overly rigid online job application systems

A reader writes:

During my job search, I’ve come across several organizations that use rigid online application systems. For instance, I was working on an application that asked if I have a bachelor’s degree in X. The options were yes or no, without a space to make notations. For me, the answer would be no, but I do have a master’s degree in X. Having applied to this employer before, I know that marking no would automatically kick me out of their system. Should I mark yes and hope they don’t accuse me of lying should I get an interview?

On this same application it asks if I have “paid” experience in A, B, and C. Again, yes or no. The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, but I also have significantly more unpaid experience that is just as relevant. Should I mark yes and include the paid experience only, or should I list every experience relevant to this position?

I don’t want to lie on an application, but I also don’t want to be eliminated simply because of their ridiculous system. Please help!

This is one of the problems with many automated application systems; they don’t allow for the nuance and judgment that a good hiring manager would bring to the process. Obviously having a master’s in X should get you past their requirement for a bachelor’s degree in X, and if your application were being screened by a person, it almost definitely would. But the people who set up online systems like this often don’t think about the requirements they program into them, and how they’ll kick out people whose applications they might actually like to see.

So, let’s take a logical look at your options. You can answer every question completely literally, thereby getting yourself automatically rejected. Or you can answer the questions in the spirit in which they seem intended and have a chance of getting an interview. As long as you really do answer in the spirit of the questions (which your two examples indicate that you would be), chances are good that no one is going to think you misrepresented anything. But in the worst case scenario, if you’re asked about it, you can simply explain that you tried to represent your experience as accurately as possible within the confines of a system that didn’t didn’t allow for explanations. And if they have a problem with that, it’s not a place you want to work anyway — rigid thinking like that tends to bleed over into all kinds of other areas that will impact your quality of life on the job.

So in sum, be 100% literal and have no chance at the job, or answer the way you think best gets your qualifications across and have a shot at it. I’d do the latter.

And I hope anyone reading this who uses an applicant processing system that automatically disqualifies candidates based on their answers — before a human ever sees their application — will go take a good look at how their questions are set up and who they might be losing.

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