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.

Faux pas and fixes

April 19th, 2015

Dear Sam: I have been downsized as a Baby Boomer I find myself in unfamiliar territory. I created what I thought was a good resume, but having put my resume into the market without so much as one response, I’m beginning to realize that my resume is outdated in style and format. Could you give me some tips to help me create an up-to-date resume? – Jim

Dear Jim: Once you have the basics drafted, carefully craft the content and design of your resume, being sure to not fall victim to the often-committed Baby Boomer resume faux pas…

Faux Pas:

Be sure to follow best practices techniques in creating a resume that is up-to-date in content, design, and prioritization of information. You will not believe how many resumes I see for seasoned professionals that open with an objective statement and an education section, sections that do little to differentiate their candidacy.

Fix:

Up-to-date resumes open with qualifications summaries, serving as a summary of the information contained throughout the remainder of the resume. As a seasoned professional you should have a 2 or maybe even a 3 page resume, making the qualifications summary critical to the 4-7-second screening process. Take the time to make this summary market you well, conveying why a hiring manager cannot afford not to bring you in for an interview. Objective statements have not been a resume staple for 10+ years so be sure you are not aging yourself with an outdated strategy.

Faux Pas:

When reviewing your career, remember that hiring managers are much more interested in what you have done recently, so including information from 20 or 30 years ago will likely do more harm than good. Be sure to focus on the last 10-15 years of your career, particularly if you are applying for a position that does not necessitate more experience.

Fix:

There is a technique in resume writing called “bylining.” This simply means breaking format at the end of your professional experience section and presenting earlier experience(s) without dates. To do this well you must change the way the information is being presented in order to justify the omission of dates. For example, if you are presenting your career back to 1995 but held a job in the early 1980s that is directly related to your current career target, you may add a statement at the end of your resume akin to: “Additional experience with ABC Company as a Sales Manager.” You can elaborate on this statement if you like, perhaps presenting some key accomplishments in the role, but the key is to not present dates. Bylining this early experience allows you, as a candidate, to pull from all your related experience, discuss the benefits of that role elsewhere in your resume and cover letter, provide additional evidence of your qualifications at an interview, and do all of those things without unnecessarily aging your candidacy.

Faux Pas:

Think about it, if a resume is unattractive—and it will be if you are using the same format you used 10+ years ago—it repels readership.

Fix:

Check out professional resume writing websites like my own for ideas on attractive formatting, being sure to create your own look that doesn’t look like an overused Word template available to the masses. The look of your resume says a lot about your candidacy, your attention to detail, and your ability to create an engaging document.

Faux Pas:

Too many candidates feel paralyzed when it comes to what to place in an education section when they do not have a degree. Usually I see candidates list their high school diploma in this section.

Fix:

As there is nothing you can do to change this overnight, do not include information in an education section that in essence highlights a qualification you do not possess. Instead of only listing a diploma, consider omitting the education section entirely. You will not believe how easy it is to not notice the lack of an education section when the resume of the resume is selling the candidate’s unique qualifications. If you completed some college you can list this as coursework you completed toward an undergraduate degree, but rarely would you ever need to only list your high school diploma in that section.

Think from your audience’s perspective

April 12th, 2015

Dear Sam: Is it ever a good thing to state on your resume and/or application that you have retired from your primary career? I have left a long healthcare career, want to transfer skills to a part-time position, and am having trouble with how to deal with this. – Linda

Dear Linda: Probably not is the short answer. Typically you’d try to minimize the appearance of your age on your resume, so you wouldn’t likely present all of your experience. When presenting, say, 15 or so years, you won’t appear (on paper) at retirement age, so stating something to this effect would unnecessarily age your candidacy. When I address questions such as this it often evokes frustration from more mature job seekers who feel they are being unfairly discriminated against due to age. While we live in the real world and know that ageism exists, please also consider that other assumptions can coming into play when evaluating the candidacy of someone who states they have already “retired.” Think about the compensation an employer may assume you require…how many years may you want to continue to work…do you have deeply embedded employment preferences and styles that may not “fit” with the culture? Present a competitive picture by focusing on your recent and relevant experience and you will help curtain those sometimes-unfortunate assumptions.

