10 pieces of bad job-searching advice that you can ignore

Not every piece of job search advice you hear is worth following. In fact, some of it is downright bad and will hurt your chances. Here are 10 pieces of job search advice that you should ignore every time.

1. Collect letters of recommendation from previous managers before you start your job hunt.

Reality: You can skip this step entirely. Employers know that those letters don’t count for much since no one puts critical information in them. Plus, when hiring managers reach the reference-checking stage of the hiring process, we want to talkto your references—on the phone, where we can ask questions and probe for more information. We want to hear your references’ tone of voice, hear where they hesitate before answering, and hear what they say when we dig around about potential problem areas.

2. You need to track down the hiring manager’s name so that you can to address your cover letter to him or her.

Reality: This is another unnecessary step.  If the hiring manager’s name is easily available, go ahead and use it. But you don’t need to call to track it down or do other sleuthing. Hiring managers rarely think, “Wow, this person took the trouble to call and find out my name. What amazing initiative!” It just doesn’t matter that much, so instead put that time into writing a great cover letter. Speaking of which…

3. Employers don’t really read cover letters.

Reality: A well-written cover letter with personality can get you an interview when your resume alone wouldn’t have. Sure, not every hiring manager cares about cover letters, but many who do and you have no way of knowing which type you’re dealing with. With so many stories of cover letters opening doors that otherwise would have stayed shut, it would be foolish to pass up this incredibly effective way of standing out.

4. Don’t leave the ball in the employer’s court – say you’ll call to schedule an interview.

Reality: Too many job-seekers end their cover letters with a statement like, “I’ll call in a week to schedule an interview.” This is pushy and overly aggressive. Job-seekers don’t get to decide to schedule an interview; employers do.  And employers would spend all day fielding calls if the hundreds of applicants who apply for any given position were to call to follow up. It might be hard to accept, but once you apply, the ball is in the employer’s court.

5. Stop by the business you want to work for and apply in person.

Reality: This isn’t good salesmanship; it’s annoying. Most companies include specific instructions about how they want you to apply, and unless “in person” is included, they don’t want you stopping by. Plus, many companies only accept resumes electronically because they use electronic screening systems. (Retail and food service are exceptions to this; in-person applications tend to be more common there.)

6. Send out as many applications as possible every day.

Reality: It doesn’t matter how many resumes you send out if they’re not tailored to the jobs you’re applying for. A smaller number of well-done applications customized to the job will get you better results.

7. It’s okay to inflate your current salary.

Reality: When a prospective employer asks what you’re currently making, you might be tempted to inflate the number to get a better offer from them. But if the employer finds out later that you lied, your job offer can be yanked – even after you’ve already started the job. And many companies ask candidates for W2s or other documentation of the salary they reported.

8. Always send a handwritten thank-you note.

Reality: You should always send a thank-you after a job interview, but it’s perfectly fine to send it through email. In fact, email can often be better than postal mail, because if an employer is moving quickly, a letter sent through the mail may arrive after a decision has already been made.

9. If you’re called for a phone screen, never ask to talk later.

Reality: If an employer calls out of the blue for a phone screen, you might be running out the door for an appointment, in the grocery store, or dealing with a child. It’s perfectly fine to explain that you’re not able to talk at the moment and ask to schedule a time to talk later; you’re not obligated to take the call on the spot.

10. Find a gimmick to make your application stand out.

Reality: Don’t listen to people who recommend that you use a fancy resume design, have your resume delivered by overnight mail, or send it along with a box of cookies. The way to stand out in a job search is to be a highly qualified candidate, have a resume that shows a track record of achievement, write a great cover letter, and be responsive, thoughtful, and enthusiastic during the hiring process. It might be boring, but it’s effective.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. AD

    What do you think about cover letters at job fairs? I’ve attended as a recruiter collecting resumes, and some of the students attach a cover letter to their resume. The problem, of course, is that the cover letter is the same one they are handing to every other recruiting company, so it is so general as to be pretty much useless.

    Now, if someone specifically researched our company and provided a tailored cover letter, I’d be impressed with it, but if someone isn’t going to do that, shouldn’t they just skip it? Or is there a good way to write a cover letter for this type of situation?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I agree. Cover letters don’t really belong at career fairs, unless the person has, as you say, researched the company ahead of time and written a letter tailored to them. If it’s the same letter being handed out to everyone, they should skip it.

