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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

The "Obvious" Job Search Rule You May Not Be Following

It sounds too good to be true—but it’s not. There is one simple thing you can do to dramatically increase your likelihood of getting an interview and a job. Are you ready?

Follow the directions.

Before you close out this tab (because this advice is, like, so obvious) and you surely always follow directions, let me say this: You just might not. I’m not talking about egregious examples like calling when the application says, “No phone calls, please,” or neglecting to show up for your interview because you mixed up the date (though, that does happen).

Instead, let’s discuss how anyone (cough, you) might unknowingly be ignoring directions. Read on for the two major traps—and what you can do to avoid them.

When You Want to Be Extra Thoughtful

You want to be helpful. You want to be authentic. You want to show that you have every quality needed to succeed at this job—no matter what it may be.

So, instead of sending one writing sample like the posting said, you sent more than one (OK, four)—an academic sample, a chatty sample, a short sample, and a long sample—to provide some options. Or maybe you arrived for your interview 45 minutes early, just to really hit home that you’re punctual. Or, when asked about your biggest weakness, you told a very personal story to be memorable and real.

Each of these circumstances demonstrates a failure to follow directions and, yes, despite your intentions, all of these examples can count against your candidacy. Why? Because they evidence behaviors that would be less than ideal in the workplace.

Think about it: If your future boss asks for a one-page summary, that’s what he wants (not four pages of options). So including a ton of additional information makes it looks like you can’t make up your mind or synthesize information. Arriving super-early is not laudable: Can you imagine someone knocking on your office door 45 minutes before every meeting? Finally, while it’s good that you want to avoid sounding like a robot, getting too personal shows that you might have boundary issues.

So, don’t strive to go above and beyond by building upon what the application asks for. Rather, use your time and energy to work within the constraints of the application—write an amazing cover letter, practice memorable (and appropriate) interview answers, and aim to arrive 10 to 15 minutes before your interview begins. (If you get nervous, plan to get there an hour early and spend most of it at a nearby Starbucks.)

When You Want to Be Super Responsive

You might feel like you’re constantly—albeit passively—job hunting. You’re told to continually update your resume, build your network, and keep an eye out for exciting opportunities.

So, you send that updated resume over to someone you recently met up with for coffee, and she emails you back to say you’d be perfect for a new position at her company. You’re intrigued, so you say you’re open to learning more, and the next thing you know you’re attempting to read a long email—including a link to a multi-step application—on your phone while you wait for the subway.

Do not email your contact back. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

Yes, hearing you’re in demand is exciting, and you obviously want to be responsive. But instantly writing back how thrilled you are—before you really read the email—may be a failure to follow directions. For starters, what are you going to do when you check the correspondence more closely and realize that your contact asked for a substantive response (e.g., future availability, or a confirmation of your willingness to work in another city)? If all you wrote was, “Thanks so much! I’m very excited to learn more about this opportunity!” you’ll have to send another note to clear up any confusion.

I once received an email during a job application process that I didn’t quite understand. Rather than spend an hour or two (OK, even 30 minutes) ruminating, I took a stab at a response about 10 minutes later (because I was bursting with excitement to even be in contention for this role). It turns out I mistook what the hiring manager was asking, and so I didn’t really answer his questions. Needless to say, I ended up not getting the job.

Replying in a timely fashion is important, but so is responding appropriately. If you’re in no position to review an email for directions (let alone scan your draft for typos), you should wait to write back.

Sometimes when your feeling stuck in your job search, it’s because you’re trying to do too much. Shake things up by going back to the basics, and making sure you’re doing everything that’s expected of a top-notch candidate—beginning with following the application instructions.

Photo of dance steps courtesy of Shutterstock.