Allison Cheston, Career Connector


Career Connector Blog

Low Response Rate from Online Job Applications? Try This!


A reader emailed me recently with a question about the low response rate to his online applications – a universal problem! For some people, online applications are the bane of their existence, yet others have success. Here is how I look at the virtual application market based on your level, and type of, experience:

  • If you are just starting your career, it’s fine to apply online, as long as you take the steps I detail below.

  • If you’re experienced, and seeking a role in the same field, you may also have luck online.

  • If you’re experienced, have performed a variety of roles, and/or have taken time off, step away from your computer! Online applications will only frustrate you.

Here’s the note from a reader, who is early in his career.

Hi Allison,

I recently received my MPA degree from the University of Michigan. I am currently looking to find work in policy or nonprofit, but I am having a very difficult time getting past the application phase. I’ve tried multiple formats of my resume and cover letter, while always tailoring each to the position description. I have maybe a 5% contact rate, with maybe half of those turning into interviews. I’d like to know if you happen to have any thoughts or ideas on how I might take the next step in my career.

Thanks, Jeff

Hi Jeff:

Generally speaking, I think you’re doing all the right things, and given that these sound like cold contacts, a 5% response rate is not bad. What it sounds like you’re missing, though, is a networking and outreach plan, which is the real way to improve your odds of getting an interview.

I don’t know what your professional and personal networks are like and I don’t know whether you’ve held a job or an internship previously. But regardless, I am a firm believer in the idea that anyone can build a network and that you don’t need to be personally “connected”. Why is a network so important? Today’s job market is so competitive, with many applicants for an existing job, it’s hard to stand out. That’s where personal outreach really can make the difference.

How to Build Your Network from Scratch
You may not realize it but being a newly-minted graduate, graduate or undergrad, is your calling card. You should find more people eager to help you at this juncture, so take advantage of the good will. Here’s my specific advice on building your network quickly and easily and how to enlist the contacts you didn’t know you had in support of your search.

  1. You already have a network: your grad school classmates, professors, advisors and college alumni who stand ready to help you as you launch your career. Search for them on LinkedIn where you can narrow your search by sector and location. You can also try asking the career office for a list of alumni, sorted by sector and location.

  2. Consider your other affiliations: your fraternity, club sports team or interest group. Your Facebook groups can also be helpful. Greek affiliation in particular can be especially powerful, regardless of graduation year, or even school. So again, using LinkedIn, narrow your search to include your fraternity brothers from every school and year, in the cities where you’re concentrating your job search.

  3. When you reach out, do ask for specific help. This is not the time to throw a lot of detail at people, or indicate that you are “open to anything”. Instead, provide 2-3 job titles and up to 10 organizations, and ask your contacts if they know anyone at those companies. That’s it. Anything more is overwhelming and you will end up with a meaningless response like, “I’ll let you know if I hear of anything”.

Avoid Being Anonymous
Don’t forget that applying to jobs online without having a human being shepherd your application has a low response rate. It’s fine to apply online, but make sure you network your way to someone at the company who can help make sure your application gets read – and not just rejected by the Applicant Tracking System for reasons unknown.

Don’t Let a Lack of an Opening Stop You
If there’s an organization you’ve come across in your research that you’re keen on, don’t worry if there isn’t a job listed. Find someone on LinkedIn or through your other networks and contact them for an informational interview. This is also where a warm connection through a fellow alumnus or other connection can help you get to someone willing to discuss their career and the organization in a 20-minute call. Just be clear you’ll be brief and are not looking for a job per se – just some information. Make sure you’ve done your research so you’re not asking questions that can easily be answered online. These kinds of meetings frequently lead to a job, sometimes even immediately. Just because a company doesn’t have a job listed doesn’t mean they don’t have an immediate opening; 80% of jobs never get listed or are filled internally. And a lack of a job listing is in your favor since it results in much less competition.

I hope these strategies help you, Jeff. Please stay in touch and let me know how you do.

Kind regards,