Hopefully by now you understand how the master resume, the tailored resume, and the cover letter can work together to help you better meet the needs of your potential employer. But, you may be wondering, what about the specifics? How can you know what a specific employer is looking for in relation to a specific job so that you can present yourself in the right way?
In order to understand that, we have to look at things from the employer’s perspective.
The first thing you find when you put yourself in the employer’s shoes is that hiring someone is full of risk.
On the one hand, hiring is expensive. It can take dozens if not hundreds of hours spread out over weeks or months to put out a job ad, screen candidates, interview the top tier, re-interview the best of the best, and then negotiate a contract with the winner. Every one of those hours costs money—money that could’ve been spent doing something that generates revenue.
On top of that, there’s no guarantee that a hire will be made even after all that time and money are spent. Lots of people go on the job market with no intention of leaving their current job; they merely want a job offer that they can use to negotiate a raise with their current employer. There’s also the chance that the person offered the job won’t accept it because the pay is too low or the benefits too stingy—or they might get and accept a job offer somewhere else. In that case, the employer could offer the job to the second-place candidate, but that person might not be ideal for the job or might have already accepted another offer elsewhere. If any of that happens, all the time and money the employer has invested in hiring someone is gone with nothing to show for it, a wasted investment.
Even when the hire is made, it costs even more money to move someone across the country and then train them to do their job. For weeks or months they work with limited efficiency while they learn the ropes, and whoever is training or mentoring them is getting less of their regular work done.
It gets worse, because even after all that, there’s a risk that the new employee might turn out to be a bad fit for the job or the team. If they don’t like the job, they might quit, and if the employer doesn’t like them—well, there’s not always much that can be done. For legal reasons, employers usually can’t just fire someone who’s not what they expected.
See? It’s a lot of risk involved for the employer, and they are anxious to find the best possible candidate so as to minimize that risk.
What Employers are Looking For
Now let’s imagine we are employers reading applications—what are we looking for, exactly? How do we tell which candidates are worth interviewing and which aren’t?
Employers generally have three sorts of things in mind as they evaluate candidates: official stuff, hard skills, and soft skills.
Many jobs require you to have achieved specific things before you are allowed to do it. For example, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and engineers must be licensed to legally work. Official stuff usually includes one or more of the following:
- previous experience
While it might seem like these are all hard requirements, in reality there can be some wiggle room. Legal requirements, of course, cannot be waived—no one is going to hire an unlicensed physician to operate on patients. But college degrees and experience are often flexible categories.
For example, it’s possible to get a job at a newspaper if you have a journalism degree but no real-world experience, or if you have plenty of experience but no degree. A computer science major who can demonstrate excellent writing skills or who has published in some blogs could convince a magazine to employ them as a technology reporter.
Be especially aware of entry-level job ads asking for a certain number of years’ experience—this is almost always a flexible category. “Minimum 2 years’ experience” is a largely empty phrase that is put in job ads because it feels like it should be there, not because it is a firm requirement. I mean, how can you get 2 years’ experience to qualify for an entry-level job if you need to get an entry-level job to gain the experience? Realistically, you can usually make the case that college coursework, internships, clubs, and other activities are the equivalent of 2 years’ experience.
Hard skills are teachable, technical proficiencies that candidates need to complete their duties.
Most jobs require you to be able to do a certain number of things right when you walk in the door, while other things can be taught to you on the job. For example, as a teenager you may have worked as a cashier in a grocery store or retail chain. While the employer wouldn’t expect you to know up front how to work their point-of-sale software and cash registers, he or she would expect you to be able to do simple addition and subtraction and to make change accurately and quickly. Math is a hard skill you need to get the job, while skill with a cash register is unnecessary (but definitely a bonus if you have it).
Here are some typical hard skill categories employers are looking for:
- proficiency in certain software or apps
- proficiency in web design, coding, or social media use
- proficiency in a foreign language
- mechanical writing skills (grammar, punctuation, citing sources)
- understanding of specific procedures, such as lab work or usability testing
As with the official stuff, some of these hard skill requirements will be flexible and some will be firm for any given job. Employers often signal this in job ads:
Knowledge of C++ and Java required, proficiency in HTML/CSS a plus.
Soft skills are personal attributes that make you effective in the workplace, and they can be hard to define. Also, they aren’t always directly stated in the job ad—you might have to read between the lines a bit. It might help to ask yourself what kind of person they are hoping to work with. Here is a partial list of some in-demand soft skills:
- public speaking
- working with clients
- artistic taste
- a designer's eye
- conflict management
- giving feedback
- positive attitude
- attention to detail
- time management
- quick to learn
How Employers Review Applications
Now that we know the categories of things employers are looking for, we need to understand the typical thought process employers use when reviewing applications. I like to think of the employer’s thought process as a set of filters progressively narrowing down the candidate pool.
