9 Head-Smacking Tips for Job Seekers


Founder & CEO,

At Software Advice, we’re hiring like mad, or at least trying to. You might think a growing company with interesting jobs, great pay, top-notch benefits and a cool office would find hiring to be a breeze in a recession like this. Nope.

We want A players on our team – we have 19 so far. However, we typically sort through about 150 candidates for each hire we make. Only about twelve of those 150 candidates get to a first-round phone interview.

Why so few?

It’s not worth our time to interview any more than that. The incremental effort of interviewing more than twelve out of 150 candidates produces a very low marginal yield of qualified hires. There may be a superstar hidden in the other 138, but it’s not worth our time to dig too deep to find her. Yes, we look at each application, but we do so with an eye for why we should reject the candidate, not why we should hire them. That quickly gets us to roughly a dozen interviewees, and then we switch our mindset to start thinking about who we want to hire.

With that as context, I want to share some of the screens I use to whittle down 150 applications to twelve interviews. I’m not talking about the usual hiring criteria; yes, we absolutely look at experience, achievements, academic credentials, etc. That’s all core and critical. Instead, I’m going to talk about the head-smacking, silly things people do that make me click “reject” in our applicant tracking system (ATS).

One more bit of context: our typical hiring profile is a recent college grad, zero to five years out, looking for a sales or marketing job. Keep that in mind. Here goes:

1. Don’t name your resume, “resume.” About a third of applicants name their resume document, “resume.doc.” “Resume” may make sense on your computer, where you know it’s your resume. However, on my computer, it’s one of many, many resumes with the same name. I used to rename them, but then I noticed the strong correlation between unqualified candidates and the “resume” file name. Now I reject them if I don’t see something really good within ten seconds. By using such a generic file name, the applicant misses a great opportunity to brand themselves (e.g. “John Doe – Quota Crusher”). If you’re qualified enough to sell or market for us, you won’t miss the opportunity to at least use your name in the file name.

2. don’t use all lowercase. i’m not sure where this trend originated. is it some text messaging thing? it’s so easy to capitalize properly on a keyboard. how much time is this really saving you? to me, it screams out, “hi. i’m lazy. my pinkies are really heavy and I’d rather not move them to shift. when i start working for you, i’ll look for other ways to be lazy. i’ll also rebel against authority figures like you, just like i’m rebelling against the english teachers who dedicated their lives to helping me become literate.” seriously though, this bad habit buys you next to nothing and is bound to offend countless detailed-oriented hiring managers.

3. Don’t write like a robot. I’ve noticed a funny phenomenon with many grads who are entering “the real world.” While their speech is still littered with “ums,” “likes” and “you knows,” their writing is exceedingly formal, long-winded and boring. The people who are reviewing your application were young once too. They may still be young. Most of them have a sense of humor. They get bored. Please, don’t make them parse dense cover letters and resumes that read like some robot ate a thesaurus and puked. Just use concise, well-written prose. Keep sentences short. Toss in a joke or two. Show us a little bit of your personality. We’re going to have to work with you more than we see our spouses, so show us that we’ll enjoy it. No robots.

4. Don’t spam hiring managers. It’s easy to tell when a candidate is just applying to any job out there to see if anyone will call for an interview. Unlikely. Hiring managers want to know that you are excited about the position. They know that passion for the role is critical to success. Take the time to understand the company and the open position. Write a cover letter or email that explains your interest in the role and your qualifications. Tweak your resume to match the hiring criteria. On our web application, we ask applicants to answer three questions. Why? Because spammer applicants will just enter simple answers of a few words; applicants who care enter well-written, thoughtful answers. We delete the former immediately. Remember, these jobs are competitive; the only way to compete is to stand out…in a good way. Spam won’t.

5. Don’t expose your licentious personal life. We’ve all read about social media missteps – those unfortunate photos of you passed out drunk, covered in flour (“antiqued” as my co-workers call it), profane words written on your face. Honestly, I understand. If Facebook and camera phones were around when I was in college, I’d still be blushing in embarrassment. Now that you want a career, put that stuff behind you. Start managing your reputation online and off. One of our three application questions asks for the applicant’s proudest achievements. Today some guy answered that he had produced and starred in his own music video. Kinda cool, I thought. That is, until I clicked the link and witnessed the puerile lifestyle of which he remains so proud. Reject. As a rule, I’m not going to pry too deep into your personal life, so don’t jinx yourself by showing us you at your worst.

