What is the secret to a great job application?

Career Nov 11, 2019

Focus on trust and stop diluting what makes you awesome

It took me 4 years to get my first job as a Product Owner (PO) at a Dutch start-up called Bynder. I was their third PO hire.

Landing this job required a lot of persistence and dedication. When I tried to land my first job as a Product Owner, I applied for around 30 PO vacancies and did not get invited anywhere. I was baffled.

I had relevant experience and I had applied to so many jobs that my motivation letter and resume reached a level I was inadequate to improve any further. I was stuck and did not know what to do better.

I changed a single line on my resume, and I suddenly got invited to 70% of all interviews I applied to. In fact I even got approached by recruiters. Read on and you will find out what I changed on my resume.

How do you write a great job application?

A job application starts with a sea of possibilities.

What makes your job application stand out? What do you write and why? What do you leave out? How do you apply the right focus to get invited for the interview?

A recruiter viewing your job application knows almost nothing about you. Your application gives off an impression, based on which a recruiter decides to invite or reject.

Decisions based on impressions like this boil down to one thing: trust.

Trust-signalling approach to job applications

Your job application and relevant online presence should signal trust you will be great at the job.

The signal you want to send with your job application: trust.

Interference that weakens the signal: doubt.

Anything that does not increase trust or remove doubt: noise.

Your job as an applicant is to increase the signal-to-noise ratio of the trust your job application conveys, while minimizing interference.

In other words: stop diluting what makes you awesome. Focus on a trustworthy impression you will be great at the job.

Start with empathy

Viewing your job application through this trust signalling lens requires empathy. You need to understand what the company is looking for and how your job application comes across.

Do you not understand exactly what they are looking for? Then it is difficult to create a strong, trustworthy signal. If you understand what they are looking for and how you are perceived, then you can leverage this to signal as much trust possible.

Focus on creating a trustworthy narrative

The past experience on your resume needs to add up to a coherent narrative making evident you can do the job well. The best evidence is that you have done (part of) the responsibilities in the past. When not possible, you need to spend more effort to explain how your experience translates to evidence you can do the job.

When creating trust you have one job: don’t make the recruiter wonder why you are able to do the job. It is your job as an applicant to convey this with crystal clarity.

It is too risky to leave up to the recruiter to figure out for you.

Address potential doubts

The hardest thing about addressing doubts is you need to know what doubts exist.

When I applied for my first job as Product Owner, I was not getting invited anywhere.

My conclusion was I lacked credibility I would be able to perform the job. I needed to be able to hand over better evidence. So I studied for a Product Owner certification, passed, and listed ‘Certified Product Owner’ as the first thing you would see when opening my resume.

Suddenly I got invited to most of the interviews I applied to do. I was not more capable, but recruiters believed I was. The certification removed doubt about being able to do the job.

Remove noise

Noise is information that does not provide value. Information that does not strengthen your narrative.

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hoffman

Does it really add value that you mention your high school or primary school, when you already have a Masters degree? Unless I went to the same school, I probably won’t care.

Another example: you had multiple jobs during university and spend a full page elaborating each job. Even though the experience is not relevant for the role you are applying for.

Use a Variable Bit Rate approach on your resume

MP3 files can be encoded using a Constant or Variable Bit Rate (VBR). A constant bit rate means that the bitrate is the same through-out the whole file. It will use the same amount of storage for parts with a lot of action or parts with complete silence.

This seems like a waste of storage space you could better use for good parts of the music right?

In a variable bit rate approach, more storage space is allocated to parts where the music is busy and less storage space in parts where the music is silent.

In your resume you should follow the variable bitrate approach: allocate more real estate on your resume to experience that provides a strong signal you will be able to do the job. Allot less space on your resume to experience that provides a weak signal you are able to do the job.

Remove experience distracting from the parts that matter. Mention the titles and leave other details out. If they want to know more, they will ask. Now you will have more space to elaborate on your jobs that do matter.

Noise can also create doubt. If you stress things that do not matter, then the recruiter may start to doubt if you really understand the job you are applying for.

Stop diluting what makes you awesome

Focus on signalling the trust that grants the credibility you will be great. Do not dilute what makes your profile awesome. Doing this requires empathy. You need to understand what the employer is looking for and understand how your job application is perceived.

The trust signalling approach helps to apply the right focus to your job application. Just look at each sentence in your job application and ask yourself: does this increase the trust I am able to do the job or not? If the answer is no, then you should consider changing or removing the sentence.