overly rigid online job application systems

A reader writes:

During my job search, I’ve come across several organizations that use rigid online application systems. For instance, I was working on an application that asked if I have a bachelor’s degree in X. The options were yes or no, without a space to make notations. For me, the answer would be no, but I do have a master’s degree in X. Having applied to this employer before, I know that marking no would automatically kick me out of their system. Should I mark yes and hope they don’t accuse me of lying should I get an interview?

On this same application it asks if I have “paid” experience in A, B, and C. Again, yes or no. The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, but I also have significantly more unpaid experience that is just as relevant. Should I mark yes and include the paid experience only, or should I list every experience relevant to this position?

I don’t want to lie on an application, but I also don’t want to be eliminated simply because of their ridiculous system. Please help!

This is one of the problems with many automated application systems; they don’t allow for the nuance and judgment that a good hiring manager would bring to the process. Obviously having a master’s in X should get you past their requirement for a bachelor’s degree in X, and if your application were being screened by a person, it almost definitely would. But the people who set up online systems like this often don’t think about the requirements they program into them, and how they’ll kick out people whose applications they might actually like to see.

So, let’s take a logical look at your options. You can answer every question completely literally, thereby getting yourself automatically rejected. Or you can answer the questions in the spirit in which they seem intended and have a chance of getting an interview. As long as you really do answer in the spirit of the questions (which your two examples indicate that you would be), chances are good that no one is going to think you misrepresented anything. But in the worst case scenario, if you’re asked about it, you can simply explain that you tried to represent your experience as accurately as possible within the confines of a system that didn’t didn’t allow for explanations. And if they have a problem with that, it’s not a place you want to work anyway — rigid thinking like that tends to bleed over into all kinds of other areas that will impact your quality of life on the job.

So in sum, be 100% literal and have no chance at the job, or answer the way you think best gets your qualifications across and have a shot at it. I’d do the latter.

And I hope anyone reading this who uses an applicant processing system that automatically disqualifies candidates based on their answers — before a human ever sees their application — will go take a good look at how their questions are set up and who they might be losing.

{ 102 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    My favourite one was an application that asked why I left my last job and included the options “fired” “laid off” or “quit.” The real answer is that it was a temporary position and the term ran out. So I ended up looking like a person who quit after 2 months. Awesome.

    1. Julie

      I’ve been there too. For several years, I was taking semester-long contracts teaching English to businesspeople. Before that, I’d taken summer jobs while I was in school, where it was clear before I started that I’d be leaving once semester started up again. I think I was 26 before I had a job that didn’t have a pre-determined end date.

      Thankfully, I wasn’t doing too many automated job hunts at the time, otherwise I imagine I’d have been super-frustrated.

      1. BrittP

        I know right!! And its none of the above and there is no room for explanation. So it just looks like I cant hold a job down.

    2. Anonymous

      I always answer those as “laid off.” I’ve had several temp/seasonal positions, and one volunteer job I “left” because they hired someone full time to do that job. I don’t see where it can’t be considered a layoff, because you weren’t fired but it wasn’t your choice to leave.

      1. KellyK

        I think that makes sense. Neither “quit” or “laid off” is quite right, but “laid off” is closer to the truth. A temporary job is basically a job with a planned lay-off at the end of it.

        1. jmkenrick

          This reminds me of getting my second job in high school and I put “involuntarily terminated” in the online form because I’d only ever had summer camp-counsler jobs (ie: seasonal) and I thought that’s what it referred to. I still got the job, and the manager had to explain to me my mistake.

        2. Anonymous

          Exactly. One of my jobs started as seasonal; it was understood that some people would be asked to stay at the end, although some just wanted seasonal work anyway, but they came right out and called it “end of season layoffs” at the end. At first you could be voluntarily laid off if you didn’t want to stay, and then after that they picked whom they wanted from those who stayed. The rest were involuntarily laid off.

      2. Anonymous23

        I know right!! And its none of the above and there is no room for explanation. One of my jobs was a temp and the other was internship. So it just looks like I cant hold a job down.

    3. Anonymous

      I know right!! And its none of the above and there is no room for explanation. One of my jobs was a temp and the other was internship. So it just looks like I cant hold a job down.

  2. Janet

    Others may disagree with this advice but to me, this is one of those times I start pouring over my connections to figure out if I know anyone at the company. I got trapped by an overly rigid application system and was rejected for a job instantly. However, I had a friend who’s sibling worked there and she was willing to pass my resume onto a recruiter at the company. I had an interview a few days later and was eventually offered the job.

    Look at the job listing again and really be honest with yourself if it’s a fit with your skills and interests. If so, see if you have an “in” at the company and work the people angle.

    1. Anonymous

      I don’t disagree with the advice, but sometimes there’s a good sounding job at a company you have no connections at. And in that case, your only hope is to navigate the system. It’s not impossible–I got my last two jobs at companies where I had zero contacts ahead of time–but yes, it is harder than when you have someone helping you out from the inside.

    2. Julie

      Actually, I wonder if AAM has a comment on this. I know it’s considered standard advice to use your network and so forth, but when I get a friend-of-a-friend (or my friend’s cousin, or whatever) asking if I could put in a good word with a hiring manager, I’m always a bit skeptical because I don’t in fact know that person or how they work. And if I give a bad recommendation, then that reflects poorly on me.

