It’s no secret that the language a person uses in a job application can have a huge affect on their success, but not all my students understand just how subtle this is. In particular, I’m often struck by the negative impact the Aussie characteristic of being humble, understated, and playing things down can have on a resume or in a job interview. Students don’t want to seem arrogant, but in most cases they take it too far and actively diminish their experience, skills, and achievements.
This Adobe Captivate project that I created for the La Trobe University careers blog sums up my advice to students in this regard by teaching them to be a little more direct in their language and to remove a couple of common diminishing phrases. To be perfectly honest, it didn’t really need to be a Captivate project, as it doesn’t really have any interactions, but I felt like having a play in Captivate and so here it is.
Any time that I see the heading “objective” on a student’s resume, I know that what follows is going to be dull, clichéd generic, overwritten, and totally without substance. Something like this:
OBJECTIVE: Obtain a challenging leadership position applying creative problem solving and lean management skills with a growing company to achieve optimum utilization of its resources and maximum profits.
The word utilization alone, instead of use, is enough to make me stop reading.
When I started working as a careers consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to write a strong objective statement.I couldn’t find anything that helped clarify it for me, let alone my students, so I started improving students’ resumes by telling them to ditch the objective statement. It worked, to a point. But there was something lacking: a concise introduction which could highlight the students’ key strengths.
I had seen a few articles that declared that the objective statement dead, killed by cliché. In its place, they recommended a professional summary, which has become a cornerstone of my resume advice.
I tell students this:
In your professional summary, state in plain English how you meet the most important selection criteria for the job. Write the summary as if it were the only information you could give the employer.
That’s it. They’re often skeptical about the plain English part, having been conditioned to prioritise over-blown business writing. But it works. Someone who is reviewing resumes needs to be able to treat the resume like a check-list of selection criteria. Listing the key ones at the top of the first page of the resume, in the “golden zone”, makes it as easy as possible for them to do.
Here’s an example from my own resume:
Three years of experience as a university career consultant and more than 10 years of experience in tertiary education and support services
Graduate Certificate in Career Education and Development, Post Graduate Certificate in Education, and Bachelor with Honours in History, all to a high standard
Skilled in the development and delivery of innovative career education programs and resources, particularly using online, blended, and social learning approaches
A resume that reads well and is persuasive is one that uses a lot of strong verbs. The bullet points start with highly relevant verbs, often taken directly from the selection criteria, and go on to provide context, achievements, quantification and qualification. Verbs describe action, so they are better at describing skills being used and making the text more active and persuasive. Nouns, on the other hand, are often used to write lists which are static and lack context.
Compare the following from my own resume:
Careers educator 1:
One on one consultations
Developed and delivered a blended-learning program of career education workshops for over 150 students per semester
Wrote, edited, and designed career education resources and promotional material for the Career Centre
Consulted and coached over 150 students per trimester on career planning and decision making
Both examples are showing the same core responsibilities and skills, but it is the version using verbs that has the greatest impact. It provides several times more information in a way that is more engaging to read. The drawback is that there are a lot more words, which requires a balancing act between providing enough detail and being concise.
Another advantage of verbs over nouns, is that anyone can write a list of nouns, regardless of their actual experience and competence. On the other hand, writing narrative sentences with strong verbs is more likely to demonstrate true capability and therefore be more persuasive.
In my previous post, “the Problem with Employability Skills in Career Education”, I explained why I’m dissatisfied with the way students are introduced to the concept of employability skills. In this post, I’ll share an engaging and effective lesson plan that I have used to help students understand the importance of employability skills in the context of their own professional field.
I created this lesson as part of Career Passport, a three-stage career education program that I developed for RMIT Vietnam, and have continued to use the basic idea at La Trobe University. Rather than share the step-by-step lesson plan, I’ll describe the key activities and principles in broad detail, to allow you to adapt the lesson to your own context and the needs of your students. This lesson is easily adapted for face-to-face, blended, or online delivery.
Stage one: warming up and activating key vocabulary
Learning outcome: students activate their prior knowledge of employability skills
Ask the students to form groups and together list as many universal employability skills as possible. This can either be a recall exercise, if they’ve been provided with a list of employability skills already, or a prediction exercise if they haven’t. In a classroom, they can record their answers on paper or on the whiteboard. Online, they can edit wikis or list their answers in a discussion board.
Stage two: the set up
Learning outcome: students recognise the importance of context in employability skills
Display a mock resume which simply lists skills with little or no context.
Ask the students how effectively they think the resume demonstrates the capabilities of the candidate. Give them plenty of time to debate and discuss and perhaps poll their opinions to see if there’s a consensus or if they disagree.
Some students will recognise the weakness of the resume. Others may think it’s fine. That’s good for us as the teacher, because we can capture their attention when we tell them that actually, this resume is awful.
