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Gimme a Job

November 18th, 2008

I have always taken job hunting seriously. I feel that it’s something you have to take on whole-heartedly, not half-assed. Me, I hunt down all job resources I can find, weed and sort, schedule interviews (schedule a few throwaways first so you can get some practice in), research the job and the company as well as you can, dress up and arrive a few minutes early (not too early), so forth and so on. In the end, if you’ve done it right, then you will have a few good job offers at least, and can take your pick.

But nowadays I am on the other end of the process. Like I was ten years ago, I now find myself making, not reading, the classifieds listings and sorting through resumes. Between then and now were the blissful years of only working, but recently I was called back in for a spell to manage again for a while. And it is depressing to see what comes forth when you list a job.

I mean, seriously. Far more than half the applicants do not have the basic, bottom-of-the-barrel, “must-have” qualifications for the job. Okay, maybe they think that they’ll get lucky, maybe they hope that the employer is aiming too high. But some of these people clearly just shoot out resumes to everyone in sight–the scattershot approach. Clumsy. Messy. Maybe even desperate. But hey, at the very least, take the trouble to send a separate email to every employer instead of lumping them all together in the Cc list for all to see.

You wouldn’t believe how sloppily some people put together these things. This time around, we needed several different positions filled, and included several in the same ad. Very few specified which position they were applying for, even though the positions were widely variant; I wound up having to read the resumes closely and guessing which position the person is applying for. Sometimes I have to read really close, because the information is often muddled. Education histories don’t specify what major the person’s degree was in. Employment histories leave out vital details. Heck, one person didn’t even bother to add which city he lived in.

Reading these things, it really makes me want to write down a primer on how to write a good resume. So here goes. Note that this is for an average job calling for moderate experience and qualifications–if it’s a minimum-wage job, just send a one-pager; if it’s for Rocket Science, then maybe send a tome. But most times, it’s in between. Points to consider:

  • Format Counts: as superficial as it may seem, careful attention to formatting makes a difference. Don’t use templates–anyone who reads resumes for a living has seen them all and can spot the people who use the standard forms. Use a good font–Optima for sans serif, Garamond for serif. I can’t explain why, but many outstanding applicants I have interviewed had Garamond resumes. Use character spacing, small caps, regular tab settings, the works. Try to make it look neat, organized, and elegant. How your resume looks tells the employer how important this is to you.
  • (If by email) Save your resume as a PDF: send both MS Word and PDF formats if you must, but PDF preserves formatting perfectly, and is a universal format.
  • Use a cover letter: a cover letter is like a thesis statement–it explains very quickly to the employer why they should hire you. Explain what position you are applying for, and list the basics as to why you’re qualified. The cover letter should be three medium-length paragraphs–not too brief, not too long. If you’re sending your resume by email, then give a truncated cover letter in the email, and a full one in the cover page of your resume.
  • Avoid the clichés: don’t say that you’re a “team player,” or that you “want to make a positive contribution to the company.” (Yes, I actually get those.) Be a bit more original than that. Sculpt your patter to fit the position. Don’t go too far or else you’ll make your interviewer gag. Reign it in.
  • Cover the basics: Put your name, full address, telephone number(s), email address, and all vital information on the resume. Sounds basic, but you’d be surprised at how many people mess up this stuff.
  • Customize: don’t use the same resume for every application. Research each job you apply for. Find out something about the company and the job you are applying for, and rewrite that specific resume to match it. Several times I have gotten resumes that were obviously intended for a different job, and it makes the applicant seem like they don’t give a damn. Generalized resumes usually give a weaker impression.
  • Make it easy for the employer to be impressed: I can’t tell you how many times I have had to scour resumes for any indication that the person has the qualifications for the job. It should all be apparent, right up front. Education first–be brief but informative. Degree, major, university, years, honors. Then employment history–but here’s where you have to be careful. Don’t just go listing every job you’ve ever had. Do you think I care if you were a waiter at a pizza joint if you are applying for a job as a graphic designer? Okay, if you leave all of that out then there will be big holes and the employer will wonder why. So categorize: list the positions relevant to the job you are applying for first, then list other positions later, under a different heading. But don’t make the employer sift through every part-time and temp job you’ve had in order to find the few jobs that show you have the experience they want.
  • Be specific where it counts: When you list qualifications specifically relevant to the position, then you go into detail. Make sure they’re aware that you know how to do the job in question. If you are applying for a job managing a bookstore, then mention the specific duties you had when you worked for Barnes & Noble, but leave out the details of how you were the personal fitness trainer to that country & western singer, no matter how cool that was.
  • Be thorough but brief: Don’t take 30 pages to list the stunning array of publications you’ve authored and seminars you’ve given. Keep it to 2 pages, maybe 3. One page is too short, often not giving me enough reason to be impressed; more than three is showing off. If you’ve got so much, list only the most impressive stuff, and then add a note that there’s more where that came from “upon request.” If they’re interested, they’ll request. If you absolutely must, then send a brief resume and an “extended” resume–don’t force them to read a novel.
  • Add references: most jobs will want them, and they will check them. List them in your resume. If you have letters of reference, okay–but make sure to give email addresses and telephone numbers for them to check, and alert your reference people that they may be contacted.
  • Have everything ready, on request: anticipate what the employer might ask for. Have copies of every degree, every college transcript, every letter of reference, every supporting document you can think of, ready to fax/email/carry in upon request. They will ask for it; “I’ll have to look into getting that for you” is less impressive than “here, if you want the originals let me know and I’ll get them for you as soon as I can.”
  • Spell check: nothing says “don’t hire me” more than spelling errors on your resume. Don’t just check for the squiggly red lines, actually read the thing, several times, and look for any errors, in spelling, wording, style, etc.

