Dear Sam
Samantha Nolan
More than two million weekly readers have asked hundreds of questions and absorbed hundreds of answers, putting the latest advice from 'Dear Sam' to work in their own job searches. With a straight-forward, caring, and honest approach, 'Dear Sam' responds to readers' questions regarding resume development, cover letter strategies, job search tactics, and interviewing protocol, and is regarded as a trusted and valuable resource for today's job seekers.

Summer Makeover: Differentiate by showing your personality

July 1st, 2015

Meet Gail…

Gail, a 2001 college graduate, had returned to school to complete an early childhood education teaching license so she could pursue her passion. Since 2008 she had been involved with a private preschool organization working within a Head Start program. With future funding uncertain, she decided to be proactive and seek a new opportunity in early childhood education.

Gail’s original resume…

Gail’s original resume was very plain in design, written in the wrong voice—never write a resume in first person, instead use a passive voice—and lacked the enthusiasm or personality expected of an early childhood educator. Opening with an objective statement, Gail’s resume wasted the most important real estate on the page with a statement that every educator would claim—a desire to inspire students with a love for learning and the hope to persevere. While the message was certainly appropriate, it would be best demonstrated through functions and contributions within a professional educator setting.

Gail’s resume went on to include her education and experience, with the latter encompassing one paragraph—consisting of five lines of text—for her last two roles. Gail’s resume closed on page two with her volunteer experiences in her own children’s classrooms.

The new approach…

Given Gail had completed just one professional teaching engagement—coupled with two student teaching roles required for her license—it was prudent to combine her experiences to create one strong section. The “meat” of Gail’s resume was a “Key Highlights” section which conveyed the value she had contributed in the classroom, the skills she developed and demonstrated, and the key initiatives of which she had been a part.

Before presentation of her professional highlights, I opened Gail’s resume with an engaging qualifications summary. Realizing that most teachers possess incredibly similar credentials and often experiences, it is imperative to infuse an educator’s resume with personality, passion, and a personal flavor. To do this I strategically selected my word choices, added color and graphics, and presented excerpts from Gail’s wonderful letters of recommendation.

Gail’s new resume now jumped off the page with energy, enthusiasm, and a true early education focus. From the heading of “Preschool Teacher” to the graphics of the little children reading and finger painting, there is no mistaking whom Gail is and what she loves to do. Her new resume, even though we added her new position, was just one page in length, which better reflected her candidacy while still ensuring appropriate representation of keywords sought by potential employers. At one glance, her potential employers would see her passion, enthusiasm, and verve for early childhood education, positioning her candidacy before one word needed to be read and reinforcing through on-target and strategic content.

View Gail’s eye-catching resume

Don’t sacrifice value for brevity

June 21st, 2015

Dear Sam: I would like to get your opinion on how to improve my resume. I am 55 years old with 20 years of management experience in the food and landscape industries. I have a degree in landscape design. I have applied for numerous positions that are suited to my qualifications, skills, and experiences—both in-person and online—but the majority of the time I get zero response. When I have received a response I am told I am overqualified. Would it be more effective to format my resume differently to get more responses and interviews? – Chris

Dear Chris: From a review of your resume I can see some areas in which you are following the appropriate strategies and others areas that have opportunity for improvement. Let me paint a picture of your resume for readers…

Your resume opens with an objective statement communicating you are seeking a challenging position with a company where you have the opportunity for growth. It follows with a summary stating you are an experienced manager, accompanied by 7 bullet points which present your areas of management experience. Next you present your technical skills followed by exploration of 12 years of professional experience and your associate’s degree.

Okay, let’s look at what’s right and what’s wrong.

Opening your resume with an objective statement is not necessary and a waste of the most valuable real estate on your resume. Look at your objective statement, does it tell the employer what you can do for them? No. It tells them what you want, something that does not need to be communicated at this stage in the game. Remove the statement and move the qualifications summary up on your resume.

Your summary is a good start on highlighting your key value offerings. Based on the feedback you have received I would just ask you to make sure the summary is aligned with the requirements for the positions you are seeking. If you are being told you are overqualified I imagine it is due to what you have in the summary not the professional experience section. I say this as the professional experience section is really quite brief and definitely would not over qualify you for a management role; so, it is the summary that is throwing people off, possibly due to the language, “Experienced Manager with multiple years of leadership, technical support and training in the customer service field.” Potentially the reader hears “multiple years” and feels that represents more than the 3-5 or 5-7 years they want. Review the types of positions you are seeking and see how much experience most of them are requiring, building your summary to present a competitive set of qualifications. Positioning your candidacy at the right level will prevent “you’re overqualified” responses.

Presenting your technical skills next is not an appropriate choice, especially as they are basic and will be assumed to encompass MS Office programs. Relocate this section to the end of your resume.

