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.

New grad doesn’t always mean entry-level

January 24th, 2016

Dear Sam: I am a 26-year-old recent graduate who is in dire need of job search help. I received my bachelor’s degree in accounting and have been searching for a new job for a few months. Every position seems to require two-plus years of experience in the field. My experience is quite limited. I have worked for a grocery chain for 10 years, mainly as an assistant to the manager of front-end operations. I worked as the payroll administrator for two years, but had to give up the position due to my school schedule. Outside of that, I don’t feel I have much to differentiate myself from other candidates. My GPA isn’t great and I was not able to partake in an internship, mainly due to the fact that I have been on my own for some time now and have needed the steady income of my current job to pay bills.

On the two interviews I have been on since graduation, the interviewers told me I should focus on getting my foot in the door by accepting a bookkeeping position, one of the most basic positions in the accounting field. As I continue my search, I can’t find a position I am qualified for. Please give me any advice that you think would help my situation. – Andrew

Dear Andrew: I am really sorry to hear of your struggles as a new graduate, and I am so glad you sent me your resume so I can provide you with some valuable feedback. I have presented a copy of your resume so readers can refer to it while I offer opportunities for improvement.

You have great experience and certainly enough of it to get your foot in the door for something more than a pure entry-level role. With two years of payroll administrative experience, eight years of team leadership exposure, and a four-year degree in the field, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be edging out your more junior competitors. Let’s take a look at what you can do differently to make your resume more effective.

Nix the objective statement — You must “sell” your candidacy up front, utilizing the most important real estate on your resume to tell the reader why you are qualified for the job. Do not try to sell yourself solely on soft skills—analytical nature, detail orientation, and organizational abilities—as these are characteristics claimed by 99% of your competitors. I would even go so far as to say these are expected attributes for someone applying for an accounting role. Instead, open your resume with a qualifications summary which promotes your two years of payroll administration experience, including your analysis and reporting highlights. Pull out key transferable skills from your time as a front-end coordinator such as your budgeting skills, leadership of 25 team members, and daily reporting activities. When highlighted up front, these experiences will give you an edge over your competition.

Add value to your experience section You are not presenting enough content in your professional experience section. Provide the reader with a summary of your jobs in a brief paragraph format followed by key highlights presented in bullet points. When presenting 10 years of professional experience, I would expect “full” sections that convey, just by appearance, some value. Reformat what you have, expound on the challenges and actions you faced, and showcase the results of your efforts.

Format to engage — Take some time to revitalize your dated resume format. Take a look at sites like mine to glean ideas on up-to-date formatting techniques that compel readership and help overcome the appearance of limited experience and other potential disqualifiers.

Andrew, I am certain when you revamp your resume into a tool more reflective of a modern resume, you will be taken seriously as an accounting candidate and will get your foot in the door for opportunities of choice.

Turn helplessness into hopefulness

January 17th, 2016

Dear Sam: My story goes like this…I graduated with a B.A. in history at the age of 32 in 2010. I took a job that paid less than before I earned my B.A. because my father had passed away which left me responsible for taking care of my mother. She passed away in 2012, I lost my job a few months later, and I have been highly unsuccessful in finding a job since. I have had only a few interviews (all resulting in no job). I realize my resume is awful. I have presented at history conferences and have been given great reviews because of my aptitude for writing history, but my resume is another story. The only way I can describe it is a psychological block. I have books, read articles, and yet my resume is dreadful and lacks direction. I have spent months of just staring at the screen (almost willing it to change) and, as I sit there, my frustration and blood pressure begin to rise. I’m an intelligent person; however, writing a resume for me presents the same frustrations as math. I feel like an absolute failure and my resume conveys this. Help! – Tamara

Dear Tamara: I’m so sorry you are feeling this way; unfortunately, feeling helpless is an all-too-common feeling for job seekers. Let me see if I can shed some light on the direction you need to take with your resume.

You open your resume with a summary of qualifications which is a great start; however, it is underdeveloped. Currently, you have four brief bullet points presented which simply note that you have a degree, eight years of customer service experience, seven years of training experience, and strong written and verbal communication skills. While these are all nice qualifications, none of them will differentiate you from your competitors.