Elicit the reason why from the students by asking about the nature of the communication or teamwork skills and experience of this person. When students can’t answer, they’ll begin to understand the point. But to really drive the point home in a fun way, move on to stage three…
Stage three: the fun bit
Learning outcomes: students can deconstruct specific demonstrations of a skill, identifying key sub-skills and qualities
Tell the students that they’ll see a couple of videos of people using their communication skills in their workplace. Ask the students to take notes as they watch:
what is their job title?
what is their mission or purpose?
what personal characteristics are important?
what sub-skills are they using?
You can include any number of videos: cheesy telesales presenters, 911 operators, sports coaches… the more unique the better. My students especially love the drill sergeant and we have fun discussing how he would perform as a kindergarten teacher.
When the students review and compare their notes, they should be able to see clearly how important context and specificity is when it comes to talking about their employability skill.
Extension activity one: resume writing
Learning outcome: students can write a resume experience description with suitable context and clarity
Get the students to choose one of the videos and then, in groups, write a resume experience description for that person’s role. Help them find ways to quantify, qualify, and contextualise their descriptions and remind them to use a range of expressive action verbs. This would be a great time to teach students Google HR bigwig Laslo Block’s formula for expressing achievements.
Extension activity two: STARL structure for interviews or key selection criteria
Learning outcome: students can deliver an interview response using the STARL structure.
If your students are familiar with the STARL structure for behavioural interview responses, they could have fun practising in the role of the occupations from the video. I’ve had whole classes in stitches as we role play behavioural interviews for drill sergeants, used-car salesmen, or carnival touts.
Tell me how it goes
If you use this lesson, either as I describe it or in some inspired form of your own, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment and tell me how it went for you and your students.
“Employability skills” are a bit of a buzzword in career education. They’re typically defined as the skills that are needed in all professions, regardless of industry or specific context. There are dozens of lists of employability skills out there, but they all cite similar skills as being fundamental requirements in all workplaces:
Planning and organising
They’re a very useful concept, as they remind students that employability is more than just their degree and their technical proficiency. The problem is when they’re presented like this, as a list of words without a lot of context. Students then dutifully list them on their resume, not realising that without context they are meaningless.
Take “communication skills” for example. In and of itself, it’s a meaningless phrase. Almost everyone can communicate. Newborn babies can communicate, as can household pets. Bill the postcard vendor from Saigon was an engaging communicator, but I wouldn’t want him writing my research proposals. James Joyce was a genius with creative prose, but I wouldn’t put him in charge of my social media marketing.
Some employability skills resources are better than others, in that they do break down the skills into more specific actions and contexts (see this one from the University of Sydney for example). But when it comes to career education I strongly believe that any discussion of employability skills must come with some serious time given to deconstructing and contextualising employability skills, to ensure that students are attentive to the specific requirements of their professional field.
In my next post, I will share a lesson plan for an employability skills activity that I’ve had great success with, both in class and as a blended or wholly online activity. It’s a lot of fun for students and educators alike and does a great job bringing the idea of contextualising and defining employability skills home.
One of the great challenges of being a career development educator is the pressure you’re under when you apply for a job. You’re applying for a job giving advice to others about their resume and interview skills, so the pressure is on to deliver a very high quality application yourself. I thought it might be fun to share a story of when I screwed it all up.
At the time there were quite a few opportunities popping up and so I was revising and sending my application documents quite often. My resume didn’t require a lot of changes, but each Key Selection Criteria statement had to be written individually. For one application, I spent my weekend preparing my documents and submitted them with confidence the day before the deadline. The next morning I got an email from the line manager for the position:
It looks like you’ve attached your cover letter twice and there is no Key Selection Criteria statement.
My heart sank. How many times had I harangued my students about checking and double checking their applications? Here I was, making such a basic mistake. I replied immediately with the correct documents attached and made a self-deprecating joke about the irony of a career consultant making a mistake like this. I hoped that my frankness and good humour would reflect well. Straight away, there was another email:
Thanks Michael, but it looks like that this KSC statement is for a different job.
My heart sank again, deeper. I checked, and it was true. I had sent the statement for a job I had applied to at a different university a week before, with quite different duties and very different criteria. I was sure that by now they’d drawn a line through my name on their candidate list because of my incompetence. Nonetheless, I sent off the correct documents, double and triple checking them this time.
A week later, I was surprised to receive an email inviting me to have an interview. I thought they must either be very understanding or very desperate, but I wasn’t going to question it. In a strange way it actually boosted my confidence. I accepted their invitation and promised myself that I would ace the interview to make up for my mistakes with the initial application. I started by reviewing the position description, but I was stopped immediately by something at the top of the first page in the “Employment Conditions” section:
Salary: $XX,000, 0.4 FTE
0.4 full time equivalent, meaning 16 hours a week. Two days a week. The job was part-time, making it totally unsuitable for me. I had seen the salary dollar amount, of course, but somehow I had never registered the other part. I would never have applied had I realised this. So, the day before my interview I had to email the manager who had forgiven my two previous errors and cancel my interview. This time I was too self-conscious to admit to my error and just said that my circumstances have changed.
My subsequent applications were much better, of course, and not long after this I was employed by La Trobe University in Melbourne. I’m still a little embarrassed by my mistakes but I do enjoy telling the story now.