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Hands on one side of illustration holding a job application and hands on the other side pointing to a cover letter, with pens and cups of coffee beside both

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Years ago, while laughing and playing during recess, elementary school kids used to say, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.” This rudimentary idea demonstrates order within a process, which is true when applying for a job.

For instance, one puts in an application with the hope of reaching the interview and then possibly getting the job. Everything hinges on the first action in the process, as without the first, you usually don’t get to the second or third. You may be thinking everyone understands this, but I’m not sure they do.

After reviewing hundreds of candidate applications for all sorts of positions in academic libraries, it’s clear candidates often skip the first action and jump ahead when applying for jobs. What does that mean? Many applicants appear to be thinking more about having the interview than actually getting to the interview. Maybe you think this surely can’t be the case, but based on my experience it appears to be true.

The goal of this short piece is to serve as a reminder to help more applicants get to the second step of the hiring process with five fundamental tips and subsequent explanations.

  1. Make sure you meet all the required qualifications.
  2. Make sure to read the instructions on how to demonstrate qualifications.
  3. Make sure to include how you meet each required qualification.
  4. Make sure to be explicit rather than implicit.
  5. Make sure to include only the materials requested.

First, if you do not meet all the required qualifications, do not apply. Even if you have the most beautifully arranged application package, the hiring committee cannot move you forward if you do not meet the required qualifications. That is almost always true, and even when a committee tries to wiggle a candidate around a missed requirement, it’s still rarely possible.

That does not mean you can’t be creative. If you see a job posting where you meet four of five requirements, ask yourself if you have life experience in that missed area. That can be something outside of your work experience when properly articulated. If that’s the case, do not hesitate to include such information.

Second, if the job ad says to demonstrate how you meet the requirements in your cover letter, make sure to follow those instructions. Applicants who do not follow clear instructions send a negative first impression. For example, do not assume that information in your CV will suffice. Recognize that repetition is not bad—in fact, having requirements represented in more than one place can be a plus. For instance, you can pick one of the most recent or relevant examples for the cover letter with your CV listing other related details.

Third, when the job advertisement has required qualifications, which most do, remember it’s important to address your experience with each requirement. The better you highlight the required elements, the more likely you’ll make it to the next step. As mentioned above, even if you don’t have work experience in one area but rather other life or world experience, be clear how it is relatable.

Moreover, be careful not to inadvertently rely on key words—instead provide clear and concise examples that paint a picture. For instance, if the posting requires experience working with spreadsheets, don’t just say you’ve had experience with spreadsheets. Relay how you’ve used them and the projects that relied on their use.

Fourth, do not force the hiring committee to use a magnifying glass to search through your application to determine if you’re qualified. You should make things clear by speaking to each requirement individually. Everyone enjoys a challenge, but when it comes to résumés and cover letters, make things easier rather than more difficult. Provide clarity to increase the odds of moving your package forward.

Fifth, do not include things the hiring committee did not request to be included. The more information you offer in your materials, the more work you create for the readers. Keep in mind that many applicants usually apply for each job, which creates a great number of preliminary documents to review. Nothing is wrong with focusing on addressing the requirements and keeping things simple. You don’t want to be the person that includes everything and the kitchen sink—you want to highlight the items that speak to how you meet the qualifications.

To reiterate, when applying for a position in higher education, your focus should be on making it from the first to the next step, which for many people will be some type of interview. And such progress is only possible by first meeting the required qualifications. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying preferred qualifications are not important—they are vital to set yourself apart—just don’t substitute them for the required qualifications.

Finally, it should go without saying that you should always edit your materials for good grammar and spelling. And whatever you do, don’t address materials to the wrong organization.

These recommendations may seem basic, but you’d be surprised how many job seekers ignore them—to their detriment. If you take these fundamental steps to heart, you’ll surely increase your odds of moving your applicant packet to the next step in your job search.

James Rhoades is assistant director of continuing and electronic resources at Virginia Tech.

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