Assuming you are seeking a position in the customer service field, you need to build a summary which tells your audience why they should bring you in for an interview. In this summary, focus on what makes you different. From a scan of your resume, I can clearly see aspects of your background that would separate you from the pack. Here are some ideas of what you could say:

  1. Provided dedicated administrative support to senior-level leaders, handling mission-critical initiatives including internal and external communications, vendor coordination, and operational reporting.
  2. Proven track record of identifying and capitalizing on continuous improvement opportunities, streamlining processes through the development of new filing systems to organize records and ease retrieval.
  3. Demonstrated exceptional communication strengths along with the ability to connect with diverse audiences while facilitating training to drive achievement of scorecard metrics.

Do you see how, just by improving the language, that your experience looks stronger?

I would also recommend a few improvements in the structure of your resume. First, you have 3 strong career positions to present, with more recent experience that really needs to be minimized on your resume. Currently, you are including months of employment which is preventing the ability to delete short-term jobs. By omitting months of employment and only presenting years, you gain the ability to remove or reprioritize your roles. I would open your professional experience section with a brief byline which states, “Recent experience in customer service, client relations, and business development as the owner and operator of a pet care business.” I would then immediately flow into your impressive administrative, program coordination, and training roles. This is very important as you want the reader to only glance at your recent self-employment and instead spend time focusing on what you did within your career roles. This reorganization and reprioritization of your experiences will ensure your most related and relevant responsibilities and accomplishments come to the forefront.

Speaking of responsibilities and accomplishments, be sure you are not merging the two together in your professional experience section. Currently, your resume is a long list of bullet points; instead, you will want to create the paragraph and bullet point combination. When using this approach, you will create a short paragraph overview of your “job” with bullet points highlighting specific achievements, contributions, or other notable highlights. As your resume stands now, you have one bullet point presenting a rather mundane job responsibility and the next presenting a rather impressive achievement. When all of the content is presented in a bullet point, there is no prioritization to the information and the reader will not know what to read first.

If you take some more time to develop your resume, reprioritize content, further develop your section summaries, and make sure you develop a differentiating qualifications summary, I am certain you will have a great product that will market you effectively. I wish you the best of success.

Advice is sometimes opinion and not expertise

January 10th, 2016

Dear Sam: I have been applying for positions without success, so I’ve come to the conclusion that I must be doing something wrong. I have 35 years of teaching experience, 13 years of administrative experience, a BA, MA, a doctorate in Educational Leadership, and a current Ohio teaching license.

Several years ago, a professional advised me to remove dates from my resume, and I revised my resume according to her suggestions. There is a job that just opened up, for which I have the exact experience and background they’re looking for. I have applied for so many jobs; I want to get it right this time. What can I do differently to maximize my chances? – K

Dear K: I was shocked when I opened your resume and saw it was only one page in length! I expected a multi-page document fully explaining all of your experience and credentials. I can see several reasons why your resume isn’t opening doors. Let’s review a few of the key points I think you need to address—by looking at some of the common questions I hear—that will help guide you in the redevelopment of your resume.

Should I or should I not remove dates? The answer is a resounding “No!” The only time you remove dates from your resume is from your early experience in order to avoid unnecessarily aging yourself. You would never want to do that for your entire career; otherwise, hiring managers would be left with too many unanswered questions. Think about dating perhaps your most recent experiences and bylining your earliest experiences, which means presenting the earliest experiences at the end of your professional experience section in a brief one- or two-sentence statement. Doing this would allow you to incorporate some of the value-added experience on your resume but avoid adding years to your candidacy.

Do hiring managers really want more than one page? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Sure, when you are an entry-level candidate with very limited experience, one would expect your experience would fit on one page. But, when you have 30+ years of experience, it should not be able to fit on one page. By presenting your entire career in fewer than 150 words, you have sacrificed value for brevity. You have written your resume as if it were a list of the functions performed. In doing so, you have not expounded on anything in your career, there is no presentation of your key contributions, and there is no opportunity to translate your experiences to a new environment.

