The Devil is in the Details 2.0

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Category: Career Resources

Because the major part of my job entails a deep daily dive into a vast ocean of resumes, cover letters, and other application materials, I have a great tendency to notice all the large and small minutiae of said materials. Last year, in an essay similar to this one, I shared my thoughts with you on some of the good, the bad, and the humorous that I had encountered during my time in the Spelman Johnson saddle, especially pertaining to some common mistakes that were easily correctible with some effort and elbow grease. Obviously, some of you read that piece with deep comprehension and attention, because I have now seen great improvements across the board (yes, I am sure it was my article alone, and nothing else, right? Right?! Anyone?). For that, I applaud you!

Ah, but I do believe that some of you may not have been paying attention when the article came out;  maybe you were traveling for work, lost in the woods somewhere, or on an Antarctic vacation. In any event, in the spirit of helping my fellow humans to achieve 100% error-free application materials in the next year, here is my updated 2019 version of “The Devil is in the Details,” let’s call it version 2.0! Some of this is rehash, some of it is new, but all of it is meant to help you in your job search. Enjoy!

No Photos! Ever!

While social media today encourages photos on EVERYTHING, your resume should be considered an extremely professional document in every way, and thus should contain no photos of any kind. Additionally, you want your resume to be as objective and unbiased as possible, letting your skills and accomplishments sell you as a candidate, not your headshot.

Either use periods or do not use periods. There is no in-between!

Consistency is a key element of both the resume and cover letter, so the first part of either document should look the same as the last (and the middle). While it seems like such a minor point, I have found a great number of resumes recently with a missing period at the end of one or two bullet points; if a search committee member is not tuned into the details, they may not even notice. But, as the job market tightens and more people are competing for the same jobs, candidates need not give any fuel to a search committee that might bring questions to their minds. The lesson here is this: no mixing and matching of punctuation!  Should you use periods at the end of your bullets, use it for ALL the bullet points. If you choose not to use periods, which is also fine, though less common, simply ensure that all bullet points are devoid of said punctuation. Consistency counts!

Spell check is a classic and beautiful tool. Use it!

It goes without saying that misspellings and incorrect grammar are a huge no-no on the resume and cover letter. Spell check today not only catches incorrect spelling, but also incorrect grammar, which is essential for those of us who have become accustomed to a large amount of social media, where abbreviations are common fare. Never let a resume or cover letter go out with misspellings or incorrect grammar, as that reflects on a candidate’s attention to detail in the eyes of a search committee.  Once you create or update your resume/cover, run spell check, read it again, then let someone else read it, too. This can absolutely be the difference between getting your foot in the door and having it slammed shut on said foot, so please take the extra time to ensure no errors here.

Beware the dangers of templates!

There are seemingly millions of templates for both resumes and cover letters available throughout word processing software and across the internet. These templates can be very useful, especially when putting together a simple document, as these templates have some formatting that creates consistency for the user (see #2 above). The caution here is to make sure to customize all areas of the template and not leave “template-speak” in the document. For example, a cover letter template might have the sentence, “I am excited to apply for the position of [enter the title of the position here] with your organization,” and it is your responsibility to ACTUALLY enter the position title and not leave the brackets in as is. And yes, before you ask, this is a real example that actually happened. So, use templates effectively, but do not let them be the reason you do not move forward.

I.S.S. Principle (Keep It Simple and Succinct…so, what did you think it meant?)!

We are all in the business of selling ourselves to institutions when in a search process, and that often leads to our thinking that more is better. Quite honestly, whom do we enjoy talking about more than ourselves? In many instances, we feel the need to include every detail of every job from our entire professional and academic portfolio, even when they are not pertinent to the job to which we are applying. Keep in mind that search committees (and Search Associates!) are reading 50-100 resumes for any one position, so to overstuff the document with items that may or may not be relevant is only inviting them to stop paying attention and potentially miss a great candidate (i.e., YOU). While a curriculum vitae is another story for another article, when constructing a resume, I highly recommend frontloading as much of the most pertinent and current position information into the first page, also ensuring that the rest of the information in the document is pertinent to the job application; in an era of short attention spans, you never want to risk losing their attention or burying important information later in the document.

