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Watch Out for the Jellybeans (and M&Ms)

If you’ve been looking at job openings through Idealist.org, you may have run across an ad for an interim communications lead at a company called Yourstake.org. The instructions for applying include the following:

The writers of the ad thoughtfully include a hyperlink to explain why they’ve included the last item. The link explains the purpose behind Van Halen’s legendary contract rider, that bowls of M&Ms, with all the brown ones removed, had to be supplied backstage. It wasn’t just rock-star whimsy. The M&Ms were just one line in a complicated contract full of relevant technical specifications, and they gave David Lee Roth a short cut for knowing whether the rules had been followed.

The jellybeans are functioning similarly for this employer. It’s an easy way to create a short-list of applicants, so that they only have to read the resumes, cover letters, and writing samples of applicants who have already demonstrated that they have the attention to detail required to read the instructions.

Metal bands and this particular employer are not the only people to use this filtering technique. Many grant-giving organizations include specific formatting instructions, not because the formatting matters, but because it identifies at a glance the applicants who either did not read the rules or ignored them.

Bottom line: pay attention to application instructions! The petty details may be there for a reason.