Career expert shares tricks to acing online job applications

Posted February 9, 2012

— Mailing resumes and cover letters to potential employers has become less common these days, with more jobs asking candidates to apply online. While it may be easier and quicker to use the web, job experts say there are some tricks to making the cut.

Job market Tips, tools for job seekers

Career counselor John O'Connor, with Career Pro Inc. in Raleigh, says businesses often use applicant-screening software that scans and automatically rejects some resumes.

He tells his clients to use key words and phrases from the job description when filling out the application, so they “will be picked up by the computer.”

When weaving key words and phrases into an application, job-seeker Jill Jordan says she tries to be creative to make it seamless, flawless and very natural.

To make resumes and cover letters easier to read, O’Connor suggests converting Microsoft Word documents into plain text. He also preaches the three P’s – preparation, powerful writing and patience.

Even with the right words and formatting, O’Connor says one thing that hasn’t changed is the power of networking. “An employee referral as you fill out an online application can be one of the keys that gets you noticed,” he said.

Tricks to acing online job applications Tricks to acing online job applications

For job-seeker John Domalavage, he says one plus of applying online is the immediate response. “That's always the bright spot, that you get that email that says ‘We received it.' At least you're that far,” he said.

Three P's of applying for a job

With online application systems, or applicant tracking systems, it seems very mechanical and clinical, according to O'Connor. To gain an edge on other applicants, find out about what the company values in terms of new employees for the specific position that you’re applying for. That means, before you even start adding your resume online, you should find out if you're connected to or can have a conversation with any current or past employee. If you can, find out what they did to get hired. Did they do an online application alone? Did they put an online application in and also add an employee referral? Even a nearly perfect online application may miss the mark if you don't add networking fuel to the fire.

Powerful writing
Don't just add key words or phrases indiscriminately to your online application. Be willing to rewrite both your cover letter and your resume in Microsoft Word before turning it into a scanable document. While writing your resume, add keywords or phrases but support them with specific examples and metrics that backup your persuasive written argument. If you prepared properly, you could pre-write some of the questions that these online applications ask for as you're going through the application.

These applications can be so frustrating that people give up before they certainly complete them properly. You'll need a great deal of patience as you go through online applications and applicant tracking systems. Be aware of quizzes, redundant questions and questions and answers. Don't lose your cool and fly through seemingly small items. Do you know the months and years of your employments? Have you studied up on the latest software that they're looking for? Have you allotted enough time to complete the application? Many online applications can be so cumbersome and frustrating that candidates rush through it and never give it enough time to complete it in the level of detail that will help the computer and ultimately a human being invite you in for the interview.

How to convert a Microsoft Word document into plain text

Save your Microsoft Word resume as plain text

  • Open the Word document that contains your resume.
  • Click the Office button (the logo in the upper left corner of your MS Word window).
  • Click ‘Save As’ and select ‘Other Formats.’
  • At the bottom of the window, type in a new name for this document in the File Name field, such as “V1PlainText.”

  • Under this is the ‘Save As Type’ pull-down menu. Scroll down this list to select “Plain Text (*.txt).”

  • Click Save to perform the conversion.
  • The File Conversion window should appear. Then click OK without changing any of the settings.

After changing your resume to plain text, your resume won’t have any Microsoft Word based formatting. You still need to do a couple more things to clean it up before posting online.

There are no page numbers or lines to delineate pages, so clean up or delete references to pages.
 This includes notes such as “Page 1 of 2,” “Continued” and your name or header on subsequent pages.

Think about using uppercase letters for words that need special emphasis. This helps the “plain text” stand out, but don’t overdo this step. Some guides suggest doing this for words that were bold, underlined or in italics on your hard-copy version.

Replace each bullet point with a standard keyboard symbol. Replacements include dashes (-),
plus signs (+), asterisks (*), double asterisks (**), greater than (>) and dash-greater than (->).


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  • the1993kid Feb 15, 2012

    Thanks WRAL. Really good stuff here. I agree with the three P's but I would say that Powerful Writing should be a category of its own. If you have the experience, this step will set your resume apart. I've read hundreds of resumes and it gets tiring hearing the same phrases over and over. Anyone who can help you set your resume apart from the millions that are out there is well worth it. These guys sound like they know what they're talking about. Thanks again and keep the helpful interviews coming.

  • juliabeth1214 Feb 13, 2012

    What great advice, Thank you WRAL & John! It's nice to hear a professional mention that patience is key; the job search can be so frustrating. Patience is a virtue, after all. Also nice to know about the programs that employers have to kick out or "approve" resumes. This certainly makes it more worth while to take time and patience with the online application process.

  • pwillis Feb 13, 2012

    Two things: Proper coaching gets results and good writing sells. The foundation to a successful career transition is professional writing and career coaching. Moving into a job search without the proper tools, motivation, or training is like trying to build a deck without lumber, hammer, or a blueprint - I guess it is possible but not very smart or effective. WRAL has provided a real value to its audience by interviewing professionals like O'Connor and his experienced team. When they speak of preparation, powerful writing, and patience, they know what they are talking about! Thank you Career Pro for these relevant tips that certainly ca ease the pain of the career search.

  • gcttoo Feb 13, 2012

    Great advice, and very easy to apply! Thanks WRAL. I've worked with John in the past and he's very experienced, professional and knowledgeable.

  • akeisler74 Feb 13, 2012

    Thanks WRAL for consistently seeking out information that job seekers can acutally use! I was navigating the online job application process myself not too long ago and totally agree with everything that Mr. O'Connor stated in the story. The whole process is indeed nerve-wracking. Networking is essential, but a key-worded, well written document is what it takes to get you to the top of the candidate list!

  • 301229 Feb 13, 2012

    Love the instructions for how to convert my resume to plain text -anything that makes process easier is a plus. O'Connor knows what he is talking about and the story is really good because of the specific tips. Thanks WRAL for doing stories that have information people can use!

  • elyuca Feb 10, 2012

    Interesting points. I agree with the interviewee, the better the prep work the better the possibilities to get to the next stage. To be patience in these matters is hard, but it pays off.

  • Uhavenoclu Feb 9, 2012

    Go in person ask to see the manager and hand them a copy of your resume.
    Nothing beats face to face.

  • jillcatherinej Feb 9, 2012

    I get frustrated with these online application processes & it is good to see that others feel the same way. I like the tips. They are great. Bottom line - it's all about the connections.

  • nmyers1229 Feb 9, 2012

    "if the on line application asks for "Age, Gender, weight, height and Race among other things", you can be assured there will be bias somewhere."

    It is illegal to ask personal questions such as age, weight, height, race, marital status, number/ages of children, health status etc. during the hiring process. It should not be on an application and should not be asked during an interview...of course, if you want to volunteer the information, you can, but it cannot be something requested/required by the hiring party.