Visual representation of Talking Pretty on Job Applications

Welcome to Part Three of the Occupational Misadventure series. Today we will be covering how to make your applications sound like they were written by Bill Shakespeare himself (minus the balcony scenes). If you stumbled upon this post looking for some help in how to actually fill out applications online, check out Part Two: Applications of Application Theory. In this part I’ll be going over some of the things that should be included on an application. Including Action Adjectives! and other boring crap like that.

If you have read the other articles in this series you may be wondering “this guy doesn’t seem like he takes this stuff all that seriously, but he is trying to give other people advice. What the hell?” The secret answer to that question, hypothetical reader, is that I actually do give a shit about all this nonsense, but I also realize that this whole job searching process just sucks. It is a mind-numbing, soul-crushing, pain-inducing, madness-inspiring trip going round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning, on an ever spinning reel. My goal is to share some experience, maybe help a few of you hypothetical readers out, and put all this and maybe make some of my useless knowledge into useful articles.

I attended a workshop on writing resumes a few months ago taught by a professor who had never applied for a job outside of academia. I knew the professor pretty well already, he speaks with a thick Russian accent and is likely bipolar, swinging wildly from mania to depression, or at least that is my impression of him based on his unpredictable and gratuitous use of the “URGENT!” function on his emails. Everyone in the workshop had different career goals, maybe half were thinking of going to work at a University at some point, the rest of us were just a mixed bag of people like me who wanted to maybe do something someday and others who had lofty goals, Senators and High Profile Lawyers and Environmental Activists. He printed, yes printed, on paper, a dozen different example resumes for us to look at while he rushed through his presentation that probably should have taken three hours that he’d condensed down into about 45 minutes (not condensed, I might add, all that successfully). He raced through the examples, all I really remember him saying was “and so on and so forth,” which was this weird verbal tick he had picked up somewhere along his path towards being the person at the front of the workshop despite not really having ever applied for a job that didn’t have ‘professor’ in the title. I walked away from the workshop with one new piece of information: I can go online and look at examples of other people’s resumes to see what worked for them. What I did not learn was how to fill out an application because, really, at our level, who is going to make us fill out applications, and so on and so forth?

The other day I was rummaging around on a job site and ended up following a bread crumb trail back to a local hospitals website. Out of curiosity I took a look at their current job openings and saw they were hiring new doctors. They wanted ones with experience, years of it, and a list of publications, and what sort of medical breakthroughs had they had in their careers? And in order to officially apply for the position they needed you to fill out an application. I am not a medical doctor, and I don’t even play one on TV, so I navigated away and probably over to netflix to binge-watch away my despair. No matter how good you are, no matter how accomplished, no matter how qualified, you are probably going to have to fill out a goddamn application still. Because fuck you! that’s why!

No one ever taught me how to fill out an application. Why the hell should anyone, you pesky hypothetical reader ask, it isn’t that dang complicated. Sure, on paper (pun!) it isn’t that complicated, but in application (double-pun!) it requires a lot of experience (pun-tacular!).

(I’ve just been told by the judges that that last pun doesn’t count because it is ultra-lame. I’m going to contest their ruling, but let us just move on for now.)

Most of an application is just filling out dates and addresses and phone numbers, so, yeah, it isn’t that fuckign complicated. And yet there are more words written after this point, so I must be going somewhere with this. The thing is there are little timebombs hidden away in those couple pages of forms. “Reason for Leaving” is probably the most tricky. “Explain any Gaps in Your Employment History” is a tough one. “References” can be surprisingly complex, unless you actually like most of the people you used to work with and, really, who likes people they work with now much less those people they left behind knowing full well they would have to go through a job search just to find another place full of new people they are going to have to deal with? Or perhaps that is just me.

Below I’ll try to tackle some of the things I’ve found that sort of work. Or if they don’t work then at least they feel like they work, which is really the most important part, probably.

Reason for Leaving. The answer is probably “because I thought quitting was preferable to strangling my bosses in their sleep.” That is not the answer you should give, of course, unless you are applying to be a Strangler, and even then it just raises more questions than it answers “So you didn’t strangle your last boss and now you want to be our new Strangler? Doesn’t that show a lack of ambition and follow-through?” In generally it is both a bad idea to strangle people and you should probably be a little weary of anyone offering to hire a Strangler, unless you are a detective in some noir film in which case stop reading this and duck! Someone is probably about to shoot at you through a closed window or some lady is probably about to try to poison you and frame you for the murder of her husband!

