Emerging Practitioner: Build your Humanitarian career  Online course

Dear International Aid Worker… This is why your Resume was rejected.

Tuesday, Jan 30, 2018
by Cory Steinhauer


Sent your resume to your favourite NGOs, the UN, even private contractors… and never heard back?

You’re not alone!


Well known Humanitarian and Development organisations, like the UN, receive hundreds of thousands of job applications each year. So, the average applicant’s odds are pretty long. Admittedly, this is the largest Aid and Development ‘organisation’, but the situation is not much different at other agencies. There’s a good chance your application will be ‘filed away’ (hello trash bin) without ever learning the reason why.

​​To go from the rejected pile to the shortlist, you need to avoid the following errors in your Aid and Development resume:

Not using action verbs or focusing on results

Another mistake many aspiring and professional Humanitarians make is that they don’t properly present their achievements and results. It’s easier to list your previous responsibilities and move on. But, employers want to know your results. Using phrases starting with action verbs can help you during the writing process. Focus on what you achieved and avoid using ‘I’, ‘me’ and use third person active voice.

Your Resume is your primary marketing tool. What does your brand and messaging say about you?


Not highlighting relevant competencies

Competencies can make or break your shortlisting chances especially when your current job profile is not particularly extensive or directly relevant. To make the cut, you need to differentiate yourself. Determining your competencies that translate across to the applied role can keep you in contention. To do this correctly, you need to get your head around the job description first and then determine which competencies are relevant. If you don’t feel you have any relevant competencies, don’t apply and first get some experience (volunteering or interning) that will be worth mentioning. But remember good organisations look for relevant and passionate candidates.

Too many embellishments

Avoid clichés like ‘out of the box thinker’, ‘thought leader’, ‘innovative’ and so on. Emphasise action verbs and quantify your results - this puts your best foot forward and lets the reviewer draw the right conclusions.


Not sending your Resume via a referral

If you are applying directly on a NGO’s website or through a Humanitarian job site, things can be tough!

In the ‘real world’ job applications using networks or referrals are far more successful than applying online - up to 25% of hires come from referrals, making it the #1 source of hiring (this number reflects society at large - the Humanitarian sector is lower; however, the trend is increasing as the sector professionalizes). Remember the higher the salary, or the more senior the role, the more effective networking becomes. ​

​​So how do I access this magical ‘referral’ you speak of?

  1. The most obvious – apply to organisations where your friends or former colleagues can refer you.
  2. Connect with an employee of your target organisation on LinkedIn and send them an intelligent (you would be surprised!) Inmail.
  3. Sometimes, the ‘earning referral’ strategy also works where you get yourself noticed by alternative means - if you can volunteer or intern on their programs or projects, do so.

Not altering your Resume for each application

We’ve all been guilty of this. It’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make - using the same Resume time and again. Sure, most content will stay the same, but remember when populating your Resume, the first half of the first page is the most important. Use this real estate to focus on relevant experience and results.


Not including a Cover Letter

You’d be surprised how many people don’t include a Cover Letter! We recognise that Cover Letters are an entire blog but we want to stress that a bespoke letter will dramatically improve your application and chances of being shortlisted. Writing a terrific cover letter helps most when you are applying without a referral… so keep it slick if you do apply to online job ads.

Not including your online presence: Website/blog, Twitter, LinkedIn etc.

It is inexcusable for a Humanitarian, indeed anybody, not to include links to their professional online presence. A blog can showcase your sector knowledge and the kind of work you’ve been engaged in. It also demonstrates your writing skills and how you communicate your thoughts - critical skills in the Aid industry. It provides a significant advantage when the prospective employer can look at your site/blog and assess your fit.

If you don’t have one, develop one!

Twitter and LinkedIn: These links help establish your credibility and demonstrate your engagement in the Humanitarian industry. If your Twitter is focused on the latest celebrity gossip, best to leave it out.  

At the very least, your LinkedIn profile must be added - and update your profile to align with your Resume!

Lastly, when listing the links, write full URLs as hyperlinks don’t work when printed.


Not identifying and using keywords

Many large Humanitarian agencies use ‘applicant tracking systems’ to manage the large number of Resumes received. Keyword search, therefore, becomes critical for screening and finding candidates. Assess which keywords are important to the role you are applying for and include them in your Resume. Does it guarantee that you will be shortlisted? Probably not, but it’s still worth trying.


Bad formatting

Resumes should look clean and readable on screen and printed. Don’t use lengthy blocks of text or paragraphs as they are difficult to read. Some guidelines include:

  • Use the table layout in Word for proper alignment (make the border clear/white)
  • Use bullet points
  • Think of the white space. Too much and you are wasting space, too little and you make it unreadable
  • Don’t send Word versions - always PDF (check the layout after PDF-ing)
  • Fonts people. Please steer clear of large coloured font. Tacky, distracting and a big turn off.

Not printing your final version to see how it looks on paper

Different sections will be more important for some candidates than others. Newbies might want to emphasize their education background, thus keeping the education section at the top. For others with work experience, the ‘Experience’ section should be on top. Remember, we are trying to keep your resume under 3 pages (max!) - rather than having separate sections for Internships or Research put it all under ‘Experience’ to save space.


Not keeping it concise

See above peeps. You may have had a long, distinguished career but there is no justification for letting your resume drag on for more than 2 (max 3 pages). Being clear and concise is also a soft skill all Humanitarian employers value. So, instead of thinking of how to fit everything in, think – what is important enough to be in the first 2 pages?

Typos, spelling and bad grammar

Please ask someone else to proofread your Resume before submitting… we all have that one friend who loves grammar! Basic mistakes and typos leave a bad impression.

In closing, a Resume is supposed to highlight your accomplishments and skills relevant to the role that you are applying. Every word, sentence and phrase should achieve this purpose.

Anything that does not add value should be ruthlessly cut out!

A well-produced Resume prioritises the right information and helps you past the initial screening. During the interview, it presents you as an organised individual with an eye for detail.

Spend the time making your Resume stand out and it will enhance your chances of landing your dream Humanitarian job.


PS: Not sure you can make your Resume amazing? We’re here to help - check out our career coaching services - we’ll whip your Resume into shape.

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