I have had the great fortune of speaking with Alexandra (Alex) Anderson, Associate Director of Career Services at Southwestern University, to ask some additional questions and receive tips on how to maximize the search effort to land your ideal job. With her years and expertise in the field of recruiting and career advising, Alex is able to provide information and insights straight from the people who make the hiring decisions.
How would you describe what you do?
I help people figure what they want to do and how to get there. With traditional-aged liberal arts college students at a rigorous university, the biggest challenge is simply motivating them to tackle the issue of career planning and decision making, since they are usually multi-talented and have such diverse interests (which attracted them to liberal education in the first place). Providing numerous opportunities for career exploration through panel presentations, job shadowing, networking events, internships and externship site visits is a big part of our job. Teaching the logistical skills needed for lifelong career development, such as self-assessment, resume writing, interviewing, job search strategies, etc. is the other main part of my job.
What is the first thing you look for in a resume and cover letter?
I look to see if the writer has targeted the resume to the position to paint a clear picture of how s/he would match with the opportunity to which s/he’s applying. As an editor, I also look generally at the format to see that it makes the best use of the page and helps me find the relevant content easily.
What are the most common mistakes you see on a resume?
- Lack of targeting toward a specific opportunity is the most common – and deadliest – error. An employer ideally would like to hire someone who’s done the exact job they’re recruiting for before. A resume writer should emphasize the skills and experiences s/he has that indicate as clear a match as possible for the employer.
- Relying only on paid work experiences rather than building in ANY relevant experiences – whether from internships, volunteerism, leadership in organizations or even significant class projects.
- Formatting that distracts rather than aids the reader. For many young college students, their first resumes are often laundry lists of clubs and awards from high school and don’t have any descriptive statements that detail their skills. Resume templates from MS Word and other programs also have awkward formatting, such as listing dates with more prominence than positions, or using space-and-a-half line spacing, which wastes valuable real estate on the resume. Likewise, sticking with the giant 1.5-inch default margins in MS Word rather than reformatting often forces content unnecessarily to a second page.
- Of course, there are often grammar and punctuation errors (especially commas and apostrophes). ALWAYS have someone else look at a copy of your resume before you submit it and invest in a good style guide.
What are the most common mistakes you see on a cover letter?
As with resumes, lack of targeting toward a particular position is the most common error. The other is wasting valuable real estate by repeating detailed information from the resume, rather than synthesizing one’s experiences to summarize one’s skills and personal qualities which relate most to the opportunity.
How has job hunting changed over the past five years?
Fundamentally, I think the job search is not so different – the most powerful source of job leads and opportunities is still referral. What has changed most is probably the means by which individuals can connect to gain those referrals – not just in-person or phone, but now also through numerous social media. While technology facilitates the ease and speed with which employers can advertise positions and candidates can respond, this ease leads to a deluge of applications which are costly (in terms of time) for employers to sort through and challenge candidates to stand out from the competition. Making a personal connection outside of this technology tidal wave is essential.
Another factor that has changed is simply the level of competition. With the huge number of job cuts that have affected so many areas of the economy, competition for even an administrative assistant role can include new college grads, individuals with Master’s degrees and professionals with 20+ years of experience. I recently thought of the “starving artist” analogy as particularly relevant to today’s job seeker: The person who wants to make it big in Hollywood usually needs to hit the street and get to meet everyone s/he can, usually works a day job while “auditioning” for other gigs and may take several years to break into the field of his/her choice. This process strikes me as not so different from what our job seekers today must do – especially new college grads.
What role do social media play in job-hunting today?
Social media help us maintain our “rolodex” of contacts in one convenient place. They also provide speedy access to contacts, increasing the size and interconnectedness of our web of contacts in comparison to what people probably used to manage. Social media are still just tools, though, to help us make and keep connections. Most people won’t accept friend requests on Facebook or connection requests on LinkedIn from people they haven’t actually met in person and interacted with. Consequently, the old-school, in-person networking process is still alive and well. That being said, social media sites like Facebook can help you find old friends who might now have relevant advice or resources to help you with your job search. LinkedIn can help you easily identify individuals working for a particular employer, research career paths (e.g. a veteran can search for his/her military job title and find other veterans’ profiles and see what their career progression after the military has been), make direct contact without an intermediate introduction to an alumnus of your university who might be more inclined to help you and even get you noticed by a recruiter who did a keyword search and found your profile/resume rather than having to weed through resumes from an advertised position.
What networking 1.0 tips can you provide?
Tell everyone you know and everyone you meet that you’re seeking a job – and be prepared to say what kind of position you’re interested in and why you’d be good at it. You never know who will know someone who could be helpful – your neighbor, friend from high school, doctor, hairdresser, someone from your church, someone you sit next to at a wedding or on an airplane, and all of THEIR sisters, neighbors, friends, etc. Join groups – volunteer for Habitat, join Toastmasters, lead the PTA. Most especially, join professional organizations in your field of interest. FOLLOW UP on all leads immediately. If someone goes to the trouble to provide you a lead, s/he will probably also follow up with the lead to see if you got in contact. If you don’t, the person who tried to help you will not be so inclined to do so in the future! Also, send thank-you notes to anyone who helps you! And reciprocate – send interesting articles you come across or invite a contact to an event that might interest him/her.
What tools or resources would you recommend to a person who isn’t completely sure what they want to do?
