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.

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

Do you disclose your diagnosis or special needs?

July 20th, 2014

Dear Sam: Do you ever reveal a learning disability on your résumé or in an interview? I have a 37-year-old daughter trained as a State Tested Nursing Assistant (STNA). She was recently released from her job—after 6 years and nearly perfect attendance—for actions that may or may not be related to her language-based learning disability, diagnosis of high-functioning Aspergers syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) tendencies. These imposing sounding conditions do not always present themselves in obvious behaviors, or are more understandable (acceptable?) if you know her conditions. She has not revealed these to her recent employer and now, in looking for a new position, wonders if and/or when they should be made known to a prospective employer.

I am also wondering if we should impose on her previous employer to both explain her situation, and seek a better understanding as to the impact it might have had on her past job performance and recent release. As a basically responsible, independent, home-owning adult she wants to “make it on her own”, and in large part has done that. But there is obvious concern that “issues” might gradually creep into and compromise her future performance. And her parents aren’t sure how to help!

Through her entire life she has “fallen through the cracks” because her conditions have never been serious or obvious enough for people to really notice, or are compensated for by her generous and gentle personality. But now she is struggling to find a new position, which is a situation that plays to her weaknesses, and has to figure out how to deal with the inevitable question about how/why she left her job! Your insight, resource suggestions and advice would surely be appreciated. — A Concerned Dad!

Dear Concerned Dad: As a parent of a child considered to have special needs and whom may also need accommodations when he enters the workforce, I am touched by your outreach. As an advocate for my son—who is navigating elementary school—I am so moved by your advocacy efforts for your 37-year-old daughter.

To answer your question, I typically recommend one not disclose a diagnosis to a potential employer unless the candidate will require specific accommodations that would not be made for others. The general school of thought is that if an employer can detect your “disability” then it should be disclosed. I performed additional research to ensure that this was the right advice for you based on your daughter’s diagnosis and, from what I read, I would say that this would still be the way to approach a potential employer. In fact in the 10+ years and 7,000+ resumes I have written, I have only disclosed a diagnosis a handful of times, most related to vision or hearing impairment that would have required accommodations and would have been evident at an interview.

If your daughter feels she has access to her past employer and can approach them and inquire about the specific reason(s) for her release, and perhaps also what they will disclose to a potential employer calling for a reference check, I would definitely recommend doing so. I would absolutely encourage her to explain her diagnosis to them, despite it being after the fact, as this may impact how they approach providing a future reference. Perhaps, based on the receptiveness and understanding of her past employer, she could even request a letter of recommendation based on the years of great service she provided before the actions occurred which you believe resulted in her dismissal.

Your daughter will want to craft and practice her answer as to the reason(s) she lost her past job. Of course, based on the discussion she has with her past employer, this will shape how she constructs her answer. The key however is to accept responsibility for the departure, communicate what she learned, and show a movement toward continuous improvement. From past clients I have worked with, along with the research I performed, the vast majority agrees that disclosing the diagnosis pre-job offer is not advisable. Instead, presenting the “differences” and potential accommodations needed to an immediate supervisor, once hired, is the way to ensure she will have the environment, support, and understanding she may need in her next role. I wish you both the most success.

Titles do not have to define you

July 13th, 2014

Dear Sam: My current title—Accounting Coordinator—is considered to be a junior accounting role. I perform much more than data entry; I am the sole accountant and perform every function in accounting including preparing financial reports and performing variance analysis. I work for a very small company where each person manages his/her own department but has the title “coordinator”. When interviewing, the interviewer always seems to get stuck on my title, often questioning why I carry that title yet do much more. I try to explain—in a positive manner—that the manager has labeled all staff as “coordinators”, but it doesn’t seem to help them get past it. I am trying to break into a larger company and advance my career. I am so much more than a Junior Accountant. I almost feel as if I played “down” myself by taking this position if titles are really that important.  Should I avoid using that title at all? — Sadly Stuck

Dear Sadly Stuck: I understand your dilemma and, believe it or not, it is not that uncommon for me to work with clients who possess titles actually aligned with what they do every day! Not to worry; there are lots of ways we can paint the right picture through content development, formatting, and positioning.

