How to look for a job, pass application tracking systems, and get noticed by HR

Interview with Marianna Poletti

Nowadays, young jobseekers all face the same obstacles, questions and uncertainties. Many don’t know which career path to follow, what job role they might be suited for, or what would give them satisfaction. Many don’t even know what job roles they can apply for with the skills and knowledge gained during university years. We decided to have a chat about how young job seekers should approach the job search, application tracking system, and what skills are mostly required today with Marianna Poletti, CEO and founder of JustKnock

JustKnock is our partner and it is a platform to put candidates and companies in touch, no longer through sending resumes but project ideas. On JustKnock, job ads are turned into a business issue or project to which candidates can apply by sending an idea or plat to solve the issue or reach the objective and show how they would actually perform in a typical activity of the job role. Companies then evaluate the projects they receive without looking at the candidate’s CV, which is only seen at the end of the project. So merit and innovation are at the heart of JustKnock’s selection process.

The idea started after Marianna finished university and started looking for a job. She realized she had very little experience, and that the curriculum is such an aseptic document saying very little about a candidate. All of this is very close to GAMS’ mission and vision, where the focus is entirely on the candidate’s skills – so on what a candidate can do besides what a candidate shows in a CV.

What were the obstacles you encountered when you started your job search? Do you think these obstacles are still the same today?

Pretty often university students have many difficulties in imagining what the job market is like and how it works. So when I started looking for a job, I discovered many aspects, such as: companies receiving a lot of CVs, 500 per job advertisement on average (of course brands with greater appeal receive many more). This often makes it very difficult to study each application and candidate in depth, and respond to all of them. Plus resumes are very similar, especially when candidates have very little experience. 

So it’s very difficult for young people to prove their worth, who they are, and the motivation driving them to send that specific application. This issue still persists to some extent, but thanks to digitalization, new alternatives are being sought to connect companies with candidates in a more human way.

What was your first job and what did you learn?

I have a marketing background because I studied advertising, then a master’s degree in branding. At the end of it, I started looking for a job and wanted to work in one of the top communication agencies in Italy. Unfortunately, even after sending out many applications, I did not get noticed by the companies I wanted. But I managed to start an internship in a small communication agency, and when they offered me a contract, instead of accepting I decided to leave to found JustKnock. 

Surely it was a short step since the internship lasted 6 months, but it was an important step that allowed me to understand many business dynamics and understand what I liked and what was not for me. I think that experience gave me the stimulus to look for my own path.

Where would you advise young people to start to look for a job and enter the job market? 

It is very important to start with yourself. Work on yourself, on your awareness, understand who you are, what your strengths are, what you like to do, but also what you are good at. So the first research that needs to be done is an inner research, because I often see young people who are lost, who do not believe in their own potential. 

The path may not be well defined and traced, but this is also the beauty of it. The important thing is to know what values guide us and the impact we want to have, what can bring us satisfaction. The job role can change over the years – a person can change company, job, become an entrepreneur, then go back to being an employee. This does not matter. What is important, in my opinion, is to know who we are. 

So, first of all, I think we should take more time to look inside ourselves. Once you have done that inner research and analysis, then you can go and look outside for what matches you the most.

What are the most frequently used screening tools in the HR process today? Can you please explain how they usually work?

Companies receive an average of 500 resumes per position. Obviously, to select a candidate, companies cannot read the applications one by one, so they use an ATS: an application tracking system. They work like a selection algorithm where the HR person sets ideal candidates’ parameters, and the ATS filters all the applications received, based on whether or not they match the entered criteria.   


The ATS automatically rejects 75% of the received resumes on average. So very few candidates succeed in passing these filters. This, unfortunately, leads to many stereotypes. We often imagine the ideal candidate to be, in a certain way, while it is often people with different and more transversal backgrounds who manage to surprise us and get the job. However, most selection systems currently work in this way. This is why so many candidates tend to conform – to find the keywords and put the same things on their CVs – because they know that these are what companies are actually looking for, and sometimes candidates even tend to lie. 


According to a recent survey by Indeed, 85% of candidates lie on their CVs by putting attitudes or skills that they actually do not own or by pumping job experiences in an attempt to pass through these filters and, at least, get to the interview where they can tell who they really are.

We often hear about “tailoring” resumes, or matching resumes, with job positions to pass the screening tool stage. What do you think about this? 

I encourage less quantity but more quality. So sending fewer applications, but more personalized ones. With the attention to the company’s values and whether they actually match who we are. If, in order to get called to an interview by a company, we have to distort our CV, or describe ourselves in a way that is not entirely truthful, then it means that company does not actually match our personality. 


Therefore, in my opinion, the analysis and research phase also entails going to the company websites, understanding what requirements they look for in candidates, and trying to apply to those companies that correspond as much as possible to who you are, to your background, to what your CV can tell. 


Then personalization is important. I always suggest to include a cover letter, and tell our story in a different way. When everyone is using the digital, there are those who try to go back to the “traditional” to get noticed as it has become less common. There are those who, for example, apply for creative positions by sending their portfolios, or a paper CV. Sometimes something a little more “traditional” may appear more “modern”.

Do these screening tools really help to find the ideal candidate? Or is there a risk of cutting out good talents? 

Perhaps, in the past this method might have worked better. In the sense that companies were more static, changes were less frequent, less flexibility was required because a person might enter a company, in a role, and perhaps end their career in the same role. Whereas today there are upheavals of various kinds that can change a company’s business model, or strategy from one moment to the next. So candidates are asked more and more, an aptitude that includes flexibility, problem solving, and the ability to adapt to different roles and contexts. 


