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On The Job

How to Stand Out When Applying for Jobs Online

Regardless of what questions you’re asked, craft answers that emphasize your strengths and past accomplishments.

If you had the time and inclination to design an employee-search process from the ground up, you couldn’t possibly arrive at a more ineffective hiring mechanism than the one used by nearly every employer in the U.S. today.

Instead of asking questions that target job seekers’ achievements at previous employers, recruiting systems and online applications tend to focus on dry details that won’t necessarily predict job performance. The good news is you can tailor your answers to show you’re a match for a position -- even if the pertinent questions haven’t been asked.

Businesses are looking for smart people who can help them grow and thrive. A company needs to know what job applicants have accomplished in their careers so far, how they think, what sort of professional things they’re passionate about and how they tackle tough problems (like the company is facing now).

But instead of asking such questions, corporate (and governmental, not-for-profit and academic) recruiting systems tend to ask for the names of former employers and their locations, job titles, supervisor names and pay rates. For each position the applicant has held, they ask for a standard list of duties -- in other words, what any person in the job would have been assigned to do. Although the information may be gathered in painstaking detail, it does little to help determine which applicants were star employees and which sat around taking up space.


This standard corporate recruiting process could yield identical applications from a top-notch employee and a less proficient one. If they worked for the same employer during the same timeframe and held similar positions, how could a screener distinguish one from the other?

Instead of “What were you told to do all day long?” the questions should be, "What did you get done on that job? Did you invent a new process or bring in a new customer, or launch a new service or product? Did you solve a problem in a way that saved the company money (or allowed it to make more money)? Did you give your employer an edge in a new market or help it win an award?”

My suggestion to job seekers is to ignore the label on the "Tasks and Duties" or "Major Responsibilities" field on the online application form -- and complete it with a results-filled narrative instead. Your first-person account of your own journey at each employer will present a very different -- and more compelling -- view of you as a candidate than the tedious lists assembled by the majority of form-weary job seekers. By providing a short story about how you came-saw-conquered each assignment, you’ll change the talent-screening conversation in an important way. You’ll make a stronger impression on decision makers than any list of past job duties could do, helping you snag an interview while the instruction-followers languish in the Black Hole of HR.

An Example Online Application Form


Let's say you’re completing an online application for a job at XYZ Scientific, a fictional manufacturing company. Here’s how your application might look:

Name: Jim Locker
Job Applied for: Director of Product Management

EMPLOYMENT HISTORY (Please complete all fields.)
Current or Most Recent Employer: ABC Plastics
Job Title: Senior Product Manager
Dates of Employment: February 2002 -- April 2010
Major Job Duties: I was recruited to ABC by the Chief Technical Officer, who had worked with me at General Scientific during its high-growth phase. When ABC was formed as a joint venture between Yellow Lab Products and Beakers R Us, I came on board to launch its first product line (recyclable petri dishes) fast enough to hit a narrow market window. I hired our first PM team, launching the petri-dish line in nine months to earn $42 million in year-one revenues. With ABC moving its operations to Belize, I’m looking to bring great products to market fast for XYZ Scientific.

Why Jim Will Get Hired

The application form asked for a list of major job duties, but Jim ignored that instruction. He opted to tell his next employer something more significant about his accomplishments on the job. Look how much relevance Jim packed into his 100-word story:


* He made clear how and why he had joined his last employer (referred in by a C-level leader = major credibility!).

* He told the reader how his industry track record has already propelled his career.

* He outlined what he accomplished at his last job, complete with trajectory-changing revenue results.

* He explained why he left his last job (Jim's good reason for moving on is likely to allay any fears that he's a so-so employee, or worse).


Jim's story, though unsolicited, was a heck of a lot more useful to his next boss than a dry-as-dust litany of his tasks and duties. If I were the hiring manager reviewing online applications, I'd grab Jim's application out of the pack in a heartbeat. On your next job search, instead of giving an employer the information it asks for, provide the info it really needs to make a selection.

Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR exec, an author and speaker on career and HR topics and the leader of the Ask Liz Ryan online community, an advice forum for the new-millennium workplace. Visit Liz online at