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Resumés: What Do You Have to Say for Yourself?

Over at LinkedIn, a member of an editors’ group posted this link to a very entertaining rant by ghostwriter Jeff Haden. I used to teach resumé-writing and, as a business owner and as the head of an editorial office at the Great Desert University, discovered all that canned resumé advice, straight out of the textbook, came back to haunt.

How many times have you told some prospective employer how “unique” you are? How superlatively unique!

And how could you fail to tell the hiring committee of your “goal-oriented” nature? Your “world-class” administrative assistant skills? Your “creative,” “dynamic,” and “results-oriented” personality?

But did you happen to provide a concrete example to prove any of these steamy claims?

Come on! All I want is someone to do the filing, answer the phone, and learn the university’s involved purchasing software so we can order some paper now and then. Do I need a “world-class” administrative assistant for these Herculean tasks? Especially one who doesn’t know “world-class,” “goal-oriented,” and “results-oriented” are hyphenated?

When I look at a resumé, I hope to see what specifically the applicant has done somewhere else that a) indicates what he can accomplish on the job and b) tells me how she can bring the skills required to bear on the tasks that my organization needs to have done.

It comes right back to the oldest chestnut of advice to budding writers: Show, don’t tell.

Show an example of what you can do. And try to provide specifics, preferably with figures, that bear on the work you’ll be doing in job you’re trying to land.

If you must use a vague term like “creative” because you figure your resumé is being sorted by a computer searching for keywords, list accomplishments that prove you’re creative:

Established and oversaw two new departments for Arizona Highways, “Hike of the Month” and “Mileposts”
Created and taught the College of Arts and Sciences’ first fully online course

You’re “goal-oriented”? Prove it:

Wrote four feature-length articles a month plus several shorter pieces for regional and national magazines
Obtained a contract for and completed a fourth book

“Results-oriented”? Show what results you obtained:

Co-wrote national bestseller for William Morrow that returned $1.5 million in revenues during its first year and $1 million the second year
Redesigned research newsletter, turning it into a “magaletter” that became the basis of its current magazine format

You say you’re a “team player”? Whose team did you play on?

Established and developed office and designed all management policies. Developed and regularly updated strategic plan.
Initiated collaboration with Scholarly Publishing Program and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Coordinated management of unit with office of the Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Consulted with faculty editors and Dean’s Office on publishing matters.
Mentored graduate students in Scholarly Publishing Program.

If you’re feeding bloviated terms from a job description back to the employer, remember that the person doing the hiring wants to know what you can do for the company, not what you think of yourself — even if you think your qualifications exactly match the hot air in the job ad.

Find out something about the employer. Then massage your resumé so it highlights past accomplishments or training that bears directly on the kind of work you will be doing in the coveted new job. It’s all very nice that you did x or y for some other outfit. But what can you do for me? In your cover letter, show how that will come to pass.

The cover letter, in particular, should explicitly show that you understand something about the hiring company or agency and explain what, exactly, you can do for it. Don’t talk about your needs, for heaven’s sake. Talk about what you can do for the employer.

One of the funniest application letters that ever crossed my desk came from a guy whose cover letter went on and on about why he was applying to my company. He explained in great detail how he had moved to Florida in search of a better life. He decided he didn’t like the weather there and so he was moving to Arizona and wished to come to work for me.

Second runner-up: an application from a newly minted J-school graduate who couldn’t spell and didn’t recognize the comma splices with which she had salted her cover letter.

😆 🙄 😆

Sure: it’s all about you. But your task is to make it look like you’re all about the employer. And prove it.

6 thoughts on “Resumés: What Do You Have to Say for Yourself?”

  1. Guilty of a few of those… although I am passionate — genuinely! — about improving user experience, providing relevant and timely information, and correcting errors (I’d probably phrase it as “making sure your work looks its best” in an editing context). Passion is what causes you to bounce up and down in your chair and shake your fist at the computer screen, right?

  2. From my job seeking experiences over the last 10 years, the part that I hate the worst is writing a cover letter. I find it very difficult to believe that employers, who are innundated with resumes, are actually going to sit down and read my cover letter. It’s hard enough to get one to read the resume, which actually contains the information that they’re looking for. Just like the ‘Objective’ section was said by more and more ‘experts’ to have no value, I would hope that the next to fall is the cover letter.

    • The cover letter can reveal whether the applicant is even vaguely literate. Honestly, you wouldn’t believe some of the squibs people have sent me. If they can’t do better than that when they’re working all-out to find a job, what are they gonna do when they’re past the probationary period and are darned near impossible to fire?

      Yeah, I’ve heard that the “Objective” should be tossed. Apparently listing something like “accomplishments” in its place is now the style — the idea being to highlight a few things that you’re especially proud of…particularly things relevant to the new job.

      Otherwise, the HR gurus who used to come to my students’ classes pointed out that job applications are now mostly machine-read at the winnowing stage; at best, they get seen first by low-level employees who have no idea what X or Y department even does, much less what they need in a new employee. The first human to see your letter probably reads on the seventh-grade level and so can’t parse out much subtlety. For that reason, they advised using a cover letter that contained the exact wording in the job announcement, and also trying to work some of those words into the resume, to the extent possible.

      Hence: cover letters full of vague, bloviated terms — the very same meaningless hot air the employer emanated in the job ad!

      They suggested that a way to respond to these ads without feeling like an idiot is to organize your cover letter like this:

      Dear Ms. Bltzflck:

      In this week’s issue of the Journal of Particle Physics, you advertised for a nuclear engineer II (job number 573937459003A344). I wish to apply for this position.

      NEXT: place a two-column table (no borders) below the first graf. In the header row, on the left type a header saying something like “Your Requirements” and on the right, a header reading “My Qualifications.”

      Then, in the left column list the bloviated terms they’ve included in their job description.

      In the right column, list the specific ways in which you fit those desiderata as you think they apply to the actual work such a job entails.

      Finally, in the second-to-last paragraph, state specifically (without uttering stupid things like “I will bring an upbeat, team-oriented attitude”) what you think you can do for their company. This requires you to do some research into the company, learning what they do and, with any luck, what direction they hope to take in the future.

      And the last paragraph should be a call to action: “I look forward to meeting with you to discuss the possibilities. Please call or e-mail me at the number or address above, at your convenience. Thank you for your attention, and I hope to hear from you soon.”

      Sincerely, (etc.)

      What this strategy does is to allow you to repeat the keywords that appear in the job description (in the left-hand column) while at the same time expressing yourself like a person with a clear head (in the right-hand column). Machine readers will pick up the airy terms, as will the clerk with a GED. Once your application gets past the first gate-keeper, a person who understands what you’re talking about will then see specific details that may show you can do the job.

  3. Thank you, thank you for this advice, Funny. My husband is looking for a job. The facility where he works is closing. Engineers have their own way of doing things, but I will show him your advice. It makes sense to me.
    My DH mostly has to show that he can use very specific computer programs effectively. I like the two-column idea.

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