– by Wendy Morley, Publisher –
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The problem with graduating from college or university is that you now have to get a job. And if you’re like most recent graduates, you’ll be keen on getting a job in your actual field of study rather than at the local coffee shop, although most of us have ended up there. But entry-level positions for good jobs are notoriously difficult to get, and with good reason. When I’ve hired for entry-level editorial positions, for example, I would often get 500 to 600 applications for every one.
That’s not a reason to give up; it’s a reason to make sure you stand out. But how on earth can you stand out in a field like that? If you’re looking for work in most areas of media, you’ll need to have some (usually unpaid) interning under your belt, preferably in addition to other real-world experience – published articles, for example. Hopefully you will have been getting any experience you can in whatever field you’re trying to get into, from the stereotypical mail-room job in larger corporations to helping at a vet clinic over the summer to getting experience as a volunteer in charitable or arts organizations.
But even with doing all that, you will probably have some stiff competition.
I have found that out of even hundreds of applicants there will be a few that immediately stand out, and those are without question the ones I zero in on for hiring. Could some of the other applicants be great? Sure, but I may never know it because they’ve been overshadowed by better presentation. Some of the reasons might be relevant, such as writing, grammar and spelling for an editorial position, and some might not seem relevant at all, such as the resume’s design for a job in the financial industry. But any resume that lacks attention to detail will tell your prospective employer that you are maybe a little lazy and will not go the extra step to ensure you will do the job well, and little missteps can have big consequences. I’ve interviewed a group of people who hire in diverse industries including media, fashion, hotel, retail, IT, trades and government, with a couple of recruiters thrown in for good measure. And this is what they said.
- Weight of Cover Letter vs Resume
Some application processes require a cover letter and some don’t, but if you include one you must expect it to be weighted heavily. For me, the cover letter is more important than the resume itself, because I hire mainly for editorial and communications. I care far more about whether you can coherently get ideas across in an enjoyable manner than which degree you got. I always read the cover letter first and unless it piques my interest I don’t look at the resume. Irina, who hires in IT, says she does not require a cover letter but if one is presented, it counts for 50% of the decision. Rachel, who hires in the fashion industry, (see article about Rachel’s dream job here) says a bad cover letter means the resume goes in the garbage heap, and that seems to be the case almost across the board.
Cover letters allow a glimpse into the human being attached to the resume, and ultimately that is what you hire, not a list of abilities. Cover letters are also where I’ve seen the gravest errors. The most common one is sending me a cover letter clearly meant for another company. Trust me, you probably won’t get hired for a job at Coca-Cola when your cover letter states you’ve been dreaming all your life of a job with Pepsi.
Out of those interviewed here, Brian, who has hired for the government and for the automotive industry plus David and Jaclyn, who are recruiters, give the least weight to a cover letter. This makes sense, because they won’t personally be working with the individual hired. In the other cases, the person hiring would deal directly with the individual being hired, so the individual is especially important.
What Do You Want to See in a Cover Letter?
The cover letter is where your personality can shine through. It’s also a good place to get points across that cannot be shown in a resume. Why do you want this position in particular? Are you making a career change? “Make me intrigued,” says Irina. “Make me interested in meeting you face to face.”
Michael, who hires in retail, also wants you to state in a cover letter anything the employer should know that might affect the time of hire or the interview process. Have you booked a vacation for the coming month? This will be very irritating to the individual who goes through the entire hiring process only to find you’re not available to work at the biggest trade show of the year, for example.
- What Does a Resume Need?
A resume must be well organized and neat. If you’re looking for a job in the creative field, your resume must show some flair and a good design. In an insurance company, you might want to avoid the flair altogether.
The basics of a good resume were pretty well agreed upon by all:
– The resume should be tailored to the position instead of cookie cutter
– Show relevant work experience
– Very brief descriptions of relevant skills and abilities
– State your accomplishments and not a list of your responsibilities. If sales soared after you implemented a new program, your next employer wants to know.
– Show that you’ve considered how you will be of value to the company – how will you help create revenue? How will you help the company to function more efficiently or better? A company always needs to benefit more financially from you than they pay you, whether your financial role is direct, as in sales, or indirect, as in ensuring a product gets made properly and on time and budget
– Education, relevant training and volunteer work and activities outside of work. One person said she doesn’t want to see your interests, but most people hiring like to see that you have a life outside of work. Besides, there may be times when your hobbies end up relevant to the position or company. But keep this list brief!
– Show that you have a consistent employment history that made sense. “I want to see consistent growth,” says Nancy M, who hires in the hotel industry. “Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back in order to move forward, but there should be logic to your positions.” Any blanks or jumps in employment history should be addressed, and the cover letter might be the best place to do so.
- What Do You Never Want to See On a Resume?
