Discover more from Work. Better.
Perspectives: Navigating the job application process
One HR professional shares her tips
For this week’s Perspectives, I spoke with Nicole Kohler, PHR. When I pivoted in my career a few years ago, Nicole was the HR person was the person who gave me a chance and pushed my application forward. The world needs more Nicoles: she is a compassionate and thoughtful HR professional.
I sat down with Nicole and asked her for her best tips for anyone navigating the current job market. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna Burgess Yang: For someone who is entering the job market for the first time in a few (or many!) years, what can you say about how the application process has changed?
Nicole Kohler: It used to be as simple as you could walk up to a location, hand over a resume, and would have an interview on the spot or get a call back the same day or the next day. Now, there are so many people looking for work because the types of work have broadened because of technology, new markets, and remote work. Work is more accessible to a bigger group of people — which is not at all a bad thing! But because of that availability, competition is so much greater than it used to be. You have to apply online through an applicant tracking system. And HR people like me are looking at anywhere from 100 to 500 applications for the same role. The volume is overwhelming.
If you haven’t participated in the job market for awhile, you have to understand that it’s not a simple process. There are things you have to do as a candidate.
ABY: What are some things about the process that have really changed?
NK: When I was first a manager 10 years ago, we had two interviews to hire a candidate. And those interviews would be 30 minutes at most. Decisions were made based on gut feeling — which isn’t necessarily a good thing — but that led to a very short, uncomplicated process.
Now, for better or worse, interview processes are longer. There are more steps, and applicants typically go through three or more calls, often with projects or some kind of trial stage to determine if their skills align with what they are presenting on their application and resume. “Gut feeling” that a lot of employers were using has been eliminated because employers are trying to eliminate bias. Gut feeling can often align with “This person looks like me, this person talks like me, this person acts like me” — which is not a good way to build a team. You want diverse perspectives and diverse experiences, and that’s why the interview process needs to be longer and have more steps.
ABY: During the application process, what’s happening on your end, from an HR person’s point of view?
NK: HR teams haven’t scaled along with the growth in applicants and open roles, especially at smaller companies. Small companies are seeing the same type of volume as large companies, but the teams are still one or two people. When they’re dealing with 10x, 20x, 30x the applicant volume, it’s going to be a long waiting period. And it’s not out of ignorance or malice. It will take me hours to go through all of the applications to make sure I’m not disqualifying someone who is potentially qualified.
And it’s important for applicants to know that, as HR, we are not the sole decision maker for a first interview, except at very, very small companies. The waiting period is not just for the talent acquisition person looking at your resume. It’s also waiting for a hiring manager to weigh in. And if that hiring manager is overloaded — which they probably are, because they’re hiring! — that waiting period gets even longer.
ABY: So when you’re looking at 300 applications for a role, what are some things that catch your attention? What are some things that applicants should know?
NK: What still surprises me is how many people don’t complete the application. And by this, I mean just filling out the answer to a question that has a one-word response. If someone asks you a “yes or no” question, please do not put a dash or a space or n/a. That wipes out somewhere between 35 - 50% of applicants. Those are folks who get disqualified because, unfortunately, you are giving me nothing I can use to evaluate your experience beyond your resume. And if your resume doesn’t give me a lot of information, then I’m left to make a judgment call.
A tip I give to nearly everyone is to make sure your resume has your achievements and anything you’ve done that’s unique, as opposed to just a list of your responsibilities. If I’m looking at a marketing role and someone says “I was responsible for search engine optimization” that doesn’t really tell me anything. But if your resume says “I improved our performance by X percent” I’m going to be a lot more interested because you can deliver results. Even if you’re coming from a small company or were only there a short time, those results and that impact are going to tell me a lot more about who you are as a person and what you’re capable of achieving.
ABY: What do you think are red flags for an applicant during the hiring process?
NK: I think any application is a really good starting point to look for red flags. If there are a lot of questions and they’re asking you for a lot of your time before you even get an interview, they’re going to keep asking for a lot of your time and resources — and probably not going to compensate you very well.
