15 Common Reasons Behind Job Application Rejection

Find out why you're being rejected time and time again...

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Woman trying to deal with job rejection

You’ve got all the right education and credentials. You have years of experience in your field. You’ve researched, prepared, carefully tailored your résumé and yet, somehow, your job applications continue to be rejected. What are you doing wrong?

Getting out of the stressful cycle of jobhunting isn’t easy. Competition can be fierce, and with the ease of online applications, there may be thousands of applicants for a single job opening. Hiring managers have to be ruthless, quickly discarding candidates to get to a more manageable selection.

There are ways to avoid these errors, which guarantee automatic disqualification. We’ve spoken to HR, recruitment and résumé experts in order to help you identify your mistakes. 

Read on and find out the 15 most common reasons for a rejected job application, and how to get around them!

1. Your résumé didn’t make it past the ATS

Often, the first person to see your application, cover letter, and résumé is not a person at all. Many companies, particularly those that receive a large volume of candidates, wade through their options using an applicant tracking system (ATS). This software uses complex algorithms to scan your application, particularly your résumé, to see how well it matches up with the job requirements.

Those that don’t match well are discarded and never seen by the hiring manager. The good news is, there is a way to beat the ATS system. Using industry buzzwords and keywords from the job description, an uncluttered format and the sans serif font will help you score big with the robots. So, before composing your résumé, do your research on what is good ATS formatting first.

2. You didn’t proofread your application

Abigail Dodwell, an HR professional for the National Health Service and lead trainer for Haro Helpers, emphasizes that typos or misspellings are an automatic rejection. A spelling error in a marketing campaign can cost you a client, she notes, and even the tiniest mistakes in medical transcriptions can have dire consequences.

Always recheck your work, then get a trusted friend or family member to look for any errors you may have missed. “A job can be for ten years, life in some cases,” Dodwell stresses, “so taking an extra 10 minutes to check over our résumé pales in comparison.”

3. Your application was too long

Yes, “too long; didn’t read” is a thing in the business world as well. While listing a few accolades isn’t a bad thing, beware of overcrowding your résumé.

Karen Laos, a career consultant with extensive corporate HR experience, warns that all candidates tend to overload their cover letters and introductory emails with too much information and detail. She suggests trying a single sentence that enticingly expresses what your biggest contribution to the job role would be: “It’s almost like having a strong headline, a lead to your story, not two paragraphs. I’m not going to read two paragraphs.”

This is also a common résumé mistake. The key is to put yourself in the hiring manager’s place, says Laos, as they wade through dozens or even hundreds of applications. Think less about what you want to share and more about what is important to the hiring manager, including their time. Keep this in mind when you follow up on an application, too.

4. Your experience level didn’t match the job

Many recruiting experts agree that this is one of the most common reasons an application is rejected. Typically, being underqualified is the problem, but it could also be that your experience is in a slightly different role or field. You could even be rejected for being overqualified.

This can be frustrating for anyone who wants to advance to a better job, or for those switching careers. Natalie Morgan, HR Director at CareerPlug, offers a ray of hope, however: “I’m much more likely to give applications a second look if they include a cover letter that is truly tailored to our company. For example, mention the company’s values or mission and why it resonates with you.”

Laos concurs, saying anything that shows that you did your research on the company is meaningful. Keep in mind her previous advice to keep it brief and relevant, but even referencing something you connected with on the company’s official website will help. 

In a world where hiring managers often see a generic cover letter that’s mistakenly addressed to a different company, showing you are genuinely interested in their business will set you apart.

5. You didn’t highlight your transferable skills 

persuasive cover letter can save you from the rejection pile, but you’re not out of the woods yet. As Matthew Warzel, a certified recruiter and president of MJW Careers, explains, hiring managers are looking for candidates who can seamlessly transition into the new role. 

If your experience doesn’t exactly match the job description, then you must highlight your transferable skills on your résumé and LinkedIn profile. Using buzzwords and keywords for that industry will also help if they’re using ATS.

Warzel suggests backing up a strong summary and skills section with a list of accomplishments, including relevant coursework. He gives an example of a teacher trying to transfer into a corporate/marketing role. Like Laos, however, he warns against adding too much “fluff”. Here’s what he said:

“They may be able to discuss training, performance reviews, and documentation handling. Maybe some sentences communicating his or her ability to handle branding and advertising from some tasks he or she completed in school.” 

If it’s not clear to the hiring team how your skills will translate to the new job, you’ll have to endure another job application rejection. This is when it can be helpful to follow up with the recruiter. Politely ask if they can suggest improvements that could increase your chances of getting hired for a future vacancy. Hopefully, you will get a response that will help you tailor your résumé for the next opportunity.

6. You didn’t follow application directions 

If you’ve been job hunting even for a short time, you’ve likely seen many job ads that vehemently urge candidates to follow directions. According to David Reischer, the hiring manager at LegalAdvice.com, applicants often fail to provide the required writing samples or other requested documentation. Reischer says: “It is an easy decision to make, to disqualify a person for demonstrating that they do not care enough to follow directions of our application process.”

Morgan concurs, noting that hiring managers are specifically evaluating your attention to detail, a highly valued skill for employers. In her experience, candidates may be asked to reply to an email to verify their receipt, but many never reply, thus losing their chance at a job very early in the hiring process.

This is one of the simplest rejections to avoid. Once you’ve filled out the application and tailored your résumé, reread the instructions. Employers may specify the subject line for an email, ask for a cover letter, or even include a code word to verify you’re paying attention. A few extra minutes of reviewing can save you a lot of heartache over missed opportunities.