      Has anyone else been in this dilemma? Having been a job hunter, I *know* how hard it is to get an “in” at companies you want to work for, but at the same time, if you *are* working at those companies and give a bad reference, it’s your own professional reputation on the line.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I have a post on this somewhere, but the gist is that you definitely don’t want to recommend someone when you don’t actually know their work. So be very clear whether you’re just passing a resume on or recommending the person. If you don’t know their work enough to recommend them, then you should give a really clear disclaimer: “I’ve never worked with this person and can’t vouch for them, but I’m passing her resume along.”

        1. KayDay

          This happened to me a lot soon after I graduated, when my organization was hiring and I had a lot of classmates seeking jobs. I was the screening resumes, so I would pass along friends’ resumes (about 4 total) and very cheerfully say, “This is an application from a friend/classmate of mine. I’ve never worked with them, but they are very nice/studious/smart/have great hair.” The economy had just begun imploding, so my supervisor was very understanding and even told me I handled it very professionally (*pats self on back*). I also warned these friends that while I would be happy to pass their resume along, I was not a decision maker and didn’t have much influence beyond being a “gate-keeper”.

        2. Just Me

          My friend passed along my resume to her boss. We both worked together in a previous job, literally worked right next to each other. That is how we met and became friends.
          I also applied ” correctly ” through the system as directed on the job app. I got eliminated through the “recruting system”.

          My friend heard the supervisor saying that he cannot deviate from the hiring process and can only interview people that are given to him by the system, he cannot pick and he said all the people sent to him stunk.
          I am not saying I would or should have gotten the job but at least a interview would have been nice. She told him exactly what I did.. the same stuff she did. But no dice….

          Guess what… the job is still posted… no kidding huh??

        3. K.

          I’ve had people I don’t know well, or who I know very well but not professionally (a family friend I’ve known since childhood but with whom I’ve never worked, for example) pass my resume along, and they usually forward me the email they send to the hiring manager. It’ll say something like “While K. and I haven’t worked together, I’ve known her for 25 years …” or “I don’t know K. well, but based on our interactions …” So there’s a disclaimer in there so they can cover themselves, but I still get the referral. And since I am awesome, it doesn’t end up backfiring. :)

      2. Mike C.

        I think you could just say, “hey, this is an applicant who I think is meeting your requirements but the system is kicking them out, would you mind taking a look?”

        Make it clear you aren’t recommending them, but point out that the system might just be kicking out otherwise qualified candidates.

  3. Anonymous

    OMG, my biggest pet peeve right now during my job search! The worst one I found was a portal that would time out after only 5 minutes. My first attempt to upload my resume resulted in the entire form being populated with gibberish. I resaved my resume as plain text with no formatting, and it uploaded ok. Started working through the application, and found they wanted me to answer a number of elaborate essay questions. You couldn’t see the next one until you answered the first, so you had to read the question and exit to type it up in Word, then re-do your entire application to read the next question, etc, bc it was impossible to answer the questions thoughtfully before the application would time out. I eventually gave up on it after 2-3 other time outs.

    I’ve also had to deal with portals that allow you to choose something, like indicating that you are currently working on a particular degree, but then don’t let you proceed unless you give a date of completion that is in the past! It’s amazing how glitchy so many of them are. Pretty much 60% of the portals I’ve used have noticeable bugs, and at least that many have inflexible questions.

    1. Suzanne

      Don’t get me started…

      I’ve had similar experiences with online applications. They have a looooooong way to go before they are really useful. I have to think that some of the current economic woes, and angst among employers that they cannot find the workers they need, is because of these ridiculous online application programs.

      Most of them want to know where you went to high school, what your degree was (back when I graduated, it was simply a high school degree but that is never an option) and what your GPA was. (Cue the hysterical laughter!) I’ve encountered many that want you to write a paragraph or two about something, but as anonymous said, won’t let you save what you already have, but time out if you take too long writing the little ditty. Many want you to list your current workplace, but insist on you putting an “end” date as if still being at that job is not optional.

      And trying to upload documents?!?! That’s a hit or miss proposition. Sometimes it works, sometimes it reformats, and sometimes it just plain won’t take it no matter what format; even if you stand on your head and pray to the employment gods to please, please, please upload your file. Sure, you can call the help line, but by the time you do that, you know probably 50 other people have beat you to the punch. I’ve encountered apps that let you upload the file but have no button to move you to the next screen, so you exit out of the entire thing, go back in (while it’s cyber-yelling at you that you have not completed the application) and then you can move on.

      Yeah, I’d agree that probably 60% of the application systems are not user friendly and have major problems.

      1. Laura L

        I’m pretty sure it’s still just a high school degree… I mean, I don’t know when you graduated, but I graduated 10 years ago and my brother 7 and we just got high school degree.

        It’s okay for the paper applications to ask that, but why don’t employers understand that people don’t major in things in high school?! Unless they mean were you college track or not? Still, though.

        1. ChristineH

          “It’s okay for the paper applications to ask that, but why don’t employers understand that people don’t major in things in high school?! Unless they mean were you college track or not? Still, though.”

          Glad to know it’s not just me. Paper applications are sometimes not much user-friendlier than online applications!

          1. Laura L

            But with paper applications you can usually explain your answers and the responses aren’t forced choice. Especially for things like degree.

