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.

Updating an “outdated” image

December 14th, 2014

Dear Sam: I lost my full-time job in June. When I started my job search I received several phone interviews and some in-person interviews, but alas, no job offers. Now, at this point in my search, I am not receiving any responses from my resumes or applications. I am 54 years old and believe my age is a major factor in me not getting calls for interviews or job offers following an interview. I am sure my resume writing is “outdated” by today’s standards so I wondered if you could offer any advice. — Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey: Thank you for writing and for sending your resume for review. You are correct in that the approach you have taken on your resume is very outdated, and I am actually surprised you have received any interviews based on the brevity of content and lack of positioning.

First, you have represented your 24-year career in fewer than 115 words! How can you possibly convey the value you contributed to your past employers in so few words? So, let’s start at the top of your resume and address the opportunities for improvement.

1) Email address tells your age. You should never have a date that looks like a birth year in your email address. You are immediately allowing a potential employer to “figure out” your age. Set up a professional email address with some form of your name and no numbers that reflect years of importance.

2) Your summary is very lackluster. Do any of the job postings you are reading ask for “20+ years of experience in the distribution, warehousing, and trucking industry?” I have yet to see a job posting seeking someone so experienced—unless we are speaking of a senior-level leadership role—so “right-size” your summary to better reflect the skills, experiences, and qualifications the jobs you are applying for are seeking. You will want to give this part of your resume some major focus as it will be the reason someone brings you in for an interview or rejects your application.

3) Your work experience section, as stated above, is severely lacking in content. You must describe the scope of each of your roles in addition to presenting some highlights showcasing how you added value beyond expectations. You must also write with some diversity in your language. Currently it looks like you have copied and pasted almost verbatim sections for your two types of roles. Think about that: if you can’t spend the time nor apply the creativity to write about your experiences, what message does that send to a potential employer? Dig deeper and think about your roles, what you did well, how you performed your job better than expected, and what you did that added value that was not on your job description. Add this valuable content to your resume to convey what is truly unique about your candidacy—your experience.

4) Trim the amount of experience you are presenting. As you are in your fifties, and as you noted in your question, it is important to present a snapshot of your experience. No employer will expect to read about all of your career and instead will prefer you focus on the past 10-15 years. Given you have essentially held two concurrent careers—one type of role in each of two employers, essentially both running 1990-present—I would recommend completely omitting your cashiering experiences. I would do this to avoid confusing the reader, to focus on your related and relevant logistics experiences, and to reduce focus on a part of your career that conveys perhaps an alternate job you will have to tend to while engaging with a new employer.

If you follow these suggestions Jeffrey, I am certain your resume will communicate your unique value to potential employers, fueling those phone calls, interviews, and offers. Best of luck.

Mission-critical step missed

December 7th, 2014

Dear Sam: I recently relocated for my husband’s career, and thus left my junior high school teaching role I held for 14+ years. I have since been struggling to find a new career path leveraging my transferable skills. I feel I have two problems. First, my resume is full of teaching experiences but I do not feel as though they are highlighting what I am capable of accomplishing in other areas. My second problem is that I really do not know what my next career path should be. I am sure this is a common problem for retired educators looking for part-time work opportunities so I was hoping you could shed some light on what I could do differently. — Melissa

Dear Melissa: You are exactly right, that is a common dilemma I hear from educators seeking to transition their skills into a different field. The key to crafting a successful presentation of your background is understanding the needs of your target audience. Without the knowledge of whom you are trying to attract, you can’t possibly know what skills, experiences, abilities, and credentials to put on display most prominently

For instance, if you were going to pursue a training role we would want to highlight very different aspects of your teaching career than those we would showcase if you were transitioning say into an administrative position. Step one is truly figuring out where you fit, what you are qualified for, and what opportunities exist in your new geographic location. Once you do this you can begin to review job postings of interest and start to understand the “language” they are speaking. Only then will you be able to craft a resume that gets traction in our saturated and competitive job market.

Dear Sam: I am seeking a job as an Accounting/Operations Manager. Half of my experience (aside from education) comes from running a family-owned (i.e., my husband is the President) business. I’ve been meeting with recruiters and submitting my resume for consideration online for certain opportunities, without much luck. Could working for a family business affect my ability to get a job? How do I overcome this challenge? – Elena

Dear Elena: Absolutely, often presenting experience with a family business is immediately discredited as it is assumed you did not have to do too much to get the job nor keep it. It is so unfortunate that this can be the assumption, or that other inaccurate assumptions are made, because having worked for a family-owned business—growing up—and now as a business owner myself, I know how hard you must have worked and the value you gained in being given the opportunity to wear multiple hats during your tenure.

