Mike’s Tips for Writing a Resume and Going for an Interview

As many of you probably know (or maybe not), I am in a position at work where I get to interview potential candidates for my department.  In the past 5 or so years, I’ve probably been a part of 30 or so interviews, and one thing that is shocking to me is how bad and unprepared a lot of people are when submitting their resume and coming in to interview for a job.

People are always talking about how its a “tough job market out there” and they say things like the economy is still struggling.  This brings me to my first tip:

1. Stop making excuses and try harder!

The job market and the economy are not that bad.  As of today, the US unemployment rate is at 7.8%.  That is more than 2% less than it was in October 2009.  Today, the Dow closed at 13328.  That is only 765 points less than the all-time high!

Where I’m going with this is that people are working and making money out there.  There are opportunities for you.  Regardless if unemployment is high or if the economy truly is bad, you shouldn’t use this as an excuse for why you’re either not working, or at a crappy job you hate.  Even if unemployment was super low and the economy was super awesome, employers still don’t give away jobs to anyone.  You still need to try!  Based on my experience, the number one reason we don’t hire someone is because they don’t put forth enough effort.

When applying for a job, you have to let the employer know that you are the right person for the job.  This starts with your resume.  The whole point of a resume is to give the employer an idea of who you are and what you have done and what you can do.  Sometimes people will also write a cover letter for a resume, but since my experience with interviewing is usually entry level positions, the cover letter isn’t as critical.  That’s not to say you still shouldn’t make one, but I don’t have a lot of tips for that.  There are plenty of great articles with examples of how to write a good cover letter out there.  Literally search Google for “cover letter” and you’ll find a bunch of great info.

Now, what makes a good resume?  To be honest, making a resume is kinda like making meat loaf.  You could ask 100 different people how they make meat loaf and you will get 100 different opinions.  The same thing will happen with a resume.  This brings me to my second tip:

2. What you DON’T put in your resume is sometimes just as valuable as what you DO put in it.

As with the cover letter, you can load up your search engine of choice and type “resume tips” and your screen will be overloaded with great articles explaining what makes a good resume.  In my opinion, you should spend just as much time reading what not to put in your resume as you spend reading what to put in the resume.

Like I said earlier, there are a ton of different ways to make a resume, and not everyone will agree with all of the tips, but the ones that I feel are the most important are:

