The devil is in the details

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Category: Career Resources

“The devil is in the details.” It’s a familiar phrase, but what does it really mean? Though there is no consensus about its origin—it is anecdotally attributed to several  different historical figures—it is generally agreed that the idea behind the phrase is that upon first glance, you may overlook red flags, mistakes, or problems, but dig deeper into the “fine print” and something more may emerge.

In our field, there is no better example of why details matter than a resume or accompanying cover letter: a first run-through and we think it is just right, but on closer inspection, we discover a typo, a misspelled name, an awkward sentence. The devil is indeed in the details. You may think that a few errors or omissions are OK, but the reality is that in the highly competitive higher education job market the details can make the difference between getting an offer and getting a rejection.

In the many years I have been conducting job searches, I have encountered numerous situations that, with some attention to detail, could have meant better results for candidates. Through my work, I have amassed several tips that I hope will help you avoid embarrassment and bring you closer to getting that job you always wanted:

  1. Know your audience. Search committees and hiring authorities will be scrutinizing your materials, and these educated individuals are looking for any way possible to distinguish you from the other candidates. Your cover letter and your resume are your gateway into the search process; if you cannot get in the door, you cannot go any further in the process. Prepare your materials as if you were preparing your final term paper in your capstone course in college, giving them the gravity and attention they deserve.
  2. Be consistent throughout.
  3. Do not be too flashy. There are hundreds of resume templates that you might utilize, but stick with one that is easily readable and does not force the reader to focus on your format instead of your content. Remember: no one ever got a job because they had a visually stimulating resume.
  4. Punctuation or no punctuation. Choose a style and stick with it.
  5. Grammar is a subject that many of us glossed over or slept through in high school. Here is where that catches up to us: official materials such as resumes and cover letters should be grammatically correct and not conversational. Read through your materials carefully and even out loud; if what you have written sounds like something you would say to your grandmother and not your English professor, consider changing it.
  6. Have someone check over your letter and resume before you submit them. An objective eye can do wonders in catching things that you might not.
  7. If you are using a previous version of a cover letter or resume and simply changing the institution and position, make sure you search the document carefully and change ALL references to the previous position. Nothing is more embarrassing (and often detrimental to a candidacy) than applying for a position at University A and referencing another position or University B!

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.