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.

Broadening horizons and restarting after being downsized

September 21st, 2014

Dear Sam: I was recently downsized from my 23-year role in the customer service industry. My job was outsourced to a call center—overseas—as is often the case these days. I never thought I would need to look for a job at the age of 53; quite frankly, I don’t know where to begin. What I do know, though, is that I need to create a résumé that positions me for roles in multiple areas. I fear my age will work against me, so I do not want to pigeonhole myself into solely customer service jobs. I am thinking I may return to an administrative role, could continue to work in customer service, but may also explore more operations-focused roles where I manage a process or program. Do you have any examples I could look at to provide guidance on how to even approach a résumé at this point in my life? Thank you. — Ken

Dear Ken: I am so sorry to hear of your recent downsizing. You are right; that is still a very common occurrence, but shocking nonetheless. I recently worked with a client in the same situation and I think her résumé will provide you with some ideas on how to structure the presentation of your background to position your candidacy effectively for the roles you are seeking. Let me go through my approach with my client Jessie to inspire your résumé writing juices!

Jessie came to me after she was downsized from an airline. She barely had a résumé and provided me with a very primitive list of her jobs since 1988 with her titles and literally a handful of words describing each role. Through my conversation with Jessie, I dug deeper, asking questions about the scope of her roles, the challenges, her crowning achievements, and what she took from one job to another. Through that discussion, I was better able to see how each of her roles positioned her as more qualified for the next. With this information, I started creating what would become a two-page résumé positioning her for customer service, administrative assistant, and operations support roles.

Based on the diversity of positions for which Jessie wanted to apply, I created a somewhat open-ended qualifications summary. Jessie had worked for very notable organizations—and I wanted that to come through loud and clear in the initial scan of her résumé—so I included the logos of the organizations in which she had worked. Doing this provided potential employers with an immediate understanding of the level of customer service and administrative / operations support Jessie must have provided given she had worked for some world-class organizations. In addition, I added an excerpt from one of her letters of recommendation immediately to reinforce the notion that Jessie was great at what she did.

Within the professional experience section of Jessie’s résumé, I presented her roles with a brief paragraph summary followed by two to three bulleted highlights introduced by functional area. Introducing these highlights with a functional subheading allowed me to focus and frame the experience as I wanted it to be seen. For instance, a hiring manager could easily perform a visual scan of Jessie’s résumé and get a great sense of the areas in which she had contributed, just by reading the functional subheadings. This strategy allowed me to reinforce the experience on which I wanted the reader to focus. In addition, each job summary was introduced by highlighted noun phrases communicating the keywords most relevant to the job she performed. This too allowed for greater focus on select aspects of Jessie’s roles. While there still was not a terrific amount of content on Jessie’s résumé, it was highly focused and proved very effective in her search.

I hope this provides a quasi-roadmap for you, Ken, and inspires you to create your own unique image on paper. Best of luck for a tremendously successful search. View Jessie’s résumé here

Maximizing job offers through interview preparation

September 14th, 2014

Dear Sam: I read your résumé tips each week and was wondering if you could provide some general information to orient me to interviews. I have not interviewed in 23 years so I feel a little lost as to what to expect. — Edward

Dear Edward: Absolutely! And do not feel bad, I hear that comment every single week from clients who have also not needed to conduct a job search in quite some time but now find themselves in uncharted territory. Many candidates invest time revamping their resume, not to mention hundreds of dollars on that perfect interviewing ensemble, but neglect to invest time preparing for the interview. Let’s review some of the basics…

Research your prospective employer – before the interview, take some time to review the company’s website, reading the “about us” page, and if available, press releases, financial statements, and strategic plans. If the company does not have a website, try searching for references of the company online to see if you are able to glean any additional details about the organization. Don’t forget to check LinkedIn and read profiles for current and past employees as that can provide you with insight into how long employees stay at the company, not to mention if there appears to be a lot of recent transition. Once armed with this information, begin to review your own background and how certain skills, experiences, and achievements would translate well based on your prospective employer’s current situation.

Prepare for the tough-to-answer questions – are there certain questions you have had difficulty answering in the past? If so, script strong responses and practice answering those questions before the interview. A couple of questions candidates often express are most difficult for them include “Tell me about yourself” and “Tell me about a weakness.”

