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Selling Your Aptitude Rather Than Your Degree

How to write a skills-based resume and cover letter

By Joe Schall

Recently, a graduating student came to me with a difficult but enviable problem. A champion biker, a world traveler from Alaska , an excellent photographer, and a self-proclaimed "Jane-of-all-trades," this student had a difficult dilemma; she'd earned an engineering degree but had a strong desire to work in another field. She had identified an international marketing consulting agency that she wanted to work for, but she wasn't confident that they'd hire someone with a background that was for this agency at least nontraditional.

To help this student figure out what she had to offer this company, I asked her to talk about herself her temperament, favorite quotes, talents and abilities. Without hesitation, she said her favorite quote was by Malcolm Forbes, the Renaissance man/publisher who was worth at least $400 million when he died. Forbes once noted, "Diamonds are nothing more than chunks of coal that stuck to their jobs." She told me that this quote exemplified how a powerful work ethic and perseverance could result in the highest possible achievement. Clearly a "diamond in the rough" herself, this student was obviously very intelligent, highly trainable and openly ambitious. With the quote by Forbes scrawled on a piece of paper in front of us, we set to work overhauling her resume and cover letter to reflect these traits and emphasize her abundant skills. The resulting documents, which landed her a coveted training position with the international agency she had targeted, shown here as samples.

For many job seekers, their work path is clear. They were educated to be a mechanical engineer, for example, and that's what they become with a conventional resume and cover letter that highlight their skills in that area. But what happens when you opt for a job or a training program outside of the typical boundaries of your degree? Suppose you want to sell your skills and aptitudes rather than your experience in a specific career? Or what if you simply want to employ a more sophisticated, creative approach in your job search? In such cases, the skills-based resume and cover letter can be your ticket to success.

Creating Skills-Based Content

Having critiqued thousands of resumes and cover letters over the years, I'd say that 30% of my students opt for a skills-based approach to these documents. Some students choose skills-based documents because they're seeking a career that doesn't fit neatly to their degree and some simply believe that emphasizing their skills is a viable way to get positive attention from employers.

While the conventional resume and letter highlight such areas as your education, job experience and activities, the skills-based model highlights your aptitudes, proficiencies and transferable skills. Students still might use conventional headings, but at least some of your headings and content will reflect a more creative approach.

The principal way to draw immediate attention to your skills in a resume and letter is through creative wording of your headings. In the example letter on page 37, skills-based headings are used even within the body paragraphs to draw reader's immediate attention to those areas rather than focus us on the student's degree program. Note how the example resume employs a "Skills Summary" section right off the bat, highlights "Education and Travel Experience" in one section, and closes with a summary of "Athletic Accomplishments." Other examples of skills-based categories for a resume include section headings such as "Professional Qualifications," "Certifications," "Research Experience," "Computer Skills," "Leadership Accomplishments" and "Communication Skills."

Content for the resume "Skills Summary" section, which is used at the top of the page in place of the typical "Objective" category, should be innovatively and directly derived from your background. This section acts as a mini-cover letter, giving an employer a summary of your transferable skills based on your experience. In this section, students should favor quantitative information. For example, you could add, "six years of experience in working with goal-oriented teams" to your resume. Students should also highlight qualitative assessments by using phrases like, "proven excellence in the use of presentation software." Present short descriptions even in the form of fragments or a bulleted list of your accomplishments. Your goal is to show proficiency and talent in areas that can be applied to any job that you would take, thus demonstrating your ability to be trained and perform with confidence.

Another way the skills-based resume and letter distinguish themselves is through frequent use of action words and direct author interpretation. By grounding your accomplishments in goal-oriented active verbs facilitated, prioritized, evaluated, analyzed, researched, reported you emphasize how you can cross over from one area to another, and you stress broad categories by which your abilities can be judged. By interpreting your abilities directly and creatively in a cover letter, you fit your background to the employer's needs, especially when you seek a career that might reside somewhere "outside the box" for which you were educated. For example, you could include, "Though trained as an nuclear engineer, my technical background can be readily applied to a research position in a chemical laboratory."

Matching Company Information to Your Skills

Those who select a skills-based approach need to exude a confident, informed tone, which involves some honest self-assessment and fastidious company research.

To assess what skills you have to offer, carefully consider your transcript, descriptions of courses you've taken, program descriptions, minor or specialization within your education, former job duties, and personal activities. What skills have you honed through these experiences, and how do your chosen activities in college reflected these skills? Were you involved in field or lab research that can be applied in other areas? Did you travel, study abroad or learn another language? What sorts of results did you accomplish as part of your coursework or program? PowerPoint presentations, reports and papers, theses, and design projects are all products that an employer might be interested in regardless of the subject area. Finally, what sort of personal dispositions do you have that an employer might find attractive? Are you independent, team-oriented, goal-setting, results-driven? Answering such questions with affirmations in your resume and letter is critical to developing a solid skills base that is clear to employers.

Companies may clearly define the skills that they're looking for in their job advertisement. Include those keywords and concepts as part of your resume and letter. For instance, a particular ad might cite a desirable candidate as one with the ability to work in a challenging environment and solve problems, the ability to perform non-routine tasks across a variety of disciplines, and a desire for continuous self-improvement. Your resume and cover letter for such a job should be fine-tuned to emphasize these same qualities.

Another level of skills-based thinking can be achieved by digging into a company's literature and Web sites. Most companies publish mission statements or principles by which they operate. Companies pride themselves in the approach they take toward their image and product line, and a little persistent excavation on your part will reveal their stances in relation to issues such as environmental consciousness, customer satisfaction, devotion to community service or outreach, commitment to team building, employee input, continued education, travel, and leadership development. Analyzing a company's culture and integrating those same values into your application, especially in your cover letter, is sure to earn you extra attention. Those candidates who can actually link themselves and their skills directly to a company's mission statement are well on their way to standing out in the crowd.