6. Don’t talk badly about your former employer. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. This is especially relevant in the hiring process. When I read negative comments in an application or cover letter, I’m shocked. My problem with this is twofold. First, it typically takes two to tangle. I assume there is a high likelihood that this applicant finds trouble wherever they go. Moreover, talking badly betrays a lack of “political judgement” – a critical skill set for the workplace, whether you like it or not. When I hear a candidate say that their last employer was incompetent, a micro-manager, or unfair, I assume I’m next on their list. The candidate may be right; their former employer may be horrible. I’ll pass on the opportunity to find out.

7. Proofread your resume. It’s unbelievable the number of spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes I see in resumes. Again, this is a blaring clue telling the hiring manager that you don’t check your work and you don’t pay attention to detail. More than one error and I’m clicking reject. Why so harsh? Because I don’t want to have to double check your work when I hire you. Hiring managers want leverage, not more work. It’s really easy to have someone review your resume. Friends, family, career counselors – all these folks should be willing to give it a quick read. Fresh eyes can catch those typos you’ve glanced over ten times. Take the extra effort and avoid the nearly automatic “reject” reflex that hiring managers have when they spot your errors.

8. Format your resume nicely. Take the time to format your resume nicely. It’s one of those small clues hiring managers look to for an indication of your attention to detail, organization and pride in your work. If you send me a sloppy resume, I’ll reject it knowing that you are likely to do sloppy work if I hire you. There are standard formats out there; use them. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t get creative (unless you are applying for creative jobs in design, advertising, etc.). For sales, marketing, finance, administration, etc., stick to a clean, one-page format like the Wharton School Template. Don’t make us figure out your resume format when we’re busy trying to figure out you.

9. PDF your resume. Not everyone uses the same operating system and word processor that you do. I use a Mac. I don’t have Word – don’t want it. My ATS can’t handle .docx files. A lot of the resumes I see come through horribly garbled. So much for that nice formatting you did (Did you?). PDF, or portable document format, is a simple solution. Anyone with Adobe Reader – most any corporate computer has it installed – can open a PDF file and see exactly what you intended them to see. Most ATSs read PDFs just fine. Most any Mac application can print/export to PDF. If your Windows apps won’t, go download one of the many free PDF creator applications and PDF your resume. It’s so easy. It’s so free. It’s so appreciated.

10. When you get a job, don’t job hop. Finally, here’s one last piece of advice that goes far beyond the job application. When you get a job, try your very best to stay at it for at least two years, preferably more. We understand that the job market is fluid and you are not likely to stay with us long enough to get the gold watch. However, we do want to get a couple years of productivity from you if we’re going to invest in training and mentoring. One of the first things I look for on a resume is some demonstration of tenure. Had three jobs in your first year out of college? Reject. Four jobs in your first five years out? Reject. I’ve got to assume that you were fired repeatedly or you’ve got a bad case of career ADD. Got a good story about all that job hopping? Unfortunately, I can’t afford to take the risk.

I know I sound like a grumpy old man. I just can’t help but share this inside scoop on our screening process. I know it might reduce my screening effectiveness if I share my criteria. However, if you read this and fix your application, that tells me you are coachable and you care. Let’s interview.

If you are an A player, I hope you’ll get a good laugh out of this. Moreover, I want you to know that there is a company out there working hard to find you. We’ll hire you. We’ll appreciate you. We’ll reward you handsomely. Please apply! Just take your time on the application.

Thumbnail image created by striatic.

  • anna

    This is great. Don Fornes should be giving commencement addresses–something useful could actually be learned.

    Thanks for the PDF tip.

  • http://missdisplaced.wordpress.com Miss Displaced

    FYI-Most of the job boards (and many of the corporate web sites) still will not accept a PDF resume upload. I prefer this as well, but if you are posting your jobs on these places realize it is not the applicants fault if you get a garbled .docx file.

  • http://www.rmmcdocs.com Jan M

    Great advice that I will put into place when doing my next hiring spate! Informative and humorous.

