Best practices for filling out online job appliications
January 22, 2014 7:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm currently looking for a second /part-time job and have been filling out 3-4 online job applications a day. I've been a freelancer for the last ten years and found most of that work via word of mouth or through personal recommendation. For this reason, filling out job applications is relatively new to me, particularly online, and I have some questions.

A few things I already know (though if I am wrong please correct me!): I know to tailor my resume to the job that I'm applying for. I know to upload a cover letter when possible. I don't skip any steps even when a field to be filled out is clearly 'optional'. And, though I've noticed some applications ask for quite a bit of redundant information (for example, an entire, required section that is basically a resume, despite the option to upload one's resume), I carefully fill it out and assume that this is what the hiring manager will be looking at (not my uploaded material).

What I'm asking is for any practical information, tips or 'insider' advice from hiring managers and mefites in the know. Some questions I have are:

– Though uploading a cover letter is stated to be "optional", does it actually count against one to not included it?

– Is it better or worse to leave blank the optional race/gender section that is typically tagged at the end of job applications?

– What is the best way to handle the 'preferred salary' portion? Best to leave it blank? Lowball? Highball? ("Best" in terms of getting an interview).

– Am I wasting my time filling out online applications?

I wonder if the online applications is the format that hiring managers tend to ignore in favor of other preferred, unspecified format such as hardcopies being sent in or personally delivered – even though websites tend to specifically asks applicants not to do this. (I ask this because I recall in my brief career as a an admin the unspoken thing was that email/online resumes were largely ignored in favor of hardcopies, even though the company's website specifically encouraged people to use the site).

Any advice or tips would be greatly appreciated! Thank you in advance.
posted by marimeko to Work & Money (10 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Unless the job is something I"m SUPER into, I don't bother with a cover letter. It turns out that most HR folks don't pay attention to them.

Answer the race/gender questions. What difference does it make?

Leave salary blank if you can, answer it truthfully if it's required. Don't low-ball yourself. If it comes up during the initial screening, ask, "What is the salary range for this position?" And a deflecting question is, "Well, I'm looking for a range between X and Y, but it really depends on the total compensation package."

You aren't wasting your time, if you're not spending a lot of time on on-line applications. Have a standard resume. Most of the resume submission engines are screening for key words. Make sure they're in your resume, and you'll be fine.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:15 AM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have gotten more interviews from customized cover letters than anything else. I have been specifically told that taking care in writing out how I fit with the job described, and what interests me about the company posting the job is what got me through to the next round.

However, make sure that the keywords in your resume match with the keywords in the job description, because you just don't know how automated the first pass is.
posted by xingcat at 7:16 AM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Cover Letter: Tailor and include a cover letter whenever possible when applying for a professional job (retail probably doesn't care but I have no experience in that realm). They get read more often than people think even if it seems like we haven't read it.

Race/Gender: Please fill it out. It is just annoying from an HR perspective to have to go back and fill that in later because we do need that info on everyone so that means us guessing based on how you look. The only person that will know if you filled it in or not is the HR person and we don't look at them closely because we have too much else to do.

Salary: Leave blank if possible. If not then be honest about how much money you want.

Time wasting: Every company I've worked at immediately either immediately threw out mailed resumes or we got really annoyed at the person for creating more work for us as we had to then scan their resume and upload it into the applicant system or email it to the hiring manager.

Again, this is my experience in working HR for tech companies hiring professionals. If you are looking at retail or something like that this may not be true.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:36 AM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


I once put in an application cover letter "I am interested in pursuing an MBA" and I swear to you I got that interview just because the computerized screening saw "MBA" in there because otherwise I'm sure there were more qualified candidates.

I have gotten a few interviews from online stuff so it's not a waste of time.

Also try to find that same job via LinkedIn and see which connections you have. You need a real person to see your resume where possible.

You could try calling after submitting online, or dropping by in person to submit the resume again. I'm a little on the fence about this approach but I know a guy who got an interview (and then the job) because when he applied in person, he chatted with the secretary about the fish on her desk and she pushed his resume forward since he was so personable.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:38 AM on January 22, 2014

When you fill out a job application online, your information is more than likely being stored in a database. If this is the case, it is quite possibly also the case that the data you submit will be evaluated by some kind of automated process, and that the results of this evaluation (a "score" of some type) may determine a first round of decision-making regarding which applicants will move forward to the next step of the interview/hiring process.

Cover letters may or may not be included as a part of this automated screening. If they are included, they'll probably be searched for keywords but that's it.

If the potential employer has an online application and you mail in a paper cover letter and app (or even e-mail electronic documents) you'll probably be round-filed straightaway, unless they have someone available to do the data-entry on your behalf. I wouldn't rely on this being the case.

Unless you have some inside information about what software and processes your potential employer is using, it's a crapshoot. In my personal experience, leaving out "non-required" information in an online job app nearly cost me an opportunity to interview for the job I held from 2010-2013. The reason I know this, and the reason I was able to interview anyway, is because I was already employed by the same office in a different capacity and I had a manager to stand up for me. Learned my lesson, though.

This will vary depending on the size of the employer, the degree to which HR favors technology, private/public sector, et cetera.
posted by trunk muffins at 7:39 AM on January 22, 2014

Wow, I won't threadsit, but thank you so far. This is exactly the kind of information I need. The points made about keywords are helpful in particular. Any specific information regarding using keywords would be greatly appreciated.

Also, there is a questions I forgot to ask:

– Can a person apply more than once for the same job listing (say, within a few weeks)? Or would that be considered bad form/get a person blacklisted?
posted by marimeko at 7:54 AM on January 22, 2014

A bit of a tangent. But the last time I was seeking a position, I sent out paper copies of my resume with a cover letter. I acquired two contractual positions from companies that hadn't even posted openings. Don't discount the value of some cold calls and sending good resumes and cover letters to firms/organizations that might have openings in your field.
posted by HuronBob at 7:58 AM on January 22, 2014

I hate those things. My experience and history never quite fit into the form very well. As a freelancer I imagine you might have the same problem. Make sure you check your spelling. job appliications

posted by Che boludo! at 9:28 AM on January 22, 2014

The cover letter depends on who is reading it. I have been told by one employer that I should have had a cover letter and by a separate recruiter that they are not necessary. I would err on the side of caution and include a cover letter.

As for the key words, I have a section at the bottom of my resume with key words. I am in the science field so it I'd broken up into skills. Such as computer: Microsoft office, biology, pipetting, pcr, ect. I do think that helps.

Some companies can only hire through HR (I think) meaning even if you send in a hard copy our network through someone you might still have to fill out online applications.

Also don't apply more than once, many online applications went allow you, but I think that is bad practice. I have also been told by HR people that you should apply consistently within a company. It looks weird if you apply for a entry level plumber job and a project manager. It shows that you don't know what you want. Do make sure the jobs you apply to make sense for your career. Good luck.
posted by Jaelma24 at 9:35 AM on January 22, 2014

– Can a person apply more than once for the same job listing (say, within a few weeks)? Or would that be considered bad form/get a person blacklisted?

I don't think that will hurt or help, if you're not hearing back from them your application was probably filtered out somehow and an actual person never looked at it. So you won't get blacklisted but applying again won't get you anything.

That said, a few weeks might be too soon for them to have gotten around to looking at candidates anyway.
posted by ghharr at 10:20 AM on January 22, 2014

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