Deciding when to follow instructions

Photo: Philip Brewer

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Anytime someone announces that they're looking to hire, there'll be instructions on how to apply--even if nothing more than a sign that says, "Inquire within."  Often, they'll want quite a bit more--resume, cover letter, samples, references, etc.  There's a delicate dance involved in deciding just how completely to follow those instructions.  Here are a few of the important steps.

To begin with, it's important to remember that, whatever the instructions are, they exist for at least two reasons, only one of which is to gather the information the people doing the hiring think they need for deciding if you can do the work.  There's another reason, that's at least as important.

It's a test

Whether you're able and willing to follow instructions is an important thing for anyone to know before deciding to hire you.

Just over a year ago, I decided to apply to write for Wise Bread.  (There's a page here on the site with instructions on how to apply.  I don't know if they're hiring right now, so I won't link to it, but the page is still up and it isn't hard to find.)  I followed the instructions scrupulously, because I thought writing for Wise Bread would be cool, and I didn't want to sabotage my own application.  As it happens, the admins at Wise Bread hired me.

A year or two earlier, though, I'd applied for an assignment writing an article for a science fiction encyclopedia.  There was the usual list of things that they wanted, several of which I blew off for various reasons.  Not surprisingly, I didn't get the assignment.

Why not follow instructions?

There are plenty of bad reasons to ignore the instructions.  I can only think of one good one:  You only want the job if they're so desperate to hire you that they'll overlook your unwillingness to follow instructions.

In essence, ignoring their instructions turns the test around:  Now, you're testing them.

You might think that knowing that they were desperate would give you an edge--in salary negotiations, for example--but I think you'd have a much bigger edge if you went at it the other way around:  Follow instructions scrupulously, make the absolute best case that you're the person they want to hire, wait until they actually offer you the job, and then play hardball--on salary, or whatever terms and conditions matter to you.  Once they've decided you're the number-one candidate you're in a much better position than if you've already got strikes against you for ignoring their instructions.

Bad reasons for ignoring instructions

So, why didn't I follow my own advice, when I applied for that write job a couple years ago?

First, because I didn't have what they were looking for.  In particular, I didn't have a resume for myself as a writer.

Second, because what I did have wouldn't have made me look good.  I could have sent my resume for myself as a software engineer, but almost everything on it was irrelevant for the position.

Mainly, though, it was because I only wanted the job if I was their only good choice.  I already had a full-time job, so I wasn't in a position to offer to write numerous articles--one or two would have been all I could handle.  The one article I offered to write would have been fun to do, and it would have paid well, but it would have been a lot of work to do a good job.  Basically, if they wanted me, even though I didn't provide exactly what they asked for, then I'd have been pleased to write that one article.  Otherwise, they were better off getting someone else to do it.


Here are a few bad reasons for ignoring instructions, with suggested alternate steps to take:

You don't have what they want (no resume, no references, no samples, etc.)

The solution in this case is to come up with something.  If you don't have a resume, write one--a crappy resume may get you dinged, but no faster than not sending one if they asked for it.  If you don't have references, find some--coworkers or classmates aren't as good as someone who's supervised you, but they're better than nothing.  If you need samples, make some--again, crappy samples won't get you dinged any faster than no samples will (although, if you can't come up with good samples, maybe this isn't the job for you anyway).

You'd look like a terrible candidate (even though you're actually perfect for the job)

The solution in this case is a killer cover letter.  Tempting as it may be to omit something that will make you look overqualified or underqualified or just wrong for the job, you're better off following instructions.  For one thing, if you don't include all the stuff that's asked for, there's a pretty good chance that no one will even read your cover letter--some secretary or HR guy may well be going through the package with a checklist and automatically dinging anything that arrives incomplete.  A cover letter that explains why you're the right choice (despite what they might think after seeing what they asked for) just might work.

You don't want the job that bad

The solution in this case is simply not to apply.  It's easier for everyone:  You don't have to go to the trouble of putting even a partial application together, and they don't have to spend the time to figure out that you didn't give them what they wanted.

You don't want to work for the sort of people who care about nitpicky details like that

This getting close to being a good reason.  After all, you don't want to work for the sort of jerk who'll ding your application because you deviated from the instructions in some inconsequential way.  

