Archive for the ‘Resumes’ Category

Create a Professional Portfolio to Demonstrate Your Skills

Friday, October 30th, 2009

A portfolio is more than just a souped-up resume. The process of creating a professional portfolio to describe your past work may help prepare you to talk about your areas of expertise with a potential employer, and may help you discover skills you didn’t know you have.

My introduction to portfolios

I created my first portfolio in 2004, when I applied for a position at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. I found the process to be enlightening–it reinforced in my mind that I had solved interesting problems in my past work experience and was fully qualified for the job. I got the job, and in that position I met Professor Dale Fitch (now at the University of Missouri) was working on a project to incorporate online portfolio creation into the curriculum (see his article, The use of ePortfolios in evaluating the curriculum and student learning, for details).

His scholarly findings go beyond the scope of this blog post, but for me a key takeaway was this: the process of creating a portfolio helps people better understand their own skill development.

How can creating a portfolio help me?

For a student, this may be pretty obvious. You’ve taken classes, written essays, taken tests. At the end of a few years, you get a diploma. But what job-worthy skills have you demonstrated? The process of creating a portfolio can help you identify and describe the skills you’ve acquired.

Likewise, in your work history, each project you’ve undertaken has required a variety of skills. Thinking about the processes for each project can help you integrate what you’ve done with competencies you demonstrated and skills you developed. This process can help you better understand what you already know how to do and are capable of undertaking–and give you the words to describe it to a potential employer!

Some fields, like graphic design or architecture, regularly require portfolios as part of the job application process. Even if your line of work does not require a portfolio, it’s a good idea to create one. Not only will the process of creating it help you identify your current strengths, providing it to a prospective employer can give you a leg up over candidates who submit only a resume and cover letter.

How to create a portfolio

I’m not going into details about how to format a print portfolio and organize it in a binder, or how to create a web-based portfolio. That will be a challenge I’ll leave up to you. Here is my advice on creating the content:

A portfolio is basically a collection of projects. For each project, include:

  1. Project description
  2. Project timeframe (and duration, if applicable)
  3. Project challenges
  4. Project solutions
  5. Project outcomes

Example Project Entry

In one of my past jobs I was the advertising production manager for, a Michigan news & information website. Requests for a new ad graphic or advertising web page could be triggered by various means: paper insertion orders delivered by the office manager, or phone calls or e-mail messages from members of the sales staff. The requests often lacked all of the necessary information to get the ad creation process started, so I created an online form that would prompt the requester the fill in all the necessary information, which then automatically went into an online queue. Here’s what the portfolio entry might look like:

Online Ad Request System, 2002

Challenge: Advertising creative requests were received from disparate sources and were hard to track by both the ad production team and the sales staff. Additionally, they often contained incomplete information, resulting in delays. As a result, the department often missed its target service level of a 2-business day turnaround.

Solution: I created an interactive online form using HTML, Javascript, and Perl to streamline the request process. All requests now have a single point-of-entry, and the request status can be tracked online by both the ad production team and the sales staff. This system improved request completeness and reduced time-consuming status updates, resulting in 95% request completion within our target service level.

Not only does this demonstrate specific skills (HTML, Javascript, Perl) that might not fit a resume job description, but it also demonstrates the ability to connect those skills to real-world business problems like project tracking and quality assurance.

Including an image, if applicable–even if it’s just a photo of a team of people you worked with on the project–can be a nice touch, and make it feel more portfolio-esque.

Have you created a professional portfolio?

Did you find the process helped you better describe your strengths and skills to potential employers? Let me know about it in the comments!

Customize your Cover Letter (and Resume)

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Giving a Stalled Job Search a Jump-Start in yesterday’s WSJ tells the story of Rachel Jones, who applied for 130 jobs and used the same cover letter for every prospective employer. It wasn’t until she started writing cover letters tailored to the companies and position openings that she started to get called back for interviews.

Mating Rituals

Think of it like a dating site: would you contact a prospective date with a form letter, or would you take the time to mention interests listed on a prospective date’s profile, and highlight areas where the two of you are compatible?

