The quickest rejection in my life came on a warm spring day sometime in the early 1980s at an Ivy League baseball game at Princeton University’s Clarke Field. I was visiting with Larry Arendas, father of an outstanding Princeton player named Dan Arendas, an outfielder who had attracted the attention of major league scouts.
“Here’s one of them now,” said Arendas, as he greeted a man who came up to chat about his son. They talked for a while as I looked on. Then — probably with visions of a George Plimpton-esque first person article dancing in my head — I broke into the conversation: “I’m curious,” I told the scout. “What would I have to do to get a tryout in organized baseball?”
The scout, who had not even acknowledged my presence until then, shot one look at me, and — in less time than it takes a major league hitter to decide whether or not to swing at a fastball — blurted out his answer: “You’re no athlete. Why in the world would you ever want to go to a tryout?”
The scout was right, of course, but how could he tell so quickly? I could have passed for 21 at the time, and I had covered enough professional baseball to know that — at 5-feet 11, 160 pounds — I would not be the smallest man in the clubhouse. More importantly, I later thought, among all the aspiring baseball players who really are athletes, how could he tell which one might be a major league prospect, and which ones weren’t.
That was a story I never got around to doing, but in the past few weeks I have been a little like the baseball scout. Poring over more than 60 resumes submitted in response to call for an editor and reporter to work for our sister publication, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, I have set aside about a dozen that deserve further consideration, including interviews and possibly even, yes, tryouts.
But in a large number of cases I was able to conclude rather quickly (not as quickly as the scout, unfortunately) that the applicants were not a match for the position. So what makes an employer cross someone off their list, strictly on the basis of one or two sheets of paper? Here are a few things that influenced my thinking.
Experience. You can’t have too much of it (that’s not exactly, true, however, as we shall see in the next item), and employers are going to look for someone with experience that matches the job opening. Applicants could help themselves by editing irrelevant work experience out of their resume, and expounding on things they have done that relate to the employer’s needs.
Forget the summer job as the lifeguard, taken after you failed to land a “real” job. Use the resume to tell more about unpaid or academic activities that relate to the job opening.
Too much experience. If you own a newspaper and you are stuck with the gritty details of assigning stories, editing submissions, and copy fitting articles in desktop publishing, you want someone who will be excited to do those things for you. Someone who has been doing them for 20 or 30 years, despite what they say, is not as likely to be as excited about doing it for you. And sooner or later they are going to want your job.
My advice to such highly qualified applicants: Build a different kind of relationship with the employer, perhaps as a freelance writer or editor or organizer of special projects, and let the employer get to know you before pushing for the job.
Information age literacy. In our business, and I suspect most businesses these days, it’s no longer good enough to say “computer literate” on the resume. People need to be specific about exactly what software they use and how proficient they are. And, of course, when you send a resume via E-mail, make sure that it can be opened by a reasonably computer-literate person.
Cheerfulness. I suspect some job applicants agonize about how personal or how informal they should make their resume. I can say that, after opening 60 some resumes and application letters, I began to appreciate some occasional light moments.
I would suggest keeping the fun stuff in the cover letter and sticking to the facts in the resume. But don’t go overboard: Employers know potential employees are never going to look better than they do on that resume and cover letter. If you’re a joker in the cover letter, one can assume, it’s a trait that’s likely to be more pronounced after a few weeks or months on the job. How much can the organization stand?
Even-handedness. In our business deadlines come and go, and we hurry up most of the time and wait a little bit of the time. How someone handles delays, including delays related to a resume and job application, are telling. If someone can’t take “later” for an answer now, how will they take it later.
As that baseball scout at Clarke Field might have told us, patience is a virtue for batters in baseball. And it’s certainly a trait to be admired in our business, as well. The good news is that, in our business, careers last a lot longer than in baseball.