Almost Half of Job Applicants Don’t Follow Basic Directions, Say HR Pros

Were you one of those kids who always followed directions on classroom activities? If so, you probably had an advantage when you started your career, because standing out from the pack may be as simple as paying attention to the details as you submit your job application.

While there’s little hard data on the subject, it appears a startling number of job seekers don’t follow basic directions when applying for a job: The human resource professionals I spoke with estimated that about half of all candidates are guilty of leaving out critical information on their applications.

Whether it’s forgetting to include an attachment or requested references, or accidentally leaving a section blank, a haphazard application can have real consequences for your candidacy; depending on the circumstances and the strength of your resume, it could even get you knocked out of contention.

How Many Job Applicants Don’t Follow Directions?

“I think the answer is higher than half, but I think people who are serious about the job are far more likely to follow the application directions,” says an anonymous human resources professional at an executive search firm in New England. “I’d say 65% to 70% of serious candidates follow the instructions, but overall maybe 45%.”

She adds that she doesn’t count cover letters that consist of, “I’d like to be considered for X position and my resume is attached,” as following instructions. (Good tip for job seekers: To get called in for an interview, you’ll have to obey the spirit of the directions, and not just squeak by on a technicality.)

Other HR folks says that job level seems to correlate with a willingness to follow directions – no surprise to anyone who’s ever spent the early part of their career spamming entry-level job openings.

“As a former recruiter and staffing firm executive, I can tell you that the higher level the job is, the fewer issues you’ll have with people who don’t follow directions,” says Andrea Clement, director of communications at the Medicus Firm, a national healthcare recruiting firm. “That’s for multiple reasons, but partially because you don’t have as high volume of applicants for higher level positions.”

Clement says that while they don’t have exact figures on how many applicants follow directions, their director of employee engagement, Megan Williams, tells her that it’s at least 40%. Williams adds that this number could actually be lower than average because the company often hires through employee referral.

What Happens to Incomplete Applications?

“Most of the time, if the directions aren’t followed, they won’t be considered for the job, unless there just happens to be something really stellar or compelling about the candidate’s resume that would cause the hiring manager to overlook the fact that the candidate didn’t follow the directions for job application,” says Clement.

If the employer uses an applicant tracking system — that’s software that sorts resumes and allows HR professionals to search them by keyword — failing to fill out a required box could get an applicant’s resume booted from the process before a human ever lays eyes on it.

How Robots Can Ruin Your Job Search

And then, there’s the fact that robots aren’t as smart as humans when it comes to understanding context.

“Sometimes it’s not even [applicants] causing the error,” says an anonymous associate professor who teaches human resources in healthcare in the southeastern U.S. “For example, our local health department uses a computer screener: If you don’t check yes to certain buttons, it doesn’t submit your resume.”

For example, she says, an epidemiologist job might require a master’s degree, but prefer a doctorate. The system would take users through a series of questions:

  • Do you have a PhD?
  • Do you have a master’s degree?
  • Do you have a bachelor’s degree?
  • Do you have an associate degree?

If the applicant checked PhD, but didn’t also check master’s degree, the system might hold the resume – even though the candidate is fully qualified. That’s especially problematic if the candidate in question skipped getting a master’s degree and went straight through to the PhD. In that case, the applicant is being honest and thorough – they’re just not speaking the same language as the computer.

Bottom line: A human might be inclined to forgive an incomplete application, but a computer will not. To make sure your resume gets in front of a human, you’ll have to be as thorough as possible… and hope the applicant tracking system sees things your way, too.

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