      2. Dan

        I’ve been loving the “Taleo” application system lately.

        And by love, I mean it makes me want to gouge out my eyes with a spoon. I had to retype fake versions of my transcripts (with notes at the bottom) in RTF format because it will only accept <300kb files. Right.

        Oh, and I have to have a "job category" for every position I've held. From a list, which includes almost *nothing* in my field, or even related to the field of the position I'm applying to!

        I guess the market is such that even with these trainwrecks, they still get enough qualified people through. But it's pretty frustrating, like watching your chances of getting the position go down the drain when they force you to admit your current position is unpaid.

        1. danr

          I took a look at my link, and I had a Taleo application too, but without most of the problems that others have reported. I had the date problem, but nothing like what others have reported. If these companies have QA specialists, it’s time that they were turned loose on the application process for real life testing and not using a test server with perfect test documents.
          My experience makes me feel pretty good about the company that I applied to.

          1. AdminWithManyHats

            I’m an Admin/Recruiter at our company and we use Taleo. I’ve got the process as simplified as I can since the software, thankfully, allows the recruiter to modify pieces and part. So far no one has complained aside from the odd instance where their resume won’t upload (I just have them email it to me if that happens) So, any problems a candidate has are probably on the company’s end and the way they have things configured.

            1. Dan

              Would you expect to get complaints, though? The people who would complain are most likely filtered out by the system, or self-select out in frustration, no?

              Not to say that you’re incorrect, just that “no complaints” may not be actual evidence of a lack of problems on the user’s end. Similar to non-accessible restaurants thinking they don’t need to add accessibility because, “Handicapped people don’t come here.”

              The Taleo using sites do seem to vary in just how annoying they are. But so far they all have some similar limitations (in my limited experience as a user, not an admin), like the “job function” list that contains the most limited list ever (at least if you’re in science, or a business owner), and attachment limits of 300kb (not enough for a transcript PDF).

              1. AdminWithManyHats

                I would hope someone would complain! If a candidate is having that many problems with our system, then, to me, something would need to be changed. We could be missing out on good people. I’ve done a test resume of my own so I could run the gauntlet and I didn’t have any issues, but that’s certainly not to say someone hasn’t had problems and just not let us know.

                I don’t allow the system to filter candidates out so this means every resume comes through. We do have a list of about 7 questions we require each candidate to fill out, but again, none of those automatically throw you out of the system. This works for us, I think, because most of our jobs are specialized (meaning most need clearances) so we don’t usually receive more than 10 a day. I can understand the need for these filters, but I prefer a more hands on approach.

                Taleo has worked for us, but it is the only system we’ve used. I don’t know how rigid others are.

              2. Ask a Manager Post author

                AdminWithManyHats, my bet is that most people won’t complain, especially since problems with these systems are so common and people assume they’re par for the course now. They also don’t want to be the complainer when they’re applying for a job. Might be interesting to have a few people who aren’t involved with hiring at your company use the system and see if it’s intuitive to them — sometimes it’ll make perfect sense to the person who uses it all the time but others will run into problems.

              3. Dan

                Like AaM said, I wouldn’t complain. Given the jobs I’m applying for right now, your company could be one of the ones I’ve applied for (though its hard to get clearance without clearance, whee)! Though given your description of how you’ve beaten the system into compliance, it sounds unlikely.

                I’d presume that a complaint would make me look bad/sound like a whiner. So I tend to hit up a friend or two and see if they’ve ever dealt with a similar system, then stumble my way through (operations manager as the closest thing to sole proprietor? suuuure). I have no idea if I make it through to a person or not, or what my resume looks like by the time it actually makes it there .

              4. Heather B

                Admin, if I encountered an online application form with issues, I absolutely wouldn’t complain unless it was a job that looked like my perfect dream job — I’d just move on to applying to organizations that didn’t make me work with annoying buggy systems just to be considered (not saying that your system is annoying or buggy, though!).

                I would definitely not assume that you would be hearing about problems with your application system if they exist. The more likely thing to happen would be that the best people, who have the most options, would just shrug and move on to another application.

    2. Kelly O

      Totally with you on this one. The worst was one that kept telling me I had a blank field, when there were clearly no blank fields in the form. Or the one that wanted the same information half a dozen times. I had to upload my resume, enter all the application data (okay, I’ll give you the resume and application are different) and then turn around and list experience again.

      I gave up. Seriously. I mean, I am not happy at the Chocolate Factory, but dude… at least Mr. Lunt lets me in after eight. (For those without toddlers, I apologize for the VeggieTales references. We may have watched the Mr. Nezzer/Chocolate Factory vidoe fifteen times over the last three days.)

  4. Jennifer

    At the giant org I work at, I’ve been told that the HR people HATE their application processing system due to stuff like this happening. Most of theirs is standard, but they offer each department the option of asking specific questions designed to weed out people and they’re pretty much designed like this (i.e. “No” gets you booted even if you have an explanation). It felt like a slap in the face when I got told I didn’t qualify and my application was immediately rejected, especially after the hours of customizing a resume and cover letter, blah blah blah, not to mention filling out the application. Gah.

    1. Kit M.

      Just had this happen to me for the first time! I just wish they had it set up so you didn’t submit a cover letter until after you got past the initial screening. I felt pretty silly having spent hours on a cover letter only to get rejected for some boxes I checked or didn’t check in their automated system.