(What was I talking about?) Oh yeah, so your Reason for Leaving should sound like it makes some sort of logical sense. Even if you have a job right now while you are applying you are probably going to have to explain yourself for why you left the job before that and the one before that. If you can, just make it all seamless. I left Job A because I got Job B, I left Job B because I got Job C. It doesn’t always really work that way, believe me I know. I once quit a job because I ran into one of my supervisors at a bar in town on a day she’d called in sick and her boyfriend threatened to beat me up if I told our boss. Granted, he wasn’t particularly scary so I shoved him out of the way and stormed off, but it was a pretty good sign that I wasn’t going to thrive in that environment. So what do I say when I put that job on applications “Moved out of Town” which was sort of true, I moved a few months later and took a new job in a new place. “Almost got into a bar fight with my bosses boyfriend” might sound cooler in a story to your friends, but chances are it isn’t going to win you many jobs (except bouncer, maybe. And it probably wouldn’t hurt on your Strangler application).

You shouldn’t lie on an application, I’m obligated to say as someone giving you job advice online, but if you are going to lie, lie smart. Tell the truth as much as you can. I really did move, so that makes sense. I might have lied a little about the date that I actually moved, but who the hell cares? Plus it is easy to remember, which is critical to keeping it all straight. And for fucks sake be consistent. Pick one reason you left and use that as your reason every single time. Most of the time you won’t need to make anything up. Just try to find a positive spin on what happened. Don’t say “I just didn’t mesh with the company culture” or something too clever by half like that. Keep it simple, keep it short, keep it easy, keep it positive. If all else fails “Family Medical Issues” is good, and interviewers can’t really ask follow-up questions without risking breaching privacy laws. Again, I’m not advocating lying, but if you happened to quit around the time your partner/kid/parent/etc. had a bad flu then you aren’t saying anything untrue, but keep in mind it is extremely misleading so be prepared to live with that.

Explain any Gaps in your Employment. For many years I lived within a few hours drive of where they hold Burning Man each summer. I’ve had friends quit jobs to go out there. The actually event is only a few days long, but they spend a couple months setting up and another month cleaning up after, so they would volunteer to help build stuff or work the box office and head out to the dessert for two months. And, sure, they probably drank some beer and smoked some weed at the end of their workdays, but they were really working the whole time they were out there. Still, a two month gap should probably not be explained simply as “Burning Man.”

Chances are everyone has a few weird gaps in employment. Times when they just decided to stop working for one reason or another that can’t be summarized in a single sentence on a form. I quit a job once because I read that the economy was improving (this was in 2010, so really I misunderstood “improving” to mean good, when really it meant “slightly less shitty”) and thought I’d be able to get a new job, a better job, a shinier job, within a few weeks. I hated that job, I was technically part-time even though I was working there 6 nights a week, and being forced to wear a polo shirt to work and I think guys look like complete idiots in polo shirts (sorry guys, but we do). Women can pull them off, sometimes, though. The point is I was ready to move on and miscalculated and spent a while on the job market trying to explain why I was unemployed to people that didn’t really want to hire me in the first place. Eventually I took another terrible job that didn’t ask too many questions and got back to work. Yet for a Professional Job Seeker type, you may not get so lucky. “Lucky,” here, is used ironically.

The gap is different from reason for leaving, though, in that there should be a generally understand between you and whoever is going to glance at your application that your gaps are because you were trying to just live your life for a while. Don’t overthink it too much, if you had a good reason for leaving the last job (or at least described it as a good reason), the gap can just be because “I’ve been trying to find a job that is a good fit for me” or “I took a chance to spend time with my family” or “Yeah, I was at Burning Man for a while, it was fucking awesome!” On the application, just focus on the highlights of your time off. Something you accomplished. Somewhere you traveled. Someone you helped. If you get to the interview and they see it and ask just explain it. Almost everything sounds better coming out of your mouth than it will on a sheet of paper. Once they are dealing with a human and not a line on a form it is reasonable to say you took time off to spend time with your kids or whatever the case may be. My rule of thumb, and maybe even I am overthinking it, is to frame it in a way that sounds like you had to do it. “Needed to spend time with my family,” sounds better than “Wanted to spend time with my family.” Both may be true, and when it comes to family it is different, but “Needed to Travel Internationally” sounds better than “Wanted to take two months to hang out on a beach in Mexico.” Unless you are applying to be a travel writer. Or an International Strangler.

References. This part is totally subjective, so my advice might be particularly unhelpful, but I’m going to give it anyway because that is just the type of person I am. Supervisors/Managers/Bosses are the best. Coworkers are good. Friends are okay, if they have decent job titles where they work and have at least been aware that you have worked at some point in the past. Family is right out. The only thing worse than having a potentially employer call your parents for a reference is if your parents then go ahead and give you a bad referral (“didn’t take the trash out. Never cleaned their room. Dog poop remained unscooped for days on end! Would not hire again”). Professors are good if you don’t have a lot of job experience or just got done with school and your professional references are all for server jobs at restaurants and you want to, you know, not have to wait tables with a Bachelor’s degree (I mean after earning a degree, not literally with the piece of paper that has the degree printed on it itself, but it does feel that way).

