Whether you’re applying for a job, responding to a request for proposals, or submitting a grant or award nomination, there is one rule you just can’t break. No matter how impressive your qualifications and regardless how compelling your case, unless you follow instructions, the prize will always go to someone else. Why is it so important to follow instructions? Let’s take a look.
Instructions level the playing field
Imagine that you find an advertisement for your dream job. The deadline for applying is March 1, but you didn’t see the ad until February 29. From everything you’ve ever read about applying for a job, you know that your chances are best if you write a targeted cover letter specifically for the job at hand. However, your day is already full, and there’s no way you can find any spare time to do this. Instead of sending in a sub-par letter, you e-mail the hiring manager and ask for an extension to submit your application.
You never know, you might get lucky. But if the hiring manager wants to run a fair process, they will decline your request. If they make an exception for you, they will probably feel compelled to make an exception for anyone else who asks for one. But how far does that go? What about someone who didn’t see the ad until the day after the deadline? How about a week after the deadline?
The only decision that isn’t arbitrary is sticking to the posted deadline (unless they decide to advertise a new extended deadline for everyone). You aren’t entitled to your own special due date. Besides that, is asking for an extension really the first impression you want to make on prospective employer?
Instructions make it easier for the people in charge
Imagine that your non-profit organization is finalizing a grant application, and you see that the granting organization has requested a cover page that contains only the name of the project that you want them to fund. They want this information in 12-point Times New Roman, halfway down the page, centre aligned.
Your organization already has a slick cover page that you’ve adapted to include only the information requested, but the template uses Calibri bold, the text is aligned to the right and sits closer to the top of the page to leave room for your organization’s logo. It is official policy that all external communication must bear the logo, and you decide that your slightly modified cover sheet fits the description closely enough. You even think that the presentation might stand out just a little bit extra for its professionalism, which could give you an edge.
The problem is that you don’t know the reason why they’ve asked for the cover page to be that way. In fact, if you carefully read the rest of the application instructions, you might find that the judging process is blind, which means that the reviewers aren’t supposed to know whose submission they’re reading when they assess it. By having your organization’s logo on the cover sheet, you’re interfering with the integrity of the process. This is likely serious enough to have your application disqualified.
Even if the reason isn’t that specific, think about the people reviewing all the submissions. You might be one of dozens or even hundreds of applicants. The reviewers responsible for sorting, reading, and making decisions on these applications have a boatload of work to do, without the extra trouble of trying to figure out why your cover sheet looks different than everyone else’s. You may well end up standing out, but not for the right reasons. Don’t be that person.
Following instructions shows respect
When you’re submitting an application to win an award, all of your focus is on you or your company. But as much as your application is about your or your company’s achievements, you’re also asking for an honour from an organization that’s investing a lot of energy reviewing submissions from many other deserving candidates. Show respect for the reviewers by adhering to the rules, even if it’s not obvious to you why they matter. They matter to the people organizing the awards, and that should be good enough.
Follow the spirit of the instructions, not just the letter. If a question in the submission form says, “Solves a specific problem for your customer”, don’t just say “yes”. Say instead, “Yes, our customer was receiving an unacceptable number of complaints, and our solution eliminated complaints by reducing call wait times.” Be compelling. If you’re only aiming for mediocre, why apply in the first place? This is your opportunity to put your best foot forward. Take it.
Use proper spelling and grammar. Despite the feeling that communication has become more informal in a world dominated by social media, proper spelling and grammar is still expected, even if the rules don’t specifically say so. If words aren’t your strong suit, ask someone else to review your work before you send it, so that you don’t diminish the value of your submission with something that’s easily preventable.
If you can follow the instructions, and follow them well, your chances of success will improve significantly. Need assistance with a grant application or award submission? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to see how I can help you craft the best submission for your organization.