A form letter is a big turn-off: “This person isn’t interested in me; they are just interested in a date–any date.” In the same way, a person reading a form cover letter is going to see that the applicant isn’t interested in the position; they are just interested in a job–any job.

The same kind of details need to go into your cover letter. Show that you know something about the company. Show that you paid attention to the job description, if you are applying for a specific open position. For example, if the job description mentions budgeting, you can mention your 4-years of experience creating budgets at Widget World, Inc. If you are applying to work in marketing for a tree nursery, mention the tree identification class you took from the city Parks & Recreation department last summer. Find the things you have in common and emphasize them!

Your Resume Deck

Don’t think that a custom cover letter is the end of the story. You should customize your resume as well, particularly if you are applying for jobs that are a little outside your usual field of expertise.

People who give frequent slideshow presentations often refer to their PowerPoint decks. Like a deck of cards, the slides can be shuffled and dealt to best suit the intended audience. Giving a presentation to a technical audience? Include all the slides with the nitty-gritty technical details. Giving a presentation to the executive suite? Skip the details and give them an executive summary, along with a dose of what it means for their business strategy.

In the same way, you should have a resume deck. For each position you’ve held in the past, you demonstrated a variety of skills. However, the graphic design skills you used to create advertisements at your local newspaper 10 years ago aren’t going to impress anyone at your new accounting firm. On the other hand, your project management skills and attention to detail at that same position are far more relevant.

For your resume deck, under each position held list every skill you demonstrated and project you completed. You will never send this version to a prospective employer, but it will be your starting point for each resume that you do send out. When it comes time to send a resume, keep only the items that best fit the job description.

2 Pages – Make Them Count

You generally have just 2 pages to impress a prospective employer (sometimes more, if your work experience merits a multi-page resume). Every word should help get you to an interview. If there is something on either your resume or cover letter that is not going to convince a prospective employer that you are the right candidate for the job, get rid of it! Replace items of questionable merit with something relevant and impressive.

Knife-Thrower Seeks Juggling Position

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

There’s a good article, Gaping Gap? How to Plug Holes in Your Work History, on Careerealism today with advice on how to deal with gaps in your employment history.

One of their suggestions is to omit a job or two–if your employment history is long enough, you can just list other positions held, without dates, in a summary labeled previous experience.

Masking a gap, in my opinion, is not the only reason to omit a job from a resume. In some cases, I don’t even know if a previous experience summary is all that helpful. So long as you have sufficient work experience in your field, there is no reason to dig back to your summer jobs during college or high school. Chances are, no one cares that 12 years ago you worked briefly a sales associate at Target, or that you picked up some extra cash one summer at the Baskin-Robbins.

Focus on the jobs that are relevant to the position you are applying for, and focus on the skills you demonstrated there that are most relevant to the position you are applying for.

After all: You might be an excellent knife-thrower, but if the circus is looking for a juggler, who cares?

Job seekers dramatically outnumber openings

Monday, September 28th, 2009

In U.S. Job Seekers Exceed Openings by Record Ratio in today’s New York Times, they reveal that there are 6 times as many job seekers as there are available job openings. As many of you know, there are some areas where that ratio is even more unbalanced: I’ve talked to people who say they are regularly up against over 100 qualified candidates for the same position. Ouch. Even industries like health care, where constant growth was anticipated (drawing people to training and certification programs) have seen declines.

One of the personal stories covered in the article illuminates a point I’ve made recently: college-educated Vicki Redican lost a lucrative job as a sales and marketing manager, and has since failed to pick up work even as a cashier or selling coffee. Although Ms. Redican’s situation may be different, in my recent article, Lost Job? Don’t Panic, I explain why no one wants to hire a person who is aiming too low.

How do you make yourself stand out against 100 other applicants? How do you make sure you are in the 99th percentile?

