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Why employers are laughing at your resume

Why employers are laughing at your resume Sean X

Your resume sucks, and people laugh at you when they look at it. They hold it up in the office, read your feeble accomplishments out loud, and send them as jokes to each other when they feel sad and need a good laugh. Some of them even know you would be the perfect candidate for the job, but they openly mock your unemployment.

That is what many think must be happening when they submit a resume for a job online. There has to be some reason why people are not calling back...doesn't there? And yet, like an ever-replicating zombie-clone beating its head against a wall trying to get through, you continue to submit that resume again, and again, and again, with no response. Not even an email acknowledgment that you exist other than as an "applicant" who they will get back to "if there is a good fit." And yet, even though you know you are a good fit for the role (and many others you have applied to), there is no reply. Only the deafening silence of non-response.

Why employers are laughing at your resume

Could it possibly be your resume? One word answer: "Yes, it most absolutely, positively, without question, is your resume, you moronic clod." OK, that's 13 words.

Why don't they like me?

"It's a numbers game," you tell yourself, so you find every possible job that could potentially be a fit, and you apply. You barely fill out anything in the cover letter of the application, and you do not modify your resume at all. You just apply. And strangely, miraculously, nothing happens.

If I was "hungry" [a company] and I kept asking for a "hamburger" [the new hire] and I kept getting offers for "sushi" [your application], would it be surprising if I ignored those offers? Of course not. I know, you want to "feel productive" and you cannot possibly craft your resume for every job application. And that right there, in that last sentence, is where you fail. For that belief is a fallacy. It takes very little effort, if you have it set up right, to quickly customize your resume and cover letter.

What you do instead is submit a ton of generic resumes, hear nothing, and slowly spiral down into the oblivion of "nobody wants me." It slowly chips away at your confidence and self-esteem, and you become a shell of your former self. So much so that when someone finally does call for an interview, like being desperate on a date, you implode spectacularly.

What you are experiencing is the illusion of feeling productive, and you have to get off that toxic ride. It is not healthy for you, nor is it going to give you the sweet satisfaction of a job.

Customizing is simple

So what, my digital job-hunting friends, should you do? I know it is a really hard idea to get away from, but stop applying to so many jobs. It's counterproductive because you are wasting time. You have to customize your resume for every job you apply to, and you have to craft a cover letter in that application that will get people to pay attention. You cannot lie or misrepresent yourself in any way, but you should highlight certain components of your resume depending on the role requirement and your actual experience.

Customizing your resume and cover letter is simple and takes less than five minutes. Don't even bother applying to a job without doing it. Here is the simple three-step process.

Cover letter
Read the job specifications and pull two or three interesting points from it that you have experience in; then highlight your experience in those areas simply, succinctly, and without droning on about them like I am doing in this sentence trying to explain it to you. I know you might want to highlight other areas, but for now, avoid that. They are looking to fill a round hole, so don't be a square peg.

Change the top-line sentence/headline about yourself to approximately match what they are looking for, and have your summary at the top of your resume reiterate the two or three points in your cover letter, interspersed with one or two others, and voila.

Repeat this process with every application, and keep all of those responses as little bits of text you can cut and paste from a single email or Word document. After you have applied to 40 or 50 jobs, you will have a treasure trove of responses you can just cut and paste.

You have to grab their attention

Before potential employers ever get to your resume, you first have to stun them in the cover letter. Get them to pay attention to you.

Sean X First Law of Job Applications: The only purpose of the cover letter is to have them stop and read your resume.

The reality is that the vast majority of job applications never get acknowledged. Often no one ever reads your resume, and they barely glance at your cover letter. Your application disappears into the black hole of digital oblivion. It is not that recruiters are purposefully doing this, but they are drowning in candidates for roles, and the time afforded them does not allow them to give every single resume the look it deserves. I know this might seem unfair, but I have spoken with many recruiters, and you would be shocked at the number of resumes that get submitted for each job. I conducted an informal study of seven recruiters I know who are recruiting in the Bay Area. Here are the average numbers of online applicants to each job position:

  • Marketing manager: 238

  • Director of marketing: 214

  • VP of marketing: 127

  • SVP of marketing: 186

  • Digital strategist: 115

  • Social media (anything): 191

Yes, if you see a job for director of digital marketing there are, on average, 214 applications for that job. So now do you get why you have to stun them? My friend Julie Roehm wrote recently in her article on "Stupid (but common) resume mistakes" that one of the best opening lines a recruiter she knew ever saw was "I'm 10 feet tall and bulletproof." Anyone would have a hard time glancing over that application and putting it in the oblivion pile. And that is your first lesson. No one will know if you are the perfect candidate for the role if they do not stop to take a look at your application.

