Dude, where’s my application?


Perhaps you are harboring wild and fantastic ideas about what happens when you apply for a job online. You are not alone. Most people do not know what happens after they hit the submit button on an online application. It often feels like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it into the sea, knowing that someone actually finding and reading it hardly ever happens. Yet, you do it anyway. Since it would be nice to know whether it just floats around until someone discovers it or if it settles to the bottom, forgotten like your last umpteen applications.

If it gives you hope, the hiring process is not as grim as you imagine. Every application is reviewed. Reviewing all applications for active job posts helps employers to insulate themselves from allegations of discriminatory hiring practices. What should concern you more than anything else is the amount of time the recruiter spends reading your resume. That is the reason it is so important to tailor your resume and cover letter to capture the recruiter’s attention, but that’s a different topic for another time.

Since the question of the day is “dude, where’s my application?” I thought it would be helpful to let you ‘ride shotgun’ and see what goes on behind the scenes. I am hoping this post will help you avoid some common mistakes so you will be better prepared for your next job search.

Though, the sourcing and selection process is somewhat consistent from employer to employer, every company has their little tricks and tweaks that you should look out for.

Here’s what really happens when you apply for a job online and how it may feel a little like pursuing someone new.

Application Stage: Putting Your Name in the Hat (Maybe Not) Stage:

This is the initial approach. Eyes meet…or maybe she’s looking at the guy directly behind you. You muster up everything you’ve got and make a move. 

Most companies’ applicant tracking system (also called “ATS”) is hosted by a third party enterprise system. This system manages the entire online process and does several things. It captures, filters, codifies, and stores your application. It can also decide your fate, and tell you when to buzz off.

Yes, depending on how you answer certain questions you can get eliminated without your application ever meeting the eyes of the recruiter. However, there have been debates over whether this step is effective because some qualifying questions cannot appropriately capture variables that may keep a good prospect in the run. Yet, there’s still life after rejection. Be persistent.

What Happens Next:

Worst case: Your application is rejected and you cannot re-apply.

Best case: Your application is accepted. You’re on a roll. You apply for ten more jobs, hopefully, not at the same company. Applying for several jobs at the same company at the same time is a costly mistake. Apply for the job that best suits your skills, experience, and expectations and then move on.

What You Are Up Against:

Companies receive hundreds of applications so your chances of moving forward at this stage are a little slim but not completely hopeless. Don’t feel discouraged. Most of the applications from online job posts are so way off the mark you’d think job descriptions were written in some kind of encrypted language. You still have a shot.

Review Stage: Separating the wheat from the chaff

You walk up to her. Pleasantries exchanged. She’s out with friends so you’ve got to be quick. You slip her a business card then saunter off. It’s now a waiting game.

If your application is accepted then it moves to a folder in the ATS where the recruiter retrieves it and does a cursory review of your qualifications to determine whether or not you meet the basic job requirements. Reviewing hundreds of resumes sounds like a fairly easy job, doesn’t it? That might be true if hiring managers weren’t constantly breathing down your neck and reminding you that their “job opening” is the most important thing in your life. Because recruiters are on a perennial time crunch – being able to review resumes and quickly separate the ‘wheat from chaff’ is how they compete for the best talent. Therefore, a well-written resume always rises to the top, which makes moving to the next step cakewalk.

What happens next:

At this review stage it is important to keep in mind that only those applicants who appear, from their resume, to have the relevant skills to execute the essential job functions will be contacted. Getting past the recruiter in the review stage doesn’t always mean you are in the clear. In some cases, the hiring manager prefers to approve applicants selected by the recruiter before phone screenings are scheduled.

Worst caseYou are not selected for a phone screen. You have to start over from scratch.

Best case: You are selected and a call is scheduled with either the recruiter or the hiring manager.

Prescreening Stage:

Then the phone call happens. Out of all the business cards she had received that day, she chose yours. You feel special. You are nowhere close to the finish line but you are happy to be in the race. Now, you have to ‘mince your word’ like a Sous Chef to stay in it. She’s got options.

If you are identified as one of the potential candidates then a prescreening by phone is scheduled. This conversation typically lasts 15-30 minutes and allows the recruiter to dig deeper into your resume – learning more about your job history, level of experience, accomplishments, interests and motivations. This is also where candidates share their expectations and employer determines whether they can meet them. If you make it to the prescreening stage then moving forward primarily depends on how you answer the interviewer’s questions. Of course, there are always little variables that can be potential deal breakers. This is your golden opportunity. Make the best of it.

