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Dear Sam: Don’t let yourself be defined by unflattering job title

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Samantha Nolin#webDear Sam: My current job title (accounting coordinator) is considered a junior accounting role. However, I perform much more than data entry. I am the sole accountant and perform every function in accounting, including preparing financial reports and performing variance analysis. I work for a very small company where each person manages his or her own department but has the title of “coordinator.”

When interviewing, the interviewer always seems to get stuck on my title, often questioning why I carry that title yet do much more. I try to explain, in a positive manner, that the manager has labeled all staff as coordinators, but it doesn’t seem to help them get past my job title.

I am trying to break into a larger company and advance my career. I am so much more than a junior accountant. I almost feel as if I played myself down by taking this position, if titles are really that important. Should I avoid using that title at all? — Sadly Stuck

Dear Sadly Stuck: I understand your dilemma, and believe it or not, it is not that uncommon for me to work with clients who possess titles that are not actually aligned with what they do every day. Not to worry; there are lots of ways we can paint the right picture through content development, formatting and positioning.

First, be sure everything in the qualifications summary of your résumé accurately shows the breadth of accounting functions you have performed, never mentioning the title you carried.

I suggest that you open your qualifications summary with a professional title such as “staff accountant” or “accounting manager,” depending on the level of position you are seeking.

In the professional-experience section, downplay your title by avoiding formatting that draws attention to it. Often, when a title does not reinforce a candidacy, I list noun phrases where the title would be expected; this immediately conveys the level of responsibility one has held. Follow this with a description of your role, noting your actual title somewhere within the first sentence. Let me give you an example:

Star Enterprise, Cleveland, Ohio

Accounting Management | Financial Reporting | Variance Analysis

Serve as sole accounting professional for a business with 20 employees, two
locations and $2 million in annual revenue, managing all accounting functions
under the title of junior accountant. Create and maintain solid internal controls.

Do you see how it works? The reader’s attention is first drawn to the functional areas in which you work. You can list more than three noun phrases; perhaps just extend from the left to the right side of your page — and bury your title in the opening sentence. Then, when the hiring manager screens your résumé he or she is not first hit with a title that might taint his or her vision.

I have seen this strategy work time and time again and am confident it will work well in your situation.

Also, be sure you are not getting stuck in a negative mindset. You don’t want to negate this strategy by inserting your job title somewhere else in your résumé or cover letter, or by trying to “explain away” the reason for the title.

— Samantha Nolan is a certified professional résumé writer and the owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service résumé-writing firm. Email résumé or job-search questions to dearsam@arkansasonline.com. To find out more about Nolan, visit www.ladybug-design.com.

Written by Linda Garner-Bunch

July 27th, 2014 at 4:00 am

Posted in Dear Sam

Dear Sam: How to write an effective cover letter

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Samantha Nolin#webDear Sam: I have heard no one reads a cover letter. Is that true? If so, do I need to take the time to write one? — Warren

Dear Warren: A cover letter is your opportunity to introduce yourself to a prospective employer, expand upon and personalize your résumé, provide the narrative your résumé does not often allow and highlight how your skills and experiences fulfill the employer’s needs.

A cover letter should be a key part to every application. While it is true that only half of hiring managers actually read cover letters, we are playing to that half of your audience that looks at the letter for additional information on the value of your candidacy. These readers read your cover letter to find out about what we call your “transitions, additions and losses.” Keep in mind that a cover letter not only expresses your interest in the company and/or position, but it also gives the employer the opportunity to observe your attentiveness to detail, spelling, grammar, and quality of your written communication.

When writing a cover letter there are many strategies you can employ in the development and organization of the content. Here are some guidelines:

Open the letter by noting your key qualifications and the position of interest. Use the first paragraph to capture the recipient’s attention and make him or her want to read more. To do this well, you have to clearly understand your key qualifications, the position of interest, and the intended audience.

Use the center section of your cover letter to explore your experiences, successes and skills that support your performance. I often use bullet points to focus the hiring manager’s attention on the most important pieces of information.

Tailor your cover letter to the position and/or company. If you have a clearly defined goal, you do not have to rewrite your entire cover letter for each employer, but be sure the skills highlighted are those most relevant to the opportunity of interest.

Keep it brief. As a rule, cover letters should be no more than one page.

Do all you can to acquire the name of the hiring manager and address your cover letter appropriately.

Use the same heading for your résumé and cover letter to present a clean, professional package.

— Samantha Nolan is a certified professional résumé writer and the owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service résumé-writing firm. Email résumé or job-search questions to dearsam@arkansasonline.com. To find out more about Nolan, visit www.ladybug-design.com.

