is applying for jobs a numbers game?

A reader writes:

I’ve been job searching for what feels like forever but in reality is probably about six months. I’m getting conflicting advice about how to approach my job search and I’m not sure how to sort through it. I’ve read that it’s smart to apply for as many jobs as you can because finding a job is a numbers game and the more applications you have out there, the more likely you are to get called for an interview. That sounds logical to me! But I’ve been applying for every job I can find that I’m qualified for, and I’m not getting much response to my applications.

A friend of mine who’s also looking for a job right now says that he was told to focus on a smaller number of applications for just the jobs he’s really interested in, and he does get more interviews than I do. That approach appeals to me, especially because I’m exhausted by what I’m doing now, but I’m worried it will just lower my chances of getting a job. Logically, why wouldn’t fewer applications mean fewer interviews? I have no idea how to approach this.

You can read my answer to this letter at Vice today. Head over there to read it.

{ 103 comments… read them below }

  1. Weekend Please*

    Last time I was job searching, my goal was to apply to one job a week. I was working full time and one job a week was what gave me time to really tailor my materials to each job. I think you should find how much time it takes you to write a quality application and then set the number of applications per week you can reasonable do that for.

    1. AsterRoc*

      I’m in academia. When I’ve been on search committees for faculty, there are routinely between 100 and 500 applicants for a single open position. With odds like that, candidates need both high quality applications, AND many applications. When people ask me for advice on getting a faculty position, I tell them aim for one application per DAY during the applications season (November through February).

      1. kt*

        To be honest, though, what I counsel students/people soon to be on the job market to do is a lot of pre-work. You need to look ahead a year and think about what kinds of positions you want and who you want to work with, and be cultivating the relationships and skills already. You want someone to see your CV in the pile and say, “Oh, Aster! I remember her talk at (blah), it was great.” This is far more effective than hoping your CV will be pulled out of a pile at St Someone’s SLAC or Directional State U or University of FancyPants. It’s what I didn’t do; I didn’t think at all about my first post-grad-school job before it was time to apply, and my results were concordant with that. But when I decided to go corporate, I *did* do this work, by attending industry events, meetups, study groups, conferences, and the advantage is not only did I know people at almost every company I applied to, but I also knew which companies I was most interested in and why. And that’s not a magic bullet either — I got auto-rejected by one of my top choices even though I knew a hiring manager there who’d passed my name on to the manager actually hiring for the position — but I did land a great job with a great team without doing 100 applications.

      2. emmaline*

        I’m in academia, but in a small field. There isn’t even one job posted per day, let alone one that actually hits my speciality. (Still probably 100 applicants for each one though!) So that’s really field-dependent.

        1. Rebecca1*

          Seriously— in my own former academic field, if I applied to one position every day, I would be done after two weeks!

        2. AcademiaNut*

          Yeah, in my field in both my home country and country of residence, there are a couple of faculty jobs a year, in a good year, in a population of 25-35 million. And tailoring a CV takes time – at a minimum you need to research the department and tweak your research plan so it fits the interests and resources available, and your teaching statement to match the expectations. If it’s a staff position, you need to match your experience to the job duties. With an application a day, you’re also getting very generic reference letters rather than ones tailored to match the target institute.

          And as kt says, a lot of it is pre-work. You need the publication list, a solid research background that’s positioned to lead to productive, impactful work that aligns with the strengths of the department you’re applying to, active and fruitful collaborations with others, and a good reputation. One trick in faculty applications is to make sure that you’re competitive enough to make it past the first screening. If it’s a top research institute hiring applicants who are four to five years out of grad school. have 15+ solid first author papers, and are leading a collaboration, and you’re not up to that range, it doesn’t matter how much time you’re pouring into your application package, you’re not going getting on even the long list. I’ve seen younger colleagues pour huge amounts of time into unrealistic targets and get incredibly frustrated at not getting any response, while ones with similar research levels are more realistic about their applications (small schools rather than top research institutes), and get interviews. At the same time, if you’re applying for something out of the way (particularly international jobs that aren’t in the US, Canada or Europe, when you’re from one of the above), you need to convince them that you really want the job and the location, rather than randomly applying to everything possible, with the idea that you’d stay for a couple of years while applying to jobs you actually want.

        3. whistle*

          The year before I left academia (2011) there were 3 tenure track jobs in my field in all of the US and Canada.

          1. GS*

            a good friend is trying to have a go of it in academia, but her field posted a single tenure track job last year and it required fluency in a language she didn’t speak (she speaks three! just not the one that was needed).

            1. Eukomos*

              Yeah, it’s like that. My field frequently has between five and zero TT positions posted in some subfields. Trying to become tenured faculty is getting more and more like trying to make it big in Hollywood. You need to be excellent at what you do AND incredibly tenacious in the face of rejection AND very, very lucky. Screw this job market, I am taking my skills and leaving.

      3. prof*

        yeah, this….the real answer is you have to do BOTH. Academia is a numbers game cause you never know what the hidden priorities of the department are, etc. Of course you’ll never find more than dozens of jobs to apply for there, not hundreds so….

      4. A Genuine Scientician*

        Strong agree.

        My first cycle on the academic job market, I ended up applying to about 45 jobs over the roughly 3 month period jobs were posted. Hundreds of applications went in for each one of them, so the fact that I got 4 interviews was actually a huge success rate…and they were not at the schools I thought I had the best shot at. I tailored a little for each position (think: there are 5 basic projects I’m interested in long-term, so there was one that was in each version of my research statement, and there was a bit of plug-together-the-modules-that-fit-here among the others to figure out which other two I would slot in for a given app; there were 4 basic types of courses I was interested in teaching, so I looked through the course catalog and identified existing courses in those areas and/or proposed to teach something new there if they had nothing, etc.). But honestly, only to a certain extent. When hiring is so seasonal, there are hundreds of applicants per position, and the job ad was written by committee and may well not reflect what they actually decide to hire, there are absolutely times when spending additional time tailoring one application at the cost of not submitting an additional less-tailored one elsewhere is the wrong call.

