Here’s the hard way to land the job you want:
- Google for “how to write a resume” because it’s been so long you’ve forgotten how.
- Find some cookie-cutter resume template.
- Carefully add your contact info, “objective”, education and work experience (in order).
- Write a cover letter about your interests and “why you’d be a great fit”.
- Send that application to 20 different companies. (Change only the company name each time.)
Sound kinda familiar?
I mean, sure, you can get a job this way — but it’s slow, ineffective, and it only works if everyone else is worse than you.
I think you’re better than that. So let me give you some good news:
There’s a far more effective way to get that job you’re after
Listen: I’ve been on both sides of the hiring desk.
As a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant, I’ve helped multimillion-dollar businesses with their hiring.
But I’ve also had plenty of success in applying for both jobs and freelance gigs (more on that below).
So let me tell you this:
If you know a few secrets about applying for a job, you can instantly “cut the line” in front of your more experienced competition … and even have potential employers or clients chasing you.
And the best part? These secrets work whether you’re a freelancer whose “resume” is a website or a profile on a site like Upwork …
… or whether you’re actually submitting a resume, like this (unorthodox) one I used.
Don’t believe me? Well, that Upwork profile above consistently brings new “jobs” to my inbox:
“I’m not going to read the resume of any other copywriters … you’re the copywriter for me.”
And that resume? The eight-page, colour-and-picture-heavy behemoth with font that’s not Times New Roman and that doesn’t have an “education” section?
Yeah, it landed me an offer at a company who are HUGE in copywriting … even when I only had six months’ experience, I didn’t satisfy the “prerequisites”, and I was up against literally hundreds of more-qualified competitors.
The point is, these “secrets” of writing a great job application don’t just apply to one format or situation. You can use them for anything.
In fact, I’m confident that once you’ve read this post … you will never write a resume the same way again.
But before you get started, I need to give you two caveats.
Two hugely important things to understand before you write a word of your application
Caveat #1: Be good at your job before you get good at applying for it.
In case it’s not obvious, remember this fundamental principle: you always need to offer genuine value for the job you’re applying for.
There’s an old marketing rule of thumb that in any given campaign, your offer is twice as important as your copy.
For you, that means that your skillset is actually twice as important as whatever you write on your application. So if you aren’t actually, say, a great designer, you should focus on becoming a better designer before you focus on getting better at applying for designer jobs.
You’d think this is obvious … but you’d be surprised at how many people are Googling “resume tips” when they should be putting in a few more hours to master their craft.
TL;DR Don’t expect your application to work magic. If you aren’t very good at what you do, the world’s greatest resume won’t help you much.
Now, assuming you’re already pretty good at what you do, let’s keep moving …
Caveat #2: There’s a time and a place for everything.
Sometimes, it’s good to be creative, and submit an 8-page, full-colour resume like mine above.
But sometimes, it’s best to stick to the tried-and-true resume format, and be a bit more subtle with how you use the techniques you’re about to read below.
How you know when to do either is to do your homework. What’s the culture of the company you’re applying to? Will the founder be reading your application, or will it go through a bureaucratic web of HR staff? Are they known for having a sense of humour? And so on.
Again, this is common sense. But I don’t want to imply that there’s NEVER a place for a standard resume.
(There probably is … I just hope I never work there.)
And with those two disclaimers out of the way, let’s get into the fun stuff …
How to write a resume when you don’t have any experience or qualifications:
- Start in their shoes
- Understand that ‘prerequisites’ don’t matter (most of the time)
- Do something different
- Use the ‘Jack Reacher Strategy’
- Grab ’em by the throat — and don’t let go
- Prove it!
- Dare to be imperfect
- Ignore the barriers
#1: Start in their shoes
When successful marketers launch a new product, they don’t just throw it out onto the market and cross their fingers.
Instead, they do all the work up-front to learn the pains, fears, hopes and dreams of their target market inside-out … so they’re practically guaranteed to succeed when they launch. (Ramit Sethi calls this process “immersion”.)
