The Single Most Important Task in Your Job Search

You need to show that you meet the requirement of the job
You need to show that you meet the requirements of the job

Career advisors are often asked what is the single most important task in the job search process. The answer is undoubtedly the identification of the key requirements for the targeted job.

There is an assumption underlying this statement which is that a resume is to be specifically targeted at one particular job and not used ‘generically’ for a wide range of job applications. However, the identification of the key requirements for a particular job is not only to be used for focusing a resume, but it is also of the utmost importance in preparing for interview too, as we shall see.

Firstly, let us consider the importance of the key requirements when crafting a new resume. All career advisors agree that one must have a very focused resume to get called for interview for one’s targeted job. So how do you focus a resume?

To get called for an interview, the applicant or candidate needs to specifically demonstrate in their resume that they meet all or most of the selection criteria for the particular job. The selection criteria roughly equates to the main or ‘key’ requirements to perform in the job reasonably well. These ‘key’ requirements will be a mixture of skills, qualifications and experience.

The task of identifying the ‘key’ requirements is easier for a publicly advertised position because the ad usually lists both the responsibilities of the job and the main requirements needed to do it well. However, it is wise to check that the advertised requirements is complete by doing some research – see below.

When a position comes from the “hidden” job market – that is, through networking where candidates hear about the job through ‘word of mouth’, there usually isn’t a job description or person specification to go with it. In such cases, the job applicant has to do some research themselves. To start, search the internet for previous advertisements of the same or similar roles – what requirements were listed for these? Then talk to people who are already doing that job – or to their immediate supervisor. Ask for their opinion on what the key requirements for the job are. Thirdly, you could also search an occupational database such as O*Net (www.onetonline.org) that will provide data on the tasks, responsibilities and requirements for a huge range of jobs.

The above research will uncover quite a lot of information and you will need to distill this down to a manageable number. As you need to demonstrate in your resume that you match the requirements of the job, you need to identify and determine just the 6 to 8 “key” requirements for the specific position. Print off this list and have it in front of you as you write your resume. The Summary or Profile and the Key Skills sections of your resume need to reflect these 6 to 8 “key” requirements. In wondering what to include and what to leave out – if something is relevant to the key requirements it should be included, if not, leave it out. In this way your resume will have greater impact as it is focused on showing that you meet the main requirements for the job. And because it does, you will be called for interview.

As stated above, knowing the 6 to 8 “key” requirements for the position also guides your preparation for the interview. As you prepare answers to commonly asked questions, the answers should be focused on demonstrating how you meet the requirements. After all, from the interviewer’s perspective, the interview is about discovering if you can do the job and showing that you meet the requirements meets this objective.

Therefore, for these reasons, identifying the 6 to 8 “key” requirements for the job is the single most important task in the job search process.

What to Write in a Cover Letter

A cover letter or cover e-mail should entice the recipient to read the attached resume

A commonly asked question of career coaches and counsellors is what to write in a cover letter or cover e-mail. [For simplicity, I’ll just use the phrase ‘cover letter’ to refer to both the written letter form and a cover e-mail.] Some people struggle about what to write and reduce the impact of their resume by sending it with a poor cover letter.

First, let us look at the purpose of a cover letter. It is intended to get the recipient to read the enclosed or attached resume – as such it is the first step in attaining a job in the job search process (the purpose of a resume is to get an interview, and the purpose of the interview is for you to show how you match the requirements for the job and thus secure it). Given its purpose then, a cover letter should entice the reader to pay great attention to the attached resume.

The following format is one you can use to persuade the recipient to just that:

Firstly, the cover letter should be addressed to a specific person in the company, preferably the appropriate hiring manager, but if you can’t find out who that is, then the HR manager in charge of recruitment. This is more personal than a “Dear Sir / Madam” and is more likely to be favourably read. If also makes it easier to follow up later. Of course, this involves a little research and sometimes a little detective work to find the name of the appropriate person, but doing so is well worth the effort.

The letter or e-mail should start by stating the specific position you are applying for and mention where you saw the job advertised. If a particular person told you about the vacancy and especially if that person works in the company, mention who ‘recommended’ that you apply. Similarly, even if the person who told you is from outside of the company but it might still be valuable or worthwhile to mention their name and/or position, make sure to do so.