First, be sure everything in your qualifications summary is speaking to the breadth of accounting functions you have performed, never mentioning the title you carried. Open your qualifications summary with a professional title such as “Staff Accountant” or “Accounting Manager” depending on the level of position you are seeking. In the professional experience section, downplay the appearance of your title by avoiding formatting that draws attention to it. Often, when a title does not reinforce your candidacy, I will list noun phrases where the title would be expected, in order to immediately convey the level of responsibility held. Follow this with the description of your role, putting your actual title somewhere within the first sentence. Let me give you an example.

Star Enterprise, Cleveland, Ohio

Accounting Management  |  Financial Reporting  |  Variance Analysis

Serve as the sole accounting professional for a business with 20 employees, 2 locations, and $2M in annual revenue, managing all accounting functions under the title of junior accountant. Create and maintain solid internal controls…

Do you see how that works? Attention is first drawn to the functional areas in which you work—you can list more than three noun phrases; perhaps just extend from the left to the right side of your page—and bury your title in the opening sentence. Then, when the hiring manager is screening your resume and sees this section, he/she is not first hit with a title that is tainting his/her vision. I have seen this strategy work time and time again, and am confident it will work well. Be sure you are not getting stuck in a negative mindset either and not “undoing” your strategy by adding the title anywhere else or trying to “explain away” the reason for the title.

Dear Sam: Is there a “best” font to use for your resume? I have always used Times New Roman in font 12, but keep seeing resumes that use all sorts of fonts and sizes, so wondered if my way is still “current”. — Andrea

Dear Andrea: You are right; today’s resumes use all sorts of fonts and sizes. Times New Roman (TNR) is still the most common font, but it is overused and does have an “older” look to it. Other serif fonts that can be great options include Book Antiqua, Garamond, and Cambria. If you want to create a modern and clean look, choose a sans serif font like Tahoma or Calibri. All of these are great options. Benchmark your font size off of TNR font 11. There is no one perfect size as Book Antiqua works well at 9.5 while you may want Garamond at 11. Don’t choose a font, however, that is not fairly common on all systems; otherwise, you may run into an ugly font substitution issue on the recipient’s system.

Return-to-work résumés require careful planning

July 6th, 2014

Dear Sam: I’ve been a full-time mom for 16 years with most of my early jobs in the retail arena. In 2012 I earned my bachelor’s degree in general studies and completed continuing education toward a Human Resources Certificate. The résumé I am attaching was completed by career services at my university. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. — Wendy

Dear Wendy: It can certainly be challenging to create a résumé based on experience from 15+ years ago. The career services department got you started on the right track, but I do feel there are areas that need attention in order to create your best candidacy.

Formatting not pleasing to the eyes —

To me, the format is too aggressive. By that I mean the large blocks of black shading with white text are distracting and create a very masculine résumé. I do not think the formats reflects your professional candidacy nor your personal character.

Questionable headings —

I am always careful when I name headings, ensuring accuracy and that my clients’ skills and experiences within those headings are reflective of that title. In your case I feel perhaps someone stuck to a template a little too tightly. In the summary, at the top of your résumé—which is not really a proper qualifications summary rather a list of areas in which you have been exposed in your career—it is introduced by “Areas of Expertise.” I know this is picky, but are you really an expert in all of those areas? If I am working with a seasoned professional I may introduce select skills with that heading, but I would wonder whether elevating some of your skills to this level is actually damaging someone seeing the “real” you. Likewise, your professional experience section is titled “Selected Accomplishments” yet nothing in those three bullet points are accomplishments. Be careful not to overstate experience; we do want to create a marketing document, but we want accuracy and honesty above all.

Content, or lack thereof —

I understand the need for a functional design and highlighting areas of experience versus places and times of employment. I would need to know your exact dates of employment however to know whether omission of all dates was appropriate as usually that is a red flag for hiring managers. Have you had any part-time roles while you were raising your children? Any volunteer work we could include? Think of things, other than education, that could potentially be dated and reflect recent, relevant experience. Did you work on the PTA coordinating community fundraisers or support any other causes? It is rare that I work with a mom returning to work who has not contributed in an administrative, customer service, fundraising, and coordination capacity at some point during her time at home. Think about other things you can highlight that are not “pure” professional experiences.