First Filter: Must-Haves
The first thing an employer must do is separate the hirable candidates from the ones who cannot be hired; in other words, they are looking for the must-haves—the official stuff, hard skills, and soft skills that are essential for the job.
There’s no point in digging deeper into a candidate’s application if they don’t meet the basic requirements, so at this level, the employer likely will move very quickly through the stack of applications, giving each only a quick glance before deciding whether the candidate meets the basic qualifications.
What does this mean for you, the applicant? It means you need to show the employer right up front that you meet those basic requirements. When composing your resume and cover letter, make sure those things are placed prominently and stated clearly.
A few notes on this: It’s not uncommon for the first round of filtering to be done by someone other than the person who will eventually make the hiring decision. Especially at large corporations, the Human Resources department may do the first pass on applications, dumping any that don’t meet the basic requirements before passing the remaining applications on to the hirer. It’s even becoming common to use software that scans resumes and cover letters, looking for keywords and qualifications and cutting candidates from the pool before a human ever even looks at it.
This means that you need to be extra clear in those situations. A computer or an HR rep doesn’t have the job-specific expertise the actual hirer has, so they won’t be able to read between the lines or triangulate between disparate elements. Your materials should say plainly and clearly that you are qualified, or you may never make it to the next filter.
Second Filter: Nice-to-Haves
Once the pool has been narrowed to only qualified candidates, the next filter is to distinguish between those who are highly capable and those who are only so-so. In other words, they are adding up how many of the nice-to-haves you have—the official stuff, hard skills, and soft skills that, while not absolutely essential, distinguish you as a preferred candidate.
At this point, the employer will likely be reading your resume and cover letter more closely, but they will still be moving fast. For this reason, it’s important that your materials highlight those things that you think are most valuable or most important to the employer.
There might be a long list of qualifications the employer is scanning for—and he or she is only human, only able to keep so many things in mind at once. Therefore, it might be wise to prioritize the things you want to present, to put the most emphasis on the most important things. It is also helpful to group similar things as much as possible.
For example, say a particular job ad really emphasizes needed software skills. If a resume mentions various software skills all over—one mentioned in a job bullet, another mentioned in an “Achievements” section—the reader might not notice all these disparate mentions and see the candidate as well qualified. If, on the other hand, the resume groups them all in a single section called “Software Skills,” the reader can’t fail to miss it.
Where the first filter tends to look for things one either does or doesn’t have, at this second filter, there’s a question of degree. Two candidates may both list the same hard skill, but if one has a greater proficiency or offers stronger evidence of their skills, he or she will likely rise to the top of the list. This is where applicants tend to make the third mistake talked about in the video—they make claims without evidence. Anyone can say they have a hard or soft skill, so why should the employer believe it? Providing evidence for that skill in the form of an anecdote in the cover letter or an achievement described in the job entry bullet in the resume: that’s what employers find convincing.
A few notes on this: In addition to those things mentioned or implied in the job ad, the employer will be on the lookout for valuable attributes beyond the immediate job. For example, say you’re a software engineer. Of course you need to be able to code software and work in various computer languages, but if you are also a good web designer and can use HTML and CSS, the employer might see value in that—you might be a natural liaison with the company’s web design team, or you could be assigned in the future to work on a web-based application. Or maybe you have a minor in technical and professional communication—the employer might see that as an indication that you’ll be promotable since you’ll be able not only to code but to interact with clients and stakeholders.
Third Filter: Good Fit
The last filter looks for those candidates that seem to be a good fit for the work environment—this is the realm of soft skills. Employers know that a candidate can be very impressive on paper but just awful to work with day to day, so they want to minimize the chance that they hire a jerk.
Often, this filtering happens during the interview phase, which makes sense: it’s generally easier to tell if someone will be pleasant to work with by sitting with them face to face and chatting. If you look at a list of sample interview questions, you’ll notice that many of them seem calculated to tease out an applicant’s soft skills, things like working on a team, accepting criticism, overcoming obstacles, and more.
However, if the risk is particularly high for a position or if the candidate pool remains too large, a careful employer might filter again based only on the written materials, so it’s important to include indicators of your soft skills in your resume and cover letter so that you can earn an interview. You can expect that an employer filtering in this way will be reading your materials more closely than before, so these elements need not be foregrounded the way the must-haves and nice-to-haves need to be. They should be present in your resume and cover letter, however.