  2. KHB*

    Another exception to the “quality over quantity” rule is at the very high (or at least very specific) end of the qualifications spectrum. If you’re looking for a job that requires, say, a PhD in a specific field, there may be so few options out there that you widen your search to include as many as you can, rather than getting your heart set on any one of them.

    1. PT*

      When my husband was applying to professorships, he applied to about 160 jobs which yielded six interviews and three offers. By the end of it I was just thankful he got a job near a major airport and not a small regional one.

    2. Melody*

      Even then though, you wouldn’t just be applying for every job you could possibly do. You’ve already narrowed it down to jobs that require a PhD in a specific field.

  3. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    Your life situation also matters. You might take anything to keep a roof over your head.

    1. Artemesia*

      The issue though is your odds of getting that needed job. The LW herself notes that a friend in what I took to be a similar situation is getting MORE hits with her selective approach — which suggests that the OP would be better off with fewer better applications.

  4. Name (Required)*

    It’s a tough thing to figure out because at a high level there may not always be enough jobs to apply for, yet for unemployment there was a quota.

    To meet both, there were definitely jobs that got a tailored application that I was focused on, and others that were entirely quick applies to meet my quota.

    1. michelenyc*

      I was so happy that when the Covid shutdown started in NYC that they did away with the unemployment quota. There were near zero opportunities posted anywhere for positions. I am still getting rejection e-mails for jobs that I applied to last April. Thankfully I did find a job and relocated at the end of December.

    2. Lacey*

      Yup, there were definitely jobs that I knew I wouldn’t get, didn’t really want to get, but just applied to in order to hit my unemployment quota (it’s 3 a week here). But, hitting your unemployment requirements is a different goal than getting a job.

      1. Cobol*

        I’m an automatic decline I bet from a few companies I would spam apply for (ones I really don’t want to work at). Craigslist also is your friend. Plenty of nonsense jobs that give you a record of applying to, but will never follow through.

    3. Cat Tree*

      When I was unemployed in 2011, I had to apply to two jobs a week BUT I had to provide a contact person’s name and phone number. I was applying to jobs through Indeed an Monster, and 99% didn’t list any contacts. I was applying to 10-20 jobs per week but they didn’t count for unemployment purposes. On the rare occasion a contact was listed, I applied no matter what. If I happened to find three like that, I would bookmark one and wait until the next week to apply so it would count toward a different week. I haven’t been unemployed since then but I hope they have updated that policy for modern times.

      1. Cj*

        Did they ever contact the people other than a random audit? If not, I would have googled the company and put down whatever phone number I found, and if no person was listed attached to the phone number, I’d put the name of the CEO or whoever else I could find. I wouldn’t fake a number or name, but if that’s all I could find, then that’s what they would get.

    4. Glitsy Gus*

      I kind of do this. I take a lot of time on the ones I really want, but I do keep a more generic one more or less ready to go. If I see something that looks kinda interesting but not to the point of feeling motivated to do all the extras I throw the more generic one out there because, eh, why not?

    5. Koalafied*

      As someone who has hired for a lot of roles, I very much recognized this phenomenon. Often you could tell exactly what was boilerplate and which places they’d swapped in $COMPANYNAME$ and $JOBTITLE$, because those parts would be in a different font than the rest of the email. Without fail these types of form letter applications would be completely undiscerning – the same people would apply to every job we posted, regardless of whether it was a fellowship for law students or an advanced communications director role.

      I always mentally chalked that up to some bureaucratic requirement for unemployment wanting to see X applications filed per week.

  5. joss*

    A comment that is not really related to which approach is best, but (unless you number your job applications like “this is application #xyx” the company you are applying to does not know that you have been applying for every job under the sun. So there is another reason that your friend is getting more interviews/responses. You really need to look at your applications and see what can or needs to be adjusted in your applications.
    Wishing you the best of luck in your search

    1. KHB*

      They can’t tell how many other jobs you’ve been applying for – but they can tell how much thought you put into your particular application with them.

  6. joss*

    A comment that is not really related to which approach is best, but (unless you number your job applications like “this is application #xyx”) the company you are applying to does not know that you have been applying for every job under the sun. So there is another reason that your friend is getting more interviews/responses. You really need to look at your applications and see what can or needs to be adjusted in your applications.
    Wishing you the best of luck in your search

    1. MassMatt*

      Well, it’s apparent when the resume only tangentially applies to the position, and the cover letter is extremely generic. If I am hiring a llama handler and you are a dog groomer and don’t even mention how the skill is transferrable, chances are mine is not the only tangential job you are applying for. Let alone if your resume is all about being a teapot painter.

      If people with generic, un-targeted application materials are not even sending them out to lots of job openings, then their chances of getting hired go from poor to nonexistent.

      1. Not playing your game anymore*

        This. Or when you don’t even manage to get the name of the University correct, or maybe even the state?

    2. Suzanne*

      This is my answer! Company X doesn’t know you have applied to Company A-W but unfortunately you can’t always predict what will make you stand out with your application. I would try working on the cover letter AND resume to see if some tinkering could help. Get someone to read it over too.

  7. Gul DuCat*

    I’m on a search committee right now for a professional position and am amazed at how little care is taken to match the CV/cover letter to the position as it’s posted. It’s a detailed posting and in so many cases, it might be a great candidate but I have to prove that you have the specific experience I’m looking for to move forward. A lot of times, I *suspect* they do, but if they don’t spell it out for me, it’s hard for me to demonstrate what I need to for our HR department.

    1. Littorally*

      Is it clear on the posting that those specific items are must-haves? If the posting is extremely detailed, the must-haves versus the probably-ought-to-haves versus the nice-to-haves may be muddled.

    2. MassMatt*

      I hope every job seeker here reads this and sees it as an opportunity to make themselves stand out to people hiring!

      When I was on a hiring committee we quickly tossed many applications that had little if anything to do with the roles we were hiring for, and this was AFTER they had already been screened by HR!

