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.

Do your homework before you submit

October 11th, 2015

Dear Sam: Although I am grateful to have a good job at a really good company, I truly desire to find a position that “gets me up in the morning.” I would love to work in the higher education field as a study abroad advisor, but while I possess the graduate degree that is often preferred, I cannot seem to overcome the lack of industry experience.

I did not realize objective statements were outdated until I read one of your recent columns! I am wondering what else, on my resume, is also outdated. Are dates hurting me? Am I not being considered due to age? Before I apply for a dream job I wanted to make sure my resume was up to par. Thank you in advance for your suggestions. — J.M.

Dear J.M.: Thank you for writing and sending your resume for review. You did in fact read correctly, objective statements are—or should be—extinct, as they do nothing to tell an employer what you can do for them. As far as the remainder of your resume, here are a few items you should consider before you apply for your next dream job.

  1. Engage the reader through the top third of page one. Turn your objective statement into a qualifications summary showcasing your relevant and transferable qualifications, compelling readers to bring you in for an interview. You have started to build a summary following your objective statement and have done a fantastic job highlighting some of your qualifications such as your international exposure, cultural knowledge, and language skills. Keep going on this path to connect the dots between the uniqueness of your experiences and the types of functions you would perform in your dream role.
  2. Balance brevity with specificity in your professional experience section. Currently, the six roles you are presenting on your resume come with a paragraph of information. There is no white space between each role, the dates are crammed onto the same line as your employers’ names and your titles, and you have essentially presented an almost one-page-long block of text. No one wants to read something that has this visual appearance; it is repelling interest, not compelling interest. Instead of weighty blocks of text, break it up with a few sentences describing your “job” and bulleted highlights of your accomplishments.
  3. Focus on what you did beyond the job description. A great way to highlight your value and to show you have relevant experience is to focus your content on what you did outside of your job description. While you have held titles that are very different from the roles you want in the future, using accomplishments to promote the relevance between what you have done, and what you want to do, can be a key way of overcoming lesser-related related experience and titles.
  4. Present the “right” amount of experience. You mentioned your fear of being disqualified due to age. When writing a resume we must include dates of experience, not doing so often paints a picture far worse than reality. But, in presenting dates, we can be a little strategic about what we present and what we omit. For instance, hiring managers expect to see about 10 to 15 years of experience—some even say 8 to 10 years—on a resume, meaning we would likely look to include positions from around 2000 forward. This does not mean however that you cannot bring in earlier experiences, but in doing so you would want to be careful as to how much experience you present and what information you give away. To highlight earlier experiences without presenting too much information, consider the byline technique. In doing this you break formatting at the end of your professional experience section and present a brief note about an earlier role typically without the dates of just that early experience. This allows you to highlight relevant experience without the fear of the dates of that experiencing adding years to your candidacy or positioning you as overqualified.

I hope these tips help you prepare the resume you are excited to submit and which hopefully opens the door to your dream opportunity.

It’s often not as bad as you think

October 4th, 2015

Dear Sam: My concern is the number of jobs I have held over the past several years and the gaps of up to six months that occur between two of the jobs. My wife has the primary job in our family, and due to her work we have had to move between three states within a three-year period. I have tried to place an explanation of what has occurred in my cover letter, but the response I received in my last interview was concern that I would be moving again. My wife enjoys her work here and seems to be at a place that does not have layoffs in their future, as was the case in the previous moves. I feel lost as how to handle this issue and want to have the ability to have my resume considered for positions that will be steps up in my career. – Timothy

Dear Timothy: The best way to overcome potentially disqualifying factors such as frequent job hops or gaps in employment is to demonstrate the value you added while you were an employee of each organization. From looking at your resume I see employment from 1994-2007, 2007-2009, 2009-2011, and 2011-present. This doesn’t immediately concern me, nor does it present you as an extreme job hopper. In today’s market it is very common to see just one or two years of employment with each employer, typically due to no fault on the employee’s behalf. Also, the six-month gaps do not present an issue when only displaying years and not months of employment. Having said that, I do think you can minimize the appearance of having moved around a little in recent years by changing the format of your resume.

Instead of presenting your experiences in a traditional reverse-chronological format, present using a combination format, pulling accomplishments out on page one under each employer. This will ensure your “value” is sold on page one—the page that will get the most attention during the screening process—leaving your responsibilities and dates of employment to fall to page two. When you organize experience in this manner, disqualifying factors related to dates and places of employment immediately take a back seat and allow the focus to remain on what you really want the hiring manager to know about your candidacy.