7. You’ve been out of work for a while

Jobs and entire industries can change dramatically in a short space of time, especially with constantly shifting technologies and increasing globalization. If a hiring manager has a choice between someone who is currently working in the field and someone who’s been out of work for over a year, they’re going to choose the person they think is already up to speed.

It’s not easy, or necessarily wise, to explain on a job application how a shrinking job market or being at the top of the pay scale limited your opportunities. A wiser approach is to try to find ways to fill that gap on your résumé with something relevant.

Try to pick up some consulting work. Contribute articles to trade publications. Offer to speak or run a workshop at a conference in your industry. Pursue related coursework or certifications. These efforts illustrate your dedication to your field and show you haven’t been avoiding responsibility for 18 months.

8. You rushed through the application process

In a world of slang, abbreviations and truncated speech, modern employees may neglect to answer application questions in complete sentences. While Morgan says it’s “not necessarily a deal breaker” for her if everything else is in good order, she stresses that it’s an easy fix that will help keep your application out of the rejection pile.

Remember that you’ve got a limited opportunity to sell yourself to hiring managers. One-word answers or fragments that lack proper punctuation may succinctly answer application questions, but you may seem to be rushed or apathetic about the process compared to candidates with grammatically correct responses. Don’t lose this opportunity to display your written communication skills.

9. You lied on your application

This is, unfortunately, a common mistake made by job seekers. Savvy HR professionals can often recognize exaggerated credentials, and your digital footprint could also easily expose you. Even if you avoid giving a reference for a previous job, your prospective employer could still phone them and find out that you only worked there one year as an intern and not five years as a supervisor.

Larger firms may also use third-party vendors who verify candidates’ credentials through background checks. Any false information will get your application rejected. If you work in a specialized industry which involves a lot of networking, word could get around to other companies and lead to further job rejections.

Your best bet is to be honest when applying for a job. There are ways to highlight your strengths and downplay your weaknesses, and it won’t involve a lie that could come back to haunt you.

10. There were reasons out of your control

Sometimes, no matter how much experience you have or how carefully you’ve crafted your résumé, you still won’t get a callback. A common cause is a company putting up a job posting and then deciding to hire internally. Just like submitting a book proposal or screenplay, a lot also depends on whose desk your application lands on.

Jacob Darr, former Fortune 500 CHRO and current owner of an executive recruiting firm, says the “Wild West” nature of hiring is prevalent. He said:

“Unfortunately, most employers large and small have no policy about denying or approving applications, leaving this decision to the biased internal recruiter.”

This could be anything from preferring candidates who attended Harvard to only wanting someone with a long list of charitable volunteering. Studies conducted in Britain and the US have repeatedly shown that it could also be a more serious form of systemic discrimination, like racism or sexism. Researching the company by reading employee reviews and perusing their social media can help you avoid organizations with serious issues, but you will, unfortunately, encounter some unfair job application rejections.

11. You didn’t write a cover letter

A cover letter is a vital part of any job application, but still a step that many jobseekers overlook. Simply attaching a generic résumé to an email isn’t going to impress anyone. In fact, it will make you seem careless and lazy.

A cover letter is intended to convince the hiring manager that you’re the right person for the role, and also share vital information beyond that on your résumé. So, when you’re next applying for a role, be sure to attach a tailored cover letter.

12. The layout of your résumé wasn’t right

The layout of your résumé is just as important as the information on it and can greatly affect the way recruiters review your qualifications and experience. So, if you have different font sizes, and unclear indentations, the recruiter may have a hard time looking past that and reviewing the information on your résumé.

Other factors, such as color combinations, typeface or even illustrations, can alter the way your document is read. So, to be on the safe side, consider using a simple layout that allows your content to shine.

13. You didn’t attach the requested application materials

Depending on the role that you’re applying for, some employers may request specific application materials. For example, if you’re a content writer or a graphic designer, you’ll normally be asked to attach a copy of your work in the form of a portfolio or samples. So, if you don’t fulfill the instructions, you will probably be placed in the “no” pile for carelessness.

Pay attention to the application materials request and ensure you submit them in the requested format. By doing so, you will show the employer that you can follow directions effectively and took the time to tailor your application to the role.

14. You have too many qualifications

It’s good to have qualifications, but sometimes, you may have too many. When your qualifications are substantially greater than the minimum requirement for the role, hiring managers may deem you as overqualified. When you’re overqualified, they suspect that you’ll get bored on the job and will seek something more challenging in the long run.

Don’t get disheartened if that’s the case. Simply, try to better align your qualifications to the role and apply for jobs that you are suitable for. Basically, don’t sell yourself short!

15. Competitive job market

Another reason for job search rejection is simply down to the fact that the job market is competitive, especially if you’re in an industry that is in high demand. So, it’s not necessarily because you’re not a good fit for the role, it’s because you’re competing against hundreds of other people who may have more experience than you — making it more challenging for you to secure an interview.

To try to avoid this, consider applying for job postings that have just gone live. Your application may have more of a chance of being viewed and you can beat the influx of application in later days.

Final thoughts

While you can’t always know why your job application was unsuccessful, hopefully, this guide will help you limit the rejections you receive and land a brand-new job! It won't ever get easier, but if you take some time to think about what possibly went wrong, you can avoid these common mistakes and be more successful in your job search. 

Did any of these rejection reasons surprise you? Join the discussion below and let us know in the comments section below!

Originally published July 14, 2020. Updated by Joanna Zambas.