Dear Sam: I just relocated and I am trying to get back into a career where I can exercise my brain! I hope to find employment in an area where I can help teens/young adults, even if it is to ease them into the American culture here and to understand their culture shock. I’ve had friends here try to help me to create a resume that explains “everything” as potential employers may not understand what I have accomplished in Malaysia. In Malaysia, I had ALWAYS been headhunted for my positions and never had to face a job search process. I think my international experience is hurting me and I’m confused by all of the advice I’m receiving about formatting, styles, page requirements, and the “do’s and don’ts.” – Julie

Dear Julie: WOW, I don’t think I have ever seen a 10-page resume submitted by someone who isn’t in academia or medicine. It’s not your overseas experience that is hurting your search; it’s a combination of your lack of positioning on your resume, the lack of focus in your content, the extreme length (your resume should be 2 or 3 pages max based on your background!), and your recent unrelated experience.

You’d likely use a combination resume format to mask your most recent jobs and position yourself for opportunities in the areas in which you are interested. You can’t bury related skills on page 8 of your resume, nor can you open with unrelated grocery/big-box experience and expect readers to figure out what you can do for them based on this experience. (Did you know you have, at most, 7 seconds during the screening process? Think about how much of your resume is seen in 7 seconds — only your unrelated recent experiences!) The combination format I’m suggesting would look like the following:

  1. Heading
  2. Qualifications Summary
  3. Select Highlights (featuring all of your related experience presented in an engaging, succinct manner)
  4. Professional Experience (presenting positions in reverse chronological order; you can even omit short-term jobs if they are unrelated and don’t present too large a gap)
  5. Education
  6. Any other sections that are pertinent

By following this hierarchy of sections, you will be able to focus the reader’s attention on what you have done that is related, while minimizing unrelated recent experiences. There are samples of this format on my blog at www.ladybug-design.com/blog. Best wishes for a speedy search.

Getting what YOU want

April 5th, 2015

Dear Sam: I am looking for advice about applying for a job in higher education. I have the experience and education required for the position. The ad for the job does not specify full-time or part-time so I am assuming it is a full-time role. The position appeals to me and I feel I could be an asset to the school, but I only want to work part-time hours.

If I apply for the position, should I mention the possibility of either part-time hours—or job sharing—in a cover letter, or wait until I get contacted for an interview? Alternatively, should I forget the entire thing and apply only for positions that are advertised as part-time? – Rick

Dear Rick: Great question! I would recommend waiting until interest has been established in you as a candidate before you start negotiating terms of employment. If the position is indeed full-time, an employer could still see something in you that they do not find in candidates seeking full-time employment, hence there may be some “wiggle room” in the position’s structure, hours, compensation, etc. So, I would wait until you are interviewing and moving along in the process to mention the terms you would prefer.

Now, if asked directly about your preference as to part- vs. full-time, you should of course be honest, but I would not offer your employment preferences until you feel it is time to negotiate the terms of your employment. You will find, if only searching for part-time roles, that your choices will be greatly diminished. More positions than you would expect however have room for negotiation so it is entirely likely you could strike the work-life balance you are seeking even in a full-time role. Keep your options open and wait until interest has been established, then open discussions on possible working structures that would be mutually agreeable. Best of luck!

Dear Sam: I have had a successful career in the accounting and finance sector, but for the past year I have been in a role that is management of a department outside of accounting. My current job is very stressful and I want out. My ideal job is a non-supervisory role where I would be doing financial analysis, reporting, and accounting. I have decided that is what I love to do and want to go back. The problem is that I make a high salary and my career path would logically lead to upper management. Money and responsibility aren’t everything and I am very unhappy. How should I present myself in my resume and cover letter to positions that I want to apply for. – B.