Written by Linda Garner-Bunch

July 21st, 2014 at 9:05 am

Posted in Dear Sam

Dear Sam: Return-to-work résumé requires careful planning

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Samantha Nolin#webDear Sam: I’ve been a full-time mom for 16 years; before that, most of my early jobs were in the retail arena. In 2012 I earned my bachelor’s degree in general studies and completed continuing education toward a human resources certificate. The attached résumé was completed by the career services department at my university. Any suggestions? — Wendy

Dear Wendy: It can certainly be challenging to create a résumé based on experience from more than 15 years ago. The career services department got you started on the right track, but I do feel there are areas that need attention to create your best candidacy.

• Formatting not pleasing to the eyes

To me, the format is too aggressive — the large blocks of black shading with white text are distracting and create a very masculine résumé. I do not think the format reflects your professional candidacy or your personal character.

• Questionable headings

I am always careful when I name headings, making sure they are accurate and reflect the clients’ skills and experiences listed within the section. In your case, I feel someone stuck to a template a little too tightly.

At the top of your résumé, the summary (which is not really a proper qualifications summary but rather a list of areas to which you have been exposed in your career) is labeled “Areas of Expertise.” I know this is picky, but are you really an expert in all of those areas? If I am working with a seasoned professional, I may introduce select skills with that heading, but I think elevating some of your skills to this level could actually damage the chances of the reader seeing the “real” you.

Your professional-experience section is titled “Selected Accomplishments,” but nothing listed is an accomplishment. Be careful not to overstate your experience: You want to create a marketing document, but accuracy and honesty are important above all else.

• Content (or lack thereof)

I understand the need for a functional design and highlighting areas of experience versus places and times of employment. However, to properly evaluate your résumé, I would need to know your exact dates of employment before deciding whether or not omission of all dates is appropriate. Usually, complete omission of dates is a red flag for hiring managers.

Have you had any part-time roles while raising your children? Any volunteer work that could be included? Think of experiences, other than education, that could potentially be dated and reflect recent, relevant experience. Did you work on the PTA coordinating community fundraisers or support any other causes? Think about other things you can highlight that are not “pure” professional experiences.

In addition, you have only three sentences conveying the value of your professional experiences. I want to see that area developed more. Tell your audience how the work experience you gained 16 years ago is relevant to your current goals.

The bottom line: I feel you have a launching point from which to start with your résumé. However, there is significant room for improvement in presenting your most relevant qualifications so you can compete in the human resources arena. I wish you success.

— Samantha Nolan is a certified professional résumé writer and the owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service résumé-writing firm. Email résumé or job-search questions to dearsam@arkansasonline.com. To find out more about Nolan, visit www.ladybug-design.com.

Written by Linda Garner-Bunch

July 13th, 2014 at 4:00 am

Posted in Dear Sam

Dear Sam: Address basic résumé problems, increase chances of success

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Dear Sam: I need help with my résumé, and I don’t know where to start. To me, on a scale of 1-10, my résumé is a 5. I know I have the experience needed for most front-desk jobs, but I just do not know how to get my résumé to catch an employer’s attention. I would really appreciate any and all the advice you can give me. — Kenisha

Dear Kenisha: I am so glad you sent me your résumé. In its current format, I know hiring managers will not be able to see your ability to perform the duties that you know you can do.

In terms of a score, I would rate it as only a 2, I’m afraid, Kenisha, and I only tell you this so you can see the level of improvement available and how your results could dramatically change if you take advantage of those opportunities — and that your résumé has much room for improvement.

Here are the top problems I see:

• Your lack of focus does not allow others to see who you are.

You must create a target and a theme from the top to the bottom of your résumé.

Opening with an objective statement only tells an employer what you want, not what you can do for the company. Change the focus, and use the top of your résumé to highlight your related front-desk skill set. I suggest focusing on your administrative and customer-service strengths.

• Your education section is in the wrong place.

You are not a recent graduate; therefore, your education should be the last thing presented on your résumé.

In your case, it may be best to omit the education section altogether. The section is actually telling an employer not that you have a high-school diploma (which is what I imagine your goal to be), but rather that you do not have a college degree.

• The formatting is outdated, and it does not support your claims.

As a front-desk professional, employers expect you to have a certain level of technology savviness. Be sure your résumé’s formatting does not counter this claim.

• The content underestimates your professional value.

Explore your professional experiences fully — two-word bullet points do not carry value. In addition, writing about your experience provides you with the opportunity to highlight your written communication skills.