Your professional experience section needs a lot of attention. Do you know you have described 12 years of professional experience in only 170 words? You should not be able to present that much experience, and the value you contributed, in that few words. And, out of a total of 12 bullet points, only 2 are accomplishments and both are buried in the middle or at the end of their respective employer’s section. What’s more, you have presented a position you held for 18 months with the statement, “same as above,” telling employers you did not contribute any value at this employer and lack the enthusiasm or interest to try and explain it differently than your most recent position. While I am sure this isn’t what you were thinking, this is what will be assumed, and if you show a lack of interest in developing your resume, the reader will show a lack of interest in reviewing it. Lastly, you have listed the first 4 positions presented with no details of what you did in each role, making me question if they should even appear on your resume if you don’t feel they warrant any explanation.

I urge you to review each position you have held and define not only your responsibilities (what was on your job description) but your accomplishments (where you contributed value above and beyond your responsibilities). You should present a blend of each, being sure to highlight accomplishments as a way to predict the value you are positioned to contribute to your next employer. I hope you can see your resume has the potential to be great and open the doors for the positions you are interested in. Best of luck to you.

Strategic positioning and prioritization keys to success

June 14th, 2015

Meet Douglas!

Douglas, a technical analyst, came to me having gained extensive experience within a niche market, seeking to transition into an analyst or market research role. He had developed a two-page resume which he felt could be improved on significantly. After seeing one of his coworker’s resumes, also developed by Ladybug Design, he contacted me to get the process started.

Original Strategy…

Douglas’ original resume consisted of a basic list of job duties. His resume opened with his education section, despite not being a very recent graduate, and followed with his professional experience. In the professional experience section, he listed all of his duties in bullet points with very little white space to differentiate positions, promotions, or priorities. Page one of Douglas’ resume consisted of 18 bullet points with absolutely no spacing between any section, and page two followed with two additional roles (6 bullet points), a skills section, and a table of relevant courses.

New Strategy…

Given Douglas was coming into the market having amassed some very specific types of experience with an organization unique in its industry, it was imperative that we present the value of his experience along with the transferability of the functions he had performed. During my discussion with Douglas—which focused on how he contributed “value” to his past employers by doing things outside of his “duties”—I took eight pages of notes, and perhaps even more important, gained the insight I needed to really focus his background in the direction needed to secure a target position.

I created a unique design for Douglas’ new resume, ensuring a clean, modern, and technical feel to reinforce the candidate I was presenting on paper. Imperative to positioning Douglas, I opened the resume with a qualifications summary reflecting the core skills and experience that would be sought by the hiring managers he was trying to attract. Through a brief paragraph overview of his background and a list of strengths, Douglas is now promoting how he is qualified for his target positions rather than expecting a hiring manager to “figure out” how he fits within the organization.

Perhaps most dramatic was the transformation of the professional experience section. From what was a never-ending list of bullet points came a prioritized, aesthetically pleasing, and engaging presentation of Douglas’ positions and the value he contributed. Gleaned mostly from our conversation and my probing of key areas where I knew he would have made an impact based on the details contained in his job descriptions and original resume, his new resume focuses on his key differentiating factors. You will notice that this section presents a brief paragraph overview of his “job” followed by bulleted achievements with bold formatting highlighting the results of his actions. This best practices-based approach ensures the reader can glean as much value as possible during the ever-so-brief seven-second screening process.

Douglas’ new resume, as mentioned above, does not open with his education section as it did in his original version. Often not understood by candidates—but a good point to note—is that rarely can candidates differentiate themselves based on education alone. Therefore, opening a resume with an education section versus a qualifications summary is never the best presentation of your candidacy. While a degree can be very important, you need to remember that hundreds, if not thousands of candidates also possess that same degree; what is actually unique about candidates is based on the experience they have acquired throughout their career, however brief. Presenting education as a bonus to that experience is typically the best approach as candidates can rarely—unless graduating from a particularly noteworthy institution or aggressive and/or unique program—sell themselves based on education alone as Douglas was attempting to do.

Through strategic positioning, prioritization of content, and additional exploration of Douglas’ value, he emerged with a strong resume that differentiates him in a saturated market.

Douglas’ success…

Douglas was kind enough to think of me when he landed his new position, telling me, “I would just like to drop you a line to thank you for the exceptional resume and cover letter you developed for me. Your service has helped me land a job with a Fortune 500 company.”

View Douglas’ before and after resumes

Why aren’t employers calling?

June 7th, 2015

Dear Sam: I am trying to land a job in healthcare where I can later earn an internal promotion after completing graduate school and obtaining a license as a professional counselor. Employers aren’t calling. What is wrong with my resume? – Erica

Dear Erica: I love how you have been creative on your resume and opened with an excerpt from a past performance review…great job! Unfortunately however, I see every other area of your resume as needing improvement. Let’s review the key areas of opportunity:

Format: You have used a Word template from I dare say the 1990s, perhaps the first “known” resume template. Be different, change it up, and create something unique to you.

Summary: While you have included an excerpt from a review, that does not make a summary. A summary is a high-level overview answering the hiring manager’s question as to why he/she should bring you in for an interview. Showcasing one achievement from three years ago, along with a quote, does not tell a potential employer how you can add value.

