Saturday, April 30, 2011

How to Stand Out from the Crowd and Get the Job You Deserve

Over the course of a year, about 100 students ask me to help them with their cover letters and resumes and I am happy to do so.  With the help of my colleague Leslie Bates, editor for college advancement and proofreader par excellence, we look for content, style and grammar. With a little over three weeks until Commencement, this would be a good time to briefly review what makes a candidate stand out among the stiff competition for jobs in a hurting economy.  These same rules hold true if you’re applying for an internship.

Too many applicants focus on themselves in their materials.  I tell students, “Employers don’t care about you,” which makes them pay attention.  What they care about is, “What are you going to do for them?”  Keep the focus on your prospective employer and relate how your skills will help her or him.

Start doing that in your cover letter.  I can tell more about a job applicant from the cover letter than from a resume.  Your cover letter reflects your writing skills, personality, marketing and public relations efforts, and your ability to think strategically.  Sell yourself from the first sentence.  Nearly every cover letter starts off with a phrase similar to, “I am applying for a job in X,” or “Please consider me for Y position with your company.” BLAH!  Stand out from the crowd!  You have to impress the person who may hire you – 10 seconds.  Don’t waste a single word or line of that letter.

Perhaps you had an experience that is in keeping with the ethos of the organization.  In 2006, one of my students, Amber Sisson, attended a Rally for Darfur in Washington, DC.  She saw a table for Amnesty International and picked up some information about their work, including a notice on the availability of internships in Amnesty’s Manhattan office.  Amber started her cover letter with a story about herself – interest in human rights and her attendance at that rally.  She then connected her personal interest to the work of Amnesty and detailed how the skills she learned studying communication at Marist would be put to work as a public relations intern.  Amber got the internship.

Megan Murphy, like Amber, a 2007 Marist alumna, wanted to intern with the Hudson Valley office of United States Senator Chuck Schumer.  That job was run out of the Valley representative’s home.  Megan did her research on the person who had the job – a Red Hook town board member – and related her thoughts on the balance necessary to represent a senator while serving as a local elected official and how her writing, speaking and organizational skills could help.  Megan got the internship and today is Senator Schumer’s scheduler.

Reflect on who you are and relate those qualities to the needs of the company or division to which you are applying.  Impress with your accomplishments, but only insofar as you can explain how what you’ve done fits in with the needs of the company or agency.  Are you an Eagle Scout?  Don’t be afraid to mention that because the qualities necessary for that achievement translate well into one’s work and personal life.  Are you a marathon runner who has placed well?  Mention that because the discipline required to be an elite runner bodes well for a prospective employee’s work habits. 

Did you have a substantive internship?  Provide information and be a specific as possible.  A student who came to see me the other day had a 3.98 grade point average but no work experience.  He told me that he thought all you needed to do is work hard in college and have a high GPA.  As impressive as graduating summa cum laude is, he will be at a competitive disadvantage looking for work because he does not have one day of practical experience, while his competition has had one, two, three, even four internships – worth more than a year of work experience.  A common question I hear from graduating seniors is, “An entry-level job is looking for a year or two of experience?  How can I get that experience if I’m not given the opportunity to get an entry-level job?”  The preferable answer is a “real” internship, that is, one where you are doing more than making copies and getting people coffee.  You should be able to show great work products in a portfolio.

Use power words in your résumé and cover letter.  A good list can be found here: Complex vocabulary is not paramount and be wary of too many adjectives.  Be confident without being cocky.  A little humility goes a long way.  At the end of your cover letter, close the deal.  Tell the person reviewing your material what to do next.  "Review my résumé." "I look forward to detailing my qualifications for and interest in this position."  Make sure you give your email address and phone number, even though it's on your résumé.  Stand out from the crowd with good (and error-free) writing and relate to your employer, and you stand a good chance of being called for an interview.

My next post will focus on the value of networking.  The days of want ads are long over. 

One last thing…I had hoped to add a post per day, but my schedule, especially this past week, kept me in meeting after meeting, which meant I couldn’t do my writing for work until after 5 or 6 p.m., often continuing until 10 or 11 p.m.  By then, I’m exhausted, though you’ll still find me posting on twitter or Facebook until the wee hours of the morning.  I will do my best to post at least three days a week during the school year, perhaps more frequently during the still-busy but slightly-less-hectic summer.  While I have many topics in mind for the next several weeks, if you have suggestions for areas you would like me to address, please feel free to comment or send me an email at

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