When I review résumés, a surprising percentage of them go straight into the reject pile because of mistakes that could have been avoided. Here are the top reasons why:
1. Your cover letter is clearly a form letter that you're mass-mailing—and it doesn't even relate to the job. The most extreme version of this is when an applicant leaves another company's name in the letter by mistake. But plenty of times, the letter is simply utterly generic and displays no sign that the candidate bothered to read my job posting.
2. Your E-mail displays your name as "Sexy Mama" or similar ilk. I'm not exaggerating—I received a résumé from "Sexy Mama" last week. This sort of nickname or E-mail address is so unprofessional that it trumps all else. If you like to traverse the Web as "Sexy Mama" or "Hot Chica" or whatever, go for it—but unless you're applying for jobs in the adult entertainment industry, get an E-mail account with a professional name for job searching. They're free. (And if anyone out there does this and can explain what you are thinking, please E-mail me and explain, because I am baffled by it. I almost wrote back to "Sexy Mama" to ask her.)
3. Your résumé and/or cover letter have spelling errors or typos. Yes, these things matter. I'm assuming that you're on your best behavior when job searching, and if your communications aren't polished now, they definitely won't be once you're on the job.
4. Your résumé lists an objective totally unrelated to the position I have open. If you're applying for, say, a communications position, your objective shouldn't say you're seeking a finance position in the healthcare field. Really, just get rid of the objective altogether. It rarely helps, often hurts, and always takes up valuable real estate that could be better used to showcase your accomplishments. If you want to talk about your career objective and how this position fits it, use the cover letter for that.
5. The job requires a particular type of experience and you have none, and you didn't acknowledge that or try to overcome it in your cover letter.
6. You're wildly overqualified and didn't address that in your cover letter, so I'm left to assume you don't understand the nature of the position.
In short, here's the formula: Be meticulous and professional, customize your résumé and cover letter for the job you're applying for, and answer the obvious questions a hiring manager is likely to have about your application. You still may not get the interview, but you'll at least get serious consideration.
Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-size nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other publications. She blogs at Ask a Manager.
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