Additionally, by reformatting in this way, you will be distinguishing accomplishments from responsibilities, something your current resume does not do. It is absolutely imperative to separate day-to-day responsibilities from accomplishments on a resume, as where you went above-and-beyond is what predicts your value to a hiring manager. In the current format, duties and achievements are intermingled and actual areas you provided extra value are lost in the mix.

Lastly, regarding your resume format, I feel you need to create a more unique look. Your resume lacks visual appeal, which when a hiring manger is faced with hundreds of applicants, is critical in gaining a little more attention.

As for your cover letter, I typically advise not to note a potentially disqualifying factor. The hiring manager will likely figure out there is a reason for your recent moves, and highlighting it as something outside of your control, only raises a red flag as to your ability to stay in a job for more than a couple of years. Even when this does come up in an interview, at least you have your foot in the door, can really sell your value, and can reinforce that your wife has settled into a long-term role. I hope this helps you reorganize your resume, secure more interviews, and hopefully land that career position you are seeking. All the best.

Keys to downsizing your career

September 27th, 2015

Dear Sam: I am an active 70 year old and would like to return to work in a more junior capacity. I have worked as a controller or CFO of gaming operations for the past 20 years. Prior to that I worked in other industries—manufacturing, construction, resort property development and operations, heavy equipment distribution, and retail—all as an accounting manager or controller. I am also a licensed CPA and prepare tax returns for private clients. I would like to find a staff job preforming some accounting functions but with minimal to no supervisory responsibilities. How do I market myself so I can return to the workforce? – Bill

Dear Bill: Great question. The key to developing your resume is to present just a sprinkling of your most recent experiences. Given you are not pursuing senior-level opportunities, you will want to “right-size” your candidacy on paper by listing perhaps just the past 10-15 years of work history. In doing so, while you will of course be communicating that you performed at a higher level than what you are looking for next, you will be conveying your expertise in all areas of accounting. Partner this with a qualifications summary that positions you as a support professional, and the reader will see that you are seeking to step back in your career. Also key to this approach is how you communicate your interests in your cover letter. Be sure you make it clear that your leadership experience, and your foundational exposure to accounting support roles, position you to add value to a staff role. Doing so will ensure the employer knows you are not simply applying for the role as a fallback, nor will you lose interest based on the lower-level responsibilities. A blended communication strategy through the resume and cover letter will ensure you put your best foot forward for what you want next.

Dear Sam: I have been receiving calls for positions, but with no luck being hired. I do not know if it is my resume or age related. Help! – Cheryl

Dear Cheryl: Your resume is very outdated with an old-school approach utilizing an objective statement, a few brief bullet points per position, and absolutely zero focus on how you are “different” from your competitors. Your resume is also only providing 13 years of professional history therefore your age is would not be coming into play until the interview. Having said that, if you are getting interviews, I would have to assume hiring managers are “seeing” something in your resume and therefore your candidacy. I suggest however that your resume isn’t digging deep enough to hold the hiring manager’s interest, especially if you are communicating similar messages verbally during the interview. Despite bring granted a few interviews, I am confident you could capture far more with an updated approach to your resume. In fact your current resume is aging you just through its approach to content and design.

Why are you qualified as an administrative assistant? What have you done for past employers that has added value? How can you relate your most recent experiences in merchandising and retail—encompassing the last seven years of your work history—to your current desire to return to your administrative roots? I imagine you are missing out on a tremendous amount of opportunities, as your resume is not selling the transferability of your experience. In addition to lack of relevant content, the design is not engaging, something you would want to pay particular attention to given your desired field of interest. I am certain if you revamp your resume you will have treated the real issue. Best of luck.

Leverage LinkedIn to power your search

September 6th, 2015

Dear Sam: I constantly receive LinkedIn requests to “connect” with people in my network and even some people I hardly know. I am not into social media and do not want to put myself out there for everyone to see, but I am also hearing that I have to be active on LinkedIn as I am conducting a job search. Can you tell me what I should and perhaps should not be worrying about? – Steve

Dear Steve: LinkedIn is an incredibly valuable networking forum. It not only provides you with the opportunity to deepen existing network connections, but to capitalize on the networks of others in order to broaden your reach. How can this be helpful in a job search? Well, if you search LinkedIn for network connections that could prove influential in your search, chances are the larger your network the higher the possibility you may have an influencer or even a decision maker within your reach. Here are some tips that may prove helpful as you leverage the power of LinkedIn during your job search.

