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.

Avoid common faux pas

February 1st, 2015

Dear Sam: What are some of the common mistakes you see on resumes that can be easily avoided? – Tim

Dear Tim: There are several areas on a resume to which candidates don’t pay enough attention. I’ve found this isn’t as a result of a lack of effort, simply a lack of understanding as to what can distract a hiring manager and disqualify a candidate. Some of these areas include:

  1. Unprofessional or incomplete headings – as simple as it seems, review your resume heading! Never include a work phone number or your company’s 800# as this could tell a potential employer that you do not value your company’s resources (the hiring manager does not know if your employer is aware of your search or not, so don’t assume they will think this practice is acceptable). Include your cell phone number only if you can answer it professionally every time! Review voice mail messages for all the numbers listed on your resume and ensure they are reinforcing your professional not personal image. Lastly, be sure you have a professional email address. Don’t use email addresses with your graduation year, birth year, etc., these are very easy to spot and can destroy strategic efforts to minimize a candidate’s lack or abundance of experience.
  2. Spelling mistakes, typos, and poor grammar structure – Proofread, proofread, and then proofread again! Overlooked mistakes send a message to the reader of your attention-to-detail or lack thereof. Have someone else proofread your resume to be sure you are submitting an error free document. Turn off the grammar check in Word once you are sure your resume is written effectively. This will avoid your resume appearing with green wavy lines under certain sentences. Fragmented sentences will likely appear throughout your document, and there is no need to try to avoid this as it is a very effective way to write a resume. Turning off the grammar check will ensure that the reader is not distracted by the green lines!
  3. Emphasizing job duties instead of achievements – Hiring managers are not as interested in what you were paid to do; they are more interested in where you went above and beyond and contributed to the success of your employer. While you need to include some information on what you were responsible for on a daily basis, emphasis should definitely be placed on the value you contributed to your employer, being sure to distinguish achievements from responsibilities through a separate subheading or formatting selections.
  4. Selecting the wrong format for your resume – When considering a reverse chronological, combination, or functional format, choose wisely based not only on your desire to present your experience a certain way, but also the knowledge that hiring authorities prefer reverse chronological or combination resumes, and traditionally dislike functional formats. I see a lot of functional resumes that really do not need to use a purely functional format, instead could have used a more savvy combination format which would have pleased the hiring manager while still achieving the focus the candidate was seeking. While combination resumes can be more difficult to write, the fact that they are a hybrid of the two other formats makes them a wiser choice if you seek to focus the hiring manager’s attention on certain aspects of your career (possibly by pulling out related achievements and responsibilities in a Career Highlights section appearing before the Professional Experience section) while minimizing potentially disqualifying factors (such as limited related or recent experience, large employment gaps, frequent job hops, etc.).
  5. Using a cookie-cutter design – Try to create a unique look for your resume, avoiding templates that hundreds of other candidates have used. Think about a hiring manager reviewing their 50th resume of the day, if your resume looks like 20 others, it won’t stand out from the crowd regardless of the content. Try to develop a unique and professional design, doing so will go a long way in compelling the reader to spend more than 4-7 seconds on your resume during the screening process.

    Strategies for career changers

    January 25th, 2015

    Dear Sam: I am 49 years old and have been working as a multimedia professional for more than 8 years. I currently create corporate training videos for a large organization. My duties range from video and audio production, to photography, scriptwriting, directing, lighting, motion graphics, animation, and more. Over the past few years, my role has changed—as the company is under new management—and we are no longer doing as much video production and multimedia and the work, for me, has dwindled and I am now being utilized for menial tasks.

    I have been looking for another position in video and multimedia production for approximately three years and have had absolutely no luck. Of the 20+ positions I have applied for, I have only received one call back. I do think I am very good at what I do and my body of work will support that. But I feel my resume does not reflect that.

    I changed careers in midlife. I went back to school in my late 30s to get a degree in multimedia design. Prior to that, I was working as an assistant to a private banking manager and I had some years as a retail sales manager. My dilemma is I have only been working in this field for eight years which gives the impression that I’m much younger than I am, but if I put all of my experience prior to my current position then it appears irrelevant to the positions I am applying for and it gives away my age. But I do believe customer service and management experience are relevant qualities to have. How do I market myself in a way that is going to grab attention without setting off red flags? – Shana

    Dear Shana: Terrific question and certainly a dilemma a lot of candidates face whether their foundational experience in aligned with their current career or not. Most hiring managers expect candidates to present about 10 years of professional experience on a resume; some say as little as 8, others as much as 15. So, to only present eight years of experience is completely within the realm of expectation. I do however often present more of my clients’ experiences as I too feel that this can be a little misleading when you get to an interview and are more experienced than you appear on paper.

