Through numerous conversations with mentees who hail from my alma mater, U of M, it has become abundantly clear that many college-taught skills, albeit important, do not seamlessly transfer to the real world. You might be asking why. Let’s face it. Colleges rarely teach “professionalism.” You can cruise through 4 years of undergrad at a highly reputable school and still not know how to approach the job application process. At most schools, unless you intentionally seek out the career center or older classmates that have applied for jobs, the relevant information does not reach you as easily as it should. Most of us have spent countless hours writing 20-page research papers with citations, but very little, if any, time producing a succinct cover letter.
The job application process
In most cases, the job application process boils down to mastering three fundamental things: putting together a quality resume, drafting a catchy, easy-to-read cover letter, and prepping for an interview.
Because there is a lot to be said for all three, I chose to focus the post below solely on the resume. The next two posts will feature my thoughts on cover letters and interview prep respectively. Stay tuned!
Before I get to the meat of the post, I want to remind you guys that the same water that softens a carrot hardens an egg. No one resume format or technique is a silver bullet. I recognize that resume standards vary by industry – lawyers lean in the direction of verbose resumes with paragraphs, while the finance sector prefers brief result-oriented bullet points (hope you can tell which one I come from!). Despite your industry, however, I will argue that, at the margin, the below techniques, when incorporated correctly, will give your resume an interview-landing face lift.
Preparing to write
- Think it sucks. I don’t know about you but whenever I read anything I’ve written, I tend to think it’s great. I am a victim of all kinds of self-bias; you can read more about it here. When it comes to your resume, you need to work hard NOT to think it’s fantastic. Remember, a resume is short – mine contains 661 words, to be exact. With such little room, questioning every sentence is not enough; you must get in the zone to question every word. Ask yourself if the word defends itself (does it advance your case as the best candidate for the job?). In the process of doing so, make sure you change your physical environment. Questioning every word AND sitting within the same four walls may give you a terrible case of writer’s block.
- Line your readers up strategically. I suggest that your close friends review your resume first. Doing so will ensure that most generic resume advice is covered. Not that your close friends are not brilliant, but you have more access to their time and they are likely to know what you know, provided that most are in your peer group. Line up 2-3 close friends. Your weaker relationships are probably more seasoned folks whose time is more “expensive.” When your resume gets in front of them, it should be a good product. The hope is that weaker relationships with more experience will lend you the incremental advice that drives your resume from good to great. Lastly, include what you’re working towards in the email with your resume. Someone may lend you a hand beyond the resume. Line up 2-3 weaker relationships. Feedback from more than 6-8 people may become difficult to incorporate and drive you insane.
- Time horizon. Putting together a quality resume is a time intensive process; it is not a one day process. In fact, I will argue that as a resume writer, you benefit by working on chunks of it, leaving it, and picking up where you left off. “Re-setting” mentally allows you to avoid the biases I mentioned above more efficiently. You also want to give your readers adequate time to review.
1. Don’t vomit on it! You resume is NOT a place to include a laundry list of job responsibilities. I can Google what a legislative correspondent (LC) on the Hill does, for example, and quickly find out. Your resume IS a place for you to highlight YOUR impact. When you draft your resume, you should constantly ask yourself what wouldn’t have taken place had you not been in your position. The answer(s) should land on your résumé. If you feel overly compelled to clarify your role, include a one liner that sums it up right underneath the listing. I work at a start-up in a project management capacity. To describe this, I used the following sentence: “Manage cross-departmental projects aimed at streamlining company’s internal operations.”
One nifty way to ensure that your value added to include quantifiable results where possible. You don’t want to leave the question of “you’ve done this but SO WHAT?” unanswered. Consider this: If you’ve improved the process for cataloguing incoming inquiries at your job, say something like this: “Streamlined the process for tracking incoming inquiries resulting in weekly time savings of five man hours.” Remember, you have very limited space to convey why you’re awesome. Choose how you use that space wisely.
2. Action verbs. Action verbs give your resume power and direction. They are also often discussed in workshops. Yet, I see resume after resume where folks sell themselves short because they choose a passive way to frame what they’ve done. I am not a proponent of falsifying information on your resume. But if you have to tactfully embellish to get the point across, do it! Studies show that women do not take credit for their achievements. Don’t let that be you. If you led a project that improved something at your company, say it! Use words such as “managed,” “spearheaded,” or “led.” If you were on some kind of task force that required your time and energy, don’t say “Served on a task force that…” Instead say “Key member of task force that…” The two sentences convey similar information but the second sounds significantly stronger.
Folks frequently advise that in life, it is not about what you say but how you say it. I believe that action verbs are the key to bringing this advice to bear on your resume.
Feel free to reference this for a comprehensive list of action verbs when you craft your next resume.