Bullet Points, not Paragraphs!

In the same vein, bullet points convey the succinct nature of the resume that you are trying to set forth, so use them judiciously. Paragraphs are perfect for cover letters, but they simply bog down a good resume, causing the reader to have to work harder in gathering information, and that can be a deciding factor on your moving forward in a search.  Your objective is to break down your experience and skill set into their easily understood components, related directly to the job responsibilities of the position to which you are applying, and bullet points accomplish this quite effectively!

Objectives are not necessary!

While the classic objective at the top of the resume has been a staple for a number of years, it is simply unnecessary in today’s job market. First of all, it takes up valuable space, on documents that are often already crowded, which could be better utilized by elaborating on your skills, abilities, and strengths. And quite frankly, is it not obvious that the job to which you are applying IS your objective?

Neither are hobbies, interests, or other unrelated personal information!

Again, while very nice to know that you volunteer at the local community center, coach your child’s little league team, and are a great fan of feng sui, this information is not related to your being the best candidate for the position to which you are applying and should not be included. While this information is often tacked on at the end of the resume, it still takes up valuable space that can include other, more related materials (or keep the resume from being too long).

Reign in your social media!

Whether you are still on Facebook with the older generation, in the Twitter-verse or the LinkedIn network with all the professionals, or snapping photos left and right for your Instagram or Snapchat update, social media pervades our lives in almost every way. And, in case it has not occurred to you yet, it is also one of the first things that search committees unofficially check when you become a candidate. The items posted on your social media are as open to the public as you make them, and that makes them potential fodder on which you can be judged along the way. I cannot stress any more vigorously that you scrub your social media for a job search, ensuring that nothing in your past is lingering out there to haunt you on future opportunities; it is a very public world in which we exist, and social media opens all parts of our lives to this world. Be conscientious, be diligent, and be aware of what you post at all times.

Be honest, no hidden surprises!

The world of higher education is in flux as we speak, with many eliminations, consolidations, and downsizing taking place every day. If you have not experienced this, chances are you know someone else who has. Almost every search I have conducted recently has had at least one person who was no longer working at their previous institution or even in higher education at all! That being said, potential employers know that this is happening, too, and are generally forgiving of the fact AS LONG AS THEY KNOW ABOUT IT. One of the worst errors a candidate can make is to try to hide an employment situation such as a layoff or a consolidation, and then have the institution find out on their own during the search process; this only conveys that you are trying to hide something. The best course of action is to be as honest as you can, never speaking negatively about an employer for any reason, but conveying the situation up front or in private before they find out on their own. The old adage of “honesty is the best policy” fits perfectly in this situation, except in the case of legal action or nondisclosure agreements, though their existence should be explained, too, in the spirit of transparency.

I hope this information has given you at least one light-bulb “A-HA” moment as you sifted through, and that you are now on your way to that error-free application process we all so vigorously desire. Till next time, I will be watching those applications coming in, and I will know who vigorously read this blog and who took a pass!

J. Scott Derrick

Search Associate - Spelman Johnson

J. Scott Derrick earned his B.A. in Mathematics from Furman University (Greenville, SC) and his M.Ed. in Student Personnel Services from the University of South Carolina. In a higher education career spanning 30 years, Mr. Derrick has worked at both public and private institutions, most recently as Executive Director of the Student Union & Cone University Center at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Previously, he served as the Director of the Trone Student Center at Furman University, the Director of Student Life at the College of Charleston, and Assistant Director of Student Activities at the University of Richmond. For many years, Mr. Derrick was an active member of the Association of College Unions International (ACUI), as well as the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA), serving in a number of leadership roles, presenting educational content, and leading interactive workshops. He recently served as President of ACUI, following a two-year term on the Board of Trustees, and conducted a number of Student Union consultations for the association.