Dear B: Wonderful question and one I hear a lot from those seeking to downsize a career and pursue something that better reflects their current career target and goals in life and career. The key to positioning yourself how you want to be seen is to identify the key qualifications and experiences sought in that lower level position and reflect an abundance of that content on your resume. Even though you have supervised others, in the past you have performed the same functions you now wish to pursue exclusively. Therefore create your content with the majority of it presenting your experiences “doing” rather than “managing.” This means you will have to build a summary positioning you as a hands-on contributor versus a manager. Then, in the professional experience section be sure that you prioritize information on what most qualifies you for your target roles instead of what over qualifies you. You will also want to perhaps trim the number of years of experience you present so that you are providing hiring managers with a competitive picture of your candidacy and the expected 8-10 years or so of history. Lastly, in your cover letter do not be afraid to tell your audience that you are seeking to return to your passion and that you are not seeking the management accountability nor salary you had as a manager. I recently stood in front of about 75 hiring managers while presenting on the subject of resume writing and I can’t tell you the overwhelming message of “we want to know who the candidate is and what they are looking for and why.” It was quite a refreshing message so don’t be afraid to be honest and explain the reasons for your career transition. When that is coupled with a strong resume with very targeted content, your transition will be much smoother.

Analyzing what’s right and wrong with your resume

March 29th, 2015

Dear Sam: My resume is all over the place! After reading your columns, I have tried to delete some unnecessary items that dated me. However, some of the jobs that I deleted really showcased select skills. This was to include some time spent as a credit union teller (i.e., cash handling, drawer reconciliation, customer service) and 5 years as a human resources assistant (i.e., supporting the recruitment and selection process and conducting new-hire orientations).

With that said, my experience also includes several years of working in a combination of two police departments; I don’t know how to mesh both the clerical and that technical side of my experience into one cohesive resume. I’m not sure where my next opportunity is going to arise, but will be in a clerical capacity or in another law enforcement post. — Sydney

Dear Sydney: I was shocked when I opened your resume and it was less than one page, including devoting at least one-third of that space to information that will not differentiate your candidacy—education, volunteerism, and references. Allow me to paint a picture of your resume to the readers:

Sydney’s resume is in a two-column format with a smaller left column containing her name and contact information. On the right she placed her “Employment History.” Beneath this heading are four sections of work experience spanning 1998 to present. Within each employment section there are three-to-four one-line bullet points presenting responsibilities. The resume then proceeds to “Education” and two bullet points that relay her high school diploma and time at college. Next a “Volunteerism” section appears presenting Sydney’s time working for a local animal shelter as a dog walker. Lastly a “References” section appears with 3 references listed. The resume ends with this section and about three inches of white space. The resume is written in Arial with a total of 351 words, 189 of which are used to describe the 12 years of experience presented.

Okay, let’s analyze each section—based on the questions I ask when critiquing and writing a resume—and see what is not working well for Sydney.

Has Sydney defined her purpose?

No! Sydney, has to select a targeted direction to follow. If law enforcement and administrative support are the objectives, then likely that is going to take two very different resumes. Despite Sydney having performed a lot of administrative functions during her time with two police departments, to market herself to another police department she is going to have to sell her in-depth knowledge of law enforcement processes, her compliance work, her ability to cultivate relationships with officers and investigators, and the skills very specific to becoming a strong administrative/technical support person in that environment. If she were to present this type of resume for a general administrative support role in a business environment, very little of that content would make sense to the audience. Having two resumes, one far more technical and filled with law enforcement jargon than the other, will get her job search on the right track.

Has Sydney positioned her candidacy?

No! I feel as Sydney was trying to appeal to two very different audiences, she has diluted the strength of her resume. For instance, Sydney’s resume does not open with a qualifications summary. Without this section, the reader is forced to “figure out” where her skills lay and, within just a few seconds, the reader will likely move on as he/she won’t have time to determine whether or not Sydney’s background works well for the environment. Sydney should develop a full qualifications summary presenting her notable employers, the highlights of her experience, and the skills she has mastered throughout. To include earlier experiences that would potentially date Sydney’s candidacy, she could include some of those in the summary without going into detail about the positions in the professional experience section. This is a great way to highlight past experiences that possibly do not appear in more recent roles. However, based on Sydney’s stated objectives, I believe she can more than demonstrate she is qualified for the opportunities she is interested in by focusing on the past 12 years.

Does Sydney’s resume have the “punch” to get noticed?

No! Not a reflection on whether Sydney’s career has the “punch” to get noticed; her resume focuses only on responsibilities, therefore is unlikely to engage the reader. Each bullet point presented describes a core function of her job, functions you would find on a standard job description. When competing against other administrative assistants, it is likely they too have performed similar functions, so without a focus on where Sydney contributed over and above her job description, there is little to differentiate her candidacy.

