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Other advanced resume article:
Claims & Credibility -- The Essence of Selling

Improve your ability to communicate the value you offer an employer with Gary Will's book How to Prepare for an Employment Interview -- now available by e-mail in Microsoft Word format.

Sample chapters:
1. Selling Yourself in an Employment Interview
2. Is Preparation Even Possible?
7. What You Need to Know About Business
14. Asking Questions -- An Essential and Overlooked Step

Putting a spin on work experience

Work experience can include anything you've done full-time or part- time as a volunteer, temp, or paid employee.

When it comes to organizing your work experience on your resume, these are the fundamental principles that should guide you in deciding which experience goes in and the order you want to present them in:

  1. Experience that is most related to what you're looking to do next should be placed closer to the top of your resume where they are most likely to be seen at a glance and most likely to be read.

  2. Chronological order is the easiest for the reader to get a mental image of you and your achievements. Hopping around can cause confusion. It may also create the appearance of gaps if you're placing experience from different periods next to each other on the page, or leading off with something other than your most recent experience.

  3. Any experience that's entirely irrelevant to what you want to do next should be left out. Managers like to talk about the benefits of having a flexible, adaptable staff, but they usually still look to hire people that look like specialists. As much as possible, you want to make it look like what you've done is just like what you're looking to do next. Irrelevant details take attention away from your related experience and erodes your credibility as a specialist.

  4. You'd prefer not to have noticeable gaps -- especially ones of a couple years or more. In the past this was a big issue because people were expected either to stay at one company or to move immediately on to something else if they did leave. This isn't the case anymore, but there are still a few anal retentive types who get all agitated about gaps. And since everyone has it ingrained in them to look out for employment gaps, they'll likely spot it and wonder about it.

  5. The last 10 years is what you want to focus on. Anything before that is fast becoming ancient history.

  6. Experience with well-known and respected organizations gives you a credibility boost.

  7. If your resume is too long, you may have a more difficult time getting the reader to focus their attention on the key points you're making. As a general rule, a decision to go beyond two pages is one that should be made consciously and with consideration of what you're trying to communicate (and sometimes you may decide that three or more pages is fine).

What makes things a bit tricky is that these principles can often conflict with one another. For example: Chronological order is best, but your most relevant experience may not be the most recent. You want to omit irrelevant details, but you've been working in an unrelated job for a while, and leaving out may make it seem like you've been unemployed for over a year. You have experience with a very highly respected company, but it was 15 years ago.

It is in these instances of conflicting principles where you'll have to use your best judgment of the trade-offs involved and make a decision. Each situation needs to be judged within its unique context.

All your work experience can be sorted into four groups:

  1. Highly relevant -- same kind of work or same industry.
  2. Functionally related -- shows skills that can be transferred even if they were used in a different area.
  3. Not related, but fill what would might be a distracting gap in your work history.
  4. Irrelevant and fill no perceptible gap.

You'll almost certainly want to showcase your experience from the first group, and make the most out of your work in group two. And you'll want to list these jobs closer to the top of your resume where they are more likely to be seen and create a stronger first impression.

You should just leave off anything from the fourth group without even thinking about it. It serves no purpose whatsoever. It's no value to you, and it's the kind of irrelevant detail that will only bore, frustrate and confuse the reader. (I'm writing here from a Canada/U.S. perspective. In some other countries, particularly in Europe, you're still expected to account for every moment that's passed since you were a teenager.)

If you decide to include irrelevant but gap-filling experience, you might consider relegating it to the bottom, possibly under a heading of "Other Experience". One way or the other, it should be reduced to a bare bones listing of title, employer, and years, and possibly no further details.

When deciding whether to include this unrelated experience you should consider the length of the gap and how much (if any) damage to your image in your targeted field this irrelevant work might cause.

To take an exaggerated example, if you're looking for work as a nurse, and have worked as a nurse all but the last eight months of your working life, during which time you were a cab driver, you might not want to mention your experience as a cabbie. There's nothing wrong with being a cab driver, but to the person reading your resume looking for a nurse, it will likely send the wrong message no matter how you try to present it.