Granted you should not just overlook any past employers as potential references if you just got a shiny new degree. If you had a good report with your last boss, even if the job stank, they might be happy to give a really positive reference. They probably knew you were in school, and a good worker is a good worker is a good worker.

The only real piece of advice I can give here is to make sure you have up to date contact info and that anyone you list as a professional reference knows they are being listed as a professional reference. An email or a phone call or a text to ask if they are okay with it is probably sufficient. Chances are they are going to say yes, since everyone likes to feel important enough to be a reference. Some might say no, though. If that happens don’t argue with them or try to convince them. A reluctant reference is an unreliable reference and no matter how many people are saying great things about you, the bad reference is the one that is going to stick in the possible employers mind. Find someone else you trust to be positive. Upbeat people are great. Your better off with a really enthusiastic reference than someone with an impressive job title you used to work with. I have a friend I’ve known for 20 years and I’ve seen him get pissed off once, the rest of the time he’s got the unbridled joy of a puppy. If he didn’t work in a completely different field, or if I had ever worked with him, I’d have him as a reference for everything, including dates (“good manners, will pay for dinner, great taste in movies. Would date again!”).

ACTION Adjectives! This delightful section is constructed to dynamically motivate you to accurately describe groundbreaking and innovative achievements you can complete in punctually accomplishing intelligent vocabulary proficiency. Otherwise known as the Buzz Word section.

Yeah, it’s annoying. And, yeah, it seems forced and inauthentic. And, no, you should not copy and paste what I wrote above into an application because it is largely nonsense. Nonsense I say! But people go for it. It is good to show you have a good vocabulary and know how to write, for any job, and using stronger words could help you stand out. Do you have any concept how many people can’t string together a cohesive sentence anymore? I certainly don’t, but I’m betting the person trying to hire you has some idea.

The list I have found most helpful is here. Another list that might help you think about your articulate better is here. These are generic lists, so search around some for other lists that are more specific for your type of work. Every career has slightly different jargon. Lean into it. Just don’t go overboard, and make sure you are using the right type of banter for the position. Using the lingo is helpful to convey you know what you are talking about, even if you don’t. It is a not so subtle way of showing off a bit, but it should help. Especially if your potential employer is the type that is in such a bubble of their own profession they don’t even realize most people think their banter is gibberish.

Proofread. I know, I know, we are all experts at English. We don’t need to proofread if we write it right the first time. We certainly don’t need someone else to read it for us. Except for that we don’t get it right all the time, and we do need someone else to read it. If you don’t have anyone that can double-check your application for you then just set it aside for a while after you are done and read it after you’ve had a nice break. Maybe walk the dog, tidy up a bit, eat an entire sheet cake, whatever it is you do to relax. Come back, read it, spot the words that are out of place, fix them. It won’t take much time, and you’ll sometimes catch really stupid mistakes you might not have otherwise noticed. A few minor errors isn’t a major issue, but I once turned in a two-page long writing sample about how ‘detail-oriented’ and ‘meticulous’ I was and sent it off before remembering that I had turned the automatic spell-check off. It is hard to convince someone to hire someone to help organize things around their office when you’ve misspelled the word “organized.” Twice.

Finally: Follow Instructions. This would probably at the top of most people’s list of advice. But those people are wrong. Okay, not wrong. Read the damn instructions before filling anything out. There might be something important in there. But the most important time to read the instructions is at the end. After you’ve done everything you knew you were supposed to do and now can go back and edit it or modify it to fit what they are asking for exactly. Reading them first just invites you to forget something important. I turned in three papers last year that were all missing the same section because the professor had asked for the section in a slightly different part of the instructions that I kept skimming over. When, on the next paper, I stopped myself and went back and read the whole of the instructions again I noticed I had left that part out again, but was able to correct it before turning it in. That time (yeah, I forgot again later).

That concludes this two-part lesson on filling out applications. You, cynical hypothetical reader, probably thought I couldn’t fill a one-partner with information on filling out a simple application, but chances are if you read this whole thing you still probably have a few more questions about applications I didn’t even address! Hopefully this has helped some, or at least reminded you that, yes, job hunting sucks, this whole stinking process is a nightmare, but you aren’t in it alone. You aren’t the only one asking questions, and chances are if you keep searching you’ll eventually find someone else who's trying to speak to those concerns. But if you just feel stuck remember to be confident. You won’t get any job if you don’t apply, so just do it and try to do it well. Be calm. Be patient. Double-Check your work. You’ll get there, and you’ll finally get that job as a World Renowned International Strangler you’ve always dreamed of.

Master of Public Administration, Regular of Everything Else