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‘Should I Point Out Job Applicants’ Mistakes to Them?’

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Dear Boss,

I supervise a summertime internship program at my job, which attracts mainly college-age applicants. A huge component of the internship is attention to detail. This week I received five applications for the internship. Three of those have included detail errors, some minor and some major. For example:

1. The first applicant stated in his email that he had attempted to send his application to the listed email address but it did not work. Upon closer inspection, I discovered he had included an extra period in the domain name, and he apparently had not thought to check the accuracy of the address.

2. The second applicant’s cover letter made reference to the internship at our company (for example, Washington Tribune — not our real name) but on subsequent references, referred to our company with the incorrect name (Washington Gazette). 

3. For the third applicant, I sent back a stock response thanking her for her interest and stating that I would be reviewing applications after the closing period. She replied by thanking me for my consideration, but then had (accidentally) included an email thread between her and her father, in which he was directing her on what to include in her cover letter and offering to write the final paragraphs for her.

I feel all of these situations could have easily been avoided with enough time, care, and attention to detail. I have a handful of other applicants who sent in clean, strong cover letters and résumés.

Is it acceptable for me to point out these mistakes to the candidates? On one hand, I’d like to help them realize that time and detail are crucial when applying for jobs. On the other, I’m grateful to have seen these mistakes and avoided hiring them for a very popular internship.

I sometimes used to send feedback like that to applicants, so I understand the impulse. It’s a kind impulse! You see people making mistakes they could easily avoid, and you figure you can help them avoid it in the future.

The thing is, though, there is no shortage of job-search advice online for anyone who cares to look. Some of it is quite bad, yes, like the weirdly common yet terrible advice to demonstrate gumption by dropping off your résumé in person, or to call repeatedly to “check the status” of your application. But it’s not hard to find good advice on the basics — proofread your application materials, use the right name for the company you’re applying to, don’t forward correspondence from your dad offering to write your cover letter for you, etc. It’s there for the taking.

If the mistakes you were seeing were clearly caused by bad advice, then I agree it would be an act of altruism to kindly set them straight. (“Most employers these days only accept applications online, and we prefer candidates to wait until we’ve invited them to interview rather than showing up without an appointment.”) And certainly if you had some kind of unusual, obscure requirements for candidates, then yes, it would be helpful to share that. (“We prioritize candidates who write their cover letters in iambic pentameter.”)

But what you’re seeing are candidates who just aren’t being careful enough. You wouldn’t be letting them in on a job-hunting secret if you contacted them to suggest that they need to pay more attention to detail. It would be more like coaching them on their weaknesses, and while that’s a lovely thing to want to do, it’s also not really your job.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, though! I used to do it years ago, when I saw candidates making errors that made me cringe on their behalf. And sometimes they wrote back and were grateful for the advice, and other times my attempts to be helpful were met with silence, and a few times I actually received hostile missives in reply, telling me what a mistake I was making in passing them up and that I clearly didn’t know how to identify good candidates.

Over time, I stopped doing it because I concluded there’s just always a portion of the applicants for any job who send in sloppy materials, and it stopped feeling like a great use of time to try to coach them all. I’m glad to give feedback to people who ask for it, but I no longer spend time offering it unsolicited to people making the sort of basic mistakes that indicate they probably haven’t taken advantage of the myriad job-hunting resources already out there. I’d rather spend that time talking with candidates who did put real effort into putting their best foot forward.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting with sending feedback to these applicants if you want to. Brace yourself for some potentially hostile responses, because that’s a thing that happens, but some people will probably be truly appreciative of your help.

By the way, whether or not you decide to offer the feedback, you definitely shouldn’t have any qualms about eliminating candidates from the running on the basis of the sort of mistakes you described. It’s not that candidates aren’t human and you shouldn’t extend them any grace; they are, and you should. In fact, it’s smart hiring to consider the totality of what you know about a candidate — and an otherwise stellar resume and cover letter should be a counterbalance to some of what you described if the job didn’t require strong attention to detail, but it does.

And while it’s not fair to draw sweeping conclusions about someone’s character from the few pages they’re offering you in a résumé and cover letter, it is fair to assume that when someone is job hunting, they’re trying to show you the most polished, most on-the-ball version of themselves. You have fairly limited data about candidates when you’re hiring, and it’s reasonable to make judgments based on the information you have. If someone sends you a mistake-ridden document, it’s fair to take them out of the running for a job where attention to detail matters.

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‘Should I Point Out Job Applicants’ Mistakes to Them?’