Applying for a job? Here’s what people often get wrong

It’s 2 years since I got my job at Automattic and now I’m part of Automattic’s VIP hiring team. And performing this hiring role has been genuinely interesting and, yes, eye-opening.

In this post, I want to give you an idea of what I look for in an application and some of the less obvious things that people often miss.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to first mention that these are personal points of view and do not necessarily reflect points of policy at Automattic.

The Basics

There are two parts to any application submission – your cover letter and resume (CV). Both of these are important.

A resume is a document used by a person to present their backgrounds and skills.


Bearing this in mind, your cover letter is your opportunity to put over anything specific to an application and, more importantly, show more more personality. Where the resume is a pretty dry list of what you’ve done and what you know, that cover letter allows you to present a less formal version of yourself.

If you were going to apply for a job at Automattic, probably the most important thing you can do is the cover letter.

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic Inc.

Fun but not zany

Putting over a sense of fun and personality is a great positive in an application. But many people push this too far – fun becomes “zany” and that can be deeply off-putting

If your cover letter probably says “I bet you’ve never seen this done before in a cover letter”, chances are that there’s a good reason why.

Follow the instructions

Companies, and Automattic is certainly not an exception, may ask you to submit your information in a specific way, maybe even asking you to answer specific questions as part of your cover letter. Really pay attention to this – getting this wrong may see your application rejected straight away.

In fact, it may cause your application to never be received. Can you imagine how many applications a business gets? And if they’re all sent to the same email address than there’s a chance there will be automated filters in place. Automattic has this and so getting your subject line correct is critical – get it right and your applications lands in the right place. Get it wrong and, well, there’s good odds that nobody will ever look at it.

Write right

Double check your cover letter and resume for any typos – spelling, punctuation and grammar. Then double check it again. There is NO excuse for typos in anything as important as a job application.

Think of what will be expected in the role and consider therefore what we will be looking for to ensure you can fulfil this. For a VIP Support Engineer, you’d be expected to communicate clearly with clients with high-expectations – written mistakes look very unprofessional and do get noticed by our clients.

Don’t skimp on your resume

I was always told that short resumes are the way to go, and many I receive are just a single page. However, many of those lack vital information as a result. In comparison, I’ve never rejected an application because the resume was too long.

Don’t rely on a cover letter to convey your experience and skills. I’ve seen many a resume that was lacking essential detail but it was in the cover letter. That’s not the place for it. I’ve genuinely lost count of the number of times a cover letter includes something important that the applicant has done but it’s not mentioned in their resume – if it is that important, why isn’t it? It can look suspicious too, as if you’re adding this just for the purposes of this role.

In your resume, make sure you list your employment history and include your role, the company, what skills were involved (soft and hard skills), along with an explanation of what the role actually involved. I’d also highly recommend putting a table in your resume just listing your skills.

Again, you need to put yourself in our shoes. What are we looking for? So, for the VIP Support Engineer role, it tells you that on the career page. And amongst the list, it has some technical requirements…

  • A deep knowledge of WordPress and some of its plugins, themes, and WP-CLI.
  • A strong understanding of the Web; including familiarity with PHP, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, REST APIs, HTTP, DNS, and SVN or Git.

So, when we turn to your resume, we’re going to be looking for those. Yet, many applications will have, say, JavaScript skills but it’s not explicitly mentioned in their resume (I only know because they’ve listed it on LinkedIn – this isn’t going to be the first time I say this but, if it’s listed on LinkedIn, why’s it not in your resume?)

Also, consider the level of skills you have. You could say you’ve “developed with WordPress” but what does that mean? At what level? We mention we’re looking for a knowledge of plugins, themes and WP-CLI, so make sure that is mentioned. “I know WordPress” is too woolly and tells us little.  Equally, “I’ve worked on public plugins” is great but point us to them – indeed, tell us of any work in the WordPress community that you do.

Some people will list a level of knowledge against each of their skills, indicating whether they’re a beginner, experienced or a master (for example) of each. This is really helpful.

But I’m not advocating having a resume specific for the role you’re applying for – a good, detailed and well-rounded resume should be suitable for anything.

Using the right format

Should you attach a resume or direct them to an online CV? Again, we go back to checking the wording around any application. For the VIP EHE role, we state…

and attach a résumé

That’s pretty specific to what we need. Why do we specify it a certain way? Because the software we use to manage hiring extracts attached files from emails, identifying any that is a resume and attaches it to the resulting information. So, an attached resume is preferable.

If an online one is provided, I’ll still process it but it’s a cross against “following instructions”. It certainly won’t end your application, though.

The other thing to consider, when attaching documents, is what format to use. PDF is the usual way, as it’s pretty universally accepted. At Automattic we use Apple hardware and, being fully remote, we use Google Docs and other online sharing tools. So, sending me a resume in .docx is going to be tricky – importing it into Pages is the usual method and that may mess up your finely crafted formatting.

Oh, and if using PDF, please don’t send a PDF of an image of your resume (it happens), as searchability of the text within the document is important.

Don’t offer things up in the application

“I have a vast portfolio of work, which I can provide if you let me know”.

Why have you not included it already? More mysteriously, I’ve been offered additional information if they get through to a later stage of the interview. Let’s just say, that doesn’t help you.

The stuff we don’t think about

How did you find out about the vacancy?

This isn’t going to influence your application but it helps the hiring company enormously and for that you get a mental extra tick. We advertise in a myriad different ways and we need to know what’s working and what’s not – not just the quantity of applications but the quality.

Tell us where you live

As a remote company, people can work anywhere but we try and ensure we have appropriate coverage across the timezones – this can mean recruiting more heavily for certain ones. If you’re in the US then a state is useful to determine East/West coast, etc. Of course, if you’re in a country small enough that it’s a single timezone, then that is all we need.

Now, this is going to be a pretty specific request for remote working companies, but I’ve often resorted to finding this out from the applicants LinkedIn – at the end of the day, if you’re showing information on LinkedIn and it’s not on your resume, why not?

Be wary of avatars

When hiring, we don’t go looking for them but the tools we use will often use your email address to pull in detail – and that includes avatars. So, there’s no point having a professional headshot on your resume or LinkedIn if this is undone by an unprofessional avatar that then appears in our hiring tool.

If your resume includes social media links, make sure any avatars associated with them are appropriate for how you wish to present yourself. This includes any avatar for your email account (your Google avatar if you’re using Gmail, for example) and, the Automattic owned, Gravatar service.

Put your employment in order

On a number of occasions I’ve been caught out by people putting their employment history in their resume in reverse order – i.e. their most current at the bottom. Your recent employment *is* the most relevant, so should come first.

Make sure everybody will know what you’re talking about

I had a resume where they’d stated that they had experience of a particular computer system – but it was one that was specific (and only known) to the company she had worked for. To anybody looking at this, it meant nothing. In this case, the applicant was lucky – the company just happened to be my previous employer so I knew what they meant. But that was just sheer good luck.

So avoid acronyms/initialisms or jargon that may not be inclusive.

3 responses

  1. Ashish Anant avatar
    Ashish Anant

    Thank you for this post. Just wanted to check if PDF/attachment resume is preferred or a web page as resume will be fine?

    Once again, thanks for the insightful post!

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever rejected someone as a result of the format of their resume, but always be wary of any specific requests made by the company that you’re applying to. For example, on the VIP site, it says…

      and attach a résumé

      “Attach” would suggest a specific course of action. There are more facets to this so I may add a new section to the original article.

      1. Ashish Anant avatar
        Ashish Anant

        This helps, thank you!

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