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.

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.

Think deeper: how are you unique?

August 16th, 2015

Dear Sam: I worked at my previous position for a little over 20 years and, unfortunately, the company decided to close its doors last fall. I have been trying to find a position since then but I am not receiving a lot of response. Could you please look over my resume and offer suggestions? – S.

Dear S.: I am sorry to hear that you need to enter the job market after enjoying a 20-year career with your last employer. The job market and the search process are certainly very different from the 1990s when you conducted your last search. Let me present a “picture” of your resume to readers and highlight some opportunities for improvement.

Formatting

The template you used to create your resume—one of the stock resume templates in Microsoft Word—is very outdated and is aging your candidacy. Using a dated design dates you and immediately disconnects the reader from thinking you have relevancy in today’s market. After all, if your image is outdated one may assume your skills are too.

Targeting

Do you know what types of roles you are pursuing? I can’t tell from your eight-bullet point qualifications section how you are positioning yourself. Within four-to-seven seconds, I should be able to visually scan your resume and come away with a sense of who you are and how you are differentiated from your competition. With your first bullet point communicating you are “proficient in Microsoft Word” you are immediately discounting your value and doing nothing to tell hiring managers how you are different, how your experience is unique, and how you add true value to an employer. You must use this section, the most important real estate on your resume, to sell your candidacy based on the uniqueness of your experiences. Do not use this section for “soft skills” and “required qualifications,” instead use this section of your resume to tell hiring managers everything you can’t afford for them not to know before they make their decision to bring you in for an interview.

Value-Added Content

Because you are still using an “old-school” template, you have likely followed exactly what that template suggested in terms of content brevity. Unfortunately standards of 10 and 20 years ago do not make the grade in today’s job market. I do like the way you organized your general management role by subcategories in order to provide organization and separation, but within those sections you must be much more explanatory about your role and the value you contributed.

I want to point out that readers will judge the value of your candidacy based on the weight you give select aspects of your roles. You describe your roles, for the most part, in bullet points that are all of two and three words long. This was indeed the standard of 20+ years ago but definitely not the standard of today. It is imperative you take the time to explore your role and then, above and beyond that, define the value you contributed through accomplishments which were not part of your day-to-day job. For instance, what value can a reader glean from statements such as, “take orders…ship orders…budget preparation?” Instead think on a deeper level about the value everything on your resume has, review what you can add to that statement in an interview, and ensure that your content isn’t so brief that it lacks a reason to even be on your resume. Think about ways to quantify your experiences and contributions: how large was the budget you prepared? How high volume an environment were you working in? Were you coordinating shipments, tracking movement, and resolving delays and concerns? How are you going to communicate you added value beyond what someone else did in a similar role?

I think when you start to look at your experience in a new light, with an updated strategy and greatly improved format, you will be able to see the value of your career in the form of interest from today’s hiring community. Best of luck to you.

Painting a transferable picture of your candidacy

August 9th, 2015

Dear Sam: I am a 2013 college graduate with a degree in Nonprofit Administration. I have been unable to secure employment in my field of interest therefore currently serve as a Customer Service Representative for a labor support agency. I am not complaining about having a job, but I would rather do the work that I have a passion for.

I am wondering if my resume is limiting my access to the types of employment I am seeking? What is my resume saying about me and the last 10 or so years of my experience? — Timia

Dear Timia: I am so sorry to hear of your struggle; I can only imagine how difficult it must be to have a passion for nonprofit administration yet not be able to enter the field. Spending two years searching for your first career role must be incredibly disappointing, especially when you are pursuing something as selfless as nonprofit work.

From a review of your resume, I can tell you that the recipients of your resume would never see you as you want to be seen. In fact, when I first looked at your resume I saw nothing about your degree, nothing about what you have done in the nonprofit community, and certainly nothing that would tell me how you are uniquely qualified to enter that arena. Now, that says absolutely nothing about whether you are qualified for your current career target, but rather that your resume is not selling you as such. Your resume is so outdated in strategy and design that, instead of marketing you for what you want, it is simply presenting what you have done in the past—not a good approach when what you have done in the past is not indicative of what you want to do in the future. You really do have strong experience and great qualifications so I am certain you could be successful in opening the doors to nonprofit administration.

