I've looked at a lot of job applications over the last 10 years. Most look like DMV forms—it's like the applicant scribbled answers down so they could be done as quickly as possible. A very small percentage of applications stand out.
If you're applying for a job, you owe it to yourself to put your best foot forward. To help, I want to shed some light on what hiring managers are actually looking for in an application. It's not rocket science—in most cases, a few simple tweaks and a little elbow grease will go a long way towards helping you land a great job.
To chat more about this, come join the #career-advice channel in our Content Career Growth Slack community.
Talk about results, not actions, skills or experience.
Every job application has room for a cover letter or personal email. This is your best chance to differentiate yourself. Most people whip up a risk-averse, generic statement that fills a page, but doesn't actually say anything.
Just like content creation, your goal is not to hit a word count, but to say something interesting. The reader should be smarter, happier, more intrigued, etc. after reading whatever you have to say.
Many people aren't sure what to say, so they turn to templates. Cover letter templates are (1) terrible and (2) pervasive. It's obvious when a candidate has borrowed from a template because most templates are boring. (I'll take this a step further: templates tend to squash creativity rather than provide a starting point.) Most templates focus on experience and skills rather than results and performance. Any modern marketing org is going to be sharply focused on getting things done. You need to show that you have a track record of getting things done, not a list of things you briefly worked on.
Let's just briefly look at the intro of the "marketing cover letter template" from Indeed (with some commentary 😆):
As you can see in the example above, cover letter templates are so vague as to be utterly useless. (The same is true of most generic career advice.) Treat your cover letter like a monthly report. Weave data into a narrative that tells a great story about yourself.
- Instead of saying something like, "I have experience running a team of freelancers," try, "I vetted and hired a team 12 freelancers. We grew traffic 10-15%/month and stayed well within our budget."
- Instead of saying, "I built a lifecycle email campaign to help convert trial signups into paying customers," say, "When I realized our trial-to-paid conversation rate was just 10%, I crafted a strategy to address it. Six months later, after interviewing dozens of customers and studying the data, I had executed a lifecycle email strategy that doubled our conversion rate."
- Instead of saying, "I have some domain expertise in your industry but am eager to learn," try, "I've developed a process for onboarding myself to new material. In my last job, I conducted interviews with internal experts and sought out third-party experts to learn from as well. Within 3 months, I was publishing content that our sales team referred to as 'material that finally helped us close deals.'"
There are a few things going on here. One is that companies often don't know how to hire content marketers so they ask generic, open-ended questions. Another part is that candidates treat applications like DMV forms. They scribble down answers quickly so they can be done. Still another part of the problem—the most important and meaningful part—is that not every person is confident enough to advocate for themselves. I believe this is the main reason that cover letters are so bad.
This happens for a few reasons:
- You may not even realize you've been tasked with getting results because you were too focused on the output (2 articles/week, 1 newsletter/week, 10 tweets/day, etc.).
- Even if you've gotten great results, you may not feel confident enough to humble brag.
- Your responses/cover letter are writer-centric, meaning they need to be edited. Some simple editing could turn a boring sentence about skills into a great sentence about results.
This is a topic I'll be unpacking in much greater detail. For more info right now, check out our content career course and my podcast interview with Animalz CEO Devin Bramhall. TL;DR: believe in yourself and advocate for yourself. You should be selfish about your career.
Choose your writing samples wisely.
One of the best things about content marketing is that your work lives in the public domain. Your name and face are permanently attached to the articles you write and publish. This is how content folks establish themselves as experts in various fields. This is also the work that should help you earn better opportunities.
But here's the thing about writing samples—every piece of writing you produce is highly contextual to your job and your company. Even a basic SEO post is written to fill a very specific need that your current company demands. The person reviewing your application doesn't have that context. They don't know if you came up with the idea on your own, or were told to write the piece by a boss. They don't know if your first draft was a disaster that was saved by a great editor, or if you worked alone.
You may want to use Notion/Airtable/Google Sheets to start keeping track of your best writing samples. It can be basic (see an example of mine below) but it will make it easier to apply for jobs when the time comes.
Each hiring manager will be looking for something slightly different in your writing samples. Some may just want to see that you can work off an SEO brief. Others want to see that you can uncover novel insights. Some will look for great titles and others will want to know how the article performed.
I can't tell you exactly how to choose your samples because it depends on the job, but I can offer a few bits of advice:
- Your "Ultimate Guide to [X]" does not stand out. It may be the right sample to show for an SEO-heavy role, but honestly, every one of these things look, feel and read almost exactly the same.
- Musings from a personal blog have the opposite problem. They tend to be rambling, stream-of-consciousness posts that don't highlight your writing or critical thinking skills. This is obvious but worth stating: use samples from your personal blog only if they are really good.
- If the application asks for two writing samples, don't send a link to your portfolio. Just send two writing samples.
- Prioritize high-concept ideas. Writing that showcases new ideas or explores new ways of thinking about old ideas trumps just about everything else. Show that you can think, not that you can write.
Above all else, read the room. The role you're applying for will come with context of its own that you can use to inform your decision. Don't take writing samples lightly—it's very possible that your samples are the reason you get the chance to interview or get overlooked entirely.
Vet the company as much as they vet you.
Candidates tend to be overly deferential to hiring managers. I get it—these people are the gatekeeper between you and your next opportunity. As you grow in your career, you must realize that companies need you more than you need them. This is hard to accept but is 100% true.
Here's one small step you can take towards this: be prepared to ask smart questions when given the chance. You deserve to know what kind of company you're walking into, but you have to know how to uncover that information. Here's a few to get you started:
- Will there be opportunities for growth (i.e. promotions and raises)? Do you have examples of people that have grown within your company?
- Where do you see the content program in 12-18 months? Is this an experiment or are you already committed to seeing content through?
- Is there a strong content culture (i.e. does the content team have the support of company leadership)? Do you have to fight for every dollar or is the company invested in seeing the content team succeed?
- Can I meet the person who would be my direct manager? Can I meet 1-2 other people I would work alongside?
There are two other ways to vet companies:
- Backchannel through LinkedIn, Slack communities, your personal network to find out what other people think of working there. It's highly recommended that you speak with someone who works or worked at the company before accepting an offer.
- Do research on the company/product. Does it have a bright future? When companies grow, employees can grow with them. As I mentioned once on the Animalz blog, "Think about it this way: If the company can grow faster with content marketing, it could be a very good place to work."
The more involved you are in your industry—through communities, Slack groups, Twitter, LinkedIn, events, etc.—the easier this will be. In fact, this may be very difficult as you break into the content world, but should get much easier over time.
Don't Go It Alone
We created the Content Career Growth Slack community to help all content marketers advance their careers. Join us to ask for advice, support your fellow content marketers and learn from others.