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.

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.

Fall Makeover Series: Communicate undeniable value

November 9th, 2014

Meet Jeremy…

Jeremy, a recent graduate of a master’s program in Biomedical Engineering, came to us seeking to reposition his candidacy to maximize opportunities within a competitive space. As a young candidate, he was not sure how to best leverage his extensive experience, education, publications, honors, and awards, to ensure he stood out among his peers.

Original Resume…

Jeremy’s original resume was outdated in format, structure, and content. While his resume emulated many that emerge from colleges and universities, it was doing nothing to differentiate his exceptional skill set. Opening with an objective statement, Jeremy’s resume immediately presented itself as out-of-touch with what the hiring community seeks. Following with an education section, Jeremy has chosen to use very valuable real estate on the top of page one to focus on credentials that would not differentiate him from his competitors. Within his professional experience section, unsure how to explore all the great work he had completed during his master’s program, Jeremy presented his most notable experience with just shy of 25 words. Messy in format, lacking prioritization of content, and missing the mark in terms of today’s best practices, there was much improvement needed in order to create an interview-generating resume.

New Resume…

Building Jeremy’s new resume from the ground up, we first explored the value he could offer an employer through a fully developed qualifications summary. Within this section we presented his unique experience, areas of strength, and technical competencies. Through an interesting presentation, the reader would now feel compelled—versus repelled—to reading not only the summary, but engaging further to learn more about Jeremy’s candidacy.

Night and day to his original resume, Jeremy’s professional experience section was structured to convey the significance of his graduate degree experience and undergraduate internship. Emphasizing Jeremy’s research and teaching assistant roles during completion of his graduate program was vital in positioning his candidacy. Taking those original 20+ words, through full exploration of his experience, the new section on his resume now encompassed 350+ words and would be sure to communicate significant value to his target audience. Likewise, his internship was fully explored, again, taking a handful of words and turning it into a section with undeniable value. On page two of Jeremy’s resume (not shown) we continued to explore his internship experience, education, affiliations, and publications. Despite being a recent graduate, education was moved to page two as we knew it was not Jeremy’s key differentiating factor. With many graduating with the same or similar degrees, one cannot exclusively hang their hat on education alone; experience is typically the only unique aspect of each of our backgrounds.

The Result:

Jeremy was so excited to receive his new resume. He emailed to say, “I would like to thank you for all that your company has done for me. When I was first told about your services I was very hesitant on whether you could help me. After looking at some of the examples on your website I didn’t know if your writers would be able to help someone with a more research and technical background as many of the examples were focused on business professionals. I am glad that I did go along with your services because within 1 month I was able to get a job with a very bright future. What’s more is your company gave me the tools to upkeep my resume and design it in a more professional way. I really do not know where I would be if it was not for you and your company and I want to let you know that I really appreciate your services!”

When you are competing as a recent college graduate you really do need to recognize what truly makes you unique. Armed with that understanding, and knowledge of best practices in resume development and personal branding, you can absolutely engage in a successful, swift job search and launch the career you worked so hard to achieve.

Strategic approach paints a better picture

November 2nd, 2014

Dear Sam: I am a faithful reader and I have used some of your resume advice. I was laid off, in April, from my role as a receptionist. That came on the heels of being laid off from an office manager position I held for 29 years, hence my administrative, office management, and bookkeeping background is strong. My unemployment benefits will be coming to an end in two weeks and I’m scared. I have been submitting at least two resumes each week with little success. Even if I do get an interview I am not granted the job. I offer an old-school work ethic, take pride in everything I do, and strive to become an exemplary employee. Is the problem my age? Please help me understand what I’m doing wrong. – Elayne

Dear Elayne: I am so sorry you are in this situation. By the time I was 28 years old I had been laid off 3 times and I too felt scared and discouraged when I considered that perhaps my old-school work ethic was not going to yield loyalty on both sides of the table. Thank you for sending your resume so I could visualize what employers are receiving. From my first glance I can tell you are a highly qualified administrative professional, but I believe there is significant room to repaint the picture of your 29-year tenure with your first employer.

With a 1981 date sticking out on page one of your resume, I do fear that some are immediately scanning your resume and seeing you as overqualified and perhaps too expensive. None of the positions you are applying for will require 30+ years of work experience so we have to be a little more strategic about how and what we present from that first 29-year role. I imagine your titles changed throughout the years either through promotions or simply updated job descriptions, and this would be the key to trimming the amount of experience you should present. Ideally we would want to go back about 10-15 years—likely no more than 20 years—so think about the chronology of your time with that employer and how you can create a different picture by presenting the timelines you held titles, and not the entire timeline you worked for the company. This is often the key to painting a picture that positions you are qualified and not overqualified. For example, if you were a secretary from 1981-1990, administrative assistant to the president from 1990-1995, office manager from 1995-2000, and accounting assistant until your departure in 2009, I would consider only including the last 2 roles you held, 3 at most. Do you see how this allows you to trim your experience considerably while still gleaning adequate value from your tenure with the company? If you went back to include the last 2 roles with the company that would equate to 19 years of experience which would more than qualify you for your next engagement. Even with the inclusion of the last three roles, it would still paint a picture that was stronger and more relevant than going back to 1981.

