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October 02, 2012

CV profiles: are they killer or filler?

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Careers profiles, career objectives, personal profile, personal statement – all permutations on a theme and one you can’t fail to have noticed if you’re pulling your CV together. The big question is: do you need one? Well, the jury is well and truly out on this one. Some people – including careers consultants, HR managers and recruiters – swear by them. Others – including including careers consultants, HR managers and recruiters – don’t! So it’s not surprising if you’re feeling a little bewildered by such conflicting and contradictory information. I’m going to try and get to the bottom of this thorny issue and help you decide if, when and how you should use one.

Personal profile or career objective

Although they occupy the same space on the page, there is an important distinction to draw between the personal profile and career objective. A personal profile highlights your current situation, skills and USP. A career objective describes the type of job you’re looking for, and where.

Career objective

Computer science graduate seeking challenging position in software development company to fully utilise my Java programming skills and confidence with concurrency and multi-threading.

Personal profile

A highly motivated computer science graduate with a first class degree, experience in Java and award winning undergraduate dissertation.

I have chosen these examples to contrast the different approaches but in practice the two often merge to create a hybrid statement, along the lines of:

Highly motivated computer science graduate, with an excellent academic credentials including first class degree and award winning undergraduate dissertation. Looking for a graduate position in a software development company, where my Java programming knowledge and strong problem solving skills can be fully utilised.

If you're applying for an advertised vacancy then think twice before you include a careers objective. The parameters of the role are already defined so an employer will be confused (or worse, irritated) by the inclusion.

How to write one

The internet is awash with examples of personal profiles, and this is something to bear in mind should you decide to include one. Recruiters are savvy folk – they spend a lot of time sifting through applications, CVs and cover letters. They have a well-honed (*insert fruity word*) detector and can sniff a fake or a liar a mile off. They’re also time poor, and don’t want to waste it reading a bland statement that reads like a laundry list of adjectives. If you're going to add a profile, try to follow these simple recommendations:

  • Avoid making bold, overblown statements. You’re a student/graduate not the CEO of Coca-Cola. If in doubt, ask someone to sense check it for you. Explosive laughter is not endorsement!
  • Say something specific or tangible. Try to find a point of difference or USP. You’ll be competing with your peers. If everyone has a 2:1, work experience and society involvement what makes you stand out?
  • Keep it factual. Yes, you need to sell yourself but not at the expense of your future reputation and integrity. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.
  • Make it focussed and succinct, not vague and repetitive. Space is at a premium so aim for 2-3 lines maximum and please, please, please give buzzwords a wide berth.
  • Read your statement aloud and apply the ‘so what’ test? If your intended audience could respond with a 'so what', the chances are they will.

Do you need one?

At this stage in your career, probably not. Career profiles work best when they include demonstrable – and often quantifiable – experience or, achievements. For example, an applicant with '3 years in-house marketing experience, implementing a successful social media strategy and co-ordinating retail campaigns' is more notable than a 'recent graduate with strong communication skills and creative flair seeking a challenging role in a marketing or PR agency'. The latter may promise potential but recruiters are generally looking for cold, hard evidence.

It is really difficult for a recent graduate to offer the range of experience and knowledge that transforms a bland, generic statement into an impressive, eye catching profile. I have worked in HE careers for over six years but despite reading many careers profiles, less than a handful have made any kind of impression. A memorable example was the PhD student who used a careers profile to great effect, pre-empting concerns about her ability to transfer 'academic' experience to the workplace. She found a job in publishing soon after. Careers profiles can work well for career changes but for most graduates I would advise against. Feedback from our recruiters is lukewarm at best and a weak profile may hinder, not help, your application.

August 06, 2012

Applications – sniper, not scattergun

Target200 rejection letters and counting – does this sound familiar? It certainly does to me. There's been a fair passage of time since my student days, but I distinctly recall a period of frenzied activity in the months after graduation, applying for any and everything. To my credit I left no stone unturned, or sector untouched and once I signed up for the online job sites, I was really motoring! Sadly, the rejection emails came just as quickly and I was left feeling depressed and dejected. Very occasionally I'd have a spot of luck and be invited to interview, but it was painfully obvious that my interest and motivation were lacking. I couldn't articulate any passion or enthusiasm, or draw connections between my experience and the job role...because I didn't have any. And then it dawned: my desire – or desperation – to secure a 'graduate' job was clouding my judgement, and I took a step or two back to ask myself some pretty searching questions about what I wanted and where I was going.

Fast forward to 2012 and it seems my experience has been amplified. Graduates emerge into a far more competitive job market and the tail end of a pretty deep recession. Every graduate post receives 52 applications, so it's no surprise that students feel the need to cast their net wide. After all, this seems perfectly intuitive: the more jobs you apply for, the better your chances. Sending mutiple applications can also make you feel like you're being really pro-active and taking charge of your job search. Truth be told, it can sometimes mean the opposite.