"I am a Digital Unicorn, and my middle name is X"

For this article, I applied to a total of 80 marketing jobs, from manager level to SVP level, in the course of one month on LinkedIn. For 20 of them I came up with my own "10 feet tall and bulletproof" line: "I am a Digital Unicorn, and my middle name is X." Here's what I did for the 80 job applications:

  • For 20, I used no cover letter and just submitted my application.

  • For 20, I used a standard cover letter stating why I was a great candidate for the role.

  • For 20, I customized the cover letter.

  • For 20, I used the customized cover letter, but started off with "I am a Digital Unicorn, and my middle name is X."

Let's face it: Unless you slather yourself up with honey and streak through the city naked while being chased by a bear, you are unlikely to garner attention when applying for a job. You need to stand out, and a great opener will greatly increase your chances of being looked at.

I used LinkedIn because on LinkedIn you can actually check whether the recruiter took a look at your application. The results were quite extraordinary:

  • No cover letter: 0

  • Standard cover letter: 3

  • Customized cover letter: 1

  • Customized "unicorn" cover letter: 7

Those were just the numbers of employers who examined my resume. Of those, I had four companies schedule a phone interview. One was from the standard cover letter, one was from the customized cover letter, and two were from the "unicorn" cover letter.

This is by no means a scientific study; however, I was very surprised by the results. I had always been more conservative when applying for jobs in the past -- in a way, shielding people from the fact that I am a bit on the lunatic fringe of marketing and advertising. But it's because of my individuality that I'm able to write about marketing for iMedia Connection and The Huffington Post. So why would I want to shield companies from that? One word: fear.

Think of how big you could be if you asked the questions, "What if I really, truly did not care if I thought everyone was laughing at me? What if I could laugh at myself? What would I do then? How big could I become?"

So come up with your own "digital unicorn" or "10 feet tall and bulletproof" line. Try to evoke feelings with that line that you want people to associate with you. For me, being associated with a unicorn and X suit me. They make me laugh, and hopefully will make someone else chuckle enough to take a look at me as a candidate. Being 10 feet tall and bulletproof is a great way to evoke a kind of superhero persona. Let the line represent you, but also don't let the line distract from your application. The goal is for them to take the next step and look at your resume, not dismiss you. My key measurement for the line is whether someone smiles or cringes. So test it out, and see what happens.

You are not a ninja

A piece of advice, however -- you are not a ninja, wizard, rock star, evangelist, or guru of anything (unless you are a serial killer, in a band, leading a cult, a Tibetan monk, or have dice with more than six sides). These terms are not only tired, but exude ego, arrogance, and hubris. They are terms that others can call you, but unfortunately you cannot call yourself. If Guy Kawasaki doesn't call himself an evangelist, then you shouldn't.

Resume advice for every digital marketer

Your resume says a lot about you. However, asking your friends to take a look at your resume to see if it is good is like asking Khloe Kardashian to comment on the Higgs boson and expecting anything remotely intelligent to exit her mouth. Your friends are the worst people you know to analyze your resume, as they already have an idea of who you are and can fill in the blanks. You want your resume to sing to a complete stranger. You want employers to say, "Wow."

Sean X Second Law of Job Applications: The only purpose of the resume is to have them schedule a phone interview to see if you are a good fit.

Your resume is supposed to accomplish one thing: getting you a phone interview. After that, it is a useless piece of paper. But in order to do that, it is best if you have one main resume as your template, and one document that contains all those bits and pieces that you can easily customize. When you encounter a job that requires that specific line you wrote, you just insert it into your resume in a prominent position.

In addition, there is one thing I think every digital marketer should have: the "social ribbon," as I call it. I could not find a resume template that really highlighted the way that digital marketers are spread across a whole corpus of social channels -- Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Kred, Klout, etc. I believe the "social ribbon" is one of the things that can separate you from other candidates, and I have had a number of recruiters contact me about mine. Some said that it immediately identified me as someone who "got it" when it came to digital media, which was exactly what it was supposed to communicate.

From my "social ribbon," anyone can check out my entire social graph from Facebook to Pinterest. They can see my influence according to Klout and Kred, and my writing on iMedia Connection, The Huffington Post, and my blog. They can schedule an appointment with me or contact me via email. There are a number of other places you can find me on the internet (e.g., Foursquare, Instagram, etc.), but I had to choose which ones best represent me digitally.


It's hard out there. There are finally jobs available in the digital marketing space, but the influx of talented candidates is significant. So there you have it. The cover letter is meant to make employers stop and take a look at your resume. The resume is for getting you a phone interview to see if you are a good fit. Your online persona via your "social ribbon" is for them to check the voracity of your statements. Go be a 10-foot tall digital unicorn who is bulletproof, and get that next job interview. And once you have the interview...you are on your own.

Sean X is founder of SXC Marketing.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Gossiping business women" image and "Businessman with bored expression" image via Shutterstock.

