Career Advice

5 Modern Job Application Best Practices, Updated From the Old-Fashioned Rules

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Applying for a new job can come with a solid side of stress, especially in the midst of the pandemic, which has shifted the way many people work and, thus, interview. For instance, do you need to dress up for a Zoom interview? And what about thank-you notes? Do they need to be handwritten? And if so, where do you send them if the hiring manager is working remotely rather than from the office? The number of questions about the interview process itself can lead an applicant to sideline concerns about the very job for which they're applying.

That said, it’s of course crucial to wow the people you interact with during the job application process. “This is the first interaction you're having with a potential employer, and your attention to detail when it comes to the interview process is reflective of how you're going to work in the job you're applying for,” says career expert Nicole Williams, founder and CEO of Works by Nicole Williams.

“Your attention to detail when it comes to the interview process is reflective of how you're going to work in the job you're applying for.” —Nicole Williams, career expert

And since norms regarding job application best practices are constantly changing, consulting your friends and family who have been in the same job forever may not prove the most helpful. So, what can you do? One helpful strategy is to acquaint yourself with the most up-to-date job application best practices. Experts say many of these best practices have changed or morphed slightly over the years, although some, like bringing a hard copy of your résumé to the interview (if it's an in-person one) still apply.

“You’re trying to build a level of trust and credibility to make them really want you,” says career coach J.T. O'Donnell, founder and CEO of Work It Daily, an online career-growth hub. “There are all these little places in the process where you can show how reliable and consistent you are to give them the confidence that you’re the right candidate.”

Keep reading for an expert-approved breakdown of five of the new job application best practices.

1. Old rule: Hand-write a thank you note

New rule: Send an email

Sending a thank-you note in the mail used to be the way to go, but O’Donnell says that's not really necessary right now. In fact, she says doing so could put you at a disadvantage, considering it could take several days for your hand-written note to arrive in the mail, and during that time, the hiring manager might think you’re not going to send one at all. Furthermore, given that the pandemic has normalized flexible workplaces, the hiring manager may not even be in the office to receive a handwritten note when it does arrive.

O’Donnell’s suggestion? If you have a morning interview, send the thank-you email by that afternoon. If your interview was in the afternoon, make sure it’s sent early the next day.

“You’re not expected to write an epic novel or recap of why you’re great,” O’Donnell says. Instead, she recommends thanking the interviewer for their time, saying that you loved meeting with them, and adding that you look forward to next steps in the process.

2. Old rule: List your experience in a cover letter

New rule: Grab their attention with a cover letter

Cover letters can be tricky. What should you put on them? Does anyone even read them? In the past, people used to suggest that you list out why you should be hired, but O’Donnell says that rationale has shifted. Instead, she now suggests crafting a “disruptive” cover letter. “You’re not recapping your résumé—you’re telling them 'here’s why I’m interested in your company and admire what you do,'” she says. “A cover letter is an opportunity to give your application flavor.”

O’Donnell suggests covering why you feel connected to the company and why you feel drawn to the job. Once you’ve established why you’re interested in the company, Williams says you can go into why you’re the perfect fit. “Does it take a little time? Yes, but how badly do you want this job?” O’Donnell says.

3. Old rule: Keep your résumé to one page

New rule: Make sure your résumé is easy to skim

You can stop squinting at your résumé, trying to figure out if your size-8 font is legible because experts say it’s just fine if the document goes over a page. The whole purpose of the one-page résumé rule “is to force you to succinctly describe your experiences in an easy-to-read format,” Williams says. But, she adds, “it's okay if it goes on to two pages.” (Three might be pushing it, though, she says.)

O’Donnell says that it’s “far more important” that it is readable, noting that recruiters tend to skim résumés quickly. “I’d much rather see a two-page résumé because you used one-inch margins,” instead of trying to jam everything in there, she says. Just keep it simple, O’Donnell adds: “Facts only—no fancy text, no long paragraphs.”

4. Old rule: Dress up for an interview

New rule: Match your outfit to the company culture

If the company you’re applying to is known for its flip flops and sweats culture, you don’t want to show up in a suit—but you also don’t want to dress exactly like the employees. “They’ve earned the right to walk in with flip flops and sweatpants,” O’Donnell says.

Still, Williams says, “you want to look like you belong. It's an indicator that you fit within the company culture.” O’Donnell’s advice: Check out how employees dress by looking at the company’s website or social media accounts. Then, she says, “dress slightly nicer than what’s expected—it’s a sign of respect.”

5. Old rule: Cover up tattoos

New rule: Research the company first

“The issue with tattoos is some people are fine with them and some aren't, and it's hard to gauge who's who,” Williams says. Tattoos are usually the norm in creative or tech-focused offices, she says, but “in more traditional industries, they are frowned upon.”

O’Donnell recommends doing your homework first to see how employees dress, and taking your cues from there. “If it’s clearly professional attire, I’d put sleeves on,” she says. O’Donnell doesn’t recommend changing who you are but, she says, “if it looks like the company is more buttoned up, just tone it down.” And, of course, if you feel like you don’t want to work in a place that would make you hide your ink, that’s okay, too. “I've worked with a few clients who feel like their tattoos are a part of them and they don't want to work for a company where they have to conceal them—in which case you can expose them,” Williams says.

After all, perhaps the most important of all job application best practices is to remember that it's a two-way street—you also need to feel like the job and company for which you're applying is a good fit for you and your goals.

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