      I’ve been there, I get it, you don’t want to spend time writing cover letters tailored to the position. But really probably 50-80% of your competitors are not doing so, and wind up in the reject pile. Just about everyone who gets a call for an interview HAS done this. Which category do you want to be in?

      1. Gul DuCat*

        And sometimes I really, really want it to work and try to read and re-read, looking for anyway I can make it happen. Our HR does not let us interview people who clearly don’t meet the minimals.
        And then sometimes, when someone gets to the phone interview, they disclose a lot of things that I wish they had put on their CV/cover letter!
        I have this problem when I’m reviewing resumes as a mentoring sort of deal. I know these people are so much better than they have expressed on paper. It’s so hard to promote yourself sometimes.

    3. BRR*

      Whenever I’ve been on the hiring side I’m also amazed how little matching goes on. I’ve found that most of the time, even a small amount of effort makes someone a much stronger candidate. My bar isn’t even really that high. This is why Alison posts the cover letters she does as examples, I’ve never seen any cover letter remotely near that custom.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        The RoI simply isn’t there. 4 hours to research your company and tailor to your position doesn’t even buy me a cursory callback, let alone an interview or offer.

        1. WellRed*

          Amen. Hirers: you’re not the only job people are applying to. Gd forbid, applicants also have jobs and life commitments.

          1. Jim Bob*

            Right, but when the choice is between someone who put in the extra effort and someone who didn’t, who is naturally going to get chosen?

            They’re not thinking “Wakeen isn’t 24/7 invested in widget-making, so let’s trash his resume out of spite”; they’re thinking “Wow, Joe seems a lot more interested in widget-making than Wakeen. Let’s interview the better candidate.”

            1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              That’s your prerogative.

              However, I’d point out your responsibility to upper management/stakeholders is to find the best candidate, not the most convenient, and there will always be a hypothetical Wakeen who’s beating your head in with gumption and perfection to judge me against.

          2. NotAnotherManager!*

            And heaven forbid that hirers prioritize people who did put in the effort to produce an application that speaks their actual needs. I don’t need someone to spend hours researching my organization nor do I require candidates invest time in doing custom sample work or hours of interviews, but, I do take care to write and keep up-to-date a concise position description for each job for which I hire, which I expect applicants to have read. Most postings are a single page with bullets clearly labeled as required and preferred.

            If I can’t easily tell from your resume and cover letter that you have all the required skills and maybe some of the preferred, it’s not going to get you out of a pile of 100 resumes to the HR phone screen. As noted in the recent letter from the hiring manager, there is often no single best candidate who is the needle in the haystack that you need to do an in-depth investigation to find – there are multiple great candidates and you only need one of them. Submitting an application responsive to the position description isn’t “gumption”.

            1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              Thank you for confirming it’s a numbers game. The more stacks of résumés yours goes into, the better the odds you’ll be that candidate in one or more of them.

              1. NotAnotherManager!*

                Sure, but the other side of the numbers game is that more generic your resume is, the less likely that it’s going to stand out from the other 99+ received in any of those stacks. I don’t see the other applications a candidate submits (volume or substance); I only see the ones in mine. The multiple great candidates, any of whom could do the job, are not the ones who send resumes that don’t address the two things in the posting marked as “required” or with objectives like “To obtain a position in an office and utilize my degree” or cover letters that say, “Dear hiring manager, attached is my resume. I would be a great fit for the job at your organization. Please contact me as soon as possible to schedule an interview.” (And, as the hiring manager, I never see those anyway because HR screens them out. I only get a report that shows the position metrics – posted X days, Y resumes received, Z HR phone screens, N finalists scheduled for interviews.)

                1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                  That’s why I said the RoI isn’t there; you’re not going to hire me for X disclosed reasons and Y reasons that aren’t disclosed (biases, discrimination, priorities, internal politics/culture, apathy, astrology, superstition, paranoia, insanity, etc). Once I address X (which my job history and employable skills either does or doesn’t), I’m done; the RoI for trying to guess what Y are and address them in a cover letter that won’t get read or a custom résumé is zero.

                  What is it about employees, applicants and consumers acting rationally that makes Management respond the same way a bull responds to a waving flag?

                2. NotAnotherManager!*

                  Hey, you’re going to do what generates the most ROI for you, and I’m going to do what generates the most ROI for me. I’m not red-flag angry about anything – our hiring processes work well, I’ve got a great HR recruiter to cull down the hundreds of submissions, and I get fantastic talent for most roles. There is a lot of daylight between doing intense corporate research and spending hours fine-tuning application materials versus putting some bare-bones effort into reading a job description and writing a short cover letter or adding a resume bullet or two to that demonstrates that. It does not require wholesale bespoke suite of application materials for every submission – Alison said the same thing in her answer.

                  Being in more stacks of resumes doesn’t matter if you’re at the bottom of all of them. With 100+ applicants, the numbers game is that each submission gets less time and differentiators matter. When you’re entry-level or in a candidate pool that is more competitive, you have to do more than just upload the exact same resume file to every system, which seems to be what this particular LW is asking. This changes as you gain experience and more skills and qualified applicant pools shrink.

    4. b-jolie*

      Yes! I’m also currently hiring and I receive so many applications from candidates who clearly didn’t read the job spec (language requirements) or are apparently trying to move into this role from an odd place (it’s a senior individual contributor role and I’ve seen applications from people currently in a VP role). I have so many questions on those, and I wish people would address why they want to move in a cover letter – but rarely anyone does. It makes it so much harder for me to figure out who it’s worth spending my time on (or, alternatively, tossing these CVs because others are a better match).

  8. BPT*

    I really think this is so dependent on where you are in your career, and how competitive the job market is. When you are early in your career (looking for your first or second career job), you’re going to send out a ton more applications.