That’s everything that comes to mind right now. Follow these rules and your resume should be in the top 5 percent at least. As depressing as these resumes sometimes get, I always have the assurance that if I ever need to look for a job, I will most definitely stand out amongst the applicants.

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  1. K. Engels
    November 19th, 2008 at 01:39 | #1

    Far more than half the applicants do not have the basic, bottom-of-the-barrel, “must-have” qualifications for the job.

    I know I’ve had to send in applications like that all the time. Of course when the ‘basic, bottom-of-the-barrel, “must-have” qualifications” include two master’s degrees (Library Science and Middle East Studies) and reading knowledge of 3 or 4 languages (Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Turkish) for an ‘entry level’ librarian position (I have the Library Science degree and can read Arabic and a little Farsi, but that is it), I feel like sending the library a huge “Seriously WTF!?” letter instead of applying. The same libraries, when looking for science librarians, want “two years of undergraduate science courses” and would prefer a bachelor’s degree in a relevant science! And even if I had a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies, I wouldn’t have to know all four language to earn that degree!

  2. Paul
    November 19th, 2008 at 04:55 | #2

    Yeesh. I’m 7 years away from being eligible to retire, and have been thinking more and more about what (if anything) I’ll want to do when that time comes.

    Now I don’t think I want to go try and get a job!

  3. Luis
    November 19th, 2008 at 08:54 | #3


    Sure, if the employer is clearly asking too much–but I’m talking about the latter situation you mentioned, where the basic, bottom-of-the-barrel, “must-have” qualifications are more realistic, like the “two years of undergrad courses and preference for a BA in a relevant science.” That’s the kind of listing we posted, and most of the applicants didn’t have even the basic minimums. Heck, a few people didn’t even have an A.A. degree! But we did get people making long lists of other qualifications that had nothing whatsoever to do with the job. I mean, if you advertise for a librarian–not even entry-level, but someone who must run a whole branch–and some guy who has only taken two semesters of general-ed college courses and has barely even used a library applies, citing his being a “team player” and mentioning his serious experience delivering Chinese takeout… well, you gotta smack your forehead and wonder what they’re thinking.

    I’d like to be a lot more specific (none of the details listed above are from real applications), but the last thing I want to do is transmit any actual info from any applicants we’ve heard from, so I’ve done the “changed the names to protect the innocent” scrubbing. But the basics are the same.


    Heck, you shouldn’t sweat it so much. That’s the point of the post–someone with your writing skills should have no problem crafting a resume that would put all the others to shame. The point is simply to apply for a position you have the skills and experience for.

  4. Andrew
    November 19th, 2008 at 19:11 | #4

    If the job is important enough, you might consider placing the ad on H-Japan, whose readers are more likely to have serious qualifications. Many people on this list are not resident in Japan, so you would have to state specifically that you can only hire locally, if that’s the case.

  5. Paul
    November 20th, 2008 at 15:48 | #5

    That’s the problem. I don’t have training for anything other than air traffic control.

    I never finished college; hell, I don’t even have an AA degree. My jobs have been: 2 pizza joints, construction site gofer, fast food Mexican joint, front desk worker in a college dorm, temporary worker (primarily warehouse), restaurant server, ski lift ticket seller, car repo guy, and air traffic controller.

    Now, what *could* I do? Damn near anything, really. I’ve always figured I’m blessed/cursed with the curious “learns stuff really quick” gene; interested in a ton of things, can learn ’em super-quick, but never spent much time really knowing any one thing (other than ATC) in depth at all.

    I could work in IT. I could work as an account rep for season ticket sales for the Mariners or Seahawks. I could teach skiing, or sell real estate, run a hotel, or manage a construction company, or do logistics for international relief organizations, or… well, a million different things. :)

    The problem with this kind of job-ADHD is that I know I could be successful in all kinds of gigs; it’s just getting a foot in the door to begin with that’s the issue.

    We’ll see. My plan that I’ve actually kind of been drifting towards is finishing up some school and getting into counseling. Be my own boss, set my own hours, charge what I feel like charging (the retirement from ATC can be pretty decent, assuming the stock market makes some kind of comeback in the next several years) and hopefully help a few folks along the way.

    But… the past election has me fired up about that, and now I’m starting to think about getting into politics as a second career. Not running for office so much as working on campaigns or whatnot.

    So many possibilities… :)

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