Applying to Jobs and Not Hearing Back? Here's the Hard Truth
It’s getting ‘ghosted.’ It’s screaming into the void. It’s throwing your carefully tailored resume into a corporate black hole.
We’ve all suffered the cold-iron frustration of filling out a bunch of job applications and never hearing anything about any of them.
Most academic employers at least provide the common courtesy of a rejection email—even if it doesn’t arrive until 6 months later.
But in the business world, applying to jobs and not hearing back is routine.
Why does it keep happening? Why do you keep not hearing back from jobs?
More importantly, what can you do about it?
The first few points of this article will explore applicant tracking systems and how they can intercept your application before a hiring manager ever sees it.
Then we’ll discuss how to optimize your resume, stand out from the crowd, and—God willing—have your application viewed by a living human being.
1. Applicant Tracking Systems
The reason you keep applying to jobs and not hearing back can be summed up in three words, best read over the background sound of ominous thunder clatter and a witch’s cackle: applicant tracking system.
An applicant tracking system or ATS is a piece of software that employers use to track, organize, and search through applications they receive.
Most job postings at major corporations get hundreds or even thousands of applications. At this scale, hiring managers can’t possibly read through each one.
The ATS lets employers manage this high volume of applications.
Most importantly for our purposes, an ATS allows employers to filter results and search applications based on specific keywords.
So, if you’re wondering why so often you never hear back from job applications, there’s a good chance your file was lost in a digital ocean of resumes and cover letters, never to be seen again.
Whenever people talk about ‘getting their foot in the door’ with a business or organization, this is usually what they mean: successfully navigating the ATS and having their resume viewed by an actual hiring manager.
2. Knockout Questions
‘Knockout questions’ are commonly used by most ATSs during the application process. They are exactly what they sound like: questions designed to ‘knock out’ unqualified applications and winnow the field of candidates.
Usually, knockout questions take the form of several yes/no checkboxes along with one or two short answers. On a typical job application page, you’ll fill them out after uploading your resume and before clicking the SUBMIT button.
Answering knockout questions can feel like treading through a minefield. One false step and BOOM! Your application is flagged and auto-rejected by the ATS.
Our advice? Approach these questions with the mindset of a lawyer.
This means two things:
First, you have a lot of leeway in how you describe your years of experience. If one question asks: “how many years of experience do you have working with databases?” you absolutely should count your graduate-school research days.
Were those databases the ones the company uses? Was the research relevant to this job? Doesn’t matter! Count that experience and be ready to discuss it should you land an interview.
However, don’t give any answers that can demonstrably be proven false. If you don’t have any experience with Python, or if you’re not legally authorized to work in the U.S., it won’t do any good to pretend otherwise.
If knockout questions immediately disqualify you, you’re probably looking at the wrong jobs.
Use these questions to identify jobs you’re a good fit for and think creatively about how you can honestly (with a bit of truth-stretching) answer all of them.
3. Are You Applying to Jobs and Not Hearing Back? Optimize Your Resume
A resume is very different from an academic CV. If you’re not clear on how, read this article and come back.
Okay, do you have a professional-looking, well-formatted resume? Great! Let’s discuss how to optimize it for specific jobs.
The thing to remember is that an ATS (like any search engine) doesn’t read a document the way a human would. Instead, it scans for keywords and phrases.
If you keep applying for jobs and getting no response, you may not be using the right keywords.
To optimize your resume and slip past the ATS, stick close to the language of the job ad.
This is where academic research expertise can really come in handy. Study the job ad, isolate keywords, and add them to your resume (and cover letter, if applicable).
If the job specifically requires “instructional design” skills, make sure that exact phrase appears in your resume.
Ideally, you’d have a resume just for that job. On a large scale, this sort of obsessive tailoring isn’t feasible. But for specific jobs that you’re serious about, a few choice keywords can make a big difference.
Following basic formatting guidelines is crucial for satisfying the ATS. All your section headings should be simple and standardized: work experience, education, contact information, skills, etc.
Don’t get creative. The ATS is a machine; it doesn’t understand creativity.
Ditch any graphic details or fancy language. Keep your resume simple, almost robotic.
This isn’t just for an ATS, by the way. Hiring managers appreciate a simple and direct resume that gets right to the point.
Do this, and you’ll substantially boost your chances of hearing back.
4. Are You Applying to Jobs and Not Hearing Back? Get a Referral
A referral is like a job application cheat code. It lets your application skip past the ATS and vastly increases the chances of being viewed by a real person.
First, did you know that a ‘referral’ is more than just a friend telling you about a job and suggesting that you apply?
No! You need a referral link. It’s a secret backdoor entry to a job post that’ll flag your application so that a hiring manager sees it.
Another common method of referral is for your referring friend/contact to forward your resume. They might upload it to a special section of the ATS or email it directly to their boss.
Point is, just knowing someone isn’t a referral. There’s usually a formal process. You need to find someone willing to do it for you.
To be clear, a referral by no means makes you a shoo-in for the job. But as with optimizing your resume, it’ll help you get noticed and get a reply.
Applying to jobs and not hearing back, over and over again, is not fun. Trust us, we know.
Our best advice here is as old as time: never give up. Keep applying, keep getting ghosted, keep refining your resume, and keep networking.
Be persistent, follow these tips, and someday you too can feel the warm embrace of a living, breathing human rejecting your application!
Or, you know, actually landing a job. That’s good too.
Need some advice networking and snagging that oh-so-precious referral? Check out this post on leveraging social media in your job search.
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