  • Spelling and Grammar are absolutely critical! – Nothing says “I don’t care” more than spelling mistakes on your resume.  This is one area where there is no exception!  Even if you are applying for a job where good spelling and grammar isn’t necessary to do the job, it is still important to get this right.  Poor spelling and grammar says a lot about your education, your attention to detail, and the amount of care and effort you put into your job.  I have seen my fair share of resumes with spelling errors.  I actually saw someone misspell a word in the same sentence where they referred to themselves as having a good attention to detail!  You should be typing your resume in Microsoft Word or something comparable with a spell checker.  Use it, but don’t completely trust it either.  Word processors wont always catch the correct usage of words like “there”, “their”, or “they’re”.  Using the wrong version of a word is just as bad as misspelling it.  Even after you have spell checked your resume, give it to someone else and have them proof read it, when they’re done, find a third person and ask them to read it.  I once read a good tip that says you should proof read your resume reading it backwards.  Read each word from the bottom of the page to the top.  People sometimes can miss spelling errors because their mind already knows what they’re trying to say.  Reading it backwards is confusing and can cause you to see things you would otherwise miss.  You cannot afford to make a mistake!
  • Don’t ramble. – It used to be that people believed that a resume should be strictly limited to one page.  Many people have different opinions on this.  Since the whole point of a resume is to tell a potential employer about yourself, if you truly have enough relevant job experience, skills, or other pertinent information that it can’t fit on one page, then fine, a second page is okay.  However, if you are just filling up space about your hobbies or other things that have no relevance to the job you are applying for, leave them off.
  • Leave off references and leave off the statement “References Available Upon Request”. – Years ago, it used to be common to list references.  Most companies (mine included) ask for this on the application itself.  It’s a waste of space to include references on your resume.  The point of the resume is for you to tell someone about yourself, not to have other people say things about you on your behalf.  Saying that you have references available upon request says nothing about you.  If an employer wants this information, they will ask you for them.
  • Avoid “buzz-words”, catch phrases, and words that don’t actually say anything about yourself. – Many people like to describe themselves as “hard-working”, “flexible”, “reliable”, “dependable”, or any other number of descriptive buzz-words.  The problem with all of these words is that all of them are things that a potential employer already expects of you.  The hiring manager isn’t going to look at your resume and get excited and say, “Wow, this candidate is both hard working AND reliable!”  If you were hiring yourself, you would expect that your new employee would work hard and be dependable.  Saying these things about yourself is assumed, and tells the employer nothing new.  The exception to this is if you have some type of measurable way of proving these things are true.  If you had perfect attendance in college or at a prior employer, you can say that you are reliable because you had perfect attendance for 2 years straight.  If you graduated with honors from your school or won some type of employee of the month award at a previous job, you could use examples like those to show that you are a hard worker.  Leave descriptive words like these off your resume if you can’t actually prove them.
  • Include relevant skills, education, and work history that is relevant to the position you are applying for. – This can get a little tricky if you are a young person without a lot of work-experience or if you are trying to get into a new career that you have little experience with.  This is one area where you need to find a balance of information that tells something about you, but doesn’t waste space on your resume.  Its OK for a recent college graduate to include summer or high-school jobs.  If you have been working for the past 20 years, saying that you worked for Taco Bell in high school is a waste of space.  Expanding on the earlier point about keeping your resume to one page is where this comes in handy.  A young person with little job experience should have a single page resume that doesn’t ramble on about a paper route they had when they were 13.  If you are young and inexperienced, you should be applying for an entry level job, and it should be assumed that the person reviewing your resume is expecting you to be an entry level candidate.  I would be much more impressed by a young person who wrote a quality resume with a couple of relevant facts about themselves, but kept it short, rather than someone who gives me a 3 page resume telling me about their entire life.  One last tip is that each time you apply for a new job, you should review your resume to make sure it applies to the job you are about to apply for.  You may need to revise some of your skills to apply to the new job.  If its been a long time since you applied for a job, update your work history or relevant skills that may have changed since the last time you updated your resume.
  • Don’t waste a lot of space and time on an Objective. – Some people will tell you an objective is important, others will say its not.  My opinion is that an objective section is OK as long as it serves a purpose.  It is completely useless to have a canned objective that doesn’t offer any insight into who you are, or what your objective actually is.  However, if you have a specific career goal or a reason for applying for a particular job, then include that in your objective.  Whatever you do, don’t ramble in this section or waste space that could be better used for more important things like past work experience or education.
  • Don’t lie. – No one should have to tell you not to lie on your resume, but people still do it.  It is assumed that resumes may have a certain level of embellishment on them, but you should never include lies.  Although its possible you could get away with a lie or two on your resume, you never know what level of research a potential company may do on you.  If they discover you are a liar, you will not get the job.  It’s even possible for a candidate to get hired, only for the company to discover they lied in their resume, and get terminated for it at a later time.  I’ll say it again, don’t lie!
  • Use common sense. – Using common sense should be common sense, but you would be amazed at how often this doesn’t happen.  Some things that fall under this category are not forgetting your name, address, phone number, and email address.  This is 2012, you should include an email address for yourself, however that email address should not be [email protected].  Your email address should be something very simple, like your name.  There are dozens of free email services out there.  If you don’t have a good email address, sign up for a free account, even if its only for the purpose of applying for jobs.  Leave the sexy princess for your friends.
    Another common sense thing is to not type your resume in some fancy cursive font.  Not only is it hard to read, but it doesn’t look professional.  Courier, Arial, and Times New Roman are all popular fonts for a reason.  This is one area where creativity is not wanted.  I once saw a resume where the person’s name was in the same font size as the rest of the resume.  I should be able to glance at your resume and immediately know your name.  If I have to scan over the entire resume to try to find your name, I’m already starting to lose interest.  Common sense should also prevail the other way.  Don’t type your name in size 72 font, somewhere in between is fine.
    One last thing about your resume, is to keep it black and white.  I once saw a resume that was obviously typed in color.  The problem with a color resume is that often times within a large company, it is faxed, scanned, converted to a PDF, and emailed to a variety of people.  You could be interviewing for a job in your own town, but the HR department reviewing your resume could be across the country.  Often when resumes are electronically transferred, they are converted to gray-scale and the color is lost.  Some colors show up as a very light shade of gray when converted, making it very hard to read.  Again, your resume is not an area where you should be too creative.