    2. Kimberlee

      I don’t know! I think its possible to write a good but generic cover letter. Like, you could discuss the type of jobs you like, a bit about what you’ve done… like, a purpose statement, only a bit fleshed out. Done well, it could demonstrate good writing skills and give HR peeps and recruiters a better idea of what you might be good for.

      But, then, done badly (as many cover letters are), it would definitely not help. I don’t think you risk looking naive or anything, though, so if you’ve got the chops, I could see it working out.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        But at a career fair, the face to face conversation really serves as the intro (in place of a cover letter). I do think it risks looking naive, if only because it’s just generally not the convention to hand someone a letter introducing yourself and what you’re looking for, when you’re about to have that conversation with them face-to-face.

  2. ChristineH

    #4: Thank you!! I’ve always thought that this tactic was pushy and completely against my nature. However, I have used it in past applications reluctantly because of how important it sounded coming from career counselors. Just one more reason why I feel more and more that it’s important in your job search to just be yourself and let the achievements in your resume and interview answers speak for themselves.

      1. Anna

        Presumably, people who think that you have to STICK out in order to STAND out. And in all likelyhood, the same people who advise #2 and #5.

      2. Anonymous

        To answer your question “Who are these people”….

        My friend is studying at a very prestigious university getting a graduate degree to be a Career Counselor. Funny thing is, she NEVER has had a job, none-the-less a career… well, she had a job for 3 months after interning for free for a year (after post grad) and then quit because they put “too much pressure on her” .

        So, yes, highly unqualified and inexperienced people can become Career Counselors and issue terrible career advice. She currently is doing so at an internship at a pretty good college, ha.

        1. AD

          Perhaps it would be wise for students using career centers should ask the counselors about their backgrounds.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Yes, they should. And they should exert pressure on their schools (both as students and afterward as alumni) to hire qualified career center staffers, just as they’d expect them to hire qualified professors.

            1. ChristineH

              Agreed! At my university, some of the career counselors act as liaisons to various schools within the university, such as business or social work. Thus, in addition to having better qualifications, any counselors who advise in specific fields should have thorough knowledge of that field and, ideally, should have experience hiring in that field.

            2. AD

              It would be nice (but not financially viable, I’m sure) if they had adjunct career counselors. A lot of business and law schools really emphasize the fact that a portion of their faculty is actively working in their fields.

        2. Ariancita

          I never used a school’s career center, but I always assumed they tended to either advise on going to grad school and that process, advise on academic jobs, and have contacts/lists of job openings. I never thought they advised on specific things such as how to get a job, write a resume/cover letter, approach potential employers, etc. I would never think to even go to them for that because, well, they work in academia.

      3. KayDay

        My university had an overall pretty decent career center (they had great advice about resumes and cover letters, and pretty good field-specific advice that isn’t necessarily available on-line), and also advised this. They didn’t specifically say to ask for an interview, but they did tell everyone to (a) write in your cover letter that you will call them in X-weeks to “follow up” and (b) then actually call to follow up. At a job-search seminar they held, the counselor was completely stumped when some one asked what to do if the job positing said “no phone calls.” I am too shy to do that, and am so, so, so happy every time I read AAM say it’s okay not to =)

  3. Another "AAM-style" cover letter success story

    For a few months I’ve been looking to change careers and get an accounting training contract (in the UK, the only way to get chartered accountant certification is to be employed by a company on a three-year training programme). I found one firm that looks amazing – their specialty is exactly what I’m interested in, they’re small/independent but have some really impressive clients, have won tons of awards and (frankly, most important to me) have a funny, personable website. Their careers page doesn’t mention training contracts, but they looked so perfect I figured I had nothing to lose – so I wrote an AAM-style cover letter and sent it off to the listed contact email with my CV.

    Three hours later I received this response from the managing director of the firm:

    “We don’t normally reply to unsolicited emails and CVs, but yours was definitely attention grabbing . Liked your personal website as well.

    Much as we would like to find a way of employing you, as we feel you are ‘our kind of person’, we just don’t have anything suitable that we could even discuss with you.

    Great research on us by the way with one flaw (which I won’t hold against you!) – I retired my co-founder off in 2005, but did get to keep his name. [I’d mentioned that I was impressed that the two founders were still with the firm, having misread a sentence on their About Us page.]

