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Beating the job application crowd

A job seeker, right, gestures as she is interviewed during a job fair at California's Great America theme park in Santa Clara, California.
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A job seeker, right, gestures as she is interviewed during a job fair at California's Great America theme park in Santa Clara, California.

"We regret to inform you that we will not be able to proceed with your application."

If you thought getting into college was difficult, wait until you apply for a job. The surge in online job applications has made the chore of applying easier and more accessible than ever before. But at the same time, it appears this new accessibility has actually made it harder for each applicant to get a job. That's because employers have been forced to use software to review the avalanche of applications they now receive. And this software is much less forgiving than a human boss.

Peter Cappelli, Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of Business, recalled one story that sums it up: "Somebody sent me a message about their own company a little while ago. They said they had 26,000 online applicants for a pretty a standard engineering position, and all 26,000 got kicked out. Not a single applicant made it through the applicant tracking software."

The human factor has drastically been cut down. In the past, recruiters would speak with line managers who had a position to fill. They would discuss job requirements and essentially, recruiters acted as a buffer between the hiring manager and the applicant pool, finding an equilibrium in the process. Now hiring managers are more likely to be setting the job requirements and putting together the profile of an ideal candidate all on their own. Online application programs and websites are making it more and more easy to cut out recruiters entirely. That lack of human feedback is making it harder for young job applicants to learn from their mistakes or focus on areas to improve.

So how do you put together an application that beat the online hurdles? Hiring managers say they now must consider relevant work experience more than grades or the personality of the person applying for the job. An online application can't single out an introvert from an extrovert, but it can certainly decipher if you have related work experience in a specific field. Prof. Cappelli thus ranks experiences employers look for in the following order:

1) Internships similar to the position for which you are applying

2) Somewhat less relevant work experience, demonstrating your ability to adapt and learn in any environment

3) Relevant coursework, volunteer experiences, and extracurricular activities

Of course, Cappelli still says grades are still important, but they are no longer good enough to be a top concern. Some colleges are responding by vastly expanding their internship connections with private businesses, and that might be a good feature to investigate when you apply to schools in the first place. But whether your school helps you find that internship or not, it's becoming increasingly important to get one or more good internships before you graduate and put your job application up against the dreaded online blocker.