    For instance, when I was trying to start my career in DC right after grad school, I applied to pretty much anything entry level – on the Hill, in nonprofits, at associations, at think tanks, etc, dealing with basically any issue area. All of those jobs were pretty much going to ask for the same types of qualifications, I didn’t have that much to tailor (I always tailor one paragraph in my cover letter about the place I’m applying, but most of the information about me stays the same), and it’s super competitive. I applied for about 150 jobs in 3 months, got two interviews, and one job offer.

    Now that I’m a decade into my career, there are fewer jobs to apply for (at the right seniority, right pay, right part of political advocacy, namely a specific subset of healthcare, etc). Most of the jobs I apply for are pretty much very similar job descriptions, so I still don’t have to change up my materials too much. Now, when I look to move jobs, I might see 1-5 jobs per week that could be the right fit, and it could take me up to a year to find the right next step. So it really is so dependent on where you are in your career.

    1. Threeve*

      When I was desperate, I sorted job postings into a “nope” pile, a “might as well throw it out there but don’t stress about it” pile, and a “put in the effort for this one” pile.

      Like the “10% of the customers cause 90% of the problems” cliche, 10% of my job applications got 90% of my energy. The 5-minute cookie-cutter applications did get me some interviews.

    2. beanie gee*

      I hear what you’re saying, but when we hire jr positions, we get a TON of applicants, and if the applicant doesn’t at least describe in their cover letter why they are qualified for the specific job I’m hiring for, it’s an easy pass for me since there are plenty that actually write a tailored cover letter.

      You might have to send out a lot more applications, but remember that you have a lot more competition, so making yourself stand out is even more important.

      1. BPT*

        Well yes, I said in my post I tailored a paragraph to the exact position/organization, but most of the information about my background stayed the same. Like, once you write a paragraph about how you’re perfect for a staff assistant role at this specific policy organization, you can use that as the base for every other staff assistant role and every policy organization with a few tweaks. The positions are not that different.

        That’s the point about it kind of being a numbers game early in your career – every position in a competitive field DOES get hundreds of applications. I’ve hired for these too. So unless you’re the child of a Senator or are at the top of your Harvard law class, there’s going to be a ton of competition. You can’t spend all week perfecting a cover letter for one position. Have a good base cover letter and resume (this takes the most time, once you get a good base it’s easier), spend 15-30 minutes tailoring them for each application, and then apply for a lot of jobs.

    3. JM60*

      I really think this is so dependent on where you are in your career, and how competitive the job market is. When you are early in your career (looking for your first or second career job), you’re going to send out a ton more applications.

      I very much agree, and this is where I think I partly disagree with Alison’s answer. You should always tailor your cover letter and resume, but the later you are in your career, the more millage you’ll get out of narrowly focusing your target. After all, if your main qualification is, “I have a BS in Computer Science”, your list of skills and specific accomplishments with those skills are going to be a lot less than it will be after working in the tech industry for a decade and a half.

      Quality vs quantity of applications is somewhat of a sliding scale, and I think the best place for someone to be on that scale depends on individual circumstances and goals.

    4. Spearmint*

      Thank you. As someone early in their career, this matches my experience. In my last job search (for my first non-temp professional job) I initially followed Allison’s advice to strongly customize my resume and cover letter and focus only on jobs that looked like a really good fit. I got zero interviews this way.

      After months of silence I switched to minor customization and a higher volume of applications. The job I was need up getting didn’t even give the option of uploading a cover letter, and used a fairly generic version of my resume.

      What I realized is that, like your younger self, there want much to customize for someone inexperienced looking for entry level roles.

    5. NotAnotherManager!*

      I think this is spot-on. I hire for both experienced and entry-level roles, and this is exactly what I see.

      Frankly, most entry-level applicants are very similar and DC entry-level office jobs have a lot of overlap in job requirements. For entry-level positions, we get hundreds of applicants. They are first sorted yes/no on the two clearly stated requirements (bachelor’s degree and one other), then grouped by meeting criteria marked as “preferred” (relevant internships or coursework, other language proficiencies, retail/food service/public-facing customer service experience, etc.), and then prioritized for screening based on pickier things like error-free submissions (the position involves proofreading and strong attention to detail), cover letter strength, etc.

      For experienced candidates, there are indeed fewer positions and far fewer applications. For those, we often have to do active recruiting (reaching out to candidates) rather than the passive recruiting (just posting the position) of entry-level. As a senior candidate myself, there are simply few positions at my level and my materials are expected to be much more polished and on-target to the position advertisement.

  9. Smithy*

    I know this isn’t helpful – but I think I’ve always been most successful when I use a hybrid of those methods. Essentially, I know I’m applying for a few different types of jobs that take only 2 or 3 basic cover letter approaches. From there, it is a bit of a form in that I know what new information to include on each organization and try to make as few tweaks as possible. I use the same resume for everyone.

    Personally – I’m always worried that when I tailor too much, I run the risk of careless syntax/grammar errors. And thus it turns spending an hour or two on any given application into far more time and stress. Using that approach, I also risk “dream jobbing” different opportunities and can take it very personally when I don’t get interviews. I also happen to enjoy having more interviews than fewer, even if they’re for jobs that ultimately aren’t the right fit.

    Given the time of the search and the lack of traction – I certainly think a refreshed view of the OP’s materials would be warranted. But particularly when the economy is bad – echoing back to the last recession – you do need to be playing some version of a numbers game. It’s just about finding which one you can do while adhering to the best practice tailoring advice.

    1. Mockingjay*

      I occasionally assist friends and coworkers in my industry with resumes. Many of them significantly underestimate the time required to create a good master resume and resent the additional time to tailor it to the job posting and then take even more time write a good cover letter. (I get it – it’s hard to sell yourself to an anonymous listing. I struggle with my own resume.)

      I tell them to frame it this way: those three sheets of paper (2-page resume + cover) represent $XX,XXX.00/year plus benefits. Resume hours invested now will eventually provide a payoff (sooner rather than later, I hope).

  10. Hiring Mgr*

    I don’t know that it’s necessarily an either/or. Agee with customizing the resume/cover letter, but after you’ve done that a few times, it’s not *that* hard to craft a pretty good one without it taking hours.

