By Brenda Bernstein
The Essay Expert
Are you applying for a job or scholarship? The following list of pitfalls to avoid apply to *all* aspects of the process: resumes, cover letters, essays, and even your interview and thank you note. Here are 10 tips to help you distinguish yourself from the competition.
1. Not answering the question
If an employer or committee asks a question, be sure to answer it! They ask questions in part to hear your answers, and in part to make sure you can follow instructions and stay focused. Sometimes you can answer the question in a creative way, but make sure you have a professional review your answer (for interviews, practice this skill before the actual interview!). The perfect essay or interview response answers the question and shows off your key strengths and accomplishments.
2. Exceeding the word or page limit
Your application can get thrown out if you do not comply with the word and page limits. Do not take that chance! There is no point in writing a brilliant essay if it never gets read. Would you rather write 511 words that never get read or 500 words that do? If you are having trouble staying within the word and page limits provided, work with an expert to help you concisely say everything you want to say. Practice concise verbal answers too before you get to your interview!
3. Pointing out why you do not qualify for the position
Why would you highlight the reasons an employer would not want to hire you, or the reasons why someone else might be a better recipient of that scholarship? Many applicants make that very mistake. You can be sure that the people reading your application or sitting across from you in an interview already know what’s missing from your application – they have seen your resume. If they are talking to you, it means they are willing to overlook some of your weak points. Showcase your strengths so that the committee trusts you to do the job even if you don’t meet every qualification on paper.
While you do not want to speak negatively about yourself, you also do not want to brag. A caveat: Many people think they are bragging and they are not – they are just stating their accomplishments. However, sometimes an essay or interview response can sound too self-congratulatory, even to someone wanting to hear about your best. The best policy is to provide facts that demonstrate something extraordinary about your accomplishments. You may want to hire someone to help you strike a balance between selling yourself and going overboard with self-praise.
5. Making grammatical and spelling errors
Employers and committees want candidates to demonstrate attention to detail and the ability to communicate effectively. Grammatical and spelling errors demonstrate the lack of these abilities. Slow down in an interview so that you sound professional. And never submit a resume, essay or application without having an expert review it! Your investment will give you peace of mind and unprecedented results.
6. Lack of clear organization or focus
If your writing or speaking lacks organization or focus, you are almost sure to lose your audience’s attention. In a good essay, the writer is clear about the purpose of every word and every sentence. Stay focused as to what you are writing, where you are going, and why you’re saying what you’re saying. Sometimes, focus is difficult to maintain on your own; after all, you understand yourself perfectly and have infinite patience for yourself! It takes trained eyes and ears to evaluate whether you’re really getting your point across.
7. Speaking in generalities
Here’s an example of a sentence that is too general to have its intended effect: “I am a hard working, determined individual driven by success and the love for acquiring knowledge.” Without examples of this hard work, determination, and love of knowledge, this sentence doesn’t say much of anything. The applicant would be better served by giving a concrete example of even one of these attributes. By describing a challenge she faced and how she handled it, she will keep the audience’s attention and make the impression she wants.
8. Complaining or speaking negatively about past experiences
If you say anything negative about a prior position, your reader or interviewer will expect you to be complaining about your new position in short order. There are ways to give even the most negative experiences a positive spin. Not sure it’s possible? Get help from a writing expert who can help.
9. Using formal or stilted language in written materials
You are writing to human beings. Write to them in conversational English. Although you do not want to get too casual with your language, you also do not want to sound awkward or pretentious. We recommend reading your writing aloud before pushing the send button. You might realize things about your language – and your punctuation – that you would never have noticed by reading silently!
10. Including extra information or attachments
Unless expressly invited to do so on an application, do not attach outside information, attachments, videos, links to websites, PDFs, etc. as supplementary materials. If you are unsure about the guidelines, there is no shame in calling the company to ask. It’s better to be safe and to follow instructions exactly.
Achieving success with your job and scholarship applications requires a lot of work and a lot of revisions. Get your essays into top form – and get the position or scholarship you want.