For any position, a hiring manager might receive dozens or even hundreds of resumes. Her first job is to weed through them. She makes a separate pile of candidates she might want to learn more about — those lucky few who will get an interview. But she’s likely to leave some of the very best candidates on the table. Why? Because they didn’t use their resumes to show how perfect they were for the position.

Your resume has only one purpose — to land you an interview. Here are some of the questions I’ve heard and the answers I’ve learned about how to be sure your resume does its job.

Question: How long should my resume be?

If your resume contains information that speaks directly to the advertisement and it demonstrates clearly the experience, background and skills you have that match the search, then it’s the perfect length. If it contains superfluous information that doesn’t demonstrate how your skills align with the job you’re applying for, then it’s too long. Some resumes contain pictures, flowers or even clip art in an effort to stand out. Unfortunately, that can often make them stand out in the wrong way.

Remember, the people doing the initial weeding of applicants could have dozens or even a hundred or more resumes to look at. They appreciate resumes that are clear, get to the point and respond to the qualifications already identified in the ad. If your resume is full of extra information that takes up too much of their time, it can be distracting or even frustrating, and it may cause your document to end up in the “I don’t think so” pile.

Question: How can I make my resume really stand out?

You can start by making sure the above the fold section of your resume is a perfect match to the job ad. That is the top half of the first page, which should contain a bulleted list of evocative, active descriptions of your professional accomplishments. For example, let’s say you’re applying for a librarian position. The ad says the applicant needs experience in programming, collection development and customer service. A well-qualified, stand-out candidate would include the following highlights (or similar accomplishments):

Implemented biannual community focus groups to collect qualitative data to inform services.

Established partnerships with two local early childhood organizations, co-wrote grant applications and was awarded $10,000 in grants to fund Growing Readers program.

Increased program attendance by 20% in the first year without an increase in budget.

Reduced the collection budget by 5% in each of three years, while at the same time improving the circulation rate by 10%.

Use actions words in your highlights, tell a story, help the reviewer to see, clearly and immediately, that you have exactly the skills they are seeking.

Question: Can I list a coworker as a reference?

You can, but more importantly, list references who either know or are known by the library’s decision makers if you can. Why? Because an anonymous reference from Joe Librarian has only a partial value. Of course, your coworker is going to say you’re wonderful; otherwise you wouldn’t have put that person down as a reference. If your reference can support that statement with applicable examples of your work, then his letter will be of some value. But, if he simply goes on and on about how great you are (as often happens), then the letter is of little value. However, if your reference is known by your future boss, then anything he has to say will carry more weight because he is a trusted source. So, don’t worry about what positions your references hold; ask people who know your work and who are also known and trusted by the people doing the hiring for the position you are applying for.

Question: I’m passionate about my work and I just know this is the perfect job for me, but how can I show that?

First of all, you have probably shown it by what you’ve done over the years. This includes both professional and personal pursuits. Use your resume to show how you’ve exemplified the skills they’re seeking — don’t just say you do. For example, if the position calls for someone with customer service skills, highlight the fact that, for the past 20 years, you’ve elected only to work in jobs that put you in direct contact with a wide range of people. If they’re looking for someone with Readers’ Advisory skills, share that you, on your own time, joined a community book discussion group and often help direct and lead others in their title selections. And use words that have energy and emotion. Don’t be afraid to get out the thesaurus to help you make the accomplishments on your resume shine and reflect your passion.

Question: How far back in my work history should I go?

This is a frequent and challenging question because the answer is — it depends. If you are looking for a job that requires you write the library’s press releases and 20 years ago you were a newspaper reporter, then you should be sure to include that position. But, if you’re trying to get a front-line customer service job, maybe in Circulation, and 20 years ago you were the only office worker in a private law firm, then it wouldn’t be necessary to include that information. Use your best judgment on whether to include jobs you held over 15 years ago. Remember, your goal is to demonstrate why you are perfect for the job; to that end, use everything you’ve got!

Question: My previous work wasn’t in libraries because I took time off to raise my family. How should I show that on my resume?

There are lots of potential answers to this question, from leave those years off completely and explain them only if asked in an interview to list those years as time spent gaining life experience. How can you know what’s the best answer? First, try to learn more about the culture of the organization to which you’re applying. For example, is the director a person who came back to the industry after raising his or her own family? Or is this library one that isn’t known for focusing on work/life balance, but instead on nose-to-the-grindstone work? Talk to some people who work there currently or have worked there in the past before sending in your application packet and resume. Tap into your network to see who knows someone who is willing to share his or her opinion of the culture. If you can’t get any insider information, read everything you can find to see what you can learn about the library and its leadership, including board minutes, news clippings, annual reports, etc. This should help you determine how to craft your explanation about gaps in your employment.

Finally, use your own good judgment. Above all else, your resume should be an honest, complete and passionate reflection of you, not someone else who emerges because you tried to follow everyone’s advice. If this is the job for you and if you’re a match for the library’s needs, then there’s really no wrong way to go.

Finally, once your resume is finished, make sure to have someone with a good grasp of grammar and spelling proofread it. Then, ask a discrete colleague or mentor to read it over to assess your skills. Would he or she hire you? Then you’re all set — now all you need to do is start preparing for the interview!


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