    Especially if you’re not working and you have more time, I think quantity AND quality is doable.

  11. blackcatlady*

    Agree with previous comments that if you are applying to lots of jobs you may be sloppy (not on purpose) with the paperwork. Have a friend read over everything and tailor your cover letter/resume to specific jobs. I remember when kid#1 applied to college the dean said we always get cover letters that begin Dear Green College when we are actually Purple University. The applicant just used the same letter and did not check heading. Little details matter!

    1. Tidewater 4-1009*

      Yes, something like that makes a very bad impression – that the applicant is careless, oblivious, doesn’t check details – who would hire such a person?

  12. MassMatt*

    Overall I agree with Alison, it is pretty obvious to employers when someone is applying everywhere vaguely related to their field with a generic resume and especially a generic cover letter. The numbers game might work somewhat for entry-level positions, but even there an application that’s more tailored to the job has a better chance of standing out, and this becomes more essential the higher up you go on the food chain.

    When I was looking several years ago, I put a lot of thought into what kind of jobs I wanted to look for, and narrowed it down to two: One as a producer in my field, and one as a manager–I had experience at both. I created a resume for each; one highlighting my individual production and skills, the other the achievements of my teams and management skills. I had to do very little tweaking of resumes, (which was good because I stink at making format changes in advanced Word). I spent a good amount of time tailoring my cover letters to the companies and jobs. I saved every version, and had some stock anecdotes and data saved which made this process easier as I went on. A lot of that stuff was good for interviews also. I think you will find you get more hits this way than with your current process.

    One thing I would say is you definitely don’t want to take this technique to an extreme and just apply for a single job and putting all your hope in hearing back from that one employer. You should definitely be applying to multiple jobs; how many depends on your skills, field, and stamina, but there’s a happy medium between dozens per week and one.

    Good luck in your search!

  13. LadyByTheLake*

    I also note that if you are going for quality, that gives you more time to research the employer, and critically, figure out if you have a connection to the hiring manager or to someone who works there who could provide a referral. Granted, that’s often for more senior positions, but taking time to look for one good connection is worth a hundred (or thousand) shotgun applications.

  14. Roeslein*

    I think this depends on your experience within your industry and how specific your skillset is. For new grads – sure, it can feel like a numbers game. But now that I have several years’ experience in management consulting for a specific industry (I started my career in academia in a related field), I find that at least within Europe, I know pretty much all the firms that are likely to employ me, so these days I apply in a *very* targeted way. When leaving academia I applied for lots of things, mostly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But since then each time I’ve wanted to relocate or switch jobs I sent fewer applications. I mostly ignore job ads and just apply / use my network to approach firms in my target location for which I think my profile would be a good fit. More often than not they agree. This time (relocating to a different city within the same country) I sent two applications (one final round, one offer), two years earlier (moving to a new country) I sent about five applications (3 talked to me, two weren’t interested – I withdrew from two after the first interview, and the remaining one made an offer). However in my industry (at least for experienced folks) they usually are no “job openings” as such – if you find a good candidate, you either hire them or your competitor will, it’s not like they are that many of them around.

  15. Bright Green Owl*

    The thing I struggle with the most is the submission software. I don’t apply to a lot of jobs as I hold a relatively senior position, and am only interested in moving to a different company that focuses on the right mission (for me). I put in the work to tailored resumes and personalized cover letters. When I go to submit I get hit with a “Workday” or “Taleo” and feel like I’ve already lost the game. I don’t think AI is convinced by my personalized cover letters as much as a person would be.

    How do you guys deal with this?

    1. I should really pick a name*

      I’m not sure, but I think the specific company’s implementation of that kind of software lets them specify how much is automated. Not everyone might be relying on the software to do the filtering.

    2. Tidewater 4-1009*

      The times I’ve seen these – not sure I’ve seen Taleo – there’s a box at the end of the application to paste in my cover letter.
      I wonder if there are other glitches though. Recently I applied for a mid-level analyst job and got a rejection for the position of Senior Specialized Architect, which I had not applied for.
      There was no way for me to communicate with the company in the workday app. It turns out if you don’t use a company link it won’t take your login. The company didn’t have contact info on their site. I ended up sending them a note saying there had been a mistake through their contact form.

  16. Confused*

    It depends on the job you want. If you’re looking to make a really strategic move, then more tailored materials make sense. If your unemployment is running out, you just need to apply, apply, apply.

    I will say this though – every time, and I do mean EVERY time, I’ve tailored my application materials for a specific job, my resume has ended up in the trash. No interviews, no nothing. And these were all positions I was perfectly qualified for and I talked about specific things I liked about X company in my cover letter. I’ve been hired for a lot of positions, at a lot of levels, with just tailoring my resume to specific job duties I want to emphasize. It also depends on industry. But for me, it’s been a huge waste of time to dedicate time to applications for jobs I really wanted to just have my application be thrown in the garbage.

    1. ThatGirl*

      I can’t say why you’ve been unlucky, but anecdote is not the singular of data, as they say. My experience has been all over the place – I’ve worked at 5 companies so far in my life; the first two I got ’cause someone recommended me, the third was via Craigslist, the fourth I had a recommendation and I tailored my resume and cover letter, the fifth I applied online at random and didn’t even get a chance to attach a cover letter. But in all of those cases, how I interviewed mattered as much if not more than the actual application.

      And honestly, I don’t think anyone should spend hours slaving over a cover letter, but I do think that if you write one, it should be personalized for the company and job you’re applying to.

      1. Michaela*

        I agree with Confused that it’s context dependent.

        I do both every job search, for ones I care about I take more time, and I do a blast for jobs which I think I’m not a strong candidate or ambivalent about. I have a higher call back rate for blast applications, and we’re talking 6 figure jobs, not entry level. The type of work I do is fairly standard across roles and industries though, so it’s relevant in my lack of need to tailor as much. I also feel a lot worse to be rejected when I do tailor for roles, when it likely doesn’t have much of an impact on the end result.