  • http://www.courtingyourcareer.com Shawn

    Good tips. Although throwing in a few jokes in a cover letter is almost always (always) going to be a terrible idea. First, most job seekers aren’t terribly funny and second, most Human Resource folks tend to be pretty by the book. One bad joke could be all they need to reject you from the applicant pool.

  • Andrew

    This is exactly how mundane and petty job seeking is. Really? Your going to deduce from my word document name being in all lowercases that I am lazy person.

    Hiring managers are chumps. Its probably that they all suck in that they have to resort to such stupid measures when looking for people to hire.

    Them eliminating candidates through Resumes having generic names or being in all lowercases only highlights that they are more lazy than the applicants. These are the people responsible for hiring people, huh? We are in trouble.

    I would love to see these so called “experts” try and get a job in the worst economy since the great depression, in the era of social media, and over saturated job websites and see how they succeed.

  • Charlotte

    I believe the expression is “it takes two to tango.” But very true.

    Interesting advice.

  • Kate

    I think you may be over-reacting to the job-hop situation. For many people, it may take one, two or three work situations to find the right type of work, let alone the right fit with a company.

    Look instead to see if the candidate held job #3 or #4 for a longer period of time. If they haven’t deduced the right work environment/industry/functional role by that point, then I would certainly agree with you that you should be wary.

    I’d rather see someone be able to explain those changes rationally, and give credit to them for
    taking the risk on finding a good fit, rather than staying in a bad situation just to get “time in grade” brownie points with a recruiter.

    By the way … out of grad school, I changed jobs 3 times in 5 years. Job #4 – held it for 14 years, 3 months and 28 days with MCI and was considered “top talent” for all of those years… but I had to find the right fit for my skills, talent, and interests.

  • Lily

    My question is about the “job” hopping topic. The rest of it makes sense and is kind of common sense. I have had several jobs since graduating, all of them were contract. Some of them I would have loved to stay at but when the contract ended had no possibility of extension.

    How does one deal with that?

  • http://www.alkalizerh2o.com Brad Hamilton

    Excellent advice, Don! These aren’t just tips to brush over, they are concrete, effective solutions to many peoples’ problems attempting to find a solid job. I think you threw in number 10 since it doesn’t quite fit into the resume tips, but it’s a perfect bonus! And I would also add the ability to have strong soft skills included within #3. I’m not sure about the joke or two, but if it’s appropriate for the context then go for it. Thank you for taking the time to write this up! Brad

  • Bill

    You only consider 12 out of 150 applicants?

    Let’s assume that you used your parsing technique to eliminate the duds, and still had 90 or so that passed the first round of automatic rejection. From those 90, you will take them in some order, possibly random. When you get to 12 candidates you stop. This may very well leave 50 (a full 1/3) or so possibly better-qualified candidates that you did not even consider. This is the fundamental flaw with using a computer to make decisions for you. You state that “It’s not worth my time” to consider more, but, by using your inherently unfair process (start at the bottom of the list, and stop when you get 12) you have abrogated your responsibility, and possibly federal law to equally consider every qualified candidate.

    This is the dirty little secret of HR. Online job applications are truly a lottery. Too may candidates, too little time, and no personal attention to the hiring process; just let Intel and Apple decide for us who will be the lucky first 12 candidates. By not even perusing all 150 quickly (1 minute per application = 2 1/2 hours of your time as an HR professional to properly and fairly consider every candidate for this one opening, a job to feed their family; one which they will hold in your company, possibly for many years to come. Isn’t it worth three hours of your time to fairly pick the best candidate?

    The capricious methodologies you describe are repeated across HR departments throughout the United States, and very often wind up placing inferior candidates before ones more qualified, because “It’s not worth my time”. As an HR professional, time is all you have to offer. Time is your only commodity, and you should use it properly, and fairly.

    As for you remark “I don’t have Word – don’t want it”, (I have a Mac, therefore I am superior to all of you who don’t own one) you show your narrow-mindedness, and lack of understanding of the real HR industry, where a majority of the large job boards at the Fortune 500 aren’t set up to read PDFs.

    The corporate world runs on Windows and Word, so get over it, and buy a version of Word for your Mac, so that you can read the industry standard document form, .doc or .docx.

    I, too have a Mac, but since I also have to operate in the real world, I also own a PC with Microsoft Office.