How hiring managers look at resumes

When I am sorting through a pile of resumes, I am not looking for the ideal candidate. I am looking for reasons to eliminate candidates. Right off the bat, I reject resumes that have atrocious misspellings. Additionally, I reject anything that appears to be applying for a job rather than the job — you need to tailor your resume and cover letter to suit the position you are vying for. For some positions, the posting called for sending a resume and portfolio — it was simple to reject any applicant who did not supply the latter.

Those steps often eliminate 80-90% of the resumes. Now I’ll start to look for the requisite skills — the same skills I requested in the job posting. As I mentioned in When Resumes are Read by Robots, the person reviewing your resume is not always the same person that posted the job opening, or even a person at all, so make sure your resume uses the same terminology you found in the job posting. Emphasize the requested skills, even if it means you have to downplay other prized skills that may not be relevant to the job. That usually winnows the pool down to the last 4-5%.

I’ll tell you something else: there is never a perfect candidate. No one ever has every single skill and qualification I’m looking for. When comparing last few people who have made it past all the hurdles, I am going to compare accomplishments, so make sure you list only your most impressive. This last item can be tricky, particularly if you are just out of school and don’t have a lot of job experience–this is where some volunteering or freelance work can bolster your resume.

In short:

  1. Don’t make easy mistakes: proofread your resume.
  2. Make sure your application is tailored to the job opening.
  3. Put your best foot forward and cross your fingers.

Call to inquire if you don’t hear back within a week or two (and the job is still posted). Your call will underscore your interest, and it’s possible that you can supply a missing piece of information that will make your application look more attractive. Of course, if the job goes to someone else, don’t feel too bad: it’s a tough job hunt out there these days.

Keep Your Resume Polished

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Careerealism’s 9 Reasons You Need a Résumé (Even If You Have a Job) points out that it is good to have your resume up-to-date even if you love your current job and plan on staying there.

Many of the tips are geared towards people who are self-employed (e.g. “Attract New Clients”), but the majority apply to anyone. It’s good advice and worth heading. (I know my own resume could use a little polish–the design is probably 10 years old, so it isn’t exactly showing my web skills in the best light.)

The best time to update your resume is every time you complete a major project or hit a new milestone. Tack on the new impressive accomplishment, think about what specific skills it demonstrates, and take time to weed out any old items, if they seem redundant. This way, your resume will probably get a little TLC at least a few times a year and will be ready when you need it.

Of course, for this updated resume to help you, someone has to see it. What’s the best way to share your resume? I have mine posted on a regular web page, which recruiters seem to find when they search for certain keyword combinations, but I doubt anyone else finds it.

When Resumes are Read by Robots

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

An article in yesterday’s eFinancialCareers (Where to Place Resume Keywords) points out that many resumes are analyzed electronically before a person ever sees them.

This reminds me of a job application I sent out that emphasized my knowledge of ActionScript 3. I thought that was a good choice, because the job description asked for Flash experience, and as eveyone knows, modern Flash developers rely on ActionScript 3.

Of course, it was actually a terrible choice. If the resume and cover letter were being analyzed electronically, the system was probably looking for the keyword Flash, not ActionScript. Even if a real person reviewed it, there’s no telling if someone in HR, or even the hiring manager, is going to equate Flash with ActionScript. It would have been best to include both.

The eFinancialCareers article also mentions industry acronyms. I’m going to borrow again from web lingo: which would be better to use, Search Engine Optimization or SEO? Since there is no guessing what the guardian at the gate is looking for, I would use both. There may be cases where that is unwise–in this example, if you are applying for a position in search engine marketing, a hiring manager might raise an eyebrow that you thought an industry-standard acronym deserved spelling out. But really, if you cut some of the irrelevant clutter from your resume–I think we all have a bit of that–you should be able to squeeze it in.

The best advice, of course, is to analyze the job description and requirements carefully. Chances are, the way a keyword appears there is what a computer program–or a person–is looking for.

Ever had trouble getting past a machine (or HR) because you couldn’t convince them your skills fit the bill? Let me know in the comments.