03/11/2014 05:43 pm ET Updated May 11, 2014

Knock Their Socks Off in 3 Steps With Your Job Application

This is a test!

Can you follow directions? Can you communicate clearly? Employers view your job application as an example of the quality of your work, like an audition for the job. Careless mistakes will cast doubt on the quality of your work, diminishing your chance to land any job.

Read the job description very carefully.

Don't waste your time, or dilute your credibility with an employer, by applying for a job that is not a good fit for you. Find a better opportunity.

Three Steps to Success

1. Follow the directions.

Make careful note of how this specific employer wants applicants to respond to the posting. Do they want an email sent to a specific email address, a form completed online, specific information included (or excluded)? Or do they use some other process?

Watch for requirements described in the description like a question for you to answer or a sample of your work to include. Simply by following directions, you will stand out from the crowd. In the job description, one technology company asks applicants to submit a favorite joke -- including the joke shows who has paid attention and carefully read the description, and the joke included gives an indication of the job seeker's personality.

2. Create an attention-getting cover letter or email message.

For many organizations and people, a well-written cover letter will be the difference between an invitation to an interview and the discard pile. When you have the opportunity, use a cover letter customized for each opportunity to demonstrate your interest in the job and the employer as well as your fit for the job.

Note: When responding by email, your message is your cover "letter." Don't send an empty email message with your cover letter and resume files attached, even if you write "Attached are my cover letter and resume." Unless instructed otherwise in the job description or other instructions for applying, your email message is typically your "cover letter" when you apply via email. Preferably, the only attachment will be your resume, unless their instructions indicate they want your resume also included in the text of your email message.

  • Make it clear which job you are applying for.

    Be easy to hire! Include the job title, location, and any other identifier (like requisition number) in the subject of your cover letter/email message. Don't expect the employer to figure out where you can best fit into their organization. Very few employers will have the time, the intuition, or the interest to help you with your career, particularly when they don't know you.

  • Demonstrate your skills at written communications.
    Be brief (not more than one page of two to four short paragraphs). Use good grammar and spelling, and avoid stilted, overly-formal letter like "Pursuant to the employment opportunity posted on the twenty-third of this month..."
  • Focus on the benefit to the employer if they hire you.
    Employers are more concerned with their own needs than with your needs. So make the benefits of hiring you clear -- describe exactly how you meet the requirements of the job and will help solve the employer's problems. If you can, share how you may exceed some of those requirements.
  • Be sure to reference your experience in similar organizations. In a 2013 survey by, 76 PERCENT of organizations indicated that prior nonprofit experience (job, internship, volunteer work) was important to them. Nonprofits are not unique in that preference. So, if you have experience in the same or a related business, be sure to highlight it when you apply.

3. Match your resume to the job's requirements.

Customizing your resume to the opportunity is another method of differentiating yourself from the masses of careless job seekers. These days, you need address the technical requirement of an automated applicant tracking system ("ATS") where resumes are often stored. Including the "right" keywords -- those included in the job description -- should ensure that so that the system shows your resume to a human being.

In addition, resumes must also address the preferences of a human reviewer who may spend less than 10 seconds looking at the top two-thirds of a resume before deciding thumbs up or down.

Examine the job's requirements and meet them with your resume. This is your opportunity to shine and demonstrate the quality of your work:

  • Make your interest in the job and employer clear. Use the job title from the opportunity plus the employer name as your resume's objective. Like this: "Objective: [their job title] at [name of employer]."
  • Include your relevant skills, experience, and accomplishments. Summarize your relevant background in a "Summary of Qualifications:" section below the objective, using the language and terms the employer used in the job description. For example, if they specified experience with "social media" (which you have), use the exact term "social media" on your resume. Then, if appropriate, explain more about your social media qualifications by listing the social networks you have used (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) in ways that address the job's requirements.
  • Make the resume easily read. Using short groups of bulleted lists and brief paragraphs lay out your relevant accomplishments (quantified, if possible), skills, and experience.

Customization and careful attention to detail are the keys to impressing an employer. This effort takes time but create important differentiators.

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Susan P. Joyce is president of NETability, Inc. and the editor and chief technology writer for and