For most people, a chronological ordering works well for everything from groups one and two. If your most relevant experience isn't the most recent, you should consider the heading "Related Experience" and beginning with the experience that will most likely make an impression on the reader. I've found this heading to be one of the most effective techniques in the resume writer's toolbox.

Formatting work experience

Key points in formatting your presentation of your work experience:
  • Use a job title that accurately communicates what you did, and sounds as much as possible (without being deceitful) like what you're looking to do next.

    Sometimes there isn't much room to play with here, but in other situations you can make quite a difference. For example, for payroll purposes you may have been called "Administrative Assistant IV" but your actual position might be better described as "Assistant to the Vice President - Finance" or "Executive Assistant" or "Bookkeeper" or something else. There's nothing deceitful or improper about choosing an accurate title that best serves your purposes.

    If you worked in a store, you could use the title "Retail Sales" or "Customer Service" or a combination, or something else, depending on what your objective is. You may have been called a "Sales Representative" at your last job, but the titles "New Business Development", "Account Executive", "Client Relations" or others may be applicable too. Don't get too creative, but pick whatever's best for you, within reasonable limits.

    If you feel you have to go with a title that is unrelated to your objective, consider adding a second functional title after a slash: "Administrative Assistant / Sales Support".

  • In most cases, the title you use is more important than the name of the employer, and should therefore be placed first. If you want to list several positions with the same employer, you'll probably have to list the employer first, with the different job titles as subheads below.

  • Title and employer's name are selling points. Dates aren't. Put title and employer in bold at the left margin -- on separate lines. Put the dates either at the end of the line or (my preference) flush right. I like using all caps for employer's name as well, just to set it apart clearly from your job title.

  • For the dates, list the years only, unless the months are helpful. For example, if you worked somewhere relevant from January 1995 to December 1996, don't just put "1995 to 1996". You want to make sure you get credit for two full years' experience.

    If you worked somewhere for less than six months, consider putting the number of months in parentheses beside the year. For example, if you worked somewhere from December 1996 to January 1997, it may hurt your credibility in an interview if you put 1996 to 1997 on your resume, and it turned out you were there for two weeks at Christmas.

Content of work experience descriptions

Begin each section of your work experience with a line that gives the reader a quick overview. Again, you want to provide the context they'll need to interpret what follows. An overview line will contain some mix of:
  • A very concise statement of what you did, who you reported to, the territory you worked, how many people you supervised.
  • A description of the organization, possibly what industry they're in, who their customers are, their size in annual sales dollars.
You wouldn't usually include all this information on one line, and much of it probably won't apply to you, but you want to give the reader a quick orientation before setting out the details.

After this overview, you get down to writing your activities and achievements. Anything that speaks to uniqueness usually helps -- areas where you were the first, or only, or achieved the most (or least), for example.

I think enough has been written elsewhere about the importance of achievements, and the use of "action verbs" that I can safely assume that you already know about these things or can find out about them easily enough (that's why I called this "Advanced Resume Writing Strategies")

So much has been said about accomplishments that some people have been led to believe that your work experience should be one long statement of quantified accomplishments. Not so. The most effective description of your work experience will be a combination of accomplishments -- quantified and nonquantified -- and activities.

Ideally, you'll describe what you did and how this had an effect on the business. Whenever possible, relate what you did to how what you did had an positive impact on customers or internal processes.

There is nothing inherently advantageous about quantification. Specifics sell, and quantification is one way to communicate specifics. It's not the only way, but a couple quantified points under any employment section is always helpful.

If the work you're describing is very similar to what you're looking to do next, you'll probably want to be very specific and detailed in your description. If it's related, but not exactly the same, you should try a more generic (but still detailed) description. As I've said before, you want to make what you did sound as similar to what you want to do next as possible (within reason).

For example, let's say you managed your own one-person photography studio for the last five years. If you're now looking to manage someone else's photography studio, you'd give yourself the title "Photography Studio Manager" and many of the details of your management experience that follow would be very specific to photography.

But maybe you've had enough of photography and want to take the management skills you developed into another business. You could then give yourself the title "General Manager" or "Small Business Manager" and describe your management experience and achievements in a way that omits most references to photography.

