Career Tips

Your Resume Is Not The Problem. You Are!

By Dave Isbell (Originally posted 08/11/2011)

“Destiny is not a matter of chance, but of choice. Not something to wish for, but to attain.”  William Jennings Bryan.

Every day I come to work, a sign greets me outside my office that bears the above quote. I didn’t put it there, but I’m guessing that whoever did knows about the work that I’m always trying to do with people who visit me. I have been a professional career coach for more than twelve years. During the course of my career, the most common request has been of the “get me a job” variety. My answer, simply, is that I have never gotten one person a job in my entire career. Even the people I have hired have gotten the job on their own merit! The second most common request is for me to review (or write) someone’s resume, and it is one that I just don’t really understand.

Isn’t your resume just a collection of experiences that should be impressive enough to the people reading it that they would want to call you? Aren’t you a better judge of your story than I am? Furthermore, aren’t there shelves of books and millions of online resources to help you to construct your resume? If your career is important to you, then it seems that the first thing you should do is put all the work you can into assessing your own past and writing it out in a way that makes sense to those who may be interested in reading it. Why would you just blindly send your resume for a critique to some random career “expert” you found on a Web page somewhere (even if it is the website of your beloved alma mater)?

Frankly, I often wonder why anyone would want me to review his or her resume. I mean, it seems to make more sense if you are an [insert occupation here], that you would want others in that occupation, and people who hire those kinds of people, to advise you about your resume. After all, aren’t they the subject-matter experts who would know what content is attractive to hiring authorities? Why on Earth would you ever pay someone hundreds of dollars to write your resume? Herein lays the heart of the problem for far too many people.

Somehow, too many of us (yes, I am including myself in this finger-pointing diatribe) have gathered the impression that it is someone else’s responsibility to manage our careers. I’m not saying that you can take on the world by yourself, or that you need to become a professional resume writer. You should ask other professionals to review it. Yet, how much value do you think they are going to bring, when you haven’t even covered the basics to the best of your ability? Think about it — when you hand over your resume for a critique, you are asking someone else how you should tell your story. Even worse, when you ask someone else to write it, you are asking that person to tell your story in his or her voice. It may have been awhile since some of you took those introductory English classes, but I am confident every single Spartan learned how to string a couple of sentences together while they were on campus! You might have to do a little bit of training to get those intellectual muscles back in shape, but you can do it! It will be well worth the work. After all, if you did not do the heavy lifting in telling your own story in the first place, how prepared will you be to do battle in the interview?

Now, lest you begin to point fingers at me and accuse me of being an angry, burned-out, antagonist who doesn’t like his job, let me assure you that I actually love my job and I am dedicated to doing it to the best of my ability! That is why I care enough to tell you the truth, even if it is as ugly as a month of Monday mornings after a weekend of bar crawls. Simply put, if you are not willing to put in the work, I (and any other career coach you want to hire) will be able to do little to change your situation. You are welcome to be as offended or as mad at me as you would like. (Every career coach knows that part of the job is to be the scapegoat.) Yet it doesn’t change the fact that your phone is not going to start ringing until you can give someone a reason why s/he wants to call you. Believe me, when I get a resume that looks like the person actually cared enough to put some effort into, I am excited to do whatever I can for that person! You can bet that more than a few employers feel that way too.

Here are a practical few tips that might help when considering your resume:

  1. You can never go wrong with a competency-based approach to writing your resume (and preparing for an interview for that matter.) This has to do more with how your behavior/attitudes/characteristics influence your skills AND the demonstrated results you get when you apply these competencies. (For a good book on this, look for “Competency Based Resumes” by Robin Kessler. She also has one on interviewing.)
  2. I’ve seen terrible resumes from people who got jobs and great resumes from people who never get them. The difference? The great resumes were from people who stayed in their houses constantly rewriting their resumes. The terrible resumes came from people who strung together a few sentences on a piece of paper and then hit the pavement to talk to every single person in their communities to see how they could be helpful to them! The moral of that story is that it isn’t the resume as much as it is the manner in which it is delivered.
  3. Piggybacking on number two: Talent is not hard to find these days, but solid and legitimate opportunities for talented people are because employers already know who they are going to hire before they know they need to hire! In short, if you want to shorten the amount of time and frustration it takes to get your next job, you are going to have to create the need before the employer knows they have one. That is going to require more than just idle chatter.
  4. If you haven’t read these posts yet, here is the type of stuff I usually end up talking about with people when they make appointments with me to talk about the job search:

  1. Did I mention you need to know what it is you want to achieve with your work, know what it is you can do, know how to tell your story, and then find people who need what you do and care about what you care about? Don’t wait for them to know they need you – make them WANT to need you!
  2. Spartans, there are nearly half a million of you living in the world! You should be able to find another Spartan who needs your help relatively easily. For example, try connecting with your local MSU Alumni Club and ask them how you might be helpful to them: (Here’s one idea: Take a look at what is important to them, then write up a proposal for a project that you would like to help them with before you contact them. Do the same thing with employers, nonprofits, and organizations in your community. )
  3. Reread number six, and then do the same thing with individuals in LinkedIn Facebook and Twitter

The only reason your resume has any power at all is because it provides evidence of the accomplishments and experiences you have from your past. Whether you want to have a future that is different from your past or to continue to do more of what you have already done, you MUST establish credibility. That requires you to establish trust with people; the best way to do that is to do something that benefits them. I know you need a job, but until you prove your worth, nobody is going to pay you what you are worth! Your value to employer is not what you have done in the past, but what they think you might be able to do for them in the future. Further, what you are doing currently will be judged more important than anything you have done in the past!

Spend some time writing your resume so that it reflects what you have done, and so that you can reflect on what it is that you want to do in the future.  However, instead of constantly editing and uploading your resume to databases, continue to build your reputation (your real resume) by helping Spartans (and anyone else) who want your help. What I am trying to say is that if your future is important to you, and you want to build it, then go about the business of living it out and use words when it is necessary!

Your resume is going to work a lot harder for you when your reputation precedes the document. Don’t invalidate your own story by allowing it to become just one more piece of paper in a shredder bin right next to last month’s cover sheets for TPS reports. You are more valuable than that and you know it. So get out into the world and make your own destiny!


Dave Isbell is the Alumni Career Service Coordinator at Michigan State University. He has been a Career Coach since 1999. He is also currently pursuing a Master’s in Social Work/Family Studies at MSU. When he is not working or studying, he is enjoying domestic bliss with his wife and kids, or playing rock music on his bass guitar. You can find him on Twitter (@helpingspartans) and sometimes he writes about compassion, collaboration, and career for this blog, which he owns and begs other Spartans to write for.


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