Hard Copies: Writing Resumes that Work

October 9, 2012

Washington, D.C.: My questions relate to letters of recommendation. I’m concerned because my former direct boss wrote a two-paragraph enthusiastic letter that says I’m wonderful and all but doesn’t go into any specific accomplishments or provide concrete examples to support his statements. How do I handle that? Meanwhile, the other most important person to give me a recommendation -- a CEO who is revered in my industry -- wants me to ghostwrite my own letter of recommendation for her. I have no idea how to do that. Finally, do I include those letters with the resume and writing samples or wait until asked to supply them? Help!

Scott Bennett:1. I see one reason why the CEO is revered. Carefully use his generosity to write a concrete, example-filled letter -- with the type of specificity you wanted but didn’t get from the other person. This letter is not the time or place for modesty. Have it checked by at least two people whose writing skills and candor you trust. 2. Be candid with the vague fellow and ask if you may draft some specifics to support his kind statements; if he is enthusiastic about you, he will welcome this.

Arlington, Va.: I have close to 20 years of total work experience but with only two employers. Should I try to have a one-page resume? Also, when listing work experience dates, should I list years only or month and year (2003 to 2006 or 01/2003 to10/2006)?

Scott Bennett: A page is likely a breeze for someone with two gigs in 20 years. Use month/year with only last two digits of year (1/03-10/06). Doing so helps show your attention to detail -- without the silly claim, “attentive to detail.”

Washington, D.C.: It seems that many hiring managers look only at people with degrees.

I did not finish my senior year of college and am attending part-time to achive this goal. Currently, I’ve listed the number of hours that I earned in addition to my ten years of work experience. Should I mention on my resume that I’m attending college with and plan to earn a degree in the next year?

Scott Bennett: Absolutely! If you are attending evenings, indicate that, too. Include “XXX degree expected MO/YR.”

From teacher to finance? Please help!: I’m have a B.S. in physics and have taught high school math and physics for 10 years. I HATE teaching: the low pay, the disrespect, the discipline problems, the paperwork. Frankly, I’d rather be unemployed than teach.

I would like to move into finance with an eye towards getting an employer who will pay for me to get my MBA either full-time or part-time.

I went back to school this summer and took graduate economics classes, and got a part time research consulting gig.

What else can I do to position myself? How should I slant my resume so it doesn’t scream “teacher” and makes me look qualified for a position in financial/stock market analysis?

I currently have a functional resume, but its not doing much to sell me. My teacher resume is far more impressive, but doesn’t help with my career change.

Please help!

Scott Bennett: Your question requires more than a quick answer. I encourage you to either buy my book (Elements of Resume Style) for under 10 dollars or if you cannot afford it, please get it at the library. The reason your chronological teacher resume is more impressive is that it’s real. To quote the kids, keep it real, and position your desire to change careers in a (brief!) goal statement and (brief!) cover letter.

D.C.: We are currently hiring for an admin. position at our law firm and most of the resumes have two or more pages. Some even have four! It is the exception when someone submits a one-pager, and these people are immediately given a second look. Are people that misinformed that they don’t know that a resume over one page is almost NEVER acceptable?

Scott Bennett: Yes, most folks are misinformed. There are no hard and fast rules about one-page, but brevity is appreciated by most all readers, including hiring managers. Everyone who reads resumes also has lots of other work to do. Respect the reader’s time. Writing short is hard to do, but the payoff in increased responses makes it worth the effort.

Washington, D.C.: What is your thought on sending letters of recommendations with the resume/cover letter combo?

Scott Bennett: I would not recommend doing this. The only job you need assign to your cover letter is to convey your enthusiasm and get the reader to look at your resume. The only job you need assign to your resume is to honestly convey where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and where you’re going (this all includes concrete examples of the skills you can bring to bear anywhere) in a way that is compelling enough to get your phone to ring. Save the swell recommendation letters for later in the process, at your successful interview.

Portland, Oregon: Hi Scott,

I’m returning to the workplace after taking a year off to help care for my father who had a stroke. I’m not sure how to word this both in my resume and cover letter. I’ve been temping to pay bills since I needed the flexibility.

I went to a resume workshop who suggested I should mention my absence from the workplace in the first paragraph of my cover letter, but honestly, it doesn’t flow very well. I’m inclined to put it at the end, but I understand most cover letters don’t get read past the first or second paragraph. Any advice? Thanks.

Scott Bennett: Your instinct is exactly right. The reason it doesn’t flow very well is that your situation is not the reader’s problem. Simply leave the gap (with the last exit date on your resume a year ago), ignore the issue in the cover letter, and make sure your resume has plenty of concrete examples of skills (not empty claims but concrete examples). Hiring managers who want those skills will call you (really!) and ASK about the gap, and you will answer. People in 2006 whose resumes are completely linear and have no gaps are unusual and sometimes, frankly, suspect.

Silver Spring, Md.: How do you ensure that your resume is reaching the right people that it needs to? How else can you ensure it’s getting into the right hands besides sending it through the company e-mail?

Scott Bennett: Do your homework. Get the correctly spelled names of hiring manager and HR manager. Send to both. If e-mail doesn’t do it, hand deliver it. Fax it. Snail-mail it.