    Wishing you all the best and hope you find something only slightly lower down your dream list.”

    I replied thanking him for the encouraging feedback and saying I looked forward to applying to them again once I was fully qualified, and 20 minutes later he responded,

    “Don’t need to be qualified – get a couple of years of relevant experience and then call me!”

    So now I’ve (hopefully) got a lead on what’s basically my dream job in a few years, especially with confirmation from the MD’s emails that the workplace atmosphere would be a good fit, and a really good confidence boost as well, all thanks to AAM! :)

  4. Anonymous

    #2 – Thank you! I recently read through a ton of resumes/cover letters, and I infinitely preferred to see “Dear Hiring Manager:” or something generic than to see all of the cover letters addressed to my boss. My boss, of course, being at the top of the org chart and not in any way involved in the day-to-day of the position OR the search process. It would never stop me from interviewing an otherwise outstanding applicant, but it definitely made me have higher expectations for the rest of the resume/cover letter to move them to the viable candidate pile.

    1. KK

      I’ve had people call me to track me down and find out my name so they can address their cover letter to me and I find it so incredibly annoying to be disturbed when I’m trying to work so I can spell people my name and title just so they can attempt to stand out. I always put those people at the bottom of the pile, honestly it comes across as aggressive. If I wanted you to address the cover letter to me I would have put my name in the ad!

      1. Elizabeth West

        ?
        I don’t know why they don’t just ask the receptionist. Many times, unless they aren’t supposed to give out names, they can tell you who to address your letter to.

        In email, I usually just put “Good morning,” or “Good afternoon,” depending on when I send it, if I don’t know or can’t find out the name.

        1. Long Time Admin

          What receptionist?

          My company just transferred one receptionist to another job and laid off the other receptionist.

          Most places I know don’t have receptionists any more. You get an automated menu when you call in. Not much help there!

          1. Anon

            Plenty of places still have receptionists.

            There’s a real negative streak in your comments.

  5. Jeff

    Glad to see your approval of an email thank you. Most people agree but there are still some people that say a handwritten note is best. Email is much quicker and it leaves a digital trail of who you sent it to, when it was sent, and if there was any response. It’s nice to have a digital trail, especially if you are very active in your job search.

  6. K Too

    AAM in regards to point #6, those that are still searching for employment may have to send out applications everyday to collect their unemployment checks. When one is long-term unemployed, they will apply to whatever position (even if they aren’t qualified) because they need a check. In my state they are starting to crack down on the long-term unemployed. Now they want the unemployed to list at least 3 jobs a week and meet with a career counselor at their local EDD office.

    Not that I don’t disagree with your point, but it’s a sad reality of what’s happening these days.

      1. Kimberlee

        Agreed. I mean, anyone can find 3 jobs a week to apply for that they could, conceivably, get and do. 3 a week is not such an unmanageable threshold that it warrants spewing meaningless resumes everywhere.

      2. Elizabeth West

        Yeah, it’s not fun. Especially when you’re trying to do a targeted search and there are hardly any postings you can apply to because you can’t do accounting (math LD). And many employers are combining the job functions so that you have to. Thank you, recession. :P

        I just got accepted into Vocational Rehabilitation’s program in my state. I think I’m needing a career change.

        1. Alisha

          Elizabeth, if you see this, mind sharing what you think of VR? I was hesitant because I’ve been told it’s only effective for folks whose challenges have led them to be out of work for years, and/or for folks who haven’t gotten a career off the ground. However, with a chronic GI issue and a dual-diagnosis MH issue, working can be a challenge. Though my resume may not show it, my health does. These issues are also affecting my job search and how I approach it. If you feel okay sharing, I’m really looking forward to hearing more!

          1. Anonymous

            I think it varies with local government, but where I’m from your health issue would qualify you for voc rehab if it affects your ability to work. You would qualify for assistance to train for a new career where your health problem would not interfere with your ability to work. They can be pretty picky about what you’re able to pursue, but that’s simply in your best interest to make sure your chosen career has been evaluated and deemed to be an area where you are likely to find success. Good luck!

