I was talking to student conference recently, and one of my fellow panelists told the crowd that applying for jobs online was like “playing the lottery.” The comparison being that you have to buy a ticket in order to win – but the odds of success aren’t great.

I’ve heard that metaphor before, and I disagree with its premise. Applying for jobs is the exact opposite of playing the lottery. Here’s why. In games of chance, the more tickets you buy, the greater your chances of winning. However the increase is marginal, and there’s nothing you can do to increase the quality of your numbers. It’s all blind luck.

The same goes for people who say, “I’ve applied to 200 jobs without hearing back!” If you buy 200 lottery tickets, your odds of winning are better than if you buy just one. But you’re still almost certainly going to lose. When it comes to getting hired, you don’t increase your chances of success by sending out more applications, you increase it through sending our better ones.

For a resume to have a chance at landing you an interview, it first has to be read by an employer. Because many companies filter incoming job applications through Applicant Tracking Systems, the odds are that if your resume doesn’t include the right combination of relevant keywords it will never be read at all. Read the job posting carefully and make sure that your resume includes the same terms that the employer is looking for. Customization is key.

From our analysis of employer behavior on Workopolis, here are the exact keywords they search for in resumes for six popular industries.

Even once you’ve passed the software screening, we know from time-spent on page reports that the vast majority of employers spend far less than 11 seconds on their first review of a resume. And 80% of those resumes are rejected after this initial scan.

In order to make the initial cut, you have to have the basic information that employers look for first.

These include your location, your most recent job and previous employers, your skillset and education. If it looks like your career path is a fit for the job, and you have the basic qualifications, you stand a decent chance of making it to the next round.

Unfortunately, employers tell us that a staggering 75% of applications they receive are from unqualified or irrelevant candidates. Don’t be one of these.

Only apply for jobs for which you meet at least the majority of qualifications. There is such a thing as ‘credential creep’ where employers ask for a wish-list of qualifications that no one applicant is likely to have, so don’t worry of you fall short in a few areas. Just make sure that you can clearly demonstrate that you have the skills and experience to contribute and succeed at the job – and you’ll see your application to interview ratio noticeably rise.

But that’s just the first glance – of the 20% that survive the first round of scrutiny, still only 2% of applicants are called for interviews. So what happened to the other 18%?

Once your resume has been shortlisted, employers will take a longer look to further scrutinize the details. And that’s where the wheels come off for most of the remaining applicants.

The details that get resumes tossed

    Unsurprisingly, any typos or spelling mistakes that were missed in the initial reading of your resume will sink your chances upon closer reading. When employers are looking through numerous resumes trying to pick the best few to interview, why would they select someone who hasn’t taken care enough to submit an error-free application? It speaks to a candidate’s motivation, attention to detail, or capabilities. You look like you either can’t produce work without mistakes – or you’re simply not motivated enough to bother producing it. Watch out for the four most commonly misspelled words in resumes.

    A lack of a focus. If your resume doesn’t highlight how your skills and experience can relate specifically to the job you’re applying for, it won’t make the cut. A targeted, focused resume from a candidate who has done their homework and is genuinely trying to make a connection with a specific employer and job will always be more attractive than a generic application – even if their credentials are equivalent.

    Make sure the chronology of your resume follows a logical plot.

    You’re in the wrong industry. If you have the skills and experience to match with the requirements of the job, but you’ve never worked in the field before, you’re starting off with a disadvantage to those candidates from that sector. Do the math for the hiring manager. Prove you’re the right person for the job. Give them a clear list of the ways in which you meet the job posting criteria.

    TMI (Too much information). We received a resume here that included this line in the objective statement: “Must be for a company that highly values diversity and sustainability.” I actually do value both of those things. However a candidate making such demands in the first line of their resume stop me from bothering to read the rest of it. Show me why I would want to hire you in the first place before you start making demands about my values.

    Recruiters similarly complain of too much personal information, weird hobbies, family details, long-winded explanations of career goals, reasons for leaving previous employers.

    In a recent example we called ‘The Worst Resume Ever‘ a candidate revealed several reasons he had spent time in jail. (While you may want to bring this up before a background check, there’s no reason to list crimes in your resume.)

    Unexplained red flags. Job hopping may be the new normal, as most people change jobs every two-three years, but if you’ve had six jobs in a three year period, it can make employers nervous. Similarly if there are long periods between jobs on your resume, it’s better to fill in those gaps with a summary of what you were doing at the time.

Hiring managers form their first impressions of what you are like and what you can do based on reading your resume. Paying attention to detail and focusing on the specific job at hand can greatly increase your chances getting your resume past the ATS software scan, surviving the employer’s initial 11-second reading, and standing up to further scrutiny in order to be shortlisted for a job interview.


Peter Harris
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