Creative Use of Form

Creativity is almost always a good thing, however, in regards to your resume and cover letter, you should not do anything too unconventional or in violation of basic format rules. Innovative format choices are certainly permitted, as long as they enhance rather than detract from the utility and appearance of your documents. The whole point in using a creative format is not to distract the reader but to draw positive visual attention to your skills and your unique background.

Format must remain accessible, however; you want the reader's eye to be able to readily scan your resume and letter both horizontally and vertically. When it comes to tabs and margins, though, you have plenty of flexibility in form. By experimenting with format options for the entire document or for portions, you can change margin settings in order to get more information onto a particular line or onto the entire page. Informal tables also economize on space some daring writers even use an informal table within a cover letter. Still, aesthetically, avoid using less than one-inch margins at the page's edge or more than three different indentations within a single line. By convention, always supply your full contact information at the top of the resume and letter rather than elsewhere, and avoid doing anything so unusual in form that the documents don't automatically look like anything but a resume and letter.

For visual emphasis, follow some basic principles of hierarchy. Obviously, capitalization, boldface, underscore and italics enhance both the appearance and hierarchy of information on the resume. Beware of graphic overkill, and keep in mind the intuitive hierarchy we employ as readers. Capitals and boldface typically represent the most important information, while underscore and italics imply subordinate material. Visual balance on the page and an ample use of white space are also standard ways to draw our eyes to material, and readers are especially drawn to material beginning at the left margin and material that follows a skipped line.

Finally, certain matters of form should never be violated for either the resume or letter. You should always use single-spaced or 1.5-spaced typing, with at least one-inch margins on each side of the page. Skip one line between each paragraph in a letter and one or two lines between each section of a resume. Use tight, readable publishing fonts such as Helvetica or Times, with point sizes no larger than 12 and no smaller than 10. Always spell-check and proof hard copies of your work. Ask a few trusted people to look them over as well. Bottom-line: Don't let a skills-based, creative approach to writing your resume and cover letter stop you from honoring the forms and formalities that are proven and professional.

Quality Checking Your Resume and Cover Letter

Reconsider Content:

  • Make sure you describe your background and abilities in skills-based terms that is, use active verbs and descriptions that stress transferable skills; think as broadly as necessary in terms of how employers measure quality and trainability.

  • Consider accuracy and professionalism you don't want to seem to stretch the truth simply to match your skills to a position. If you only volunteered at a position for a few hours per week, make sure your wording indicates this without undermining the work. Do your examples and wording reflect someone with a professional attitude or are they too informal or vague? Do you overstate your case, or do you instead exude confidence and seek an appropriate fit?

  • Look over your job descriptions for thoroughness and be sure they represent the value of your work. You shouldn't just be reporting what you did but interpreting how it was of value to someone your employers, customers or even yourself. Use both quantitative and qualitative measures; make sure readers can see that your work represented quality.

  • Double-check for any major time gaps between jobs or other activities. If there are any, consider different ways to create hierarchy such as breaking your experience into two different categories and foster a skills-based rather than a time-based focus. In a category such as activities, some writers simply drop time as a reference altogether, and they let the examples speak for themselves.

  • Make sure you have only included content that you would feel comfortable discussing in an interview. Remember, at an on-site interview, your resume and letter might be right on the interviewer's desk.

Review Overall Format:

  • By convention, limit your resume and letter to one page each.

  • Maintain at least one-inch margins on all four sides of the page, and spread your information out so that it is visually balanced. Do not be afraid of white space.

  • Be sure you have used identical margins and format for related information e.g., line up company names on your resume with each other and treat all major headings with the same font.

  • Be line conscious. If you are fighting for space and you see that just one or two words are gobbling up an entire line unnecessarily, revise accordingly.

  • Beware of graphic overkill. Scan your resume visually for boldface, italics, capitals, and the number of margins you've used. Are you managing our visual attention to your benefit or is the page too "busy"?

  • Remember that readers look at your resume left-to-right. Where logical, go to a second line for prominent new information rather than squeeze two pieces of important information onto one line.

  • Present the final version of your resume and letter on durable white or off-white paper avoid unusual colors and forms. Mail the resume and letter in a large envelope so they won't need to be folded.

Make the Computer Your Ally:

  • If needed, change font types or sizes to fit the resume and letter to one page each. Use only one or two fonts throughout Times, Chicago and Helvetica are popular and attractive fonts and go no lower than 10-point and no higher than 12-point font.

  • When lining up material vertically, use tabs and margin settings rather than space bars; otherwise, your output may appear differently than it does on the screen, or differently from one printer to the next.

  • If you need a bit more space horizontally for just a line or two, "stretch" the relevant lines by resetting the margin on the ruler at the top of the page just be sure not to go much beyond the traditional one-inch margin.

  • Whenever possible, work with a hard copy of your resume and letter rather than an electronic copy. Do not trust that the way the documents look on your computer screen will exactly match how they will appear on the employer's screen. If asked to email a resume or letter as attachments, instruct the recipient as to the version number and software used. Consider snail mailing a hard copy as a back up as well.

  • Proofread with perfection in mind. Having someone else proofread the resume and letter as well. Do not rely on your computer's spell checker, and certainly not on the grammar checker neither will ever be capable of proofing a resume or letter perfectly.

Joe Schall is the Giles Writer-in-Residence in Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and a free-lance writer.

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