Millions of college students are about to graduate and strike out in the real world, some with shiny apples in hand.
Given that the number college grads far exceeds the available entry-level jobs, finding that first gig can feel like the search for a donut at Deepak Chopra retreat.
But there’s a sure-fire way to beat the odds and stand out from fellow grads. When writing your resume and cover letter, open up. Be yourself. This by itself will differentiate you.
The New York Times published a column last month by the ex-international director of admissions at Dartmouth called “Check This Box If You’re a Good Person.” She makes the point that the throngs of overachievers all tend to blur together. What she remembers was a letter of recommendation from a high school custodian. In her 15 years of experience reviewing 30,000 applications, she had never seen a recommendation from a custodian.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Why would students never consider using a school custodian for a letter of recommendation? Because the conventional thinking says the more prestigious the individual, the stronger the letter of recommendation. Yet, by going against conventional wisdom, this student stood out.
This same concept holds true as you apply for jobs.
Forget conventional wisdom. Break the rules. Give your potential employer a look into who you are.
With that as a backdrop, I’m republishing my letter to college grads.
Dear College Grad,
All those years of cramming for finals and living on ramen and candy corn have paid off.
You’re now ready to land that first job. Before flinging your resume to and fro, some words of guidance.
Don’t follow the Resume 101 Handbook. Let me say this again because it’s so damn important. Do not follow the Resume 101 Handbook.
It will give you a homogenous resume that melts into the background. Why universities, the one place that revels in sticking it to the man, espouse an approach to writing the resume that would bring a smile to Henry Ford is beyond me.
So how should you write a resume?
For starters, do not pull from the lexicon of resumes. Phrases such as “hard-working,” “team player,” “think outside the box,” “detail-oriented” and “strategic thinking” carry the weight of cotton candy. The perfect way to avoid this pitfall is to ask five of your buddies for their resumes, highlight the words that keep appearing and avoid those words.
Two, apply a conversational tone to your copy. Read the copy out loud. Your ear will tell you whether it sounds conversational or stiff as mahogany. This improvement alone will lift your resume.
Now comes the big one. This is how you grab the recruiter by the scruff of the neck.
Share a window into yourself. What do you care about? What inspires you? When did you face a little adversity? Or a lot?
This goes back to high school English and the teacher stressing “show, don’t tell.” In other words, don’t tell me you’re creative. Show me a part of you that leads me to conclude that you’re creative.
I know it’s tough to open up this way. Be brave. You can do it. This same approach should also carry your cover letter where you’ve got even more opportunity to hit emotional touch points.
Finally, at the risk of going cliché on you, be honest.
If your work experience consists of flipping burgers, don’t describe this on the resume as hospitality beef specialist. Prospective employers recognize that you’re applying for your first job after graduating from college. Your experience flipping burgers can be a positive, again using it as a window to accentuate the type of person you are.
One final point on the cover letter —
The more you can align your cover letter with the prospective employer, the better. This means doing your homework to understand the company’s culture, brand, successes, etc. Don’t just read the website. Check out the blog posts. Read news stories on the company. Review the content on its social feeds. The payoff comes in by being able to align your narrative with what the company values.
Look, even with a resume and cover letter that stand out, it can take some time to land that first job. Don’t get discouraged. Though it was many (many) years ago, I still remember not being able to give myself away to land that first entry-level job.
Persistence and determination and opening up will win the day.