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.

Unemployed and frustrated

March 4th, 2015

Dear Sam: Those of us who have been unemployed for some time do not have money for next month’s rent, let alone money for a resume. Has America lost its core values to help their own, especially for those who have been unemployed for a year or more? I have attached my resume for an honest look and a little help. – Sal

Dear Sal: Thank you for your letter. I feel your frustration and I am so sorry you have been unable to find work. I’m happy to help you, and will address your concerns.

Many resume writers like myself volunteer their time to local organizations, facilitating both train-the-trainer workshops and seminars for those looking for work. I often facilitate presentations and resume development workshops, and I know many of my colleagues in the industry do the same thing. In addition, I have been invited to several Job and Family Services One Stop Centers to train their resume counselors, and I have done that same thing with local nonprofits that focus their efforts on helping unemployed and under-employed candidates.

As for the real reason for your email—to receive an honest critique of your resume—at first glance, I think the mechanics of your resume are sound. You have followed protocol in the qualifications summary and I think the content is actually quite good. I have, however, identified three key reasons behind perhaps a lack of success in the job market:

  1. You need to remove focus on your most recent custodian role of two years as it does not support your objective of gaining entry back into district/regional sales management.
  2. You need to pull out accomplishments and not blend them—albeit you have tried to attract attention to them by bolding them—with responsibility statements, as they are difficult to read.
  3. You are dating yourself by including experience from 1976.

So how do we fix these issues? Well, the good news is there is a “fix” for almost everything on a resume. Let’s review what you can do to improve the effectiveness of your resume by minimizing the impact of these four potential disqualifiers:

1.   To remove focus from your most recent and unrelated tenure as a school custodian, deploy the use of a combination format. In this format, you would include a Career Highlights section, which would allow you to pull from your strong related experiences and achievements. Organize this section—which will appear after the Qualifications Summary and before the Professional Experience section—by employer or key action area (turnaround management, talent acquisition, business development, etc.). The goal of using this strategy and format would be to push the custodian experience to page two so it plays a lesser role during the screening process.

2.   Differentiate your responsibilities from accomplishments by using a paragraph/bullet combination. Highlight additional accomplishments in the Professional Experience section, but do so with bullet points. Bullet points are easier to read and subconsciously our eyes go to the bullet points when we read a resume.

3.   Figure out a way to “break” your experience from your first employer, which spans 1976 to 1996. You can do this in a number of ways. One option would be what we call a byline. To do this you would present the following statement: “Additional foundational experience with ABC Employer, serving in DM, (list other titles here) roles.” By using this byline strategy, you can use all of the great accomplishments from this timeframe in your Career Highlights section, but avoid aging your candidacy by going back to the 1970s.

I hope this candid critique helps you identify the potential challenges in your resume despite a fairly solid-looking document. I am certain if you work on these items, a stronger and more helpful rather than harmful resume will emerge. I truly wish you the best of luck.

First steps

February 25th, 2015

Dear Sam: I was just laid off after spending 34 years with the same company. I was recruited from college in 1980 so I have never had to write a resume or really go through the interview process. I have no idea where to start. – Shawn

Dear Shawn: I’m sorry to hear of your recent layoff. The most important thing to do, as difficult as that may be, is to try to remain positive and attack your job search proactively. So, to get started I suggest the following steps:

1) Define your objective. If you don’t know where your career is headed next, start researching to find out what types of positions you are interested in now. To do this you could look at the online job boards to find out what opportunities exist in your geographic area that require the skill set you offer. You can also start talking to those in your personal and professional network to glean ideas from those who know you well; this can often be very helpful, especially if you are in the market for a career change.

2) Craft a targeted resume. Armed with your “objective” or “career target” in mind, start documenting your career on paper. You will probably want to include information on the last 15 or so years, unless you are seeking a senior executive position when it would be appropriate to include more, so spend time writing down what you did on a daily basis in addition to the contributions you made during your tenure. Next, prioritize this information using the rule “present the big, save the small” to guide your decisions as to what makes the cut for your resume. Be sure you are focusing on accomplishments as these predict your ability to add value—over and above performing your job well—to your next employer. Seek guidance on writing an effective resume from recently published books, respected websites, or even a professional.

3) Develop a distribution strategy. Create a proactive distribution plan including posting your resume on first- and second-tier job boards, applying to job postings found online and in classified ads, leveraging the power of a professional networking tool liked LinkedIn, possibly contacting a recruiter for additional support (depending on your field), cold contacting employers of interest to source unadvertised positions, and using your network to get the word out you are in the job market.

