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.

Getting screened out?

May 19th, 2016

Dear Sam: What am I doing wrong? I have applied for more jobs that I ever thought I would. Each time I read the job postings, review the requirements, and ensure I meet those expectations. Why then am I not getting so much as an initial screening call? Help! — Jason

Dear Jason: There are many reasons an employer may not be calling, have you considered the following?

  1. Are you the most qualified candidate? Remember being “qualified” does not necessarily mean you are the most qualified. Reading the requirements for a role, as presented in a job posting, can be misleading as oftentimes employers really list the minimum requirements for the role, almost like the prerequisite for the job. What you really have to pay attention to when reading a job posting is the actual job description. The job description part of the posting—the overview of what you would be doing in the role—is really more of an indicator of the experience you need to possess in order to be seen as qualified. With higher-than-average unemployment levels we have a saturated candidate pool which, at times, means employers will likely have someone applying for the role that has come from a similar position. When this is the case, especially when you are transitioning or moving into something slightly different than what you have done in the past, you must show the transferability of your skills by speaking the language of the roles you will be performing, not the minimum qualifications being sought. So, to judge whether you are truly a “qualified” candidate, check if you can truly speak the language of the functions you would be expected to perform in the role. Simply possessing the minimum prerequisite requirements is likely not going to cut it.
  2. Have you targeted your candidacy? While I know candidates want to keep their options open, we all only need one career position. So, targeting your candidacy is critical in ensuring maximum resume effectiveness. Be sure your resume is telling one story, creating an aligned picture of your skills, experiences, and abilities. The content of your resume, wherever possible, should be speaking the language of the functions you would be performing in your target positions. This is where understanding the true qualifications needed is very important as this is the story you need to tell on your resume. Read through job postings of interest to get a sense of the skills, experiences, and abilities employers are seeking in candidates such as you. Use this insight to feed your resume with very important keywords conveying that you possess the right mix of experience, skills, and education. Possessing the right keywords is absolutely imperative if you want to be seen as a competitive candidate.
  3. Be sure you hang your hat on what makes you unique! Too many candidates think certain skills or educational credentials make them unique. Actually experience is more often than not what truly makes one unique. Think about it, the degree you hold, while important, is going to check the box for an employer and may be a qualification the majority of other applicants also possess. Likewise, certain skills and abilities will likely be claimed widely in the candidate pool, once again, creating an even playing field. However no other candidate can claim the same exact experience as you, at least when it comes to presenting your key contributions or accomplishments. Be sure to focus your attention in really highlighting what differentiates your candidacy. Remember, the requirements are typically what I call “check the box” qualifications meaning they do not make you unique, they just mean you are possess the minimum credentials being sought. That means that any other candidate also able to “check those boxes” is once again on an even playing field with you. Where you both stand out however would be the uniqueness of your experiences, the value you brought to work, and the skills acquired as a result.
  4. Have you created a strong and compelling format? Paying attention to the content—and keywords—of your resume as well as the format, is the recipe for resume success. Be sure your resume is aesthetically pleasing, balanced on the page, and will not succumb to formatting incompatibilities—font substitutions, margin changes, etc.—on recipients’ computers. If you are not naturally creative, glean inspiration for a uniquely formatted resume through an online search or quick breeze through resume books at the library.
  5. Are you diversifying your distribution strategy? Gone are the days we would just apply for open positions online. Distributions strategies are much more multifaceted these days and can/should include offline and online networking, sourcing “closed” market opportunities, leveraging referrals, securing informational interviews with those in your desired field, proactively researching and finding emerging opportunities—like when a company is moving or expanding in the area—and of course, the responses to “open” market positions. Be sure you are actually engaging in the distribution strategies to maximize your outreach and not getting stuck in the rut of only applying for posted opportunities.

Break the mold

March 9th, 2016

Meet Bailey!

Bailey came to me—seeking resume assistance—as a new nurse wanting to advance her career and gain entry into a graduate nursing program.

The challenge…

Bailey’s original resume looked likes thousands of others I have seen throughout my career. Instead of showcasing her experience, Bailey’s original resume hid her differentiating factors in a sea of black and white text. With a lackluster format, no appropriate prioritization of the most important elements of her candidacy, and a focus on what Bailey wanted in the next stage of her career—instead of how she could add value to an employer or graduate school cohort—her resume fell short of helping her stand out.

The turnaround…

Key to differentiating your candidacy is creating a unique picture of your background. As you will see from Bailey’s new resume, focus was paid to creating a unique picture full of personality.

Qualifications summary…

Instead of opening Bailey’s resume with a self-serving objective statement, a qualifications summary leads the resume. This section allows the prioritization of the most important aspects of Bailey’s candidacy, providing recruiters with a quick overview to facilitate their ever-so-brief screening process. An extension of the qualifications summary, a slightly more detailed overview was presented on the right side of the resume. This section was designed to create visual interest, engage the reader, and extend the screening process.

Experience…

A fully developed experience section was presented to ensure that Bailey’s impressive early-career experience was conveyed well. In this section, highlights were noted, even when they were not of a quantifiable nature. Early experiences were noted, briefly, in order to ensure focus was on the most relevant and recent aspects of Bailey’s background.

Education…

You will notice the education section was relocated toward the end of the resume, as Bailey is no longer considered to be a recent graduate. As her education did not differentiate her from competitors, it was important to relocate this section so attention would be placed on the aspects of her career—the uniqueness of her candidacy—that provided her with a competitive edge over her peers.

Value-added…

Rounding out Bailey’s candidacy was the presentation of value-added information in the form of volunteer work and affiliations.