The next paragraph should briefly indicate how you meet the requirements for the job applied for, and this should be done in such a way that the reader will want to see more and will therefore read the resume as well. This is the most important part of the cover letter and you must spend some time on getting the balance right between showing that you are the person for the job and becoming too long-winded! Being concise is what is required here.

You can either continue in the same paragraph or start a new one if the previous one was in any way long, by highlighting some key or relevant positions you have held. For the positions mentioned, you should select one or two very relevant responsibilities and achievements – very relevant here means that they are specifically related to one or more of the key requirements for the job. Again, you need to be very brief and concise.

To finalise, you should tell the reader how to best contact you and when.

The cover letter (or e-mail) should be no longer than one page in length – if it is longer, you need to edit it. An overly long letter or e-mail won’t be read.

How to Focus Your Resume

A resume must be focused to get past the gatekeepers

How do I focus my resume?” is one of the main questions that career coaches get asked. Most job seekers have already heard that they must have a focused resume to get past either the software or human gatekeeper – an ATS (Applicant Tracking System) or the person tasked with screening the resumes received. What these ‘gatekeepers’ are looking for is that applicants meet most of the requirements to do the job – these will also probably be the selection criteria used at interview.

So here are some ways that you can ensure that your resume is focused on the requirements of the job.

Firstly and most importantly, read the advertisement for the position you are applying for. This will contain a job description and a section usually called ‘Required’. The ‘required’ section may be divided into ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ qualities. You need to go through that job description and required qualities and mark or highlight all the keywords used. In particular, you are looking for the keywords used to describe skills, experience and education or qualifications. You should also do this for the desirable qualities.

Type this list of keywords and keep it in front of you. These keywords must appear in your resume for it to be ‘focused’ and to get passed the gatekeeper.

Determine the more important keywords and use these in your profile / summary and in your key strengths sections. If possible, use some of the other keywords here too. When writing your experience section, use as many of the keywords as you can when describing your responsibilities. If an educational or other qualification is required, make sure you list that too. Your aim is to show that you meet at least 80% of the requirements – less than that and you probably won’t be called for interview – more than 80% almost guarantees that you will.

But what if the job wasn’t officially advertised and there isn’t a job description with requirements? This can happen when you hear about a job through networking – somebody tells you about a vacant position and asks you to send in your resume to the hiring manager. Don’t worry – you still have a couple of options.

The US Department of Labour (Labor) maintains a huge database of jobs that includes the requirements for each job. This database can be freely accessed at https://www.onetonline.org/ – just type in the job title and you will have a [usually] long list of job requirements. You will need to do some guesswork here and reduce this list to a manageable number of key requirements to work with to focus your resume.

Another option is to use the job title in a Google search and look for previous advertisements for similar jobs. You can also do this in a LinkedIn search. Use a few previous advertisements and see which are the common requirements mentioned in each. These are likely to be the key requirements for the job you are targeting too, and the keywords you need to use in your resume.

You could also use LinkedIn search to identify specific people in a similar role – you might even be lucky enough to find the previous holder of the position you are going to apply for! Look at their profiles and again note the similarities in their skills (especially the ones they have listed as key skills), experience and education / qualifications. Again, these are likely to be the key requirements for those positions that must be used as keywords to focus your resume.

Focusing your resume in this way with keywords that reflect the key requirements of your targeted job should ensure that you get more interviews.

How to be an ideal candidate for the job

An ideal candidate is an informed candidate

One of the more annoying aspects of the recruitment process for hiring managers are uninformed candidates. This manifests itself in generic resumes been received which are a complete waste of time for busy managers – they spend less than thirty seconds on them before they are thrown into the garbage bin.

Another manifestation of uninformed candidates are those who get invited to interview because their resume was somewhat focused and relevant, but turn out not to know much, if anything, about the company, its structure, its vision and plans, etc. Worse still are those candidates with completely unrealistic expectations of salary, benefits and working conditions. These candidates didn’t do their research and come to the interview uninformed. The majority of hiring managers admit that they will not consider an uninformed candidate even when their qualifications are a match for the job.

