It’s a given that applying for a job means selling yourself, but the reality is that it just doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Hell, most of us struggle to take compliments, let alone give ourselves a whole list of them and then, if we’re lucky, discuss them at length with potential colleagues.
At Career FAQs, we’ve been offering career advice for over a decade, and we have our assessment of resumes and cover letters down to a fine art. When I’m looking at those few pages of someone’s working life I often put them through what I like to call the ‘movie’ test, which is to ask: ‘if this were a movie, would I understand the point and would I keep watching?’
Think about it. Selling yourself is similar to putting on a performance – and if karaoke is on the cards then some of us will run a mile while others will need help wresting the microphone from their hands. But whether you love the thrill of the spotlight or the safety of shadows, the key to a killer job application performance is clear: you need to think of your audience.
We all know the one. The lone horseman in the barren landscape, the extreme-long view of a cityscape, all backed by rousing orchestras slowly prodding our emotions awake.
If you set the tone right from the start, the audience won’t be able to help coming along for the ride. Leading off with a one-paragraph professional profile or summary gives you the opportunity to introduce your voice. Agonise over this one because if you can distil your experience and achievements down into one killer sentence or two you will have them hooked.
Your resume should suit the industry you’re working in – you wouldn’t follow a horror plotline for a Disney movie so don’t focus on your incredible IT skills if you’re applying for a customer service role. Also understand what your genre calls for: is clean, descriptive text enough to tell your amazing tale or do you also need a portfolio? Article samples? Website links? Choose the storytelling method that allows you to put your best foot forward.
Every genre has its structure and I couldn’t tell you how many resumes we see that are in the wrong order. Act 1 should be your professional profile, followed by either your qualifications (if recent) or your most recent job, through to earlier positions in reverse chronological order, then technical skills and volunteer roles. You should be making things as easy as possible for your audience so follow the framework that recruiters understand – and that means clearly separating your responsibilities from your achievements for each job. You want them to digest your information without any effort, just like a well-oiled rom-com.
This performance is about you getting a job. Recruiters don’t need to know if you’re married, how old you are or whether you like baking on the weekends. Unless you’re volunteering, stick to the main story.
And speaking of scripts, your writing needs to be strong in order to communicate your potential. If your grammar is off, your spelling is dodgy then your audience will turn off quicker than they walked out of Gigli. And using American spelling would be like Toni Collette acting in Muriel’s Wedding with a dodgy American accent – it’s just plain wrong. And don’t be afraid to ask a mentor, friend or family member to workshop it with you; they may know your strengths better than you do and pick up the things you’ve missed.
If your set is a mess then your audience won’t know where to look. They need to be able to move smoothly from scene to scene (section to section, job to job) and know where they are in the story at all times. Break each section up with a simple heading and don’t try to cram too much in. Choose a font that’s readable on most programs (Cambria, Times, Calibri) and stick to it. And you don’t need fancy graphics, or worse, standard templates. You can simply bold your section titles and use empty space to make each point sing.
Most recruiters simply won’t read much more than two pages so slip on your director shades and start cutting to key scenes. If you have included too much unnecessary information you will just take away from the key elements.
When choosing what to include you really have to look at your story arc. Have you shown progression through your roles? Have you kept it punchy with dynamic, active words to describe your experiences and responsibilities, rather than just listing them?
One thing I often find is that people are good at listing what they’ve done, but they struggle to define their strengths. Unfortunately there is nothing more boring to an audience than a one-dimensional character that doesn’t have any reason to change. When recruiters are looking at your story, they need to be shown moments of triumph, or of going above and beyond – Rocky moments like making profits, developing new systems or dealing with more responsibility.
Just like a good biopic, you need to write in the first person. And if you think you don’t have anything extraordinary to say, think again. It can be hard to visualise everything you have achieved in your career so if you’re stuck for ideas, take a look at other job ads to see what recruiters are looking for and check out some of your industry peers on LinkedIn. You’ll soon realise you have kicked some goals along the way.
Your biography also needs to make sense. There should be no gaps in years that are left unexplained. Time should always look as productive as possible, which brings me to my next tip.
If you don’t tailor your cover letter and resume to answer the ad, then you haven’t thought about your audience. Focusing on your IT skills when they have emphasised customer service as a requirement is be like trying to sing opera in a bikie bar – it might be superb, but it’s not what they want to hear.
One of the best things you can do is show that you’ve thought about the job – not only what they’ve asked for, but the company and anything else that might be an asset to them. This is an audition, after all. Look carefully at the ad and use keywords at just the right moments – but remember you need to show, not just tell. Give specifics, make them measurable and don’t just include one-line assertions such as ‘successful sales manager’ without backing yourself up. The best resumes deliver clear punchlines.
Still got stage fright? Shake it off by writing a list of all the tasks you do in your current job, or have done previously. Then go back and write down all the skills you needed to get those tasks done, keeping the selection criteria in mind. Once you’ve got a bucketload of skills written down, think about how you would typically act them out at work and what results you were able to achieve.
Work through this methodically and you should start to get a picture of yourself as a developing character doing some great things. Remember, potential employers actually want you to perform for them, so don’t be shy. And if you’ve started daydreaming about who might play you in your own telemovie, then you’re only a step away from needing that acceptance speech. Break a leg!