Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Tip of the day: Minimize your education

Tip: Your education is the foundation of your qualifications. That means it should be thin, dense, and at the bottom.

As someone who spent far too much time (and, ahem, money) pursuing my higher education, this was one of the hardest things for me to achieve with my resume. It's difficult to put something so important into a perspective other than my own. It's difficult to reduce seven and a half years of my life (don't ask) to just a couple bullet points. It's difficult to look at my resume and think, "Is that all there was?"

But remember: your resume is not a story. It's a snapshot of your experience

How to incorporate your education into your resume

  • List chronologically by degree or program. I've seen people try to get fancy by grouping coursework together to make it seem more cohesive, but the simplest approach is the best. 
  • Name it; don't explain it. Give the name of your major, minor, training focus, or professional certification, but don't get bogged down explaining why those things are relevant. This is actually remarkably easy, since hiring managers are already familiar with the relevant certifications, and are pretty well conversant with fields of academic study. So go ahead and list your MCSE or your MA by name, then move on to the next line.
  • Two bullets. I'm not kidding about this, and it's the hard part. For each degree or program, try as hard as you can to limit yourself to a single bullet point of explanation, and keep that to just one line. Give yourself an extra bullet point for something truly extraordinary or relevant, like honors or your thesis. 
Think of it as an exercise in perspective. You know how important your education is to you, and you understandably want your hiring manager to know as well. But since you're limiting yourself to just one page, every line you spend on education is a line you can't spend on experience. Ask yourself: Is your coursework truly a better qualification than the successful launch of your last new product? More important than that videography project you managed as an intern? Once you start thinking in terms of priority and seeing your resume as a single unified document instead of a story, it becomes easier to make those decisions.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tip of the day: Writing samples

Tip: Send the best writing samples

Chances are, if your dream job involves working with the public in any way, someone's going to ask you for writing samples. The key to providing the best writing samples is understanding what the hiring manager hopes to learn from them.

This isn't just about whether or not you can put a couple sentences together. After all, we've already seen your cover letter. And it's not about performing this job to the letter; if we want that, we'll give you a scenario and ask you to write something from scratch. No, the writing samples are a demonstration of existing skill, and your task is to determine which skill you want to showcase.

Writing samples need to be good, but they shouldn't be epic.
Image via Brenda Clarke

What makes a good writing sample

  • Similar to the work you'd be doing. Look back over the job description. Talk to people in similar lines of work. Then look at your own body of work and pick out the one that best matches the type of output you'd be expected to produce. 
  • Content agnostic. A lot of people worry when breaking into a new field that they'll be held back by a lack of familiarity with terms of art or history. If we've asked to see your writing samples, you can put that concern out of your mind; we either think you're already knowledgeable enough, or we think you can learn. So don't worry that your sample press release is about a groundbreaking at a hospital instead of a symposium on emerging technology. For the purposes of this sample, the subject matter is irrelevant.
  • Platform agnostic. Don't worry about the content of the piece, or its distribution; if I wanted to know whether you could get your op-ed printed in the New York Times, I'd ask about your pitching skills, not your writing skills. This is about finding a piece that would blend in with your expected work product.
  • Showcases your background. This is where you can have a little fun, and also make yourself stand out from the crowd. I said earlier that writing samples are a demonstration of skill, and you shouldn't get bogged down in the content or topic. That's true, but the hiring manager is a human being who's probably reading a dozen writing samples. 
If you've reached the stage where hiring managers are asking for writing samples, that means your job hunt is going really well. You should feel good about where you are and bask in the warm glow of accomplishment, because up next is the truly fun part of a job hunt: the interview.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tip of the day: Your goodbye

Tip: Don't let your closing ruin everything

You've nailed your intro, stuck to one page, and made sure your cover letter does its one job perfectly. Now all you have to do is end the letter without ruining everything.

Which one of these endings ruins everything?

Closing A. Polite and mild: "Thank you for your consideration."

Closing B. Confident and urgent: "Thank you for your consideration. I will call your office on Monday to schedule an in-person interview."

Closing C. Confident and helpful: "Thank you for your consideration. I am available to start work on two weeks' notice."

Closing D. Confident and hopeful: "Thank you for your consideration. I'm looking forward to talking with you about this position."

The answer

A, B, and C are all pretty bad, but B is the absolute worst thing you can write at the end of a cover letter. Let's take a look at what each kind of closing does to your letter.

What they mean

Closing A. Verdict: Meh: This is the stock closing, and it does no harm to your pitch. All it does is waste space, and since you've been diligent about keeping your letter focused and brief, it's a crime to waste space with a weak ending.

Closing B. Verdict: Awful. This is pushy, obnoxious, and will probably get circulated for all the wrong reasons. The only thing worse than closing your letter like this is actually calling me on Monday to schedule an interview. Don't rush my process. Don't presume to put me on a deadline. You don't know when I'll even get around to reading your letter. Chill.

Closing C. Verdict: Bad. I've seen this a few times, and heard people describe it as one step below B on the pushy-o-meter. That's true, and I can even see the value in ending on a hopeful (and somewhat helpful!) note. However, as with B, it presumes knowledge of my timeline that may or may not be true. And it's not actually helpful information, so it's at best a waste of space.

Closing D. Verdict: Winner! Write this line according to your own tone, stay true to your voice and feelings, but if you want to close on a hopeful note, this is how you strike a balance between assuming you'll get a call and backing away meekly.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Tip of the day: Your intro

Tip: The perfect intro

People often ask me how they should start their cover letters. Job listings can be frustratingly vague, especially in places like Washington, D.C., where some Hill offices and even lobbying shops seem to delight in their anonymity. How do you tailor your letter if you don't even know who's hiring? If you don't know the issue inside and out?

In yesterday's tip, I listed some ways to keep your letter short and sweet. One of those is to get to the point fast, without mucking around trying to answer those questions. I always recommend the three sentence rule:

Three sentences your intro should have

  1. First, the position you're seeking. Letters get passed around a lot, and this context can help you land a job you didn't even know existed. Example: "In your search for an Online Organizer, you're going to need someone who's deadline-driven and full of great ideas."
  2. Second, the first thing that comes to mind when you imagine this office, organization, issue, or position. Example: "As someone with a lifelong passion for protecting wildlife and wildlands, I'm excited by the prospect of bringing those qualities to the Sierra Club."
  3. Third, get ready to make your case. Example: "As a skilled and experienced online professional, I'm ready for the challenge of taking the Sierra Club's online organizing program to the next level."
You don't need to say more than that -- because the person reading the letter already knows it all. She already works for that organization and knows its mission better than you. She knows the key qualifications better than you. All she needs to get out of this paragraph is a sense that you've read the job description well enough to see yourself in it.

The three sentence rule can help you provide that clarity, quickly, without overloading your letter with generalities. Try it out and let me know how it works!