Written by Davis Nguyen
I rejected an applicant with a 4.0 GPA from Yale, and I was prepared to reject more.
Last month, my company asked me to help recruit the upcoming class of summer interns. It was my job to screen more than a hundred resumes from Yale (my alma mater), rank the applicants, and decide who my team and I thought should get an interview and who shouldn’t. The call to be part of recruiting at Bain is like being called up for jury duty – it's extra work, but it's considered an honor.
Upon accepting my role, I received a document to read that outlined how Bain & Company thought about applicants, what to look for in a resume, how to evaluate a transcript, and what attributes would indicate someone would contribute positively and have a good time at Bain.
This is not to say that the people we reject are not great applicants. But when each year more than 30,000 people apply for limited positions at Bain & Company, you have to have an objective measure. And over the last forty years, Bain's recruiting must be working, considering the number of future Fortune 500 CEOs, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and even Presidential nominees we hire.
After reading my share of the thousands of resumes and debating about the candidates, I learned how someone could stand out from a crowd of 30,000 applicants in whatever job they might apply to.
The cover letter wasn’t really optional.
If my company and I are going to invest time, money, and energy to interview and develop you, we expect you to spend at least an hour writing a cover letter. I rejected more than a dozen applicants with perfect or near perfect GPAs, because they chose not to explain why they were interested in the position. Not writing a cover letter explaining why you are applying is like telling someone you like them and then showing up an hour late for a date. Let your actions match your intents.
Google will save you from rejection.
When I see you describing my company as “caring about results” and “valuing people,” I think, which company would say they don’t care about results or about its people? Find examples. What would have been better was checking out the websites of every company you apply for. What stories do they tell? What examples do they list of what they value and what makes them unique? What do the clients say about the company? Replace platitudes with examples to show you did your research.
Talk to someone who works there.
Want an easy way to write your cover letter? Talk to someone who works there. You can easily find the email of someone who works at the place you want to work at. Reach out. If people repeatedly reject even a short 15 minute call with you, reconsider whether this is the type of culture you even want to work in.
Your cover letter isn’t really about you.
It is about us and what you can do with us. I don’t care if you talk about the company you tried to start in college or the summers you volunteered at a kids’ camp. What matters is how your experience will help you have a successful time at the company. If you don’t tell me, I assume you don’t know if you will be successful and were just trying to fill up space on the cover letter.
Want to tell me about that stain on your resume?
The cover letter is the only chance you have to explain to me any points you think I will miss. This includes why your GPA should higher than it actually is. Did you have a family issue that caused one semester to drop your GPA? Without an explanation, I can’t read your mind. You can’t hide the stains, but you can explain why they are there before I assume the worst.
You have a college degree but so does everyone else. What else do you have to offer?
Today ~30% of Americans have at least a college degree compared to ~10% who had it in 1970’s. Having a college degree now is almost assumed. In the 1970’s if you knew how to operate a computer, it was a skill worth listing. Now you wouldn’t list “computer skills” since it is assumed every recent college grad will know who to use one. But is impressive if you have advanced computer skills that are relevant. When most to all people have the same qualification as you, you have to find other ways to stand out.
You have a degree in business, but an applicant with a degree in biology has started his own pop-up restaurant. Who do you think I will choose?
Just because you lack a degree in business doesn’t mean you can’t land a job in business, and just because you have a degree in business doesn’t mean you have a better chance of landing a job in business. In 2014, a team at Auburn University sent 9,400 fictitious resumes to online job openings in business-related fields such as finance, management, and marketing. Each of these resumes were assigned one of nine different majors ranging from business to biology.
Resumes with business degrees were not any more likely to land an interview than resumes with non-business degrees such as English or biology, but what helped was having internship experience listed – this increased the odds by 14%. As I am reading though your resume, I care less about what you studied in the classroom and more about how you use the skills you learn outside the classroom.
Imagine your resume is the only impression I get of you because it might be.
Considering the vast number of resumes I read, I saw some designs that wasn’t just your typical default Microsoft Word template – these people took the time to format these. While a beautiful resume alone did not guarantee a high-rating by me, it made the overall application more memorable. This was especially true in instances when more applicants are qualified than there are spots, I have nothing more than how nicely formatted the resume is. Your resume is an extension of you.
Google will once again save you.
Find out what we actually do. Your resume is not a time to brag about all the crap you have done. But if the crap you’ve done will help the company, you have my attention. I don’t care that you were a waiter at a Michelin star restaurant, but if your tips were 2x the average, then you have my attention. That signals that you know how to deal with people. Your resume is not about you. How will your experience help your future company?
You have a lower GPA than most other applicants, but we’ll still take you.
A high GPA means you can handle hard work. But will you be able to work with others? Do you have the resolve to be calm under pressure? Do you have the fire in belly to be a problem solver? I can’t tell this from just your GPA, so if a high GPA is the only positive quality you have going for you, you are in trouble.
A great resume and cover letter won’t guarantee you a dream job, but having a bad one will make you lost among the 30,000 other applicants.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What is the best job application advice you’ve received?
Davis (@IamDavisNguyen) graduated from Yale University in 2015. He currently lives in San Francisco and works at Bain & Company. When he’s not helping CEOs transform their companies, he is helping recent graduates figure out the type of life they want for themselves and helping them get there.