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.

Focus on a solution, not the problem

August 14th, 2016

Dear Sam: I have been reading your column for years, even when I was employed in what I thought was a “forever” job. I have since, however, come across a new issue and need some help.

I am a 60+-year-old technical writer. Following in-house jobs in the ‘80s, I embarked on a consulting career that lasted until 2006. In 2006, I landed my dream job but unfortunately was downsized in 2014. Since then, I took some time off for health reasons, engaged in a 5-month contracting role, and returned to freelance work.

Due to my journey, my resume contains a lot of “Consultant” titles. While I have only explored the past 12 or so years of my career, a recruiter recently told me that it looked like I had “hopped” from one job to another. I really did not move from one role to another; I simply engaged in a project, completed the project, and assumed the next consulting opportunity. The recruiter told me that even though I had 9 years with my past employer, as I had served in freelance roles before and after—creating the appearance of “job hopping”—no employer would look at my candidacy because I had “jumped around.” He said there was no solution to present myself in an advantageous manner and that I would have to hope I would have the opportunity to “explain myself” if I were to get an interview. Do you have any insight? — Anonymous

Dear Anonymous: Wow, I am so sorry you were told there was “no solution!” I am shocked that with your consistent history of freelance work, not to mention the solid career history with your employer between 2006 and 2014, the recruiter could not see past your coming across as a job hopper.

I work with clients all of the time who have been freelancing for some time. To create a more solid picture of your candidacy, why not group all of your freelance engagements together? As you were a 1099 “employee,” this is a perfectly appropriate way to convey your experience. To do this, present an overview statement about the types of tasks you were charged with. Then, in the Highlights section, you could even present the logo of the “client” and some bulleted highlights of what you did for them. This eliminates the look of moving around and instead reinforces a track record of value-added contributions.

I just did this for a client recently; while he was in a slightly different situation, we needed to showcase highlights from some of his earliest experiences. To engage the reader, I created a Highlights section that preceded the Professional Experience section. In that section, I presented logos of his key clients/employers and offered highlights of his experience with said employers to the right of the logo. The look this created was so visually appealing and took attention away from the potential disqualifier we were trying to minimize. I think this approach would work really well in your situation.

Of course rounding out the Professional Experience section would be your employer-employee experience going back to 2006. If you think it would add value, you could present a byline beneath that section that would present just a snapshot of your earlier experiences. Doing this would allow you to communicate the information without dates, eliminating the possibility of unnecessarily aging your candidacy.

There is, indeed, a solution! It just takes a little creative thinking and the ability to see beyond unfortunate assumptions. I wish you tremendous success!

Dear Sam: I have had several jobs over 10 years, including 2 in the past 2 years, and have been receiving feedback that I have too many jobs and too many gaps in employment. If I don’t include all of my jobs, it looks like I am hiding something; if I do include everything, it really looks bad. What do I do? – David

Dear David: A resume is a strategic picture of what you have done which positions you for what you now want to do. Very different from an employment application—which typically requires the disclosure of all roles—a resume affords you the ability to be somewhat selective in what you include and omit.

Once you omit months in your dates with each employer, a cleaner picture will emerge. Often the omission of months allows the rather clean exclusion of short-term and unrelated positions, not to mention near elimination of the appearance of employment gaps. For example, if you were out of work from January 2014 until December 2015 and you include months and years, potential employers will see a rather large gap in employment. If you omit months of employment, you end one position in 2014 and pick up another in 2015. While one would have to assume you ended one engagement in December and started the other in January, it at least closes the gap and removes a potential disqualifier. If you held multiple short-term and unrelated roles during that time out of your career, you can omit those from your resume without fear of retribution. Hiring managers understand that your resume is not a narrative of everything you have ever done, so don’t worry about being seen as “hiding” something. As I mentioned, an employment application is a very different animal, but let’s hope most of the positions you apply for are resume- and not application-driven. Best of luck.

Considering a career 180?