Lack of attention to detail is a huge no-no. Spelling and grammar are the biggest concerns, but this also includes messiness, disorganization, using different fonts, columns that do not line up. For most people who hire, a spelling error is an instant no, although if writing is not part of the job some will forgive a slight error or two.
Note: It’s a good idea to convert your word doc to a pdf so it displays properly, especially if you use a less-common font (although you really should not be using a weird font, regardless of how pretty you find it). You may have everything lined up beautifully but when the person hiring opens up your document things may have moved around. You’ll never even know why you didn’t get the interview, because everything looked so perfect to you!
Irrelevant information is irritating to anyone reading a zillion resumes. You can probably figure out that no one needs to know you won your middle school music award, but lots of job experience is irrelevant as well. Put yourself in the place of the person hiring. Ask yourself if this piece of information might be relevant for any reason. If the answer is no, delete.
With one exception, all people interviewed for this article said do not include a picture. Apparently in some parts of the world a picture is mandatory, but I’ve always found it disconcerting. Especially one photo that was of a man sitting barefoot and cross-legged, surrounded by hand drums. If the job had been in music perhaps it might have been more understandable.
No jokes, attempts at banter or the sense that you’re familiar with the person reading the resume.
No personal information that should not be there: Social security number, religious or political affiliation, for example.
- The Interview
“There’s only one reason to hold an interview,” says Nancy M, “and that’s to see who’s the best fit.”
Depending on the workplace and the person interviewing, this could mean who will take direction or it might mean who will not need direction. It might mean who is sociable enough to get along with a wide range of people and it might mean who’s ok with working alone. It usually at least takes into account who is willing to put forth that extra effort and who best understands the company and the position’s requirements.
“You can’t evaluate things like leadership, core values, empathy and fit by reading a resume,” says David.
“I find that it is vital that the person fit into the culture of the workplace,” says Nancy U., who hires for retail. “Everyone who works for me loves the environment and the job. One bad apple could spoil it all. It’s very tricky and extremely important!”
Here are some key tips for interview day.
– Arrive on time, but no more than 15 minutes early
– Look the part and present yourself well. Wear professional attire. If you’re going for a job at a law office, don’t wear your new boho chic dress, for example. Be clean and well groomed.
– Ask questions. Getting the job doesn’t benefit anyone if you actually do not like the work environment or disagree with what’s expected of you. This is the time for everyone to figure things out, not during your probation period.
“Ask the questions that matter to your happiness in a job,” says Nancy M. “Ask about the team, the culture, the potential for growth, the turnover, the challenges, the best things the position has to offer. Come prepared to ask questions.”
– Be confident, and be yourself. Know what you know and be comfortable with what you don’t know. I’d much rather hear a person I’m interviewing say they’re unsure of something than hear them say they’re an expert at everything. Being able to say you don’t know something is a sign of maturity, confidence and the ability to learn. All great qualities.
– Research the company. For medium to large companies you can probably find tons of information and learn exactly they’re looking for in an employee. Go on Linkedin and check out the employees of a company – you can do this anonymously. Look at their interests, their backgrounds. See how they come across. Read the company’s mission statement. Check out which charities they support, if any. The more you can learn about the employees and the company, the more confident you’ll be and the better you will perform during the interview.
– Come prepared. Bring a few copies of your resume with you, so you have one for each person interviewing you. Just because they’re hiring you doesn’t mean they’re well organized. Bring reference letters. They probably won’t ask for them, but if they do, you’ll have them. Bring your portfolio, if you are applying for a job in media.
“Do your homework about the company you are applying to,” says Brian, who has hired in industry and for the government. “Know their history, what they do, how many offices they have, where they’re located; learn a bit of financial background. I personally try to figure out about 10 questions I might be asked in an interview and determine how I will answer those questions ahead of time.”
Length of resume: One page if you do not have a lot of experience, one or two if you do. Never longer than two pages.
Reference letters: I’m afraid there is zero consistency. Some people put no stock in them, some say they’re mandatory. Some people want them attached, some say never attach them. Some people prefer to see quotes about specific abilities as opposed to actual letters. The very slight majority prefers to ask for references, so we’ll leave it at that.
Business references: Yes, with few exceptions, they will call. This is mainly to make sure you were truthful about your previous positions, but also to find out other positives or negatives if possible. Are you a positive person who inspires others? Are you a solution finder? Are you perpetually late? Are you defensive and hate constructive criticism?
Number of interviews before hire: The more senior the position, the more interviews. For entry level, it’s usually two or three.
Wendy has spent much of her life writing about things that improve readers’ health and well being. She has no patience for negativity, shaming or dictating how others “should” be, but rather aims to help people become both true to themselves and happy to be alive.