When you prepare your job search materials, are you highlighting your best skills and experiences? Do the talents that make you unique stand out?
Over and over, this is what I do at job search workshops and when working one-on-one with private clients: I look at the first draft of a resume; a cover letter; a description of a study abroad trip, a professional experience, an academic project and I say, “now tell me what made you unique in that experience!”
Were you the only non-native speaker of the lingua franca in that situation? Did you do something that no other participants did? Were you one of only two students who placed into an advanced course or received a prestigious award? Were you offered special opportunities, promotions, or accolades?
Last week I was in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania to lead a job search workshop for foreign language students at Susquehanna University where this issue of burying the lead repeatedly came up. Occasionally, students over-represent their skills and experiences, but more often than not the problem is exactly the opposite: students under-represent those things that truly make them unique.
Here a a few examples:
One student lived & studied abroad for a year and took language, history, and art history courses. That’s good, but now tell me what made you unique in that experience. Were you the only high schooler when everyone else there was in college already? Did you get out into the local community in a way that others did not? Did you figure out local transportation systems so that you could pursue your passion for art by visiting more museums more often than those who simply went along on the program’s planned trips? That is what makes you stand out from the crowd!
In a mock interview, one student talked all about herself only as a student “I’ve been studying French for 14 years and I studied abroad, then took the following courses…” Luckily her professor was there for the mock interviews and forcefully reminded the student to include that she has teaching experience—she’s served as a teaching assistant in an intermediate French course (201) where she had to plan the sessions, lead the class, troubleshoot her lesson plans on the fly, and speak to students spontaneously in French at their intermediate level—these are not small tasks, especially for a first teaching experience. That is program development experience! If you are just talking about your studies and framing yourself as a student when you have significant teaching experience that makes you unique when compared to your student peers, you are burying the lead!
Another student described his language as “native” and when I ask why, he said, “because I’m very good at communicating with people in all kinds of situations.” Only later did I find out that he forgot to say that his Mom is Italian.
Did you grow up with a parent speaking Italian at home? You’ve been hearing it and speaking it your whole life? Making summer visits to relatives? That’s what you need to talk about when you’re describing your “native” language level. That’s what you need to highlight.
And here’s why you have to dig deep and find the examples to develop that show off your unique traits:
1) Specific examples resonate more with employers, interviewers, and random people with whom you are networking than sweeping, generic claims that are difficult to prove (or disprove).
2) Specific examples are believable. If you just say, “I’m good at communicating with people in all kinds of situations,” that is vague. I hear that and I don’t know exactly what it means (at least include a list a few highly specific “situations”–engineering, education, medicine, even the domestic sphere with young children). When you say, “my Mom is Italian and I grew up hearing it and speaking it, especially on summer trips to Italy,” I know exactly what you mean–that you are fluent in the way that one is when growing up around a language. I also know that because you grew up in the broader, English-speaking U.S. context that you probably didn’t have formal education so your ability to read and write in Italian is probably less than you ability to converse (if you have formal education, make sure to include that information in your job search materials!)
3) Specific examples lay the groundwork for the general claims you can make about your skills–you want to use the example to show that you possess the traits employers are looking for. And you want to make an explicit connection to the given job, company, or industry.
Here’s how to get started. Write some resume lines stream-of-consciousness first, then by the time you get to the end of it, you’ll have found the nugget that you actually need to develop.
For example, at Susquehanna one student’s first draft said, “I first started taking Italian in high school and I’ve continued to do so until the present time, developing my linguistic and cultures skills while also serving as a language assistant.” Those last 5 words are the ones to develop! In the next draft, delete everything else and just talk about the work experience that is being a language assistant.
Then makes sure you are including strong action verbs that describe what you really did. Don’t use weak verbs like “help with,” “assisted with,” “related to,” “concerning”–replace those with what you actually did–designed, taught, led, presented, etc. Finally, try to include quantifiable information wherever possible: how many? over what period of time? what percentage return rate? Any numbers you can add take up very little space on your one-page resume, but provide a lot of information. Numbers are efficient!
Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in training students to highlight their humanities studies so they stand out in the job search and workplace. For one-on-one support in preparing for your job search or to set up a workshop, contact Darcy: firstname.lastname@example.org