In addition, you have only three sentences conveying the value of your professional experiences. I would want to see that much more developed. Tell your audience why what you did 16 years ago matters. If you don’t develop this section further the reader may discount all of your experience.

Lastly, you introduce your three bullet points with the subheadings, “Sales, Administration, and Customer Service” yet the latter has no content underneath it. There is zero value in something not being explained. I am confident you can “beef up” the content to better present the value of the roles you performed before leaving the workforce. Not to mention make the content so much more relevant to human resources if that is what you are pursuing. Think about your experiences differently; it’s not always about what you did, but what you did that best relates to where you want to go next.

The bottom line is that I feel you have a launching point from which to start with your résumé. There is significant room for improvement however in order to present the most relevant qualifications to compete in the human resources arena. I wish you the most success!

Omissions are often strategic options

June 29th, 2014

Dear Sam: I am trying to write my résumé and am receiving conflicting advice on what to include. I am reading through job postings and the requirements for positions and attempting to ensure I include all of the requirements that are pertinent to my background. I wondered though, when a posting calls for a college degree—which I do not have—should I list my high school diploma? Also, I do not possess all of the technical skills required for some of the roles, but I am sure I can learn them quickly; what do I list in those instances? — Joe

Dear Joe: When reading through a job posting, be sure you are scanning the “requirements” but paying most attention to the actual description of the role. That section of the posting will represent the “language” you need to speak on your résumé. The requirements are just that: requirements. It is expected that a “qualified” candidate will possess those requirements; so if that is indeed the case, you and your qualified competitors will be competing based on the uniqueness of your experience. That is actually the case 99% of the time, Joe. Requirements are what I call “check the box” qualifications—you have them or you do not. Your candidacy should be built on the uniqueness of your experiences, presenting those experiences in a “language” that closely mimics the job posting of interest or the theme of positions you are applying for.

Lastly, some additional food for thought. You mentioned technical skills; sometimes, through inclusion of what you do possess it really tells what you do not possess. If your technical skills are lackluster, then omit them entirely to at least leave the question open as to whether or not you possess those skills. Likewise, with your education, communicating your high school diploma does not say “I graduated from high school”; it actually says “I did not attend college.” Be strategic in your inclusion of and selective omission of said requirements to ensure you are not disqualifying your candidacy. Best of luck to you.

Dear Sam: As an adjunct professor, I have created a CV and embedded links to my website so potential employers will be able to view my training certificates, teaching evaluations, diplomas, and lists of seminars and other presentations. I was wondering what your take is on that approach. – Ben

Dear Ben: My first question would be, does that add value? If the answer is yes, then I think that is a perfectly appropriate approach that could add to reader engagement for select hiring managers. As you attached your CV and I could see what those links provided, however, I question the value doing this adds to your case. The training certificates and diplomas are really unnecessary. One does not assume you are falsifying information, so listing training on your CV will suffice; there is no need for someone to look at the certificate. The lists of seminars and presentations are also contained on your CV so there is no additional value in taking the reader to a link to see the same list twice. As for the teaching evaluations, as they are difficult to read and only a handful of each of the comments are really constructive comments from college students, I would lean toward pulling select excerpts out on your CV versus sending a reader to a link where he / she will need to comb through lots of comments to read a few really strong ones.

Lastly, and perhaps most important, your website is very outdated. When you give someone a reason to jump off from reading your résumé, the information they are pushed toward needs to be impressive, add value, and reinforce the professionalism of your candidacy. I fear you developed your website in the late ‘90s when we were all learning rudimentary web development and design. Because of this, your website will actually reflect poorly on your candidacy and how relevant your skills are. Granted, I know you are not teaching web design or programming, but you have to always consider the impression every aspect of your candidacy will make—from online to in-person. I am confident you can create your best brand on your CV without the use of external links, and that would be my recommendation. Best to you.