So what, you might ask, is an ideal candidate? From what I’ve written above you can already guess that an ideal is an informed candidate – but informed in what way?

Firstly, an ideal candidate’s cover letter will be addressed to the correct person and will briefly and concisely explain how the applicant meets the requirements of the job (which mostly will form the selection criteria for the job). Hiring managers love such cover letters because this entices them to read the attached resume – where the second mark of an ideal candidate should be.

A resume must be focused on the requirements of the job (or the selection criteria if you can discover them – try asking HR for them!). Anything that is not focused on these requirements is fluff and irrelevant. The resume of an ideal candidate will demonstrate how they match against the requirements of the job in terms of experience, skills / competencies and qualifications. For each such resume, the hiring manager will say: “Great! Let’s have a chat with this one.” They know that such a candidate has done their research and is informed.

The third mark of an ideal candidate is that, at interview, they can relate their skills and experience to the requirements of the job, and do so in such a way that they provide appropriate examples of using those skills. Being able to do this is especially important for competency-based or behaviour-based interviews which are becoming more common. Furthermore, the ideal candidate will ask pertinent questions and exhibit knowledge of the company’s culture, values and public strategy while they talk. In short, they demonstrate that they are informed during the interview.

Hiring managers’ view informed candidates as being more reliable and more likely to stay with the company because they know about it from their research. Informed candidates are also seen to be more likely to settle into the job quicker and be productive because they know about the actual job.

So demonstrate that you are informed about the company, the job and its key requirements. You will then be seen by hiring managers as an “ideal” candidate.

Why your resume might be ignored

Unfocused resumes go into the bin

One of the main complaints from job hunters is that they send out dozens and dozens of resumes, but rarely hear anything back! Does that sound familiar? Perhaps you too have sent out lots of resumes and applications, but are not called for interview. That is not only frustrating for job hunters, but demoralising too.

Having spent a lot of time and effort in preparing a resume that you think is great – and sometimes spending money on resume writers – nothing happens when you e-mail or post it to a company for a job you want. But there is a reason this happens – you are sending out a generic resume!

When most people have finished all the ’donkey work’ in preparing and crafting their resume, not only are they relieved that they have finally ‘completed’ it, but they believe that they can send it out for any job they are interested in. Most people don’t realise that when they have ‘finalised’ their resume, what they have is merely a “master copy” – at this stage, at best, it is a generic resume. At this stage, the resume is about themselves. To get noticed, a resume must be about the company you are targeting for that particular job and that job itself!

Understanding what happens when a person submits a resume or job application will help clarify the situation. When a job is advertised, it states most or all of the responsibilities of that job and also states some of the requirements for the job. Even when a person ‘hears’ about a job from their network or networking, usually also mentioned is certain skills that are required to do it. Sending a ‘generic’ or ‘master copy’ version of their resume doesn’t demonstrate that they will be able to do that job well – it merely tells the story of that persons work life up until that point of time.

To be noticed, a resume should show how the applicant fits the job specification and the requirements for the job – sometimes called the ‘person specification’. Unless it does this, it gets rejected because it is a generic resume. It does not get past the gatekeeper.

The gatekeeper can either be a computer software application or a human person. Either way, they are both scanning the resume for key words – words that relate to the requirements for the job. If they are not there, the resume gets rejected. When a human person is scanning resumes, usually they only spend about 30 seconds doing so – a software application does this in even less time! So if a person’s resume is not focused on the specific job in a particular company, it is a generic resume and is not going to get past the gatekeeper.

Furthermore, even if it is read, a generic or unfocused resume indicates to the hiring manager that the applicant didn’t do their homework – they didn’t research the company or the actual job. This is a glaring admission that they are ‘uniformed’, and all hiring managers admit that they won’t hire an uniformed candidate.

So people need to stop sending out the same resume for different jobs – it is a waste of time and effort because it is not focused – it is generic. And generic resumes get rejected!

