How to apply for a professional job

Think for a good solid 10 seconds before answering these two questions: “What does the word ‘professional’ mean to you?” and “Do you consider yourself a professional?”   I’ll wait while you think.

If you answered “Yes” to the second question, then please proceed with this blog post. Otherwise, you’re welcome to continue reading, but the following admonishments do not apply to you. So no hard feelings, OK?

First rule of applying for a professional job

You’re either a professional or not. If you are, act and think like one. Your future job is on the line.

Since you consider yourself a professional, I would expect at least some portion of a high school education (or GED). College is great, but I’m talking remedial stuff: Basic spelling and grammar skills.  I would hope these would have entered your realm of knowledge.  Now, I know, I make mistakes and misspell things quite frequently on this blog. I should do better.  You read my blog because you were likely referred to me by someone else. You have a small reason to give me the benefit of the doubt and assume that I’m capable of spelling and grammar, but I was just too lazy or in a fit of writing to stop and take the time to correct.

If I were applying for a job, however, I would not expect you to give me the benefit of the doubt.  You have no reason to trust me or even assume I’m capable of saying my “ABCs,” let alone skillfully accomplishing the professional tasks you set before me as my potential employer.  Thus, the only way people will even consider you for a professional position is if you give them every reason to believe you’re a professional. Spelling and grammar mistakes on your cover letter and/or Resume/CV are simply unacceptable.  Do not make this mistake. If you can’t handle even this simple task, you might as well go home.


  • Have a peer or two review your letters, resume/CV, and any other artifacts you plan on submitting to potential employers. If you have a mother or father or sibling around, have them look at it, too. Sometimes having a non-technical person review things helps a lot as they don’t gloss over things as easily as someone used to seeing all the key words and acronyms.
  • If you refer your potential employer to online materials, make sure those are of the highest quality. 
  • If you refer your potential employer to your blog or other personal/semi-professional works, and you know your they have lower quality than your normal, professional works (as is the case with my blog), point this out to your employer and let them know that what your own intentions and expectations of your blog are.


Second rule of applying for a professional job

Find out as much about the job as you can in a reasonable period of time

For crying out loud, take 2 minutes to look up the company and a little bit about them so you can talk intelligently in your cover letter. Who is the CEO? Who is your primary contact there and what role do they play (supervisor, HR manager, etc)? Sometimes that information isn’t available. Try to pry it out of a recruiter or see if you can find other job posting for the same position on other sites and see if any more info is available there.  Don’t spend 2 weeks researching – that’s just creepy. But don’t spend 0 seconds either. 

If you’re a professional like you say you are, you’re likely going to be at this company for at least a year, hopefully 5 or more.  It behooves you to at least have SOME idea what they do so you don’t get halfway through the hiring process only to find out that they are preparing the Earth for an alien invasion or something.


Third rule of applying for a professional job

Take some time to hand-craft a cover letter specifically for that employer and that position

If you don’t care enough to write up a letter for this position and you’re going to use a form-letter or, worse yet, no letter (or just a simple email), then I don’t care enough to hire you. Sorry, go sell “lazy and uncaring” somewhere else, we’re all stocked up here.

Third Rule Clarified #1:

Spell check. Check your spelling. They actually make computers that can check basic spelling mistakes, you know? Oh yeah, and maybe, just once, read through what you wrote before sending it off.

It takes 1 minute to read back through the letter you just wrote.  Odds are, you’ll find that you sound like an idiot and you’ll revise it. You’ll sound much better the second time. A third time might do good, but after that you’ll start obsessing over every word and syllable. By the time you’re done you’ll probably end up with a Sonnet and your potential employer’s email server will flag it as spam anyhow.  Trust me, spelling and grammar are all that’s necessary. No one will check for your adherence to iambic pentameter (and if they did, you probably wouldn’t want to work there anyhow).

Third Rule Clarified #2:

I have a name. Use it. If you know it, that is. If you don’t know, it use as courteous language as you can.