Why the scattergun approach fails

If you're about to enter your final year still waiting for that career epiphany, you might be tempted to hedge your bets and apply the scattergun approach. This strategy generally fails. Employers can spot a generic application a mile off and your application will simply find its way onto the reject pile. Tell-tale signs include:

  • Bland, generic statements proclaiming a desire to work for company x 'because you are a global player, with a strong vision offering a fantastic opportunity for me to learn and develop'. Not only is this pretty tedious to read, but it provides no evidence of motivation, research or originality. And it breaks application rule no 1: don't tell an employer what they can do for you, only what you can do for them.
  • Liberal use of Ctrl+v! Graduate recruiters spend a lot of time sifting through application forms - you can't fool them. It may appear that application forms ask the same questions, but there's often a subtle nuance, or change in emphasis. Copy/paste will not save you time but it may cost you the shortlist.

Why targeting works

In a nutshell, it shows the employer that you are serious and mean business. Good applications take time and effort, and are the fruit of extensive research, multiple drafts and attention to detail. Yes, there is an element of luck, but don't overstate its importance. In any case, you can't legislate for luck – good or bad – but what you can do is maximise your own chances with a properly organised job search. Follow the basics:

  • Research, research, research! Start with the industry sector itself. If you can't provide a convincing and compelling case for your interest in marketing/consulting/HR then you won't persuade an employer either. Good places to start include TARGETJobs, TheJobCrowd, Prospects,
  • Get to know the employer inside out: clients, mission, trends, initiatives. Read company reports, press releases, news stories. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook (you may feel Facebook is just a social space - well, it's not anymore). Use this knowledge to shape your applications; don't simply regurgitate what you've read. Make your application informed and intelligent, not superficial.
  • Only apply for jobs you want. Don't commit to an application if you can't do it justice. Why risk slipping into a downward spiral of failure and rejection?

Inevitably it's the bad news that tends to dominate the headlines, so don't be surprised if you continue to read alarming stories about graduate unemployment and scarily high applicant:job ratios. It's certainly true that there are many graduates applying for each position, but plenty will self-sabotage through poor applications. Don't be one of them. Focus on quality, not quantity, and you may soon be beating those odds.

May 31, 2012

Five cover letter essentials

There’s a lot of good, detailed information out there to help you draft a cover letter – not least on our website – but it’s often difficult to synthesise and digest the really key points. Given that many of you will soon be picking up your job search, I’ve decided offer up my own ‘cover letter essentials, packaged in bite-size, and hopefully digestible, form.

There’s no question that recruiter subjectivity plays a part in the selection process, but you can’t always second guess employers – what you can do is present a compelling and persuasive case. Don’t spend all your time on your CV and neglect the cover letter – it’s not an optional extra. If you want to make the short list, read on:

  1. Have a beginning, middle and end. Sounds obvious? You’d be surprised how many people choose not to follow this basic principle. A cover letter is not a rambling stream of consciousness, but a short, concise argument. After all, you’re trying to convince the recruiter you’re worth a second look. Establish what you’re applying for, why you’re applying and how you meet (or even exceed) the role requirements. Once drafted, read your letter aloud – is it coherent and convincing, or weak and woolly?

  2. Personalise it. Adjust what you write to reflect the needs of the company or organisation you’re applying to; employers are looking for enquiring and motivated applicants, not lazy ones! Don’t send a bland, generic letter – you might as well withdraw your application. A recruiter can tell in seconds whether you’ve bothered to research their organisation. Try and find an interesting angle that shows you’ve gone the extra mile in your research.

  3. Showcase your skills and achievements. Employers are not (generally) driven by altruism - they have a bottom line: can you do the job and will you add value? Make sure you address the job spec and provide evidence – with examples – to support your claims. Focus on tangibles, not vague statements. Show and tell. Leave the recruiter in no doubt as to your potential: if you don’t sell, market – and yes, even brand – yourself, no-one else will.

  4. Complement your CV, don’t duplicate it. A cover letter should ‘animate’ your CV and paint a more complete picture of you as an applicant – and potential colleague. A CV is a factual document, and offers little scope to demonstrate your written skills and personality – let your cover letter speak.

  5. Find the right tone. A good rule of thumb is professional, but still personable. You should use a more formal, business-like tone than you would in conversation but try not to sound robotic. Convey an understanding of the environment by using the relevant terminology, but go easy on the management speak. It’s not buzzword bingo!

I think it's worth ending this post with a great video from YouTube. It's Australian so you might hear the odd 'resume' but the message is pretty universal....

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