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.

It’s often not as bad as you think

October 4th, 2015

Dear Sam: My concern is the number of jobs I have held over the past several years and the gaps of up to six months that occur between two of the jobs. My wife has the primary job in our family, and due to her work we have had to move between three states within a three-year period. I have tried to place an explanation of what has occurred in my cover letter, but the response I received in my last interview was concern that I would be moving again. My wife enjoys her work here and seems to be at a place that does not have layoffs in their future, as was the case in the previous moves. I feel lost as how to handle this issue and want to have the ability to have my resume considered for positions that will be steps up in my career. – Timothy

Dear Timothy: The best way to overcome potentially disqualifying factors such as frequent job hops or gaps in employment is to demonstrate the value you added while you were an employee of each organization. From looking at your resume I see employment from 1994-2007, 2007-2009, 2009-2011, and 2011-present. This doesn’t immediately concern me, nor does it present you as an extreme job hopper. In today’s market it is very common to see just one or two years of employment with each employer, typically due to no fault on the employee’s behalf. Also, the six-month gaps do not present an issue when only displaying years and not months of employment. Having said that, I do think you can minimize the appearance of having moved around a little in recent years by changing the format of your resume.

Instead of presenting your experiences in a traditional reverse-chronological format, present using a combination format, pulling accomplishments out on page one under each employer. This will ensure your “value” is sold on page one—the page that will get the most attention during the screening process—leaving your responsibilities and dates of employment to fall to page two. When you organize experience in this manner, disqualifying factors related to dates and places of employment immediately take a back seat and allow the focus to remain on what you really want the hiring manager to know about your candidacy.

Additionally, by reformatting in this way, you will be distinguishing accomplishments from responsibilities, something your current resume does not do. It is absolutely imperative to separate day-to-day responsibilities from accomplishments on a resume, as where you went above-and-beyond is what predicts your value to a hiring manager. In the current format, duties and achievements are intermingled and actual areas you provided extra value are lost in the mix.

Lastly, regarding your resume format, I feel you need to create a more unique look. Your resume lacks visual appeal, which when a hiring manger is faced with hundreds of applicants, is critical in gaining a little more attention.

As for your cover letter, I typically advise not to note a potentially disqualifying factor. The hiring manager will likely figure out there is a reason for your recent moves, and highlighting it as something outside of your control, only raises a red flag as to your ability to stay in a job for more than a couple of years. Even when this does come up in an interview, at least you have your foot in the door, can really sell your value, and can reinforce that your wife has settled into a long-term role. I hope this helps you reorganize your resume, secure more interviews, and hopefully land that career position you are seeking. All the best.

Keys to downsizing your career

September 27th, 2015

Dear Sam: I am an active 70 year old and would like to return to work in a more junior capacity. I have worked as a controller or CFO of gaming operations for the past 20 years. Prior to that I worked in other industries—manufacturing, construction, resort property development and operations, heavy equipment distribution, and retail—all as an accounting manager or controller. I am also a licensed CPA and prepare tax returns for private clients. I would like to find a staff job preforming some accounting functions but with minimal to no supervisory responsibilities. How do I market myself so I can return to the workforce? – Bill

Dear Bill: Great question. The key to developing your resume is to present just a sprinkling of your most recent experiences. Given you are not pursuing senior-level opportunities, you will want to “right-size” your candidacy on paper by listing perhaps just the past 10-15 years of work history. In doing so, while you will of course be communicating that you performed at a higher level than what you are looking for next, you will be conveying your expertise in all areas of accounting. Partner this with a qualifications summary that positions you as a support professional, and the reader will see that you are seeking to step back in your career. Also key to this approach is how you communicate your interests in your cover letter. Be sure you make it clear that your leadership experience, and your foundational exposure to accounting support roles, position you to add value to a staff role. Doing so will ensure the employer knows you are not simply applying for the role as a fallback, nor will you lose interest based on the lower-level responsibilities. A blended communication strategy through the resume and cover letter will ensure you put your best foot forward for what you want next.

Dear Sam: I have been receiving calls for positions, but with no luck being hired. I do not know if it is my resume or age related. Help! – Cheryl

Dear Cheryl: Your resume is very outdated with an old-school approach utilizing an objective statement, a few brief bullet points per position, and absolutely zero focus on how you are “different” from your competitors. Your resume is also only providing 13 years of professional history therefore your age is would not be coming into play until the interview. Having said that, if you are getting interviews, I would have to assume hiring managers are “seeing” something in your resume and therefore your candidacy. I suggest however that your resume isn’t digging deep enough to hold the hiring manager’s interest, especially if you are communicating similar messages verbally during the interview. Despite bring granted a few interviews, I am confident you could capture far more with an updated approach to your resume. In fact your current resume is aging you just through its approach to content and design.

Why are you qualified as an administrative assistant? What have you done for past employers that has added value? How can you relate your most recent experiences in merchandising and retail—encompassing the last seven years of your work history—to your current desire to return to your administrative roots? I imagine you are missing out on a tremendous amount of opportunities, as your resume is not selling the transferability of your experience. In addition to lack of relevant content, the design is not engaging, something you would want to pay particular attention to given your desired field of interest. I am certain if you revamp your resume you will have treated the real issue. Best of luck.

