Job Applications

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Job Applications

What It Means

Consultants to employers and job seekers alike frequently emphasize the importance of making a “good fit” between the business and the employee. A mismatch (of personalities or job skills), they warn, can prove to be a major waste of time, energy, and money for everyone involved.

For the employer, it is important to screen applicants carefully in order to determine who is the best candidate to fill a particular position. This screening process begins with the job application.

A job application is type of questionnaire provided by the employer, which every applicant for a given position must complete. Depending on the level of skill and experience required for the position, job applications can vary widely in terms of what information they require from an applicant. For example, an application for a job flipping burgers will probably be less rigorous and detailed in the questions it asks than an application for a job as a computer programmer or a paramedic.

Still, as a general rule, all job applications are designed to create a basic profile of a job candidate, including his or her contact information, level of education, previous employment history, and relevant skills. Most job applications also require the applicant to indicate whether he or she has ever been arrested or convicted of a crime and whether he or she is a citizen of (or otherwise able to work legally in) the country where he or she is applying for the job. Many jobs require candidates to submit a résumé in addition to, or instead of, an application form. A résumé is a more formal, polished summary of one’s education, employment history, and skills. It is also known as a curriculum vitae, or C.V.

A job seeker may fill out a job application in response to a simple “Help Wanted” sign in a storefront window, or perhaps after reading a detailed job description in a trade magazine or on an employment website. In either case, the purpose of the application, from the applicant’s perspective, is to capture the employer’s interest enough so that the applicant may advance to the next stage of the screening process, such as an interview. From the employer’s perspective, the application is a useful tool for separating qualified candidates from unqualified ones. Once the employer has selected a handful of the most promising applications, he or she can arrange one-on-one interviews with each of these candidates in order to ascertain the more subtle differences between them.

When Did It Begin

Job applications have been in use at least since the Industrial Revolution, an era of sweeping economic change in Europe and the United States during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. During this period the introduction of large-scale manufacturing processes brought a massive influx of job seekers to urban centers.

It was historically common practice for employers to use discriminatory standards in their hiring practices. Job candidates could be required to include with their application information about their ethnic or religious identity, and employers routinely used these applications as a tool for excluding certain groups of people from consideration for a job. In the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such discrimination was most often applied to certain immigrant groups.

Preliminary prohibitions against employment discrimination in the United States were included in the Unemployment Relief Act of 1933, but they were virtually unenforceable. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 served to establish the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a government agency whose mission is to “ensure equality of opportunity by vigorously enforcing federal legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment,” especially discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Still, however, it was not until the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 that the EEOC gained the power to bring employment-discrimination cases to court. Similar protections were extended to job applicants with disabilities by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992. Preemployment inquiries about a person’s race, color, religion, or national origin, or a requirement that a photo be submitted with an application, may now be subject to charges of discrimination.

More Detailed Information

The typical job application asks for the following information:

  • The applicant’s name, address, e-mail address, and telephone number
  • The position (or positions) for which the applicant is applying
  • The applicant’s educational history, including the names of schools he or she attended and the degrees, diplomas, or certificates he or she completed
  • The applicant’s employment history (usually covering his or her last 3 to 5 jobs held), including the names and addresses of these employers, the positions or job titles held by the applicant, and the duties he or she performed
  • The applicant’s employment references (the names and contact information of former employers who can recommend the applicant as a qualified and reliable candidate)
  • A summary of the applicant’s skills as they apply to the position in question. For example, if the applicant is applying for an administrative position, he might list the computer programs with which he is proficient; or, if the applicant is applying for a customer-service position, he might list qualities such as “friendly and outgoing” and “excellent communication skills.”

The application may also ask whether the applicant is seeking full-time or part-time work, when she is available to start, and what wage or salary she expects to earn.

Most job applications function as a preliminary fact sheet on the candidate without offering much insight into her character or personality. Usually it is not until the employer conducts an interview with the candidate that either party can gain a sense of whether or not the applicant is well suited for the position. Still, there are certain “red flags” an employer can look for in a completed job application that may eliminate a candidate from consideration. For example, if there are significant, unexplained gaps in her job history (gaps that are not attributable to a pursuit such as going back to school or having a baby), the employer may question whether the candidate is a consistent and reliable individual and whether she has a solid work ethic.

Other potential red flags include the following:

  • A series of short-term positions (Was the candidate unmotivated? Unskilled? Unable to get along with coworkers?)
  • A number of unrelated jobs (Is the candidate fickle? Does she lack clear goals?)
  • A series of jobs that does not reflect any advancement of skills or responsibility (another possible indication that the candidate is not highly motivated)
  • An application that contains numerous spelling or grammatical errors (If the candidate does not pay attention to detail when he is trying to impress a prospective employer, how can the employer expect that he will be conscientious on the job?)

In addition to advising employers to scan for such obvious red flags, hiring and management advisers recommend that employers begin the hiring process by writing a thorough and detailed job description (including concrete duties and more abstract qualities such as “patience” or “ability to multitask”) as well as a profile of the key qualifications and experience that the ideal candidate should have.

Recent Trends

Since the mid-1990s the process of hiring employees, or finding a new job, has been dramatically transformed by e-mail and the Internet. Whereas job seekers once had to respond to each individual job listing posted in the newspaper or other print sources by sending a paper application and résumé by mail, the Internet enables them to reply to job listings instantaneously. Similarly, employers can post job listings electronically on job-search websites and know that their advertisements are accessible not just by readers of the local paper but by job seekers all over the globe.

Although employers have benefited from technological advances that give them a larger pool of applicants, there are also drawbacks to hiring in the electronic age. Perhaps the most notable downside is that, with the increased ease of sending out applications and résumés electronically, many job seekers simply flood employers with applications, without reading the job description carefully or giving real consideration to whether or not they have the skills or the experience for the position. As a result, many employers find their e-mail inboxes stuffed with hundreds of applications, the bulk of which are from candidates who are wholly unqualified for the job.

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Job Applications

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