Sept. 3, 2009 -- Next to dwindling unemployment benefits and recruiters who don't return phone calls, the biggest gripes I hear from job seekers are about the online job application process.
Either the systems crash and lose all the brilliant answers you've just spent the past two hours inputting. Or they request personal information you wouldn't even give in a face-to-face interview, like your social security number. And, more often than not, there's no confirmation that your data was actually received.
Among the ways I've heard candidates describe these digital application tools: "despicable," "de-humanizing," "exasperating," "Byzantine," "barbaric," "invasive," "abusive," "nightmarish," "useless" and "clearly written by crazed, blind hermits."
"One application I gave up on was 72 pages long. Forty-eight of those were psychological profile questions," said a candidate who was trying to throw her hat into the ring for a retail job.
"You apply, apply and apply and hear absolutely nothing. The silence is deafening," said a job hunter who'd completed 400 online applications in the past year without hearing a peep.
"It's probably quicker and easier to be hired by the CIA," said another applicant.
So what's a job seeker to do?
I asked a handful of seasoned recruiters, HR professionals and career coaches for their top tips on saving one's time and sanity when applying for jobs online. Here's what they had to say.
Sneak in Through the Back Door
Experts agree: If your initial point of contact with a company is your application hitting their database, you're going about this job hunting thing all wrong.
Your first step should be to "use LinkedIn, Facebook or other online sources to find and connect with someone within the company," said Lauren Milligan of ResuMAYDAY, a career coaching firm based in Warrenville, Ill.
Of course, you can't just waltz up to someone's Web profile and start making demands.
"Instead, ask them about their own experiences with the company and what advice they would give to someone seeking employment there," Milligan said. "If the conversation goes well, ask them to take a look at your resume and see if someone with your experience would be a good fit."
Get in Touch with Your Inner Administrator
Then offer a heartfelt thanks and invite them to call on you to return the favor any time, she added.
Even if your BFF, next door neighbor or dear Aunt Susie hand delivers your resume to their company's HR department or hiring manager, there's a decent chance you'll still be asked to apply online. And if you want to be considered for the gig, you'd be wise to oblige.
When applying online, being more organized than you've ever been in your life is key.
"Have all of your information completed in an unformatted text document before you begin -- every single thing that you could be asked so you can cut and paste into the application as quickly as possible," said Sherri Edwards of Resource Maximizer, a career coaching firm based in Seattle.
Organizing your resume chronologically will make the process easier, Edwards said. Besides, it's a must for application databases, which don't look kindly on functional resumes (aka, non-chronological ones), she explained.
Save every application detail into one document, from the e-mail address and password you used to access the system to any answers you provided that weren't on your master cheat sheet, Edwards said. Not only does this create a handy record of the jobs you've pursued, it can prevent you from losing your work if the system crashes mid-application.
As for those still grieving for their pretty, formatted resumes of yesteryear, it's time to embrace the 21st century and move on.
Any fancy formatting just gets turned into gibberish in these databases, said Kristen Fife, a recruiter at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"Recruiters want the substance of your resume. They don't care what it looks like," she said. "Save your nice, formatted version for when you send your resume by e-mail or when you go in for an interview."
Customize, Customize, Customize
"Most people have one or two versions of their resume," said Peter Bell, president of Peter Bell & Associates, LLC, a recruiting firm in New York.
But this is often not enough.
Instead, Bell advised, take the time to research the potential employer and, using the job description as your guide, tailor your resume (and thus, your online application) so it conveys your direct experience.
Hopefully, by now you've heard about the role keywords play in this process. (In short, these databases are set up to search your application for job-specific keywords. If you omit these magic beans, you name doesn't get plucked from the digital pile.)
Triple Up on the Keywords
"The keywords will hopefully be right there in the job description," Fife said. "These are actual skills -- they're not marketing buzzwords."
Translation: "MBA," "marketing professional," "3 to 5 years' marketing experience" and "SEO" are keywords. "Successful," "award-winning" and "seasoned" are not.
Fife recommends using each keyword at least three times throughout your resume. "That indicates to a recruiter that you've had at least two jobs with that skill," she said.
Guard Overly Personal Information with Your Life
In printed applications and phone screenings, it's easy enough to say that you don't feel comfortable providing your social security number until being offered the job. But what about when an online application won't let you proceed without completing that nine-digit field?
"If a company insists that you give a social security number, make one up to get you through the form," Fife said. "Try 010-10-1010. Use something that is not necessarily going to be flagged as just repeating the same digit over and over."
What if the form asks for salary history?
Fife recommends researching the market rate for someone with your level of experience in your geographic region ahead of time.
"Instead of giving them your past numbers, especially if you know that your past numbers are too high or low, give a range," she said, explaining that companies ask for this data to see whether you're within the $20,000 to $30,000 salary range budgeted for the position.
How about the reference conundrum -- should you give them up in an online application?
Edwards says, yes, as long as you've called them ahead of time and gotten their blessing. (Unless you're applying for agency or temporary work, most companies won't call your references before getting serious about making you an offer.)
"I have to question why someone would be concerned about just putting someone's name and e-mail addresses as a contact," she said. "If they're someone who shouldn't be called, you need to pick new a reference."
As for those who'd rather not give out their own e-mail address, residential address or phone number, get yourself a P.O. Box (about $50 to $100 a year through the post office), set up a free e-mail account you'll only use for your job hunt and look into Google voice (free), which gives you a phone number you can forward to any private number you choose -- and lets you block callers you no longer want to hear from.
Verify Before Your Apply
I hear many job seekers lament that they've gone through the online application process with employment agencies that have never yielded anything more than an avalanche of self-promotional e-mail spam. Likewise, I get a lot of grumbles about job applications that seem to be nothing more than gateways into subscription Web sites offering various paid job-hunting services.
There's an easy way to avoid these time wasters: Check with your fellow industry members. Ask which agencies and services they'd recommend, and which they'd run from, screaming. Also see what Googling the agency or site name along with words like "complaint," "consumer report" or "scam" turns up.
In other words, don't let desperation cloud your common sense.
"You've got to do your homework," Fife said. "Stick to the major job boards [CareerBuilder, Vault, Indeed, and so on] and the industry-specific job boards [JournalismJobs.com, DentalAssistantJobs.com, GreenJobs.com, and so on].
And always check the company's Web site to see if the job is still listed."
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.