5 Reasons Your Job Applications Fail – And What To Do About It

Image shows a woman working on a laptop.
Whether you’re a teenager looking for a way to earn pocket money at weekends, or you’re applying for your first proper full-time job as an adult, looking for a job can be a deeply frustrating process.

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There are a plethora of depressing statistics to back this up. The vast number of applications per place (39 per graduate job, suggests the Telegraph; 85 per graduate job, says the BBC), as well as the number of applicants rejected by software scanning (up to 50%, according to Forbes) and the number of job applications that go entirely unanswered (75%, claims Career Builder) all combine to paint a grim picture of the job market, and that’s with unemployment at a seven-year low.
So if you’re applying for anything from a paper round to an internship to a leading graduate scheme, here are the top reasons that you might not be getting the jobs you’re applying for – and what you can do to change it.

1. You’re underqualified

Image shows a small boy dressed in a suit.
This isn’t the impression you want to give your prospective employer.

The biggest and most straightforward reason why you would be turned down for a job is simply that you aren’t qualified for it, whether in terms of grades, skills, experience or temperament. This is particularly likely when you’re first entering the job market and haven’t yet got a picture of the requirements of a particular job, or are in the awful Catch-22 of needing experience to get a job, but needing a job to get experience. And it feels particularly unfair when it’s a job you know you could do easily, but you have no way of proving that that’s the case.
There are two ways of dealing with this problem. First of all, asking yourself if you really do think you’re capable of doing the job. For example, looking at a part-time job that requires experience and applying in the hope that you could do it in your weekends while you’re still at school is a pointless endeavour. Less obviously, consider what you’re temperamentally suited to. If you hate providing good customer service but you’re applying for waiting staff jobs because “how hard can it be?”, you shouldn’t be surprised if you start collecting rejections. Similarly, applying to work in a clothes shop even though you think fashion is pointless or a tutoring job even though you dislike children is probably not going to end well. If a job requires experience, then you really do need at least some experience.
If you’re sure that you can do the job, then it’s time to look at how you can persuade your prospective employer of that. Sometimes you will encounter outlandish experience requirements (e.g. four years’ experience for a standard waitressing job; it’s probably worth applying if you have a year’s experience or more); these, you can ignore to a certain extent, but more often you will have to find ways of proving your eligibility more creatively.
You might think that you have no relevant experience for a particular job, until you consider the requirements, which might be things like thinking on your feet, resolving conflicts, working in a team, managing conflicting deadlines or problem-solving – all of which you’ve probably done in schoolwork or extra-curricular activities, even if you’re never done them in the context of employment. So if you’re asked when you’ve used leadership skills – a classic job interview question – think about captaining your sports team, or coordinating a group project at school, rather than giving up and saying you’ve never done that.
If you really can’t think of any way that you fit a particular criterion, then try to make a virtue out of it. “While I have no experience of managing a team, I enjoy working with people and finding the strengths of a group. I am a quick learner and have gained other leadership skills, such as public speaking and clear communication, which I would be able to bring to this role” is a much better answer than “no management experience, sorry.”

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Careers articles."2. You’re overqualified

Image shows graduates throwing mortarboards.
It’s depressing that there are some jobs for which having a good degree is a disadvantage.

Of all the reasons to be turned down for a job – particularly in light of reason number one – this seems like the most unfair. It’s not that you weren’t good enough for the job; it’s that you were too good for it. It’s particularly infuriating when you’re looking for a job in a very competitive field, where you are overqualified for the entry-level jobs but there are many more people who are more qualified than you competing for the next level up. It can be even harder when you’re trying to get something like a Saturday job, leading many applicants to dumb down their CVs – turning a string of high-level GCSEs into something like “5 A*-C” in order to be in with a shot.
But this irritating state of affairs can also be overcome. For something like a Saturday job while you’re still at school, short of writing a misleading CV or being recommended for a job by a friend, there may be no way that you can get a standard retail or customer service job of the kind that teenagers usually pick up if you’re repeatedly being told you’re overqualified. The reasoning behind this isn’t as illogical as it might first seem: people who are very bright or very academic can get bored more easily in jobs that aren’t intellectually stimulating, and therefore not perform to the best of their ability. Also, even if the job is initially only temporary, the employer might prefer to hire someone less well-qualified who might end up staying on (and not going off to university or seeking out a better job as soon as possible) in order that all their training doesn’t go to waste.
Thankfully, in a lot of areas there are jobs available that are better suited to the bright and academic. Instead of retail or waiting jobs, try looking at tutoring, proofreading or writing jobs. You might even get hired in something like web design if you have any skills in that area. These are the kinds of jobs where your qualifications will be valued – and they’re usually better paid as well.
Finally, if you’re well aware of how overqualified you are, do your best not to let it show in your covering letter or interview. Turning up and giving the impression that you think you’re too good for the job – especially if it seems like you think you’re better than the person interviewing you – is seldom going to lead to success, no matter how well you could perform the role required of you.

3. You didn’t seem interested in the job

Image shows someone looking at their phone instead of at their laptop.
If you’re going to be bored and on your phone all the time at work, they might as well have hired someone less qualified but more committed.

