[This post was originally published on April 07, 2017 in my now-folded blog Mrs. Ramsey & Me.]
Today, I had the privilege and pleasure to speak to Dartmouth College undergraduates about my career trajectory as a “non-traditional” job applicant. In specific, we chatted about writing an authentic resume and cover letter that fully embraces the diversity of our interests and experiences.
I figure I’d be well-suited to address this topic because I was born and raised in Brazil, and attended college and worked for several years in Canada before moving to the US for business school. I’ve worked in radio journalism as an investigative researcher, financial services as an online publisher and change management consultant, eCommerce as a buyer, and health care doing sales and operations. Along the way, I volunteered twice to sit on the board of directors of residential communities.
My life and career trajectories haven’t been linear, but by fully embracing them I’ve been able open doors to opportunities I never thought possible, including earning my MBA at Dartmouth.
I also wish someone had given me some pointers when I was in university. And then again pretty much each time I was on the brink of launching into the next thing. Here’s a summary of the lessons I’ve learned over the last 14 years.
Create versions of your resume and cover letter to suit each company and job you apply to. Maybe this sounds obvious, but I’ve reviewed my share of cookie cutter applications for multiple roles. It’s hard to stand out that way. Your story remains authentic and genuine, but it should reflect who you are and your qualifications in the best light given the company and job at hand.
If you find yourself struggling to fit a “square peg in a round hole,” ask yourself whether the job is truly a good a fit.
Show, don’t tell: Use each bullet in your resume as evidence that you’ve consistently demonstrated the judgment and skills that are useful for the work you’re interested in (see also We Act from a Feeling of Competence below).
- Start each bullet with an action verb
- Avoid using a bullet to describe your job responsibilities
- Quantify the impact you’ve had on your team or project
Use it to give the company a sense for “the cloth you’re cut from.” Your cover letter should resonate deeply with the company’s own vision, mission and values. It corroborates fit.
Before you call it done, be sure your cover letter answers these questions:
- Why this company? Why me? (Fit.)
- Why this role? (You bring skills to make immediate impact.)
- Why now? (You’re ready for a new role/challenge; the role also offers opportunity for growth and development in knowledge or skills you don’t currently have.)
During the interview, frame your fears/hesitations as potential (as long as you’re confident that the fit is right). Keep in mind that a job description is the company’s wish list. If you had every desired qualification, the role would likely not be a growth opportunity for you. Chances are, you’d be bored from the get-go and the employer would lose you too soon to make their investment in you worthwhile. Get this point across with honesty and your unique story.
Tips for Uncovering Your Narrative
As a non-traditional candidate, you bring your unique experiences and a fresh perspective to the table. However, it can be difficult to make a clear connection between our “non-traditional stories” and the job requirements at hand. The onus is on us to connect the dots and create a succinct and compelling pitch that will open interviewers’ eyes to new possibilities and our potential.
Here are a few tips to craft an authentic and enticing pitch.
We Act According to Our Values
When you look back at your life, which values are consistent throughout your diverse interests and experiences?
Why do you say “yes” to the opportunities (or challenges) you accept – whether picking your course grid, summer internships, a hobby, or a new place to travel? Sometimes opportunities may seem unrelated or disconnected, but our values gel our decisions together.
The sum of our interests and experiences tells our story. For example, when applying for my MBA, I struggled to put together the “Why me?” essay. I talked my narrative through with a dear friend (really recommend!) and she helped me see that the sum total of my trajectory can be described as: When life hands me lemons, I make lemonade. In other words, I turn things around; I see opportunity in every problem.
This perspective helped me zero in on character traits such as persistence, resilience, resourcefulness, and creativity. It also uncovered values such as my deep-set belief that it is my duty to leave things in better shape than I found them, giving more than taking, paying it forward, being truthful, and shining a light in the world. Some people call this your “brand,” but I think that’s forced. I like to think of it as simply “the cloth I’m cut from.” It’s who I am, and it describes the legacy I hope to leave. This theme is the glue that ties my resume bullets, cover letter, and interview answers together.
We Act from a Feeling of Competence
We tend to say “yes” either to opportunities (or challenges) that require a skill (and subject matter expertise) we know we have or to opportunities that demand we learn a skill we wish we had.
What common thread do you find in your skillset? For instance, could it be that no matter the course’s underlying discipline or the job’s industry, the type of work that draws you always requires a certain basket of skills (e.g. investigative zeal, math and/or modeling, relationship building, thinking outside the box and so on…)?
Once you identify your core skills, write vignettes that illustrate mastery. I like to use the STAR framework: describe the Situation, the required Task(s), the Action(s) you took to accomplish it, and the Result(s) you achieved. You can use vignettes to:
- Clarify your point of view on your job search. Be prepared to do them at the top of the search process, not only after you get an interview.
- Elaborate on your brief resume bullets during an interview and to answer behavioral interview questions (i.e. questions of the “tell me a time when…” variety).
- Direct your job search. STAR vignettes can be powerful visualization tools. Imagine stretch role requirements (situations) that you think may be beneficial in helping you gain the experience (tasks and actions) and credibility (results) you need to make progress toward your dreams. Once you’ve identified a handful of skills you’d like to develop – or skills that a role you’re attracted to requires but you haven’t quite mastered – use this technique to build confidence. Imaginary vignettes can help you explain ‘why this role,’ ‘why you’ and ‘why now’ – you know what you want, you’re hungry to learn, and you can articulate what that might look like.
- Confirm your hunches about what a job might require or be like during informational interviews. Use imaginary vignettes to run your informed impressions about a role and its requirements by people working in the companies or roles you’re interested in. You’ll appear prepared, thoughtful, and make a good impression even if your ‘imagination’ missed the mark.
Last, but Certainly not Least
Remember that you are and have everything you need to respond to any situation you find yourself in. Balance your knowledge (what you know, and what you don’t yet know or need to learn) with your intuition (what you feel and importantly, what you don’t feel – what emotional connection is missing), and you’ll find the way.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The people who are closest to you know you really well. When the search gets overwhelming or you get confused, cue in the sounding board(s).
I hope you enjoyed this post. I’d love to hear what else has worked for you, or if you’ve tried some of these strategies with success (or not!). Good luck!