If you’re new to the workforce (like I was a decade or so ago), the process of applying for a job is apt to seem a little mysterious. But fret not, I’m here to give you a little insight into the process from the other side of the resume. What follows applies more directly to library and other professional positions, and probably less so for technical, executive, or entry level jobs.
Finding job postings
The first step is obviously finding a job to apply for. Sites like Career Builder and Monster can be a good place to start, but be prepared to narrow your search or be overwhelmed with the sheer number of listings. A much more effective way to go is to identify organizations you’d like to work with and check their websites frequently for openings.
Both of these strategies require you to do a little homework before hand. Namely, you need to take a good look at yourself and identify your interests, strengths, and practical skills. If you need a little more direction than that, try this. I for one knew I was interested in public service, passionate about education, and (by the time I actually started thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up) had management experience. This led me to libraries, public libraries in particular.
Some time ago I was fortunate enough to sit down with a hiring manager who critiqued my resume. He did this as a favor, but at the time I wasn’t really equipped to take that advice and put it to use. Back then I had “Able to communicate through written and verbal means” on my resume. He tried to tell me that that statement doesn’t really communicate anything. In fact I see now that the stilted language probably indicates the opposite. His advice: Be specific.
You should be using your resume to communicate specific accomplishments, challenges, and experiences you’ve had. General statements, like the one above, come off as filler, padding that is taking up valuable space on the one page (more on this later) you have to illustrate your professional self. Eventually I replaced that bulky, yet vague line with something like: Proposed changes to organizational policy which resulted in increased efficiency and reduced expenses and/or: Resolved interpersonal conflict between team members by encouraging open, honest, and frank communication. Your cover letter (again, more on this later) is the perfect place to flesh these out a little more.
Be honest. This is kind of obvious. If you lie on your resume, you’ll probably be discovered, either in the interview or later. Besides, you’re better than that.
Be brief. As a rule I limit my resume to one page. I’m sure it can depend on the situation and some managers might disagree with me, but I do this for a couple of reasons. First, it ensures that only the best stuff gets admitted. One page isn’t much and imposing this restriction on your resume ensures you’re highlighting your best attributes and accomplishments.
Be creative. The old maxim is that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the fact is that we almost always do. Formatting can make your resume stand out and grab a little extra attention. One caveat: keep it simple. The most important part of your resume is its content, so make sure it’s not overshadowed by graphics or busy formatting.
A word about references
Unless they are asked for specifically, do not use personal references. Most hiring managers are going to ask work related questions of your references, so it needs to be someone who can speak to your work ethic. If you’re still in school or recently graduated, consider asking teachers/professors (always ask before listing someone as a reference) that you’ve had close contact with. If you’ve done volunteer work, ask the volunteer coordinator or a fellow volunteer.
Your cover letter
This is required even when it’s not. If you’re not writing cover letters, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Resumes are inherently dry. They’re basically a timeline of your professional life. Cover letters are more akin to a biography. The point is to communicate who you are while expanding upon your qualifications with specific instances of your work. A good cover letter does three things: explains why you want the job, why you’d be a good fit for the job, and how you would add value to the organization. For these reasons your cover letter and, to a lesser extent, your resume should be tailored to the specific position and organization you’re applying for.
Now, the thing that separates good cover letters from bad ones is readability. Use the space to tell a story or two about your professional self, and do it in your own voice. I admit there might be some risk in eschewing formal business language in some cases, but the upside is that you will seem sincere to the person on the other side of your letter. Riskier still is the practice of highlighting one of your failures. But no one is looking for a perfect candidate, they’re looking for someone who would be a good fit. And for my money, someone who can admit defeat and explain what they learned from it is exceedingly more valuable than someone who judges their value by only their wins.
Interviews come in a lot of flavors. They’re done over the phone, via skype, and face-to-face. My advice for all types of interviews is the same: Be prepared, be specific, be yourself.
You have to do your homework. Think about what they’re going to ask you and how you might answer these questions. If you have no idea what they might ask, there are no shortage of books, articles, and resources (available at your local library even!) on the subject. Most interviewers are going to ask questions to get a sense of your personality, and how you would react in certain situations. Have a couple of stories handy that illustrate how you have handled yourself when conflict arose in the workplace, how you’ve solved problems, and what you’ve learned along the way.
Specifics are important too. Vague or general answers don’t count here, and while fence-sitting might seem safe, it’s the worst thing you can do in an interview. Answer each question fully, and don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat a question if you need it. It shows you’re considering your response. There is a fine line to walk here though, so don’t go on ad nauseum.
Most importantly, be yourself. People are more attuned to spotting insincerity than we usually think, so the safe move here is just to be you. And the interview isn’t really about an employer selecting an applicant, it’s about you getting some insight into the organization you’re applying to. You also get to determine whether or not the opportunity is a good fit.
Worst case scenario: you don’t get the job
So you didn’t get the job, huh? Don’t sweat it. When you’re not offered the position it has very little to do with you, so don’t take it personally. If you don’t believe me, consider that the typical job interview clocks in somewhere south of one hour, and how much can someone really learn about you in an hour? Be gracious, evaluate what could have gone better (if anything), and try again.
Best case scenario: you get the job
Congrats! Sadly, I have no experience with salary negotiation so you’ll have to consult other resources there. My general advice for you here is essentially the same as above. Accept the position with humility. After all, how much can someone really learn about you in an hour?