    To accomplish your desire to avoid unnecessarily aging your candidacy, while still presenting your best candidacy to your hiring audience, I would look at including about 15 years of professional history. This way you are complying with best practices and market expectations. Is there a way you can trim your experience to only go back to about the year 2000? In presenting these early experiences be sure you focus on those transferable skills you feel still add value to your candidacy today. Utilize these experiences to differentiate from the other qualified multimedia professionals and demonstrate your understanding of business and industry outside of your field. I really think this early experience could add a flavor to your resume that non-career changers would not be able to replicate.

    As I have not seen your resume, I would start by making sure it is following today’s guidelines in resume strategy. Are you opening your resume with a qualifications summary highlighting the breadth of your multimedia experience? Do you fully explore your role as it was at its fullest? Have you outlined the ways in which you added value to your employer above and beyond expectations? Have you created an eye-catching design indicative of your talent? Be sure to correct any of these deficiencies as well as addressing the chronology of your career on paper, and I am certain you will gain more traction in the job market. Best of luck.

    Handling gaps and transitions in your career

    January 18th, 2015

    Dear Sam: I need help with a resume decision. My company closed its doors late last year. I worked there for five years and was totally devastated and exhausted. I took a little more than half a year off, for various reasons, before returning to the workforce. It has been difficult to find that “right” opportunity, so about three months ago, I took a short-term temp assignment with my employer—an agency—prior to my last role.

    I am not sure in what order I should list these experiences given I returned to a previous employer. Should I list the temp agency twice on my resume, or is their someway I can demonstrate that I have been doing something other than being unemployed for almost 1 year? I don’t want to decrease my chances of acquiring gainful permanent employment with a company that may judge me for the gap in employment. Please help! I really need to secure permanent full-time employment with better pay and benefits in 2015. – Moving Forward

    Dear Moving Forward: Terrific question and not an uncommon situation, believe it or not. As we do not list months of employment on a resume, you have little to worry about. Simply list the current agency first, introducing the experience with a phrase such as, “Returned to agency to provide…”; that way, the hiring manager will be able to understand that this agency was a prior employer. List that experience as “2014-present.” Next, list your employer of five years which, based on your description above, would be presented as “2009-2014.” Voila! There is no gap evident on your resume. Even if there was, in today’s market that really is not something to be that concerned about. You only took about six months off work so your skills didn’t become stale or outdated; charge forward knowing that you did something to benefit your candidacy. You continued to engage in the professional arena, you did something related to your career, and you demonstrated that a past employer was willing to welcome you back; these are all things that add value to your candidacy.

    Now, given I am not certain how related your temporary role is versus your career position of five years, there may be a need to utilize a combination design to your resume. If what you are doing currently is not as related as what you did prior, perhaps using the combination resume format would be best as it would allow you to focus on relevant instead of recent experience. If using this approach, you would open your resume with a “Qualifications Summary” which would position you how you want to be seen in today’s market. Next, and key to the combination format, you would present a “Select Highlights” section (or a similarly named section). In this area, you would pull out key points of interest, primarily from the role you held for five years; that way, you still would be able to communicate, up front, the relevance of your candidacy to your current career targets.

    Following the Highlights section, first you would present your temporary work, followed by your employer of five years, followed by your earlier engagement with the agency. Doing this will create a resume that is easy to understand, highlights your most relevant qualifications, and does not show evidence of any gaps in your career. When at an interview, do not worry about talking about the gap; employers understand that companies close and have layoffs—the hiring manager has likely been in your shoes—and the fact that you picked yourself up, reengaged, and leveraged a past relationship to secure gainful employment, albeit temporary, shows resilience in the face of adversity. Good for you! Now go get ‘em!

    Winter Makeover: Transferring skills to a new career

    January 11th, 2015

    Meet Anna…

    Anna came to me seeking to transition from a successful insurance claims career to begin her journey as a practicing attorney. Graduating from law school in 2005, Anna made the decision to stay home to raise her young children, something she did for 4 years until returning to the claims field in 2010. Now, having recently passed the Bar, she was eager to be positioned for entry-level associate opportunities.

    Anna’s original resume…

    Anna’s original resume was a sea of black and white text that was neither engaging nor on-target. Page one of Anna’s original resume presented her legal and insurance information spanning 6 positions held between 1997 and 2013. Each position, with the exception of her current role, included a 4-line paragraph containing brief fragmented statements on the duties she performed. Her current engagement was presented in a little more detail with a sprinkling of bulleted highlights. Page two of Anna’s original resume presented her education, volunteer experience—which was the focus of her four years out of the workforce—additional skills, certifications, and professional affiliations.