  5. Britta

    I’m in HR, and I agree -these systems suck. We have one that isn’t bad, but not great. The reason we can’t upgrade to a better system is money. Maybe a lot of these companies scrimp on applicant tracking systems……you get what you pay for, I guess!

    1. Evan the College Student

      Hmm. This makes me wonder if there’s a market for a non-sucky applicant tracking system…

      1. anth

        Disruptive Innovation! Do it! I can’t see it being _that_ difficult. The issue would lie in being smart about the programming and having a database that can house a ton of data.

    2. Another Emily

      Why not get rid of the system then, and take applications by email? You could miss out on a great candidate with a system that “isn’t bad”.

      In this economy you’ll probably get a lot of applicants but you could screen people with their resumes and cover letters.

      1. Anonymous

        Volume and tracking are a major reason why large companies stop using email turn to these system. Major companies can get hundreds of submissions in a day. How would you manage mailboxes to cover a few hundred jobs in different locations being worked by different people?

        1. Nathan A.

          Here’s a workaround:

          You could make an email for each job, or each job category (assuming the organization isn’t huge):

          Here’s a few examples:
          “marketing_careers”
          “engineering_careers”
          “finance_careers”
          (at) company dot com.

          Ask applicants to include a requisition number in the subject line, that way it’s easy to sift through what jobs within each email were applied to, and these can be categories still further into email folders. Use a date naming system so that it’s intuitive when the job was posted (if there are several within a single department). Here are some examples:

          04052012 FIN 001: This would be the first finance position created on April fifth, 2012.
          040802012 MKT 015: This would be the fifteenth marketing job created on April 8th, 2012.

          … or go one step further:

          04052012 MKT COORDINATOR:
          This is the most recent posting for market coordinator.

          I could really go into detail on how to go about this without using an automated system, but for the sake of this not becoming too long, lets go with this and see what you all think.

  6. Elizabeth

    I applied through a system like this once where I did not have the master’s they required, but much experience in the field. It so happened that I had a contact at the organization, so I wrote an email to follow up and just let her know I was interested. It turned out that my application had automatically been filtered out by the system or the HR Generalist who reviews them first and she had to ask for it. I did not get the job, but at least I got an interview.

  7. The gold digger

    I hate those systems, too. And Taleo, I majored in ENGLISH, not ENGLISH STUDIES. Isn’t “studies” the word that really means, “kind of like the real thing but not really?” If you had to choose between someone who majored in civil engineering and someone who majored in civil engineering studies, which one would you pick to design a bridge?

    1. Rana

      (Speaking as someone who taught environmental studies) Usually “studies” refers to the study of the activities and ideas surrounding the topic, instead of studying the topic itself.

      So environmental studies isn’t about learning about the environment per se, but about how people think about and act in relation to the environment (so it covers all sorts of topics, such as environmentalism, government policy, art, media coverage, wilderness programs, outdoor recreation…). Ditto for science studies; it’s about investigating scientists, and the public perception of science, and how science is written, not about doing lab work.

      I don’t know what “English studies” would entail, but I’d assume that there’s a similar sort of thing going on. As for “civil engineering studies,” I’d pick a graduate of that if I wanted to know about, say, public reaction to the newly designed bridge, the political and economic issues surrounding bridge design, etc.

  8. BB

    Funny, this applies exactly to me. I’m starting a job in two weeks that I was rejected from repeatedly by the website (learning and development position, I have degree in education, not instructional design or org. development).
    When I finally found someone in my network who could hand deliver my resume, my interview to offer process happened within about 2 weeks. They pretty much offered me a position in the face-to-face interview.
    Don’t take the answers literally. The people who make the final decisions probably never look at your application.

  9. sparky629

    Long time lurker, first time question asker :-)

    So how do you get past those systems when they ask…”Do you have a degree in X?” and you don’t but you do have a degree (just not in X) but an extensive amount of experience in the field.

    1. Joey

      The best way is to get in touch with someone, preferably the hiring manager. But it’s a toss up. Whether or not they accept your resume will depend on how strict they are with their requirements. You’ll also find that some companies list the substitution ratio on the job posting.

      You likely also find that hiring managers are more willing to be flexible when it comes to requirements but HR may put the brakes on your candidacy. If that happens understand that besides it being unfair to other applicants its also a huge problem from a discrimination standpoint.

        1. Anonymous

          Well, particularly for organisations which have to be seen to be fair in addition to merely being fair (government posts spring to mind), if you hire someone who doesn’t strictly meet the requirements set out in the application (e.g., if you say “2 years SQL Server experience” in the ad, but decide that “20 years of Oracle+1 year of SQL server” is better than “barely 2 years of SQL server”) then There Will Be Complaints.

        2. Joey

          Sure. If you hire a less experienced young person an older worker has a much easier time showing age discrimination if they were qualified. You’d be stuck with trying to show why a young worker is more qualified when youve essentially already admitted they didn’t even meet your minimum qualifications. It becomes a whole lot easier to infer that you did it for illegal reasons. Same for any protected class.

        3. Another Emily

          Could this issue be dealt with, at least to a point, in the job posting itself? Why not put “Two years SQL Serve experience or equivalent experience” to show that you would consider relevant experience right from the start?

