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.

Rekindled love inspires job search

August 24th, 2014

Dear Sam: I am 60 years old and in the process of relocating to the area, and will be interviewing with an automotive dealership later this summer. I have craved a career in automotive sales since my days as a parts counter person from 1977-1984 at a Buick / Chevrolet dealership. On a side note, the girl of my dreams is the reason for this new and exciting shift in my life. This is the third time that our worlds have touched. We began in 1970 as teenagers, parted ways, reunited in 1977, and then parted once again until we rekindled our connection in 2010. I have a resume, but this new career move is so important to me that I would appreciate a professional opinion. – Tim

Dear Tim: What a sweet story and certainly a great reason to ensure you do everything possible to support this “third time’s a charm” love story! Let’s look at your resume and see what we can do to ensure you are putting your best foot forward professionally speaking. Let me first paint a picture of your resume for readers…

Your resume opens with a summary statement: “Dedicated to customer service in various industries for the past 38 years including automotive, supply, residential painting, retail hardware, self employment and a university student store.” Next you present six areas of expertise including: customer service, resolving complaints, problem solving, retail sales, training, and retail management. Your professional experience follows which includes 7 positions from 1973 to present. Education and training close your resume with notes of your college credits and professional development completed mostly during your time working in hardware stores.

Okay, so let’s now focus on what we can do to improve the picture.

Summary statement

Focus not on possessing 38 years of professional work experience but on your proven record of success in sales / business development, customer relationship management, department leadership, and training. Presenting that you offer 38 years of work experience actually overqualifies you and unnecessarily ages your candidacy. Right-size your candidacy by shifting from presenting the amount and breadth of experience you have, to focusing on the experiences you have that are most transferable to your current career target. Continue this approach in your skills section, being sure to focus on the areas of expertise most relevant to your next role.

Professional experience

While you need to revamp your summary statement, this area of your resume really has a lot of room for improvement. First, you should never go back into the 1970s on a resume if you can avoid it. In your case, I understand that your automotive experience occurred back then, but you can present that in a byline without dates. Meaning, perhaps only explore the expected 10-15 years of professional work history and then simply note that you have foundational experience in the automotive industry in counter sales and parts management. In addition, be sure to fully explore your roles. Currently, if you present back to 1997—which means including 4 roles which is perfect—you only have 30 words describing those 4 positions! How can the reader understand not only the job you performed, but also how you added value beyond expectations? Explore these roles fully with overviews of your responsibilities and highlights of your key contributions. Relate this content to your current career target, ensuring you are thinking of how each of your functions relates to what you want to do next.

Education and training

Present the degree you were pursuing as that will hold more value than noting you completed History and English coursework. It is fine to present an incomplete college degree in your case as a degree may not be a requirement for most of the roles you are pursuing. For the training you have listed, make sure everything is related to the next step in your career. By that I mean focus on the related training more so than the hardware industry-specific training you received.

I know you will be successful in your professional endeavors if you take some time to reshape how you are presenting your candidacy to your target audience. I wish you great personal and professional success!

Out-of-date approaches hinder job search

August 17th, 2014

Dear Sam: I’m really struggling to see why my resumes aren’t effective. I have spent time explaining what I did at each job, highlighting accomplishments, and still I don’t get a response. I even developed multiple versions with different objectives noted. Help! – Rachel

Dear Rachel: I noticed that your resumes do not contain qualifications summaries, and instead use very valuable real estate at the top of page one presenting an objective statement. Defining your purpose or objective is critically important to the development of this section, but instead of simply stating your objective, this section, along with everything on your resume, should be developed to sell yourself for the type(s) of roles you are seeking.

At this stage in the hiring process hiring managers are much more interested in what you can do for them, so an objective statement—which typically focuses on what you want—serves no purpose at this stage of the game. In fact objective statements became so vague and self-serving that they were removed from resumes more than 10 years ago! Just by having an objective statement on your resume you are aging yourself.

Develop your qualifications summary based on a primary objective, presenting a brief summary of your key qualifiers related to your current career target. Engage the reader or screener by performing due diligence to understand the keywords for the position(s) of interest, and infuse those keywords throughout this summary and the remainder of your resume. I know that most candidates struggle with this section; it is, after all, the most difficult part of a resume to write. As a tip, start writing your resume from the bottom up, beginning with the easier sections and leading to the summary. Write the summary last so that you have a clear picture of what you have to offer your target audience. After I write a resume, I typically have several key points from a client’s background that I remember as being most important or impressive, and this guides the development of the summary. Writing this section immediately after creating your resume also helps as your background, qualifications, education, etc. are very fresh in your mind.