3. Looks matter! The world is competitive. A hiring manager has hundreds of resumes to sift through. The best looking ones usually catch the eye. I believe that resume “looks” entail three factors (you can tell I think in three’s, can’t you?): length, formatting, and space allocation.
Length: Your resume should be no longer than two pages. In fact, if you are, on average, three to six years out of school, and you haven’t found the cure to cancer, your resume should actually be one page long. If it is not, you’re probably not being choosy about what you include and you’re not doing yourself any favors! Just because I worked at a coffee shop in college doesn’t mean that this needs to be on a resume that I submit for a position at a tech start-up. When I am asking myself what to eliminate, I like to consider two things: what experiences convey skills that are least relevant to the job I am seeking; and what experiences highlight skills that I’ve already covered elsewhere in the resume. Working at a coffee shop may show that you can deliver great customer service but so does working at a call center for your university’s undergraduate admissions office. Pick one.
Formatting: Formatting is telling of your attention to detail. Before someone has had the opportunity to meet you, they are assessing whether you have taken the time to cross the T’s and dot the I’s on your resume. Are your fonts uniform? Are your bullet points indented evenly? Have you spelled correctly? Are your dates in the same place throughout the resume? Whatever aesthetic decision you make in your resume needs to be consistent throughout the document.
To make your lives easier, I have shared a resume format that I’ve sent to many friends here, so use away! In order to use it, you will have to download it to your computer (using the Download button on the upper right). Notice that the document has a grid in it; the grid is helpful in keeping your sections and margins clean. When you’re done, you can hide the grid lines by doing the following: Right click on the document ->Borders and Shading-> Borders->Select None->Hit Ok. This is a formatting trick that my brother learned in business school. I’ve just given it to you and you’re not $100K in the black. Make good use of it!
Space allocation: Space allocation on your resume should be driven by the job you’re seeking and where you are in your career. I provided you a link to my first resume after college. As such, the resume has a long section dedicated to my extracurricular activities in college, my only examples of leadership and initiative at the time, outside of one serious summer internship. My current resume, however, starts with an employment section. Within that section, there are sections for different skills sets. For example, there is a section called “Operational Efficiency and Analysis” instead of “Extracurricular Leadership.” This makes sense because I last applied to work for a company’s Chief Operating Officer (COO). The number of bullet points under each section should also be determined by a combination of the job you’re seeking and how committed you were to the experience at hand. If you spent 5 years working at a company and you were promoted, you should probably allocate 3-4 bullet points for that experience. If, on the other hand, you volunteered with an organization outside of work and spent five hours a month doing so, one bullet point will suffice. At the end of the day, the past and current experiences on your resume help build a case to your potential employer that you are the best one for the job. The amount of resume space allocated should be directly proportional to how much a given endeavor advances that case.
Tying it all together
This is an excerpt from a friend’s resume that could use some work. Check out how I would incorporate the techniques I discussed to doctor it up.
“Constituent Services Intern
District office of NY Senator Adriano Espaillat, New York, NY: May 2012- present
- Coordinated intergovernmental services pertaining to healthcare, housing, immigration, public safety and environmental health for community members of New York State District 31
- Navigate through government bills and policies to assist constituents with urban bureaucracy
- Design health awareness initiatives to maintain sufficient environmental and community health”
Don’t vomit on it!
To be frank, none of these bullet points properly convey impact. All refer to somewhat basic job responsibilities. I would condense the first bullet point into the following sentence: “Coordinated and implemented government services for community members of NY State Senate District 31”. I would make this the descriptive one liner under the job title. Next, I would change the second bullet point to say something like this: “Navigated policies for constituents, resulting in a 5% increase in usage of governmental services.” I would change the third bullet point to read “Designed health awareness initiatives that improved overall communal health by 3% in six months.”
The action verbs used in this example are not bad. One could consider replacing “navigated” with “educated constituents on policies” and “designed” with “constructed,” though both would work.
I would lay this experience out in the following manner:
District Office of NY State Senator Adrian Espaillat May 2012 – present
Constituent Services Intern New York, NY
Coordinated and implemented services for community members of NY State Senate District 31
- Educated constituents on policies, resulting in a 5% increase in usage of governmental services
- Designed health awareness initiatives that improved overall communal health by 3% in six months
This blog post has single handedly fixed my resume! Thanks for such an informative post.
Awesome blog entry, Stella. It’s very informative and to the point. Keep them coming!
Great post. Lots of solid tips!
[…] Part 1 of my 2-part post focused on how to give your resume a much-needed face lift. I hope that Part 2 will provide you with some prescriptive tips on turning around your cover letter and acing that interview. Mastery of these three, crucial components will help you differentiate yourself from your competition in the quest for employment. As y’all know, a job search is no easy feat these days so you want to prepare thoroughly and position yourself well. […]