Reston, Va.: Many positions are looking for “good analytical skills” or “good time management skills.” Is it worth listing those skills on a resume? It seems a little silly.

Scott Bennett: It seems silly because it is silly. Instead, include concrete examples (stuff you actually did) that clearly shows the reader you have those skills. Instead of hollow self-puffery, include concrete examples of the skills you can bring to bear anywhere.

Philadelphia, Penn.: Hi, I have two questions:

1. Is a goal statement absolutely necessary on a resume?

2. My resume is two pages. I keep trying to chop it down, but I’ve had four professional jobs, plus my education and affiliations. In general how can I consolidate? And how important is a one-page resume?

Scott Bennett:

1. No. A goal statement is not needed at all unless you are changing careers.

2. Keep font to 11 or 12 point. Keep margins to one inch. Do not willy-nilly mess with kerning to smoosh letters together. Choose your words with care and if you really (!) need a page and a little more, so be it. There are no hard and fast rules, except that, generally speaking, brevity is deeply appreciated.

Philadelphia, Penn.: How long and/or detailed should the ideal cover letter be?

Scott Bennett: Ideally, four sentences or less. We know one thing for sure about the person who started the myth that cover letters are supposed to be four paragraphs -- he or she did not have to read cover letters. Convey enthusiasm. Get the reader to look at your resume. Invite contact. That’s it. Respect the reader’s time. Imagine you are an employer, slogging through hundreds of lengthy cover letters, and you suddenly see one with two or three sentences; it’s bursting with enthusiasm. You are jarred by it; it gets your attention -- you think, here’s someone who respects my time. I’ll look at the resume.

Alexandria, Va.: If someone changes careers, should they continue to list the old career on their resume? If not, will the gap in employment history raise any red flags?

Scott Bennett: Career changes are common. I do not recommend omitting previous careers. Smart employers are after transferable skills. Include examples of these (not empty claims, but examples) and you are good to go.

Fairfax, Va.: I’ve been out of college about a year and a half, but now I’m back in grad school and looking to start a whole new career. Is it still appropriate to keep things like merit scholarships I was awarded and my undergraduate GPA on my resume? Should I put my graduate GPA on there too, even though it’s only from one semester! I feel like it may be time to move away from that, but that without it my resume will look pretty bare.

Scott Bennett: Listen to your instincts. Merit Scholarships and kick-$*# GPAs show hard work; include them. Yes, include graduate GPA, too. Keep up the great work!

Alexandria, Va.: What is your opinion of the new style of resume I have seen in which there is a lengthy section in which the person outlines his “professional goals”?

If I am hiring someone I don’t give a flip about his hopes and dreams, all I want to know is if he can do the job he is applying for. Putting this nonsense in a resume to me indicates that the applicant is so self-centered that he may put his long-term plans over the interests of the place where he presumably wishes to work. I would toss such a resume into the “circular file” immediately!

Scott Bennett: I’m with you. Reverse-chronological resumes are what employers of all sizes (from 30 to 34,000 people) tend to prefer, from what I have observed.

Portland again: Thanks, Scott, for your advice, though now I’m just frustrated! Not to disparage you in any way, but why do so many resume/cover letter experts say different things? My boyfriend bought me the 201 Killer Cover Letters, which also mentions addressing a recent large gap in the cover letter. Then you and others say DON’T! You can see why an applicant can want to pull their hair out!

Scott Bennett: Yes, the array of advice is alarming. That’s why I wrote the book (The Elements of Resume Style). I think seeing hundreds of examples is dangerous because every candidate’s story is unique; you can’t simply pluck stuff from other people’s examples. You need to think through your situation and listen to your instincts.

On a related note...: Not a resume issue but a job candidate issue. Please remind people that after an interview a follow-up thank you note is really necessary. I recently made a hire -- only one candidate followed up their interview with a thank you e-mail. Guess who I hired?

Scott Bennett: Is everyone reading this person’s question?!?!?!? Thanks. Excellent point. You are not alone.

Silver Spring, Md.: This discussion couldn’t be better timed for me. After more than 20 years with one company, I started a new job about a year and a half ago. It’s not “job charming,” but I like it fine. Yesterday, out of the blue, I received a call from another company asking me to apply for a position with them. (This is a company that lots of people would kill to work for, and I am flattered and, yes, psyched.) I have two questions:

1. Should I do anything differently on my resume and cover letter because this company approached me?

2. My only real hesitation about applying with this new company is that I’m uneasy about letting my boss down. My current employer is a very small company, and one of the things he said when I interviewed was that he liked the fact that I don’t change jobs a lot. I didn’t make any explicit promises about how long I’d stay, but we both assumed I’d be there a good while. Any advice on this front?

Thanks!

Scott Bennett:

1. I do not know (and can’t review) what your cover letter and resume look like, so I really cannot answer this. 2. Listen to your instincts. If you abandon this opportunity, will you grow to resent your current employer and be angry with yourself? Whenever we are ‘psyched,’ we must listen to this!

washingtonpost.com: That’s all for today. Special thanks to Scott Bennett for being our guest. If you’re starting a job search and need resume tips, check out our special feature Hard Copies. It’s full of expert advice, articles and online tools that will help you write a winning resume and cover letter that can land that interview.

Editor’s Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

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