    The new approach…

    It was imperative that Anna have the best resume possible to overcome a her main potential disqualifiers: (1) Four-year absence from the workforce; (2) More experience than most entry-level candidates and therefore assumptions of higher compensation requirements. With incredible transferable value contained within Anna’s insurance claims career, I focused all content on its relevance to legal and regulatory matters. Opening Anna’s resume with a brief profile, the headline on her resume immediately positions Anna for opportunities of interest. Exploring the transferability of her career much further through a Candidacy Snapshot, I ensured hiring managers would have ample evidence of the relevancy of Anna’s career before dismissing her candidacy based on past titles alone.

    Reinforcing the image of Anna as an attorney, I used the Professional Experience section to dig into each of her roles in much greater detail, go beyond the expected duties of the role, and convey the value she had contributed within each engagement. Through this approach, Anna’s key contributions jumped off the page, were differentiated from her day-to-day responsibilities, and reinforced the positioning strategy.

    Anna’s new resume was actually three pages in length and contained twice the quantity of words, providing for an unmatched level of keyword relevance. Taking time to design an aesthetically pleasing document was also key in ensuring Anna had a resume that would open doors, with strategic choices made as to font treatments, color usage, and content placement.

    Anna’s response…

    Anna was kind enough to email me to say: “Absolutely wonderful experience! I was having a great deal of trouble transitioning from a 14-year career in one field to another. I couldn’t explain the transition well and show how my skills were transferable. Ladybug did an amazing job of highlighting my skills, applying them to a new market, and giving me the confidence in interviews and job applications that I needed to succeed.”

    Start 2015 on the right foot

    January 4th, 2015

    As I receive so many questions—often from readers facing the same conundrums—I thought I would start 2015 with some of the most frequently asked questions in the hopes that my answers will point you in the right direction.

    Q: How much experience should I present on my resume?

    A: Typically, hiring managers expect to see about 10-15 years of experience presented on a resume. Omitting earlier experience will not be seen as misleading as recent, relevant experience is most important. Having said that, this does not mean you can’t include earlier positions. You may, however, want to consider bylining foundational roles without dates to avoid potentially aging and/or over-qualifying your candidacy. This simply means breaking format—and therefore justifying a change in the way information will be presented—and placing a note at the end of your professional experience with a mention that you possess that foundational experience, yet not dating the role(s). This could be as simple as, “Foundational experience with National Enterprise as a Sales Specialist” or you can go into greater detail, even presenting some highlights.

    Q: How do I write a resume that opens the most doors possible?

    A: Not easily! Defining your target is critically important in creating an effective resume. Without a clearly defined audience, how will you know what message—and all-important keywords—will resonate with that reader? It is one thing to perhaps develop one resume for two purposes when they are closely related, but quite another to try to develop a resume for anything and everything. Avoid the latter, realizing that just because you write a resume with an open-ended target certainly does not—and likely will not—mean you open more doors. In fact, the more targeted your resume, the more return on investment you will earn.

    Q: I don’t know what I want to do ‘when I grow up’; how do I develop a resume?

    A: It may not be time to write a resume just yet. Start perusing the job boards—or visit www.indeed.com as a one-stop-shop solution for sourcing jobs online—searching by functional keywords instead of titles. From your search results, start to track and trend the types of jobs you are interested in and qualified for. Realize that it is not usually a good strategy to apply for jobs in which you are overqualified as hiring managers may assume your compensation requirements will be too high or your interest level will wane over time. Find positions where you meet most of the requirements—you do not have to meet all of the desired qualifications to be a competitive candidate—ensuring you can speak in the ‘language’ of the job postings, presenting your background in a way that emulates the actual functions of the role and not just the requirements for the position.

    Q: What should I include in my education section if I do not have a degree?

    A: If you did not attend college, or completed very little—perhaps less than two years—then I would likely recommend omitting the education section entirely. If you were to include it, solely with your high school diploma, realize you would not be telling an employer that you have a high school diploma, you would actually be saying that you do not have a college degree. You can present a partially completed degree; just list the degree you pursued or the coursework you completed. You may also include professional development, training, certifications, and other credentials in an education section to create a more robust section.

    I am hopeful these tips will ensure you are developing and presenting the market with a best practices-based resume. Here’s to a successful 2015 job search!