person in tie showing up at someone's desk holding dozens of resumes
Illustration by Dominic Kesterton
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‘Is There Such a Thing as Applying for Too Many Jobs?’

Never heard of creating a “master résumé”? Right this way.
February 18, 2021, 12:30pm
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Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.

I've been job searching for what feels like forever but in reality is probably about six months. I'm getting conflicting advice about how to approach my job search and I’m not sure how to sort through it. I’ve read that it’s smart to apply for as many jobs as you can because finding a job is a numbers game and the more applications you have out there, the more likely you are to get called for an interview. That sounds logical to me! But I’ve been applying for every job I can find that I’m qualified for, and I’m not getting much response to my applications.

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A friend of mine who’s also looking for a job right now says that he was told to focus on a smaller number of applications for just the jobs he’s really interested in, and he does get more interviews than I do. That approach appeals to me, especially because I’m exhausted by what I’m doing now, but I’m worried it will just lower my chances of getting a job. Logically, why wouldn’t fewer applications mean fewer interviews? I have no idea how to approach this.

Don’t think of applying for a job as a numbers game! I know it sounds logical that the more applications you have out there, the higher your chances of hearing back from some of them will be, but here’s why that falls apart: If you apply for everything you see, you won’t be able to truly tailor what you’re sending to each specific job, and that means you’re going to be a mediocre candidate for a lot of jobs rather than a strong candidate for a smaller number of jobs.

The thing is, employers can tell when you’re just “résumé bombing”—applying for every job you’re remotely qualified for without putting much real thought into your application. And if you’re just rushing out as many applications as you can, you’re not taking the time to tweak your materials for each individual role. That means you’re squandering the chance to speak directly to the specific work the employer has described, and to explain why you think you in particular would excel at it. If you’re not doing that, your materials will be far less compelling than the applications from people who are. It’s just really hard to stand out in a sea of candidates when you’re sending the exact same thing to each job you apply for, especially when some of your competition isn’t.

If you instead choose a smaller number of jobs that you’re highly qualified for and tailor your materials to their specific needs, you’re going to be much more enticing to employers—and your odds of being asked to interview will go up. That’s always true, but it’s even more the case right now, when so many strong candidates are on the job market and employers have their pick of who to interview.

If you’re thinking that customizing everything sounds like a lot of work, know that it doesn’t mean writing your cover letter or résumé from scratch each time. You’ll often be able to reuse pieces of your cover letter for multiple jobs, particularly if the roles you’re targeting are all pretty similar. Just don’t treat it like a form letter. And with your résumé, you can save a lot of time by having one long master résumé that lists everything you’ve accomplished everywhere you’ve ever worked, but then edit down into a more reasonable length résumé (one to two pages) for each job you apply for, removing details that don’t strengthen your candidacy for that particular role. Once you have those initial master documents, you’ll be able to create tailored versions pretty quickly. (And if you want some help with writing cover letters and résumés that are customized to the employer, here’s a whole bunch of guidance.)

But yes, this is more effort for fewer applications! Ultimately, though, what matters isn’t the number of applications you have out there. It’s the number of applications that are being seriously considered by employers. That’s what you want to make sure your approach supports.

Now, all of that said, there is an exception to everything above: If you’re applying for jobs that don’t require a lot of specific qualifications—for example, some customer-facing jobs in retail and food service—it can make sense to go for quantity over quality. In fact, with any job that only requires you to fill out an application rather than asks you to submit a résumé and cover letter, going for quantity is a fine approach. But with most other jobs, focusing on quality instead of quantity is likely to get you better results.

Get more good advice from Alison Green at Ask a Manager or in her book. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using this form.