Leverage LinkedIn to power your search

September 6th, 2015

Dear Sam: I constantly receive LinkedIn requests to “connect” with people in my network and even some people I hardly know. I am not into social media and do not want to put myself out there for everyone to see, but I am also hearing that I have to be active on LinkedIn as I am conducting a job search. Can you tell me what I should and perhaps should not be worrying about? – Steve

Dear Steve: LinkedIn is an incredibly valuable networking forum. It not only provides you with the opportunity to deepen existing network connections, but to capitalize on the networks of others in order to broaden your reach. How can this be helpful in a job search? Well, if you search LinkedIn for network connections that could prove influential in your search, chances are the larger your network the higher the possibility you may have an influencer or even a decision maker within your reach. Here are some tips that may prove helpful as you leverage the power of LinkedIn during your job search.

  1. You can be somewhat stealthy on LinkedIn, meaning you can remain anonymous when searching other profiles, you can turn off activity broadcasts so your network does not get alerted to any activity on your account, and you can even block select connections from seeing your profile at all.
  2. Accept those connection requests to expand your network and broaden your reach. LinkedIn “connections” are not akin to Facebook “friends.” Do not think that accepting a connection request means you have a personal connection with the individual; in fact, you may not even really know him/her. Instead, accepting a connection request means, “Thank you for access to your network, and if my network can be of assistance to you, I am happy to reciprocate.”
  3. Seek recommendations and endorsements of top skills. There are tools built into LinkedIn that let you easily request recommendations from those in your network. Having recommendations attached to your past experiences adds value beyond what your résumé can typically convey and provides instant third-party credibility to your claims. I will caution you, however, not to reciprocate those recommendations. You want to have far more “recommendations received” than “recommendations given”; otherwise, your recommendations look a little disingenuous.
  4. Customize your LinkedIn URL by editing your profile and clicking on the cog wheel next to your public profile web address. This will provide you with a customize option to ensure your web address is clean and void of automatically assigned letters and numbers.
  5. Add a background photo to reinforce your brand. There are some background images built into LinkedIn but you can easily select a great option through a Google image search.
  6. Organize sections according to importance. A lot of people do not know you can drag and drop entire sections on LinkedIn to ensure they appear in the order you want. For instance, if you have strong endorsements to your skills then you may want that to appear directly beneath the summary.
  7. Leverage LinkedIn to gain access to influencers and decision makers, requesting introductions through second- or third-tier connections when possible.
  8. Join groups and associations related to where you want to be. Think about it, why not start subscribing to activity feeds for organizations in your area of interest. This will provide you with access to like-minded individuals, industry news, and emerging hiring practices…it’s a great way to reinforce your brand.

I hope these tips make you feel more comfortable when using LinkedIn and when accepting those connection requests. LinkedIn provides free webinars for job seekers; I suggest you check those out.

One-size-fits-all strategy rarely effective

August 30th, 2015

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.

Resumes are more art than science

August 23rd, 2015

Dear Sam: I have noticed that resume advisors often counsel applicants to tailor their resumes only to what hiring managers want to see. I suggest that this is the wrong approach. A resume is a marketing tool. In addition to the basics, I believe that resumes should also present whatever works to the applicant’s advantage. For example, hiring managers may not want to know personal information about age, family, home ownership, hobbies, etc.; either because they think the information irrelevant, or because they are not supposed to consider it in a hiring decision. However, I believe that a favorable psychological opinion can work to an applicant’s advantage and should be created, if possible; so that a hiring manager reads the resume and thinks, “I like this person, I’d like to set up an interview.” My spouse has had great success with this approach. – Greg

Dear Greg: I could not agree more with your statement that your resume is a marketing tool. A resume is much more than a narrative of everything you have ever done, it is a strategic image of what you have done that positions you for what you now want to do. In that, I am always educating clients about true differentiating factors. A lot of candidates believe soft skills—communication, organization, multitasking, etc.—can help them stand out from the crowd, but this is rarely the case, at least not when those skills are presented on paper. I encourage all clients and candidates to identify what is truly unique about their candidacy. Differentiating factors typically stem from experience, as that is truly the way we are unique, not education, and not soft skills. In the exploration of how we are unique, I too would encourage a more personal approach to presenting the professional and the person on a resume, as long as the personal aspects brought into the resume reinforce the professional tone.

So, just as you suggested, if a certain hobby is relevant to your jobs of interest then by all means it has a place on a resume. In fact I have built entire resumes hinged on a candidate’s volunteer work and interests! If you need to tell a personal story about your family—albeit typically in your cover letter—to connect with a potential employer, or to explain certain career decisions, then by all means do so. And, if where you live or your family’s connection to the community will play a role in reinforcing your professional candidacy, then there are no rules that say you can’t leverage that differentiating factor. There have been times I have written resumes and promoted personal connections within the community in order to reinforce a certain level of outreach and engagement within the candidate’s local area. This is why resume writing is an art and not a science; it’s all about identifying what is important and unique to you, and then building a presentation to promote that to your target audience—Marketing 101!

Each year I have the opportunity to present on the topic of personal branding to a large group of human resources professionals and I am always struck by the fact that they want to truly “know” who the candidate is. While this picture must be painted within the constraints of a professional resume, I do believe that we can be increasingly candid on our job search documents and, like in the case of your wife, this can yield to a deeper connection between employer and candidate. Thank you for your evidence of the success of this approach.