It's no secret that our generation has been hit hard by the recession. Tons of us are unemployed, and many more of us are underemployed. While we've supposedly "recovered," the job market is still insanely brutal, with far more applicants than openings. Because I have a background in human resources, worked as a résumé reviewer and interview coach, and do a good amount of hiring, I'd like to give you a leg up, if I can.
As a quick lede, I'm always happy to look at anyone's application materials. You can send them directly to me, or, if you don't mind having them public, post them here. I can go over them and everyone reading the thread can hopefully learn something. I'm also happy to help you prepare for interviews—just drop me a line.
This advice is mostly aimed at professional-level job seekers with college degrees. Most jobs that don't require this sort of background won't require résumés or cover letters.
When you're applying to jobs, expect to have a pretty small success rate. If you get interviews for 10% of the jobs to which you apply, I'd say you were wildly successful. Just keep your head up and you'll get there eventually.
Applying for Jobs
Applying for jobs is a massive undertaking. the materials that you submit for job applications are going to receive a lot of scrutiny, and even the smallest mistake can disqualify you.
My first piece of advice is to make sure that you don't send anything out before it's received a thorough proofread from yourself and at least two other trusted individuals. When you're reading your own materials, I recommend going over them backwards, which will stop your brain from tricking you.
There are four main components to the application process:
When you're looking for a job, you'll need to use every tool at your disposal. Watch your local newspapers, Craigslist, and the websites of major employers. However, the most important thing is your network. Make sure you your friends, family and trusted colleagues know that you are looking for a new job. Many positions are filled without ever being posted, so you have to be sure you're positioned to hear about them.
Who you know is very important when you're looking for a job, because people with internal recommendations are significantly more likely to get interviews and then hired than external candidates.
I know this feels unfair and like insider baseball, but it's actually a good business practice. Plenty of research has shown that candidates with internal recommendations tend to perform better. So, when someone is hiring, they're well served to heed recommendations from their coworkers.
If you want to maximize your chances of getting hired, do as much networking as you can. Your classmates, teachers, and family can all provide surprising contacts, so make sure to ask around every time you're applying for a job. As an example, I was applying for executive director positions with regional orchestras a few years ago. Talking to my family, it turned out that my great uncle knew a board member of a major orchestra in Iowa. Through him, I ended up getting a meeting with the former president of the League of American Orchestras, which opened a lot of doors for me.
For most people screening résumés, the presence of even a single typo or bit of inconsistent formatting will probably be grounds to discard your application. Like I've said before, when you think you're ready to submit, read the entire thing over backwards. Then send it to a couple of your closest friends.
Always submit your résumé as a PDF—you can't trust other people's copies of Word to render your document correctly (especially if they're missing your font).
There's no 100% right way to prepare a résumé. However, I strongly believe that your résumé should fit on a single page. This is for a few reasons. First, it avoids the second page of your résumé getting lost when your materials get passed around. Second, hiring managers are going to be seeing a huge number of applications and are liable to be skimming the application materials. It's quite likely that they'll give up before covering a second page of a résumé.
Use a single font for all body text, and make sure it's easily readable. Your font should be a good fit for your industry. This site uses Raleway, a free Google font that's nice and clean, good for the high-tech industry. You can use a second font for headings, but it's not required. Headings on this page are Lato, another free font.
If you're not sure what font to use, go for Georgia. About a decade ago, a group did a study of reactions to fonts and found Georgia to be the highest-rated in terms of trustworthiness and professionalism, so I recommend that if you don't have another preference. Helvetica is a good choice, too.
I recommend that you list all entries reverse chronologically (most recent first), as what you're currently doing is more immediately relevant. I tend to break résumés into "Professional Experience" and "Education." The order that you list these will depend on where you stand in your career. If you've recently graduated and don't have relevant professional experience, you will probably want to lead with your education. This is especially true if you graduated from a prominent institution, like an ivy-league.
