Five steps to a great application

This article has been adapted from a blog post by Futurice's former Head of Recruitment, Petteri Jalonen. The original text can be found in http://futurice.com/blog/5-steps-to-a-great-application.

Having been the person in charge of Futurice's recruiting, during the past few years I have read thousands of job applications. Along the way, I learned a lot about what makes a great one. This experience has been surprising in many ways. There is a huge difference between a well-made application and a poorly written one. Spending a little extra effort into your application really affects your chances of getting that dream job.

This following list of items is what we ask for from applicants. However, I feel that most of the tips are applicable when applying anywhere.

Tell us who you are

This may sound odd, but a huge amount of applications do not actually tell us anything about the applicant. For example, almost on a daily basis, I receive applications where somebody sends me an email with just a phrase: ”Here is my CV”. A CV tells what you have done, but it does not tell a recruiter about who you are.

Personally, I find this really silly. I also do a lot of staffing (building teams for projects). At worst, this work is a big Excel exercise where you match project requirements with people’s skills. I very strongly believe that this is not enough. A person's passion and ability to learn is at least as important as their current skillset. When I have interviewed people, one of the main complaints has been that in their current work, they are just treated as “a resource”. Why would you treat yourself as one when applying?

Don’t be afraid of telling who you are, what gets you exited, what are your values, etc. This is not only a great way to make the application stand out from the crowd, it also makes your application far more personal. Let your personality shine through! Furthermore, do not worry too much about losing opportunities due to somebody deciding that your personality does not fit the position. If this happens, you would most likely not want to do that type of work anyway.

Make it easy

A good application contains a huge amount of information. You should have your CV, school and work records, letters of recommendation, work and people references and everything else that showcases your talents or what you want to do. When some of this information is missing, it creates extra work for the recruiter. Unfortunately, due to the thousands of applications that we get, the reality is that sometimes I do not have the time to request missing information from an otherwise promising candidate.

Furthermore, I have noticed that my decision whether an application is ”good” or ”bad” is made almost immediately. If my feeling is that the application is good, then I review it properly. If it is “bad” then I try to quickly find a reason why the person is not applicable so that I can close the case and move on.

Try to understand who is reading your application. For example, I sometimes read hundreds of applications a week. As an HR professional, I get my kicks from helping other people out. I absolutely love to interview people. On the other hand, reading through applications is something that I don’t like to do. In fact, I consider it a necessary evil of my work that is tedious and boring. I cannot say that all HR people are like me. However, I know that quite many share my feelings about job applications.

How can you help make a recruiter's life easier? There is no simple answer. A good way to test your application is to give it to a friend or family member and give them 1 minute to read it. Then ask what their thoughts about it are. If they liked it, give them an extra 5 minutes and see if they understood what you were trying to say.

I have found that a good summary or cover letter goes a long way. Provide instructions to the reader. Tell which attachments are more important than others and summarize them.

You can also take this further and make it fun! Do not worry about trying out new things. Send a video, use fonts and templates that are not according to standards, try to be funny and tell jokes. You can do this as long as you feel that it correctly portraits who you are. If you get rejected because if it, then most likely the company was not for you anyway.

Personalize your application

It’s really easy to think of job finding as a statistical game: if the likelihood of being invited to an interview is 1%, then I have to send this application to 100 companies. This is partially true. However, your goal should be to increase the likelihood of getting an interview, not the amount of applications.

Once again, try understand who is reading your application. I, for example, am extremely proud of Futurice: what we have achieved and what we do. Someone who has personalized their application specifically for us is sending me the message that they are willing to spend more effort on something that I am proud of. This immediately makes me like the person. ;)

From another point of view, I receive a lot of applications that are clearly mailed to some mailing list or could easily be re-targeted by just changing the name of the recipient company. The feeling I always get from these is that the person does not care about us. My initial reaction is to respond back similarly (i.e. copy-paste a standard rejection letter). I have been discussing this with my colleagues here at Futurice and at other companies, and found that most recruitment professionals share my views.

The simplest and often most effective way to personalize your application is to tell why you want to work for the company. Describe how you share their values, if you are excited by their products, if they have done something that caught your attention or if you know people that you respect and trust from the company.

This is also a great exercise for you to figure out where you want to work. Study the companies which you are applying to. Obviously, if you cannot find any reason why you would want to join a particular company, then maybe you should focus your time and energy on something that is more aligned with what you want to do.

Tell us what you want to do and where

What is the purpose of a job application? When I have asked the candidates this question, the answer is quite often simple. A job application’s purpose is to get you through the door to the interviews. Its job is to stand out and shout ”Pick me!” from a pile of applications.

However, I feel that this is an oversimplification. A job application is not just an advertisement of your skills. It should also convey your wishes and desires. It should shout ”pick me, if you are able to offer…!”. Initially, you might think that this lowers your chances of getting through to interviews. This might even be true. However, ultimately it’s always you who accepts the job proposal! In other words, my job is to offer you something you want to do. If I feel that I am able to do this, then I actually prioritize you over others.

Oddly enough, this is often missing. At Futurice, we specifically instruct people to tell us what you want to do. Still, almost half of the applications do not contain this information.

I have always found this a little bit sad. There are many people who are not satisfied at their current job. I have always wondered how many of these would have found a job that they wanted if they had included this information. The "where" part is easy. Just tell me where you would like to be located. If you are willing to go anywhere, then state this. This is a minor detail when applying, but it helps companies with many locations (such as Futurice) out a lot. To be honest, this is more about “making it easy” from my point of view.

Prove your skills and passion

This probably is the hardest part, but also the one where you can really make a difference! How can you prove yourself without physically meeting another person?

A good application is full of statements such as ”I’m a team player”, “I am a fast learner” or “I am really passionate about this work”. As mentioned before, I like these, because they tell me who you are. Furthermore, I like to validate these when I am interviewing the person.

What I have learned is that most people are able to prove their statements – many with really concrete proofs. I then often ask why they did not include these in their application. People felt that these are not part of a “standard” application or that the validation is done during interviews anyway (as an application’s job is to get you through the door).

Ultimately, my job in recruitment is to find these concrete proofs. All the interviews and tests we conduct are actually a means to find them. Recruiting a new person always carries a big risk. Does the person fit into our culture, is he or she smart and gets things done, and fun to work with? Therefore, we cannot make an offer to a person before we are confident that we really understand who the person is, what he or she wants to do and is capable of. If you can already include these in your application, you are not only creating a very strong case for why I should meet you, you are also placing yourself much closer to a situation where we can give you a job offer.

I recommend that you give your application to somebody else and ask to identify all such statements. Then, go through every one and try to come up with a way to prove it. For example, if you say you have a passion for software development, submit links to your hobby projects or showcase how you participate in the software community. If you state that you are a fast learner, get a recommendation letter from your previous supervisor explaining how long it took you to learn something new. If you state that you are funny, tell a joke and make me laugh!

I really hope that you find this useful.