          1. JT

            “There Will Be Complaints”

            How common is this and does it matter?

            And Joey, I thought we were talking about the opposite of what you describe – a more experienced person with less education.

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              I’m not sure if you’re asking how common it is for someone to sue based on a situation like this or how common it is for companies to stick to rigid requirements to safeguard against someone suing. If the latter, it’s something you often see at larger companies that are ruled by lawsuit fear.

            2. Joey

              Same problem, a male that doesn’t meet qualifications gets hired but a female that meets quals doesn’t.

              And Alison is absolutely right, larger companies tend to be more rigid about qualifications not just out of fear of lawsuits but to be fair to other candidates and to have some consistency amongst employees in the same job title. And of all of the large companies I’ve worked at salary offers are based in part on how the candidates qualifications compare to the minimum quals.

    2. KayDay

      Assuming that the personal contact route is not an option, I would put “yes” if my degree is similar, but no if not similar. For example: if asked if I have a degree in political science, I would put “yes” if I have a degree in sociology with heavy coursework in poli sci, but “no” if I have a degree in biology.

      I actually feel quite terrible recommending “white lies;” I hate it when people exaggerate or bend the truth in normal situations. But it seems that in some cases these “lies” are closer to the truth than the actual truth.

      1. Long Time Admin

        In cases like this, it would not be lying. Your whole purpose is to get a face-to-face interview where you can explain about things like that.

        Try to select the online option that most closely aligns with your education or experience. As long as you have documentation to show an interviewer, it’s OK to do that.

  10. Anonymous

    While I can how these benefit high volume recruitment (i.e a lot more organization and less paper being wasted), it’s still frustrating as a job seeker. At least some of them kick out an auto response saying your resume was received.

    What’s annoying to me is when you upload your resume into an ATS system and it doesn’t pull the information from your resume and you have to enter it all again. Such a pain in the neck.

  11. Anonymous

    What’s annoying to me is when you upload your resume into an ATS system and it doesn’t pull the information from your resume and you have to enter it all again

    It’s worse when the system pulls the wrong information because it didn’t understand the format.

  12. Charles

    The way I see it is this; right now with the job market being a employers’ market they can get away with crappy hiring systems. No matter how bad the system is (whether it be a rigid software application system, or a stupid hiring person) employers WILL find someone. That’s just the way the numbers are working now.

    BUT, when the job market turns around, those organizations that do not “get with the program” (pun intended) are going to be on the short end of the stick. Many of them might just be standing there saying: “Gee, our system has always gotten us good employees before, what’s wrong?”

    Of course, this doesn’t help job seekers now. But, I agree with AAM and have done the same – answer to the best of the “spirit” of what they are looking for.

  13. Jaime

    So if you’re answering to the spirit of the question, but not the letter, would this be something you would address in your cover letter?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I don’t think you need to.

      The way these systems work when they have “requirements” programmed in is that they’ll either reject you on the spot if you don’t meet them (according the system’s sometimes twisted logic), or they’ll give your application a score, like 90% or 50% or whatever. But by the time the hiring manager is interviewing you, they’re just looking at your resume and cover letter, not the system’s score. The score is more useful for culling through large numbers of applicants, but it’s not useful (or generally used) once the pool has been culled.

      So there’s not really a need to address a discrepancy like this in your cover letter, because the hiring manager is more likely to just be looking at your resume and cover letter, not the answers to all those questions the systems asked you up-front.

  14. anth

    I feel this is a place to share my awful job system story. I “applied” to a large large company widely known for polling that is also a consulting firm. I didn’t fit the bill for consulting, but talked with the recruiter who knew about a position opening up and wanted to keep me in mind for that. We had a phone interview, she liked me, wanted to pass me forward to the woman who was creating the position (that didn’t exist). So they made a fake listening in their online site and had me apply through that, which involved essentially taking a personality test for an 45 minutes.
    Long story short, even though the recruiter thought I was a good fit and wanted to open up this unlisted position for me, somewhere along the lines I didn’t game the personality test right and I was booted from the application process.
    Guess I’m glad I didn’t work there anyway?

  15. HB

    I had this happen to me – the automated form asked if I had a Bachelor’s degree in one of the following fields: health education, health promotion, social work or public health. The position was listed as Bachelor’s required, Master’s preferred. Well, I didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree in one of those subjects, but I have an MSW. I wrestled for hours with how to answer this question – ultimately I decided to answer “no,” feeling that it was more honest to stick to the letter of the law, and if they even glanced at my resume they would see I had a Master’s in their desired field.

    Well, as you can guess, I was kicked out of the system and given a “thanks, but no thanks” email. I was devastated, but immediately go on the phone with HR and explained the situation. They understood and apologized for the rigid system, and then moved my application manually from “not qualified” to the “qualified” applicant’s pool. So, even when you don’t have a personal contact, it’s worth it to try and get that mistake rectified!

    I ended up getting the job and have been there happily for almost a year! :) In the future, I think you should answer to the “spirit” of the question (although it does get trickier when trying to sub experience for education), and then explain in the interview if it even comes up.