Street Address | City, State ZIP
Phone | firstname.lastname@example.org
Director of Support Services, Common Ground Publishing
Champaign, IL | 10/11–Present: Entrepreneurial Producer of Academic Conferences and Journals
Cultivate client relationships with a geographically and culturally diverse group of customers
Recruit, hire, train, mentor, and supervise international customer service team responsible for a peak volume of over 200 customer contacts each day
Develop long-term customer service strategies to maximize customer retention
Select, implement, and provide training for customer service tools, including new e-mail-tracking system
Monitor company-wide customer service communications for compliance with customer service goals
Provide internal support services and training for conference and publishing departments
Collaborate with department heads and senior leadership in developing long-term company goals
Consult on internal human resources strategy for all departments
Produce software training guide and videos
Maintain main company web sites
Director of Support Services, Common Ground Publishing
Champaign, IL | 10/11–Present: Entrepreneurial Producer of Academic Conferences and Journals
At Common Ground, I led a cross-function team that both supported our international customer base and provided internal support services all across the company. I was also the company's point person for anything unusual. In my three years, I was a user advocate for our educational software product, Scholar; performed an enormous of workflow improvement throughout the company; provided HR consulting and analysis; and even produced and narrated our online training videos.
Champaign, IL | 5/08–6/10: Regional Professional Orchestra
At the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, I was in charge of our day-to-day operations. This included musician contracting, payroll, facility agreements, and a host of other operational duties. Before and during each season, I worked with the Music Director and Executive Director to create and execute marketing and development plans, as well as create and monitor the season's budgets.
Master of Human Resources and Industrial Relations
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2010
R. Wayne Anderson Family Fellow—awarded for academic merit and work ethic GPA: 3.87/4.00 Bachelor of Music
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2008
University Honors (Bronze Tablet)—awarded to top 3% of graduating class GPA: 3.92/4.00
Like with résumés, errors in your cover letter are going to murder your chances with screeners, so be sure yours has been thoroughly proofed. Because cover letters are more dense than résumés, you can probably get away with a couple, but you don't want to chance it. Your choice of writing style should reflect your personality and be part of a consistent message. Because I'm a business person applying mostly to high-level jobs, I tend to use a lot of terms of art specific to the business world and employ some pretty complicated sentences. You don't have to write that way—it's much more important to have a well-written letter appropriate to you than an awkward letter written like someone else.
The single most important thing about a cover letter is to make sure that it's not just a restatement of your résumé. This is your opportunity to talk about what makes you special. Be bold and self-assured and don't shy away from talking yourself up. List your major professional accomplishments, and talk about what you value and is important to you. Your messaging here should be consistent with what you say in interviews and with what your references say about you (more about that in a bit). I try to convey myself as smart, caring, and successful. In the letter, I talk about the things that have gone well for me (successful), how proud I am of my employees (caring), and write at a pretty high level (smart). When I get to the interviews, I emphasize these same qualities.
Make sure your cover letter addresses things that make you a fit for this specific position. As one example, I applied for a position requesting a manager with experience in Creative Suite and Camtasia, so I talked about those. I also talked about how my skills would help the department. Again, your network is key here, letting you talk about the things you know they need.
If you can, find out the exact person who will be your boss and address the letter to them. It shows initiative and really makes people feel good to read their name on a letter. If you're applying for a position that has a search committee, address the entire committee so that no one feels snubbed.
Finally, I recommend a paragraph about why you want to work wherever it is you're applying. The truth is probably that you just want a job, or you want more money, or you hate your current job, but you need to come up with something heartfelt like "I really believe in your mission" or "I've always wanted to work for you." Most reviewers know these things are bullshit and worthless, but there's still a scum of old-school reviewers who require this sort of brown-nosing, so make sure it's there. End your letter with a digital signature. I recommend scanning your signature and then tracing it in Photoshop or other editing tool of your choice.
Many people recommendation addressing your weaknesses in your cover letter. So, you might say "I know I'm lacking in publishing experience, but I'm really smart and can learn pretty much anything." I strongly discourage this practice. Reviewers are looking for reasons to cut you; don't just hand them to them.
References and Recommendations
Only provide references if a position specifically requests them. Never list someone as a reference without first asking their permission. Be very direct when asking if someone will be your reference—you want to make sure they're going to be a great recommendation, so say something like "are you willing to be a reference for me? I need to make sure that anyone an employer might call is going to give me the best possible recommendation, so please don't be shy about saying no."
Whenever you do list references, make sure you've talked to whoever you'll be listing, letting them know you've listed them as a reference and telling them the qualities you're emphasizing in your application. This lets your reference give you the best recommendation they can. Because of slander lawsuits, many employers won't even bother calling your references, so a lot of this preparation will never matter, but you can get in a lot of trouble if you're not ready.