So, those are my recommendations on things I look for in a good resume.  As I’ve stated before, I hire people looking for an entry-level position.  If you have a PhD or are seeking partnership in a legal firm, you probably should not be taking resume advice from me.

Usually, there is also an application process that is submitted at the same time as the resume.  Sometimes this is done online, but with some companies, they may send you the physical application after they receive your resume.  The application is where additional information like references is given.  Every company has a different application, but all of the tips I mentioned for the resume are just as important for the application, especially spelling and grammar.  I’ve seen many candidates have a perfect resume, but their long-form application is riddled with spelling errors, misused forms of a word, or referring to themselves with a lower case “i”.

If you are filling out an application on a website, the website may not offer a spell check.  If this is the case, open up Microsoft Word or some other program with a spell check, and copy and paste your responses into the spell check first to make sure you got it right!

Now, assuming you typed a good resume, and it got you an interview, you aren’t in the clear yet.  There are still many ways in which you can be prepared to make sure the company knows you are the right person for the job.  The next tip I will give you cannot be stressed enough.  I am serious, this is one where a LOT of people fail miserably.

3. Do some research about the company you are applying for.

There is an extremely high chance that an interviewing manager will ask you questions like “What do you know about this company?”, or “Tell us how you heard about this position”, or even simply “Why do you want to work here?”

You don’t have to know the entire corporate history about the company you are applying with, but prior to the interview, you should have already gone to that company’s website and done some research.  Most corporate websites have a section called “About Us”.  Read that.  Memorize a few notable facts about the company.  If you see that they are a Fortune 500 company, or they’ve won some awards, remember that.  Remember the names of the products or services the company makes or sells.  If you are asked in an interview why you want to work there, and you say that you need a job to pay the bills, you may have just lost the job. However, I will be much more impressed if you can tell me that you are excited to work for *insert company name here* because they are an international company and have won blah blah blah award 3 years in a row.

Knowing the products, services, and history of a company is even more important when you apply for mid to upper level jobs.  But even with an entry-level job, doing this little bit of research really shows the interviewing manager that you are actually excited about working there and that you aren’t just looking to collect a paycheck to pay the bills.

4. Be polite, courteous, and professional to EVERYONE you see.

When coming in for an interview, you never know who you are going to run into.  A couple of years back at my company, the CEO’s teenage son had a summer job working for the maintenance crew.  Imagine that if you were walking up the pathway into the building and ran into a maintenance worker who was picking up trash, and you were rude to them, but it turned out to be the CEO’s son?  Receptionists, janitors, or any random person walking past you in a hallway could all be important people who may have some sort of impact on whether or not you are hired.  You should be on your absolute best behavior from the moment the front wheels of your car touch company property, until your car’s rear wheels leave the property.

5. Dress nicely, speak nicely, and groom yourself.

This is all common sense stuff here, but you would be amazed at how often this doesn’t happen.  You should have an idea of what type of job you are applying for before you set foot in the door.  If you are interviewing for a warehouse job doing manual labor, you probably don’t need a suit and tie.  However, if you know you are interviewing for an office position, even a low level one, you should not be wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  Take a shower or a bath right before your interview.  Make sure your clothes are clean and not wrinkly and that you have combed your hair.  If you have facial hair, make sure it looks nice.  A 7 day neck-beard looks sloppy, and if you don’t take the time to groom yourself for an interview, what level of effort do you think the employer will think you will put into your work?  I once interviewed someone who had a large barbell tongue ring.  I personally don’t have an issue with body piercings, as long as they don’t get in the way.  This candidate knew they were applying for a phone support position in a call center, and their tongue ring was causing them to slur their speech and talk funny.  Come on!  Oh, and don’t chew gum or candy either.

6. Turn OFF your cell phone. 

I am giving this one its own section.  Your phone should be OFF.  Not on vibrate, not on silent.  It should be off.  If you think you might be tempted to look at your phone when you have a job interview, leave it in your car!  This is one time in your life where you can be disconnected for a couple of hours.

