As the hiring manager for many entry-level (as well as higher-level) positions, I’ve seen numerous pitfalls that individuals in the early stages of their careers (and even in later stages of their careers) encounter when applying for a nonprofit job.
I quite often ask myself: If hiring managers don’t respond to each applicant with constructive feedback explaining why the applicant isn’t moving on to the next phase in the recruitment process, how will these unsuccessful candidates learn from their mistakes? At times, I do respond to some individuals with this critical feedback, hoping they take it to heart and put their best foot forward on their next application.
But since I’m fortunate enough to have a platform from which I can share some of the most common application mistakes with individuals entering the workforce (or looking to better position themselves for their next career move) …
Here are the top six application pitfalls I’ve seen as a hiring manager and my tips for avoiding them:
1. Know to whom you are applying and address your cover letter and email accordingly.
When I post a position, I clearly state that applicants should apply directly to me. Then I provide my name and contact info. Despite this, many applicants will address their cover letters using generic greetings, such as: “Dear Hiring Manager,”.
If given clear direction as to whom you should apply, address your cover letter and cover email accordingly: “Dear Dr. Grattan,”. If no individual is stated, you can use the standard: “To Whom It May Concern:”.
Also note the importance of using the proper salutation title. For instance, I always sign my job posts with “Kelly E. Grattan, PhD, MBA, CFRE.” Use all the clues you can find to get your salutation title correct—in this case, the “PhD” after my name indicates you should use the salutation title “Dr.” with my last name. If you are unsure, the standard “Mr.” and “Ms.” apply. Note that the titles “Miss” or “Mrs.” are never appropriate for business communication.
Finally, remember the difference between the way you format a name for the addressee line, which appears at the top of your address block (e.g., Kelly E. Grattan, PhD, MBA, CFRE), and the way you format a name for the salutation, which is the greeting that opens your letter (e.g., Dr. Grattan). Often, applicants will open their letter or email using an informal (meaning no title) addressee format for my name (“Dear Kelly Grattan,”) instead of using the proper salutation format (“Dear Dr. Grattan,”).
2. Proofread, proofread, proofread
And after you’ve proofread your application materials, have others proofread them, as well, to catch anything you may have missed.
I can’t tell you how many applications I receive in which the position is stated incorrectly. For example, my “project coordinator” position might be stated as “program coordinator” or “project manager.” This blunder is typically the result of rushing the application or using a cover letter from an application for a different position with a different organization. This oversight (and sloppiness!) will immediately diminish any chances you have of moving to the next round in the recruitment process.
Typos are unacceptable as well, yet most applications contain multiple. Check for everything from inconsistent spacing and incorrect word choice (e.g., “their” vs. “there” vs. “they’re”) to grammar issues. Many (and these days, maybe most!) positions require strong writing and communication skills, so any mistakes in your materials at this vital stage of the recruitment process will raise red flags. If you allow typos and other mistakes in your application when you have the time to ensure the best deliverables possible, what can an employer expect your deliverables to look like in the workplace under tight deadlines?
Carefully proofreading all application materials—multiple times—is a critical step you can’t afford to skip.
3. Think twice before submitting a résumé that’s more than one page.
Recent graduates, and really anyone with under approximately five to seven years of professional experience, should not have a résumé longer than one page. There are exceptions, such as individuals with a record of publications, but be sure those exceptions apply to you before you move on to that second (or third!) page. Remember, the résumé is a high-level overview of your background and accomplishments. It’s an exercise in brevity; rise to the challenge.
Consider how long a hiring manager is going to spend reviewing your résumé before moving on to the next application in a pool of maybe hundreds. Scrolling or flipping through multiple pages may never actually happen, especially for entry-level positions when applicants aren’t expected to have pages worth of experience to share.
I also strongly recommend eliminating from your résumé: 1) your GPA, which is an indication that you are potentially not as experienced as other candidates, and 2) a summary of any sort, as these can be time-consuming to update with each application and often stay stagnant, failing to reflect the current position to which you’re applying.
4. Use a clean and simple business letter format.
A basic layout such as this works well for application cover letters:
A proper business letter not only shows you have communication skills that will translate directly to the work you might be doing within the organization, but it also ensures you avoid irrelevant content and informal styles that detract from the point of the cover letter—to show how well you fit the position and the culture of the organization.
5. Your cover letter must speak to the position you’re applying for.
This sounds obvious, but you would be surprised by how many cover letters we receive that are probably being used for any and every position the individual is applying to. Sending a generic cover letter is another surefire reason for your application to end up in the wrong pile. We, as hiring managers, want to know you put time and effort into applying for the position—that you really want and are qualified for this position at our organization.
So how do you go about demonstrating that? The key is to really process what the position entails and how your previous experiences can speak to the requirements of the role. For instance, if one of the duties of the desired position requires interacting with the organization’s top donors, prospects and board members, you could talk about an internship you had in which you interacted with board members before and after meetings or staffed events with major donors and prospects.
Build the body of your letter with a formula such as:
The project manager position at Schultz & Williams requires X. In my role at Y, I did something very similar. At Y, I frequently…
Statements that connect the position to the experience and expertise you bring show that you really understand what the position requires and ways in which you would be an ideal fit. Use the job description and anything you’re able to discern from the organization’s public profile to inform your understanding of the organization’s culture and what would be required of you.
Remember, your résumé will provide the history of your academic and professional experiences. There’s no need to repeat that in your cover letter. Really tailor your letter to the unique position you’re applying for, and the chances your application will end up in the right pile will dramatically increase.
6. Submit a polished application package.
First and foremost, submitting a polished application package means that all application materials should be submitted as PDFs, not Word documents or any other file type. Whenever possible, submit the application as a single combined PDF, with the cover letter first, followed by the resume.
Then consider what your desired future employer sees when you name your file(s). Below is a sample of the types of file names I frequently see.
Poor File-Name Choices
Grattan resume v2 project manager S&W
Schultz & Williams cover letter
Kelly Grattan cover letter_5
Grattan_resume_revised 06.1.18 (2)
Just because you may need to organize and store multiple versions of your résumé and cover letters doesn’t mean the organizations to which you are applying should receive application materials with names that don’t make sense for their purposes or that reveal the extent of your job search.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Each submission represents how you present yourself and your file-management skills. Create a naming convention for your submissions and be consistent. I recommend some version of the following.
Recommended Naming Convention for Single Combined PDF
Grattan, Kelly – Project Manager Application
Recommended Naming Convention for Multiple PDFs
Grattan, Kelly – Resume
Grattan, Kelly – Cover Letter
And don’t forget, use the same file-name convention for both the cover letter and the résumé if you’re sending them as separate documents.
Bottom Line: Slow Down.
Take your time with each application to ensure you’re presenting your very best self. Hiring managers can spot rushed and boilerplate applications from a mile away. The most coveted jobs receive hundreds of applications; what are you doing to ensure yours avoids the hiring manager’s recycling bin?