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Advice / Job Search / Resumes

3 Mistakes Not to Make When Applying to a Startup

Finding a great job at a startup can be a lot of work. On the flip side, for a company, finding a great hire is also a lot of work. Even small startups often have to go through dozens of resumes—sometimes hundreds—to set up a handful of interviews and eventually identify the best person to bring on board.

So, as a candidate, you can do yourself (and your future employer) a lot of favors by putting your best foot forward in your resume and cover letter and making your past work and strengths obvious. (Believe me, a lot of people don’t.) While many things in startups can be more casual than in a big company, these three things matter, whether you’re going to be employee number 6 or employee number 6,000.

Mistake #1: Leaving Potential Employers Confused by Your Career Path

Especially if you’re early on in your career, it’s not uncommon to have a resume that isn’t exactly linear. You may have had part-time jobs that overlapped with classes that were interrupted by internships. Or maybe you spent a couple years jumping between consulting gigs, and now you want to settle into a long-term role. Particularly in startups, this can be common; it’s not unusual for companies to launch, grow, and then fold all within a year. As a result, your resume may show a series of positions that lasted only 10 months, but the short tenure reflects more on the companies than it does on your loyalty.

These are all great stories to tell in your application, but you’ve got to make them clear. One way to make your progression more obvious is by annotating your resume. For example, don’t be afraid to write “(company folded)” or “summer internship” next to a position; that will make it obvious why you left after three months. Similarly, if you spent some time doing temporary gigs, think about grouping them together. For example, instead of showing five short-term engineering roles, have a line item on your resume that says “Engineering Consulting,” then list the projects you worked on as bullet points.

Lastly, don’t hesitate to address anything else about your background that may raise questions, either directly on the resume or in your cover letter. Take a gap year to travel? Say so. Go through a career shift? Explain how you decided on a new path.

Mistake #2: Highlighting Tasks Instead of Accomplishments

As an employer, knowing what you did in your past role is helpful, but what’s much more helpful is knowing how you did. When you’re applying for a job at a startup, this is especially important because the need (especially in the early days) is for people who can make things happen, not just people who can do the tasks they’re assigned. Your goal should be to show not only what responsibilities you took on, but also what impact your work had on the company.

Help your resume stand out by listing achievements along with your responsibilities. Some examples:

Meh: Ran email marketing
Great: Ran and optimized email marketing, increasing clickthrough to the site by 25% in 3 months

Meh: Organized team building activities
Great: Owned team building and employee satisfaction; saw zero employee turnover during my 18 months in the role

Mistake #3: Sending Materials With Blatant Errors

This one may sound obvious, but employers see egregious errors all the time. One small typo? Probably not a big deal. Using the name of another company in your cover letter? Happens more than you’d think, and can definitely cause your resume to get tossed, especially at a startup, where passion about the company is key.

Here a quick checklist of things to do between finishing your cover letter and hitting send:

  • Send it to a friend (or writing tutor) for feedback, or even just a quick grammar review.
  • Double check names. Are the name of the contact, position, and company all correct? (Especially important when you’re working from a template.)
  • Read the description one last time. Did you include everything that was asked for in applying?

Even if you were referred by a current employee, make sure the note you send with your resume is clean, concise, and professional. Including a few comments about why you’re excited for the position can also help the person referring you make your case to your potential manager.

You can’t control who else is applying for your dream job at the next Facebook or Pinterest, but you can make sure your materials represent you in the best way possible.

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