Or, maybe you want to stay in photography, but not as a studio manager. You could then call yourself "Photographer / Studio Manager" or even just "Photographer" (assuming that you were still working as a photographer, which is very likely). The points you choose to include here would focus on your work behind the camera during this period, rather than as a manager.

What if you want to make a bigger leap and become a sales representative or customer service rep? Then you could use the title "Sales & Customer Service" or something similar and concentrate on what you achieved in that role.

You may not have this much flexibility, but I hope you get the point -- you can put different shadings or "spins" on any work experience. Choose the one that suits your needs, without stretching the truth unreasonably.

A grab-bag of tips

  • If you don't want to identify your current employer -- or are embarrassed by one of the employers on your resume -- you can use a descriptive phrase in place of the employer's name (e.g. "A retail electronics store" or "A national distributer of automotive parts"). If you do this, though, you will certainly cause the reader to wonder what you're hiding. Do it only when really necessary.

  • Bullet points are much easier to dip into and much more accessible to the reader than a paragraph of text. Individual bullet points can be up to about five lines long, if necessary.

  • Within each section under work experience, you will again want to make your most relevant points near the top. Even if what you want to emphasize was something that you only spent 5% of your time on, put it close to the top and put the other activities below -- in quickly summarized form if they aren't relevant (that is, if you don't feel comfortable about leaving them out entirely).

  • The expressions "Responsible for ..." and "Duties included ..." should almost always be avoided. It reduces your resume to a passive, inane laundry list.

  • Unless you have a list of impressive clients or some other tangible evidence of running a thriving business, self-employment is not likely to be taken very seriously. Even today, "self-employed" is often equated with "unemployed" or is perceived as designating someone who doesn't have the skills to work within an organizational structure.

    Never use the word "self-employed" on your resume. You can call yourself a business owner if you must, but "self-employed" kills credibility. If you're running a one-person business, you'll probably be much better off referring to yourself as a "General Manager" rather than "President" or "Owner".

  • What if you have a employment gap where you were looking after family matters or doing something else that you think an employer would accept? Should you include a line to account for that period?.

    If you say nothing, you will create some doubts in the employer's mind about what you were up to. It is one of the great myths of resume writing that unanswered questions create curiosity which leads to interviews. There's nothing to be embarrassed about, so put in the line and take that unneeded anxiety away from the reader.

    A line like that doesn't say anything that makes you more attractive to an employer. If anything, it draws attention to a gap when you want the reader focused on what you have to offer their organization. Leave it out.

    I like both these arguments! Since gaps aren't such a life-and-death issue anymore, I lean to the "leave it out" side, but I have seen these lines used effectively in some resumes.

  • If you want to go back into the vaults of time and list a position you had a long, long time ago, you can consider leaving out the dates entirely for that employer. If you want to show that you were there a long time, you can say how many years it was in the body of the description (but don't put it where you would have listed the years -- that will definitely set off alarms in the reader's mind).

How to Prepare For An Employment Interview
by Gary Will
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  1. "Selling yourself" at an employment interview
  2. Is preparation even possible?
  3. The interview isn't about YOU -- it's about the employer
  4. Soothing the employer's anxieties
  5. Preparing for the interview -- an overview
  6. THE COMPANY: The information you'll want and where to look for it
  7. What you should know about business
  8. THE POSITION: How will you make a contribution?
  9. Preparing to answer
  10. What kind of person are you?
  11. Approaches to answering some common questions
  12. Some questions to practise
  13. Anticipating employers' concerns
  14. Asking questions -- an essential and overlooked step
  15. Going all out for the offer ... and why we hold back
  16. How to handle salary questions
  17. Beyond the answers -- image and presentation
  18. Using written materials & presentation visuals
  19. How to prepare your references
  20. Recent developments in interview formats
  21. Reviewing the interview
  22. Following up without being a pest
  23. Some final thoughts
  24. U.S.: Recommended books
  25. Canada: Recommended books
  26. UK: Recommended books
  28. Order an ad-free copy of this book

Web www.garywill.com