Remember, when a prospective employer asks you to tell them about yourself, they are not asking for you to tell them you are married, have 2 children, a dog, and like skiing! What they are really asking is “What in your background positions you to excel in this role.” If you developed a qualifications summary for your resume, you have taken great strides in your ability to answer this question succinctly.

To prepare for this question, review your background and identify your core value messages. These messages should be comprised of the skill you offer and the benefit of that skill to the prospective employer. Think about where you have gone above and beyond, when have you addressed a challenge and driven strong results, or when your specific strengths have added value to your employer. Remember you don’t just want to tell an employer what you can do, you want to show them what you can do by presenting value messages including a combination of your actions/skills and the results/benefit of each. Let’s look at some examples:

Don’t say, “I have great organization skills.”

Do say, “I have repeatedly increased department productivity by streamlining processes, reducing redundancies, and improving workflow.”

Don’t say, “I manage people well.”

Do say, “I have a proven record building, training, and motivating top-performing teams that have surpassed aggressive performance goals.”

By presenting the result or benefit of your action or skill, you provide the hiring manager with key insight into how your skills and experiences can transfer into their organization, leaving a stronger impression of you as a candidate.

Most candidates struggle when asked to identify one of their weaknesses, after all, aren’t we trying to appear as perfect with no apparent weaknesses? The point of this question is to see if you are able to identify an area in yourself that requires improvement, and to learn if you have taken steps to overcome this weakness (some hiring mangers just want to see if you are as in tune with your weaknesses as you are with your strengths). So, the answer doesn’t have to present a glaring weakness and reason not to hire you, but should provide insight into your ability to initiate corrective actions or continued professional development. Let’s look at an example:

“I realized I needed extra help organizing and planning my schedule, so I purchased a detailed planner and have started setting a few minutes aside each day to review my schedule, priorities, and deadlines. Doing so has allowed me to maintain a clear view of what I have scheduled, and has actually helped me optimize my time.”

You can also choose to highlight areas of weakness that have little to no impact on the position for which you are applying. Let’s say you were an accountant, a weakness in the area of public speaking may not pose any threat to diminishing the strength of your candidacy. For example:

“I’ve always been a little nervous speaking in front of large groups of people, but I recently joined Toastmasters, as although I have not needed to deliver presentations in past positions, I believe I could learn more about selecting and delivering messages to secure support and promote a cohesive environment.”

Regardless of how you answer, be sure to prove how you are taking steps to overcome the weakness so it doesn’t pose a threat to securing the job.

Be ready for different interview formats – when scheduling your interview, asking about the format of your interview will help you prepare. Interviews come in many shapes and sizes including one-on-one, group, panel, and technical. While you won’t be able to anticipate every question, knowing whether you will face a group of six on a panel versus an informal interview with the hiring manager, can help you prepare mentally to handle the situation.

Interviewing can be a stressful experience, but being prepared, practicing, and knowing how your strengths and experiences relate to your prospective employer’s needs, can reduce anxiety and improve the success of your search. Good luck!

Maximizing job offers through interview preparation

September 14th, 2014

Dear Sam: I read your résumé tips each week and was wondering if you could provide some general information to orient me to interviews. I have not interviewed in 23 years so I feel a little lost as to what to expect. — Edward

Dear Edward: Absolutely! And do not feel bad, I hear that comment every single week from clients who have also not needed to conduct a job search in quite some time but now find themselves in uncharted territory. Many candidates invest time revamping their resume, not to mention hundreds of dollars on that perfect interviewing ensemble, but neglect to invest time preparing for the interview. Let’s review some of the basics…

Research your prospective employer – before the interview, take some time to review the company’s website, reading the “about us” page, and if available, press releases, financial statements, and strategic plans. If the company does not have a website, try searching for references of the company online to see if you are able to glean any additional details about the organization. Don’t forget to check LinkedIn and read profiles for current and past employees as that can provide you with insight into how long employees stay at the company, not to mention if there appears to be a lot of recent transition. Once armed with this information, begin to review your own background and how certain skills, experiences, and achievements would translate well based on your prospective employer’s current situation.

Prepare for the tough-to-answer questions – are there certain questions you have had difficulty answering in the past? If so, script strong responses and practice answering those questions before the interview. A couple of questions candidates often express are most difficult for them include “Tell me about yourself” and “Tell me about a weakness.”