“Dear Mr. Myers”, “Dear Ms. Smothers”, or even “Dear Sir or Madam” will go far in encouraging your potential employer about your professional abilities.  Professionals respect and address other professionals properly. If you are the professional you claim to be, you should know this. Prove it to them through your writing.

Also, I expect some professional courtesy.  Simply ending your cover letter with “-Bob”  or “-THX1138” is not cool. I’m not your buddy or pal (yet?), so don’t get too familiar with me.  Address me properly. End your letter with two blank lines followed by words like “Sincerely,” or “Cordially,” and so forth.   Likewise, expect to be addressed properly in return. It works both ways. If they do not treat you professionally in return, then you don’t want to work there anyhow.

Third Rule Clarified #3:

Learn how to write a basic business letter. Most popular word processors have built-in templates!

I’m sorry, but if you don’t even know about some of the basic features of Word or (your favorite word processor), then you’re probably not going to be able to deal with the complexities of SQL Server or the .NET Framework either.


Your letter should look something like the image to the right.  Tell me who you are, where you’re from, and what day you wrote this letter.  Tell me who you think you’re writing it to.   Tell me you’re talking to me (Dear so and so). Tell me what you want to say. Summarize what you just told me. Tell me your feelings in this letter (sincerely, cordially, hostile, livid, etc), and then sign your name or print it again electronically.  Finally, if you have any attachments or anything else I should be aware of (resumes, list of references, associated review materials, etc) let me know that they are included or enclosed.

For a cover letter, I’d limit it to maybe two or three paragraphs followed by a small summary paragraph.  In these two to three paragraphs, tell me what position you’re applying for, why you want it, and finally why you think you can do it better than anyone else.  Let’s be honest with ourselves, if you can’t do that, do you really want or deserve this job in the first place?


Fourth rule of applying for a professional job

Prepare a resume/CV specifically for that job

This rule might also adequately be stated “Don’t waste the hiring manager’s time.”  The manager to whom you’re submitting your application has taken the time to list out the things they’re interested in when looking at a candidate. They’ve given you a huge advantage in the hiring process in that you now know what they’re thinking and what they’re looking for. Seize this advantage and tailor your resume to accentuate your skills and experience in those areas where they have indicated interest. Put those skills first, discuss how your experience with those skills is important, list related work experience.  When I review a resume, I’m not looking for continuity of work, I’m looking for related work experience. I find myself asking the resume questions such as “Have you worked with skill XYZ in the past 2 years?” or “How much experience do you have with skill ABC?”  Later in the hiring process, I may inquire with a candidate about work continuity (to make sure there wasn’t a 3 year stint in federal prison, for example).

The Big List o’ Skills

Also, I’d like to discuss the “big list o’ skills” block anti-pattern at the top of every technical resume. Please don’t list me 50 skills because after 10 I’m likely to think you’re lying or that you don’t take these skills seriously.  Show me a few skills that you are *REALLY* proficient at.  Do you have some skills at which you consider yourself an “expert” (better than almost everyone else at it)? Show me those. After that, maybe show me a few other skills you have knowledge of but don’t consider yourself an expert. Then stop.  Don’t show me a list of things you’ve seen sitting on the shelf before or maybe typed a few keystrokes into.  Also, don’t show me your DEC VAX/VMS experience from 1993 or your Lotus 1-2-3 scripting skills from 1992.  I don’t care about these and, likely, neither does anyone else.

Work experience

When listing your work experience, keep it short, concise, and to the point.  Tell me what your role was (not just your job title, tell me what your responsibility was), how you met or exceeded the expectations of that role, and how you grew as a result. I don’t want your life story, give it to me quick and neat.  Next, give me a few bullet points about how you accomplished that. Keep it short! Really, I’m serious. I don’t want your life story, I just want to know how you approached your role and how you knocked problems out of the park.  Finally, if there was anything particularly interesting about that job, your role in that job, or some special accomplishment, let me know. It better be interesting and really special or don’t bother mentioning. “Leveraged strategic partnerships to forge a more cohesive success strategy” won’t do.  “Doubled efficiency allowing field agents to process twice as many requests in the same time resulting in a four-fold increase in revenue” will do, however. Oh yeah, things like “426 children now have full smiles” or “More than 7,000 puppies were rescued thanks to the technology we developed” will do wonders.  Not all of our work has that kind of social impact. If yours doesn’t, then don’t mention banal details. Tell me about how you *really* changed something (revenue and profits, improved people’s lives, helped the planet, etc).  If you can’t, that’s OK, but don’t waste my time with boring stuff.

