shutterstock_73925716Last year I was hiring for an administrative role within my office and received approximately 60 resumes. Sixty applications to go through, 5 minutes per application, 5 total hours of just looking at applications. This scenario was not going to happen as I did not have 5 hours to dedicate to screening application materials. Today I want to share my approach to narrowing down a candidate list and a dirty little secret among those who need to trim applicant pools to reasonable interview numbers.

Let’s start with the secret. Recruiters (and myself included) often approach the initial review of applicant resumes trying to find reasons why not to interview an applicant. This is especially true for those who cannot use filtering software to eliminate candidates who are missing certain qualifications (technical skills, major, GPA, too high of a salary desired, etc.). Sounds backwards, doesn’t it?  Shouldn’t the hiring manager review resumes with an eye to finding the best 5-6 candidates? Of course, but often that is not how it happens.

It would be easy for me to find admirable qualities in all 60 of the applicants who applied for the role – I could have made a case for 50 of the 60 applicants to receive a phone interview. Conducting fifty phone interviews in a timely fashion while completing one’s regular job responsibilities is not feasible. Knowing I needed to trim the list from 60 to 6, I approached the initial resume review with an eye for reasons to eliminate candidates rather than reasons to keep candidates. Then, with the ‘yes’ pile that remains, I review the materials again, this time reviewing more closely to find the 5-6 best applicants for phone screen interviews.

So what are some of the red flags that I see on resumes and cover letters that make me place the candidate in the “no” pile?

  • Cover letter for another job (I actually had three cover letters in this most recent applicant pool that were for other jobs at other schools).
  • Poor writing skills
  • Typos
  • Resume that highlights why you are a great fit for another job

I review cover letters first because it is an easier way for me to filter out candidates. For some reason, many candidates put forth very little effort in crafting a branded cover letter.  A poorly written cover letter with grammar mistakes – “NO”  pile. A generic cover letter (ie. no mention of the company name, job, desired skills for the role, etc.) – “NO”  pile. A cover letter that highlights skills that are not needed for the job in which I am looking to hire – “NO”  pile.  This last point is the main reason that will tip one into the “NO” pile. When one highlights skills and responsibilities that have nothing to do with the job in which I am hiring, it makes it easier to put the applicant into the “NO” pile. When one highlight skills and interests that are unrelated to the job opening or when one’s personal brand communicates that he/she would prefer a different job, I decide to not bother with interviewing that individual because I know the job, company, role, etc. is a poor match with the candidate’s skills and interests.

This scenario happened to a college senior who wanted to get into finance. Although he had an economics major, all his work and extracurricular activities were IT related (web page design, IT help desk, Technical Chair for his dorm, etc.). He was not invited to interview for finance related jobs and he could not understand why. When I took his name off the resume and changed the company names (but left everything else the same), I asked him what type of job would someone with these skills be most interested in. He glanced at the resume and said IT – and then he smiled and got the point. Although he said he wanted finance, his resume said he wanted IT.

So the first resume and cover letter pass is the “Why should I not interview you?” approach – make it through that pile by highlighting only relevant skills and/or experiences and limiting extraneous information. The second pass is the “Why are you the best candidate?” The next time you write a cover letter or resume, review your application materials through the hiring manager’s eyes. Would you hire yourself with the application you are submitting?  Don’t let your application cause you to lose out in the first review.