June 5th, 2016

Dear Sam: I enjoy reading your advice column. Your column made me want to write to you because I feel I’m in a slight bind. I’m feeling bored and unmotivated at work, the job pays well, but most of my time is spent looking at computer monitors all day. When I was younger, I obtained a graphic design certificate but never pursued it as a career. I love art and design, it motivates me, and I would love to be a full-time artist. I think I need a career change but I’m not sure what to do. Any advice? – Anonymous

Dear Anonymous: I understand your situation. It can be very challenging when you have carved out a niche for your career but deep down really feel compelled to be doing something different. Given the analytical nature of your day-to-day work, compared to the creative drive you possess, I can see the struggle you must be facing.

Have you thought about building your graphic design or art portfolio through freelance work or volunteer engagements? That’s a great way to build a portfolio and update your skills. I work with many clients who want to do something “different” in their career and “different” doesn’t always have to be the complete opposite of what you are doing now. Perhaps just changing companies or industries, yet still engaging in similar analytical work, but freelancing on the side, would fulfill both your need to earn a paycheck and your desire to be more artistically engaged. You will really want to evaluate what type of position you feel you would want to transition into, and review those opportunities to gain a sense of how qualified you are for those roles given the lack of recent experience in the design arena. It may make the most sense to transition into an organization that has opportunities for you to diversify your contributions beyond what you are doing now, hopefully with a path to getting into the more creative arena you seek. Also start networking in that community by joining online forums or attending local association meetings to start to gain a sense of what the design industry is like in 2016. I really hope you find what you are looking for.

Dear Sam: Since 2006, I have had a series of bad professional luck. All positions over the past decade—except for one in 2010—have ended due to situations outside of my control. I have only listed temporary positions on my resume that I feel lend a new skill set or experience to my candidacy, or those that lasted for several months. If I omit too many of those roles, I find I am asked about the gaps in my work history. I’m aware that my age may be a factor in not being considered by a perspective employer and don’t want that to be compounded by appearing to be a flight risk. My resume is embarrassing. What can I do to show my experience and desire to work, but avoid highlighting short-term employment for the last 10 years? – Stefanie

Dear Stefanie: Your resume, as it stands, shows a really consistent work history in the customer service, administrative, and project coordination fields. This is fantastic as it means you will be able to weave a common thread throughout your experiences despite having had a few more jobs than you would have hoped for.

Even with the streamlining you have done, there is actually room for more. You should first omit months of experience on your resume, leaving only the years you worked with each employer. Doing so immediately “cleans up” the picture and, aesthetically, does a lot to unclutter the page. Now, when you do that you will see you actually have three very short-term positions you can absolutely afford to omit on your resume. This will leave you with a career chronology that looks like 2000-2006, 2007-2008, 2008-2011, 2012-2013, 2014-2015, and 2015-2016. Six positions in 16 years is not at all uncommon. Realize that omitting positions from your resume, when short-term and not as related to your current career targets as others, is actually an expected practice. Hiring managers do not expect to read about everything you have ever done, rather will be more interested in the aspects of your career that related to where you want to go next. Having said that, this isn’t an application, so there may be times you must disclose the entire chronology, but for the sake of your resume utilize the control you are able to have with this document to paint a more streamlined picture. Best of luck.

Concerns for mature job seekers

May 29th, 2016

Dear Sam: I am 51 years old and looking for a part-time clerical position. I haven’t had much response in sending out my current resume and I feel it could have something to do with my age and I’m not sure how to “hide it” because I was at one company for 17 years. I have omitted my first employer from my resume so I have two jobs listed; one for 17 years and the other for 4. I have not listed any years regarding my education. – Martha

Dear Martha: If you are only presenting 21 years of experience then a reader may assume you are in your early 40s, making your fear of being seen as 10 years older not a concern. Perhaps it is more than just your chronological age that is dating your candidacy. Take a look at the roles you have included and make sure you are using up-to-date jargon and hard-hitting keywords that position you for what you now want to pursue. What I find in a lot of resumes is that candidates, when presenting long-term tenure with one employer, often take brevity too far. Be sure you have a nice mix of your roles presented along with, and most important, the value you contributed presented in the form of accomplishment statements. I hope you are spreading your experience on two pages versus trying to squeeze it all on one, and I also hope you are opening with a strong qualifications summary which “frames” your experience and your candidacy for the reader. It is really easy to pin a lack of response on a fear of ageism, and while I do understand that it is a rational fear, in your case I think the lack of response is likely due to formatting and content strategies. Take a look at some resume samples on my website to confirm you are presenting a document in line with best practices and, once you perhaps revamp a little, I’m sure you will start to hear your phone ring.