A specific case of this is when they're asking for something that you hesitate to provide to just anybody.  For example, there was a period in the 1980s when a lot of fiction publishers wanted writers to submit their social security number on their manuscript.  (They were going to need it to pay you if they accepted the piece, so it saved a step if the number was right there.)  Other examples might be fingerprints, permission to do a credit check (or security check), documents like social security cards or passports, etc.  Personally, I tend to hold back information like this from an initial application, figuring I can provide it later if they seem to be considering me seriously.  If it knocks me out of even being considered for the job, I figure I still come out ahead by keeping my personal information a little more closely controlled.

You need to be careful, though, not to lie to yourself--because (especially when following the instructions exactly would be difficult) it can be tempting to imagine that whatever deviation you want to make is somehow a test of their flexibility.

The fact is, that there are better ways to check on their flexibility.  Probably best is just to ask about whatever it is that you're worried about:  Ask the hiring manager and ask the people who would be your peers.  If you can find any, ask some former employees if the place supported flexibility in that particular area.

Just as with salary, the winning move is to put together a perfect application and let them make you an offer--then negotiate for the flexibility you want.  You're in a much better position to win that negotiation after they've decided that they want you than you are when all they know about you is that you can't be bothered to do what they asked.

In fact, that's most often the case.  If you're at all serious about wanting the job, it just makes sense to follow the instructions.  Then, if they show that they're serious about hiring you, you're in a position to negotiate for what you want.

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Guest's picture

Employers don't want a maverick -- at least not at the outset and during the hiring process. In fact, it's generally a good rule of thumb not to buck the system at all even after you get hired for the first 3 months. After that, if you figure out which rules are flexible and won't get you into trouble if you bend them, you can do that at your own risk. If you've proved your reliability during those first 3 critical months, chances are no one will care.

I provide tips on the whole job interview process, including (1) "How to Fill Out Job Applications" and how to finesse some of the more tricky questions at

and (2) "How to Ace Job Interviews" and answer the hardest interview questions at

I also summarize Dr. Lois Frankel's tips on how to stop sabotaging your chances at raises, promotions, and bonuses once you do get the job at "Success in the Corporate World" at

Good luck, everyone! : )

Guest's picture

As someone who used to be in charge of hiring, I can't agree with this enough! When you put a job posting up on any sort of mass communication device (a la internet) you get not just dozens, but usually HUNDREDS of applicants. If someone didn't follow application instructions I just generally threw out their resume or whatever. The exceptions to this were the people who went above and beyond to put themselves in front of my face. They usually were the ones who got interviews and normally the ones who got hired.


Guest's picture

I think it's important to realize that, occasionally, not following instructions creatively can help land a job. I once read a story of a guy who applied for a graphic design position, and the employers wanted a cover letter, resume, and portfolio. Rather than provide the three things separately, the applicant drew up a comic, highlighting his past experience, why he wanted the job, and some of his previous work. Got the job in a heartbeat.

Guest's picture

I dislike when employers post a long list of what they want and expect from an employee without even putting a minimum starting salary or benefits they might offer.
This is a clear sign that you should not apply for this company.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's true that a lot of companies seem to be all about what they get from the employee with no thought to what the employee gets back, and that you need to view that as a warning sign.

On the other hand, whatever the company says is just a starting point for negotiations.  Sometimes--when the companies really are as clueless as they seem--those negotiations go nowhere.  Other times, though, companies can be much more flexible than they seem from the face of their adverts.

So--a sign that you need to be cautious, and not get too invested in the whole process.  Maybe not a clear sign that the company needs to be avoided altogether.

On the other hand, I'm not saying that you're wrong.  Life is too short to spend it futzing around with potential employers that show such strong signs of being disfunctional right up front, as long as there are more promising choices out there.

The key is to be clear in your own mind about what you want.  If there are things you very much like about the position--the work, the location, the opportunties for growth--and the application process isn't too onerous, it may make sense to apply.  You can always tell them to stick it later, if they won't offer you exactly what you want.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

"You don't want to work for the sort of people who care about nitpicky details like that." Actually, sometimes it's HR that's picky, but the people you'd actually be working for aren't picky. Then you have to jump through the hoops before HR will let your actual possible future boss even see your application.

I've also seen someone apply for and get a job for which he did not have all the qualifications. Specifically, they said a master's degree was required and he did not have one. I know that the application process makes you promise that you do have all the required qualifications, so I know he also lied. The people hiring already knew him, though.

So I would say another good reason to not follow instructions is when you think that the people doing the hiring don't actually know what they want, but once they see, they will realize they want you.