Bailey’s reaction…

“My resume has been transformed into AMAZING!!! It looks absolutely fabulous yet very professional!! I LOVE IT!!!”

Control what you can

March 6th, 2016

Dear Sam: I was terminated for excess time off work. I received a conviction and, based on the time I had to spend in court, with my attorney, and repairing my life, it was too much for my employer of 16 years to bear. While I have been successful in rebuilding my personal life—as this was my first offense I did not receive jail time—I am struggling with figuring out my journey back to my career. I feel very emotional and often angry about being terminated as I never had a performance issue and now feel employers will see me as having a scar on my record. – Kim

Dear Kim: I can understand how difficult navigating your way through a job search must be, especially as I am sure you are possibly thinking of the interview questions you will have to answer about reasons for leaving your last role. Remember, no one reviewing your resume knows about your situation; that will be explored during the interview once interest has been established. I would make sure your resume is promoting the value you contributed to your past employer, being sure to present your accomplishments and the performance you drove. Do you have copies of performance reviews? These add credibility to your claims and could be offered during an interview or used in the development of your resume. Sometimes I will place excerpts from reviews directly on a candidate’s resume, never more important than when performance may come into question. Also, develop a written statement about your situation and what you learned from it; showing it as an opportunity for development will demonstrate your ability to self-reflect and not repeat those actions. Lastly, you have to let go of your anger toward your past employer. I know the situation is frustrating, but the worst thing you can do is hold onto a negative attitude and show that to potential employers. Revamp, reenergize, and restart your search with your best foot forward.

Entrepreneur or employee? Position yourself carefully

March 2nd, 2016

Dear Sam: I currently own and run a very successful consulting business on a part-time basis. I also maintain a full-time job. My question is how do I incorporate my skills and experience gained from my own business onto my resume. – Shawn

Dear Shawn: How you incorporate your consulting experience is somewhat based on your current career target. If your goal is to secure a new full-time position, and I am assuming it is as you are creating a resume, then you need to tread lightly when highlighting self-employment. When presenting your own business in addition to a full-time position, a hiring manager may feel you would be a short-term employee if your own business became successful enough to only work for yourself. Moreover, if you are seeking a challenging full-time engagement, some might question your commitment to your employer, worrying you might be moonlighting on the job. While this is unfortunate, if you have another engagement, you may not have the availability to stay late or work weekends, something that might be required of your full-time role.

To highlight related self-employment experience without disqualifying yourself for any of the above reasons, you might want to include your consulting experience in a second professional experience section on your resume. You would therefore first present, and focus on, your full-time positions, and in a second section titled “Consulting Engagements” present your self-employment. By doing this you can easily incorporate highlights from either tracks of your career in your cover letter, qualifications summary, and even an accomplishments section.

I mention an accomplishments section as depending on the chronology of your career and the strength of your accomplishments from your full-time positions, it may serve you well to pull out accomplishments and place them on page one of your resume. As you mentioned your consulting experience is very valuable, this would allow you to highlight that experience without showcasing that it was performed during an independent engagement. To do this, simply list your accomplishments, noting the employer or client name at the end of the sentence. Then, in the consulting experience section, be sure to note the same clients for consistency, and so the hiring manager will understand the scope of the engagement.

By following this strategy you will showcase your value to the hiring manager. You will also have all of your critical data on page one of your resume, and perhaps most importantly, not disqualify yourself by being seen as a budding entrepreneur seeking interim full-time employment.

I am presenting an example this week which showcases an entrepreneur’s transition back to employee status. With the recent economy, it is not uncommon for a candidate to have left the corporate world and consulted while searching for a full-time role. In Steve’s case, he had been consulting for several years and sought to return to a more traditional role.

Steve’s original resume was very old fashioned, including a laundry list of bullet points presenting his day-to-day responsibilities. With this approach and design there was no prioritization to the information presented and little focus on anything beyond his “job.” Reprioritizing Steve’s experience was step one of a turnaround strategy. I chose not to include short-term retail sales job sandwiched in-between fitness consulting and full-time positions, a strategic move to ensure only the best experiences were presented on page one of his resume. Within each of the professional experience sections I included a paragraph overview of his daily responsibilities along with several bullet points exploring his key contributions in each engagement. This approach made certain that the reader came away from the screening process with critical information on how to differentiate Steve as a candidate. Take a look at Steve’s resume (click here) for tips to fuel your picture on paper.

Improve your job search ROI

February 28th, 2016

Dear Sam: I apply for at least 20 jobs each day online and am having no luck getting noticed. Help! – Dave

Dear Dave: I applaud you for investing in your job search through the time and effort I am sure it takes to apply to 20 positions per day, but that number also concerns me. Is your search targeted enough to have a resume sending a distinct message to your desired audience? I can’t imagine there are 20 jobs you qualify well for, at least not every day, and you should know that your resume has to paint a very targeted picture in today’s candidate-saturated market.

Once you ensure your resume is targeted, augment your search with offline strategies. Do you know that more than two-thirds of candidates use a combination of online searches and networking to get their foot in the door? But, it is estimated that only a fraction of those job seekers actually find their next job online.

Instead of applying online all day long, call everyone you know and start to engage their resources, dramatically extending the awareness and reach of your search. Improve your market knowledge by reading the business section of the newspaper, trade publications, or other industry periodicals. If an article you read showcases an executive and their business practices, why not send a personal letter to that company or team member, stating how you enjoyed reading the article and would “fit” with their business methodologies and culture. This allows you to demonstrate your professional writing skills and could spark interest in you as a candidate.

Your distribution strategy should encompass a multi-pronged approach. Stop hitting apply now online so many times per day and develop a more targeted search, improving your ROI by integrating more diverse search strategies.