Dear Sam: l lost my management job a year ago. Since then, I have held two jobs each lasting six months. I am afraid that I may not be hired by another company, as I am 59 years old. What would you suggest? – Simon

Dear Simon: First, determine an appropriate amount of experience to list on your resume. Based on the level which you want to pursue, I would imagine that would be between 10 and 15 years. You may want to omit the earlier of your recent short-term positions—as I am assuming they are not incredibly strong, based on your short tenure—as doing so would not cause a gap when only presenting years and not months of employment. As your manager position would include many more accomplishments, I would suggest having a “Select Highlights” section on your resume where your achievements could be previewed on page one of your resume. By doing this, you will push your most recent, short-term experience toward the bottom of page one (or the top of page two), ensuring it plays a much less significant role during the screening process. Once you present a strategic amount of experience (to avoid unnecessarily aging your candidacy), highlight your accomplishments up front, and minimize the impact of having moved around twice in one year, you will find you have a strong resume that will open doors.

Dear Sam: I retired from the DoD with 31 years of service. During those years, I held different positions. At this time, I am trying to find a part-time position, with no luck. Most of the part-time jobs I have located are for positions similar to what I did more than 10 years ago (or longer). How can I incorporate my older work experience, in my resume, to be considered for a part-time job now? – Carole

Dear Carole: To avoid unnecessarily aging your candidacy, include only your most recent positions with dates you performed each role after your titles, and add a byline to note that you have additional experience with the organization. You should focus on the past 10 or so years of employment and the related achievements and responsibilities. To incorporate notes about your previous positions, while avoiding presenting years upon years of experience, add a career highlights section to your resume. You may want to employ a functional approach to this section if you are trying to highlight certain areas that relate to your current job search. By this, I mean include a career highlights section after your qualifications summary but before your professional experience section. Within this section, utilize functional subheadings to focus the hiring manager’s attention on the experiences within your background that support or enhance your candidacy for what you want to do now. Here you can highlight achievements and responsibilities related to the positions you held 10+ years ago, without exploring them in detail within the professional experience section. In the professional experience section, after you hit about the 10-year mark, you can take the byline approach to present additional positions. This is essentially a note stating that you have additional experience within certain positions or arenas. I wish you well.

Getting screened out?

May 19th, 2016

Dear Sam: What am I doing wrong? I have applied for more jobs that I ever thought I would. Each time I read the job postings, review the requirements, and ensure I meet those expectations. Why then am I not getting so much as an initial screening call? Help! — Jason

Dear Jason: There are many reasons an employer may not be calling, have you considered the following?