Therefore, today, companies are increasingly looking for transversal candidates who know how to switch from one task to another, who have a much more orizontal knowledge and skills. So clearly, today, a selection process based on such rigid parameters does not, in my opinion, provide companies with what they actually need or what they are looking for, i.e. entrepreneurial candidates who are able to adapt to change.

What other prerequisites besides flexibility and an entrepreneurial spirit does an HR person look for in a candidate?

The World Economic Forum attests that 65% of today’s candidates will tomorrow be doing a job that does not exist today. Therefore, it is complex, especially when it comes to training and education. People are always trying to enrol on courses that can lead to higher employment chances, but the issue is that now courses become old after two years because of this high-paced change. 

Also, we should not be afraid of the digital world and that many jobs will be replaced by robots and artificial intelligence. This change will create many new jobs that will entail all those attitudes and skills that distinguish mankind from machines, which therefore make the human being unique.

In this respect, another very important skill is empathy. Empathy is a marvellous characteristic of the human being that enables us to grasp the unspoken, to read between the lines, to enter into a relationship with others, to work well in a team. Therefore, the human component will be increasingly valued and all those jobs requiring a bit more mechanical skills will be taken by machines.

What do you think is the best way to get noticed by an HR person?

One of the advantages that young people have today is digitalization as a connector of people which makes it much easier to network. I’m often invited to speak in university lectures and when I ask “how many of you have a LinkedIn profile?”, unfortunately the percentage is still quite low.

LinkedIn is a very powerful tool for career branding, for telling people about your passion and your skills, and for getting noticed in a more personal way. 


So, I believe, this is something to take into account and develop: creating content on LinkedIn to talk about your work and your passion, and sending extremely personalised messages to HR figures. In fact, one thing we always recommend in JustKnock is fewer applications, but more quality, to make it clear to the company that you really care about that position and that you have a real strong motivation behind your application. So apart from JustKnock as a tool, there are many other ways to make yourself get noticed.

In today’s Italian scenario, and of course from what you have seen thanks to JustKnock, what do count more in Italy? Titles or skills?

I would say that we are in a period of transition. In the sense that I believe qualifications in Italy still have great importance, but we are in a phase of epochal change, so there will be a gradual transition.

Now companies talk a lot about skills and how important the right attitude is, because you can teach skills but not attitudes. It takes time to go from theory to practice. So, I do think we are in a moment of transition where in the next few years the weight will shift much more to attitudes than qualifications.       

If you could advise young people to learn an important meta-skill, what would it be?

Curiosity. Because curiosity is the engine of action. I always suggest to be curious, ask yourself if you can do something more, if there can be another way to achieve the same goal, if we can do things differently. At the end of the day, digitalization offers the opportunity to explore a million things and find many answers to our questions, and to listen to different opinions.

If a person is curious, they will find a way to turn this curiosity into action. So my final suggestion is absorb like a sponge, do your own thing and find the means to reinterpret yourself, and put positive activities into action. So, curiosity is the salt of life.

What do you think is the best process for a young person to find a job?

Be curious first of all about yourself. After having understood yourself and your aptitudes, you should also try to understand the best process for yourself because there is not just one process to follow. Everyone sends their CV on the most classic platforms, but in reality, there are many ways to find a job and everyone has to understand which one brings out their aptitudes best.

Apart from JustKnock, which is one of the alternative methods, there are many platforms that were born with digital technology where you can send a video CV, or solve games or quizzes, or, as on JustKnock, send ideas to show off your initiative. 

There are many ways, and if you’re an outgoing person you can also create a very strong personal brand on LinkedIn and get noticed. So, in my opinion, what needs to be said to young people today, is the importance of having space and time to reflect. In the sense that today there is no formula and it is important to know it, so that everyone can look for their own. There are many more ways today to get one’s self noticed. Obviously, it’s not easy, you have to keep trying, but it’s always an experience.

So, I would advise young people to stay as far away as possible from those who give pre-packaged formulas to find a job. Obviously, there are some basic rules that we all know by now, such as how to write a curriculum vitae, but my suggestion is to get away from pre-set schemes and find a personalized way to express yourself.

If you could talk to the younger Marianna who just got out of university and was looking for her first job several years ago, what would you tell her?

I have felt lost on many occasions. But looking back I would say that getting lost is the best way to find oneself. I see so many young people who have pre-packaged, very rigid paths, which are perhaps decided by their family, friends, or the job market. It is better to get lost rather than to take pre-packaged paths, precisely because if we follow a direction that is actually not ours and we pursue it, we will never manage to excel because we will never manage to show our talents.   


So being a little lost or disoriented is not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes it is necessary. On the contrary, it takes courage to get lost and then find yourself again. Even when you are looking for a job and it takes a little longer to find it, you should continue to use that time to train yourself. Nowadays, there are many super interesting and affordable e-learning platforms. Just keep working on yourself.   


The last thing I want to say is that you have to think of the search for a job as a courtship, like choosing a friend or a partner. At the end of the day, the company needs to feel that it has been chosen by the candidate and not that the candidate is looking for any job. Therefore, make sure the message you send across is ‘I want to work for you’ rather than ‘I am looking for a job’. And the candidate needs to feel indispensable for the company, so it is a mutual choice that has to be made on shared values and mission, which is not the “what” but “why” a company does what it does. 

We hope you found the interview inspirational and full of good suggestions! 


With this chat we learnt: 

  • The importance of making an inner research to understand who we are, what drives us and our strengths; 
  • Quality is better than quantity. More “traditional” and personalized job applications bring more success. Find your own way to stand out from the crowd;
  • Flexibility, problem solving, adaptability and curiosity are important meta-skills to survive in today’s fast-paced environment;
  • Skills and attitudes are becoming more influential than titles.

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