  16. The25thrule

    The minimum requirements for the last few state jobs I have applied/interviewed for, state that a Bachelor’s degree in X is required. I have a Bachelor’s degree and three years of experience in that particular field. When I go to the interview, I always bring an unofficial copy of my college transcripts with me. I mention the transcripts to my interviewer and I am told that the transcripts are unnecessary because the job does not require a degree.
    Is stating that a degree is required for a job, a way to choose from a better quality of applicant?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Are they telling you the transcripts are unnecessary, or a degree is unnecessary? Often they require a degree but don’t care to see transcripts.

      But if they’re saying a degree is unnecessary, when the ad said it was required, then it’s probably an HR department that uses the same boilerplate for all their ads.

      1. Anonymous

        Or it’s a manager doing it. I hate the assumption that it’s always HR behind these things. I’ve mentioned in the past that managers can be some of the worst offenders in the area of requiring skills not actually required for the job.

  17. danr

    Wow, and I thought I had a bad application form. (I filled out my first one yesterday) There was one question about salary in the middle of the immigration status and workers visa questions, so I thought that it was related. Couldn’t submit the application until I put something in there. Comparing this to the stories above puts it in perspective. It had a nice feature that I appreciated by having an option to use a linkedin profile instead of a resume to populate the job and education history.

  18. Lisa J

    I couldn’t wait to get home and comment on this post…

    Some of the job postings I see are so rigid in their online application system I don’t even bother applying, because I know I won’t have enough of the right keywords in my answers for the application to make it to a real person. Usually it’s the ones that either ask you to list every PAYING job you’ve ever had, or they ask “Do you have a Master’s, yes or no”. Here’s the deal – my Bachelor’s is in Biology, and I have the lab experience required for most entry-level lab jobs. However, none of this work was paid – it was all internships (well, one I received a stipend for, but I don’t think that’s what they mean). So when I have to list my paid work, it’s all retail and customer service (bills have to be paid while looking for your dream job). Kinda hard to explain to a computer system why you’re looking to make the leap from Target to bench lab analysis work. Also, I don’t have a Master’s, but I do have “two years of progressively higher level graduate education leading to a Ph.D. degree”…which is what the government accepts, but not a lot of private sector jobs. Those are the jobs I usually don’t bother applying to. Instead, I spend my effort working on the applications that leave a lot more room for interpretation (i.e. “list your experience as it relates to this position” and not the “list every paying job you ever had, and yes we will reject you if you forget to put down that part-time position you only held for 3 weeks”), or the ones where I just have to upload my resume and cover letter. Chances are, a job where even the initial application is that removed from human contact is probably somewhere I don’t want to work anyway.

    Love AAM! Good luck OP!

  19. De Minimis

    As far as the college degree question goes, I’m in the same boat and have a master’s in the area where I’m seeking employment, and have a bachelor’s in an unrelated field. If I saw something like that I would have said I had a bachelor’s degree, because I took so many prerequisites that I have had all the coursework required for a bachelor’s degree along with my graduate coursework.

    Assuming the system allows me to upload a resume they can see that I have sufficient academic background in the field. I usually also tweak my resume to mention the number of credit hours and various courses taken. These online systems are pretty terrible [especially Taleo] and don’t seem to help the application process for anyone on either side of it.

    1. Anonymous

      I believe that my BA technically went away when the MA came along. And then there are the systems which think that you always have a GPA along with a degree…

  20. Flappy

    I hate these systems, too! I was going to let loose over my application system rage when I first saw this post, but decided to send off some job apps instead. Several hours and applications later, yet another poorly built system has set off my rage, so here it is!

    POS application systems I have encountered in the last month:

    System one: I was trying to upload required files but kept receiving error messages that the file type was unacceptable. I was using an accepted file type but tried converting it just in case. Still nothing. After a few attempts, I decided to try a different Internet browser. No worries, since I didn’t click on the “I approve” and “submit” toggles at the bottom of the page. I opened up the new browser and couldn’t log in to the account I had just created. I was informed that there was no account under that name (my e-mail address). So I tried to create the account again with that same e-mail address, only to be told it was in use! Long story short, I applied with another e-mail address and got it submitted. A few hours later, I got confirmation at *each* e-mail address that my application was received–the company got both my incomplete application and the second completed one. They ended up contacting me at my second address to set up an interview.

    System two: This one snuck in a required SSN field on the final page of their app system. I have a close friend whose identity was stolen almost 20 years ago, and I know the massive amounts of crap she still has to deal with because of it, so after failing to get around the field by entering all zeroes, I just abandoned it. I got a call from HR the next day to set up a phone screen.

    System three: This one wasn’t really so bad because of the laughter its absurdity caused. After filling out several pages of form, I was required to take an online personality exam that asked–not joking–50 questions about illegal drug use (this company has nothing remotely to do with being around past/current addicts or addictive things).

    System four: Today’s rage inducer, inserting random breaks throughout my attached files. Not so bad, I guess.

    tl;dr: I also hate these systems!!!! But I’ve had a few interviews come out of them, so I guess it’s worth the sudden increase in blood pressure?

    Phew! Thanks for posting this question, Alison. There was obviously a lot I needed to air!

  21. Nethwen

    I join the shaking fists and shouts of frustration at these online application systems.

    Systems where you can submit by email, but have to print the application to fill it out by hand (unless you happen to have a typewriter), then scan in order to submit by email also annoy me, but not as much as having to pay $1.30 to postal mail an application. Last year it was $1.08 and I that was a hardship.

