When I think back to the résumé and cover letter that I submitted when I applied for my first real job, frankly, I am a bit surprised that I got an interview. I think I was qualified for the job as Promega Technical Services Scientist, but honestly, my résumé and cover letter were unequivocally and unapologetically mediocre. Looking back now, with eight years of editing experience under my belt, I can think of quite a few things that I would have done differently. Of course, I must have done a few things right too, or my résumé would have gone straight into the bin, and I would have never been interviewed. I am sharing my experiences so that you can learn from my mistakes.
First, a few words about résumé writing in general. A résumé should be honest, well-written and streamlined. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds. Writing an average résumé is fairly easy, but writing a great résumé requires time, research and many revisions, as does all great writing. Writing a great résumé is a process best summed up as: Write. Revise. Repeat, as often as necessary. If time permits, set the résumé aside for a day or even a few hours between review cycles so that you can revisit it with a fresh perspective. If writing or proofreading is not one of your strengths, find someone who is good at spotting typos, awkward sentence structure and punctuation errors. Ask him to look over what you have written. If necessary, bribe him with baked goods or small favors, such as the promise to go into the laboratory on a Sunday to split his cells, because nothing says “Lacks attention to detail” more than a typo or similar careless mistake. A great résumé will float to the top of a sea of lackluster résumés, increasing your chance of getting the job. This is worth the extra effort. In my case, I had not spent enough time on my résumé and cover letter to elevate them beyond mediocre. Thus, lesson #1: Great writing requires time and careful review.
When writing my résumé, I used what I call the “shotgun” approach, which is all too common. I included every possible example of knowledge or experience that I thought would be relevant for the job. I included extracurricular activities, such as my short stint as Chemistry Club president, and academic awards that had absolutely no bearing on the responsibilities of my (hopefully) new job. I had not honed my résumé for the specific job. Looking back, I like to use the excuse that I was fresh out of school. My experiences were limited, and I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. When it came to bullet points on my résumé, I had equated quantity with quality. I let the hiring managers sort out which facts were relevant and which were not. Sure, it was good that I mentioned my experience with PCR troubleshooting, Northern blots and genomic cloning when I applied to become a Technical Services Scientist, but I probably could have omitted all mention of my summers in the boiler room of a paper mill working to pay for college. Sweeping up coal dust in 100°F heat in a protective paper suit and face mask is not relevant to any job that I ever want (again).
That leads me to lesson#2: A résumé should not be a complete list of everything you have ever done. Each job is unique, and the résumé you submit for that job should reflect that. By all means, compile a complete list of your skills, knowledge and experience, but scan that list and weed out those points that are not relevant to the job. Think about the job responsibilities. What skills are required? Include technical, organizational and customer service skills. In my case, I was applying for a job in Technical Services, but I neglected to mention my customer service experience as a waitress—not relevant to the “technical” part but definitely relevant to the “service”. In fact, I didn’t think to mention my waitressing job until I was asked during the interview to give examples of good and bad customer interactions. Who would have thought that serving plates of fried fish to hungry locals on a Friday night would help me land a job doing technical support?
Lesson #3: List your skills, not the jobs that you have done. I didn’t list “waitress” on my résumé because it didn’t seem relevant. Furthermore, it didn’t tell a prospective employer what skills I gained at that job. I should have listed the skills that I acquired as a waitress. I interacted with customers, gathered feedback about customer satisfaction (How is everything tonight?) and made sure that customer needs were met promptly. (Can I get you another drink?). All of these are important skills for any service-related job.
In hindsight, I realize that my objective statement was a bit pathetic. I wanted a job, more specifically a job that allowed me to use my technical abilities. What more could I say? Well, the company was not going to hire me just because I needed a job. Obviously there had to be benefits for the potential employer. Hence, lesson #4: Highlight what you can do for the company, not what the company can do for you. Contrary to popular thinking, a résumé is not all about you; it is about how hiring you benefits an employer.
When I compare my first résumé and cover letter to examples of bad writing, I am happy to report that mine weren’t that bad. I managed to do some things right. I used “action” language and avoided wimpy words and the passive voice, but I did not use bloated language to make myself sound smart or more important. I tried to grab the readers attention, but I didn’t resort to gimmicks or weird ploys to get that attention. I read through my résumé and cover letter several times to make sure it made sense and to find typos, misspellings and grammatical errors. I incorporated some white space so that my résumé was less cluttered and easier to read.
Finally, and perhaps mostly importantly, I did not lie. Everything that I listed on my résumé was true. Granted, the significance of some bullet points seemed a bit exaggerated to me at until I realized that the seemingly trivial tasks that I did on a weekly basis were important to keep the lab running smoothly. For example, I had not just “ordered lab supplies”, I had “reviewed and maintained laboratory reagent and equipment inventories“. Ask the person who does most of the ordering in your lab—everything runs fairly smoothly until someone runs out of a necessary reagent during a critical set of experiments. So, lesson#5: Always be honest. Do not lie on your résumé and assume that potential employers will never learn the truth. These days, it is easier than ever for employers to learn the truth through professional networking sites such as LinkedIn. Gross exaggerations and outright lies will doom your résumé to spend the rest of its days in the bin with the coffee grounds and food scraps.
Looking back, I am a still bit embarrassed by my first résumé (and some of the points that I included on it). Fortunately, I was able to overcome my mediocre résumé and still land the job. Don’t let your résumé become a handicap in your job search. Make sure that your résumé stands out in the crowd (in a good way). Here I’ve shared some of the things I that I did poorly and some of the things that I did well. Do you have additional tips or hints that I’ve missed?
For more advice, I’ve listed below a few sites with tips on writing a great résumé, curriculum vitae (CV) and cover letter.
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