4) Practice, practice, practice. Use a friend or family member to facilitate a mock interview. As you have not interviewed in years, doing this will help you gain a certain comfort level answering questions on your experience and skills. There are lots of online forums to learn more about today’s interviewing techniques, top questions, and general tips, or you could even enlist the support of a professional coach if you felt you needed that extra help.

One of the most important things I can’t stress enough is to remain positive and to enlist the support of your network. You will likely know many others who are in the same situation, so start a support group if you don’t know of one already in existence. These are great ways to stay motivated and on track during the often laborious job search process. Best of luck to you.

Regaining control

February 18th, 2015

Dear Sam: Three years ago I resigned from a job because it was an extremely hostile and dysfunctional environment. Hostile to the point that the HR Director told me that she would testify on my behalf if I chose to pursue legal action. You may be asking yourself if she thought this way, why didn’t she do anything about it, right? The people creating the chaos were above her on the organizational chart.

Anyhow, when I left, it was not on good terms. I tried to leave as professionally as possible, not responding to any of the nastiness. I have no intention of bad mouthing my employer; however, even if I try to spin this position positively, if a potential employer contacts them, I am sure they will not say good things.

This conundrum has stopped me from looking for work because I really don’t know what to say to the inevitable “Why did you leave?” question. I left because I refused to be treated badly. Any suggestions? That, of course, is on top of the 3-year gap I now have on my resume. And no, I haven’t been using my time to volunteer or go to school. Thanks in advance, and sorry for venting. – Anonymous

Dear Anonymous: I often hear from candidates dealing with the same dilemma—they left a position on less than perfect terms and are now worried about the impact a negative reference may have on their job search. This is a sticky situation as you never know what a former employer will say about you during a reference check, but you can be proactive to avoid your potential employer receiving a less than stellar review of your performance.

First, do you have any letters of recommendation you could glean from individuals who had the opportunity to work with you during that timeframe? I don’t imagine you were the only mistreated employee, correct? I would recommend trying to arm yourself with as much “proof” that your dismissal was not performance related. Perhaps even connect with past coworkers via LinkedIn and seek recommendations that way—much easier for you and the recommender—and compile a list of those commendations to provide with your reference sheet at an interview.

Speaking of reference sheets, can you place anyone else other than the company’s HR representative or your former supervisor on your reference list? I often advise candidates to use a former peer, a different supervisor, or even someone who you used to work with who is no longer affiliated with the company, affording you the opportunity to select the individual who will provide the most unbiased and glowing recommendation.

As for answering the inevitable “Why did you leave your last employer?” question, I’d recommend something like “While I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of my experience with XYZ Company, unfortunately toward the end of my tenure, the workplace and the culture became intolerably hostile due to some leadership changes. I have always been committed to my employers, displayed unmatched dedication, and outperformed expectations, but unfortunately I was not able to overcome the negativity in the office generated by those who were playing a direct role in my oversight. I therefore selected to resign, handling the entire experience with the professionalism and tact which I had displayed throughout my entire career with the organization. As you can see from my recommendation letters, my performance was stellar during my tenure and my references—who were former peers who worked with me each day—will attest to my diplomatic handling of an unfortunate situation as well as my work ethic and dedication as a top contributor.”

Of course you are correct in not trying to bad mouth your employer, and I don’t believe the above statement does that, but you do have to be honest with the conditions of your departure. This also will ensure that if for some reason the company is contacted for a reference, the hiring manager will have a frame of reference in which to judge the validity of any comments made. I really wish you the best of luck in your transition back into the workplace. Remember, if you continue to let this hinder your desire to search, your past employer is still controlling you. Instead, take charge of your job search, present the facts of the situation in a professional manner, arm yourself with other recommendations to further validate your performance, and make sure you have a great resume highlighting how you have contributed value to each of your past employers.

Avoid common faux pas

February 1st, 2015

Dear Sam: What are some of the common mistakes you see on resumes that can be easily avoided? – Tim

Dear Tim: There are several areas on a resume to which candidates don’t pay enough attention. I’ve found this isn’t as a result of a lack of effort, simply a lack of understanding as to what can distract a hiring manager and disqualify a candidate. Some of these areas include:

  1. Unprofessional or incomplete headings – as simple as it seems, review your resume heading! Never include a work phone number or your company’s 800# as this could tell a potential employer that you do not value your company’s resources (the hiring manager does not know if your employer is aware of your search or not, so don’t assume they will think this practice is acceptable). Include your cell phone number only if you can answer it professionally every time! Review voice mail messages for all the numbers listed on your resume and ensure they are reinforcing your professional not personal image. Lastly, be sure you have a professional email address. Don’t use email addresses with your graduation year, birth year, etc., these are very easy to spot and can destroy strategic efforts to minimize a candidate’s lack or abundance of experience.
  2. Spelling mistakes, typos, and poor grammar structure – Proofread, proofread, and then proofread again! Overlooked mistakes send a message to the reader of your attention-to-detail or lack thereof. Have someone else proofread your resume to be sure you are submitting an error free document. Turn off the grammar check in Word once you are sure your resume is written effectively. This will avoid your resume appearing with green wavy lines under certain sentences. Fragmented sentences will likely appear throughout your document, and there is no need to try to avoid this as it is a very effective way to write a resume. Turning off the grammar check will ensure that the reader is not distracted by the green lines!
  3. Emphasizing job duties instead of achievements – Hiring managers are not as interested in what you were paid to do; they are more interested in where you went above and beyond and contributed to the success of your employer. While you need to include some information on what you were responsible for on a daily basis, emphasis should definitely be placed on the value you contributed to your employer, being sure to distinguish achievements from responsibilities through a separate subheading or formatting selections.
  4. Selecting the wrong format for your resume – When considering a reverse chronological, combination, or functional format, choose wisely based not only on your desire to present your experience a certain way, but also the knowledge that hiring authorities prefer reverse chronological or combination resumes, and traditionally dislike functional formats. I see a lot of functional resumes that really do not need to use a purely functional format, instead could have used a more savvy combination format which would have pleased the hiring manager while still achieving the focus the candidate was seeking. While combination resumes can be more difficult to write, the fact that they are a hybrid of the two other formats makes them a wiser choice if you seek to focus the hiring manager’s attention on certain aspects of your career (possibly by pulling out related achievements and responsibilities in a Career Highlights section appearing before the Professional Experience section) while minimizing potentially disqualifying factors (such as limited related or recent experience, large employment gaps, frequent job hops, etc.).
  5. Using a cookie-cutter design – Try to create a unique look for your resume, avoiding templates that hundreds of other candidates have used. Think about a hiring manager reviewing their 50th resume of the day, if your resume looks like 20 others, it won’t stand out from the crowd regardless of the content. Try to develop a unique and professional design, doing so will go a long way in compelling the reader to spend more than 4-7 seconds on your resume during the screening process.

    Strategies for career changers

    January 25th, 2015

    Dear Sam: I am 49 years old and have been working as a multimedia professional for more than 8 years. I currently create corporate training videos for a large organization. My duties range from video and audio production, to photography, scriptwriting, directing, lighting, motion graphics, animation, and more. Over the past few years, my role has changed—as the company is under new management—and we are no longer doing as much video production and multimedia and the work, for me, has dwindled and I am now being utilized for menial tasks.

    I have been looking for another position in video and multimedia production for approximately three years and have had absolutely no luck. Of the 20+ positions I have applied for, I have only received one call back. I do think I am very good at what I do and my body of work will support that. But I feel my resume does not reflect that.

    I changed careers in midlife. I went back to school in my late 30s to get a degree in multimedia design. Prior to that, I was working as an assistant to a private banking manager and I had some years as a retail sales manager. My dilemma is I have only been working in this field for eight years which gives the impression that I’m much younger than I am, but if I put all of my experience prior to my current position then it appears irrelevant to the positions I am applying for and it gives away my age. But I do believe customer service and management experience are relevant qualities to have. How do I market myself in a way that is going to grab attention without setting off red flags? – Shana

    Dear Shana: Terrific question and certainly a dilemma a lot of candidates face whether their foundational experience in aligned with their current career or not. Most hiring managers expect candidates to present about 10 years of professional experience on a resume; some say as little as 8, others as much as 15. So, to only present eight years of experience is completely within the realm of expectation. I do however often present more of my clients’ experiences as I too feel that this can be a little misleading when you get to an interview and are more experienced than you appear on paper.

    To accomplish your desire to avoid unnecessarily aging your candidacy, while still presenting your best candidacy to your hiring audience, I would look at including about 15 years of professional history. This way you are complying with best practices and market expectations. Is there a way you can trim your experience to only go back to about the year 2000? In presenting these early experiences be sure you focus on those transferable skills you feel still add value to your candidacy today. Utilize these experiences to differentiate from the other qualified multimedia professionals and demonstrate your understanding of business and industry outside of your field. I really think this early experience could add a flavor to your resume that non-career changers would not be able to replicate.

    As I have not seen your resume, I would start by making sure it is following today’s guidelines in resume strategy. Are you opening your resume with a qualifications summary highlighting the breadth of your multimedia experience? Do you fully explore your role as it was at its fullest? Have you outlined the ways in which you added value to your employer above and beyond expectations? Have you created an eye-catching design indicative of your talent? Be sure to correct any of these deficiencies as well as addressing the chronology of your career on paper, and I am certain you will gain more traction in the job market. Best of luck.