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.

Spring Makeover Series: Target to get results

April 13th, 2014

I am always so excited when a client comes to me with a “dream” job in mind. While the fact that my client will be applying for only one job certainly adds pressure—as I want to make sure the résumé is perfect for that one “dream” opportunity—it also provides me with a chance to be ultra targeted in my content and presentation.

Meet Dan!

Dan wanted to work for a fire and security company in a territory account manager position. He had been with his current employer since 2004 where he had transitioned from maintenance to an account development role. He now sought to exit the industry and secure a more senior-level opportunity in sales.

Original Résumé…

Dan’s original résumé lacked in the areas of strategic content, formatting, white space, and prioritization of information. Dan had also not yet updated his résumé with his most recent position, hence his résumé had a lot of room for improvement and development.

New Résumé…

I created an engaging design for Dan’s new résumé, ensuring the aesthetic would compel readership. I identified the keywords his next employer would be seeking and wove those throughout Dan’s new résumé. I used selective bolding, uppercase letters, and separation of content to ensure focus would be placed on the most applicable aspects of Dan’s background. From the excerpts from his performance reviews, to select keywords being pulled out ahead of key contributions, the entire résumé was focused on helping Dan break into a higher level sales role in a completely new industry.

The results…

Dan wrote to me about six weeks after I completed his résumé with the wonderful news: “I wanted to let you know I received my job offer letter last night. The annual salary was $5,000 more than what I was initially told. I have never been in a position in my life to resign from a job, have the right  tools available to secure the job that I wanted, and GET the job I wanted…I am so excited about this new chapter of life.”

View Dan’s before résumé and new résumé

Concerns for the mature candidate

March 30th, 2014

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 résumé 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 résumé 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 résumés 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 résumé 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 résumé. 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 résumé where your achievements could be previewed on page one of your résumé. 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 résumé 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 résumé, 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 résumé. 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.

What does a hiring manager see in 7 seconds?

March 23rd, 2014

Dear Sam: I am struggling to get any attention or response to my current résumé. People look at my résumé and see that I have never held the specific job title I’m applying for, whether it is administrative assistant or receptionist. Although I’ve never held these titles, it is everything that I have been doing at my current job (plus my actual position) for the past 5 years. I also feel that the personality that people love from me isn’t shining through my résumé either. I’ve tried numerous different attempts to get some sort of response and am at a complete loss at this point as to what to do. Is it okay to list my job title as an administrative assistant or receptionist? — Desperate

Dear Desperate: Thanks for attaching your résumé so I could see what you are submitting to prospective employers. In less than two seconds, I could see several issues with your résumé. Let me take you through what employers will see/think when they look at your résumé: (1) Uninteresting and non-differentiating design – You used a very common Microsoft Word résumé template, so you will immediately look like many others who applied for the same job. Incidentally, I use this same template when facilitating seminars, to show how you should not design your résumé. (2) You have a major typo in the first line of your résumé – did you know that 23% of hiring managers discard a résumé with one typo? If claiming HIPAA knowledge you should spell the acronym correctly; it’s not HIPPA, even though I know it sounds like it should be. (3) Poor prioritization of duties – You open with your photographer/customer service role and immediately present a bullet point about resolving customer service complaints. This will make the reader wonder how well you did your job if you spent this much time resolving complaints, especially when it seems you are the one with direct customer contact. (4) Too many short-terms jobs – You have presented two jobs that you held for just a few months, when instead you could completely omit these short-term jobs—presenting only years of employment so not to show gaps—and focus on your customer service experience in a consistent retail setting. You could title this section “Related Professional Experience” to ensure the strategy is not looked at as misleading. This would bring alignment and fluidity to your résumé. (5) Vacant content – Let me ask you, if you have provided no explanation of what you did for a given employer, how do you expect a prospective employer to “see” the value in that experience? Don’t put something on your résumé and then not explain anything about it!

Literally, these are the errors I saw in a very brief review of your résumé, and ones prospective hiring managers also will see. I urge you to revamp your résumé using today’s standards. You don’t need to resort to changing your titles to something that isn’t accurate; you just need to do a much better job “translating” your experiences into the language that will attract your target audience. Check out books at the library or samples on my website for ideas on how to do this. I have also showcased a résumé this week which you will see is for someone just like yourself seeking to paint an administrative assistant picture, yet not coming from a traditional administrative background. I hope this gives you ideas and inspiration. You can absolutely have a fantastic résumé speaking to your administrative skill set; you just need to be more strategic about developing a great résumé.

What’s wrong with my resume? Entering the job market for the first time in 20 years

March 16th, 2014

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 1993 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 4-to-7-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.

What’s wrong with my resume? Recent graduate hits the job market

March 9th, 2014

Dear Sam: I have a bit of a dilemma on my hands. I am 23 years old, out of college, and heading into the real world. I have been sending out applications and resumes seemingly every few days. I have a job, but I do not feel it is a long-term role; instead, I would like to find something that is more in line with my skills and education. I haven’t received much interest from my resume, and I do not know why. I have had friends and family make suggestions, and still no improvement. Is my resume holding me back from a better job offer? – Matthew

Dear Matthew: Yes, there is so much more you could do with your resume to showcase your candidacy and open doors to career opportunities. Allow me to paint a picture of your resume for readers.

You open your resume with an objective statement that presents your desire to transition into a human resources role. Next you present your experiences—gained while completing your degree—in retail management, team supervision, and administrative support. Then you present your degree and a skills section conveying soft skills you feel are strengths. Lastly, on page two of your resume, you list your awards from your professional and academic experiences.

First, it is great that you know you want to pursue a human resources role, as this will allow for much stronger, targeted content. Up-to-date and best practices-based resumes do not have objective statements Matthew; they have qualifications summaries. In this summary, you should convey the experiences, skills, and education you possess that qualify you for an entry-level human resources role. Read job postings of interest and emulate the theme of the “jobs,” ensuring you are essentially speaking the same language on your resume.

In your professional experience section, you must dig deeper. Presenting a handful of bullet points, each less than a sentence stretching across the page, is not enough to allow others to glean the “value” from these roles. Think about your positions in transferable terms. What did you do that you would expect to be similar to functions within an entry-level human resources position? Prioritize content accordingly, and omit details that do not support your candidacy. For example, when working in an assistant manager capacity for a retail store, did you perform talent acquisition, onboarding, training and development, personnel administration, compliance coordination, scheduling, and payroll? I imagine you were involved in all of these areas, yet only training is mentioned on your resume and all are functions inherent in human resources. You must explore the transferability of your roles much more fully, presenting highlights of your contributions or actions—including your awards—in bullets following a paragraph overview of what would be, in essence, your job description.

I also would relocate your education section to follow your qualifications summary, as you are indeed a recent graduate. By doing this, you will ensure hiring managers will see you as an entry-level candidate. You could explore some of the related coursework you completed during your academic career, presenting names of courses or even key projects that are related to human resources.

As far as a skills section, incorporate skills into your qualifications summary. Be sure to focus the majority of content in your summary on the uniqueness of your transferable experiences, perhaps including some of your soft skills at the end of the summary. As most of your competitors also will claim the same soft skills, it becomes very hard to differentiate based on these alone; hence, focus on what makes you unique: your experience.

Your resume also should only be one page, Matthew. It would be fine to have a lengthier resume if you had more information to present; but in your case, with just a few entry-level, pre-graduation roles, I think a one-page resume would represent you best. Check out my ‘Dear Sam’ blog online for samples where you may find content and formatting inspiration!

I am confident that with a rework of your existing resume, you will begin to receive the response you are seeking. Best of luck.