If you see a form or application that asks you to disclose something that is not under the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) header, run far, far away. This morning, someone shared with me that they were asked to disclose what type of disability they had. Do not ever apply to a company that asks you to disclose something like that. First of all, they can see the data that is not part of the EEOC form. And secondly, they are going to figure out if that’s an “ok disability” for them to employ you. That’s discrimination.
Also, uncompensated projects. I think if the project is 30 minutes or less, it’s probably fair not to expect compensation. But if a company is asking you for anything that requires several hours of work, and they’re not compensating you, there’s a good chance that they might be stealing that work from you.
And if a company can’t answer questions about their interview process, like how many people you will be talking to, get away. It’s pretty common for small companies to have some ambiguity. But if they say, “Well, we’re not sure, it could take a week, it could take two months.” Nope.
ABY: What do you think about the candidate experience and the type of communication they can expect throughout the process?
NK: My thought on this is that the further you are into the process as a candidate, the more frequent and more personalized the communication should be. The truth is that companies suck at this, across the board. I have personally received no reason for disqualification after a six-person panel interview and a facility tour. I got a “Dear John” letter. I asked for feedback and I got nothing. And it was an HR role! You’d think they’d know better, but no.
If you are a candidate, you are right to expect communication, feedback, and transparency in the process. But your expectations are probably right to be low. HR teams don’t necessarily have the capacity to send out personalized communication and sometimes they don’t have the time or investment to train hiring managers who are responsible for sending these communications.
I think one thing candidates can do is follow up and understand that you’re not being annoying. If you haven’t heard something for two days, follow up. If you haven’t gotten feedback, follow up. It is our job, and I’m speaking as a member of the HR community, to give you the answers and give you a timeline and give you the feedback you’re asking for. If you’re not getting that, please ask.
ABY: I talk about career pivots a lot. What would you say to somebody who wants to take their career in a totally different direction? How can they align what they did before with a new type of role?
NK: A big piece of that is your resume. I’ve done this myself because I pivoted from content marketing to HR. I still have my content marketing experience on my resume but I emphasized the management and people-wrangling aspect of that experience. If you’re framing the experience and the results you had in a way that’s tailored toward the roles you want, that’s a big first step.
Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to the recruiter or hiring manager for that role on LinkedIn and be transparent with them. Say, “Hey, I’m coming from X industry and this job caught my eye. I’m interested in applying, but want you to know I’m coming from X and I’m looking to make a transition, and that’s why I’m interested. Can we have a conversation?” Context is everything. Relevancy is everything. And other things too, like willingness to learn, alignment with company values, and, in some cases, interest in what the company is doing. But that all goes back to relevancy.
ABY: For someone applying for a lot of roles or who has been looking for a long time, how can they fight applicant burnout? How can they protect their time and energy and not get discouraged?
NK: I have folks in my network who have been searching for months. The best advice I’ve given them is to come to peace with the fact that not every day is mission-critical job hunting. It does not need to be your full-time job. If you treat every job application as mission-critical, you will burn out.
You have to take time for yourself. And that means reserving your energy for the roles you care most about and the roles that you believe you will have the highest chance and have the most alignment, whether that’s your skills, your passions, or your interests. Don’t beat yourself up mentally. You cannot force yourself to apply constantly because the results will be worse. For some people, rage applying is really cathartic. For me, it got me the worst results because I wasn’t putting thought into what I was doing. I was just filling out applications, not being thoughtful.
Every single day I disqualify applicants who are talented. Who have 10, 20, 30 years of experience. I can’t help but feel bad every single time I turn someone down and look at their resume and think, “This person is great for something. But not this role.”
I know how easy it easy for people to feel discouraged and to feel less than because you’re getting all those rejections. I really want people to understand that it doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough as a person because you’re getting rejected. It means you’re not in alignment with what the company is looking for, for that role. Rejects from a job are for that job. They’re not a rejection of you as a person.
You can also follow me on LinkedIn for more insights about work, or on Threads for spicier takes, and Medium where I write about fun stuff like productivity and creativity. Or catch up on the personal side of my life on my blog.
If you want to support me as a writer, you can buy me a coffee.