Here’s Why I Didn’t Hire You
Recently, I ran a job ad seeking a couple of writers to work with me on a series of professional projects. Within days, I had nearly 450 resumes, and when I combined the applications into a single document, it ran 100,000 words. I was overwhelmed.
In the end, I hired two great people, but it pains me to think how many other promising candidates were in the pile. Having been on the other side of job application process quite a few times myself, I thought I’d explain how it worked in this case.
Bear in mind, this isn’t a “best practices” column. Instead, it’s about the truth behind how I made a really important decision. Still, I’ll bet it’s a lot closer to how many entrepreneurs review applicants, even if we’re normally loathe to admit it. Here’s why literally 99 percent of those who applied didn’t get the job.
You had bad timing.
When is the worst time to apply for a job? Turns out, it’s after you’ve seen a job ad. With hundreds of resumes flowing in, it was nearly impossible for any single applicant to stand out. It would be much more strategic to develop relationships over time with people you’d like to work for, even before there’s even a job advertised.
Breaking things down even further, the applications came in like a bell curve — a trickle, then a flood, and then another trickle. It was just human nature that I spent more time glancing at each application when I wasn’t quite so deluged with dozens of others.
You didn’t seem enthusiastic.
Looking for work can be rough. I sympathize, but when a cover letter seemed like a cut-and-paste job, suggesting that this was just one of many jobs the person was applying for, I was not impressed. This was crystal clear in some cases, when people addressed their applications, “To Whom It May Concern.” They would have been better off with no greeting at all.
On the other extreme, when qualified people expressed a real interest in working for me specifically — when they could talk about having read my books and other work, for example — it made a real impression. A surprising number said they wanted the job badly enough that they would work for free for a while to prove themselves. I didn’t take anyone up on that offer, but their enthusiasm couldn’t help but draw my attention.
You made mistakes or couldn’t write.
With such an enormous pile of resumes, I had to draw fast lines. So, if you had more than one silly grammar mistake or typographical error, it was easy for me to click “next.” Granted, I make mistakes too, but I wasn’t the one applying for a job.
Beyond that, I saw cover letter after cover letter with run-on sentences, misspellings, improper capitalization, poor grammar, and long lists of cliches. My overall advice on cover letters, having just read nearly 450 of them, is: “Get to the point, and write well.”
You puffed yourself up.
I wasn’t impressed when people told me they were “amazing” or “talented.” Instead, I wanted to see results. At the same time, I didn’t want a dissertation. So, you were better off telling me that you’d written or contributed to a book that got great reviews, than to go on at length about an obscure project.
Moreover, I can hardly express how off-putting it was to read applications from people who subtly suggested that the job itself was beneath them. (“You may wonder why someone with my level of experience would be applying for this position.”) If your come across as insufferable in your job application, I can only imagine how much fun you’d be to work with!
You didn’t reach past the process.
About a dozen applicants had someone reach out to me on their behalf, after they’d sent me their resumes and cover letters. This always prompted at least a quick second look. In most cases, the intermediary didn’t know the applicant very well, but the fact that the applicant tried to show his or her enthusiasm and make a connection garnered my respect. (Another candidate sent me a quick email on Jan. 1 wishing me Happy New Year. It didn’t get him the job, exactly, but he made a good impression.)
Two points: First, this is not an invitation to stalk me, but again, it was great to show enthusiasm. Second, there was no nepotism involved in my hiring process. I’m in no position to give someone a job as a favor to someone else. Still, if you didn’t think to try multiple ways to reach me, you were competing with other applicants who did.
You didn’t have a skill I didn’t even know I wanted.
Partway through the recruiting process, I took on a new client, and I realized that I should look out for at least one writer-applicant who had substantive experience in this client’s field. I hadn’t mentioned this at all in the job advertisement, or frankly in the first round of interviews I did with applicants.
I wound up searching through resumes again looking for people who might have mentioned this in their background. You didn’t know I needed it, because I hadn’t realized it myself.
I was afraid.
Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster, and during the hiring process, I had one of those founder freakout moments, when I wondered if I were overextending myself. Had I miscalculated, and could I really afford to bring on two new people?
The hiccup was nothing more than that, and I realized I was in good shape. However, if you happened to have reached me during the two days or so when I was second-guessing myself, I can only imagine how that influenced my review.
No good reason at all.
This is perhaps the saddest thing I have to admit. I am sure that there were some great candidates whose applications I rejected for no good reason, in retrospect. At least once, for example, I think I accidentally marked someone’s application email as “spam” instead of “save.” (I tried looking for it, but to no avail.)
My overall advice for next time (and frankly, the takeaways I’ll use if I ever apply to work for someone else again): Truly want the job, submit a short but complete application, and stay just on the right side of the line between persistent and annoying.
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