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Resumes: Is Common Career Advice Out of Date?

Updated on May 24, 2012

I don't have a job, but other people do. Usually I can keep my cool, but in certain situations this fact makes me rather angry. One strong example is career councilors. On one level, it does seem a little strange that these people are paid to tell you why you're not getting paid, but more and more I find myself asking whether or not these people are truly in touch with reality. Aren't they spouting the same advice they've been for the last thirty years? Do they really think hiring practices haven't changed at all in that time?

Unfortunately, I don't know what works. I'm still jobless. I haven't been accepted for full-time employment since 2007. That means I don't have the answers, but I really think these questions need to be asked. Is it really about having a good resume? Do follow-up phone calls actually help? Do hiring managers really care about what you can do for their company?

I'm not so sure, so I've decided to write a series of articles to open discussion on the matter. I don't pretend to pass this information off as absolute, but it is worth asking. And what better place to start than one of the longest standing traditions of getting a job?

Does your resume even matter?

I'll start with the most basic of assumptions; that your resume is what will get you hired. Let's throw another assumption on the table; that hiring managers are looking at the relevant parts of your resume, no matter where they're located on the page. Or why not, are people reading your resume at all?

I've read a lot of web pages about careers and hiring practices. Yes, there are still a lot of people out there who will pay attention to what you list under your experience. But there is also evidence to suggest a lot of employers put more emphasis on your cover letter than your resume. I read a page yesterday written by an HR guy who says he immediately flips to the "Interests and Hobbies" section because he's more concerned about finding people who can play on the company hockey team.

The concept of a resume is an incredibly poor way of getting to know someone, and I suspect employers are fully aware of that. A lot of companies are instituting preliminary phone interviews or online testing as part of the application process to make up for that deficiency. Still, the only true test of an employee's ability is to put them into the job and see how they do. Obviously that idea is impractical.

Furthermore, even though you hear over and over, "Don't ever lie on your resume," I get the impression that lying (or exaggerating) on resumes is pretty commonplace. "What does this matter," you ask? "Surely that means that people who don't lie will be seen as better employees." Well, no. Think about this; if you're an employer who expects some amount of fraud on every resume, you're going to discount each one you read just a little bit. Therefore, the honest unemployed are going to come out sounding a little underwhelming. (Here I'm at a disadvantage. As a writer, I can spin the most believable fabrications if I want to...but feel hopelessly honest and never sent out anything that exaggerated the truth.)

So what do I have to know about my resume?

The important thing to remember no matter what advice you're given is that even the best-intentioned HR people can't or won't read every page set before them. They're flooded with more applicants than they can handle. To that effect, employers are looking for reasons to discard applicants, not reasons to hire them. And any reason will do. They're not looking to make good decisions for their company; they're looking to make easy decisions. And they don't have to be related to the job at all. Punctuation and spelling will not be forgiven. Your interests, hobbies, volunteer experience and even your work history are there to work against you. The general attitude is that being unemployed is unforgivable (I've always wondered how this disconnect occurred, and whether people honestly believed that if you deserved a job, you'd have one already); but I suspect that's just a mechanism in place for cutting down on the reading that employers have to do. I was once denied a position as a student adviser because the interviewer saw "played trumpet for 15 years" on my resume and determined that I was too artistic for anyone at the school to tolerate. (Incidentally, this came up during the interview because he also played trumpet.)

The most common career service available is to have someone look over your resume and tell you how to do it better. Unfortunately, in today's hiring world, there's a point where you can't do it better, and the best you're going to do is good enough. No resume is going to appeal to everyone, and something that could potentially get you hired in one place could get you thrown out everyone else.

But the resume is still important, right?

I spoke with a woman the other day, telling her that I've had my resume looked over by half a dozen professionals within the last year, but that I'm still not getting interviews. Her response? "Then it needs to be looked over more. That's how employers make their decisions."

Once more, it amazes me how out-of-touch these professional job councilors are. No one ever sends just a resume to an employer, and as I mentioned earlier, there are some employers who admit they don't even read resumes. What frustrates me is that in the last two years, I haven't been able to get any help looking over the cover letters that I've written. True, I've read articles by HR people who say they never read a cover letter, but there are people who do, too. The idea that the resume is the all-powerful document for employment and that nothing else matters also feels drastically out-of-date.

Again, I don't really have solutions to this problem, but I think it's an important gaff that people should begin to discuss, as the trend moves further away from people being hired based on merit.


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