You pull together a job application, you submit it, and then—you wait. Maybe you think you’re a shoo-in for an interview, or maybe you know it’s a reach, but you’re still hopeful. Or, maybe you can’t quite remember what you wrote in your cover letter because you’ve sent out 25 in the last week.
Regardless, one thing is true: Once you hit send, the ball’s in the hiring manager’s court. It’s up to her whether or not you’ll get an email inquiring about your availability for a phone screen or an in-person chat.
While you try to distract yourself, you can’t help but wonder what she’s thinking. While I’m not a mind reader; as someone who’s reviewed hundreds of applications, I can you let you in on a few key things that are probably going through her mind as she contemplates who’ll make it to the next round.
1. If You Followed Directions
You’ve read lots of stories or people who landed jobs by thinking outside the box. But, let’s be real: You know the difference between sending a resume made of LEGOs to stand out, and sending a two-line cover letter because you were looking for a shortcut.
Especially when the application calls for something unique—say, for you to include certain kind of a writing sample—you’ll want to be sure to do just that. If you skip this step, you’ll look like you lacked the ability (or interest) to closely read and follow instructions.
Or, you might come off like you think you’re smarter than the interviewer and can decide for yourself what’s necessary. Both of these impressions will make the reviewer say, “Pass!”
Following directions may not an exciting secret, but it’s always something hiring managers pay attention to.
2. If You Have a Mutual Contact to Vouch for You
It’s true: Someone can’t really know what you’re capable of and what it’s like to manage you until you work for him. But throughout the interview process he’s looking for clues. There’s what you say about yourself, of course, but having someone else who can speak about your worth bolsters your application.
For example, you’ve probably heard of the benefit of having a mutual contact put in a good word. Assuming the two respect each other, it’ll make the hiring manager pause and think: “Someone I know (or admire) would vouch for this person.” And that instantly makes taking a chance on you less of a risk.
You can get that referral by reaching out to your network and asking someone connected to both you and the hiring manager to speak on your behalf. It’s important to keep in mind that the closer the relationship on both ends, the more weight it will hold. Someone who’s worked with (or managed) you can give a more relevant recommendation than someone you played dodgeball against in middle school. Additionally, no matter how wonderful someone thinks you are, if he knows the hiring manager so distantly he’d have to remind her where they met, she won’t be that swayed by his endorsement. So, if your contact says he’s not sure his thoughts will make a big difference, take him at his word—and see if you know anyone else.
And if you don’t know anyone at all, it’s a good reminder in the future to make sure you’re creating those connections throughout the job search. That means setting up informational interviews at companies you’re interested in working at so that you can start building those bridges before you even need them.
3. If Your Application “Sparkled”
As career expert Lily Zhang shares, “There must be something that sets successful candidates apart from people who are similarly qualified and prepared. It’s how much they sparkle.” Zhang discusses it in the context of an interview, but you can set yourself apart in your application too.
I still remember essays some of my favorite fellowship candidates submitted with their applications. I liked ones that were particularly innovative or heartfelt in their approach. I also remember the people who knocked my socks off with their accomplishments—and still took the time to tailor their application. That said to me that they genuinely cared enough to spend time on it, which I appreciated.
Hiring managers spend a lot of time reading applications that pretty much all blur together as a regurgitation of the position description. It’s a welcome reprieve to find one that catches your attention for the right reasons. This desire to be captivated can work in a candidate’s favor—especially those who aren’t traditionally qualified. As both an interviewer and a candidate, I’ve witnessed being called in for an interview, because—even though the resume was light on experience—there was “just something about the cover letter.”
So, put some thought into what distinguishes you: Why are you personally drawn to the role? What’s different about your experience? Can you share a story or experience that’ll make you stand out? All of these things contribute to “sparkle,” which’ll make you more memorable when it’s time to consider who should be called in for interviews.
Hiring managers want to manage the process efficiently and invest their time in interviewing people who could possible be future employees. That’s why they look for candidates who can follow directions, who come with a recommendation, and who sparkle. Know that you know, use this information to your advantage on the job search.