The Need to Focus Your Résumé

Resumes need to be focused

People spend a lot of time and effort in crafting their résumé. The general thinking is that the more effort they put in, the better the résumé will be (provided they know what they are doing and adhere to the basic principles). However, this should not be the end product they send out when applying for jobs – at this stage it is but a generic résumé. Using this to apply for jobs will have a very low success rate

To understand why such a generic resume might have such a low success rate, you need to understand what happens to a résumé when it is received. Whether it is in an online application or a hard-copy sent through the post, each résumé is screened by a ‘gatekeeper’. This gatekeeper can be either a software package for online résumés, or a human being sorting through the hard copies. The software package version searches for specific keywords – usually these are to be found in the requirements for the position, or more specifically, where given, in the selection criteria. The human version is basically the same process usually performed by a junior employee from the HR department or the hiring manager’s office, and this person is told to screen by a given set of criteria. It is reported that this process takes less than 30 seconds per résumé.

To be successful, a résumé must help and facilitate this process.

So, avoid sending out a doomed generic résumé. Rather, you should look at your completed generic résumé as a ‘master copy’ – this ‘master copy’ forms the basis of a focused version but needs to be specifically aimed at the particular job being applied for. Find out the specific requirements for the job – even for the same type of job, these requirements will probably differ in some ways from company to company. Your ‘focused’ résumé must show how you match these requirements.

To take it a step further, focus your resume on the selection criteria for the position. Even where these are not supplied (you can try asking the HR department for them – there is nothing to be lost by asking!), you can spend some time in creating what they might be. Review the job description and job requirements – what skills are required? What type of attitude is required for the job? What knowledge or qualifications are needed to do that job? In short, what type of person is needed to do this job? The answers to these questions will provide the selection criteria.

The generic version of your résumé is not focused on these requirements or selection criteria – that is why it would probably end up in the trash can or recycle bin. To have a better chance of success, for each separate job you apply for, and for the same type of job but in different companies, spend time focusing your résumé on the specific requirements and selection criteria for that position in that particular company. Doing so will give you a better chance of getting that interview.

Focus on your Strengths

Compile your skills, but focus on your strengths
Compile your skills, but focus on your strengths

One of the larger and more arduous tasks involved in managing your career – whether when looking for a new job or preparing for promotion – is systematically compiling a list of your skills. In doing so, you need to focus not only on current work skills, but on skills you may have developed in school and university, in your sports or leisure pursuits, in voluntary or community work – in fact, from every and all aspects of your life to-date. A skill is a skill and it matters little where you gained it – it may well turn out to be a valuable transferable skill that you might need in a new position or role. So don’t confine yourself to only compiling work skills.

A skill is the ability to carry out a particular task. Some skills we are very good at and others we don’t do so well. In our working life, we tend to have to use a mix of skills some of which we are very good at, others ok with, and again others that are still a challenge for us – but we still manage to get the job done.

Then there are skills that we enjoy doing and others that we don’t enjoy. Again, our jobs tend to involve some of both. When we are using skills that we enjoy doing, we feel happy and motivated in our job. Conversely, when we have to use a skill we don’t enjoy, our job is challenging, boring and discouraging.

Our strengths are those skills that we are both good at and enjoy doing. Imagine a job where you only had to utilise your strengths! Think how fulfilling and motivating that would be – a job that would make you very happy indeed!

So when you are thinking about your career direction or looking for a new position, don’t just identify your skills but rather focus on your strengths. When you have identified and written down your strengths, ask yourself (and others) “what job or role would involve using these strengths?” See if you can group or theme some of your strengths – do these suggest a job or role? Research these strengths in as much depth as you can – what you are trying to identify are all those jobs, roles or positions that use your strengths. You may not find a job or role that uses all of your strengths, but if you find one that utilises many of them, wouldn’t that be a job worth pursuing?

Our work takes up a large portion of our life, so shouldn’t we try as much as possible to ensure that we are happy at work – that our work is fulfilling and motivating. The way to do this is find a job or role that utilises our strengths.

What should we do when our job only uses some of our strengths (besides looking for one that requires more of our strengths!)? It is important for our inner happiness and contentment that we find the opportunity to use as many of our strengths as possible. So for those strengths that are unused in our work, look for other avenues to use them. Does a local charity or voluntary organisation need help that involves using some of your strengths? Would taking a committee position in your sports or leisure club facilitate using some of those unused strengths?