The Real Reasons Your Job Applications Are Failing (And What You Can Do to Change That)

Ok, so you’ve signed up to job alerts that pop up in your email everyday.

You’ve gone ahead and created a LinkedIn account, maybe a profile on Devex or some other job sites, and made sure everyone in your personal network knows you’re ready to be hired. You’ve checked and double checked your profile has strong keywords (you’re detail-oriented and passionate about human rights!), and your photo is professional.

You’ve signed up to LinkedIn groups, read more than a lifetime’s worth of articles on job-hunting and resume writing, and joined that Facebook group where nobody seems to find an international development job. You’ve even made your Facebook profile private, carefully curated your social media presence, and done all of the things you know you’re supposed to do when you’re looking for a career in global development.

Then one day, you find that job that gives you butterflies in your stomach. You think it’s the most exciting job description you’ve ever read, and it’s going to change your life, your family, and give you a chance to make a difference.

You carefully construct your CV and Cover Letter, where you’ve highlighted the best features of your education or professional experience. You’ve weighed whether to include that internship or volunteer experience, and studied the potential implications of having that gap year (or two) where you took care of your family or couldn’t find a job. You triple-check for typos and ask your friends to give you advice.

You nervously attach your documents on the job website and pray the Internet doesn’t give out uploading those megabtyes. You finally manage to click submit minutes before the deadline.

“Ahhhh,” you say to yourself. “Everything is falling into place. I can finally build my career and start traveling the world.”

And you wait.

You re-read your CV and Cover Letter and find a typo and have a small heart-attack. But you reason to yourself, it’s just one minor mistake.

So you go back to waiting.

You check your phone screen and it’s just your family calling.

And you wait some more.

You check your email. Yes, the refresh button has been hit a few times. Why is no one getting in touch?

You decide to apply to some more vacancies, maybe send out some LinkedIn connection requests. You do everything you possibly can to make people see you’re ready for that job.

Still, nothing works. Nobody is inviting you to the interview.

You try rewriting your CV to optimize for different keywords. You put more time into job advertisements. You look at paying someone to edit your CV and they just give you a new template and change some of the keywords around. You consider whether to use a CV broadcast where recruiters are promised to find you (which you know deep down is a scam, but at this point you don’t care).

Your whole life is wrapped up in finding a job, working for the United Nations where you’ve dreamt of working since a kid, or for a top international NGO that works closely with communities on issues you’re passionate about. You were expecting every new strategy you use to be the answer to your prayers, the thing that lets you take care of your family, live out the rest of your life with a decent salary, health insurance and pension, and travel from country to country.

“Why? Why is this happening to me?!” You scream to your children, your partner, your friends, and even just at the white walls surrounding your living room couch (which was long-ago converted into ground zero of your job search). “Why don’t these people see the brilliance of what I’m offering them?!”

Why indeed?

Have you put yourself in the shoes of hiring managers? Truly thought about what you are offering them and how it will affect them and their team? Have you answered the question every single one of them is asking when they review the hundreds of job applications they receive – “Will this person take our team to a new level?”

You see, when hiring managers review applications, they really don’t care how fabulous your CV template is or whether you have an interest in rugby. They don’t want to know about all the duties and responsibilities you’ve held in another job, the multiple courses you took on unrelated subjects, or whatever else you’re trying to tell them. They really want to know how your experience can help you problem-solve challenges in their team.

They know they have a hiring need and they’re urgently looking for a way to fill it. So they go to advertise a new job opening. If your application looks like it might provide them with that solution, they’ll put it in the long-list.

But if you don’t grab them right away… If you don’t show them how your background is the solution they’re looking for… If you don’t answer that question of “Will this person take our team to a new level?” They’ll just skip on to the next job application and consider if they have to readvertise the position or go asking colleagues for recommendations again.

Here are five reasons your job applications may be getting put into the rejecton pile – and what you can do to not only engage hiring managers, but also strengthen your chances at landing your dream impact job.



Does this really happen? Yes, everyday. Advertised jobs do often have a candidate who was already asked to apply.

But the reason for this has far less to do with the need “to know someone” on the inside, than a far more basic explanation.

And that more common reason is the urgent need to get the hiring DONE.

Because of poor planning, limited time and high levels of pressure, hiring managers often do the easy thing and that’s to turn to their network to identify “proven” candidates.

Who is a proven candidate, you ask? It’s not the manager’s friend just because they’re a friend.

It’s someone who:

  • Has basically done that job before.
  • Written, presented or otherwise have evidence on their CV of being an expert on the subject. (This does not have to mean having won a Nobel Prize. It can be a really relevant MA thesis project to that job or a course giving you a rare, in-demand skill. Think RCTs.)
  • A “proven” candidate can also have delivered a stunning performance in something they have done that catches attention. (4.0 GPA? That counts. Completing a degree while balancing a full-time job and raising a family? Yes! So does being the head of a noteworthy volunteer or student group that addressed an under-served problem or a common one in an innovative way.)

