Job application tips for new college grads

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(MoneyWatch) It seems that whenever I wander into an online forum for writers or spend much time talking to fresh college grads, I hear the same lament: No one is hiring. They complain about the classic Catch 22 that you have to have experience to get your first job. But the reality is quite the opposite. There are plenty of jobs for entry-level professionals, and in fact I've hired many, even in recent years after the so-called jobpocalypse.

So what is keeping these newbies from snagging the job they want? Lot of factors, no doubt. But at the top of the list, I'd have to say that many college grads have no idea how to apply for a job the right way. That's not their fault, per se; they haven't been properly mentored in the craft of job hunting. On the other hand, when you graduate from college, getting a job is your job, and if you have a diploma in hand, you should be reading everything you can online about best practices for applying for your first professional position.

Case in point: Slate's Katherine Goldstein recently published some cover letter writing tips for college grads, and it is pure gold. Every new professional, regardless of their chosen career, should read this and take it to heart. As a beleaguered hiring manager who often has to wade through dozens of terrible job applications to find someone I want to interview, here is advice that Goldstein and I agree on:

Follow the application instructions precisely. This is critical: Think of it as a hidden job test. The job posting might give specific instructions for applying, such as what you should submit, what format to use, and what information to provide. If you don't follow this stuff to the letter, your application goes no further. Seriously. If a 22 year old Albert Einstein applied to be my intern and ignored the application instructions, I would throw his application in whatever the equivalent of a trash can was in the year 1900. Would I regret it later? Probably, but it weeds out the vast majority of people whose inability to follow directions demonstrates that they're a bad fit for the role.

Nail the cover letter. As I have said before, the cover letter remains the single most important part of your application. Make it short, punchy, professional, and give me a reason to scan your resume and move you to the second round.

Don't be too formal. It's no longer the 17th century, and being too formal sounds awkward. As Goldstein points out, this kind of sentence is horrible: "With this statement, I declare my interest in the position you have advertised on your website." If that's the best you can do, I assume you have no real-world communication skills. Next.

Do your research. Make it clear in the cover letter that you actually know the company and understand the business. Everyone who applies for the position is going to say that they love XYZ Corporation and would be thrilled to have an opportunity to contribute. If you want to stand out, say something meaningful. What specifically do you like? How has the company affected you?

Know how hiring you will benefit the business. Remember, the company is not a charity; the goal of hiring you is to have you provide a value to the company that's greater than the salary you're being paid. So explain how your experience, background, and skills can meaningfully contribute to the company.

Don't talk about what you did before college. When you're 22 years old, high school doesn't seem that long ago, so you're inclined to believe it's relevant to your job qualifications. It's not. Anything you might have done -- no matter how smart and gifted you are -- in junior high or high school is utterly irrelevant to working in the professional world. Leave it off your resume and out of your cover letter.

Photo courtesy Flickr user adaenn