I’m Brad Tramel, a 22-year-old liberal arts major, and the current state of my professional life might sound familiar: I apply for writing and editing gigs by day and pay the bills bartending by night.
I am trying my best not to embody the jobless twenty-something stereotype. As of tomorrow, in fact, I will have three degrees: an English BA, a Professional/Creative Writing BFA, and an Electronic Writing minor. I write and edit for the campus paper and serve as Managing Editor for an online literary magazine.
I am trying.
I read everything I can. I extract knowledge from that reading. I apply that knowledge wherever and whenever possible. I promise I am trying.
And yet, I could have perhaps more aptly titled this thing “Adventures in Rejection.”
Rather than haphazardly applying everywhere, slinging a generic resume-cover letter combo into every inbox I could find, I took a different route—dedicating my resources (time, energy, caffeine) to a few job openings that seem like a great fit.
I’ve trudged through the process of a major gaming company’s online application process. Twice. I’ve waited months for even a robotic response. Twice. I’ve been rejected. Twice.
But the experience hasn’t been all for naught. My resume made it past the robot filters and into human hands. I compiled valuable recommendation letters, created what now serve as cover letter templates, and my rejections have filled me with a healthy dose of humility.
All this laid a groundwork for current and future professional endeavors. Most of the work—research, preparation—is done. As I write this, I am in the final interview stage (of three) with a super cool e-commerce company, and I’m therefore confident that I’m in the denoument of my Adventures in Rejection story.
As this story comes to a close, I feel proud of all I’ve learned despite what little, professionally, it accomplished. Bottom line: I want to share what I’ve learned with you.
I want to go through the slow, careful, strategic process that seems to have worked best for me. Remember, it’s not about getting your name into the inbox of the most companies and crossing your fingers. The goal is to drop your name into a few inboxes—the right ones—making sure your name sticks out like it’s enboldened and adorned with shimmering gold. This is about honest strategy.
Step one in any job search should be compiling the typical documents necessary for most application processes. Create a good resume, write a competent cover letter, list your references. These should be thorough and generic—that is, full of the easily customizable information that will sell yourself to employers. I keep these template documents in a folder on my desktop.
Step two is careful consideration of the companies for which you are applying. This should make up the bulk of the time you spend on an application process, because without thorough research and careful application of it, your name is but one in a pile of hundreds. Facing an online application tracking system (ATS), an applicant who hasn’t done her research is an applicant who’s wasting her time.
Specifically, read the company’s About page. Learn its history, its attitude, and its goals. If available, read the biographies of current employees. Take notes—not mental! make a physical list of notes—of your similarities and differences, professional and personal, to them.
The repetition of words, especially on a home page, is not without significance. This place is the most direct, controllable hub for their branding efforts, and you can bet that their word choice will be calculated and purposeful.
Taking your own calculated, purposeful approach to word choice will comprise step three. Tailoring your resume and cover letter is how you distinguish yourself from the inevitable pile of applicants in which your name will lay. This is the most important step, one in which you will apply your research to your application materials. Fortunately for all you wordsmiths, you’ll probably find this the most enjoyable, too.
There are two ways to go about this, depending on the type of application. If the job description asks you to simply email your application materials, you should focus on adapting your resume and cover letter to conform to the tone of the job description and company website. If the description—say, for an editorial assistant postition—incorporates a literary reference or two, it would be wise to do the same. If they are seeking an energetic and outgoing candidate who can delve into books for half the day and represent the company to clients for the latter half, show that energy and extroversion.
“Show,” here, is the key word. Show, don’t tell.
“I am energetic and eager,” goes the misguided applicant, using a string of words probably found on dozens of other cover letters.
Meanwhile, the strategic applicant shows these qualities: “My day often begins and ends with a book. Over the last year, in fact, I’ve grown familiar with your authors, getting to know the terse prose of Junot Diaz and the intricate style of Janet Taylor.”
In general, every qualification and quality from the job description—assuming you have them—should make it into your resume or into the text of your cover letter. It helps to print the job description and then highlight keywords to ensure you cover everything possible.
Keywords are the lifeblood of applicant tracking systems (ATS), a frustratingly necessary evil for large corporations, and a part of the application process you will do well to familiarize yourself with. ATS act as a screen for these large companies—think Google, Microsoft, Nintendo—filtering the hundreds or even thousands of job applicants into a manageable selection for human HR reps. If you’re applying online to one of these large corporations, you can bet that your application materials will need to pass the robots before they ever meet the organic flesh of a human.