To overcome this, you need to present your experience in the same way as you would any other professional experience. If it is difficult to hide the fact that this is a family business (i.e., if the business has your last name in it), then I would pull out highlights of your career and place them in their own section before presenting the employer’s name, your title, and the remainder of your professional experience section. If the company name will not immediately be seen as a family business, then you could present a more traditional reverse-chronological resume. The point would be not to showcase that you worked for a family business, so as to avoid the reader discounting the experience.

I mentioned presenting this experience in the same manner as any other professional position, as I see a lot of resumes from candidates who really dilute their experience which occurred in a family business. Another fault I see often is candidates who try to communicate too much about the diversity of their experiences, positioning themselves as a jack of all trades and a master of none. Just be careful to present select aspects of your background (i.e., those operations- and accounting-related) that are going to market you well for your current career objective. Best of luck to you!

Fall Makeover Series: Sending a robust message

November 30th, 2014

Meet Michael!

Michael had recently returned to the U.S. after spending more than five years in Israel studying, mentoring, and engaging with community organizations. Now, offering his high school education and international experience, he wanted to enter the job market and embark on a career that would allow him to provide for his family.

Makeover Strategy

Michael’s original resume was sparse to say the least. With just more than 100 words, Michael had presented an objective statement, 5+ years of experience,  his volunteer work, and his education. Despite being entry-level, 100 words were not able to accurately convey the value Michael could offer employers.

What’s wrong?

Not only was his content lacking, but Michael’s resume was also outdated in structure. Today’s value-based resumes never open with a self-serving objective statement as hiring managers are more interested in what a candidate can do for them, not what a candidate is seeking. Objective statements waste the most important real estate on a resume—the top third of page one—and must be replaced by a more employer-centric qualifications summary.

What’s right?

Michaels new resume opens with a qualifications summary positioning his candidacy for business development and relationship management roles. Exploring his key qualifications, skills, and important differentiating qualities, the new qualifications summary contains more content then Michael’s entire original resume! Highlighting the most important elements of the roles he is seeking, Michael is now communicating how he can add value to a future employer instead of wasting space stating the obvious. To top that off, a list of additional strengths allows Michael the opportunity to quickly customize his resume to address any specific requirements of a posting.

What’s wrong?

Michael’s original professional experience section was lackluster to say the least. With a couple of bullet points summarizing each engagement, it was impossible for a hiring manager to understand how his past experiences related to his current career targets.

What’s right?

Michaels new resume contains a combination of brief job description overviews combined with bulleted highlights. With this structure we are able to draw the reader to the most important pieces of information about each of Michael’s experiences. Changing the picture from just a handful of words, to fully developed sections, also plays a key role in positioning the value of the experiences in the mind of each reader.

What’s wrong?

Closing Michael’s original resume was a section about his personal interests in addition to the “References available on request” line. Neither are necessary nor appropriate in a 21st century resume; both waste space and do nothing to reinforce the professional tone of the document.

What’s right?

Michaels new resume ends with his education section presenting his Torah education in Jerusalem and his Regents Diploma. While we usually do not include high school diplomas on resumes, in this case it was important, as Michael’s school background would open networking opportunities critical to his search.

Makeover moral

Even as an entry-level candidate with minimal experience, it is imperative to create as robust a picture as possible in order to successfully differentiate your candidacy from your competition. In fact, as an entry-level candidate, a professional document can change the trajectory of your career by elevating its launch point.  Do not think that just because you possess limited experience that you still cannot apply best practices in personal branding, in fact, your job search success depends on it.

View Michael’s before and after résumé

Fall Makeover Series: First impressions fueled by visual aesthetic

November 23rd, 2014

Meet Katie!

Katie came to me seeking to present her human resources credentials on paper in an organized and sensible fashion, downplaying her prior more administratively focused career prior to 2007. Katie’s existing résumé was three pages in length and extremely crowded with bullet point after bullet point of information, none of which jumped off the page as anything to engage the reader. In fact Katie’s original résumé, believe it or not, had 51 bullet points with no spacing in-between, no complete sentences, little prioritization of content based on importance or relevance, and a lack of visual appeal.