  17. Student Affairs Sally*

    I really think it’s both, at least in my line of work/my career level. I just finished a job hunt, and I wasn’t applying for things that didn’t make sense for me, but I did apply for ANYTHING that was a decent match for my skills/experience and that was in a geographic area I was interested in. All of my cover letters were somewhat personalized, but the jobs that had more detailed job descriptions or were more closely related to my experience generally got more customization just because it was easier to customize when I knew more about the job. Interestingly, as someone else commented, generally I got more response from the more form-letter-y ones (including at the job where I was eventually hired) – the super customized ones didn’t get me any response at all, with a few exceptions. But obviously it depends on your field and what level you’re at in your career.

  18. Cobol*

    This may be a separate question, but the thing that I struggle with is am I writing my cover letter for the recruiter or the hiring manager. I’m in marketing, and if I’m not applying at an organization that had marketing specific recruiters I have to really call out the basic experience instead of highlighting what makes me special

  19. lapgiraffe*

    I gotta say, maybe everyone is much more creative than me but I do not understand tailoring my resume with each application . There have been exceptions where I felt like adding in a detail or two that is normally unrelated but could be a little extra something something for a specific role, but on the whole this seems like game playing at best to outright lying at worst. Is this because of automated resume reading programs? Are you changing words just so it hits enough check marks? It truly seems like context or reading comprehension doesn’t even matter and that “tailoring” a resume is actually coded language for “make your resume mirror the job post” which seems ludicrous.

    I’ve spent hours upon hours coming up with the best ways to describe my work and accomplishments, ways to do so in which I am being honest while also putting the prettiest face on it, to create a marketing document that is unique to my experience and abilities. I expect a human to be able to comprehend synonyms and similar processes, ideas, and situations, but maybe that is naive of me. I always thought the cover letter is where customization was key, here is where I get to plead my case and pitch why me for this specific role, while my resume is my calling card that doesn’t change much because I don’t have a time machine to go back and alter what I did and did not do at work. What am I missing here?

    1. Student Affairs Sally*

      This is just my personal example and may not be relevant to you or your industry at all. When I was recently applying for jobs, I was primarily applying for three types of jobs in higher ed student affairs/student support: academic advising, professional writing tutor in a writing center, and coordinator of general tutoring/academic support services. I have varying levels of experience in each of those types of roles. When I was an undergrad, I worked in my school’s writing center for several years and was promoted to the highest level of student-worker (essentially a supervisor/trainer), so when I was applying to writing center jobs I put that experience on my resume because it was very applicable to those roles. When I was applying to academic advising roles, I either left it off altogether or included it but with a minimal amount of detail, because it wasn’t really relevant to the job I was applying for (especially as it was part-time and several years old), and focused on my experience that was more applicable to the job I was applying for.

    2. PollyQ*

      If all your jobs have been in more or less the same kind of industry and roles, and that’s also the area you’re applying in, then you probably don’t need to change your resume much. But some people have had jobs that were only somewhat similar to each other, or even rather different. In that case, you’d look at what the job you’re applying for wants, and emphasize or de-emphasize jobs that you’ve had in the past. Ones that were more relevant might have more bullet points and more description. Ones that were less relevant might have less description, or if it doesn’t leave a gap in employment, be left off altogether. It’s not about lying, just about which information you give more weight to.

    3. Pop*

      I’m now on my third career job, so I don’t have a ton of experience here. But at my two previous positions at smaller companies, both had a ton of small things that I was responsible for. When I applied for my previous position, they were interested in (x) and (y). (Z), which also took up 20% of my time, wasn’t related at all. In my cover letter, I casually mentioned (Z) because of transferrable skills, but it wasn’t something I wanted to highlight as one of the top responsibilities of my previous position. I only have a one-page resume so all of my accomplishments and responsibilities for each job just can’t fit on there.

    4. A Genuine Scientician*

      So, an example (though it’s a bit specific).

      I’m an academic, so the main things other than our degrees that go on our CVs are:
      Courses Taught

      How important each of those items is varies wildly by type of institution, though. So when I was applying for primarily teaching-based positions, my teaching, my teaching awards, and my public science outreach got moved closer to the top of my CV. When I applied to be a professor at big research universities, the amount of money I had been awarded in research grants was a much bigger deal.

  20. Kiki*

    I think the truth is that different strategies work for different people in different contexts! My boyfriend and I met in the same educational program, so we were applying for similar jobs at the same time. He took the “it’s a numbers game!” approach while I applied to way fewer jobs but took the time to tailor each application and cover letter. We both ended up getting a job the same week ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    There were pros and cons for each route. For my boyfriend, one pro was that he was able to cast a wide net and start paying more individual attention to specific roles once they showed they were interested in someone with his profile. Meanwhile. I paid a lot of attention, time, and care crafting applications for a few jobs that revealed they wouldn’t consider someone with my resume no matter how well-written my cover letter was (e.g. “entry-level” roles looking for 2-3 years of experience).
    One advantage for me was that every job that demonstrated interest in me was one I already knew I wanted and why. My boyfriend had to deal with interest from companies that he realized he didn’t even want to work for. Ultimately, we both ended up with jobs the same week, so both our methods were successful. I will say, though, that I think I ended up with a role I’m much happier with than he is.

    1. Kiki*

      I also want to add that when in doubt, there is a happy medium: tailor application materials for the jobs you want the most but send a strong-but-generic template to every other job you’re considering.

      1. meyer lemon*

        Or another strategy is to develop a master resume and cover letter with various elements that you can combine depending on the specifics of the job. That way each application is still specific, but you can minimize how much time you spend writing fresh material. This works well if all of the jobs you’re looking for are similar-ish, but probably would be more difficult if you’re really casting a wide net.

  21. Parenthesis Dude*

    There was one time early in my career where I applied for a position, and in retrospect, there was clearly some confusion about the job posting. I was invited for an interview, and trekked out about an hour to get there.