  22. Anonymous

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to think that these systems are kind of ridiculous sometimes. In one application I had to detail all courses and grades I had taken, from high school to college to grad school.

    Worst thing is, my education spans several countries, and sometimes the system just doesn’t understand that some features such as GPA don’t apply to some of the degrees I have. Or that in some countries (I’m French), the grades never really go that high (like, the best student in a course would get a 15/20, which sounds poor but it actually great in most subjects–usually a 16/20 gets you honors).

    I finally got a job through a contact that passed my resume to the hiring manager. I progressively got rejections from the automated system applications after 6 months or so, long after I got the job I wanted. I’m not even sure they had a look at it.

  23. ARM2008

    Tonight’s online application
    “Do you have excellent customer service skills; and a high degree of integrity relative to computer security and confidentiality of information?” Choices Yes, No, Not Answered

    “Starting with high school, list your education…”

    Why couldn’t I have won the Mega-Millions?

  24. Steve Berg

    Question on an online application for a position at a grocery-chain corporate office: “Have you ever taken anything from a store without paying for it? [Yes or No]”

    Well, yes, I have. I was five years old and took a package of gum. Mother marched me right back to return it, and I have never done it again.

    1. Long Time Admin

      I would consider questions like these to be relevant only after you’ve hit the age of reason. When I was Catholic little kid, that was around age 7 or 8. Transgressions prior to that were not considered sins.

  25. Suz

    My company has switched to Taleo too. We used to have a fantastic system for internal applicants. You only had to answer 4 questions: the requisition # for the position you’re applying for, your current department, the name of your current manager, and your email address. Attach your resume and that’s it. Now we have to use the crappy taleo system that outside applicants are forced to use.

    It has the option to autopopulate using your linkedin account but this doesn’t work either. It puts everything in the wrong fields and changes all the dates to Jan.1.

  26. mh_76

    I set up a profile on one large company’s “black hole” site and they wanted the days for each of my jobs (e.g. Jan 4, 2010-July 7, 2011). I have to go back to old versions of my resume to find the months, never mind the days! I switched to years-only recently so that I could delete one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had from my resume and not leave a glaring gap in my paid-work history (volunteering is also handy for filling gaps).

    I’ve had quite a few contract jobs (and some “perm.” jobs) & multiple volunteering gigs…I’m not sure I have a way to find the days on which the positions started/ended! I know that I didn’t put everything on my calendar. I think I might delete my profiles from the “black-holes” altogether and hope that a recruiter/agency can help me get in the door at a large company instead.

  27. Kate

    It’s unusual that I think that Federal hiring is ahead of the curve, but the Application Manager site stands out as a success among these horror stories.

    That said, I did have one experience where I could not upload my resume AND could not copy-paste into the fields. The stupid system made me re-type my ENTIRE resume.

  28. Jamie

    How common are these on line applications? I remember running across 1 or 2 back in the day, but while I’m not looking any post I’m curious enough to click on just instruct to send resume and CL.

    But as I’m not hitting the boards the ads I see are sent to me via linked in groups…maybe that’s different?

    I have a feeling I’d get kicked immediately from most online apps…scary.

    1. K.

      Really, really common. I am actually relieved when I respond to a job posting and they just want me to email them a resume and cover letter, because I hate filling out online applications. I find them so redundant and tedious. I’ve been job-hunting for two months, have sent out … oh, I don’t know, feels like a million resumes, and have come across more online applications than not.

      I use my LinkedIn network quite frequently, and when I do apply for something through it, nine times out of ten I’ll email the contact expressing interest and s/he will say “Great! I have your resume but you have to be ‘in the system,’ so fill out the application online.”

    2. Liz in a Library

      Very common, at least in my field. I’ve applied for a number of library, education, and corporate training positions in memory, and I think I’ve had an online application for all of them.

  29. Elizabeth West

    Bluuuhh. I hate these too. It can take up to two hours to fill an elaborate one out completely.

    I’ve run into screening ones that ask you those dumb personality test questions, and Agree or Disagree “Sometimes it is okay to take pens home from the office” type stuff. The ones that ask for dates mostly want month and year, but when they ask for the day, I only have my most recent job. I was there for six years and I don’t for the life of me remember what day I started any of the others. I usually just put “January 1, 20xx” or whatever.

    Still, it’s preferable to wasting gas driving around and filling out paper apps. I do wish companies would make the spaces larger on those. I write big.

  30. Anonymous

    Thanks for posting the question and providing the answer. I guess I tend to shoot myself in the foot by filling out these thing literally to avoid any issue of being considered fraudulent in my answers. It is also funny how this topic came up at a holiday dinner with family this weekend. From now on I won’t worry about being so straightforward and honest if I have experience doing something – I can clarify whether it was paid, volunteer or classroom later at the interview.

  31. OP

    I’m the original poster. Luckily, a few hours after sending this question, I received a great job offer! So, I don’t have to worry about that crazy system, which was for a county government position. I also don’t have to worry about adding another month to my 15-month job search. :-)

    Ask a Manager has been a huge help during this process! As soon as I reworked my cover letter based on AAM’s advice, I started getting more calls for interviews. I also dropped the “magic question” a few times, and it made my interviewers blush. ;-)

  32. Suz

    I did complain about the problems I had with Taleo but the only reason I felt safe doing so is because I was applying for an internal position and I personally know both the hiring manager and the HR recruiter for the position. The hiring manager told me she was just as frustrated with it as I was.

