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.

Maximizing job offers through interview preparation

September 14th, 2014

Dear Sam: I read your résumé tips each week and was wondering if you could provide some general information to orient me to interviews. I have not interviewed in 23 years so I feel a little lost as to what to expect. — Edward

Dear Edward: Absolutely! And do not feel bad, I hear that comment every single week from clients who have also not needed to conduct a job search in quite some time but now find themselves in uncharted territory. Many candidates invest time revamping their resume, not to mention hundreds of dollars on that perfect interviewing ensemble, but neglect to invest time preparing for the interview. Let’s review some of the basics…

Research your prospective employer – before the interview, take some time to review the company’s website, reading the “about us” page, and if available, press releases, financial statements, and strategic plans. If the company does not have a website, try searching for references of the company online to see if you are able to glean any additional details about the organization. Don’t forget to check LinkedIn and read profiles for current and past employees as that can provide you with insight into how long employees stay at the company, not to mention if there appears to be a lot of recent transition. Once armed with this information, begin to review your own background and how certain skills, experiences, and achievements would translate well based on your prospective employer’s current situation.

Prepare for the tough-to-answer questions – are there certain questions you have had difficulty answering in the past? If so, script strong responses and practice answering those questions before the interview. A couple of questions candidates often express are most difficult for them include “Tell me about yourself” and “Tell me about a weakness.”

Remember, when a prospective employer asks you to tell them about yourself, they are not asking for you to tell them you are married, have 2 children, a dog, and like skiing! What they are really asking is “What in your background positions you to excel in this role.” If you developed a qualifications summary for your resume, you have taken great strides in your ability to answer this question succinctly.

To prepare for this question, review your background and identify your core value messages. These messages should be comprised of the skill you offer and the benefit of that skill to the prospective employer. Think about where you have gone above and beyond, when have you addressed a challenge and driven strong results, or when your specific strengths have added value to your employer. Remember you don’t just want to tell an employer what you can do, you want to show them what you can do by presenting value messages including a combination of your actions/skills and the results/benefit of each. Let’s look at some examples:

Don’t say, “I have great organization skills.”

Do say, “I have repeatedly increased department productivity by streamlining processes, reducing redundancies, and improving workflow.”

Don’t say, “I manage people well.”

Do say, “I have a proven record building, training, and motivating top-performing teams that have surpassed aggressive performance goals.”

By presenting the result or benefit of your action or skill, you provide the hiring manager with key insight into how your skills and experiences can transfer into their organization, leaving a stronger impression of you as a candidate.

Most candidates struggle when asked to identify one of their weaknesses, after all, aren’t we trying to appear as perfect with no apparent weaknesses? The point of this question is to see if you are able to identify an area in yourself that requires improvement, and to learn if you have taken steps to overcome this weakness (some hiring mangers just want to see if you are as in tune with your weaknesses as you are with your strengths). So, the answer doesn’t have to present a glaring weakness and reason not to hire you, but should provide insight into your ability to initiate corrective actions or continued professional development. Let’s look at an example:

“I realized I needed extra help organizing and planning my schedule, so I purchased a detailed planner and have started setting a few minutes aside each day to review my schedule, priorities, and deadlines. Doing so has allowed me to maintain a clear view of what I have scheduled, and has actually helped me optimize my time.”

You can also choose to highlight areas of weakness that have little to no impact on the position for which you are applying. Let’s say you were an accountant, a weakness in the area of public speaking may not pose any threat to diminishing the strength of your candidacy. For example:

“I’ve always been a little nervous speaking in front of large groups of people, but I recently joined Toastmasters, as although I have not needed to deliver presentations in past positions, I believe I could learn more about selecting and delivering messages to secure support and promote a cohesive environment.”

Regardless of how you answer, be sure to prove how you are taking steps to overcome the weakness so it doesn’t pose a threat to securing the job.