If you want to supplement your application, you can include a letter of recommendation. This letter should be from someone prominent and should be a glowing recommendation. If a reviewer reads a milquetoast letter, it will be a strike against you, because they're going to think "this is the best letter this applicant could get?" So, a letter that says "Adrian is the finest operations manager I have worked with in over 20 years of professional conducting," [I actually have this letter and include it with applications frequently] rather than "Adrian was a student in my classes and acquitted himself well."
If a position requires letters of recommendation, follow the advice I gave about references. I recommend trying to get two or three more letters than you need, so that you can review all of the letters and select the best. If the letters must be sent directly to the employer, ask to see them first. Most people you trust to write you this letter should be fine sharing it with you.
So you've busted your ass with your application materials and have finally landed an interview. Great! Now comes the fun part.
First of all, you're almost certainly going to be facing behavioral interview questions. I really like this article for an in-depth look at these types of questions.
These questions are structured in the form of "Tell me about a time when..." or "Describe a situation in which you..." The idea behind these questions is that past behavior is a predictor of future performance. The key to answering these questions is to remember the S(t)AR method:
Situation (or Task)
So you'll describe the situation, talk about what you did, and then talk about the positive result.
In my experience, people are worst about the result. If you're not careful, you'll end up with a lot of "and then I found five dollars" sort of answers. Make sure to prepare good stories that have clear positive results. For example, I frequently talk about expanding my department's responsibilities, which led to a significant decrease in ticket escalations, meaning that customers got responses in days instead of weeks.
Some behavioral questions will ask about situations that just aren't applicable. If you don't have a good answer to a question, it's much better to say that rather than struggle to come up with some bullshit. Just be careful not to do this on a question that you really should have an answer to like, "tell me about a time you didn't live up to your own expectations."
Next, try to find out as much as you can about the people/person interviewing you. You'll almost certainly have friends or acquaintances in common, which will provide a huge boon. For example, I had an interview recently where the interviewer was married to a band director, so we got to talk about music. Building personal (rather than professional) connections with interviewers will help you stand out.
You also need to do a lot of research about the organization and position. Read an organizational chart, old annual reports, marketing materials, and anything you can get your hands on. You really want to be comfortable with the language of the company, so you can talk about it intelligently. This will help you prepare to ask questions, as well (more on that further down). If you can, get a good idea of what the position pays. Salary.com can help there. If it's a university or other public organization, you can probably find a salary guide.
Yet again, your network is going to be a lifesaver here. If you're really lucky, you'll get to learn some specific things the panel will ask, or things that they hate to hear. The last time I helped someone prepare for an interview at my company, I was able to tell them the things that had disqualified a lot of previous applicants, which made their interview much stronger.
Finally, practice your handshake. Find someone in your family or friend circle who has a really good handshake and work with them until yours is just as good. If you have a bad handshake, you can end your interview before it even starts. As some general pointers, I recommend that you match web to web, curl your fingers around theirs (don't let your index finger get on their wrist), and have a firm handshake, but don't squeeze—I've had people actually hurt me with their handshakes before, not knowing about my disability.
First of all, this video is required watching. I know it's ridiculous, but it works.
I recommend buying a nice padfolio and bringing it to all of your interviews. Put several copies of your résumé in the padfolio, plus some business cards. Bring any notes you've compiled, plus a short list of the stories you've prepared for behavioral questions and the questions you've prepared to ask (we're almost there, I promise!). I also like to include a notecard for myself with the things that make me really awesome. If I haven't gotten to talk about anything on that card by the end of the interview, I make sure to bring it up myself.
After you've met everyone interviewing you and gotten settled in your seat, draw yourself a quick diagram of the table and label the participants. You'll look brilliant when you're using everyone's names comfortably.
You should also take notes during the interview. The most important things to note are any specific duties someone mentions that you didn't know about, qualities an interview indicates they're looking for, and anything interesting you'd like to ask about later.
Each time someone asks a question, I recommend that you repeat it back to them and write it down. If you're at all unsure what they meant, also ask for clarification. Not only does all of this make you look attentive, it gives you a second to start formulating your answer. The difference that just a tiny bit of preparation makes is huge.
In terms of general attitude, I recommend two things: Own the Room and Don't Give a Shit. Own the Room means that you should be completely confident. Stand up straight, speak clearly, be assertive, and be unapologetic. DO NOT be a bully—never interrupt, belittle, or engage in stupid alpha-male (or female) dominance. It's a fine line, but exuding confidence and competence will be very attractive to your interviewers.