Additionally, the format of your resume is dating you. When you reorganize how your early career is presented, you will be able to highlight key functions and contributions within each of your roles. Currently, a reader has to wade through more than a page of information before they reach two little bullet points with the heading “Accomplishments.” Think about that. You are presenting 29 years of experience and you end that entire section with 2 accomplishments totaling all of 24 words. What value does that convey you added? Does that really summarize what you did over and above your role? I am absolutely sure it does not. Be sure you are using up-to-date content development and formatting practices to ensure the structure and presentation of your resume isn’t working against you. I am confident that when you paint a more strategic picture your results will be much stronger. Best to you.

Fall Makeover Series: Creating a Common Theme in a Diverse Career

October 26th, 2014

Meet Madison!

Madison had an eclectic career of varied experiences from working in the court system to working with a media organization and most recently a law firm. Her goal was to leverage the commonalities of her experiences to position herself as an expert in select fields rather than as a Jill-of-all-trades.

Original Strategy…

Madison did have an existing résumé which was nicely organized into the following sections: Qualifications Summary, Endorsements, Professional Highlights, Community Service, and Education. Within each section, she had listed several bullet points with key aspects of her roles presented with some bullet points focusing on her responsibilities and other bullet points on her more impressive achievements. What was missing, however, was the sense of a “common thread” throughout her career—making her résumé and experience look a little choppy, given her four positions in eight years—especially since her titles had varied so much.

New Strategy…

Madison wanted to secure a higher-level role in operations or office management where she could play a key role in the coordination of processes, events, or activities. Through exploration of Madison’s background, particularly expounding on her more recent position, I learned of Madison’s consistent track record of developing first-time processes, coordinating entire process lifecycles, and generally managing operations including campaigns, events, and projects. With specific examples of her performance in these areas, spread throughout each of her positions, I was able to create a theme for her résumé which eliminated the “choppy” appearance her original résumé presented.

Starting Madison’s résumé with a qualifications summary, I turned her original one-sentence summary into a brief paragraph with targeted content delivering a strategic message to her intended audience. Under the subheading of “Operations & Office Management, Event Planning, & Community Relations” came the summary which positioned Madison appropriately and served to differentiate her candidacy:

Recognized as eager to accept challenges, take ownership of projects, and coordinate large-scale campaigns and initiatives to generate unprecedented results. Provide creative and administrative leadership in the design and deployment of first-time and redesigned campaigns, creating the brand identity, content, and distribution strategies to maximize message penetration and market response. Cultivate strong working relationships with internal and external stakeholders, listening to and identifying needs and responding with helpful assistance. Known for executing functions with ethics and integrity, achieving high personal standards on all projects and tasks.

Next I presented select excerpts from Madison’s letters of recommendation and performance reviews as these were important in providing the third-party validation of our claims that all hiring managers are seeking. Followed by the Experience & Key Contributions section, Madison’s professional experience was presented to highlight the value she contributed versus the movement in her career.

Within each employment section, I first presented Madison’s “Key Actions & Results” bordered and shaded with a subtle color to provide contrast and additional interest. In these sections, I essentially summarized the most important takeaways from each section, allowing for prioritization of information during the screening/scanning process. In addition, I added brief paragraph introductions of Madison’s job responsibilities followed by much more expounded-upon accomplishments presented in easy-to-read bullet points.

Madison’s new résumé was a much stronger presentation of the “value” she had contributed throughout her career which would facilitate her being viewed as a competitive candidate for the next step in her professional journey. In addition, through a revitalized format, strategic prioritization of content, and threading a common theme throughout each of her roles, Madison emerged as a candidate who had made deliberate career moves to refine her skill set and position herself for a management-level opportunity in one of her areas of expertise.

Madison’s response…

Madison was very happy with her new résumé, being kind enough to email and say, “I couldn’t be more pleased with the professionalism and thoroughness of Ladybug Design; I was confident throughout the process that I was in very good hands and was never disappointed. I gave Samantha a MOUNTAIN of material to wade through for putting together my résumé, and she did so without complaint, finishing the résumé well within a reasonable timeframe, keeping me informed every step of the way. Changes that I requested to the first draft were made lightning fast. I’m now confident that I’m putting my best foot forward in this very tough job market!”

As with any client, the best results emerge from a collaborative process where the client is willing and able to “download” any information possible to allow me to fully understand his/her background and current career target. From that downloading of information, I can then construct a targeted message that achieves our common goal of opening doors and securing offers of employment. I am thrilled Madison liked her new résumé and perhaps, more importantly, that it gave her the confidence she needed in today’s job market.