Remember, when a prospective employer asks you to tell them about yourself, they are not asking for you to tell them you are married, have 2 children, a dog, and like skiing! What they are really asking is “What in your background positions you to excel in this role.” If you developed a qualifications summary for your resume, you have taken great strides in your ability to answer this question succinctly.

To prepare for this question, review your background and identify your core value messages. These messages should be comprised of the skill you offer and the benefit of that skill to the prospective employer. Think about where you have gone above and beyond, when have you addressed a challenge and driven strong results, or when your specific strengths have added value to your employer. Remember you don’t just want to tell an employer what you can do, you want to show them what you can do by presenting value messages including a combination of your actions/skills and the results/benefit of each. Let’s look at some examples:

Don’t say, “I have great organization skills.”

Do say, “I have repeatedly increased department productivity by streamlining processes, reducing redundancies, and improving workflow.”

Don’t say, “I manage people well.”

Do say, “I have a proven record building, training, and motivating top-performing teams that have surpassed aggressive performance goals.”

By presenting the result or benefit of your action or skill, you provide the hiring manager with key insight into how your skills and experiences can transfer into their organization, leaving a stronger impression of you as a candidate.

Most candidates struggle when asked to identify one of their weaknesses, after all, aren’t we trying to appear as perfect with no apparent weaknesses? The point of this question is to see if you are able to identify an area in yourself that requires improvement, and to learn if you have taken steps to overcome this weakness (some hiring mangers just want to see if you are as in tune with your weaknesses as you are with your strengths). So, the answer doesn’t have to present a glaring weakness and reason not to hire you, but should provide insight into your ability to initiate corrective actions or continued professional development. Let’s look at an example:

“I realized I needed extra help organizing and planning my schedule, so I purchased a detailed planner and have started setting a few minutes aside each day to review my schedule, priorities, and deadlines. Doing so has allowed me to maintain a clear view of what I have scheduled, and has actually helped me optimize my time.”

You can also choose to highlight areas of weakness that have little to no impact on the position for which you are applying. Let’s say you were an accountant, a weakness in the area of public speaking may not pose any threat to diminishing the strength of your candidacy. For example:

“I’ve always been a little nervous speaking in front of large groups of people, but I recently joined Toastmasters, as although I have not needed to deliver presentations in past positions, I believe I could learn more about selecting and delivering messages to secure support and promote a cohesive environment.”

Regardless of how you answer, be sure to prove how you are taking steps to overcome the weakness so it doesn’t pose a threat to securing the job.

Be ready for different interview formats – when scheduling your interview, asking about the format of your interview will help you prepare. Interviews come in many shapes and sizes including one-on-one, group, panel, and technical. While you won’t be able to anticipate every question, knowing whether you will face a group of six on a panel versus an informal interview with the hiring manager, can help you prepare mentally to handle the situation.

Interviewing can be a stressful experience, but being prepared, practicing, and knowing how your strengths and experiences relate to your prospective employer’s needs, can reduce anxiety and improve the success of your search. Good luck!

“Good enough” doesn’t cut it

September 7th, 2014

Dear Sam: I had the absurd notion that my resume was “good enough” to get a job, but unfortunately I have been submitting resumes left and right and have only had a few interviews. Not only is the geographic area in which I am applying not that ripe with opportunities, but I am also being seen as over- or under-qualified. If I apply for marketing manager positions, I am not able to demonstrate management experience. If however I apply for a lateral position, I think hiring managers may assume my compensation requirements may be too high given my master’s degree and 15+ years of experience. Please let me know what you think of my resume and how I can make it “pop!” — Rachel

Dear Rachel: That can be quite the sticky spot to be in—under-qualified for management opportunities yet really being seen—based on education and breadth of experience—as over-qualified for the coordinator roles akin to what you are doing now. From reviewing your resume, I really do think you could qualify for management opportunities. Let me show you a few ways you can improve the effectiveness of your resume.

Your resume, especially when you are in the field of marketing, is akin to a brochure for a product. You need to infuse your resume with personality, create your brand, and send a targeted message positioning you for management-level opportunities. To do so, let’s start with your qualifications summary. Currently you are highlighting irrelevant early experience and adding the years up for the reader. I never like qualifications summaries that contain statements like: “15 years of marketing experience, 10 years in food service, and 5 years in trucking.” The reader will assume those are consecutive years, not concurrent, so will immediately assume you are older then you are with a total of 30 years of professional experience. Instead of this approach, use this section to showcase your depth of marketing experience. You do not even mention your master’s degree in marketing and communication until page two of your resume—which will likely not be seen during the screening process—which is doing a terrible disservice to your candidacy as a management-level candidate. Think of your summary statement as the place you want to introduce your marketing expertise, tout the value you have contributed to past employers, and showcase the relevance and recency of your graduate degree in the field.