Don’t fret. This is a doable task, and the fact that you’re even aware of ATS gives you an advantage over nearly 70% of all other applicants.
In these situations, your goal shifts from writing for the Director of Human Resources to writing for the robots and the Director of Human Resources. Keywords are your friend here. If you can make your materials keyword-ridden enough to pass the robot filter while appealing to the human HR department, you’re gold. Make sure you fill out all necessary information and review everything for typos before you click send.
HR can choose to screen applicants for other reasons, too—even ones not listed on the job description. So if you don’t hear back after a month or so, do your ego a favor and chalk this one up to the robots and try harder next time.
- Create a thorough, customizable resume, cover letter, and references sheet.
- Hone your job search to a handful of your favorites. Research them exhaustively.
- Adapt your resume and cover letter to the job descriptions and company website. Show, rather than tell, them you’re the perfect candidate, keeping in mind your organic and inorganic audiences.
After you’ve put forth your best effort, follow up every couple weeks and don’t forget about them—be prepared, even, for an impromptu phone interview.
Perhaps the most agonizing part of any job search is the long wait from submission to reply. I learned this first-hand. Assuming you aren’t drowning in term papers or busy feeding children, here are six simple ways to further distinguish yourself in the thoroughly saturated writer/editor market.
- Make a website. Think of it as an opportunity to brand yourself in a controlled, ever-favorable way. Tons of websites offer a suite of tools to create something really sleek and memorable. Be sure you include links to your social media, a short biography, and a portfolio of noteworthy works. Extra points for making a Testimonials page out of your letters of recommendation and for buying a custom domain name. Another tip: if you’re confident it will leave a good impression, encourage an employer to visit your site just before the end of an interview. Usually, after questions, they’ll ask something akin to “Is there anything else you’d like us to know?” That’s your opportunity to tell them,”Yeah, actually, I wanted to encourage you to visit my personal website at johnapplicant.com if you’re on the fence or would like to read more of my work. I believe it will give you an idea of the quality of my work and of the type of person you can expect if hired.” This, I think, left a great impression in my most recent phone interview, which are notoriously difficult to leave having made a lasting impression.
Resources: Wix, WordPress, Squarespace
- Use LinkedIn. You’ve been told this before, and by now this advice may compel you to roll your eyes into the back of your head. Here’s the thing: everyone expects it, so why not meet that expectation? It’s as simple as creating an account, filling out the profile information, and attaching a professional photograph when finished. Then you can forget about LinkedIn forever, because the consensus seems to be that it is most widely used to vet applicants. And at its core, we all use it to connect with current connections, not find serious new ones.
- Assume everyone is watching when it comes to your other social media. For at least the duration of your application process, keep that potential employer in mind. This doesn’t mean don’t post—in fact, competent social media use could be positive reinforcement about your capability as a writer. Likewise, maybe go backward to clean up the past couple weeks of your timeline, too. It can’t hurt.
- Understand computers. Unless you’re going to Walden Pond to write a series of poems, your future job will likely require competence in digital computing. This bit of advice is three-tiered: SEO, Google Analytics, and coding.
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can be more aptly called “appealing to the robots at Google,” and it’s a focus at many marketing and editorial gigs where getting content to the top of Google’s search engine can mean a difference of hundreds of thousands of views. More than likely, it will probably fall under the umbrella of something you’ve already studied, like rhetoric or digital publishing. Brush up with this handy PDF guide.
- Next, and related: learn how to use Google Analytics, a suite of tools many professional writers must learn how to use if web traffic is at all a meaningful metric in gauging their company’s success. It’s free, and telling an employer you have a Google Analytics Certification—which can be acquired in a couple hours—can put your name at the top of the application stack.
- Finally, consider learning the basics of HTML and CSS coding. Many content-oriented writing gigs use content management systems like WordPress to store stories, articles, and research. These CMS allow the HTML-fluent to modify in greater detail the content at hand, and will make a great complementary skill on any resume. More than that, if you decide to make the aforementioned personal website, HTML5 and CSS will allow you to bend every detail of your site’s structure and style to your will. CodeAcademy offers free interactive courses for both.
Feel free to ask further questions or let me know in the comments if my advice has helped. You can also follow me on Twitter.