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HIRING

5 Things to Learn From the World's Best Job Applicants

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. That's why I've started scouring the best job applications of all time to help me make better hiring decisions.
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How do you hire great people? I'm taking on a role in a new startup soon, and one of my first responsibilities will be to help build our staff from the ground up. That's a daunting task. When you start reaching out to your network (and especially if you write great job advertisements), it's easy to be overwhelmed with applications.

In a young organization, what should you be looking for besides the ability to do the job? Conversely, if you're applying for a job with a startup, how do you make your application stand out?

As part of thinking this through, I've been compiling a list of some of the most interesting and impressive job applications of all time. (If you have other examples, please email me and let me know. Maybe I'll use them in another column.)

Some of the best I've found are on the blog, Letters of Note. These applications didn't all work, but in most cases that's more of an indictment of the people in charge of hiring. Take a look through them, and you'll see what I mean. Here are five top things should be looking for when you weed through a stack of resumes.

1. A focus on what the employer needs, not what the potential employee wants

This will be a tough application to follow, but so be it. Once upon a time, even Leonardo da Vinci had to apply for a job. In either 1483 or 1484, he reached out via letter to Ludovico Sforza, who was then the ruler of Milan. As Letters of Note points out, da Vinci's fascinating application letter focused on what his audience needed. It is therefore "dominated by his undeniably impressive military engineering skills," but it "doesn't even hint at his artistic genius until the end."

For example:

1. I have plans for very light, strong and easily portable bridges with which to pursue and, on some occasions, flee the enemy, and others, sturdy and indestructible either by fire or in battle, easy and convenient to lift and place in position. Also means of burning and destroying those of the enemy. ...

6. Also, I will make covered vehicles, safe and unassailable, which will penetrate the enemy and their artillery, and there is no host of armed men so great that they would not break through it. And behind these the infantry will be able to follow, quite uninjured and unimpeded.

Toward the end, he mentions that he can also "execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting ..." Seriously, go and read the whole thing--and remember that a successful cover letter is about what you can do for the potential employer, not what they can do for you.

2. An ability to be brief and a willingness to be flexible

This next one is unusual, but there are good lessons involved. A few years ago in the U.K., a six-year-old boy applied to become the director of the National Railway Museum. A joke, you might assume? Not exactly. The boy was sincere, if obviously coached and assisted by his parents, but his short letter, combined with some smart thinking on the part of the museum, led to a smart outcome. First, the letter in its entirety:

I am writing to apply to be the new Director of the National Railway Museum. I am only 6 but I think I can do this job. I have an electrick train track. I am good on my train track. I can control 2 trains at once.  I have been on lots of trains including Eurostar and some trains in France. I have visited the museum before. I loved watching the trains go round on the turntable. On the other side is a picture of me. Hopefully I can come and meet you for an interview.

Sad to say, I've received many job applications over the years that were nowhere near as good as this one. The museum apparently realized its potential, and decided to "hire" the boy anyway--in a PR-ish position they called the Director of Fun.

3. A creative outlook that treats the application like part of the job

In 1934, an aspiring screenwriter named Robert Pirosh left his job in New York and headed to Los Angeles. He wrote a masterful cover letter, and he sent it to "all the directors, producers, and studio executives he could think of."

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave "V" words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. ...

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood. I ... still like words. May I have a few with you?

See what I mean? If you're going to be a writer, send a cover letter that suggests you can actually write. By the way, this cover letter worked. Pirosh landed a job at MGM, wrote for the Marx Brothers and eventually won an Academy Award for his screenwriting.

4. A sincere argument that the applicant truly wants to serve you

In early 1942, a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a young man with an unusual family lineage was denied permission to enlist in the U.S. military. He wrote to President Roosevelt to ask for help, in a letter that made up for in sincerity what it lacked in brevity.

"I am the nephew and only descendant of the ill-famed Chancellor and Leader of Germany who today so despotically seeks to enslave the free and Christian peoples of the globe," wrote the man, whose name was Patrick Hitler, and who had arrived in the United States in 1940 after fleeing Germany.

He'd been turned down by British military forces and was contemplating enlisting with the Canadians, but "mindful only of the great debt my mother and I owe to the United States," he wrote, he wanted to "see active combat as soon as possible and thereby be accepted by my friends and comrades as one of them in this great struggle for liberty."

Hitler was ultimately cleared eventually by the FBI to serve in the U.S. military, and he saw duty in the U.S. Navy as a pharmacist's mate (a medic or corpsman, in modern terms).

5. A no-BS self-assessment of the applicant's strengths and weaknesses

In 1958, an unknown writer named Hunter S. Thompson read an article about a new newspaper in Vancouver, B.C. called The Sun that was doing wild new things in journalism. Thompson was in New York, but that didn't stop him from applying to work for the publication's new editor.

I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I'd also like to offer my services. Since I haven't seen a copy of the "new" Sun yet, I'll have to make this a tentative offer. ... Unless it looks totally worthless, I'll let my offer stand. And don't think that my arrogance is unintentional: it's just that I'd rather offend you now than after I started working for you.

Thompson didn't get the job, but history suggests that's only because the Sun's editor got fired for his gonzo approach pretty soon after the Time magazine article. A decade later, Rolling Stone got its start in San Francisco, and Thompson was on his way to becoming a household name.

Want to read more, make suggestions, or even be featured in a future column? Contact me and sign up for my weekly email.

Last updated: Jun 5, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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