    I get there, and talk with the interviewers. Turns out, the position was actually for a team lead instead of a junior member. Needless to say, the interview didn’t go well. They told me near the end, that they wanted to give every applicant a chance to prove themselves. That would have been great if I was anywhere near qualified, but clearly I wasn’t. They clearly wasted my time.

    The point is, getting a lot of interviews feels nice but is a waste of time if you don’t actually get offers or apply to jobs where it’s unlikely you’ll get an offer. There’s little benefit in just interviewing by itself.

  22. MollyG*

    Yes it is a numbers game. As we saw in many jobs get whopping number of applications so you must apply a lot to beat that. If you are in a serious job search, it is reasonable to make a goal to apply to one job a day. That is 7 a week, 30 a month and 360 a year, and gives you the ability to tailor your resume and cover letter to each job. But once you get into the swing of things you come to the point that you have enough of them that it is easy to edit an old one for a similar job.

    1. Guacamole Bob*

      You really can’t give a universal guideline about what “applying widely” means for everyone. There just aren’t 7 jobs a week posted that would be a good fit for me in my metro area. Eventually I’d start applying for jobs that are less good fits if I absolutely needed a new job, but for the first six months or so of a search I’d probably hit more like one a week, and that includes applying for some stuff that I knew up front wasn’t really what I was looking for.

      I’d also be networking – in my field there are consulting firms that may hire good people even if they don’t have jobs posted. So I wouldn’t be applying to one job and spending the rest of the week watching TV, but I wouldn’t be sending in anywhere near an application a day.

      1. MollyG*

        Yes, but I do not limit myself to any geographical area. I would apply for a job in my field on Jupiter if it was posted. But if you aim for hitting the job boards every day, and you don’t see a job to apply to every day then ok.

    2. Roeslein*

      In many fields this is just unrealistic. There are are *maybe* 20-30 relevant jobs I could apply for in the whole of Europe in a year, never mind in the specific city I am looking…

    3. Allonge*

      Ah – the point of that post was that no matter what you do, you will get rejected if you are applying in a hypercompetitive field. You cannot beat that with a numbers game, you cannot beat it at all. And in these cases the jobs are hypercompetitive because there aren’t enough of them to apply to. If there are two positions per month, you cannot apply to one per day.

  23. don*

    Absolutely it is a numbers game, especially when you are not a very competitive candidate (i.e years of experience, education, past companies, etc.). When job hunting I honestly try to apply to 3-5 jobs a day. I apply to positions across the country; though it is not advertise in the posting the vast majority of positions are remote now. I also tend to apply to positions late a night (after 10 pm) so my application will be a top of the list (most applicant tracking systems as a default sort by time of application with newest applications at the top). On average I probably get interviews scheduled on 1/3 – 1/2 of the applications I submit (I only apply to Fortune 500 companies). One of the best things you can do is have an eye catching resume.

  24. Sled dog mama*

    Like so many things that people ask Alison, it depends. I’m about 10 years into my career in a very specialized area*
    When I first finished grad school I applied to every single posting I could find that wanted less than 3 years experience, in 6 months of searching that was somewhere around 50 (I stopped counting after 25), I got an on-site interview for 2, I finally got a job with the company I had interned for n grad school.
    2 job searches ago (fall 2017) I sent out 5 applications had 2 in person interviews, and a phone interview that wanted to schedule an in person and 2 offers.
    Last search in fall 2020 I sent my resume to two former coworkers who had started their own companies and got 4 phone interviews, 2 in person interviews and took the first offer because it was a perfect fit for me.
    I remember before grad school I was looking for a job and had skills that were much more broadly applicable, I was sending out 100’s of applications for 2-3 interviews and no offers.

    *I’ll be the first to admit that my career is a super small field and I’m very lucky that we have a reasonably balanced supply and demand. How small is my field? My professional organization has about 8,000 members in the US and that’s believed to be 80-90% of the work force.

  25. gbca*

    This might depend on the industry/function you’re in, but my experience was that I was applying for jobs where my experience on my resume was pretty straightforward in terms of explaining the expertise I had for the role (corporate finance). The thing that made a difference in me getting interviews/offers was not how much time I spent on the application, but whether I had a referral for the job – no matter how weak that referral might be.

    The job I currently have I got because I went to a general women’s networking event when I was unemployed, met someone who gave me her card and told me to let her know if I saw any openings that were of interest. I went to the company website, saw the perfect role, and sent her my resume, which she forwarded on to the hiring manager. She didn’t know me at all, and also was not in finance and did not know the hiring manager, but it got my resume looked at and got me an interview. My biggest advice is whenever you see a job you’re interested in, check out who you know on LinkedIn who is at that company or knows someone who is, and see if they will help you out with however they route internal referrals.

  26. Tinker*

    I think there’s a distinction between “it’s a matter of chance in the context of some volume of likely prospects, not a matter of picking the place you want to go to and making a project out of it” and “it’s a numbers game in which the important metric is throughput”.

    The approach I tend to take to it is that I have a set of sources of jobs — lately I’m in a Slack with a jobs channel that has a weekly “jobs channel day” to focus on, plus which there’s LinkedIn and some other more specific sources. I look at these, and when something floats by that seems like a good prospect (pay/benefits, culture, purpose) where I can articulate why I would make sense in that role (You want a person with a moderate number of years of llama shaving experience to shave llamas for a camelid therapy practice; I have shaved llamas for seven years for a yarn company, have been interested in moving from textile arts to animal encounters, and back when I used to build barns I worked for a place where a lot of the customers were camelid therapy practices), I put it on the list of things to crank through the application process.

    For that process, I render the articulation in the form of a business email (this being the ‘cover letter’) that is formulaic in form but speaks very specifically to this particular company (like, first paragraph is greeting / how I came across you, second paragraph is articulation with examples, third paragraph reiteration of specific points of interest and segue into contact methods), attach my resume (possibly update it to name explicitly that it was Wahl shavers I used on the yak project a couple years back, provided I am willing to remind myself somewhat how Wahl shavers work), send it, and largely think no more of the place unless they call back.

