Reading job applications

I’m sure we’ve all heard old saws about the speedy screening of job applications. I’ve always used 30 seconds as my rule of thumb. Our career services people say one minute, and it’s not hard to find job sites which time initial screening at 10 seconds. In line with my desire to shift my research and teaching toward data, I recently learned about a relevant CareerBuilder telephone survey conducted in June 2011. Two findings:

When asked how long they spend reviewing job applications, 55% of hiring managers (n=2654, ±2% MoE) said less than two minutes:

<1 min 1-2 mins 2-5 mins 5+ mins
28% 27% 24% 21%

Respondents who self-identified as HR managers (n=218, ±6.5% MoE) were even more speedy. Almost half less spend less than minute, and a quarter between one and two, meaning 72% of HR managers take less than two minutes for initial screening:

<1 min 1-2 mins 2-5 mins 5+ mins
45% 27% 17% 11%

So job applications (résumés + other documents) are likely to get more than 30 seconds of attention–but not much more. (Thanks to Ryan Hunt at CareerBuilder for sharing these data.)

Since I’m teaching technical communication this semester and next, reading job applications is on my mind in other ways. Like quite a few textbooks, our program’s book starts out by using job application materials to model core concepts (Anderson, Tech Comm 7/e, centered around usability and persuasiveness). The syllabus framework my colleagues and I share begins with this assignment. So I read quite a few job applications this semester, though I certainly spent more than two minutes on each one. (Sometimes a lot more.) As in previous semesters, I had a pretty high drop rate the first four weeks, and some palpable dissatisfaction among students who didn’t drop the course. Quite a few students submitted draft job materials which would fail the two-minute test. There were three classes of problems:

  1. Some students simply underestimated the amount of work needed to do work which meets my standards for quality, or tried to get by with generic materials not really tailored to a job description. (Of course, this can happen in any class, on any assignment.)
  2. For many students, education is what happens the classroom, and work experience is limited to service work. This leaves them very little to insert into customary résumé categories other than “Education,” and very little to say about experience and abilities in cover letters.
  3. They struggled to understand the job ads. Becoming fluent in disciplinary genres requires extensive knowledge of content, and too many students are simply unable to productively read job descriptions in their fields. Both lack of experience and lack of content knowledge play a part.

I’ve talked about the connections of genre and disciplinary knowledge in class. To see struggling students learning this lesson on the fly isn’t pretty: for example, having no way to write cover letters besides copying examples from the textbook nearly word for word, changing a few nouns here and there to keywords drawn from their field. For seniors, this is a bitter pill to swallow. And it should be for us: in these too-blank pages, we can see that students have realized that substituting academic faux-languages like “research paper” or “English essay” won’t replace the languages of magazine design, or sustainable energy, or broadcasting, to name a few of the majors I’m working with. On the one hand, this is good news: students know they need to learn more. But on the other hand, it points out our classroom practice is still problematic. When will we make the same realizations our students have? It’s downright unpleasant to see seniors struggle to connect what they have learned in their four (or five) years at the university with the languages and forms of their fields. It’s painful for them, and it should be painful for us.

With this in mind, I am eager to continue moving away from these mutt genres and finding ways to help students connect the work we can do with real genres to their classroom experiences. That’s no sure fix, but it’s a step forward. For sophomores and juniors, at least, there are possibilities. Reading collections of job advertisements can be used to map futures: the language of job advertisements we read together, now nearly foreign to students, suggests their do-lists for the next few years. I’ve asked students to speak with their advisors and professors to identify activities, internships, and other things outside the classroom which will help them learn the way their disciplines work. I’ve explained the connections between learning content, genres, and the languages of professions. This has been confusing and challenging for students, and often works better one-on-one than in class. Regardless, I want to continue thinking about ways to seeing fewer blank pages from students about to leave the university, and I hope my work with transfer and writing in the major will help.

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3 Responses to Reading job applications

  1. Pingback: Digital Sextant : it should be painful for us

  2. Brendan says:

    Great post. I think we don’t do enough to think about the shift from higher ed to workplace can occur, and what we can do to help it along.

    • cbd says:

      Thanks, Brendan. The point is not to be “vocational” but to recognize the complexity of what we are asking students to do, and the near-complete uselessness of the comfortable genres we so often turn to. Wardle called them “mutt genres,” but I’ve nothing against mutts…

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