To the Career Counselor:
My position was eliminated a few months ago, and I have been applying for other positions. I get interviews regularly, some for jobs I really want, but nothing has materialized. I want to change my resume materials to be more effective, but don’t know where to start. What suggestions do you have for writing cover letters and resumes? How do I handle the gap in my resume due to the layoff? What other suggestions do you have to help me get the interview and then the job?
— Wants a Job
Dear Wants a Job:
You are already on the right track in many ways: You are getting interviews, so your resume and cover letter clearly are doing their core work well. There might be room for improvement — there always is — but the central objective of your written application materials is to get you to the interview stage. You should think about both the application materials and what happens in the interviews and figure out how the two are connected.
Great application materials do two things: they demonstrate that you have what it takes to do the job, and they paint a clear picture of who you are in a broader sense. Your ability to get interviews indicates that you are achieving the first part well — no employer wants to waste time interviewing people who don’t seem to be qualified, especially at a time like this when they are likely to hear from many qualified people. You might need to work on creating materials that help people understand what is unique about you that you can then explain in more detail during the interview. Here are just a few tips to help you further polish your resume:
- Accomplishments: Your accomplishments set you apart. They demonstrate your aptitudes and skills to people who probably don’t know you. They are also one of the most difficult things to write about clearly. Often people feel that an accomplishment must be epic to include it on a resume, when in reality many of the things you do on a regular basis can be perceived as accomplishments, particularly if you phrase them the right way. Use quantifiable examples to prove what you have accomplished, such as dollar amounts, numbers, quotas, percentages, etc. You might also include promotions, work on special projects, success in decreasing costs, or institution-sponsored awards. You should list items that stand apart from your day-to-day duties — tangible, quantifiable achievements that really put your accomplishments into perspective.
- Licenses, Degrees, Awards, and Certificates: List only those most relevant to your career field or to requirements for the specific job. Be sure to include titles, dates, locations, and the sponsors of any training you completed to receive certificates or licensure. Sticking with the idea of what’s relevant, important conferences in your field can provide an important boost to marketing yourself to an employer, particularly if they helped you earn continuing education credits or gave you a unique skill, such as specialization in a certain area of knowledge. Less obviously, the unspoken power that comes with having made high-end powerful contacts through a variety of conferences can only benefit you. Don’t forget also to note any in-services or trainings you conducted with others as a result of attending conferences, as these are notable accomplishments that highlight certain skill sets such as leadership and public speaking abilities.
- Technical Skills: Your list should include technical skills relevant to the job but also more general skills such as knowing how to put together an effective spreadsheet or being a whiz in the use of proprietary software. Other, non-computer-related skills, such as operating a cash register, might also make a difference in getting a job, particularly if you’re just entering the job market in a different field than the one you worked in before.
If you’re having difficulty coming up with accomplishments or even in trying to list your hard skills, you might want to consider asking someone who knows you for help, or using a resume design service. Most people have a hard time marketing themselves, and getting an objective opinion can help you identify your strengths and accomplishments and present them effectively. You may find that you’ve accomplished far more than you give yourself credit for! Others can also help you practice for interviews and offer suggestions on how best to tie all the accomplishments in your resume and cover letter into the conversation with the interviewer when the time comes.
Before you send off your application materials, take a final look at everything. The final, and perhaps most essential, component is honesty. It can be tempting to try to mold yourself into what you think employers want and say “yes” to every question, even when that’s a stretch. It is normal and expected that you’ll put your best foot forward, but a skilled interviewer will try to look beneath the surface and assess your potential for long-term success. Make sure you honestly know why you want this position and why you are a great fit for it. Once you have been through the process of research and introspection needed to answer those two questions well, you will be perfectly positioned to create an application that makes your personal experience, strengths, and values excitingly evident.
Most of the creativity will wind up in the cover letter, where you should avoid being formulaic or repeating information from your resume. Use the cover letter to connect the factual parts of your job and life history to the reasons behind them. Some would say that we understand our world primarily through stories, and your application — while it should not be your entire story — should help the employer start to understand you in a way that will ring completely true and will deepen in your interview. The cover letter also provides the perfect opportunity to address the gaps in your resume — you can talk a bit about why these things happened, specifically as they relate to where you are now and where you are trying to go. The following very personal story, for example, explains why the writer is currently unemployed, yet it still comes across as positive and directed:
“While working as an SQL programmer, I realized that I had a special knack for understanding how to design databases and programs to support real-world needs. With the support of my boss I enhanced my skills through classes and took on more of an architect role in our recent financial aid systems overhaul. That project was successfully completed last year, but due to budget cuts all new large projects were cancelled. State U. no longer needed my skills as an architect, so my position was eliminated. I was given the opportunity to return to a programming position, but decided instead to seek a position where I can fully apply my skills in analysis and design.”
Consider a few more suggestions of items to include in your cover letter:
- Why you are sending a resume, and which position you are applying for.
- How you learned about the position or institution.
- Target the specific employer, which will help convince the reader to look at your resume.
- Call attention to elements of your background that make you perfect for the position — but be sure not to just repeat your resume.
- Reflect your attitude, personality, motivation, enthusiasm, and communication skills throughout the letter.
- Provide or refer to any information specifically requested in a job advertisement that might not be covered in your resume, such as availability date or a reference to an attached writing sample.
- Indicate what you will do to follow up.
If you get an interview, review your resume and cover letter ahead of time and remember why you applied for this position. Let the facts in your application materials, and the process of creating them, guide you during the interview phase. During the interview be sure to relax and answer the questions as directly as possible, explaining how your skills, abilities, and experience fit the job. Don’t try to cover everything at once, though — stick to the questions asked, and volunteer additional information when the interviewer gives you the opportunity to expand on your answers. You want the interviewer to understand clearly why you are a good fit for the position, after all, not feel that you aren’t answering his or her questions. And don’t be afraid to ask an interviewer to restate a question if you are confused — that’s better than answering the “wrong” question. Be upbeat and make positive statements, and don’t insult your previous colleagues or institution, no matter what problems you encountered there. The interviewer will be much more interested in your productive solutions to those problems than in hearing your complain about them.
People fail interviews for a variety of reasons, so here are a few tips to help you avoid the major pitfalls:
- Dress appropriately. If you don’t know the employer’s dress code, this is one case where formal business attire will serve you well. It’s better to be too formal than too casual for an interview.
- Be on time for your interview, or even a little early. Some organizations ask you to fill out paperwork before the interview begins, and building in some extra time removes pressure. It also gives you a chance to talk to the company’s employees in a friendly, less formal way before the interview if time and interest permit.
- Make eye contact with the receptionist, the interviewer, and anyone else you meet in the course of the interview appointment, and be friendly but courteous and professional. After all, you want to make a good impression on everyone you encounter.
- Express information clearly, and don’t get so far off the topic you can’t find your way back. Time is precious in interviews, and you want to use it to maximum effect.
- Show enthusiasm — you have already decided this would be a perfect job for you, so show that to the interviewer.
You, and your story, are unique. Being yourself and being open are the best ways to wind up in a new position where you can do your best work and grow in your career. Choose your potential employers and jobs carefully, and evaluate the fit with your goals and personality before you send in an application. You might send in fewer applications, but you’ll invest more in each one and improve your chances of turning that interview into an offer for the job you really want.
— The Career Counselor
Do you have a question for the Career Counselor? Please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Your identity will be kept strictly confidential.)
© 2009 EDUCAUSE. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.