One of my colleagues here gave me a recommendation calling me “darn near legendary in digital marketing.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I do think of myself as a marketing mastermind and agent of change in digital...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Sean X

2012, November 09


Exactly, your "unicorn" line was actually visual, and that was the main point of my article. That a resume or CV is basically designed to fit everyone in a little box. If you want to get noticed you have to find a way to make that box sing, and dance, etc...

The vast majority of resumes, CVs, never even get looked at. Worse, which I did not even touch on in my article is that robo-resume filter programs employed at most of the biggest companies pre-emptively filter resumes based on a set of criteria. That is why I advised changing the headlines etc... to match the job skills listed. This is one of the best ways to get through that first line of defense by companies HR departments.

There are many companies in the US who will not even consider candidates that did not graduate from certain Universities... ahem, GoogleMicrosoftFacebookAppleYahoo I'm talking to you... so their robo-filter programs actually screen for one of those Universities. If your resume does not have that on it no human ever sees it. There is a way, however, to fool them. When listing your University, if it does not happen to be one of these, list "School of Hard Knocks, The Harvard University of Real Life" ... At least you'll get by the filter. You may get immediately discarded but you have a better shot than before.

But before anyone starts to think this ins unfair, last time I checked I believe Google gets something like 10,000 resume submissions a day... a day. If they did not employ these techniques it would be impossible for them to hire the number of people they need to. They HAVE to choose certain initial criteria... and so does any company that becomes a hot place to work.

Commenter: Georgie Allen

2012, November 08

Hi Sean,

How do you feel about photos in CV's? I applied for jobs for 6 months and had 1 failed interview. I then became extremely frustrated so I wrote a new CV and included lots of photos. Next to my past job experiences I had photos showing me in the role where possible. At the bottom of each page I had a small band of photos showing my personality (snowboarding, sea kayaking, rockclimbing, with friends etc).

After that I was asked to 3 interviews and ended up in a marketing managers role. Dream result. It may not work with super corporate companies but for me it worked well as a unicorn phrase


Commenter: Lynn Salton

2012, November 08

Thanks Sean... I appreciate you taking the time to explain the difference. I get it now... and I will use something like this on my next resume(s)!


Commenter: Sean X

2012, November 08

Lynn, because someone is obviously NOT "10-feet tall and bullet proof" there is a subtle usage difference, with a not so subtle reaction difference; confidence without being arrogant. A sense of humor, without someone feeling they are being insulted.

Whereas communicating that I am a Ninja Rockstar Marketer (which BTW I am) conveys this feeling of wanting to punch me in the face. That statement is one which closes people off to hearing any more. It is false ego, and usually communicates the insecurity of the person making the statement.

I AM NOT a Ninja Rockstar Marketer, however, when I put "(which BTW I am)" after that statement I can almost see how the distaste that appears on peoples faces... as if they just popped a sour-patch kid in their mouths. In fact, even if I continue to tell people that it was just an overt example of what I was talking about to illustrate a point, and I do not believe that about myself, that feeling does not go away for people.

That is the challenge, and the key lesson here. Words can evoke feelings that are not easily changed with more words. I am not 10 feet tall and bullet proof. I am however a Digital Unicorn. Just saying it makes me laugh... and that is why it is me.

If someone finds it too irreverent and not business like enough or judges it, that's ok, because that is them, not me. And that's ok. Those who do respond to the irreverence and the way my mind works will be a better fit for me.

Find the statement that is YOU and that makes people stop and take notice.

Commenter: Lynn Salton

2012, November 08

If I'm not a ninja, wizard, rock star, evangelist, or guru of anything, because these terms are not only tired, but exude ego, arrogance, and hubris... how is being "ten feet tall and bullet proof" any different?

Commenter: Sean X

2012, November 08

Check out the Jane Ashen Turkewitz post on the iMedia Blog about "6 Ways to Use Social Media In Your Job Search" ... Great advice and tips about your job search. She's Managing Director of TalentFoot so she knows...


Commenter: Jeff Johnson

2012, November 08

Nice article, Sean. Having hired dozens of people of the past few years I would add another critical aspect to your thoughts on this... After you "stun them", make sure the employer can see how hiring you will benefit them.

All too often resumes focus on skills and accomplishments but don't focus on how that will matter to the hiring manager. Yes, logic dictates that a smart hiring manager can connect the dots. But, the prospective employee that chooses to do it shows me they have enough interest to do some research about what I need and its easier to put there application to the top of the pile.

Commenter: Bruce Johnston

2012, November 08

Although written to provide resume writing advice this is probably one of the best "Dutch Uncle" advice blogs I've read. Sean takes the time to explain, "this is reality", and what you can do about it. This is a blog you should keep close by for easy reference down the road!