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Generic job application? You can still sparkle

I remember looking for a job during summer break from college. I went through the arduous task of filling out hundreds of job applications, providing every scrap of information about my educational background and work experience and racking my brain for phone numbers and addresses (why do they need these?) of my references.

At the time, I didn’t really have enough experience to create an impressive résumé, but I would print out a bunch of copies and bring them with me anyway.

Even when asked to play by the rules, you can use them to your advantage. Why yes, dear company, I’ll fill out your four-page application, but as a result you will take my résumé.

Aside from rule-breaking, how can you stand out on a generic job application? Let’s just clear up any confusion that using neon coloured pens or Lisa Frank stickers are acceptable beyond the fourth grade. They are not. Blue or black ink only and absolutely no stickers, no matter how cool they are.

Even as I tell that story, you might say, “How dated. No one has paper applications anymore.” You would, for the most part, be right. Employers today want you to go online to fill out an application. Even your local grocery store will point you toward a self-serve application kiosk if you are looking for work. Paper or not, generic applications usually ask for the same information, with some variation based on the industry or type of position. Usually they want to know your availability, experience, skills and qualifications in list form and references.

Sometimes you’ll get those painfully long personality surveys, which I never seem to master, regardless of how I answer the questions. Let it be said I applied to a very well-known coffee shop and answered that survey in every way possible — honestly, not honestly, what I thought they wanted to hear, etc. Never worked. It was not in the stars for me to become a barista, apparently. I digress …

So how can you stand out on these applications? Well, here are some basics that will expedite and improve how you fill one out:


  • Take your time. Don’t just slop it together or act put out to be filling it out. I would always prepare a sheet that I could essentially lift information off of for the application, because I have a horrible memory and don’t remember who my boss was at job No. 3, or what his extension was. If you sum it all up and have that with you, the process will go faster. But it’s still not a reason to just rush through it.


  • Keep it readable. Know how to spell all of the words you are using and just print — no cursive, thank you.


  • Stick with the facts. Get all your dates in line and don’t fudge around with your compensation, employment gaps, criminal background, etc.
  • The optional cover letter is not an option. Write it, explain anything from the above bullet point and start talking yourself up as you do in a résumé. Focus less on tasks and more on the results that you brought to your previous work experiences.
  • Notify your references. As a show of courtesy, let your references know that you’re applying for a new job and that they may be contacted about it. Never pull a reference out of a hat, and always ask for permission first.



Also, many employers will now allow you to upload a résumé, and if given the opportunity, you should. Here are 10 tips on making your résumé stand out from the rest, as well as tips on how to get personal referrals in case you’re applying with a company that a friend or family member may already work for. Because most systems are now pulling against keywords, it’s important to use the best terms in your cover letter, résumé and application.


After you’ve applied, the follow-up dance begins. Here are some tips on proper follow-up etiquette:


  • Follow up after a week or two to confirm that the hiring manager has received your application or résumé and to see where the company is in the hiring process. Keep the communication short and to the point.  


  • If you land an interview, send an email thank-you note within 24 hours, highlighting key attributes that make you the right fit for the position. If you can, send a mailed thank-you note as well.


  • If you haven’t heard back, wait about 10 business days after the interview to check in with the hiring manager on the job status.

By Justin Thompson, CareerBuilder Writer

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