Second, Don't Give a Shit. Desperation is highly unattractive. Even if you really do absolutely, positively need this job, you need to have the ease of bearing that only comes if the result of this interview isn't going to affect you at all. I'm not saying you shouldn't care or act like you don't want the job, but I am saying that you shouldn't let that interfere with being relaxed in the interview.
Studies have shown that, the more interviewers talk, the higher they rate candidates. So, try to engage in as much discussion as possible. Ask questions about questions, ask followup questions like "does this come up a lot?" During your own answers, try to engage the panel as will ("Does this seem relevant?" "Would that be a strategy I could use here?"). Basically, keep them talking.
Now let's address that question everyone hates: "what's your greatest weakness?" If you're facing a good interviewer, this question should never come up. It's completely worthless and reveals only how well someone has prepared for the question itself. However, there are a lot of bad interviewers in the world who think that it will somehow yield worthwhile information, so you need to be ready.
The generally accepted strategy is to answer with something that seems like a weakness, but that you mold into a strength. For example, "well, I'm just a perfectionist that I have a hard time letting things go." Much like the question itself, this strategy is bullshit and awful. I propose something radically different. Instead of providing a weakness when people ask this questions, I address the question itself. In general, my answer goes something like this: "You know, I'm not sure this question is going to give you the information you want. I mean, I can tell you that I'm just such a perfectionist that it's hard to stop being perfect, but that's stupid. So let me tell you about how I deal with things going wrong..." And then I launch into one of my failure stories, where I or someone on my team screwed something up and then I got it all fixed and made everyone happier than before.
If you're really ballsy, you can talk about a time when you really did just screw something up and there wasn't an easy fix. Then talk about how bad you felt and what lessons you learned. Only use this strategy if you're sure your panel values candor and introspection.
You also are going to need a good answer for "why do you want to work here?" You should incorporate personal goals with a commitment to the organization or interest in what they do. For example, "well, I've been playing Magic: the Gathering for about fifteen years and I just really love it. I've always wanted to live in Seattle and work in the games industry and I love working with people, so this just seemed like a great fit for me. I can't tell you how excited I was to get an interview." Never talk about money, not liking your old job, or, really, anything negative.
Another question you'll hear if you're currently employed is "why are you looking for a new job?" This is another question that I try to subvert. Usually I say something like "well, I'm not really looking for a job. I'm looking for a really great job. I actually love what I'm doing right now, but I'll never know if there's something better if I don't keep my options open."
Try to avoid talking about money. If they ask how much money you want for the position, a great answer is "You know, finding the right fit is a lot more important to me than money. If we think this is going to be a good job for me, I'm sure we can work out pay." If they press, you can say something like "well, in general, people with my background and experience make about $70k [n.b. I don't make $70k :-(], and I know that the last person made about that. But really, I'm not worried about the money."
Do You Have Any Questions?
Almost every interview is going to end here. It should be a simple wrap-up session where you can fill in any gaps in your knowledge, but it's unfortunately become the case that this part of the interview is a test of how much research you've done. It's stupid, but it's not changing any time soon. So, you need to be prepared.
While you're doing your research, write down things that interest you, so you can ask questions about them. I try to look for new initiatives or changes in the organization and ask how they apply to the position I'm applying to. I also ask questions about anything that came up in the interview that I was curious about, but that I didn't get answers about at the time.
Finally, I have some questions I like to ask every time. The first, and what I generally lead with, is "what made you decide to interview me?" This gets the panel thinking about how what they liked about you. Since you'll be wrapping up soon, it's good to have that positive thinking on their minds.
I also ask what the ideal candidate is for the position. When they answer, be sure to write down what they say. If they mention anything you didn't specifically cover, make sure to talk about it. For example, if they say "we're looking for someone who can work with people of diverse backgrounds," I might say, "You know, we didn't get to talk about this, but a big part of my job is working with people from all over the world and from lots of backgrounds. I've worked with professors at prestigious universities and students from the poorest parts of the world. One thing I always try to remember—and that I teach my team—is that every single person is the most important person in their own world, so we should treat them all with the respect they deserve."
If you're ready for hard mode, try asking the panel if they have any specific concerns about your candidacy. You'll need to be quick on your feet if you do this. If they bring up legitimate weaknesses, don't equivocate or deflect, just talk about how you'll address them or what strategies you have to mitigate them. Talking about being really smart or giving examples of quickly learning new things is a good fallback here.