Another way one’s soft skills can be conveyed is by one’s references. Sometimes employers ask for contact information for references that they can contact to ask questions about you. Other times they may ask for formal letters of recommendation. In either case, your references or letter writers should be people who know you well in a professional capacity, preferably a current or former boss or perhaps a professor with whom you’ve worked closely for an extended time. If you know what hard and soft skills are most critical to landing an interview, it’s not a bad idea to ask your references to emphasize those things in a phone call or letter.
One More Thing: Employers won’t only be looking for positive attributes that match their needs. They will also be looking for red flags, indicators that negative attributes are present. Frequent changes in employment, large gaps in one’s work history, unenthusiastic references, badmouthing former employers, and other things may indicate an applicant is a risky choice, so you should carefully avoid any unintentional negatives in your materials or explain ones that can’t be avoided.
It’s important to recognize that we can’t predict every employer’s thought process or method. This idea of filters is useful, but it’s not how everyone thinks.
For example, there’s no rule that says an employer has to read the resume first, then the cover letter, or vice versa. (In fact, a good friend of mine who hires regularly in the medical industry recently told me that he almost never even looks at cover letters.)
There’s also no rule that employers must work through these filters in this order. One hirer may do exactly what I’ve described doing progressively deeper passes of applications as he or she narrows the pool of candidates. Another might go through the filters all at once for a single candidate, making an in-or-out decision in one pass before moving on to the next application. Some employers evaluate applications by committee, each member of the group scoring or ranking the candidates and then comparing all the rankings to choose applicants to interview.
Even worse, there’s (usually) no rule that employers have to look at all the applications. If an employer starts at the top of the stack and just stops reviewing applications once they find enough people they want to interview, no one will ever know. Bad luck if your last name starts with Z.
We should also recognize that resumes and cover letters aren’t the only materials that might be requested. In many creative fields, for example, a portfolio is required and carries much more weight than the resume or cover letter. If the employer doesn’t like your artistic style, your resume or letter might never get read.
It’s a bit grim to think about. Some things are beyond our control. All you can do is all you can do.
And regardless of how the employer reviews applications, the basic principle is the same: figure out what they are looking for, and arrange your application materials in such a way that there’s a good chance those things will be seen, and hope for the best. That’s all you can do.
Or is it?
When you think about, on the one hand, the amount of risk employers experience and, on the other hand, the inability of the applicant to guess what the employer’s process for reviewing applications might be, it starts to make sense how important networking is. By networking, I mean getting an in with whomever is doing the hiring.
Put yourself in the employer’s shoes one more time. You have a stack of a hundred applications—and you know that HR has already pulled any candidates that don’t have the must-haves. Your job is to turn 100 qualified applicants into 3–5 that you want to interview. You’re not getting paid any extra for this work, and it’s distracting you from important projects and deadlines. What do you do?
Now imagine that you got an email or a phone call from a trusted friend or acquaintance. Maybe someone you went to college with or someone you met at a professional conference or someone you used to work with has an employee or a student or a relation who is applying for the job you’re hiring for. What do you do?
Well, if you trust that person, you’re probably going to jump straight to the application of the person they are recommending, and you’ll probably give it more than a cursory glance. Best case scenario you cut your workload way down by finding a well-qualified candidate right away—worst case scenario you’ve at least maintained your relationship with your friend by paying special attention. On top of that, your friend’s recommendation reduces your fear of hiring a bad candidate because you are confident your friend wouldn’t recommend a bad candidate for fear of sabotaging your relationship.
Networking isn’t always possible, but it is almost always highly beneficial, as you can see. This is why so many internships turn into full-time employment opportunities—it’s internal networking and a very low risk.
Despite all the things you can’t control, tailoring your resume and cover letter to best meet the needs of the employer is still your best bet, and doing so will greatly improve your chances of scoring an interview.
Remember the metaphor we used in "Master Resumes, Tailored Resumes, Cover Letters, where the resume is a map that shows the breadth of you and the cover letter is a park ranger who explains key parts of you in depth. In the analogy, the employer is a park visitor looking for a hiking trail that fits a specific set of parameters.
The employer puts out a job ad and is inundated with maps, but most of the senders make a crucial error. Instead of sending detailed area maps of just the part of the park that fits what the employer is looking for, they send vague maps of the entire park. These maps do a poor job of serving the employers’ needs. They don’t reduce risk, and they don’t save the employer time—he or she will have to read carefully just to pass the first filter, and an interview might be necessary just to determine that they don’t pass the second.
You, on the other hand, send in a carefully constructed area map that focuses on exactly what the employer is looking for. With minimal effort, he or she determines that you pass the first and second filters and suspects that you’ll pass the third. Thus, there is little risk when bringing you in for an interview, little chance of wasting time and money on a fruitless search.