  • Mario

    The resume is the extact of a Curriculum Vitae.

    To be correct you should name your resume “Mario’s resume” because is summarizes “Mario’s Curriculum Vitae et Studiorium” 10 pages long.

    Job seekes believe it to be the same, it isn’t! This is an error that I saw often and makes you wonder, what else?

  • http://newdev.com newdev.com

    Thank you for the nice write up.
    Learned something new, will have both on hand .Doc and .PDF.

    I do find it strange that a person in this day and age that does not have at least a Word reader installed even on Mac.

    I own a Mac too, and bought Word so I can still operate in the real world.

  • Iz

    I could not have agreed with you more, Bill! Excellent rebuttal; BRAVO!!!

  • Michelle

    Question: My resume shows about 5 companies I worked for in ten years 6 if you count I just returned to a former employer on a part time basis. However my reasons for changing jobs was because I was once married to a marine and we moved alot. I am now divorced and able to be stable in my location situation. When I do get an interview I easily explain this situation and usually the hiring manager relaxes and sees it makes sense plus its easy to verify my story. However I can see how people can quickly reject my resume at first glance if you are just looking at time spent at each company. Any suggestions on overcoming this situation.
    Another question to your article. You said you usually hire people with work experience of 0-5 years etc a set criteria.
    In my situation I have many years of experience yet I didnt move up high in title for same reason I moved due to military. I have been getting feedback that I am too experienced or not enough. I dont mind starting out at an entry level position or next step up because I am seeking to stay somewhere and grow some roots…but once again how can I get beyond the resume toss.

  • Zackery M

    If I evaluated this post with the same approach you use in evaluating resumes I’d have to assume some very negative things about your work ethic and the worth you place on people. I would have to look between the lines to get to know a little about who you really are and that’s only fair that I invest that effort before writing you off. I mean, you’re making decisions that will affect every part of someone’s life, in both subtle and extreme ways.

    Especially considering current events, casually reviewing someone’s resume is just rude. You’re not simply reviewing most recent work history, education, and personal achievements condensed to fit onto no more than two pieces of paper. When you get a resume, that person has just opened up to letting a stranger judge his or her value. That person may have worked harder than you will ever know to build experience and qualifications he or she believes an organization will see as assets. It’s the kind of story you can’t read in short, concise sentences.

    An example of how you totally got one point wrong: your tip about using lowercase letters marks someone as lazy and following a traditional format because reinventing the wheel is bad. When I updated my resume last, I spent probably around 25 minutes trying to decide if using lowercase letters was appropriate for the job I was applying for (that included the right font, color, etc). I made it through every interview for that job and was even praised for not having a boring resume from the organization’s HR people. In the end, I’m sure the person who got the job didn’t get it because they chose to use traditional capitalization rules.


  • Thomas Romack

    With great respect, it is appalling to me that an important recruiting gatekeeper admits to two work habits that can disclude the best applicant in any number of Resume` submissions:

    1. Recruiters often say that their goal is to hire the “absolute best” employees, and yet their methods, time constraints or not, make that a lie. Recruiters admittedly spend seconds using their own “screen”, and discard a candidate because of something like the next point.

    2. You throw a candidate away because their submitted Resume` has a label of “resume.doc” instead of some cute title that some Resume` writer may have been paid money to market???

    From an individual with fourteen years of HR executive experience, performance awards and limitless references who will vouch for what would bring to a new employer, I am every day disenchanted by professionals who say one thing, and in fact do another and then write about it.

    With respect.

  • http://www.jbaltz.com/weblog Jerry Altzman

    I’ve written some about this before; I have written about it a bit on my own blog.

    I personally prefer plain text to PDF (easier to search through in my mail client), although if you have a system to manage all received correspondence, you probably have something that can text search through a PDF file.

    I’ve also been amazed that every applicant seems to have “great attention to detail” and yet misses all the gross spelling or formatting mistakes in the emails and application letters, or can’t read the entire job posting.

    The overabundance of applications is a part and parcel of the new world where people aren’t paying $0.25/pg for laserprinter output on good paper of their resume (as we had to do when I was an undergraduate), but applying to every job posted on Craigslist or Dice costs you essentially zero.

    You missed three pieces of missing advice: first, if you’re applying for a job that’s NOT what you’ve been doing before (e.g. it’s out of your comfort zone, or you’re just not completely qualified for the position), be upfront about that.