Next you’ll have to deal with the question about how many pages your resume should be.  My current thinking goes like this:  If you’ve hand-crafted a resume specifically for this job, it’s hard to imagine how you could go over 1 page.  Two pages is probably OK, 3 or more is definitely too many.  Odds are, your work experience isn’t that interesting that you’d need 3 pages to describe it.  If it is, then you’re probably applying for the wrong job and you belong negotiating Israeli/Palestinian Peace or solving world hunger or something.  More than likely you’re tempted to write a small novel about each job you were at. Resist this temptation. It sounds harsh, but really few people care about your specific experiences at your former jobs. After they hire you and get to know you, they will hear all your war stories. The resume is not the place for telling your life story.  Give it to me short, sweet, and relevant. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about you, but I’m trying to find a new hire now, not a friend. We can become friends later in the process.

Proofing – you are a “professional”, right?

Make sure that you’ve read and re-read your resume. Spell check it and grammar check it. Three times.  Then, have someone outside of your expertise area read your resume (your mother, father, friend, niece, anyone).  You should have a colleague read it, but keep in mind that they will likely miss the same things you did because they are like-minded. Having someone outside your normal sphere of thought will help you to catch things that your particular perspectives blind you from seeing.  Let me summarize this paragraph: If your resume gets to me with a spelling or grammar mistake, that’s *almost* grounds for immediate disqualification.  This is especially true if you’re applying for a detail-oriented position like programmer or tester.  If you’re applying for a tester position and you can’t even find spelling mistakes in your own resume, there’s no way I’m going to trust you to ensure that the software I write leaves my office defect-free.

Submitting your resume

Finally, when submitting the resume, use the Word document format or RTF.  PDF is OK.  TXT is so-so, but acceptable. If text, please make sure it’s formatted to be easily printable on a standard A4 or 8.5×11 sheet of paper. That means something like 74 columns and 100-ish rows (I’m not sure on those sizes, please look it up for yourself).  It can also be acceptable to send a link to an online resume. If you go the link route, it better be impressive and justify the fact that you didn’t send me an attachment.  Let me put it this way: You have inconvenienced me by requiring me to click a link and open my browser to view your resume. It better be worth my extra time.  Whatever you do, do NOT send me a link to a Word doc or PDF that I have to download to view. Attach it or host it online. Anything else is bad form.  Oh yeah, one more thing on this: If you’re going to attach the resume, make sure you actually attach it!  I can’t tell you how many applications I get with no file attached!  If you instantly correct it, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, but if you don’t realize you screwed up, that’s instant grounds for my surreptitiously dismissing your application. C’mon, if you can’t even figure out email, how are you going to develop or test complex systems for me?

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About Chad Myers

Chad Myers is the Director of Development for Dovetail Software, in Austin, TX, where he leads a premiere software team building complex enterprise software products. Chad is a .NET software developer specializing in enterprise software designs and architectures. He has over 12 years of software development experience and a proven track record of Agile, test-driven project leadership using both Microsoft and open source tools. He is a community leader who speaks at the Austin .NET User's Group, the ADNUG Code Camp, and participates in various development communities and open source projects.
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  • Giusi Crescimanno

    I’d even go further and list some more nitpicky stuff like font-sizing, length of your dossier, exagerated image in(oc-)clusion, logo spamming etc, but you’re already making some really good points. The article is a good starting point to everyone who missed these basic lessons at school.

  • Arielr