WASHINGTON – The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week to the lowest level since July 2008, a hopeful sign that improvement in the job market is accelerating.

The Labor Department said Wednesday that weekly unemployment claims dropped by 34,000 to a seasonally adjusted 407,000 in the week ending Nov. 20. Wall Street analysts expected a much smaller drop.

A Labor Department analyst said weekly claims are volatile during the week between the Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving holidays. A key question is whether claims will remain this low in future weeks..

Still, applications for jobless aid are steadily moving lower. Claims have fallen in four of the past six weeks.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped for the third straight week to 436,000, the lowest since August 2008.

Applications for jobless aid need to stay below 425,000 for several weeks to signal that hiring is accelerating, according to economists.