Is Sydney highlighting potential disqualifiers?

Yes! Sydney’s education section jumps out at you as it is the first section that is not filled with content, so your eyes are immediately drawn to that section. In this section, she included her high school diploma and the university she attended with the words “no degree obtained” afterward. If Sydney completed a considerable amount of college (i.e., two-plus years), then I would present this as “Completed Two Years Toward a Bachelor’s Degree”; if she did not then, I would omit this section entirely.

Is Sydney’s resume optimally formatted?

No! With the entry-level format, Arial font, and lackluster aesthetic, nothing about Sydney’s resume compels people to read it. Instead, Sydney should create an engaging visual aesthetic that draws the reader in. Avoiding overused templates is a wise decision in this economy when a hiring manager is literally receiving hundreds of resumes; when many use templates, the resumes all start looking the same. Lastly, by including references on the resume, she has reinforced there is little content to present to even make a full one-page resume. References should be presented when requested.

With so much room for improvement, Sydney has no idea how successful her job search could be, given she has not been marketing her candidacy with an effective tool. Revamping her resume, I feel, will turn around her job search results!

Unemployed and frustrated

March 22nd, 2015

Dear Sam: Those of us who have been unemployed for some time do not have money for next month’s rent, let alone money for a resume. Has America lost its core values to help their own, especially for those who have been unemployed for a year or more? I have attached my resume for an honest look and a little help. – Sal

Dear Sal: Thank you for your letter. I feel your frustration and I am so sorry you have been unable to find work. I’m happy to help you, and will address your concerns.

Many resume writers like myself volunteer their time to local organizations, facilitating both train-the-trainer workshops and seminars for those looking for work. I often facilitate presentations and resume development workshops, and I know many of my colleagues in the industry do the same thing. In addition, I have been invited to several Job and Family Services One Stop Centers to train their resume counselors, and I have done that same thing with local nonprofits that focus their efforts on helping unemployed and under-employed candidates.

As for the real reason for your email—to receive an honest critique of your resume—at first glance, I think the mechanics of your resume are sound. You have followed protocol in the qualifications summary and I think the content is actually quite good. I have, however, identified three key reasons behind perhaps a lack of success in the job market:

  1. You need to remove focus on your most recent custodian role of two years as it does not support your objective of gaining entry back into district/regional sales management.
  2. You need to pull out accomplishments and not blend them—albeit you have tried to attract attention to them by bolding them—with responsibility statements, as they are difficult to read.
  3. You are dating yourself by including experience from 1976.

So how do we fix these issues? Well, the good news is there is a “fix” for almost everything on a resume. Let’s review what you can do to improve the effectiveness of your resume by minimizing the impact of these four potential disqualifiers:

1.   To remove focus from your most recent and unrelated tenure as a school custodian, deploy the use of a combination format. In this format, you would include a Career Highlights section, which would allow you to pull from your strong related experiences and achievements. Organize this section—which will appear after the Qualifications Summary and before the Professional Experience section—by employer or key action area (turnaround management, talent acquisition, business development, etc.). The goal of using this strategy and format would be to push the custodian experience to page two so it plays a lesser role during the screening process.

2.   Differentiate your responsibilities from accomplishments by using a paragraph/bullet combination. Highlight additional accomplishments in the Professional Experience section, but do so with bullet points. Bullet points are easier to read and subconsciously our eyes go to the bullet points when we read a resume.

3.   Figure out a way to “break” your experience from your first employer, which spans 1976 to 1996. You can do this in a number of ways. One option would be what we call a byline. To do this you would present the following statement: “Additional foundational experience with ABC Employer, serving in DM, (list other titles here) roles.” By using this byline strategy, you can use all of the great accomplishments from this timeframe in your Career Highlights section, but avoid aging your candidacy by going back to the 1970s.

I hope this candid critique helps you identify the potential challenges in your resume despite a fairly solid-looking document. I am certain if you work on these items, a stronger and more helpful rather than harmful resume will emerge. I truly wish you the best of luck.