    There’s a rate implied by that process where if likely prospects were to arrive at a higher rate than I can do the foregoing I’d prioritize or narrow my criteria, and if likely prospects were arriving at such a low rate that it seemed unlikely I’d get a hit in any reasonable amount of time I’d troubleshoot or broaden my criteria, but persistent engagement in the system, rather than the application rate itself, is the target.

    It seems like people get in trouble when they take “personalize” to mean “everything handmade from scratch, no formulas, each ad a project” or alternately when they take “volume is a factor, so get multiple prospects in play” to mean “abandon any attempt at personal connection, resume goes in front of as many faces as possible and hope that the amount of glitter you poured in the envelope is memorable”. In general, the balance is somewhere in the middle.

    1. Engenuity*

      This seems like a really solid approach. Maybe this is just how I hire, but with the application, I’m really just bucketing into move forward right away, move forward, hold, and decline based on basic qualifications of the job. If your background is a really good fit and if you convey that effectively, you’ll probably make it in that first bucket. Anything beyond that is up to the rest of the interview process.

  27. Bookworm*

    OP: I think it depends. When I got into this current job it was very much a numbers game: maybe more than 2 dozen applications with maybe 10 or so that went to a first initial screening/interview and maybe 3-4 that went into a multiple rounds/there was actual interest.

    Now I’m aiming for (and have tangible work to show) that I can use for a much narrower job search that just so happens to be hiring up a bit right now. I also have connections through my current work that I’ve been able to leverage a bit into two interviews–with one outright rejection after applying so far with a place which coincidentally I don’t think I have any connections to that I know of (but thought I’d be a great match, have work that I thought was aligned, etc.)

    I think Alison’s response is correct. If you’re going for retail or similar types of jobs it might work. But if you can better zero in on why you want this particular job (or jobs) the better. But that even then, you can be totally qualified and seem like a great fit on paper and yet don’t have whatever magical sauce they’re looking for.

  28. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    In every significant job I’ve held, my résumé has been out there (Monster, Dice, LinkedIn, etc) and an employer has come looking for me.

  29. LANY25*

    I am a hiring manager at a well known tech company. For one role I has posted, we had over 750 applications, and probably 30% of those were applying to any role at our company that they could make any sort of case for (regardless of how thin). Hiring managers can see when you’re throwing darts at a board – and I always viewed it as a negative mark. If you don’t have the self awareness to understand what you’re actually a fit for, or aren’t taking the time to actually read the job description (I often wondered), it’s easy to use to weed down the list. (not saying that’s what this OP is doing – just calling out that I can see if you’ve applied to 50 senior level jobs in 6 months at my company, and that NEVER looks good).

    1. Engenuity*

      I am also a hiring manager at a well-known tech company, and I agree 100% with this.

      Also, I was really surprised by how no one submits a cover letter! I don’t care about convention here – someone who’s a referral or an excellent fit is going to move forward regardless – but if you’re at 60% or less of the qualifications or didn’t customize your resume, that’s your chance to tell me why I should consider you anyway. In my current search, I only got one cover letter, and it was clear it was just a form letter that the applicant was reusing and swapping out the name of the position to which they were applying. Again, this wouldn’t hurt a strong candidate but it does nothing to help a weak one, either.

      1. Engenuity*

        *qualified referral by someone who understands the role being hired for (i.e. this is not about insider preference but rather someone trusted pre-vetting a candidate for basic qualifications)

        1. LANY25*

          Same! For the job with 750 applications, I think we have less than 50 cover letters, and most of them were form letters. One was someone who just sent a document of quotes from previous managers. Another was a pdf of a book he wrote, with no added context. My favorite, though, was from the 25 year old (we had asked for 15 years experience) who explained everything that my company was doing wrong (this demonstrated zero understanding of the company) and said he “looked forward to a further discussion of this, and please share our availability as soon as possible.”

  30. AnneMoliviaColemuff*

    A heads up for anyone in New Zealand or Australia. If you apply on Seek, we can see how many other roles you’ve applied for previously.

    I personally haven’t used it to weed people out, but I’m sure that some recruiters do.

  31. 1234*

    My motto for jobs is “apply if you think you have the credentials and see what sticks.” To me, it’s totally a numbers game. I write a generic cover letter and swap out the name of the role and the company name. I make sure that the font looks uniform before emailing it off.

    To be fair, the roles I applied for were all very similar. For example, “Client Coordinator at Teapot Factory” vs. “Client Coordinator at Other Teapot Factory” or “Project Coordinator at Coffee Pot Company” etc.

  32. Be Positive*

    This is how I got my job out of university. I started applying 3 months before graduation. I focused on jobs I was interested in even though there were many more I could have applied for. Customized my cover letter for each company. I was competing with a many other grads in a recession so I thought it would take months and months. I ended up getting offers from 3 places and accepted one 3 weeks before I graduated.

  33. McKm*

    I don’t know what it’s like to be job searching in the current environment, but I was job searching in the summer of 2019 for the first time in 13 years. I had spent twelve years working my way up with the same company to a very niche role in a very specific industry. All of my relevant work experience was with this company. I was told by head hunters it could take me 12-18 months to find a more generic job in a different industry in my field (which is what I wanted), because my experience wasn’t really relevant. I truly thought it would be a numbers game. I honestly sent out about six targeted resumes. Three called me for interviews. The very first one offered me the job I have today, and I couldn’t be happier. My current boss says I am everything they didn’t know they were looking for until they saw it on paper in front of them. All the unique qualities and experiences from my previous job were not what they had in mind, but it made them think…what if we could put someone different in this role and see what they can do with it. The head hunters turned out to not know everything.

  34. dan j*

    Okay so… I’ve been applying for almost two years, in high volume, with great care and detail. I’ve gotten about four interviews. I’m disabled, have a very disabled-person’s looking work history, and I can’t get through a resume filter. What do you even do next when you’re already doing everything?

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