    On the bright side, I submitted my resume on Friday, was called for an interview Monday, and had the interview today. So something must have worked. Thanks for all the great advice, Alison.

  33. Lurian

    Thanks for starting this topic. It’s a relief to know I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmingly frustrated by the trend in hiring practices toward rigid online job application systems, and very interesting to read everyone’s experiences, opinions and suggestions. In my experience, so far, Taleo is one of the worst. I want to like Taleo because it has its roots in Canada, but… The fact that so many companies have done such a poor job of setting up their online application forms makes me wonder if Taleo’s user interface is somehow at fault. Too abstract or unnecessarily complex for the majority of end users?

    Also, relying on a poorly designed online application system seems like a lazy approach to hiring that is bound to have predictably poor results. I much prefer email attachments. Why not create a directory for the resumes and cover letters for a particular position and search it for key words and phrases? I also prefer the hands-on approach to screening and hiring. It may be somewhat more time-consuming for employers, but are they not less likely to miss potential candidates and more likely to find a good fit?

  34. Anonymous

    I wish companies that use these online app systems would have a form to anonymously give feedback on the systems. I don’t want to risk complaining to the HR people, lest I catch them on a bad day and have them red flag my name, but the use of these horrible software programs is getting ridiculous.

    I am so frustrated with most systems with their rigid questions, and also downright glitches searching for jobs, uploading documents, not being clear on the app process itself…one recently kept telling me I needed to complete Step 2, the Online App, even though I had already filled out the Employment Profile (how is this different from the “Online App”?), and uploaded my cover letter and resume, AND I couldn’t find any button/link for the Online App…ARGH! I know I’m not a rocket scientist, but I feel that I’m a reasonably intelligent person, and I have an advanced degree. The app process shouldn’t be this hard.

    The system I’m on right now brings up an entirely different position when I click on the “Apply Now” button…WTF.

    Rant over. I needed to get that off my chest.

    1. Susan

      Definitely call the HR department and let them know. I work in HR and we want to know (and probably are receiving calls from other applicants). Often times it could be a glitch with the system and they can help you with it. Applicant tracking systems have so many useful tools (reporting, the ability to store applications for years, job description storing and easy ability to create a job ad, online approvals through the system for all levels of management, onboarding for new hire, and the ability for HR to ensure that all applicants receive equal opportunity). At the same time, they’ve only been around for the past 15 or so years so they can always use improvement. Because HR professionals are always using the back-end of the system, they may not always be aware of the frustration applicants are having. So I recommend definitely giving them some feedback on the system. Just be sure it’s done respectfully and you won’t be red-flagged.

  35. Emma

    How would you interpret applications asking 1) if you have a valid and current driver’s license and 2) if you have a valid and current [specific state, where the job is located] license? I can answer Yes to question 1 but would literally have to answer No, even though there is nothing barring me from getting said state license should I become employed there. I’m unsure if this is a case of “answer in the spirit of the question” or not. Has anyone applied as an out-of-stater to this sort of job and gotten it? How did you approach this question? I obviously don’t want to be immediately rejected, but am unsure which question carries more weight in this situation. FYI: The license question appears to be a common one in the Supplemental bit of this application system, as I’ve applied to other jobs asking the same.

    1. Anonymous

      When I receive applications where we’ve asked that question, candidates from out of state typically say no, they have ___ (their state) license and will obtain a ___ state license upon moving there. Hopefully the question allows you to leave a response. However, in most cases, they legally can’t hold your license in another state against you unless their is something unique about that particular job where it’s required. In most cases, you’d be expected to obtain it within a certain period of time.

  36. Steve Berg

    I would be inclined to take the question literally and say No. The company might feel that someone who would fudge the facts on an application might do so in other situations.

  37. Anonymous

    As I recruiter, I’d like to point out that of course you say “yes” to the Bachelors degree question the writer of this article was asking about. That question is likely a supplemental question to your application and the company expects that you would say yes. As long as when you were completing the application, you showed your correct education, you’re fine. In addition, that question is probably just a minimum qualification and they are weeding out the individuals who don’t meet that minimum qualification. Now, I’ll admit, the question should have said, “Do you have a minimum of a Bachelors degree in…”

  38. M

    Hey Alison, I know this is an old post but I have a question about this. I just applied for a job that had an online portal that allowed me to upload my resume, and also made me enter all of my work experience manually (ugh). However, there was never an opportunity to upload or enter a cover letter.

    After I applied, I got an automatic response thanking me for my application and warning me that they have a high volume of applications and don’t get back to everyone. The cover letter thing is really gnawing at me, because I always always write a cover letter, and there are things I would want this employer to know when they’re evaluating me. Would there be any value in trying to find contact information for a human and shooting them a cover letter email with my resume saying I applied and am very interested? Or would this just be seen as overly pushy? Presumably they know their portal doesn’t have space for a cover letter – so should I take that to mean they don’t want one?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Go for it! Just make sure the cover letter is more of an email message to them about why you’re excited about the job and think you’d excel at it. (In other words, don’t track them down just to provide a standard generic cover letter – make it conversational and great!)

      1. M

        Thanks! Given that it’s a very large organization with many departments, would it make more sense to direct the email to HR, or to someone in the department where the job is based?

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