Warning: These 9 Mistakes Will Destroy Your Job Application

Warning: These 9 Mistakes Will Destroy Your Job Application

Dear Abdulrahid Ibrahim Jabar,*

Thank you for taking the time to apply for the job for which I’m helping XYZ international organisation recruit a stellar candidate. They’re hoping to find someone who will thrive in the position and appropriately represent the organisation to its stakeholders (namely, smallholder farmers), and make them happy they asked me to help them pick someone. Parsing through applications is often not very fun, Abdulrahid. I’d rather be drinking chai and reading my novel. This process would have been a great deal easier for both of us if you start by first asking yourself the hard question (namely: “Am I the kind of person an organisation would ideally want for this job?”), following the instructions listed on the application page  (e.g., only submit PDF documents) and proofreading your text before submission. If you miss these steps, you’ll be automatically disqualifying yourself from any chance at this role:


Use proper capitalisation, proofread and fix spelling mistakes of any kind and bad grammar, and  include the country code on your phone number.

Any leadership role means you’ll be asked to write hundreds of emails over the course of the contract, draft and proofread speeches, presentations, and reports, scan and approve budgets, and, most importantly, represent the organisation as highly accurate in every facet of its work. These kinds of mistakes on the application show that you don’t pay enough attention to detail, and therefore cannot be trusted to make a flawless presentation or bulletproof budget. The fact that there are basic mistakes in your application indicates a high probability of mistakes in your potential work on the job. And we’d much rather not take that chance.


Submitting your CV in a Word document.

First reaction: *facepalm*.

Dear Abdulrahid, you must understand: Word documents don’t show up the same way on different computers. That’s why job applications ALWAYS request PDFs, and complying with this small request means (to the HR manager) that you’re able and willing to comply with the organisation’s specific internal codes and requirements – be they explicit or unspoken. Next time, make it a PDF.


Finish your degree, THEN we’ll find you a job.

Running an organisation is kind of like being a parent, except instead of caring for your children, you’re looking after an NGO and trying to make sure it stays running, so it continues to get funding to keep paying the employees who sit next to you at lunchtime. And just as a good parent would, I’m going to tell you: Honey, the world is going nowhere. Do your thing (i.e., finish the degree you started), and THEN we’ll talk about a job for you.” Or, drop out, and be ready to commit 100% to a role. But don’t write on your CV that you’re still tied up for the next two years with an MBA, and therefore not really available for this job.


Go get some experience working in a low-income developing country, through an internship or entry-level job.

Yes, Abdulrahid, you can get an entry-level or mid-level role where you’re not actually managing other people. And yes, there are many countries classified as “developing” but life goes on much the same as it does in Europe, or where the challenges aren’t so extreme that you can’t adapt, if you have management experience already. But no one is going to want to hire you and risk you publicly embarassing their organisation because you don’t know how to handle the myriad daily challenges that arise when working in a country like Ethiopia, nor do you realise that you’ll need experience already doing that before you can lead an organisation in the kind of country in which you’ve never worked, where people earn around $50 per month. Applying for this job makes me think that you likely don’t understand the nature of the role, nor the extent of your current skills and abilities, and therefore, pose too much of a risk for our organisation.


Why did your mother apply for you?

Yes, this actually happened.

Email from a mother

Seems like your mother, clearly with the best of intentions, wrote to me – a complete stranger to her – to ask if I would interview her son because he’s a good student. My dear, I wanted to tell her, a good student does not a good leader make. And that’s just for starters. More importantly, do not write an application for your offspring! This is a merit-based system, where each individual’s achievements and education qualifications should speak for themselves, with the exception of a recommendation from someone who is not related to you and is familiar with your work.


Me working at night even though I’d rather be asleep


Don’t conflate project management with people management.

Though it’s tempting to think otherwise, they aren’t the same thing. When you’re managing a project, if something goes wrong, maybe the project won’t be finished, or considered a failure by your boss, or the client will be unhappy, but overall, everything is salvageable. When you’re managing people, everything can feel like a matter of life and death, simply because you’re responsible for making sure that everyone gets paid on time, and can thrive in their jobs. You’ve got to be so good at your own job that you’re able and available to think about and look after everyone else’s jobs, too, lest the organisation lose funding, lose prestige, and lose its place in the very full world of global development, or worse, someone doesn’t get paid on time and has a rather difficult month. Yes, you can be a high-level project manager in a role that includes people management. If so, please mention that in your CV. But if you’re not yet managing people, that’s okay, Abdulrahid. Work on perfecting your skills, and when you’re ready for more responsibility, you can start by managing a small team, and grow to bigger projects.


Make sure you’re really, truly fluent in English.
It’s okay if you speak with a heavy accent, and it’s acceptable if you sometimes pause to look for the right word (actually, I do, too). And it’s okay if you don’t know the meaning of “ingratiate.” But basic fluency, dear Ibrahim, is an absolute must, particularly if that organisation is run by native speakers.


Tell me what you did (and about the results) with NUMBERS.

Because words can be misleading, but numbers never lie.


Show me you care about the people.

There’s nothing I love more, when it comes to CVs, than a page full of numbers that speak to performance and how much the individual cares about results. There’s nothing I dislike more than totally ignoring your beneficiaries (like here below).

Great experience but doesn’t mention any actual beneficiaries. “Stakeholders” – what stakeholders?


You need to show me (and every other HR manager) that you care about the target audience of your work. These could be farmers, or the children of abusive parents, or refugees from Somalia, or illiterate landlords from the interior of Brazil. Make them come to life, and centre your CV around the achievements of your work and your project in direct relationship to the impact it had on the stakeholders (i.e., the target audience) whom you aimed to serve.


Follow these tips, Abdulrahid, and you’ll be well on your way to a list of interviews. Don’t follow them… and, well, good luck with those rejections.

I’ll be here if you want more advice.

Yours truly,

A concerned recruiter who would rather see you succeed.

*invented this name to represent the applicants who makes the above mistakes when submitting a job application. Does not refer exclusively to male applicants.

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