Let’s look at your objective statement:

“Seeking a competitive position in an organization with room for growth where I can contribute support in an administrative assistant capacity.”

Now, what is that statement really saying? It’s obvious you are applying for the administrative assistant position, after all, the hiring manager is reading your resume! Everyone is seeking an opportunity with room for growth so that really isn’t “news” to the reader. So, in that very important real estate on page one of your resume you are literally not adding any value whatsoever.

Instead, consider a qualifications summary like this:

“Customer-centric administrative professional with experience juggling multiple accountabilities spanning office management, executive assistance, human resources, accounting, and customer service. Extremely detail-oriented, yield additional responsibilities based on a reputation for ability to multitask, prioritize assignments, and follow-through on all projects. Demonstrated comfort in fast-paced, deadline-focused environments where team-based collaboration and communication are critical. Problem solver who seeks creative solutions to avoid escalations and optimize client satisfaction.”

Do you see how the latter adds value to your candidacy and actually shows evidence of what you can bring to the table? Strive for something more akin to this, not only to add value to your candidacy, but also to ensure you are leveraging today’s best practices and not aging your candidacy by presenting a resume utilizing old-fashioned techniques.

If you are still struggling with this section, check out books from the library, samples on my website, or ask a peer to help you identify your key offerings and value. Best of luck to you.

Keeping your options open often doesn’t

August 10th, 2014

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.

Today’s best practices

August 3rd, 2014

Dear Sam: I just started reading your column and wondered if you could provide me with a critique of my resume. With so much—and often conflicting—advice available, can you give me some of the key points on your recommendations to create a top-notch resume? — Jamison

Dear Jamison: Absolutely. And, yes, there is far too much advice floating around out there much of which is dated in nature and goes against anything best practices-based today. A lot of the time when I work with clients I have to spend a good portion of my time with each client educating him/her on up-to-date resume strategies so to dispel the old advice still being pushed as steadfast resume writing rules! Here is what I promise is up-to-date advice to developing your resume—your brand!

Aesthetics & Formatting

One of the major downfalls in resumes is that the majority lack any visual appeal, are typically created using very common templates, and are inconsistent in their use of fonts and spacing. While content is very important in creating a resume that grabs the attention of a hiring manager, the aesthetics of that document can compel or repel someone’s interest. You must engage the reader through the use of a professional and visually appealing layout.

Heading

While most may feel that this section is self-explanatory, I often see major mistakes in this area. The heading on your resume should include your name, address, cell number, and email address. You may list your home phone number but only do so if you are the primary person answering the phone. There is no need for someone else to be giving your first impression. Be sure to take a moment to look at your email address and verify that it reinforces the professional tone of your resume. I noticed many email addresses that contained birth years, ages, and other personal information that should not be presented on a resume. Also, never list a work phone number unless absolutely necessary, and never list your employer’s 800 number, as this could tell a prospective hiring manager that you do not value your employer’s resources. Lastly, although I could not determine this by looking at a resume alone, be sure you check your voice mail messages on all phone numbers listed, just to be sure they establish the first impression you are seeking.

Qualifications Summary

I am still concerned that a large percentage of resumes still do not contain qualifications summaries, and instead waste space disclosing a vague objective that serves no purpose. Defining your purpose or objective is critically important to the development of this section, but instead of simply stating your objective, this section, along with everything on your resume, should be developed to sell yourself for the type(s) of roles you are seeking. Develop this section based on a primary objective, presenting a brief summary of your key qualifiers related to your objective. Engage the reader or screener by performing due diligence to understand the keywords for the position(s) of interest, and infuse those keywords throughout this summary and the remainder of your resume. This is the most difficult section of a resume to write as it really is the high-level summary of your candidacy. As a tip, start writing your resume from the bottom up, beginning with the easier sections and leading to the summary. Write the summary last so that you have a clear picture of what you have to offer your target audience. After I write a resume, I typically have several key points from a client’s background that I remember as being most important or impressive, and this guides the development of the summary. Writing this section immediately after creating your resume also helps as your background, qualifications, education, etc. is very fresh in your mind. If you are still struggling with this section, check out books from the library, samples on my site, or ask a friend / spouse to help you identify your key offerings and value.

