As a career advisor, I see a lot of resumes. Despite the fact that we have a very diverse student body at Simon Fraser University, with a wide range of experience, education and expertise, most of the time these resumes have several features in common: a lack of creative formatting, non-descriptive and sometimes clichéd content, and an emphasis on transferable skills resulting from experience gained at typical student jobs (food/customer service industry, clerical work, etc.).
So, it was a pleasant surprise to be looking at resumes of a different kind recently, as I am on a panel that will be recruiting a career advisor—one that will, in a way, be replacing me for a year here at SFU Burnaby. (Not to worry, I’m only moving to another SFU campus in Surrey to cover a colleague’s maternity leave.)
Today, our task was to agree on a shortlist of candidates that we will be inviting for job interviews. Beforehand, our panel (there are four of us) had each reviewed a few dozen or so application packages and come up with our own lists of favourites. This being the first start-to-finish recruitment experience I’ve been involved in, I was fairly excited to engage in the process and very curious as to how my own shortlist would stack up to those of the other panel members.
While I know the advice I give to students is good stuff—information that is both intuitive and based on sound research and training—it always amazes me to see the issues come to life from the perspective of the employer. I can talk a good game about using visual appeal and creativity on resumes, but actually being in the position of having to choose candidates from dozens of resumes that look exactly the same really drives the point home.
Unfortunately, I did have to spend about an hour and a half reading through resumes and cover letters that looked (and sounded) like virtual clones of one another. It’s telling that these were applicants for a career advisor position, many of whom had significant experience in the field of career development. In other words, most had no doubt spent a lot of time giving other people resume advice.
Fortunately, there were some gems in the pile as well—those who really made a unique case and presented themselves with both creativity and professionalism. Their cover letters did not make me sigh audibly when I saw how long they were (and they didn’t start with the sentence: “Please accept the attached resume in application for the position of Career Services Advisor…”). I got a clear sense that each was a real person with a unique personality and some very relevant strengths.
Overall, I selected a list of people who accomplished just that for me: made a unique, creative and professional presentation of their strengths. My list had some names that others on the panel also liked, and some they didn’t. In the end, though, we came to a consensus through a good discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of each application.
Having gone through this short-listing experience, I re-affirmed some basic concepts when it comes to resume and cover letter writing:
1. Format and content are about equal in importance when it comes to writing these documents. I just didn’t have the time or patience to struggle through the poorly formatted applications—especially those near the end of the list.
2. Targeting your application documents to each job posting is essential. We made some cuts based very much on how well applicants aligned with our theoretical and philosophical underpinnings, which would be completely different for other Career Advisor postings.
3. Entitlement = bad. No one is going to hire you if you write an entire cover letter and resume that you clearly just sent out to as many job postings as you could, detailing your extensive work history without once mentioning that you have relevant experience. This makes people think that you think they owe you a job, and that’s the most off-putting quality I can think of in an applicant.
Stay tuned next week for part two: the interviews!