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Tailoring Your Application: The Key to Standing Out

Results of resume and cover letter survey
Chris Nicol

Head of Product, Xelix


Surveying leaders, recruiters and hiring managers

We’ve all seen the consistent stream of posts on LinkedIn from friends and colleagues announcing their layoffs. It’s a sad reality of the current environment in the tech world. I wanted to help in some way.

I have been coaching clients and friends looking for new roles more than ever lately. One of the challenges I find when coaching people on job searches is that my opinion on what works and doesn’t work for their resumes and CVs is just that, my opinion.

I launched a survey to collect data that might help guide anyone who is looking for a new role. Specifically, I wanted to understand what recruiters, hiring managers and leaders look for and prioritise in resumes and cover letters.

The good news is that there are some great insights. The bad news is I only got 56 responses to the survey, so it’s far from empirical. The survey is still open, and I encourage you, dear reader, to either fill it out or share it with those who should (survey here).

*I want to share three things:

  • Summary — Overall summarisation of the quantitative questions
  • Raw Results — Here is the raw data from the survey, both qual and quant
  • My thoughts — Below is my take on the survey and generally what I hear from people looking for new roles and those still hiring right now.

*I will continue to update these as I receive more responses.

In today’s competitive job market, customization is not just a nice-to-have; it’s a necessity.

I used to think that having one version of my resume and sending it out to as many employers as possible increased my chances of landing a job. The customisation was reserved for the cover letter, which wasn’t even that extensive. It’s time to rethink that mentality!

Based on the survey results and conversations with folks hiring and looking for roles, generic just doesn’t cut it.

  • First Impressions Matter: 78.6% of hiring professionals first look at the Work Experience section. They’re not just scanning for any experience but looking for relevant experience.
  • Common Mistakes: The survey found that 51.8% of hiring professionals spot a lack of specifics in resumes, while 25% see irrelevant information.

My advice — Tailor your resume for each application. Review the job posting, and any other relevant content and use the words and terminology that will resonate with them. Never fabricate, but do cater to the employer. For example, if you have experience and results in decreasing churn by x%, but the posting references the need to focus on retention, tailor it to the employer and talk about how you increased retention by y%.

It’s not just about listing all your experiences; it’s about listing the right experiences.

  • Top Inclusions Desired: Hiring professionals want to see outcomes, relevant work experience, specific responsibilities, and unexaggerated contributions.

My advice — Look for what the employers care about in the job description and what hiring managers and other leaders post on LinkedIn. Ensure that the experience you focus on in your resume aligns with each employer and that role’s requirements.

The Importance of Relevance: Aligning experience with the role

Have you ever been networking and the other person keeps talking about themselves and shows no interest in you? That’s how employers feel when they read a generic cover letter.

  • Research is Key: Dive deep into the company’s mission, values, and recent projects. Express genuine interest and understanding in your application.
  • Personal Touch: According to the survey, 38.2% of hiring professionals want to see a connection between the applicant’s skills and the job requirements in a cover letter. You need to understand what the company is looking for

My advice — Do the research not only on the company but on the hiring managers, recruiters/talent team, and your future peers. Show that you care enough about this role to do the work.

A few additional insights from the survey

  1. Resume style - This was a surprise for me. I thought a splash of colour and some nice formatting would be preferred. However, it's clear from the survey that the simple, classic, 90's style resume is what the majority want to see. 
  2. Include a summary/blurb - Before jumping into your experience, include a blurb about yourself. This blurb should speak to the specific role you're applying to and share a little about what you've done, what you've achieved and how your experiences have shaped you into the X you are today.
  3. Cover letters aren't optional - As a hiring manager, I don't often read cover letters; I'm focused on the resume and the screening interview. If you have enough relevant experience, I'll try to get you through a strict screening interview. However, I'm not in the majority on this one. In fact, 60.7% of responses either read cover letters regularly or sometimes. This means that you must include a cover letter with each application. 
  4. Video follow-ups - One thing that is new to the application process is providing a personalised video message as a follow-up, either from an application or an interview.  The jury is out on this one, probably because it's a new trend. 60% had never had one, with a split between believing it would be interesting or not liking it. Of those who have had one, most had no preference, followed by "liked it" with only a few saying they didn't like it. My advice, if it's a role that you're interested in, it's worth putting in that little extra effort and sending over a personalised video message. 

Conclusion: The power of a tailored application

In the world of job applications, one size does not fit all. By focusing on outcomes, relevance, clarity, and research, you’re not just sending out an application but making a statement. A statement that says, “I’m not just looking for any job; I’m looking for this job.”

So, the next time you’re about to hit ‘send’ on that application, take a moment to ensure it’s tailored, just like that perfect-fit suit that, thankfully, none of us have to wear.

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