You can also take this opportunity to supplement a bad answer earlier. Take a look at your notes about their questions; if you punted on a question but have come up with something good to talk about, or need to strengthen an answer, feel free to bring it up. This is also a good opportunity to talk about any strengths you've identified but that didn't come up.
Once the interview is over, try to get business cards for all of the panel. Thank them by name for their time and tell them how much you enjoyed the interview.
After the Interview
Once the interview is over, there's still plenty to do!
Go home, relax for about half an hour. Fire up your computer and send individual thank-you emails to everyone that interview you. Make sure that you say something different to each person, in case they forward them to each other. Shorter is better for these emails. If a secretary, HR officer, or someone else set up the interview, send them a thank-you email as well.
And you're done! Now it's out of your hands. If you end up with a second interview, just rinse and repeat this process, but be prepared with new questions. You can also be more willing to talk about money in that interview, but I still prefer to wait until there's an offer on the table.
Once you've got an offer, it's time to start negotiating. It can be scary, especially the first time you do it, but if you don't negotiate your salary, you're leaving money on the table.
Unfortunately, it's too big to launch into for a first draft. But keep your eyes peeled!
Use a professional email address, preferably only your name. If you're applying to a technology company (Microsoft), don't use an email address from a competitor (Google). Just get a new address from that company, instead.
When listing your work experience, I recommend a short statement describing each organization. I try to make sure that anyone reviewing my materials has to do as little work as possible, so I don't want them to have to Google my employer to find out what we do.
You have two options when listing your duties: bullets or paragraphs. I prefer bullets, where you list relevant responsibilities each on their own line, but a paragraph describing your job and what you do is acceptable, as well. However you do it, make sure that your listings are customized to each job you apply for. Take a look at the job posting and identify key words like "manage," "evaluate," plus any specific technical skills like Photoshop and be sure to work those into your job duties. This is another place where networking can really help; a good contact can tell you exactly how the applications are being screened, or what the most important things are to emphasize.
I think that paragraphs are a weak approach, in general, because it requires a lot more reading on the reviewer's part to understand your specific skills. When you have bullets, you can call out exactly what you do without needing to care as much about narrative structure.
When you're listing bullets, make sure that, as often as you can, you list the purpose of your work in addition to the task itself. For one thing, it fills the space better, for another, it makes it helps avoid ambiguity. Your bullets should be ordered by importance be grouped by subject—managing our customer service team is the most important part of my job, so, in my résumé, I list all of my customer service-related duties first, then move on to other tasks. Try to keep most of your bullets to a single line, keeping to just a few longer bullets (to avoid lazy screeners).
If you're writing paragraphs, keep it punchy. List what you did and what makes this position a good fit for the job you're applying to.
If you were promoted within an organization, list it like this. If there's space, you can include an explanation of your previous position, but it's the first thing I usually cut.
List your items in reverse-chronological order. You can have fewer bullet points for previous employers—your current job is the one that is most relevant to a potential employer. The one exception to this is if a previous job was more directly-related than your current position. In that case, shift the balance towards that previous position.
When you list your education, I suggest leading with your actual degree (though this can be switched in the case of prominent institutions. List the title of the degree formally, i.e. Bachelor of Music, rather than Bachelor's Degree in Music or BM. If you received prominent academic honors, list those. Include your GPA only if it's quite good, like 3.8+.
If you are currently working on a degree, put "Estimated Graduation" with the month and year. If you've completed part of a degree but aren't currently in school, you can list that as "Coursework Towards [Name of Degree]." Then list how much coursework you've done. I don't recommend doing this, though, because it's going to make people think you're a quitter, even though you almost certainly have a good reason for not finishing that degree.
Under no circumstances should you list your high school in your education. The one exception is if you don't have a college degree and are applying to a position that requires a résumé, but lists only a high school diploma as a requirement for the position. In that case, you'll need to list your high school to prove you have one. If you haven't graduated from high school, but are applying for a position that requires a résumé, then just don't list education.
You can see that I've listed "relevant coursework" on my résumé. Since I have weird degrees, I try to illustrate how they'd be useful for whatever position I'm applying. You can also list things like "Professional Memberships," "Certifications," or other field-specific credentials here.
Never list Microsoft Office as a skill—that's not impressive, that's just required of most jobs now. You also don't need to write "references available on request." Employers know they can get references if they want them.