This is the kind of feedback you’re unlikely ever to hear, but it can be a major contributor to not getting a job. It can go hand-in-hand with being overqualified, if you seem like you’re more interested in your prospective boss’s job than the one you’re applying for yourself. Or it might be that you’ve given the impression of caring more about getting any old job than the specific one you’ve applied for.
Fixing this begins with your covering letter. Many people make the mistake of writing a covering letter that is all about why they are suitable for the role, matching up their experience to the person specification in the job description and so on – and this content is certainly valuable. However, it makes a world of difference to show enthusiasm for the particular job and the particular company as well. Consider the following:
“I am an experienced waitress, having worked in three different cafés over the past five years, so I have all the necessary skills to work at Sue’s Cake Emporium.”
“I am an experienced waitress, having worked in three different cafés over the past five years. This experience has taught me how much I value a food service environment where the quality of food served is the ultimate priority, which is one of the things that really appeals to me about Sue’s Cake Emporium.”
It makes sense that Sue is much more likely to be pleased with the second letter than the first.
The same is true when you get to the interview stage. Researching the job thoroughly helps – so that you know enough about the role and the company to enthuse about them. You can answer interview questions in the same way; don’t just explain that you have the experience or skills necessary, but that you are enthusiastic about the possibility of using them in the new job if you were to be offered it.
The dreaded “where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” question is important for this. Obviously you want to give the impression of ambition, but without making it seem as if you’re only interested in climbing the ladder, rather than doing the job you’re applying for. A more specific version of an answer like “I really hope that I would have achieved a level of real expertise in this field” may impress without giving the impression you’re only in it for the promotion.

4. You’re perfect for the company, but not the job

Image shows rows of fancy cakes.
If you’d love to work for Sue’s Cake Emporium but you’re not sure of the right role for you, tell them.

This can be the depressing consequence of applying to a company that you’d really love to work for, without having a firm idea of what it is that you’d like to do for them. They might love your enthusiasm about what they do (see point 3) but you might nonetheless not quite be the right fit for the job. If you get a rejection letter that strongly emphasises that you should apply for other roles at the company, this might be the story behind it.
If you think this might be the position you’re in, there are two things you can do. The first comes before you apply for the job. If the job advert has a telephone number you can call to talk about the role, then call up and say that you love the company but you’re not 100% sure that you’re a good fit for the role.
There’s no need to be too modest here – you can say you’re not sure you’re the right fit for the role while doing your utmost to demonstrate that you’re perfect for it (e.g. “I’m not sure I have the baking experience for Sue’s Cake Emporium – I’ve won my school’s Baker of the Year competition for the past three years so I have some experience, but I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing you’re looking for”). They might then welcome your application all the same, or let you know that they’re going to be hiring for a job you’d be more suited for in a couple of months, and you should hold off applying until then. Public sector and charity jobs tend to be particularly good about this. If it’s a job advertised through a recruitment agency, you can be even more confident of this strategy, and proceed without the dissimulation and humblebragging; it’s in their financial interests to find the right person from the employee and employer’s perspective, so they should give you good advice.
If you’re aware that this is the problem after you’ve already been turned down for the job, then it’s worth emailing back after the rejection to ask them to keep you in mind for future vacancies. Don’t assume that just because you’ve applied for one job and been rejected that you’ve burned your bridges with this company – in fact, if you’ve been an impressive but not-quite-right interview candidate, that will stand you in good stead for a second application to the same people. Put some effort into chasing future vacancies, too – follow them on any relevant social media channels, connect with them on LinkedIn, and if they do advertise a vacancy that’s right for you, make sure you get your application in as soon as you possibly can.

5. You’re perfect for the job, but not the company

Image shows a ping-pong bat on an office table.
Sometimes you won’t mesh with a particular company’s office culture.

Like any group of people, companies, and sometimes departments within companies, develop their own cultures. It could be that the sales department are all video game geeks whose hugely competitive annual tournament is the highlight of the office year, or that the chef whose restaurant you’re applying to work for likes his kitchen to be an area of zen-like calm where no one runs and everyone speaks as little as possible. If you can’t bear to spend a minute more in front of an electronic screen than you have to, or if your default setting is LOUD, then you might be a perfect candidate on paper, but chances are neither you nor they will be happy if they hire you.
Of all the reasons to be rejected, this is probably the one where you’re least likely to get an honest answer from the company – and understandably so. “You don’t like video games” or “you have the volume control of a howler monkey” are not really decent grounds for turning someone down for a job, so they’re likely to be couched in terms like “we didn’t think you were the right fit for our organisation” – which can also be an ugly euphemism for “you belong to a minority group we’re prejudiced against”.
If you do manage to figure out that this is the problem, there isn’t much you can do with respect to that company and that particular job – and indeed, it can be hard to avoid in general, as you don’t usually know what a company’s culture is like until you’ve spent some time working there. What you can do is try to make your own assessment of them with use of the time in the interview when your interviewer asks if there’s anything you’d like to ask them. If there’s something that you particularly like or dislike in workplace culture, now is the time to ask about it. This can help show your prospective employer that cultural fit is something you’re attuned to as well – and if your response to their answer is to continue being enthusiastic about how well you think you’d fit in, then that may lead them to ignore any reservations they might have at their end.
Beyond that, you can take note of the particular job – its title, its requirements – and put it to the top of your priority list of the kind of thing you want to apply for in future. After all, if the only issue is fit within the company and you’re not desperately hard to get on with, then it’ll just be a matter of writing a few more applications until you find the position that’s right for you.
Do you have any tips for students struggling with job applications? Share them in the comments!


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Image credits: banner; boy in suit; graduates; checking phone; cakes; ping-pong.