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Joel on Software

Getting Your Résumé Read

by Joel Spolsky
Monday, January 26, 2004

I've been going through a big pile of applications for the summer internship positions at Fog Creek Software, and, I don't know how to say this, some of them are really, really bad. This is not to say that the applicants are stupid or unqualified, although they might be. I'm never going to find out, because when I have lots of excellent applications for only two open positions, there's really no need to waste time interviewing people that can't be bothered to spell the name of my company right.

So here are a few hints to review, if you're sending out résumés.

  • A résumé is a way to get to the next stage: the interview. Companies often get dozens of résumés for every opening ... we get between 100 and 200 per opening. There is no possible way we can interview that many people. The only hope is if we can screen people out using résumés. Don't think of a résumé as a way to get a job: think of it as a way to give some hiring manager an excuse to hit DELETE. At least technically, your résumé has to be perfect to survive.
  • If you don't have the right qualifications, don't apply for the job. When the job listing says "summer intern," don't ask for a full time job. You're not going to get it and you're just going to waste your time. (It won't count against you in the future, of course, because your original application was deleted so quickly I'll have no memory of you when we do get a full time opening and you apply for it.)
  • OK, this one really bugs me. Learn where spaces go in relation to other punctuation. Whenever you have a comma, there is always exactly one space and it's always after the comma and never before it. Thank you.
  • In the olden days résumés were sent out in the mail and included a cover sheet on top which explained why the résumé was being sent. Now that we use email, there is no reason whatsoever to send the cover letter as an attachment and then write a "cover cover" letter in the body of the email. It's just senseless.
  • Even stupider is submitting two big Word documents with no body text in the email. This just gets you spam filtered. I don't even SEE these.
  • Please do not use cover letters that you copied out of a book. If you write "I understand the position also requires a candidate who is team- and detail-oriented, works well under pressure, and is able to deal with people in departments throughout the firm" then at best people will think you're a bullshit artist and at worst they will think that you were not born with the part of the brain that allows you to form your own thoughts and ideas.
  • The personal pronoun "I" is always capitalized. All sentences must end in a period. If your cover letter looks like this I will not even look at your résumé:

i m interested in your summer job.
here is my resume
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Do you Yahoo!?
Yahoo! SiteBuilder - Free web site building tool. Try it!

  • And while I'm on it, anonymous email accounts and AOL accounts just don't send a good message. They won't exactly disqualify you since so many people use them, but crazydood2004 at hotmail.com does not really impress me as much as name at alumni.something.edu. Do you really need to know if I Yahoo!? Do you really want to advertise Yahoo! SiteBuilder, a competitor to one of Fog Creek's products, when you're actually applying for a job at Fog Creek?
  • In most of the English speaking world it is not considered polite to open letters to a Mr. Joel Spolsky by writing "Dear Spolsky." One might write "Dear Mr. Spolsky," or "Dear sir," or perhaps, "Hi Joel!" But "Dear Spolsky" is usually followed by some story about embezzled funds and needing to borrow my bank account.
  • Don't tell me about one of the requirements of the position and then tell me that you don't want to follow it. "One of the requirements for Summer Internship says that you need to interview in person in New York City. I am interested in the position but I stay in East Nowhere, TN." OK, that's nice, hon, you stay there. Another PS, I thought we said in the requirements "Excellent command of written and spoken English." Oh, yes, indeed, that was our first requirement. So at least do yourself a favor and get someone to check your cover letter for obvious mistakes. Like I said, don't give me an excuse to throw your résumé in the trash.

I don't know why I need to spell these out because they're probably listed in every single "how to send out résumés" book on the planet, right there in chapter 1, but I still get more résumés that show an appalling lack of concern for what it takes to get an interview.

Let me try not to be so negative and provide some constructive advice.

  • Proofread everything a hundred times and have one other person proofread it. Someone who got really good grades in English.
  • Write a personal cover letter that is customized for the job you are applying for. Try to sound like a human in the cover letter. You want people to think of you as a human being.
  • Study the directions that are given for how to apply. They are there for a reason. For example our website instructs you to send a résumé to jobs@fogcreek.com. This goes into an email folder which we go through to find good candidates. If you think for some reason that your résumé will get more attention if you print it out and send it through the mail, that you'll "stand out" somehow, disabuse yourself of that notion. Paper résumés can't get into the email folder we're using to keep track of applicants unless we scan them in, and, you know what? The scanner is right next to the shredder in my office and the shredder is easier to use.
  • Don't apply for too many jobs. I don't think there's ever a reason to apply for more than three or four jobs at a time. Résuméspam, or any sign that you're applying for 100 jobs, just makes you look desperate which makes you look unqualified. You want to look like you are good enough to be in heavy demand. You're going to decide where you want to work, because you're smart enough to have a choice in the matter, so you only need to apply for one or two jobs. A personalized cover letter that shows that you understand what the company does goes a long way to proving that you care enough to deserve a chance.

Some of this stuff may sound pretty superficial. Indeed, what we're really looking for when we look at résumés is someone who is passionate and successful at whatever they try to do. We like people who are passionate about software. Writing a shareware app when you're a teenager is just as good a qualification to us as getting into MIT. This is your life story, and by the time you're applying for a job it's probably too late to change that.

Would I reject someone just because they don't quite understand the relationship between the comma and the space? Well, not necessarily. But when I have to find two summer interns out of 300 applicants, here's what I do with the résumés: I make three piles: Good, OK, and Bad. I give the same résumés to Michael and he does the same thing. There are always enough people that we both put in the Good pile that those are really the only people that stand a chance. In principle if we can't find enough people we like that we both rated as "good" we would consider some people who got Good/OK, but in practice this has never happened. Much as I'd love to be able to consider everyone on their merits instead of on superficial résumé stuff, it's just not realistic, and there's just no reason a college graduate can't get this right.

(Added 1/27/2004)

The number one best way to get someone to look at your resume closely: come across as a human being, not a list of jobs and programming languages. Tell me a little story. "I've spent the last three weeks looking for a job at a real software company, but all I can find are cheezy web design shops looking for slave labor." Or, "We yanked our son out of high school and brought him to Virginia. I am not going to move again until he is out of high school, even if I have to go work at Radio Shack or become a Wal*Mart greeter." (These are slightly modified quotes from two real people.)

These are both great. You know why? Because I can't read them without thinking of these people as human beings. And now the dynamic has changed. I like you. I care about you. I like the fact that you want to work in a real software company. I wanted to work in a real software company so much I started one. I like the fact that you care more about your teenage son than your career.

I just can't care about "C/C++/Perl/ASP" in the same way.

So, maybe you won't be qualified for the job, but it's just a lot harder for me to dismiss you out of hand.


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About the author.

I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Fog Creek Software, a New York company that proves that you can treat programmers well and still be highly profitable. Programmers get private offices, free lunch, and work 40 hours a week. Customers only pay for software if they’re delighted. We make Trello, which lets you organize anything, together, FogBugz, enlightened issue tracking software for bug tracking, and Kiln, which provides distributed version control and code reviews. I’m also the co-founder and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.

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