I know you can have a great résumé, Kenisha, and I hope these tips help you better present yourself to potential employers. The sky is the limit!

— Samantha Nolan is a certified professional résumé writer and the owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service résumé-writing firm. Email résumé or job-search questions to dearsam@arkansasonline.com. To find out more about Nolan, visit www.ladybug-design.com.

Written by Linda Garner-Bunch

July 8th, 2014 at 9:49 am

Posted in Dear Sam

Dear Sam: Dig deeper to differentiate your candidacy

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Samantha Nolin#webDear Sam: I read your column and find myself in the same boat as the girl who wrote to you about trying to find a receptionist position. I have had two interviews for one particular position but have not heard back from the employer. Would you look over my résumé and give any suggestions on where I could find a better template? — Ashleigh

Dear Ashleigh: I urge you to not only completely revamp your résumé — it is outdated, especially for a young candidate — but also to truly determine what value you offer, how you are different and what is unique about your candidacy. Understanding these areas will not only help you create a stronger résumé, but it will also help you craft your message during interviews.

Your résumé is underdeveloped. I am shocked that this résumé yielded an interview at all, as you use only 36 words to describe three professional experiences.

Start with positioning yourself in a qualifications summary. What do you want to do? You are pursuing a business-management and human-resources degree, so are you looking for something related? The skills you identify as key qualifications are good, but you need to validate those skills with evidence throughout the content of your résumé.

Also, your work-experience section is lacking. You cannot expect a hiring manager to glean value from a list of one- to four-word bullet points. This brevity does not allow any exploration of the transferability of the functions you have performed. Think about what you have done and how it relates to where you want to go. What goals did you have? Did you exceed them? How did you perform above and beyond expectations? Dig deeper to differentiate your candidacy.

As far as a “template” goes, that is part of the problem. You have selected an archaic template to present your candidacy. Instead, leverage the administrative skill set you are promoting to create something unique. Check out books or websites like mine for inspiration, but never use a template, or you will end up looking like many other candidates out there. I know you can come across as a strong candidate. You just need to do some due diligence to make it happen.

— Samantha Nolan is a certified professional resume writer and the owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service resume-writing firm. Email resume or job-search questions to dearsam@arkansasonline.com. To find out more about Nolan, visit www.ladybug-design.com.

Written by Linda Garner-Bunch

June 29th, 2014 at 4:00 am

Posted in Dear Sam

Dear Sam: Job seeker should plan for, avoid potential disqualifiers

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Dear Sam: I read your article titled “Is it my age?” and it really hit home. I know you are probably bombarded with emails requesting assistance and suggestions with respect to résumés, but I thought I would give it a try.

I will be 65 years old in September, have worked all of my life and am still in good health. Most people find it hard to believe I will be 65 soon.

I was told you should include only the last 10 years of your career on a résumé, but if I do that, it will appear that I did nothing before 2008 because the majority of my work career (i.e., 36 years) was spent at one company.

I did tone down my résumé (1972-2008) to focus on administrative support, since that is the type of employment I am seeking. I am attaching my résumé, and I would appreciate your thoughts and comments. —Sandra

Dear Sandra: I try to respond to every single Dear Sam email. Only a handful make it into the newspaper, but my team and I really do respond to every one possible.

I am so glad you asked this question, which is one of the most common questions I am asked: “How do I convey my “value” when trimming my career to avoid overqualifying myself or unnecessarily aging my candidacy?” It seems like a catch-22, doesn’t it? If you trim your experience, you sort of look like everyone else — but if you don’t, you fear being screened out due to unfortunate assumptions or discrimination.

There is a way to strike a balance between your desire to present your qualifications and experience and an employer’s desire to find a qualified candidate.

First of all, your résumé is not doing you any favors. I fear you have been misguided into developing such a brief résumé that it lacks the ability to communicate the value you have contributed to past employers.

Not only do you not open with a qualifications summary — you instead open with an objective statement which immediately dates your candidacy and approach — but your first statement, in a summary of skills section, is a killer: “40-plus years of administrative-assistant experience.”

Never will you see a job posting that calls for 40-plus years of experience. By focusing on this, you are immediately positioning yourself as overqualified, in your 60s and potentially too expensive. You do have to “right-size” your candidacy by presenting 10 to 15 years of professional work history.  Even if you had taken that approach, however, that first statement would completely undo your strategy.