    Second, while it’s important for your resume to ‘stand out from the crowd’ to be noticed, there is a fine line between ‘standing out’ and ‘looking stupid’, so get a friend whose opinions you trust (and preferably has reviewed resumes before) who can give your resume a once-over.

    Third, it is important to remind people that since hiring managers are reviewing hundreds of resumes at a time now, we’ve developed hair-trigger BS detectors, so rather that list everything you’ve ever touched as if it were a technology you pioneered, be honest about what it is you’ve done (and haven’t done) in your resume, because if it comes out in your first phone interview that you don’t know anything at all, all you’ve done is delay the same rejection you’d have received, and wasted your time as well as the manager’s.

  • DLH

    First, many people from a large corporation background will use all lowercase or uppercase file labels because an eight character lowercase label was the file labeling protocol for old DOS and is probably still used in some proprietary software used by larger corporations. It is the best format to default to if an unfamiliar computer or program won’t save your file.

    Second, sitting down and skimming 150 or so resumes to get a second cut of 30 or so to read for the phone call list can be a few hours but not that bad. The thousands of resumes from something like Monster that make it through the software will be filtered by someone who is not the hiring manager based on keywords. Experienced HR people make better guesses.

    People do have different reasons for moving around especially in the current job market. If someone is 5 years out and switching every 2 years on permanent jobs I would worry. If it is contract work, you can put it under a header like Contract Applications Engineering with the individual positions and companies to follow or as Applications Engineer – Contract listed as part of the job title.

    Lastly, yes, it is truly amazing the number of PhDs from elite schools who are too arrogant to have someone read their resume for spelling and readability. Being an engineer, I will give people a pass on actual grammar rules if it is literate and readable.

    Second, sitting down and skimming 150 or so resumes to get a second cut of 30 or so to read for the phone call list can be a few hours but not that bad. The thousands from something like Monster that make it through the software will be filtered by someone who is not the hiring manager.

    People do have different reasons for moving around especially in the current job market. If someone is 5 years out and switching every 2 years on permanent jobs I would worry. If it is contract work you can put it under a header like Contract Applications Engineering with the individual positions and companies to follow or as Applications Engineer – Contract listed as part of the job title.

    And yes, it is truely amazing the number of PhDs from elite schools who are too arrogant to have someone read their resume for spelling and readability. Being an engineer I will give people a pass on actual grammer rules if it is readable.

  • DLH

    see, failure to master the comment box

  • http://www.canadianisp.ca Marc Bissonnette

    First off: *GREAT* article. It is sad that the descriptor “head slapping” must be used, since the inference is that these should be so obvious they shouldn’t be mentioned, but still…

    Next: To some of the commenters: Umm. How to word this politely ? A few of you proved Dons’ advice.

    The “all lower case” he wrote about wasn’t the referring to the file names, but to the content of the cover letter or resume, itself.

    Regarding the .docx compatibility: Guess what ? Many, many, *many* corporations are still using MS software that is older than five years. Many of those “many” are Fortune 500 companies. Many of those “many” are mac-only shops. If you want to get a job with them, you’d better provide a document in a format that they can read. The result of that nose-elevating snobbishness ? Your job search will be longer.

    Regarding the “look at X resumés until 12 are found” – I think you’d better re-read what he wrote: Using his filtering process, he clearly said that on average, only 12 pass muster, NOT that he “stops” once 12 are found.

    I sincerely hope that people read job requirements better than they read blog entries…

    Great read, Don!

  • JR

    Right on target, Bill!

    I figured out some time ago tht HR people aren’t interested in hiring applicants; they are interested in disqualifying them. Let the poor shmoes already working in the company continue to do double the work for a single wage. Why not? Why rock the salary-saving boat?

  • http://www.jtlservices.com Jeff LeFevre

    The point by Bill is well taken! That is why when using a recruiter you will find the best of the best because we go through every job candidate. It is frustrating at times when dealing with HR because they sometimes don’t realize the process that we do to find the best. Our best clients don’t even need to see a resume to schedule an interview because if we recommend they grant the interview.

