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Avoid these 6 super common startup job application mistakes

There are lots of reasons to want to join an early-stage startup.  Whether it’s the meaningful work, upside potential, office dogs, or simply the chance to learn how to grow a business, I think you’re right to want to join a startup.  On the flip side, it’s extremely competitive, as these days, everyone and their momma wants to join a startup.  Maximize your chances of success by avoiding these six all-too-common mistakes on your job application.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a ton of recruiting and interviewing.

While I love recruiting, I often finding myself pulling my hair out while reviewing applications.  Not only is it an exercise finding a diamond in the rough, but there are countless mistakes I see on the majority of applications.

Not only is this painful; it means that there are likely good candidates that slip through the cracks because their application is crap.

So in order to help inform anyone looking to join a startup, here are the top six mistakes I see on the applications I review.



1 – Sending a long, boring cover letter

Let me save you some time.  Nobody likes reading cover letters.  It’s best to keep them short, sweet, and most importantly, interesting.  

I know that University career service centers teach you to write long cover letters with complex prose and statements like “I believe that my innate drive, past experience, and desire to learn will make me a valuable asset to your organization.”  Maybe corporate HR departments like that.  I don’t know any other startup founders that do.

Instead, write something concise (ideally no longer than 4 sentences) that really makes you stand out.  Short sentences (even segment fragments) work great.


2 – Not explaining why you’re good at what you do

Your resume should persuade someone to give you an interview.  Unfortunately, most resumes just state neutral facts.

Startups are out to hire the top-talent they can find.  So you need to show why you’re good at something.  Just because you’ve done something in the past, doesn’t make you good at it.

Let’s take an example.  Recently we were hiring for an SEO position.  We received hundreds of applications explaining how the candidate “managed SEO”, “created content”, and performed “on-page optimization”.  That says nothing.  The ones that stood out said “created content which ranked #2 for a high-volume search term that led to 10k monthly uniques.”  That person got the interview.



3 – Not linking to examples of your work

This does not apply to every role, but if you’re a designer, developer, or writer, put some of your work online and make sure that you link to it on your resume and your application.  Personal websites, Github accounts, Dribbble, portfolios, ect are all gold.  Along the lines of point #2, this is the perfect way to show that you’re good at what you do.


4 – Having a wall-o-text resume that says nothing

It only takes a minute to look over a resume, so stop trying to put every single thing that you did on there.  Your resume should be no longer than a page.

Here’s how I look at a resume: I glance over it and see what catches my eye.  Typically that might be a company I know of, a role title, a well-renowned school, a high GPA, or an off-the-wall activity.  From there, I read more about it, and if that looks good, I check out the rest of the resume.

So figure out what the most impressive thing is on your resume, make it stand out, and write 3 very clear statements explaining how you succeeded at that role.

Let me reiterate: I don’t care how accomplished you are; there’s no reason to have a >1 page resume or more than 3 bullet points under each job experience.



5 – Blanket, empty statements

 Everybody says that they work hard.  Everyone says they are driven.  Everyone says they are a fast learner.  None of that is original.

Give one or two proof points that back it up.  In college, a friend got an investment banking job because he wrote that he worked 8 hours a day on his family farm during high school, and still managed to graduate at the top of his class.  That’s a hard worker.


6 – Not explaining why you’re the right fit for a role

Sometime’s it’s obvious.  If you’re a PHP developer applying for a PHP role, well that’s self-explanatory.

But, if your background-role fit isn’t so obvious, you need to explain it.  I’m a big fan of hiring innately talented people for roles they have no background in, but as a candidate, it’s your job to explain why I should pick you.

The best example I can think of is when we hired our Director of Operations, Terence.  He was previously a Pastor at a church, and when asked how he could convince people to join the team, he replied, “Working for the church, I’ve recruited dozens of people to work long hours for either low wage or no wage.  I should have no problem recruiting for LawnStarter.”  Hired.


A few additional tips:

  • Always get a warm intro if possible:  Use Conspire or LinkedIn to figure out if you know someone that knows someone at the company.  See if they will make an intro.  If someone whom I respect risks their social capital to introduce you, I’m thinking you’re pretty good at that point.  On the flip side, realize if the introducer is a buffoon, I automatically think less of you.
  • Keep it informal:  Startups are informal, so no need to use long, compound sentences.  Sentence fragments are fine.  Just get straight to the point.  Whomever is interviewing you will thank you for it.
  • Realize who is recruiting you:  Startups don’t have an HR department.  Often it’s the founder or person who you’ll be reporting to that reviews your resume.  This means they have a job to do in addition to recruiting, so if your resume loses them, it’s going to get thrown out.
  • Showing something you have in common can only help:  Suppose you internet stalk me and realize I went to Virginia Tech, love country music, and am way too obsessed with my dog.  You realize we have one of these in common and mention it.  I’m going to spend more time reviewing your application – I can’t help it.

Hope anyone seeking to join a high-growth startup found this helpful.

Looking for a startup job?  LawnStarter just raised $6 million and is hiring.  Click here to learn more.

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