Instead of stating your years of experience, why not communicate the value you have offered past employers? Talk about things like the size of the teams you have supported, the efficiencies you have created and the myriad of functions you are able to manage without supervisor oversight. In essence, give the hiring manager a reason to bring you in for an interview — other than the number of years of experience you possess.

Next, in the professional-experience section, drop the months of employment and only use years. Provide years of each position after the titles so you can trim your 36 years with your earliest employer. By doing this, you can present your last two roles back to 2008 and then include about the last 10 years with your first employer.

By dating titles and not employers, you say, “I worked in this position from 2004 to 2008” instead of, “I worked with this company from 1972 to 2008.” Do you see the difference?

At the end of your professional-experience section, you can then simply add a note that says, “Additional experience with ABC Company performing administrative, customer service and operations support functions.” By doing this, you tell a potential employer that you do have additional experience with that employer; by not dating that early experience, you avoid aging your candidacy.

You could really have a phenomenal résumé; you just need to be a little more strategic in communicating your value and avoiding potential disqualifiers.

— Samantha Nolan is a certified professional résumé writer and the owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service résumé-writing firm. Email résumé or job-search questions to dearsam@arkansasonline.com. To find out more about Nolan, visit www.ladybug-design.com.

Written by Linda Garner-Bunch

June 22nd, 2014 at 4:00 am

Posted in Dear Sam

Dear Sam: Résumé style, content date his candidacy

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Samantha Nolin#webDear Sam: I am 57 years old, and I can’t seem to get my résumé noticed. I need help! I have been applying for countless jobs and can’t seem to get any interviews. My wife thinks it’s my résumé; I think it’s my age. Regardless, I am getting no callbacks, interviews or even thank-you letters. — Rob

Dear Rob: Thank you for sending your résumé so I could diagnose the issues.

Your wife is correct: It is your résumé that is disqualifying you from potential opportunities. You have only presented 24 years of professional work history, so readers can’t calculate your age from how much experience you have presented — but based on the way you have written your résumé, you have aged your candidacy.

First, I am assuming you are seeking a role in construction management, based on what I read in your qualifications summary. Based on this, I would expect to know: (1) what types and sizes (dollar value, square feet, etc.) of projects you have worked on; (2) what makes you marketable and the most qualified candidate; and (3) how your experience has positioned you as a subject-matter expert in your field. Explore your key qualifications in greater detail to help differentiate your candidacy in a very competitive market.

Second, you are presenting a 24-year history as a business owner. For many employers, hiring an entrepreneur can be a little more risky: What is to say you would not decide you want to be the boss and run your own show again? You have to dig deep and explore the value your business-leadership experience provides when transitioning into an employee role. Deliver a balance of the core elements of your role, along with key project highlights, to make sure your background comes across as unique and value-added.

Lastly, omit your education section. You are not really communicating that you have a high-school diploma, but rather you are highlighting that you do not have a college degree.

I know you can have a much more strategic résumé that positions you as uniquely qualified and does not unnecessarily age your candidacy.

— Samantha Nolan is a certified professional resume writer and the owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service resume-writing firm. Email resume or job-search questions to dearsam@arkansasonline.com. To find out more about Nolan, visit www.ladybug-design.com.

Written by Linda Garner-Bunch

June 15th, 2014 at 4:00 am

Posted in Dear Sam

Dear Sam: Practice interviewing techniques to land job

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Samantha Nolin#webDear Sam: I have been out of the workforce for nearly two years. I am currently working on completing my paralegal certificate. Prior to that, I was a stay-at-home mom. I have several years of law-office work experience. How can I make myself more marketable? I have been to nearly 100 job interviews but still cannot find a job. Would it be a good idea to work in a law office as an intern to improve my legal skills? I have a ton of bills, so it’s hard to volunteer, but would that make the difference? — Melissa

Dear Melissa: Wow — 100 interviews? If you are getting in the door for these interviews, then your résumé must be reflecting the experience the interviewer wants to see.

Something must be happening during your interviews that is turning possible employers off. You don’t get 100 interviews if your résumé isn’t opening doors.

Have you noticed any negative reactions to certain elements of your interviews? Do you struggle when answering certain questions? Are you bringing negativity about past employers to the table? Reflect on past interviews to see if you can identify a pattern of what went wrong.

Also, can you connect with a few of those interviewers and politely ask for candid feedback? I can’t tell you how many hiring managers I have met who would be very happy to provide a candidate with constructive criticism to help the interviewee improve his or her skills.

You should also try conducting a mock interview with a friend or professional within your network. Perhaps an objective person could provide insight into what is going wrong. You may want to set up a video camera so you can review your responses — and also take a look at your nonverbal cues. Sometimes we do things during interviews that we aren’t even aware of.