Be ready for different interview formats – when scheduling your interview, asking about the format of your interview will help you prepare. Interviews come in many shapes and sizes including one-on-one, group, panel, and technical. While you won’t be able to anticipate every question, knowing whether you will face a group of six on a panel versus an informal interview with the hiring manager, can help you prepare mentally to handle the situation.

Interviewing can be a stressful experience, but being prepared, practicing, and knowing how your strengths and experiences relate to your prospective employer’s needs, can reduce anxiety and improve the success of your search. Good luck!

“Good enough” doesn’t cut it

September 7th, 2014

Dear Sam: I had the absurd notion that my resume was “good enough” to get a job, but unfortunately I have been submitting resumes left and right and have only had a few interviews. Not only is the geographic area in which I am applying not that ripe with opportunities, but I am also being seen as over- or under-qualified. If I apply for marketing manager positions, I am not able to demonstrate management experience. If however I apply for a lateral position, I think hiring managers may assume my compensation requirements may be too high given my master’s degree and 15+ years of experience. Please let me know what you think of my resume and how I can make it “pop!” — Rachel

Dear Rachel: That can be quite the sticky spot to be in—under-qualified for management opportunities yet really being seen—based on education and breadth of experience—as over-qualified for the coordinator roles akin to what you are doing now. From reviewing your resume, I really do think you could qualify for management opportunities. Let me show you a few ways you can improve the effectiveness of your resume.

Your resume, especially when you are in the field of marketing, is akin to a brochure for a product. You need to infuse your resume with personality, create your brand, and send a targeted message positioning you for management-level opportunities. To do so, let’s start with your qualifications summary. Currently you are highlighting irrelevant early experience and adding the years up for the reader. I never like qualifications summaries that contain statements like: “15 years of marketing experience, 10 years in food service, and 5 years in trucking.” The reader will assume those are consecutive years, not concurrent, so will immediately assume you are older then you are with a total of 30 years of professional experience. Instead of this approach, use this section to showcase your depth of marketing experience. You do not even mention your master’s degree in marketing and communication until page two of your resume—which will likely not be seen during the screening process—which is doing a terrible disservice to your candidacy as a management-level candidate. Think of your summary statement as the place you want to introduce your marketing expertise, tout the value you have contributed to past employers, and showcase the relevance and recency of your graduate degree in the field.

Within your experience section, be sure you are sending the same message. Present brief overviews of each of your roles in a paragraph format, but then engage the reader with your bulleted accomplishments. Within these highlighted areas be sure to focus on your higher-level functions, speaking about leadership, strategy, and management. Attempt to show how you have managed, and not just executed what others developed. Follow this approach throughout your professional experience section, taking the time and space critical to exploring the depth and breadth of your marketing experience. For instance, currently you have just 26 words describing a 10-year position. While you add an additional 46 words highlighting what you felt were your accomplishments in that role, none of those statements are actually accomplishments. As I read each of your three bullet points I am struck by the fact that I feel they would be inherent aspects of your job, in other words, they were expected functions likely defined in your job description. Accomplishment statements should be reserved for presenting things you did really well, ways you added value beyond expectations, or results you drove that were at or above goals.

I really am confident you can position yourself effectively for management-level positions, you just need to spend some time thinking about your experience differently and refining your brand. Check out samples on my website for ideas on creating a unique visual and targeted message. Best of luck to you.

Reshape your brand

August 31st, 2014

Dear Sam: I am a registered nurse and have been retired since 2010. I have an MBA degree with a concentration in healthcare administration and I am seeking entry-level positions in the field. Most of the job offers I receive focus on my skills at the bedside. How can I get my resume to incorporate my past experience and skills, along with the new knowledge and skills I acquired while pursing my graduate degree? — Glenda

Dear Glenda: Fantastic question! I work with many clients in the same situation as you where they are attempting to leverage recent education and relevant experience to enter a new arena. I recommend creating a totally different resume to the reverse chronological one you have today.