Experience: This is where your resume is severely lacking. Do you know you have described your 19 years of experience in 27 bullet points yet fewer than 150 words? That is an average of 5 words per bullet point! You, as a professional communicator in your field, must take the time and space to explore the roles you held, the highlights of each, and the accomplishments you can point to throughout. This is the weakest section of your resume and, I fear, the reason employers are not taking a second look at your qualifications. You are discounting your experience so much by being so brief that one only has to assume there “wasn’t much to it” when it comes to your roles.

I think if you start here you will begin to see a stronger candidacy emerge. Refer to recently published books or websites like mine for ideas of what best practices-based resumes look like today in order to create the effective brand you are seeking.

Dear Sam: I am a healthcare professional planning to search for a new position. Enclosed you will find my admittedly out-of-date and poorly written resume! The problem I face is that I do basically the same thing no matter what setting I work in: I evaluate and treat patients with healthcare problems. I have worked in a variety of settings—skilled nursing, long-term care, hospital-based, home health, and adult MRDD—but, as an occupational therapist, I do the same thing from place to place. How can I redesign my resume to make it look more current, as well as highlight my talents/skills? – Michelle

Dear Michelle: Fantastic question! It is not uncommon for me to hear that candidates struggle to differentiate very similar, if not identical, positions on their resumes. There are two ways you can go about creating your resume.

Option 1: If your roles really are so similar that there would be significant redundancy in presenting each role back-to-back, consider presenting all of the OT positions in a group. To do this, note the employers and years you worked with each, followed by your one title and a full description of your roles and how you added value throughout the years. In essence this will look just like a traditional employment section, but multiple employers will be grouped together.

Option 2: While your job descriptions may have been identical, were you able to contribute value in different ways with different employers? If this is the case then I would keep your engagements separated on your resume, present a brief overview of the job—perhaps differentiating based on the environment you worked in, the number of beds, the types of patients served, etc.—and then leverage your accomplishments to differentiate each experience.

When evaluating the options, the second would be preferable as it is important to show a potential employer how you can add value beyond what is expected. By focusing on the different ways you were able to do this with each employer, you will create a value-based resume that, while your positions have been quite similar, really engages the reader and tells them how your career and candidacy developed through the years. Best of luck to you!

Interpret signs correctly

May 31st, 2015

Dear Sam: I have been searching for employment for almost three years. I previously worked in the healthcare field but, after years of being passed over for promotions, I decided to go to college and get a degree. Throughout my healthcare career I was able to obtain many skills, but without a degree to back them up, it appeared my skills were meaningless. My dilemma is that I changed fields almost completely as I am currently studying for a bachelors degree in forensic accounting and business administration. That being said, I have found I now do not possess the relevant experience to obtain employment in that field either.
Can you please take a look at my resume to see what I need to do to make it stand out to my target employment audience. – Sonja

Dear Sonja: The first question I would ask is: Are you passionate about entering the accounting field or was that just the option you pursued as you were unable to acquire the promotion you wanted in the healthcare industry? The answer to that question would shape the positioning of your candidacy and direction of your resume. Perhaps you could leverage your education and experience to secure a place in the accounting, auditing, or compliance field within a healthcare setting? That may provide you with the level of involvement and employment you have been seeking, at the compensation level you desire.

Unfortunately, when you sent your resume out for promotions within the healthcare field, the picture was not optimized. Given that is the case, the results you could have gleaned—in terms of interviews for positions of interest—really is not fully known as you had a lackluster tool representing your candidacy. I find this all too often with job seekers. They submit resume after resume and do not get the response they want and, instead of looking at the tool they are using, they point the finger at their own qualifications and candidacy. They often think, “I must not be qualified for what I thought I was qualified to do, so I must need to apply for something different.” Unfortunately, this is not typically the best answer and instead, candidates should take a lack of market interest as a sign of their lack of positioning and effectiveness in the presentation of their qualifications.

Based on your experience, and the many years you spent as a Chief Technician, I cannot imagine you were not qualified for the positions you were seeking. You were however focusing 100% on responsibilities on your resume. Your resume reads like a bulleted job description and does not explore how you added value during your 10+-year career in the healthcare field. Your resume is also very bottom-heavy, meaning your earlier experiences look like your most robust positions, never a good thing when hiring managers are most interested in what you have done recently. Through more attractive formatting, a combination of responsibilities and accomplishments, and a strong qualifications summary—to replace your outdated objective statement—I am confident you could have won some of the interviews you were seeking.

Going forward, as you are unable to show experience in the area of your education, I would really suggest leveraging both the experience and education you possess to position your candidacy for a related opportunity within the healthcare arena. I would tap into your professional network and try to open doors to opportunities not on the “open” market, key to overcoming your gap in employment and limited experience in one of the two domains. I know you can have a resume that opens those doors and really stands out to your target market, you just have to be a little more strategic in shaping that message. Best of luck to you.