7. Don’t be afraid to show your personality during the interview.

This ones a tough one.  I think it’s pretty much expected that there will be a certain level of anxiety or nervousness during an interview, but its also important not to be SO nervous that you come off as cold or stiff.  The person or persons you are interviewing with should understand that you are going to be a little nervous.  But part of the goal of an interview is for the company to get a sense of what kind of person you are, and whether you would be a good fit for their culture.  They will have a much harder time getting a sense of who you are if you completely shut down during the interview and may misinterpret your anxiety as rudeness or indifference.  Relax!

8. Be prepared for commonly asked interview questions.

As with writing cover letters and resumes, there are a ton of resources available on the Internet about how to answer commonly asked interview questions.  Some of the more common ones are:

  • What is your greatest strength?
  • What is your biggest weakness?
  • Why should we hire you over other candidates?
  • What are some things your previous boss would say about you?
  • What do you know about this company? (I already talked about this earlier)
  • Why do you want to work here?

There are a ton of these questions that get asked in almost every job interview.  You should go into the interview assuming they will ask you these things, so you should practice your answers ahead of time.

When a question is asked about your weakness or a previous failure, its important to answer the question in a way that is also positive.  Missing a goal because of too much attention to detail is a good weakness to have.  Missing a goal because you missed a lot of work is not.

Often times, these questions don’t have one right answer.  Many times, the interviewing manager is looking for how you answer these questions.  If you researched and rehearsed these questions in advance, you should have no problem giving a good answer.  If these questions catch you off guard during the interview and you are stammering your speech and saying “Umm” a whole lot”, it says you probably don’t care a whole lot about your work.  Above and beyond everything I’ve said, never, ever say “I don’t know” to these questions!  Everyone has a strength and everyone has a weakness!  Saying anything to the contrary makes you come off as a bullshit artist.

9. Don’t be afraid to talk about yourself, but don’t say too much!

One thing I like to do in my interviews is to ask a candidate about their hobbies or interests.  This may not get asked in every interview, but from the research I’ve done, I believe this is a common thing that is asked.

The reason hobbies and personal interests are important is because they give a glimpse into who you are.  A potential employer expects you to have a personal life.  They aren’t looking for a robot employee, so being able to talk about yourself and show passion for a hobby you have shows that you care about something.  If you care about cooking, photography, or gardening, there’s a good chance you’ll care about your work too.  Your hobbies don’t have to tie in to the job you are applying for.  If they do, then great, but its OK to say you have interests outside of work.

One word of caution is not to reveal too much.  It is illegal for an employer to ask about children, religion, political views, or your age.  While it wouldn’t be a bad thing to say you like to volunteer at a church, or you are a Scout Master of your 3 boys’ Boy Scout pack, you want to avoid revealing information that could indicate that you may have scheduling conflicts with a new job.  Try to leave your hobby discussions to activities that are generally done in your spare time.

I shouldn’t have to say it, but continuing with the common sense thing, it probably is not a smart idea to talk about things like sexual fetishes, or that you like getting drunk on weekends with your buddies.

10. Smile, be polite, and say Thank You!

I’ve talked about presenting yourself well, dressing the part, and having good hygiene, but this last part is so important, it deserves its own section.  Be polite throughout the interview, smile a lot, and say “Thank You” at the end.  Although its not a requirement to shake hands with someone, most people will offer.  I will remember someone with a great smile and a positive attitude way more than some mopey person who just sits there and appears to be going through the motions.

So, that’s my take on the whole process.  As I’ve said several times, there is so much good information out there that should make applying for a job as painless as possible.  Obviously, there’s many people out there with great resumes and who interview well, and still don’t get hired.  That’s OK.  Many people never find out why they didn’t get a job they applied for.  This brings me to my last tip:

11. If you don’t get the job, keep trying, and don’t get discouraged!

If you write a great resume and nail the interview, but still don’t get the job, chances are, there’s nothing you could have done differently.  It just wasn’t meant to be.

However, the whole reason I am writing this post is because MANY people do not write good resumes, or they interview terribly.  If you fail to get a job because of either of those things, you need to identify what you did wrong and fix it, otherwise you will NEVER get a job!  If you are doing it the right way, keep trying, its only a matter of time before it works out for you! 🙂

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