So how can you use it in your application?
Well, you’re the product … and your hiring manager is the market.
And that means you need to start by thinking about what THEY want to see.
Let’s try doing that now:
Imagine I’m a hiring manager who’s spent the whole day browsing through the same old, me-too applications.
I’m bored, I’m tired, and I’m kind of annoyed at how so many of these people say the same boring things. I’m practically begging for someone to jump out at me and end my search for the right candidate.
Suddenly, your application comes up before me.
What do you think I want to see right now?
Would I want yet another stupid, boring, cookie-cutter resume to read through? Probably not.
Would I really care about reading 10 paragraphs about “I, I, I” in your cover letter? I doubt it.
Do I really want to see your qualifications … or am I actually interested in knowing if you can do a great job for me?
This seems so very obvious … and yet almost nobody takes five minutes to think of this before they fire off another cookie-cutter application.
But hey, their loss is your gain, right?
Now let’s take it up a notch … and get specific.
It’s one thing to know the kind of application to send in … but another to know exactly what to say.
That’s where you want to use your specific knowledge of the industry, the company, and even the hiring manager (if you know anything about them) to craft your application.
Take my case for an example. I knew that, as a boss, hiring a writer would come with a few challenges, which I could figure were these:
- “Can you really write well?”
- “Will we have to put in a ton of effort to make you better?”
- “Can I rely on you to turn in work on time and have it right?”
- “Do you learn fast? How hard will I have to work to train you?”
So in my application, I made sure to knock each of those off — some subtly, some explicitly. Here’s the second page of my resume:
But here’s the kicker: these requirements are going to change depending on the job you go for. And that’s why it’s important to know your market.
Don’t skimp on this step. It’s #1 for a reason. And if you can get it right, you’re practically a shoo-in.
#2: Understand that ‘prerequisites’ don’t matter (most of the time)
Most people think that not meeting a “prerequisite” means your bid for the job is over before it starts.
But that’s not totally true.
Here’s the thing: prerequisites are almost never what’s ACTUALLY required.
Think about it. Why do you suppose employers write stuff like “must have 5 years’ experience”, or “must have a portfolio with XYZ”, or “must have qualification ABC”?
Do you think having a degree automatically means you’re going to make them more money, save them time, or make their life easier?
Of course not. They say that because they want to know you can do their job — and those “prerequisites” are the best metrics they know for measuring that.
Employers assume (often rightfully) that if you can demonstrate a nice history of work, or a good portfolio, you can do their job too.
But that doesn’t mean their prerequisites are the ONLY way to prove that!
For example, Danny Margulies from Freelance To Win teaches his brilliant ‘Crystal Ball Technique’ for applying for freelance jobs you’re not ‘qualified’ for: in a nutshell, you create a custom portfolio piece that’s close to what your client wants in the job — thereby proving you can do their work.
In the same way, think outside the box. What does your employer REALLY want — and how else can you demonstrate that you can deliver it?
Here’s an example of how I did this:
In a copywriting job I applied to early in my career, I was asked to write a 700-word sample sales page with my application.
I knew that’d take me hours, and I might not even qualify anyway — so I left it blank!
Instead, I wrote “Please see attachment”, as if I’d attached it — and then I dragged the recruiter into my pitch with my interesting resume.
Then at the end of it, I explained why I hadn’t written the letter.
Did they care? No. Because the reason they wanted that sample sales page was just to prove that I could write copy.
So by demonstrating that in another way — through a well-written resume — I satisfied the real, hidden question they were asking: “Can you really write, or are you wasting our time?”
As you can see, the strength of a good offer — presented in a good way — is enough to overcome almost any objection your employer might have. (I got through the interview process for that job.)
So, never shoot yourself down just because a ‘prerequisite’ says you’re not qualified.
They probably don’t care!
#3: Do something different
Let’s face it: you’re probably up against quite a number of other people.
