Answering the Question: How to Make Sure Your Job Application Doesn’t Get Tossed

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Many job applications require that you answer an extensive set of essay questions, even before you get an interview. These questions might transport you back to the days of college essay applications – days you may have thought were safely behind you.

Are you faced with a list of questions to answer on a job application? Read the following carefully: The absolute most important thing you can do – in fact you MUST do – on that application is to answer the questions. When I say “answer the questions” I don’t mean write something in the box provided. I mean answer the questions.


Seems simple enough, right? But many of the job applications I review make a cardinal error. Sure, there’s an answer in the box provided, but it’s an answer to some other question than the one the company has asked.

For instance, one company asked the candidate to speak of a measure an employer had set and to report how he had compared to that measure. The candidate wrote about the measure and then reported how he had measured up to other people in the company instead of to the standard itself. Red flag goes up – it sounds like this candidate is hiding something. And he was. I coached him to tell the truth, and we found a way to state it so that it still sounded impressive!

I once gave a talk to a group of students applying to law school. I asked them, “If a school requested a 500-word essay, would you submit a 511-word essay?” One of the potential law school applicants said that he would have no problem doing so. Guess what? The admissions committee would be justified in choosing not to read a single one of those 511 words. If you were an admissions officer, would you want someone in your law school who could not follow instructions?

Another common tendency is to provide more information than the company has requested. This tendency can get you into trouble. For instance, a newspaper asked how the candidate had become interested in the field of journalism. The candidate wrote almost an entire paragraph about why she did not want to be a lawyer even though she had attended law school. Somehow she read into the question something that simply was not there. I made sure she wrote a great story about her path to journalism, instead of an apology about why she did not do something else.

It’s more difficult than you might think to answer questions and to answer them accurately and well. If you are working on a set of essay questions for a job or college application, get a second pair of eyes to make sure your answers have addressed the questions asked – no more and no less.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot! If you truly answer the questions, you will have a shot of getting an interview – where you will get to answer yet more questions, and maybe have a chance to elaborate on the things you were so smart to leave out of your essays.

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One Response to “Answering the Question: How to Make Sure Your Job Application Doesn’t Get Tossed”

  1. Dan LaCloche says:

    Interesting article. I think, sometimes, people are afraid to answer the questions that are put to them. Or they try to out-think the person asking them.

    Like, should I answer truthfully, or should I answer how I think they want me to answer.

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