Think about it, if you are presenting clinical experience after clinical experience, the reader is forced to only see that side of your background. What I would love to see you do with your resume is to create more of a combination format. Let’s take a look at what that means…

Open your new resume with a qualifications summary presenting your clinical background but putting your education in the spotlight. Speak about your MBA-HA degree, talk about how your education positions you for a healthcare administration role, and explore how your education really provided you with the theory to complement your hands-on clinical background. Leverage the power of both your education and experience to ensure the reader comes away from that summary thinking, “Yes, 20+ years of clinical experience complemented by a recent MBA-HA degree, and the proven track records which predicts her ability to contribute in an administration role in our healthcare organization.”

Next, and key to the combination format, I want you to present a highlights section. In this section I want you to really explore the training you completed during your degree program. Refer to your course catalog and read your class descriptions to get a sense of how to summarize—based on effective keywords—key areas of training. Even though these aren’t necessarily hands-on experiences, they are still incredibly valuable and need to be promoted as such. I am imagining about 5-6 highlights with 3-4 of them focusing on healthcare administration studies and the others presenting highlights from your clinical career and the more administrative sides of your roles.

In the professional experience section, you now have the opportunity to be very focused with your content. Present your roles with a brief paragraph overview of your responsibilities, but then take the time to explore accomplishments within each role. While you have been in nursing for a while, your roles are quite diverse, so I would expect there are definitely areas you can highlight to show diversity of experience despite the similarities of your titles.

In your education section, streamline the presentation a little so it is very easy to glean your degrees versus the professional development you have completed. Currently this section of your resume reads like a list of all things equal, when instead, I should be able to glance at your education section and, through strategic formatting, be able to see your degrees instantly.

Speaking of formatting, you really will want to revamp the look and design of your resume. Currently it lacks appeal and reads more like a plain text resume. Very little is formatted to attract the reader’s attention, there is no spacing between sections, and there are far too many ragged lines of fragmented text. Once you implement the strategies I have described above, paying attention to the design and format of your resume will absolutely pay off with increased reader engagement.

I am confident you will be successful based on the qualifications you possess, you just need to spend a little time reshaping your brand! Best to you.

Reshape your brand

August 31st, 2014

Dear Sam: I am a registered nurse and have been retired since 2010. I have an MBA degree with a concentration in healthcare administration and I am seeking entry-level positions in the field. Most of the job offers I receive focus on my skills at the bedside. How can I get my resume to incorporate my past experience and skills, along with the new knowledge and skills I acquired while pursing my graduate degree? — Glenda

Dear Glenda: Fantastic question! I work with many clients in the same situation as you where they are attempting to leverage recent education and relevant experience to enter a new arena. I recommend creating a totally different resume to the reverse chronological one you have today.

Think about it, if you are presenting clinical experience after clinical experience, the reader is forced to only see that side of your background. What I would love to see you do with your resume is to create more of a combination format. Let’s take a look at what that means…

Open your new resume with a qualifications summary presenting your clinical background but putting your education in the spotlight. Speak about your MBA-HA degree, talk about how your education positions you for a healthcare administration role, and explore how your education really provided you with the theory to complement your hands-on clinical background. Leverage the power of both your education and experience to ensure the reader comes away from that summary thinking, “Yes, 20+ years of clinical experience complemented by a recent MBA-HA degree, and the proven track records which predicts her ability to contribute in an administration role in our healthcare organization.”

Next, and key to the combination format, I want you to present a highlights section. In this section I want you to really explore the training you completed during your degree program. Refer to your course catalog and read your class descriptions to get a sense of how to summarize—based on effective keywords—key areas of training. Even though these aren’t necessarily hands-on experiences, they are still incredibly valuable and need to be promoted as such. I am imagining about 5-6 highlights with 3-4 of them focusing on healthcare administration studies and the others presenting highlights from your clinical career and the more administrative sides of your roles.