    1. mh_76

      That varies by state. Here, they want 3 work-search activities per week but you only have to report them if you’re randomly selected or on your final UI extension. What counts as work-search activities is worded so vaguely (?inclusively) that even updating your resume or refreshing monster.com counts because the guidelines metion updating “marketing materials”… well, I’m fairly certain but not quite 100% sure that those things count… but I wasn’t randomly selected to report my activities and didn’t file for any UI extensions…
      [But, on the flip side, we have the US’s worst and least reliable public transit system, one that another commenter has complained about a few times… I think that the same Colonial cows who allegedly laid out our streets laid out our transit system as well]

  7. EAC

    #5. My sister, who has been a SAHM for the past 15 years, advised me to do just that when I was whining about a job that I had applied on-line for and had not yet heard back from the company. I’m embarrased to admit that I listened to her. I drove down to the company with my resume and cover letter and didn’t get further than the guard at the front gate.

    I knew as soon as I left that if I had any chance at all from my on-line submission, I pretty much threw myself out of the running with that stunt.

    My sister still gives me some pretty whacked out job search advice, but now I just say “Uh Huh” and then ignore her.

    1. Long Time Admin

      Applying in person was the way we got hired back in the old days. People who have either been out of the job market for a long time, or have had the same job and not been out job hunting for a long, don’t know that things have changed.

      Most of the “ideas” in Alison’s post were things that people USED to do, but things that are no longer acceptable.

  8. Anonymous

    #1

    One online application asked me to upload 3 reference letters, which I had never heard of or prepared for as a recent grad. Even if I treated it like a letter of recommendation for a college application, it made even less sense that the materials would come from (and be maintained by) the applicant and not the source. On top of that it wasn’t an old fashioned company and the position specifically emphasized creativity and new media and targeted young perspectives.

    I went back and did track down my previous managers (who were also confused but complied) just in case, but it’s never come up again ever so I’m obviously still baffled by what an awkward thing that was.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Grrr. It’s so incredibly rude, asking hundreds of people who will never be interviewed to spend their and their references time that way.

  9. Alisha

    My general thoughts on this advice: Awesome as always. I especially appreciate Alison busting the myths that “pounding the pavement” and mailing expensive, hand-lettered thank-you cards put you ahead of the pack. With job searching mostly or all digital today, these techniques don’t work save for select circumstances/job fields (i.e. food service), but I’ve been astonished at the number of career search “experts” repeating them as gospel. (My handwriting looks like poop, so I’ve never bothered with handwritten anything but some people tell me I’m dumb for e-mailing thank-yous.)

    Over the winter and spring, I know I blew some opportunities because I didn’t put much effort into my cover letter. That was because I don’t read them when hiring (the positions I’ve hired for depend mostly on portfolio, with a secondary emphasis on resume), and forgot that I’m not seeking the same level of job that I’ve hired for. I’m also relieved that more people agree on fancy resumes being a poor use of resources. While a junior designer or other creative can score points with a creative resume as a substitute for a comprehensive portfolio or book, people at my level can’t possibly fit achievements, awards, etc. into a creative format in a way that makes a case for our candidacy. Thanks again for this insightful post – I will surely be passing it along to my network!

  10. MH

    re #10. Many years ago I worked at a small radio station. One day a young-ish man came into reception with a home-made cardboard box, asked somebody to give it to the station manager and walked out.

    Unbeknown to this man, we’d been having some trouble with a ‘pirate’ radio station who had set up locally without a licence. Our station manager had reported them to the authorities which resulted in a couple of men from the pirate radio station coming into our reception area and becoming quite threatening with the station manager.

    So a couple of days later when this hand-made box turned up, we were understandbly a bit jumpy. We called the Police, who in turn called out the Bomb Squad.

    Cut a long story short. It turned out the box contained a demo tape and CV from a potential DJ wanting to make an impression.

    He certainly made an impression, but not the one he wanted.

      1. MH

        We certainly wouldn’t have had the bomb squad out for a tape in the mail in ordinary packaging, we received tapes and CDs daily.

        I seem to recall the box sitting on the side in the manager’s office for quite some time before being binned. Not sure the tape was ever listened to. If he’d mailed it in he would have at least got as far as the Programme Controller who would have been the person in charge of DJ staff and perhaps it would have been listened to.

  11. JEB

    Reading through these I realize I was given every single one of these in mandatory unemployment sessions in my state. It was a complete waste of time, never got an offer here, after 23 months, relocating to another state for a job.(gotten not following these tips)

  12. Laura

    One exception to the letters of recommendation: the field of education. Even online applications will have a place for you to attach letters next to the name of a reference.

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