Visit with a career advisor – university students and graduates often have access free of charge or for low cost to professionals who exist to help with this question. Try self-assessment tools like personality and interest inventories. They’re not magic, but they can give you ideas about what people who are similar to you have found to be rewarding careers. And for a very low-budget and low-effort approach, talk to everyone about their careers – ask questions, ask to shadow or observe, even volunteer to help out to see what the work is like. When push comes to shove, just try it! Just because you start in one career field doesn’t mean you’re locked into it.
What little-known resources can help with the job search?
One great tip I’ve heard is, “Act like you already work there.” We’ve heard some interesting success stories from graduates who have scouted out an organization that really interested them and then made the pitch to work for the organization for free (e.g. as an “intern”) to prove their worth. By taking the initiative and then making themselves indispensible, they were able to turn their unpaid internships into job offers.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. College career centers are in the business of trying to help you access resources. Even if you don’t/didn’t go to college, use a search engine to locate local universities in your area and search their sites for “career center” or “career services.” Many sites, my office’s included, have a wealth of resources and links that are free to the public. Many career centers allow the public to attend job fairs they sponsor and even have print libraries the public can browse in person.
Are job posting sites such as Monster.com and Careerbuilder.com effective?
It never hurts to look, especially just to get ideas or to find example descriptions of positions to which you would want to pitch your resume. However, because these sites require employers to pay a fee to post, they are naturally limited to the positions where a) employers can afford to post and b) it makes financial sense to invest the money in a posting. These factors mean that many government and non-profit jobs are absent from these sites because those employers may not want to invest their limited resources to pay for postings. Also, jobs or specific organizations that are in high demand are often absent because those employers don’t need to pay to advertise – they are inundated with unsolicited applications as it is. Positions with high turnover (which a candidate might rightly be wary of) might also be more likely to recruit using these sites, since they need to drum up business. Nonetheless, I always recommend looking at the sites – they’re free, after all – but limiting the amount of time you spend on them to about 5-10 percent of your total efforts.
Much more effective use of the internet is using a search engine to research what employers exist in a particular area (e.g. “Austin non-profits”) and then looking up those individual employers directly. Employers are most likely to advertise postings on their own websites, if they advertise at all. Also, look for targeted third-party sites like professional organizations (e.g. in my business, the National Association of Colleges and Employers), which often have job posting sections.
You work with several recruiters for several companies. What feedback or comments do you typically hear from them? What do they look for?
A couple critiques worth noting come up regarding interviews: Candidates who didn’t research the organization and position for which they’re applying and candidates who don’t dress professionally. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for not knowing about an organization. Reading thoroughly and memorizing information found on an organization’s website is a must. Use the information about a company’s values and mission to craft statements illustrating how your own values and experiences are a good match for the company’s.
For most employers, a candidate’s experience is more salient than specific educational background. Don’t limit yourself to looking for “jobs for psychology majors.” Sometimes, however, you may need to educate an employer to look beyond a major (a shortcut technique a recruiter may try to use to screen large volumes of applicants) by showing them the transferable nature of the skills you gained through your educational experience and the other experiences in which you engaged outside the classroom.
Finally, beyond just the technical capabilities needed to do the job, candidates need to show recruiters that they are people the recruiters would want to hang around with! We’re all human, and despite efforts to make hiring processes more objective, recruiters and managers are still swayed by their subjective likes and dislikes of an individual. Be friendly, respectful, enthusiastic – your best self.
What advice do you have specifically for a person entering the workforce for the first time?
This is one of the hardest lessons to learn, I think: Be a good follower. Make your boss look good. Especially for new college grads, entering the workforce can be a big change from school, where leadership is often the goal and individual performance is rewarded. In the world of work, you have to pay your dues and you usually have to work collaboratively toward a goal. Remember that every suggestion to change something is in effect a criticism of how it’s currently being done (and therefore whoever said it should be done that way). While some people and organizations are very open to change and criticism, many are not. Listen more than talk at first, learn why things are the way they are before trying to change them, ask questions. Also, try to steer clear of office politics. While you want to be friendly, try to keep your personal life personal until you get a better feel for your organization’s culture. Be sure to cover the basics – dress appropriately, show up on time (or early), limit personal activities while on the clock and complete your tasks as required!
What advice do you have specifically for a mid-level career person looking to switch careers or find a new job?
The basics of job searching remain: Network to meet people, use the internet as a research tool to identify and contact people and organizations that interest you. If you’re a college grad, don’t forget to consult your university career center about possible services for alumni. Consider a functional resume – one that organizes your experience by skill rather than by position. Avoid acronyms that may be unfamiliar outside your organization or current field.
What final advice would you give to anybody seeking new employment?
Persist, persist, persist. One quote I read was that this is a race that goes to the relentlessly steady!
Alexandra Anderson is the Associate Director of Career Services at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Alex earned her BA in Spanish and Linguistics, MA in Spanish Linguistics and MEd in Higher Education Administration from The University of Texas at Austin. She has worked at the Universities of Texas, Arizona and California, Davis, in Residence Life and Career Services. Professionally, Alex also serves as the Newsletter Editor for the Southern Association of Colleges and Employers and chair of the Central Texas Liberal Arts Career Consortium. She previously served on the Board of Directors of the Southwest Association of Colleges and Employers. Alex has also written for the National Association of Colleges and Employers Journal and Spotlight e-newsletter and was recently accepted into the NACE Leadership Advancement Program.
Job Hunting Series