But contrary to what you might expect … you can actually turn this to your advantage.
Your recruiter, faced with a multitude of candidates from which to choose, has a serious case of the Paradox of Choice — meaning they WILL resort to mental heuristics to make their decision easier.
And that means that the candidate who does something — ANYTHING — to stand out … is going to maximise their odds of being picked.
You can complain that it’s unfair and they should judge you on your “merits”.
Or you can wise up, game the system, and do something to stand out — and massively boost your chances of being remembered.
But don’t think this means you need to get crazy. There are some very simple ways to do this:
- Start your cover letter by talking about their needs, not yours.
- Change the format of your resume from the standard cookie-cutter template.
- Add a picture of yourself.
- Include your personality into the application somehow (not just by saying “Hard-working, good in a team, patient”).
- Attach proof of other work you’ve done that might be interesting.
Now obviously, not all of these will be appropriate for everyone. Use your discretion.
But the point is, it’s not hard to stand out. And nobody else is going to make the effort — so why not take advantage of that?
This next strategy is a particularly good way to do that …
#4: Use the ‘Jack Reacher Strategy’: Anything can be a weapon
See if you can spot the marketing lesson in the 15-second trailer for the second Jack Reacher movie below:
In it, you see Tom Cruise (playing hardcore detective Jack Reacher) picking up a salt shaker to smash a car window… overlaid with the simple rule that “anything can be a weapon”.
You can use that rule, too. But rather than breaking windows, for our purposes, it means that we’re going to become a “Jack Reacher” of qualifications… and find them everywhere in our lives.
Here, look at the examples I used in my resume to justify my writing skills:
I cited a medal I’d won for a technical presentation at university — and spun it so that it showed that I could “make a dry topic interesting”.
I gave the fact that I’d been in a band with two released albums and over half a million views on YouTube — and included a few screenshots of comments showing emotional fan reactions — to prove that I could “write to make people laugh or cry”.
I mean, come on … if music and engineering can be used to prove you can write copy, anything’s fair game!
If you don’t have ‘traditional’ qualifications, get creative.
Not sure how? Let me walk you through an example …
Let’s say you’ve volunteered as a linesman for the local soccer club.
(The linesman is like the referee’s assistant; he runs back and forth up the pitch, watching whether the ball’s gone over the line or not.)
Normally, you’d just throw this one out, right?
Well, you’re Jack Reacher now, and everything can be used for your purposes.
If you’re applying for a customer service job … then it’s taught you how to think fast, work in an environment where people are constantly hostile to your decisions, and keep a cool head.
If you’re applying for a writing job … then you learned how to make decisions quickly, work under high pressure for a long, uninterrupted period of time, and accept when the referee overrules your decision without complaining — which will be helpful for your new editor because you’ll keep your ego out of the way of his edits.
If you’re applying for a graphic design job … you’ve developed an excellent eye for colour differences by having to differentiate between the players, and you can take in a situation visually and get an ‘intuitive’ feel for how it works.
And you know what? Maybe some of your reasons will sound weak or lame. But that doesn’t matter. Do it anyway.
You see, part of the impressiveness of this technique is simply the fact that you’re showing creativity in taking one thing and applying it to something entirely different. That in itself is a characteristic only found in top performers. And you can bet that nobody else will bother to do it because it’s “dumb”.
So, get thinking. Maybe you’ve worked at a hairdressing salon. Or you’ve been complimented on a public speech. Or you do salsa dancing in your free time. Everything can be spun to have SOME benefit for your future employer.
Anything can be a weapon.
#5: Grab ’em by the throat — and don’t let go
Oh, have you been thinking of what you’re writing as a resume this whole time?
Well, forget that. With what we’re doing here, there is no such thing as a ‘resume’.
Or, for that matter, a ‘cover letter’. Or a ‘proposal’. Or an ‘application letter’. Or an ‘invitation’.
There are only sales pages.
Whenever you’re trying to persuade someone to do something, you’re writing a sales page.