Makeover Strategy

Katie’s new résumé was built using an aesthetically pleasing design, a serif font for ease of readability, and strategic prioritization of content to make sure only Katie’s recent HR experience would land on page one of her résumé. To do this, I opened Katie’s résumé with a qualifications summary, which not only included an overview of the highlights of her candidacy, but validated some of the claims through excerpts from performance reviews. In addition, I presented a brief core skills list to quickly demonstrate the breadth of experience Katie possessed and some of the skills that other HR managers may not be able to claim.

Katie’s Professional Highlights section was organized into three main parts for each of her employers. First, I presented an overview of the impact Katie had in each role. This one-sentence statement provided a quick snapshot of the scope of Katie’s position and the results of her actions. Placed in italics and bordered with a top and bottom line, this introduction served to frame the information to come. Next, I presented a brief paragraph overview of Katie’s role. Similar, yet much more succinct than a job description, this section summarized the positions Katie held and provided context for the accomplishments to come. Lastly, within each section of Katie’s experience I listed her professional accomplishments in bullet points. The most important piece of the professional experience section, I bolded the results of Katie’s actions and validated the claims by exploring some of the challenges she faced and the actions she took. Much more effective than in Katie’s original résumé, her new résumé, while still three pages in length, was easier to read, prioritized information for the reviewer, and positioned Katie as an expert in her field rather than someone who had recently transitioned into the industry.

Contrary to what some would assume—as HR managers work with résumés on a daily basis—I work with quite a few clients in the human resources field. My human resources clients often tell me they are embarrassed that they can review and critique applicants’ résumés all day long, yet find it nearly impossible to articulate their own backgrounds on paper. Not surprisingly, it is difficult for most candidates to identify, let alone present, their accomplishments in a self-promoting manner. In addition, with the competitive nature of the human resources industry right now, many HR clients cite the need to really differentiate their candidacy on paper as the key reason they seek professional assistance.

Katie’s Reaction:

Katie was kind enough to let me know what she thought of her new job search tool, stating “My résumé is visually impressive and strong and is a good reflection of who I am as an employee. It is so much more targeted and powerful than my original résumé. I am confident that my new résumé will unlock the door for the right opportunity.” Armed now with a strategic tool offering streamlined and prioritized content—presented in an aesthetically pleasing manner—Katie is sure to stand out in the sea of qualified HR applicants.

View Katie’s before and after résumé

Fall Makeover Series: Presentation, prioritization, and personality are key

November 16th, 2014

Meet Ken…

As a career-long accountant, Ken came to me seeking to change the way he was presenting his candidacy in order to entertain opportunities for new professional challenges. Not sure how to “brand” his candidacy given the repetitive nature of his roles, he sought expert guidance in exploring his background and identifying the unique experiences and qualifications he could leverage to differentiate his candidacy in a crowded market.

Original Resume…

Ken’s original resume came straight from the Microsoft Office template gallery. Not only did it scream “cookie cutter,” but the space on the page was poorly utilized, the font was far too large, all content was in bullet points, no key contributions were highlighted, it was inordinately long at three pages, and it exhibited zero personality. While Ken was presenting his candidacy to a fairly conservative financial industry audience, that was no reason to not present a little personality to engage readers.

New Resume…

Ken’s new resume transformed his candidacy. No longer was the content and formatting creating a dull picture, instead his candidacy shined bright with an engaging design, excerpts from performance reviews showcasing some of his key qualifications and characteristics, and clearly delineated key contributions.

Opening Ken’s new resume, instead of the objective-style statement he had on his “old-school” resume, was a qualifications summary presenting Ken’s key differentiating factors. Using a clear hierarchy of information, underneath his name appeared a professional title, key areas of expertise, excerpts from a performance review validating our claims, and five well-written and well-designed taglines exploring Ken’s candidacy.

Following the qualifications summary came a professional highlights section where excerpts continued to be presented to validate Ken’s performance. In addition, brief overviews of his roles were presented in paragraph formats accompanied by strong bullet points conveying what he did in each role that added value. Through my consultation with Ken, and the questions we explored, I was able to glean a significant amount of additional information on the challenges he faced through the years, the actions he took, and the results he achieved, providing the narrative to pinpoint and present his key career contributions.

Ken’s original three-page resume was now just shy of two pages, demonstrating much more efficient and effective utilization of space and formatting. His new resume was easy and engaging to read, showcased a little personality while still presenting a traditional image to his conservative target audience, and differentiated his candidacy through exploration of the unique contribution he was able to make during his career.