Within your experience section, be sure you are sending the same message. Present brief overviews of each of your roles in a paragraph format, but then engage the reader with your bulleted accomplishments. Within these highlighted areas be sure to focus on your higher-level functions, speaking about leadership, strategy, and management. Attempt to show how you have managed, and not just executed what others developed. Follow this approach throughout your professional experience section, taking the time and space critical to exploring the depth and breadth of your marketing experience. For instance, currently you have just 26 words describing a 10-year position. While you add an additional 46 words highlighting what you felt were your accomplishments in that role, none of those statements are actually accomplishments. As I read each of your three bullet points I am struck by the fact that I feel they would be inherent aspects of your job, in other words, they were expected functions likely defined in your job description. Accomplishment statements should be reserved for presenting things you did really well, ways you added value beyond expectations, or results you drove that were at or above goals.

I really am confident you can position yourself effectively for management-level positions, you just need to spend some time thinking about your experience differently and refining your brand. Check out samples on my website for ideas on creating a unique visual and targeted message. Best of luck to you.

“Good enough” doesn’t cut it

September 7th, 2014

Dear Sam: I had the absurd notion that my resume was “good enough” to get a job, but unfortunately I have been submitting resumes left and right and have only had a few interviews. Not only is the geographic area in which I am applying not that ripe with opportunities, but I am also being seen as over- or under-qualified. If I apply for marketing manager positions, I am not able to demonstrate management experience. If however I apply for a lateral position, I think hiring managers may assume my compensation requirements may be too high given my master’s degree and 15+ years of experience. Please let me know what you think of my resume and how I can make it “pop!” — Rachel

Dear Rachel: That can be quite the sticky spot to be in—under-qualified for management opportunities yet really being seen—based on education and breadth of experience—as over-qualified for the coordinator roles akin to what you are doing now. From reviewing your resume, I really do think you could qualify for management opportunities. Let me show you a few ways you can improve the effectiveness of your resume.

Your resume, especially when you are in the field of marketing, is akin to a brochure for a product. You need to infuse your resume with personality, create your brand, and send a targeted message positioning you for management-level opportunities. To do so, let’s start with your qualifications summary. Currently you are highlighting irrelevant early experience and adding the years up for the reader. I never like qualifications summaries that contain statements like: “15 years of marketing experience, 10 years in food service, and 5 years in trucking.” The reader will assume those are consecutive years, not concurrent, so will immediately assume you are older then you are with a total of 30 years of professional experience. Instead of this approach, use this section to showcase your depth of marketing experience. You do not even mention your master’s degree in marketing and communication until page two of your resume—which will likely not be seen during the screening process—which is doing a terrible disservice to your candidacy as a management-level candidate. Think of your summary statement as the place you want to introduce your marketing expertise, tout the value you have contributed to past employers, and showcase the relevance and recency of your graduate degree in the field.

Within your experience section, be sure you are sending the same message. Present brief overviews of each of your roles in a paragraph format, but then engage the reader with your bulleted accomplishments. Within these highlighted areas be sure to focus on your higher-level functions, speaking about leadership, strategy, and management. Attempt to show how you have managed, and not just executed what others developed. Follow this approach throughout your professional experience section, taking the time and space critical to exploring the depth and breadth of your marketing experience. For instance, currently you have just 26 words describing a 10-year position. While you add an additional 46 words highlighting what you felt were your accomplishments in that role, none of those statements are actually accomplishments. As I read each of your three bullet points I am struck by the fact that I feel they would be inherent aspects of your job, in other words, they were expected functions likely defined in your job description. Accomplishment statements should be reserved for presenting things you did really well, ways you added value beyond expectations, or results you drove that were at or above goals.

I really am confident you can position yourself effectively for management-level positions, you just need to spend some time thinking about your experience differently and refining your brand. Check out samples on my website for ideas on creating a unique visual and targeted message. Best of luck to you.