  1. Are you the most qualified candidate? Remember being “qualified” does not necessarily mean you are the most qualified. Reading the requirements for a role, as presented in a job posting, can be misleading as oftentimes employers really list the minimum requirements for the role, almost like the prerequisite for the job. What you really have to pay attention to when reading a job posting is the actual job description. The job description part of the posting—the overview of what you would be doing in the role—is really more of an indicator of the experience you need to possess in order to be seen as qualified. With higher-than-average unemployment levels we have a saturated candidate pool which, at times, means employers will likely have someone applying for the role that has come from a similar position. When this is the case, especially when you are transitioning or moving into something slightly different than what you have done in the past, you must show the transferability of your skills by speaking the language of the roles you will be performing, not the minimum qualifications being sought. So, to judge whether you are truly a “qualified” candidate, check if you can truly speak the language of the functions you would be expected to perform in the role. Simply possessing the minimum prerequisite requirements is likely not going to cut it.
  2. Have you targeted your candidacy? While I know candidates want to keep their options open, we all only need one career position. So, targeting your candidacy is critical in ensuring maximum resume effectiveness. Be sure your resume is telling one story, creating an aligned picture of your skills, experiences, and abilities. The content of your resume, wherever possible, should be speaking the language of the functions you would be performing in your target positions. This is where understanding the true qualifications needed is very important as this is the story you need to tell on your resume. Read through job postings of interest to get a sense of the skills, experiences, and abilities employers are seeking in candidates such as you. Use this insight to feed your resume with very important keywords conveying that you possess the right mix of experience, skills, and education. Possessing the right keywords is absolutely imperative if you want to be seen as a competitive candidate.
  3. Be sure you hang your hat on what makes you unique! Too many candidates think certain skills or educational credentials make them unique. Actually experience is more often than not what truly makes one unique. Think about it, the degree you hold, while important, is going to check the box for an employer and may be a qualification the majority of other applicants also possess. Likewise, certain skills and abilities will likely be claimed widely in the candidate pool, once again, creating an even playing field. However no other candidate can claim the same exact experience as you, at least when it comes to presenting your key contributions or accomplishments. Be sure to focus your attention in really highlighting what differentiates your candidacy. Remember, the requirements are typically what I call “check the box” qualifications meaning they do not make you unique, they just mean you are possess the minimum credentials being sought. That means that any other candidate also able to “check those boxes” is once again on an even playing field with you. Where you both stand out however would be the uniqueness of your experiences, the value you brought to work, and the skills acquired as a result.
  4. Have you created a strong and compelling format? Paying attention to the content—and keywords—of your resume as well as the format, is the recipe for resume success. Be sure your resume is aesthetically pleasing, balanced on the page, and will not succumb to formatting incompatibilities—font substitutions, margin changes, etc.—on recipients’ computers. If you are not naturally creative, glean inspiration for a uniquely formatted resume through an online search or quick breeze through resume books at the library.
  5. Are you diversifying your distribution strategy? Gone are the days we would just apply for open positions online. Distributions strategies are much more multifaceted these days and can/should include offline and online networking, sourcing “closed” market opportunities, leveraging referrals, securing informational interviews with those in your desired field, proactively researching and finding emerging opportunities—like when a company is moving or expanding in the area—and of course, the responses to “open” market positions. Be sure you are actually engaging in the distribution strategies to maximize your outreach and not getting stuck in the rut of only applying for posted opportunities.

Break the mold

March 9th, 2016

Meet Bailey!

Bailey came to me—seeking resume assistance—as a new nurse wanting to advance her career and gain entry into a graduate nursing program.

The challenge…

Bailey’s original resume looked likes thousands of others I have seen throughout my career. Instead of showcasing her experience, Bailey’s original resume hid her differentiating factors in a sea of black and white text. With a lackluster format, no appropriate prioritization of the most important elements of her candidacy, and a focus on what Bailey wanted in the next stage of her career—instead of how she could add value to an employer or graduate school cohort—her resume fell short of helping her stand out.

The turnaround…

Key to differentiating your candidacy is creating a unique picture of your background. As you will see from Bailey’s new resume, focus was paid to creating a unique picture full of personality.

Qualifications summary…

Instead of opening Bailey’s resume with a self-serving objective statement, a qualifications summary leads the resume. This section allows the prioritization of the most important aspects of Bailey’s candidacy, providing recruiters with a quick overview to facilitate their ever-so-brief screening process. An extension of the qualifications summary, a slightly more detailed overview was presented on the right side of the resume. This section was designed to create visual interest, engage the reader, and extend the screening process.

Experience…

A fully developed experience section was presented to ensure that Bailey’s impressive early-career experience was conveyed well. In this section, highlights were noted, even when they were not of a quantifiable nature. Early experiences were noted, briefly, in order to ensure focus was on the most relevant and recent aspects of Bailey’s background.

Education…

You will notice the education section was relocated toward the end of the resume, as Bailey is no longer considered to be a recent graduate. As her education did not differentiate her from competitors, it was important to relocate this section so attention would be placed on the aspects of her career—the uniqueness of her candidacy—that provided her with a competitive edge over her peers.

Value-added…

Rounding out Bailey’s candidacy was the presentation of value-added information in the form of volunteer work and affiliations.

Bailey’s reaction…

“My resume has been transformed into AMAZING!!! It looks absolutely fabulous yet very professional!! I LOVE IT!!!”