Secrets to Success, Job Seekers Edition: Personalize EVERYTHING

Apr 14, 2009 by

Here’s something that may make me unusual among job seekers: it takes me a minimum of 2 to 3 weeks to put together a complete job application package. I agonize over every detail and sometimes, I annoy the crap out of myself. But guess what? I also get interviews all the time.

Flickr photo by Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library

Flickr photo by Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library

In my latest search I had a 100% call back rate for job applications. That’s right: every organization I applied to called me for an interview. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll share that I only applied to two jobs during the latest search. Overall in last 6 years, I have had an average call back rate of 37%. However, according to recruiters, this is a fairly high percentage.) I don’t share this in order to brag; I share this to stress how absolutely necessary it is to personalize every application you send.*

In my last post, I wrote about how I print out job listings and let them sit for a while before rereading them. If I think they sound good during the second reading, I go through them carefully and highlight or underline key points in the description where I can plug in my experience. I even go through the description and number (up to 5 or 6) those items that seem the most important and/or places where I’m very strong. The numbers and highlighting are key because these are the areas I want to make sure and cover in my resume or cover letter.

This is where the personalization comes in. At any given time, I have a ‘long’ resume where I keep a running list of job responsibilities and accomplishments from each job I’ve had. This is not the one I send to employers – this is the one I use the build each new resume. When I’m ready to apply, I start a new document and copy over just those parts of my long resume that speak to the job for which I’m applying. I take a look at those phrases or terms I highlighted and I change the language on my resume to more closely fit those terms. I try to list concrete accomplishments (including anything quantitative) on my resume in a way that highlights what is most important to the organization that has the opening. As I do this, I check off the numbered or highlighted items on the job ad itself so I know that I’ve already covered them.

My cover letters on the other hand pull out the three or four skills I have that would make me an excellent fit for the job. I used to spend more time talking about current responsibilities, but over the last few years I’ve discovered that it’s more useful to stay away from responsibilities since they’ll be different in any given job. Skills, however, are more easily transferable, especially in an employer’s mind.

Of course, I also take a look at whatever other application materials are required, including writing samples and references. I usually use my own blog posts as writing samples, so I try to choose the one or two that are most relevant to the job.

Last but not least, I proofread everything. Repeatedly. Obsessively. I’m a good copy editor and I usually catch any mistakes, but if you aren’t, I HIGHLY recommend asking someone (or several people) to do this for you. When I’ve hired people in the past, I’ve been more willing to trash an application for bad grammar and typos than for a lack of experience. I assume everyone else is the same way, which is why I don’t send anything until I’ve read it, reread it, let it sit for a few days, read again at least 10 times and then read it all over again. I’m not kidding here. Don’t ruin your chance for a great job because you’re not a great speller.

At this point, you’re no longer wondering why it takes me 2 to 3 weeks to pull together an application and send it. And you may be thinking: she is totally crazy. If so, that is perfectly fine. Just give my method a try. As I said, I’ve gotten a very high interview response rate, especially in this latest search, so something must be working.

Let me share one last interesting and useful side effect to this entire process: while it can be more than a little devastating if you don’t hear back after putting this much work into it, when you actually do hear back, you are more prepared and committed to ace that interview. And since so few people put in this much time and effort, you’ll shine that much more brightly than the rest.

P.S. If you are interested at taking a look at the cover letter and resume that helped me get my new job, please send me an email or tweet me your email address and I’ll send it on over. I’m happy to share the love ;).

*You don’t have to take my word for it. Check out this PO-ed post from Louise Fletcher at the Blue Sky Resume Blog about her disastrous experience trying to hire a free lancer when almost no one bothered to actually read and respond to the description she provided.

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