  1. You can be somewhat stealthy on LinkedIn, meaning you can remain anonymous when searching other profiles, you can turn off activity broadcasts so your network does not get alerted to any activity on your account, and you can even block select connections from seeing your profile at all.
  2. Accept those connection requests to expand your network and broaden your reach. LinkedIn “connections” are not akin to Facebook “friends.” Do not think that accepting a connection request means you have a personal connection with the individual; in fact, you may not even really know him/her. Instead, accepting a connection request means, “Thank you for access to your network, and if my network can be of assistance to you, I am happy to reciprocate.”
  3. Seek recommendations and endorsements of top skills. There are tools built into LinkedIn that let you easily request recommendations from those in your network. Having recommendations attached to your past experiences adds value beyond what your résumé can typically convey and provides instant third-party credibility to your claims. I will caution you, however, not to reciprocate those recommendations. You want to have far more “recommendations received” than “recommendations given”; otherwise, your recommendations look a little disingenuous.
  4. Customize your LinkedIn URL by editing your profile and clicking on the cog wheel next to your public profile web address. This will provide you with a customize option to ensure your web address is clean and void of automatically assigned letters and numbers.
  5. Add a background photo to reinforce your brand. There are some background images built into LinkedIn but you can easily select a great option through a Google image search.
  6. Organize sections according to importance. A lot of people do not know you can drag and drop entire sections on LinkedIn to ensure they appear in the order you want. For instance, if you have strong endorsements to your skills then you may want that to appear directly beneath the summary.
  7. Leverage LinkedIn to gain access to influencers and decision makers, requesting introductions through second- or third-tier connections when possible.
  8. Join groups and associations related to where you want to be. Think about it, why not start subscribing to activity feeds for organizations in your area of interest. This will provide you with access to like-minded individuals, industry news, and emerging hiring practices…it’s a great way to reinforce your brand.

I hope these tips make you feel more comfortable when using LinkedIn and when accepting those connection requests. LinkedIn provides free webinars for job seekers; I suggest you check those out.

One-size-fits-all strategy rarely effective

August 30th, 2015

Dear Sam: I am trying to develop a resume that positions me for accounting and possibly auditing roles, but if I see a position I want to apply for in another field—as I was a nurse earlier in my career and am interested in possibly exploring that again—I do not want to limit my options. How can I develop a resume that keeps my options open? – Annie

Dear Annie: I hear this question all the time Annie. Candidates are so afraid to close doors—as they need a job—that they often create resumes without targeted content and with very diluted approaches. While keeping your options open may seem like an effective strategy, it is actually quite the opposite. While I certainly understand the need to not limit options in today’s job market, a one-size-fits-all strategy is rarely effective. Instead, one should really try to identify a primary target, even if this means you have a second or third target requiring modified resumes. If you try to present yourself as a jack-of-all-trades you suddenly become a master-of-none; clearly not a good presentation of your candidacy. Defining your purpose is the critical first step in crafting an effective resume, a step that facilitates your understanding of what your target audience is looking for and what keywords to incorporate into your resume. While you may have thought broadening your scope on your resume would yield more responses, it is likely it is doing the opposite.

Let’s take a look at your specific situation. When presenting your candidacy for an accounting or auditing role, you would be pulling from your recent and relevant experience in those fields. Your language would be centered around accounting and auditing keywords—reconciliation, reporting, payables, receivables, general ledger, journal entries, compliance, etc.—and you would use a traditional reverse chronological format. For this resume you may even omit your nursing experience as it occurred more than 15 years ago and does not really enhance your candidacy at this juncture in your career.

Now, if you presented that same resume to an employer seeking a clinical professional the accounting keywords would not resonate at all. It would be akin to doing a Google search for cars and seeing search results for cats…it just would not make sense! If you were to apply for nursing roles you would need to turn your candidacy upside down. By that I mean you would likely use a combination format resume so you could highlight earlier versus recent experiences. Your qualifications summary would contain completely different content and your core skills would be night and day to those on your accounting resume. And, you have to consider if you would be the “most” qualified candidate for those roles. Sometimes, just because we think we can perform a role does not mean the hiring manager will view our candidacy as strong enough to compete against those with recent relevant experience. It can be a tough pill to swallow sometimes, but defining where you will be seen as highly qualified really is an important step to ensure you conduct an effective and rewarding search.

If you want to pursue both career options, you would need to develop two different resumes to maximize your response. Preparing a resume that would keep your options open in this situation would yield very little if any response, significantly diluting the impact and effectiveness of your search. If we only need one job, let’s develop the most targeted resume possible so that when we send out a few each week we actually get a response. It can sound good to “keep your options open” but creating a general resume rarely does.