Can I have a “general” resume for multiple opportunities? The answer is a resounding “No!” An untargeted resume does not get the results anyone wants. It also affects your self-esteem as you may feel you are qualified for a job, apply for the job, and get no response from the company. In this vicious cycle, you put yourself out there knowing you are qualified, yet when you hear nothing or receive a rejection letter, you start to question yourself and what qualifications you believe you have. You must target. You must translate your experiences to your desired audience. And you must paint a picture of your candidacy that is easily understood and that doesn’t require a hiring manager to “figure out” who you are and how you fit.

Can I omit certain things from my resume if they do not support my candidacy? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Your resume is not an application for employment; it is a strategic image of what you have done which positions you for what you now want to do. Similar to a brochure for a product, it should tout your features and benefits and tell employers why they should “buy” you! You can absolutely omit select aspects of your experience or education if you feel doing so will present a more right-sized image of your candidacy. I am absolutely not telling you to change facts; I am simply saying that if it benefits you more to omit something, that’s okay. A lot of candidates do not present doctoral degrees for fear of being seen as being overqualified. Likewise, it is rare to present 30 years of experience on a resume for the same reason.

I hope this provides you with some clarity—moving forward—and some actionable items to address to create the winning resume I know you can have.

New You: Targeting guarantees results

December 20th, 2015

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

Do your homework before you submit

October 11th, 2015

Dear Sam: Although I am grateful to have a good job at a really good company, I truly desire to find a position that “gets me up in the morning.” I would love to work in the higher education field as a study abroad advisor, but while I possess the graduate degree that is often preferred, I cannot seem to overcome the lack of industry experience.

I did not realize objective statements were outdated until I read one of your recent columns! I am wondering what else, on my resume, is also outdated. Are dates hurting me? Am I not being considered due to age? Before I apply for a dream job I wanted to make sure my resume was up to par. Thank you in advance for your suggestions. — J.M.

Dear J.M.: Thank you for writing and sending your resume for review. You did in fact read correctly, objective statements are—or should be—extinct, as they do nothing to tell an employer what you can do for them. As far as the remainder of your resume, here are a few items you should consider before you apply for your next dream job.

  1. Engage the reader through the top third of page one. Turn your objective statement into a qualifications summary showcasing your relevant and transferable qualifications, compelling readers to bring you in for an interview. You have started to build a summary following your objective statement and have done a fantastic job highlighting some of your qualifications such as your international exposure, cultural knowledge, and language skills. Keep going on this path to connect the dots between the uniqueness of your experiences and the types of functions you would perform in your dream role.
  2. Balance brevity with specificity in your professional experience section. Currently, the six roles you are presenting on your resume come with a paragraph of information. There is no white space between each role, the dates are crammed onto the same line as your employers’ names and your titles, and you have essentially presented an almost one-page-long block of text. No one wants to read something that has this visual appearance; it is repelling interest, not compelling interest. Instead of weighty blocks of text, break it up with a few sentences describing your “job” and bulleted highlights of your accomplishments.
  3. Focus on what you did beyond the job description. A great way to highlight your value and to show you have relevant experience is to focus your content on what you did outside of your job description. While you have held titles that are very different from the roles you want in the future, using accomplishments to promote the relevance between what you have done, and what you want to do, can be a key way of overcoming lesser-related related experience and titles.
  4. Present the “right” amount of experience. You mentioned your fear of being disqualified due to age. When writing a resume we must include dates of experience, not doing so often paints a picture far worse than reality. But, in presenting dates, we can be a little strategic about what we present and what we omit. For instance, hiring managers expect to see about 10 to 15 years of experience—some even say 8 to 10 years—on a resume, meaning we would likely look to include positions from around 2000 forward. This does not mean however that you cannot bring in earlier experiences, but in doing so you would want to be careful as to how much experience you present and what information you give away. To highlight earlier experiences without presenting too much information, consider the byline technique. In doing this you break formatting at the end of your professional experience section and present a brief note about an earlier role typically without the dates of just that early experience. This allows you to highlight relevant experience without the fear of the dates of that experiencing adding years to your candidacy or positioning you as overqualified.

I hope these tips help you prepare the resume you are excited to submit and which hopefully opens the door to your dream opportunity.