Instead of opening your resume with an objective statement that is doing little if anything to differentiate your candidacy, open with a qualifications summary presenting the uniqueness of your education in Nonprofit Administration, your involvement with nonprofit causes and community-based initiatives, and your 10+ years of experience in customer-facing roles. Even though your background is not in the nonprofit arena, the fact that you have worked with diverse audiences, assessed their needs, responded with targeted programs and services, and provided thoughtful administrative support, all reinforce your candidacy for what you want next.

Within your professional experience section, you have listed 6 roles from 2004 to present with a handful of fragmented bullet points describing each. Instead of thinking of your resume as a narrative of everything you have done, think about it as a document to strategically market what you have done in the light of what you now want to do. Don’t write a laundry list of functions you performed, instead think about the tasks you performed that are most related to your current career target.

Before you revise your resume, map the keywords for your positions of interest. By this I mean get a good sense of the skills, abilities, experiences, and qualifications sought in the positions you are most interested in. Then, when shaping the content of your resume, reflect on those keywords to ensure you are sending a transferable picture of your candidacy. This, along with appropriate promotion of your degree, will be key in positioning your candidacy for the roles you want.

Once you take a good look at how you are marketing yourself I think you will see the opportunities for improvement and the importance of sending the right message, especially when you are changing careers and looking to be seen as something different than what you have been in the past. I wish you the most success in painting that transferable picture of your candidacy.

Consider rules, don’t arbitrarily follow them

August 2nd, 2015

Dear Sam: I have always taught that a resume should be one page if at all possible. Is this still true? Wouldn’t it be better for a resume to be two pages if you need to include information that is vital that won’t fit on one page? — Valerie

Dear Valerie: Readers may think I made this question up Valerie as your query is music to my ears. You are so on-target and absolutely correct, the one-page resume rule has not been a rule in at least a decade. Unfortunately however there are still people out there giving “advice” to overly trim your resume to make it as succinct and brief as possible. Not only does that reduce your ability to catch a reader’s attention through the presentation of a robust, value-added career, but it also reduces your keyword relevance by cutting your content for no good reason.

Having said that, there are indeed times when a resume is best at one page in length. I recently worked with a client who had a 30+-year career with one employer, essentially performing in the same role throughout his tenure. Presenting his career on one page created a very neat, easy-to-understand, and high-impact picture of his candidacy. Even though the “rule” would say to use two or three pages to explore his candidacy, his resume looked far more impactful as a one-page document. So, I suppose the takeaway is to not restrict yourself to a “one-page rule” that no longer exists, but to select a length that positions your candidacy in the best possible light.

Dear Sam: I recently relocated for my husband’s career, and thus left my junior high school teaching role I held for 14+ years. I have since been struggling to find a new career path leveraging my transferable skills. I feel I have two problems. First, my resume is full of teaching experiences but I do not feel as though they are highlighting what I am capable of accomplishing in other areas. My second problem is that I really do not know what my next career path should be. I am sure this is a common problem for retired educators looking for part-time work opportunities so I was hoping you could shed some light on what I could do differently. — Melissa

Dear Melissa: You are exactly right, that is a common dilemma I hear from educators seeking to transition their skills into a different field. The key to crafting a successful presentation of your background is understanding the needs of your target audience. Without the knowledge of whom you are trying to attract to your resume you can’t possibly know what skills, experiences, abilities, and credentials to put on display most prominently.

For instance, if you were going to pursue a training role we would want to highlight very different aspects of your teaching career than those we would showcase if you were transitioning say into an administrative position. Step one is truly figuring out where you fit, what you are qualified for, and what opportunities exist in your new geographic location. Once you do this you can begin to review job postings of interest and start to understand the “language” they are speaking. Only then will you be able to craft a resume that gets traction in out saturated and competitive job market.