Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, March 08, 2013

So You're Writing a Resume

I'm hiring two positions at work at the moment: a summer internship for a college student and a permanent position for someone with roughly 2-5 years of relevant experience (analytics, finance, marketing, etc.) The result is that I've been spending a lot of time reading resumes. I think I've gone through about 100 in the last couple weeks.

I don't pretend to be any great expert, but allow me to offer my basic advice on how to write the kind of resume that is one of the 20% that I ask HR to follow up with and do a quick pre-screen.

The big challenge in reading resumes for the internship is that I don't really expect the applicants to have any relevant job experience. I've got people majoring in Business, Finance, Economics and Mathematics in my stack, and any one of these would be a perfectly decent background for the summer internship. (I'd be fine with other fields as well, but only students from those fields have applied.) Job experience tends to be inapplicable: food service, cleaning, yard and painting work, etc.

Given that, the keys to getting contacted are:

- Be clean and organized: With so little experience a sprawling and messy resume looks like a bad sign.

- Write a good cover letter: For more experienced candidates I don't find the cover letter all that interesting, but here it's a good way to show that you can write clear and forceful prose. 2-3 short paragraphs explaining why you'd be great for the job. Go for genuine over trying to fake business-ese. I read real business-ese all the time.

- Have a hook: This is the trickiest one, since doing it will be pretty individual, but either in the resume or in the cover letter convey something that's interesting and individual. It doesn't actually have to be relevant to the job, because with an internship in which the candidates don't have much of any relevant except their class work, there's not much you can do to stand out there. The key is just to sound like someone it would be interesting to talk to.

Analyst: 2-5 Years Experience
Here, the keys seem more obvious, so I'm a bit surprised that they aren't more consistently followed:

- Keep your cover letter (if any) to 2-3 short paragraphs which make it clear that you've read the job description and explain in not-overly-grandiose terms why you think you'd be a good fit for it. This is your chance to relate experience that may be a little different from the job you're applying to the job description. (Otherwise I'm left to figure out why someone whose experience is in retail fashion merchandizing is applying for a finance job at a lawn and garden company.)

- Proofread. Lots. If you can't write a coherent cover letter and resume, I'm unlikely to interview you.

- Keep your resume short. Try to describe each of your jobs in three bullet points and never more than five. Your full resume should never be more than two single sided pages. I kid you not, I got a six page resume.

- Formatting matters. When I'm reading through a stack of resumes and get to one that's hard to read, I won't want to read it. This also tells me about your ability to put together an attractive presentation. If you can't bother to do it on your resume, why would I expect you to do it after your have the job and you're putting together a PowerPoint deck for me on a deadline? I'm not wedded to any one format. But some key things are:

-- Make it easy to distinguish your name and the sections (different jobs you've had, education from jobs, etc.) Use dividing lines and whitespace as necessary to achieve this.
-- Provide some kind of a description right near the top. I'm not personally crazy about having this as a "goal" because these often sound silly or forced, but a tagline is good. Mine, for instance, says rather generically "An experienced marketing professional with a track record of analytical problem solving."
-- Include a "Key Strengths" section which summarizes the skills that you want the hiring manager to know you have. This is your chance to draw out the elements from your job descriptions which you think are most relevant and state them in a way that sounds like the job description of the position you're applying for.


Charming Disarray said...

I don't doubt that all the advice you've given here is true from the point of view of the person hiring, but from the letter-writer's point of view, it's a huge, complicated, and extremely difficult assignment. Even a skilled writer would struggle to hit the mark with all the different nuances and bits of information that need to be included in just the right way in just right tone but different from all the other letters.

Combine that with the amount of time that it would take tailoring the letter to each job so it doesn't look copy and pasted, and the number of jobs it's necessary to apply for before even getting an interview, and it doesn't surprise me that you get so few "good" cover letters. The whole cover letter system is a huge waste of time for everyone and should really be done away with completely.

I don't see why an employer can't just look at a resume. That's what they're for.

Darwin said...

FWIW, for an applicant who has any experience relevant to the job, I'd consider the cover letter entirely dispensable. I've probably been turned off by actively bad writing in the cover letter more times than I've been drawn in by a good one. And as you say, it seems like the cover letter should be a bit more individual to the job, so that's more work. So for my senior analyst req I would probably advise someone not to bother writing a cover letter as it's primarily the resume I'll look at.

Where I'd see the cover letter as important is with the intern situation where the resume tells me nothing other than what the college student's major is and what summer jobs they're held. In that case, the cover letter doesn't need to be specific to the job, I'm mostly trying to tell if the person has (or more properly, claims to have) some personality and some enthusiasm for learning a career. Showing they can write good basic business prose is also a plus.

The only other situation I'd strongly advise a cover letter is if there's some unusual situation to explain. I saw a very good one explaining that the applicant had taken off the last six years to raise kids, and how she though her previous experience was (though different) relevant to the current job listing.

I agree, though, on hating to write cover letters.

Jenny said...

The problem of the customized cover letter reminds me of the other thing I can't stand about applying for jobs: the automated resume input. You spend all this time putting together a resume and then you have to input your document into their database field by agonizing field. And they still want the finished document.

I know the purpose is to weed out unqualified candidates automatically, but that's part of what annoys me about it. Well-qualified applicants are discarded by a computer for not meeting some arbitrary criteria. Sorry Classics majors--you aren't getting this job because the computer said so. :P

Bob Prosen said...

Landing a job in today’s economy requires you to think and act differently. If you’re wed to the traditional way of job-hunting you’re destined to compete with everyone else chasing the same few opportunities.

The most effective way to get a job is to think like an employer. Sounds simple but many people don’t appreciate the importance or know how to do it.

Before beginning your search you have to understand why all companies hire. It’s to solve problems and your challenge is to position yourself as the solution. In other words, hiring you allows the company to solve problems faster, better and cheaper than they could without you. Here’s how to start.

Step 1 - Identify your skills and expertise.

Step 2 - Find the companies you want to work for and research them to uncover their problems. Use the Internet, Google alerts, read press releases and speak with current and former employees.

Your ability to uncover your target employers’ problems and position yourself as the solution is what will get you hired.
Here are just a few potential problem areas. Completing projects on time and on budget, improve product quality, improve customer service, increase sales, reduce costs, enhance online marketing, etc.

Step 3 – Identify the hiring manager.

Step 4 – Create a personal marketing plan to get your solutions in the hands of the hiring manager.

Step 5 – Develop a “One-Sheet” resume, to separate you from the crowd, along with a set of compelling cover letters that show your experience solving similar problems.

Step 6 – Follow up is essential to getting an interview. Be persistent but not a pest.

As a former executive with several Fortune companies I know how leaders think. People who have followed this process have gotten hired.

Good luck and never give up!

Bob Prosen –
The Prosen Center for Business Advancement

P.S. And yes, this works for recent college grads as well.
P.S.S. Market yourself to the companies you want to work for whether or not they have an opening.