How to Approach Online Job Application Forms

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Online forms are a horror. Designed as an initial screen for recruiters to save time and automate the applicant-sifting process, they have devolved into a dehumanizing experience that robs both applicants and hiring managers the serendipity of discovering each other and considering out-of-the-box alternatives. These insidious forms based on narrow keyword searches have also become a not-so-subtle way to hide inherent age discrimination.

The problem with online forms is manifold. Recruiters miss out on seeing the "human" in human beings, especially those who may have used less common key words to describe their experiences. And because age discrimination is real, hiring managers miss opportunities to reconsider their own prejudices by facing and accessing mature applicants who could make a difference in a company.

Nevertheless, online forms exist, and when faced with one on a company's web site you have two choices:
  1. Fill out the from
  2. Skip the job.

The temptation always exists to fill out the form. The motivated job hunter doesn't want to leave any stone unturned. However, when faced with an online form, the better part of valor may be to use your job hunting time more efficiently. Here's why: I don't know anyone (read that again – anyone) who has gotten a job by filling out an online form. If you have, please write me. I'd love to know about it.

But if the temptation is too great and you feel the job is compelling enough to invest the time in filling out the form, here are some tips to reduce the amount of time wasted in applying.Don't fill out the form. This doesn't mean don't pursue the job. It means find other ways to inquire about the job. I once saw a job that used a form. Instead of blindly filling out the form, I did more research on the company. I found the hiring manager on LinkedIn and sent her a personal note of inquiry. I stated that I wanted to inquire about the job and invited her to view my profile; I wasn't sure if I was a good fit and I wanted her opinion. That resulted in an online conversation, then a phone screen and finally an interview. It was only at that point -- after I was onsite and already invited for an interview-- that I filled out the standard HR forms.

Get efficient at filling out forms. After spending hours on one form and having it disappear off the face of the planet in some computer glitch, I started to put more value on my time. I took more time filling out the next form. My goal wasn't so much to get the job, but to create a template for myself to make future forms easier. I stopped at the end of every screen and instead of hitting the "next" button, I took a screen shot of the form and printed it out. I did this for every screen. Then I saved the printed forms in a binder and they became my template for all future forms.

Put the form and job on the back burner. Agree that you are interested enough in the job to fill out the form, but recognize that these forms take enormous time and effort. Challenge yourself to find at least one other job to apply to before filling out the form. If you can't find a different (not necessarily better) job to apply to before 4:00 that afternoon, then set aside quiet time before dinner to fill out the form.

Save forms for the morning. Forms are detailed and difficult. You're not only dealing with the form, but the company's server and uploading issues. Fill out the form when you're fresh and most computer-literate. For me, this is after a cup of coffee, a good night's sleep, and with lots of light in the room. If your best time is a different hour, choose that time. You need time when you have infinite patience and can stay focused from the beginning to the end of the form.

Follow the form with function. In one company that uses forms, an applicant showed up in the lobby to see if she could speak to someone about the position. She hadn't heard anything back and wanted to follow up. Guess what happened? The HR person came out, took her name and searched for her application, which was buried in the system. Within two weeks, she was hired and working at the company. She decided NOT to trust the system and sought some human intervention. It got her the job.

Skip the job entirely. This is my favorite, and it takes strength. Not every job or company is right for you, especially if you're over age 50. It's tempting to apply to every job that appears interesting, but forms can be demoralizing, forcing you to take a step back in self-confidence rather than energizing you to move forward.

Companies that use forms are companies that either don't value human interaction, are afraid of being sued, have not invested enough in their HR departments, or feel that "so many people want to work here, we can afford to be mechanical about applications." You may want the job and want to help the company change. It may be worth it for you to fill out the form. But since the odds are against you, first ask yourself if you have the time to waste, if you have the energy for the experience, and if you really want to work for a company like that. Then act accordingly.
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