  • MS

    Hey folks, I think Don’s advice is right on. He’s really not trying to slam us, but rather help us. I’m (again) in the ranks of the unemployed, and it’s brutal out there. Any tips about how to stand out are welcome. It’s not about fairness; it’s about survival. I, too, hope that when things turn around, those in the positions of power (recruiters, HR, managers, etc.) will see where they can do better and be more fair to the many qualified candidates. But for now, this is the situation we’re in.

  • MS

    I agree with most of your article, although I find it depressing that so little effort goes into finding the right candidate. I also appreciate the advice, which I will use to my advantage where possible.

    I do disagree with one point in particular. The point regarding proper punctuation. Even spelling can be a little tenuous since there are so many words with multiple spellings. But with punctuation, it is a minefield of, “what is right and what is wrong.” (Do you place the comma before the last item in a list or not?) Despite my own rather firm beliefs regarding grammar, when I was involved with hiring other professionals, I definitely gave only a small amount of credence to punctuation and I would advise other HR professionals and hiring managers to do the same.

  • Emilie van de Graaff

    hi Don, great advice all around but I particularly liked your comments about use of capitals (in fact I would add all punctuation), writing in clear, plain English, proofreading and managing one’s online reputation, all of which I’ve seen young applicants mess up on. And yes, so many resumes come in named as just that! I also used to say the same to my team when they were sending me their annual review documents – save it with your name so I know which is which!

  • http://www.bizmanualz.com Steve Flick

    Don, as long as I’ve been in business, I still found a few bits of wisdom I’d never heard or read before. A “for instance” is the practice of converting one’s resume to Adobe “.pdf” format (it’s worth noting that MS-Word 2007 or 2010 allow conversion of “.docx” files to “.pdf”).

    Even considering the countless number of times I’ve heard/read most of this, you resisted the temptation to be lazy and took the time to personalize your advice. A great example of that is how you explained the numbers game. I know how being unemployed makes one play his/her own numbers game (i.e., “If I throw my resume at 500+ corporations, I have a better chance than if I only apply to 50.”). You explained clearly and concisely how we shoot ourselves in the foot when we apply indiscriminately and/or in bulk.

    Thanks for your insight.

  • Wes Smith

    Lots of good dialog there. As an employer I’d like to add some experience. I don’t recall seeing the resume for our last 5 hires. I’m sure they had one, and someone checked the basics, but at the end of the day, they were all people someone knew from industry, or who had approached us through a social network (not the electronic kind). Don’t forget to be human, and use your existing relationships, you’d be amazed at who might be receptive.

  • http://ca.linkedin.com/in/bruceroberts Bruce Roberts

    Thanks very much for your posts. As a novice in the job hunting career, I appreciate the obvious as well as ideas I had not thought of.
    One of the main points that stand out is the format. In my cover letters I state that if they are unable to open the attachment as a Word document, I request that they let me know. I also do follow-up with whoever I send a resume to to ensure that they have or are able to read my resume. If not, I can send it in text format or pdf format.
    Calling a resume something else might mislead the reader but what is more important is teh content of the resume. I never say resume at top of my resume, just my name as well as email and web site contact information.
    Thank you have have a great day.

  • Robin Spindel

    As a job seeker, it is frustrating, but as a marketer I understand that you have to do what it takes to stand out. Part of that is saying “I care and I really want to work for you”. Everything you indicated in your blog supports that. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.sarahjansen.wordpress.com sarahj

    I have to say I love tip number one the best. I also love the closing line that lets us know that if we didn’t find all of them hilariously obvious, we’re not A players. Luckily I did and now I feel clever :)

  • Linda Sickinger

    I search the internet daily for pertinent information regarding job search and resume submission. This is the most helpful article I have read.

  • Iain Rose

    You missed don’t send your resume from your first email account that you opened when you were 15. mrloverlover@hotmail.com isn’t going to work.

  • Tulea Victor

    Great article! Thank you!

  • http://about.me/mikeschinkel MikeSchinkel

    As a former and future startup CEO I can relate to all of these points, and I strongly agree with all but one. Lowercase does not necessarily mean that the person is lazy. On the contrary it could mean they are using to formatting filenames for the web.

    Which would you rather see:

    - mike-schinkel-wordpress-platform-architect.pdf


    - Mike%20Schinkel%20-%20WordPress%20Platform %20Architect.pdf?

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