I think that if you focus on getting the interview right, you will be able to close one of those next opportunities.

— Samantha Nolan is a certified professional résumé writer and the owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service résumé-writing firm. Email résumé or job-search questions to dearsam@arkansasonline.com. To find out more about Nolan, visit www.ladybug-design.com.

Written by Linda Garner-Bunch

June 8th, 2014 at 4:00 am

Posted in Dear Sam

Dear Sam: Should gaps in employment be explained?

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Samantha Nolin#webDear Sam: In 2011, I left corporate America to take care of my two young children. I worked part time for a while until the company went out of business in 2013. I then attended a certification course for about a year.

I am concerned about the employment gap on my resume. Is it appropriate to address the fact that I stayed home with my children, causing a gap in my employment history? — Celia

Dear Celia: There is no need to address the reason for your gap in employment, either on your resume or in your cover letter.

When the hiring manager reads your resume, notices the gap and sees that you are a woman, he or she will probably assume you took time off to stay home with a child. I do not believe you need to address the employment gap at all.

Instead, you should focus on your previous experiences, achievements and continued professional development. By concentrating on your work experience — vs. the reason for your absence from the workforce — you focus the hiring manager’s attention on the areas that enhance or support your candidacy, leaving the gap in employment as a minimal factor in your evaluation.

One thing you can do to effectively minimize the appearance of the gap: Do not present the month you left your employers in 2011 and 2013; simply list the years. It is not uncommon for today’s job searchers to have gaps in employment, so presenting experience through 2013 and then showing that you completed a certification program will create an attractive picture and completely acceptable time line.

— Samantha Nolan is a certified professional resume writer and the owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service resume-writing firm. Email resume or job-search questions to dearsam@arkansasonline.com. To find out more about Nolan, visit www.ladybug-design.com.

Written by Linda Garner-Bunch

June 1st, 2014 at 4:00 am

Posted in Dear Sam

Dear Sam: Résumé makeover helps former serviceman advance career

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Samantha Nolin#webDuring this weekend’s Memorial Day celebrations, I want to take a moment to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our great nation.

Recently, I had the privilege of working with a client who has dedicated almost all of his career to working in service to others through the United States Army, the Army National Guard, the United Way and other key organizations committed to providing assistance to at-risk communities.

MEET STEVE

Steve came to me with an existing résumé that lacked appeal — not based on where he had worked or what he had accomplished, but simply because of content and formatting selections.

His original résumé opened with a list of professional qualifications that spilled into some fragmented bullet points providing a handful of words on his skills and experiences.

In the experience section that followed, Steve presented only bullet points for each of his engagements. Because there was seemingly no prioritization to these lists, gaining a quick grasp of his background was virtually impossible.

To end his résumé, Steve presented his education, technical certifications and achievements — the latter containing very important training, his military experience and other differentiating professional-development programs.

NEW APPROACH

Steve was seeking a community-relations manager position, so I knew his résumé needed to be engaging, have personality and really show what Steve had contributed to the communities he had served.

After opening with a much more interesting summary, I presented excerpts from performance reviews that immediately validated the value we want to communicate to the reader.

Through an on-point summary that clearly conveys why Steve is qualified for such a role, combined with a skills list of related abilities, the reader can now stop reading after the opening section of the résumé and already know that Steve is fully qualified and worthy of an interview.

EXPERIENCE IS KEY

The experience section of Steve’s original résumé was turned upside down. From that sea of bullet points emerged a multitiered presentation of highlights, core responsibilities and key contributions. This strategy allows the presentation of quite a lot of information without losing the reader’s interest.

By introducing his key contributions with functional subheadings, I was able to further communicate the transferability of Steve’s experiences to his next career move.

HIGHLIGHTING, NOT HIDING

As mentioned above, Steve had an accomplishments section on his original résumé that contained some very important and relevant information.

To make sure the correct amount of focus is paid to each piece of information, I decided to break up Steve’s presentation of education, professional development, community involvement and military leadership.

By doing this, we ensure that no important information is lost, and all sections have ample opportunity to add value to Steve’s candidacy.

Steve’s new, more readable résumé appears below.

— Samantha Nolan is a certified professional resume writer and the owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service resume-writing firm. Email resume or job-search questions to dearsam@arkansasonline.com. To find out more about Nolan, visit her website, www.ladybug-design.com.

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Written by Linda Garner-Bunch

May 25th, 2014 at 4:00 am

Posted in Dear Sam

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