. The computer is heartless – it does not understand or interpret our potential, it only scans what we match and what we do not match from our paperwork. However, when our job search is focused on “becoming known to the right people,” we are no longer held to such heartless black and white evaluations.
So we conclude (but never completely finish) my list of tips for online applications. Remember….when you make PEOPLE the center of your job search, your online application will be but a mere formality. Anyway, it will ultimately be a person who hires us, not computer…right!?