The one thing missing from too many job applications is effort

Quality over quantity.
Quality over quantity.
Image: Reuters/Yuya Shino
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As the 6.3% of Americans who are still unemployed know, looking for a job can be an incredibly frustrating process, where dozens of resumes are met with rejection or, even worse, a deafening silence.

But reading a pile of poorly constructed applications can be a drag too, according to several employers who have complained about it recently. One of the biggest mistakes job-seekers make is failing to pay thoughtful attention to each application, they say. Online tools make it easy to send out a flurry of applications at once, but have a tendency to create quantity, not quality.

Jason Fried, the founder CEO of the software company Basecamp, writes that the qualities he looks for in potential employees include clear thinking and a proven ability to execute. But according to a piece he wrote at Inc, the single most important quality, and the best indicator of future success, is the amount of effort the jobseeker puts into getting the job.

The job description for a recent design opening was simply “Send relevant work samples, and anything else that will make you stand out, to Extra effort and personal touches will be looked upon favorably.”

Despite that directive, Fried writes, only 10% of the applications showed an intriguing amount of effort.

More common is a standard resume, a cover letter, or a link to a sparse LinkedIn profile. Much better is someone who picks good work examples and can explain how each was created.

Micky Drexler, the legendary CEO of J. Crew, made a similar point at an interview this week at the Milken Institute Global Conference, written up at LinkedIn. ”I always look for those resumes that aren’t manufactured,” Drexler said.

Particularly for entry-level applicants, he says, there’s a misconception: They think that listing trips abroad, touting volunteering, and stretching or overstating accomplishments is more likely to get them a second look. In fact, it’s more likely to get them ignored because they’re following a well-established and boring roadmap.

Instead, he suggests, candidates are better off ignoring the advice of career centers to scrub waitress jobs from their CVs. The better course is to find a way to include and explain work experiences that show honesty, directness, and evidence of drive and ambition, he says.

None of this is to suggest that people try resume gimmicks or start cold-calling the company’s CEO. It can actually be as simple as demonstrating a real interest in the particular job opening.

Julie Zhuo, who heads product design at Facebook, says she doesn’t find lists of skills or a fancy degree all that compelling when she’s looking for people, according to a recent interview with First Round Review. Prestige is apparently not enough.

“Sometimes, designers without traditional training possess an ingenuity that you don’t usually see,” Zhuo said. “We’re really just looking for people who have that element of extreme proactivity. Even if they did go to a great school, they should have experience stretching themselves on projects both inside and outside of the classroom. Great candidates take the initiative to experiment, design and build on their own.”

Particularly impressive are people that don’t just do jobs that are assigned to them, but also solve problems.

“You want someone who sees there’s a problem and wonders why no one has come up with a hack to fix it or a tool to make it easy yet,” Zhuo said. “Then they go and design that tool. Do they include that in their professional submissions? If they do, that’s a good sign.”

Zhuo’s point is particularly important, and backed up by Google HR head Laszlo Bock, who deemphasizes GPA and school prestige when hiring. It’s not just the work and its quality that matters, but the thought process that goes into it.

Getting a great job, it turns out, requires the same qualities that top performers show once they have one. Effort, intentionality, and care.