In the professional experience section, you now have the opportunity to be very focused with your content. Present your roles with a brief paragraph overview of your responsibilities, but then take the time to explore accomplishments within each role. While you have been in nursing for a while, your roles are quite diverse, so I would expect there are definitely areas you can highlight to show diversity of experience despite the similarities of your titles.

In your education section, streamline the presentation a little so it is very easy to glean your degrees versus the professional development you have completed. Currently this section of your resume reads like a list of all things equal, when instead, I should be able to glance at your education section and, through strategic formatting, be able to see your degrees instantly.

Speaking of formatting, you really will want to revamp the look and design of your resume. Currently it lacks appeal and reads more like a plain text resume. Very little is formatted to attract the reader’s attention, there is no spacing between sections, and there are far too many ragged lines of fragmented text. Once you implement the strategies I have described above, paying attention to the design and format of your resume will absolutely pay off with increased reader engagement.

I am confident you will be successful based on the qualifications you possess, you just need to spend a little time reshaping your brand! Best to you.

Rekindled love inspires job search

August 24th, 2014

Dear Sam: I am 60 years old and in the process of relocating to the area, and will be interviewing with an automotive dealership later this summer. I have craved a career in automotive sales since my days as a parts counter person from 1977-1984 at a Buick / Chevrolet dealership. On a side note, the girl of my dreams is the reason for this new and exciting shift in my life. This is the third time that our worlds have touched. We began in 1970 as teenagers, parted ways, reunited in 1977, and then parted once again until we rekindled our connection in 2010. I have a resume, but this new career move is so important to me that I would appreciate a professional opinion. – Tim

Dear Tim: What a sweet story and certainly a great reason to ensure you do everything possible to support this “third time’s a charm” love story! Let’s look at your resume and see what we can do to ensure you are putting your best foot forward professionally speaking. Let me first paint a picture of your resume for readers…

Your resume opens with a summary statement: “Dedicated to customer service in various industries for the past 38 years including automotive, supply, residential painting, retail hardware, self employment and a university student store.” Next you present six areas of expertise including: customer service, resolving complaints, problem solving, retail sales, training, and retail management. Your professional experience follows which includes 7 positions from 1973 to present. Education and training close your resume with notes of your college credits and professional development completed mostly during your time working in hardware stores.

Okay, so let’s now focus on what we can do to improve the picture.

Summary statement

Focus not on possessing 38 years of professional work experience but on your proven record of success in sales / business development, customer relationship management, department leadership, and training. Presenting that you offer 38 years of work experience actually overqualifies you and unnecessarily ages your candidacy. Right-size your candidacy by shifting from presenting the amount and breadth of experience you have, to focusing on the experiences you have that are most transferable to your current career target. Continue this approach in your skills section, being sure to focus on the areas of expertise most relevant to your next role.

Professional experience

While you need to revamp your summary statement, this area of your resume really has a lot of room for improvement. First, you should never go back into the 1970s on a resume if you can avoid it. In your case, I understand that your automotive experience occurred back then, but you can present that in a byline without dates. Meaning, perhaps only explore the expected 10-15 years of professional work history and then simply note that you have foundational experience in the automotive industry in counter sales and parts management. In addition, be sure to fully explore your roles. Currently, if you present back to 1997—which means including 4 roles which is perfect—you only have 30 words describing those 4 positions! How can the reader understand not only the job you performed, but also how you added value beyond expectations? Explore these roles fully with overviews of your responsibilities and highlights of your key contributions. Relate this content to your current career target, ensuring you are thinking of how each of your functions relates to what you want to do next.

Education and training

Present the degree you were pursuing as that will hold more value than noting you completed History and English coursework. It is fine to present an incomplete college degree in your case as a degree may not be a requirement for most of the roles you are pursuing. For the training you have listed, make sure everything is related to the next step in your career. By that I mean focus on the related training more so than the hardware industry-specific training you received.

I know you will be successful in your professional endeavors if you take some time to reshape how you are presenting your candidacy to your target audience. I wish you great personal and professional success!