Don”t let the job application screen you out

By Terry Pile

  • Monday, November 24, 2008 8:03pm
  • Business

By Terry Pile

On Careers

The job application is an important marketing tool for selling your benefits, and just like a resume or cover letter, it requires some forethought and savvy.

Unfortunately, many job seekers give little thought to the content they provide and unwittingly knock themselves out of the running. It helps to know what employers are looking for on an application, how it is being used and how much information you legally have to provide.

Sally Sullivan, executive vice president of human resources at the Puget Sound Blood Center, suggests: “The employment application serves several functions in addition to describing your qualifications. It provides the employer with details that are not typically on a resumé such as salary information. It is a convenient way to gather names and phone numbers from prior jobs to check references. The application also serves as an important legal document. When signing the application, the candidate verifies the information is true and accurate.”

The following tips are designed to keep your application a contender in the employment race.


The job application is the employer’s first impression of you. Coffee stains, crossed out words and poor spelling are a real turn-off.

John Barich, owner of Sahara Pizza, said, “When I am looking at applications, I pay attention to neatness and accuracy. Have they followed directions? Did they fill in all the blanks? If the applicant has paid attention to these details, it gives me an idea of the type of employee he or she will be on the job.”

It is a good idea to ask for two applications or make a copy of the original. Use one as your rough draft and to save in your files so you can remember how you responded. If you are filling out an application at the job site, be sure to bring correction fluid or a pen with blue or black erasable ink and a pocket dictionary. Keep significant dates, addresses and phone numbers on index cards or a master application. Neither your resume nor your memory will have all the information a job application requires.


Just like a resumé, the job application must speak to the job. When the application asks for the name of the position you are applying for, “any” is not a response that will get you very far. If there are multiple jobs for which you are interested, fill out an application for each. Focus only on the skills that qualify you for that particular job.

Job applicants get frustrated when asked to summarize years of work experience on three lines. Don’t get lazy and write “see resumé attached” in the space requesting experience. It is more effective to selectively list the skills from each work experience that are relevant to the job for which you are applying. For example, an employer who is hiring a bookkeeper doesn’t need to know that you taught students to read in a previous teaching position, but they would like to know you taught math, an indication you are good with numbers.

Illegal questions

The laws have changed regarding the type of information employers can and can’t ask. Illegal questions still appear on applications by employers who are uninformed or haven’t updated their forms. It is important that job seekers know what information need not be revealed.

With the exception of jobs that have age requirements, birth and graduation dates are no longer required on applications, to prevent age discrimination.

If you are uncomfortable leaving blanks, put the month and day of your birth and “yes” or “graduated” in the space for the date of graduation. An employer may ask for ethnicity or veteran status, but it is not mandatory to supply this information. Again, there are exceptions such as certain government posts.

An employer may ask for your social security number in order to conduct “background checks.”

Sullivan’s suggestion: “If you are uncomfortable giving your social security number, leave the section blank or put a line through it. Many employers are fine with that and won’t require it unless you are a finalist for the position.”

Money Matters

Employers often ask for your salary at your last job. This question can be a stumbling block, especially if you made a lot more or a lot less than the job you are applying for is offering. The employer may infer you are too expensive or too inexperienced and automatically rule you out.

Linda Jack, human resources manager at Biotrace International, suggests a safe response such as, “received market rate.” If the employer asks you what your desired salary is for the open position, it is appropriate to respond with “negotiable” or “flexible.”

Finally, re-read your application carefully to make sure you have filled everything out accurately. Proofread for spelling and grammatical errors. Be sure to sign and date it. Don’t give the employer any excuses to screen you out for a job for which you are qualified.

Terry Pile is president of Career Advisors providing career counseling, career development and outplacement services to individuals and small businesses. She specializes in helping people find satisfying employment. She can be contacted at

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