Whatever the case, hiring managers turn to their networks to find candidates to apply to new openings. And this “proven” candidate is always qualified for the job in their own right (if not, HR and an audit will have the hiring manager’s head). Because it’s easier for the hiring manager to deliver on filling in the vacancy, jobs get advertised to follow policy, but they can have candidates already in mind.


One top tip to avoid spending time and energy submitting into the Jobs Application Blackhole? Check the time gap between the date of advertisement of a job, and the deadline to apply.

If it’s less than two weeks, it’s a strong sign there’s someone already in mind for that job. 



A common hiring strategy in global development is to interview people who have done that job before, worked in that country or done something highly relevant.

It makes sense.

When your organization is under pressure to deliver results, training someone into a new job, expertise area or how the project cycle works is time that is usually unavailable.

Hiring people who have held that job title or delivered very similar results is a way to make sure the project keeps on delivering.


To break this, you have to find what in your background speaks as closely as possible to your being able to deliver the assignment or role nearly as well as anyone who has done the exact same job before.

Use challenges in your coursework, big achievements you’ve helped bring internships or volunteer experiences, and even personal challenges you’ve overcome. 

What they want above all is someone who can identify problems, work with others to define a solution, and then implement and test that solution. These examples can come from any part of your background – so don’t overlook key stories you can tell.

If you make a compelling case, it can be a really attractive application.


Tired of people telling you to "tailor" your CV and add "keywords" but not showing you how?
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You are using a difficult to understand CV template.

It has roles that don’t sound like the one you’re applying to.

Too many buzzwords from a different sector, or that sound like you’re describing your duties and responsibilities in previous jobs.

These are common reasons why CVs fail to stand out.


Ask yourself a few key questions to strengthen your application.

What passion do you have right now, for this job? If you’re specific with your interests and passion, it can show how you’re committed to helping the new organization or team achieve its goals.

Next, identify what unique value-addition you bring to the team. Do you bring a new perspective, expertise or powerful experience delivering a complex solution in a challenging environment? Find what excites the new organization and make it clear to the hiring manager that you understand their expectations.

That you need to stand-out from the crowd is something anyone can say. The “secret ingredient” is in using techniques proven to attract the attention of development professionals.



As I often say it’s the clearest thing in the world to a hiring manager, tasked to review sometimes hundreds to thousands of applications – that you’re using the same CV to apply to every job out there.

Have you read the ToR? Do you understand what the organization does? Did you convince me that you’re passionate about this work right here, right now – and not just about finding any job that keeps you employed? 


Yes, being passionate in a specific way helps you stand-out.

Using keywords and the right buzzwords can also show your potential new manager how your thinking aligns with your new organization.


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We do also have to remember it’s competitive out there.

Among the few statistics available, just 1.3% of applicants to jobs at the World Bank get them. There’s no “sure” thing.

Take me for instance.

I have developed a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me highly qualified for certain jobs.

In my particular niche in international development there are literally about five people in the world who have undertaken as much experience in a particular job-type that I’ve done.

But still, I’m not the only single person doing what I do.

Sometimes one of the five others out-compete me. They have more relevant experience in that country. They would take a lower pay rate. Their interview was stronger.

Whatever the reason, it happens. And I try to be happy for my colleagues and friends. (While I cry into my pillow at night.)



Don’t despair — you are not alone!

Getting a top global development job requires more than knowing the project cycle and having subject matter expertise.

Without a strategy to apply to top jobs all your years of hard work and learning can be missed.

Understanding these main reasons why your CV isn’t attracting the interest your background deserves is a key step in the right direction.

Have you been victim to one of these reasons? What did you do about it? Let us know in the comments!

Tired of people telling you to "tailor" your CV and add "keywords" but not showing you how?
Get the free ULTIMATE IMPACT CV CHECKLIST that got my students their first interviews in 2 weeks! It uses real-world CV samples from professionals we've helped to get jobs at the World Bank, Save the Children and UN agencies.
I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )

4 replies on “The Real Reasons Your Job Applications Are Failing (And What You Can Do to Change That)”

I have submitted several applications but I always don’t get shortlisted for interviews. I am beginning to think maybe it is because I did’nt read the discipline which is considered right for the job but I do have previous experience in such fields in the private sector. Please I need your help on what to do.

I have done several submission but most times my discipline does not fit in perfectly. When I get my area of discipline I never get short listed. I really do need your help.

Lerato Makgorosays:

This is way close to my heart. I have recently lost my job and I’ve been applying like crazy and nothing turns out. Now after reading this article I have come to realize what my mistake has been. I really need to work on my CV, make sure that it really aligns with the job spec.

Tolulope Toluwadesays:

Thanks for this great insight.

I have done some contract jobs with some Multinationals as a Data Officer/Monitoring and Evaluation Assistants.

And I usually read the TOR to ensure that the required skills are shown in my CV.

I have made several other applications to get into the Multinationals proper, some called me for interviews while many other didn’t call me back.

After those interviews, I got no response or a rejection response.

I’m actually adding to my skills set as a Data scientist but I’m still making more applications.

What else do I need to do?

Thank you

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