And the closer you follow the principles of good sales pages — and ground your writing in solid sales psychology — the more effective you’ll be.
If you’re taking it for a given that you’re writing a sales page, you need to use the principles of good sales pages.
And here’s one of them:
Grab your reader by the throat — and don’t let go.
In any sales page, you should instantly seize your reader’s attention — and don’t let it go until you’ve told them what you want them to do.
Jerry Seinfeld puts it best:
“This whole idea of an attention span is, I think, a misnomer. People have an infinite attention span if you are entertaining them.”
If you make your resume/cover letter/proposal interesting enough, you can theoretically hold your reader’s attention for as long as you need to to make the pitch.
An easy way to do this is to make sure your writing is always answering in some way the question: “What’s in it for me?”
Obviously, there are many more aspects to writing a good sales page: The way you write. The way you structure the text. The headings you use. And so on.
Now I can’t teach you here ALL the tricks of writing a sales page. (Join my mailing list if you’d like to learn more.)
But you can learn ‘em. And you should. Because they work.
Once you stop writing resumes or proposals, and start writing sales pages, you’ll start seeing a lot more success.
#6: Prove it!
Talk is cheap, and you can take one thing for granted: everyone is going to be talking about how great they are.
Thankfully, there’s an easy way to stand out amongst all the talk:
One of the best ways to strengthen your application is to include something that shows you can do the job.
For example, you’ve seen that I did a resume that showed my ability to write copy.
Freelance designers can use their flair to make their application look great.
Ask yourself: What’s the most important thing this company/client would want from me in this role?
And then figure out the best way to actually PROVE that in your resume … ideally, by actually doing something for the client that shows it, or attaching past samples of where you did it.
Remember Rule #3: Do something different. Nobody else is gonna do this. Take advantage of their laziness.
Don’t underestimate the power of showing you’ve got the chops to do the job.
#7: Dare to be imperfect
At the end of my resume, I did something crazy.
I told my potential employers two of my biggest FAILURES … at the job they were hiring me for.
Who in their right mind would do that?
Well, I had a reason. Two, in fact. And I even gave them right in the document:
- Real-world mistakes prove real-world experience… which is 100x more valuable to your employer than a ‘degree’.
- Having made those mistakes, I wasn’t gonna make them again.
I even wrote up a mini ‘case study’ for each one, to show what I’d done, and what I’d learned. This showed I wasn’t just an idiot who made mistakes — but a quick learner who corrected course after every failure so as not to do it again.
Likewise, if you can twist your flaws into strengths somehow, do it! Remember, you’re Jack Reacher.
Your employer (or client, or customer) will love your honesty… and they’ll be more inclined to accept your offer.
#8: Ignore the barriers
One of the marketing axioms of legendary copywriter Joe Sugarman goes like this:
Never assume constraints that don’t actually exist.
This rule can probably sum up most of what I’ve told you above.
I knew that, if I followed the standard route, I wouldn’t get far. So I broke and twisted as many rules as I could.
Some people might have said that I was crazy to do so.
Those people have probably never gotten results like I did.
Ultimately, you need to approach this with the mind of a child. Don’t wall yourself in because you think you shouldn’t do something. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you can and can’t do. Just try it.
Would I have thought, when I was working a boring engineering job I hated and had never heard of the word “copywriting”, that I’d be sitting there a year later, writing on my laptop at home on a Monday morning, and charging clients hundreds of dollars per hour to write copy for them?
But imagine if I’d let that belief hold me back from everything I did over the next year.
So, screw the barriers.
Forget the people who tell you you can’t do something.
Just try, and see what happens.
Now it’s your turn.
Remember, the point of what you’ve just read isn’t to say that my way is the only way — or even the best way.
But hopefully, you can see how you can afford to be way more creative in your applications … and that can actually be a good thing.
What do you think? Have you used any of these principles in your own applications? Do you have any of your own? Let me know in the comments.