What Happens Next:

Worst case: You are not selected to move forward. You receive an email that goes something like “Thank you for completing our long ass application. You were the weakest link. Goodbye!” Just kidding, but that’s how the applicant’s brain translates it. I have been there too.

Best case: You receive a more pleasant email/phone call requesting your availability to continue discussions.

What You Are Up Against:

Here, you have ten or more candidates who are waiting for you to screw up. Don’t screw up.

Interview Stage: (can be in-person or by phone)

This is the “getting to know you” stage. Like the customary first date, this is your rite of passage that can come to a dead end if you don’t show up to impress.

What happens after the preliminary phone interview varies from company to company. In some cases, either a phone interview (this is not another phone screen) is scheduled with the hiring manager or an in-person interview with the position stakeholders.

The interviewer’s goal here is to measure how much you know about the position and your understanding of the role’s broader context. Your ability to present what you know clearly and succinctly is also being assessed. Some companies take it a bit further and try to get into your head by asking questions such as “how many tennis balls can you fit into a school bus?” If you are smart enough to get this far, I am sure you wouldn’t need to pull out a calculator to answer that one. In other words, I can’t help you here. I barely know how many snacks can fit in my daughter’s lunch bag

In person interviews can take one of two formats: a series of one-on-one interviews or a panel interview with the entire hiring group. The latter is becoming uncommon for candidates who are not at the executive level or in highly specialized roles.

What Happens Next:

Worst case: It’s been a year and you still haven’t heard anything back. You follow up to see if the company uprooted and relocated to Asia without sending you the memo. Some companies can take up to several weeks to get back, so the fact that you haven’t heard anything back in a few days is not a bad sign.

Best case: You receive a nice phone call from the recruiter that they would like to discuss next step.

What You Are Up Against:

At this stage you are at least one of five candidates being considered for the position. The list gets shorter as you move through the process. But it doesn’t matter how smart you are or how well you present yourself – everyone likes options so you will likely be one of two all the way to the end. Act like it.

More Interviews Stage:

You have successfully passed the first date, you are being introduced to her friends, which is never really an introduction but more like a sampling session. It may even feel like you’re getting toothpicks stuck into you just like they do with samples at the supermarket.

Two in-person interviews are usually all that’s required to determine a finalist for a junior level role. However, the decision-making process for senior management and executive level positions can take more grilling than a slab of prime rib.

A little more vetting is often required at the executive level since those roles come with a lot of decision-making responsibilities that may have serious business implications if left in the hands of the wrong individuals.

What Happens Next:

Worse case: You were not selected for the job but you’ve gained good experience for your next job hunt.

Best case: You are selected as the finalist. You are one step away from joining the company in corporate matrimony, ‘til death or layoff do you part.’

What Are You Up Against:

You are up against the man in the mirror. And the man in the mirror sometimes wins. So don’t be too quick to start packing up the office and begin telling co-workers how you really feel about them. You may have to sit next to that same prick for a few more years.

Offer stage: Welcome Aboard

Her friends think you’re cool. She invites you to a shindig at her house. It may feel like you are ‘in’ but you are still an outsider until you have been checked out thoroughly, so don’t think too much of the invitation. You are still under watchful eyes.

All the stakeholders have met with you. They all like you. You are at the point where the employer needs to find out if they are being sold fool’s gold. Some companies present a verbal offer before doing references and background checks. The offer is usually contingent on everything coming back squeaky clean. If you are at the executive level or being hired for a role with significant budget or financial responsibilities, then a credit check may also be necessary. At this point, feel free to give your current employer proper notice if you are sure there’s nothing to worry about. Otherwise, sit tight and keep your fingers crossed.

Worst case: Offer is retracted. OMGosh! How did that happen? You have a penchant for telling fairytales, so they have decided to forward your application to Disney. Just kidding. I’m sure they wouldn’t hire you either. Be honest.

Best Case: You are hired!

What are you up against?

At this point, the only person you are up against is your new colleague who got overlooked for your position. Better watch your back. She’s known to be a mean knife throwing ninja.

Obviously, no two companies do things exactly the same. The information I am sharing comes from my experience recruiting for different organizations and from seeing how things work on the inside. The purpose of the post is to give you a behind-the-scenes perspective of the online application process so you can be better prepared next time around and win the job you want.

Good luck and share if you think someone else may find this post helpful.