Professional Experience

Next to the qualifications summary, a strong professional experience section, with achievements highlighted, is critical in driving a successful job search. A lot of readers struggle in determining how many years of experience to disclose on their resume, and unfortunately while there are guidelines, there are no steadfast rules on this topic. As a general rule, you should plan on including about 8-15 years of experience depending on how much of that experience enhances and supports your candidacy. Executives can plan to include more experience as it is assumed that when you reach a certain level, you have the experience to complement your high-level objective. Include only years, not months and years, of employment in order to minimize the appearance of gaps, overlaps, and job-hops. Quantify experiences when possible and be sure to focus more on accomplishments versus daily responsibilities. And when presenting accomplishments, highlight them as such, do not intermingle them with daily responsibilities or the hiring manager will not be able to ascertain your “value.” Lastly, present the big and save the small, meaning do not tell your life story, but present a succinct image of what you have done that positions you for your current career interests.

Education

A lot of the resumes I review included unnecessary information within the education section. Don’t be afraid to omit the education section if it detracts from your candidacy. If you never went to college, that’s okay, but this does not mean that you have to have an education section presenting only your high school diploma.

I hope these tips will help you identify where you may be able to make changes with your resume to improve its effectiveness. For visual representations of many of the strategies reviewed, there are limitless resources available to job seekers including great resume books at the library, free assistance from local agencies, vast online resources, and professional resume writing firms like my own who partner with clients to identify their objectives, develop engaging content, and craft highly effective resumes. Best of luck to you.

Resume not getting the attention you believe your candidacy deserves?

July 27th, 2014

Dear Sam: I am a registered nurse currently working in an emergency department. I have been employed with the same hospital for the past 4 years and am looking for a change. I have submitted several resumes to various hospitals, and I am not having any success. I have attached my resume and appreciate your expert opinion. – Michelle

Dear Michelle: Thank you for writing to request a critique of your resume. I definitely can provide insight into why your resume is not getting the attention you believe your candidacy deserves. First, let me paint a picture of your resume for readers.

Your resume opens with your contact information, which immediately transitions into a “Work History” section. In this section, you present your last three positions—since 2007—that spill onto page two. In this entire page of information, you have described your positions with a total of 87 words. You have listed 5 bullet points, underneath each employer, with the bullet points ranging from 1 to 6 words. To illustrate this for readers, I am going to list one of the sections below:

  • Triage
  • Care plan implementation per 24-hour observation unit patient care
  • Direct patient care Adults/Pediatrics
  • IV line placement l Medication administration
  • EKG/Telemetry monitoring

Following this, you present your education—associate’s degree—and certifications, closing your resume with “References Upon Request.”

I am really happy you wrote, as your resume is a prime example of an underdeveloped presentation of your candidacy. Let’s look at ways we can improve your presentation.

It is imperative you open your resume with a Summary section highlighting the key aspects of your candidacy. Why and how are you different from your many qualified competitors? How is your experience unique? Why should you be contacted for an interview? If you leave the reader trying to figure these things out, you will never emerge successful from a screening process. With resumes reviewed for an average of 4-7 seconds, the reader does not have time to evaluate how your experiences “qualifies” you and makes you stand out from the crowd.

Next, you must tackle the lack of content in your resume. There is little value you can convey in 87 words, describing almost 7 years of experience. Within your very brief bullet points, you are only communicating the expected pieces of a nurse’s role; you must go further than this if you want to differentiate your candidacy. We do not get noticed by providing a hiring manager with a picture that says, “I can do the basic job functions”; instead, we get the interview by delivering a resume that says, “I can perform the role while adding value beyond expectations.” We show this by providing evidence of our past contributions, ways we have gone above and beyond, ways we are different from our peers, and opportunities we may have had to contribute beyond the scope of a traditional clinical role.

Your Education and Certifications sections are fine; I would simply note that you do not need superfluous information, in each section, such as a complete address for an educational institution. The highlights in those sections are your actual degree and your credentials, so draw attention to those items with selective bold formatting.

Lastly, you do not need to waste valuable resume real estate by noting that references are available; in today’s age, that is assumed and not noted on paper.

I know you can have a great resume based on your experience; you just need to revamp your approach, rehabilitate your content, and renew your formatting. Best of luck to you!

I have presented an example of a nursing resume I wrote to spark your creativity! View the resume here