Anytime there is a coveted job (it doesn't matter whether it's an internship, clerkship or full-time position), there are going to be a lot of applicants. It's not unusual for companies, law firms and government agencies to post a position and receive hundreds of resumes and applications. This is especially true in a tough market when more jobs are coveted than perhaps would have been otherwise. If you're going to rise to the top of the resume stack it is critical you find a way to distinguish yourself in a positive way. The question is: how?
We've talked before (and will talk again) about the importance of networking and how to do it, and clearly knowing someone in a position to influence the process is a great way to rise above the pack. However that's not the focus of this post. Here I want to explore some other ways to stand out, and most specifically for the right reasons.
Let's start with the fact that any time there is a job with a significant number of applicants, someone is going to have to go through and narrow the pool. This person may or (often) may not be the ultimate decision maker, but there is a level of screening that must go on to get the number down to a manageable few. The key here is NOT to distinguish yourself in a NEGATIVE way! Typos, grammar mistakes, not filling out all the forms or submitting all the requested documentation are all quick and easy ways for someone to take a group of 100 resumes and get it down to 60 or 70...easy...done. Is that fair? Perhaps not. But it's reality and you need to prepare for and deal with it. So step one is to avoid eliminating yourself with silly, self-inflicted mistakes.
Okay you've made the first cut. Congratulations! Now comes the second cut, and again it's more a matter of not eliminating yourself. The scrutiny at this stage is in many ways an extension of the prior analysis, only deeper. For example, the cover letter may not have any typos, but does it make sense? Does it tell anything about the candidate that the employer can't pick up from the resume? Is the resume well thought out and put together, or is it confusing and tough to follow? And just like that, we're now down to around 40 candidates.
By eliminating careless errors and not making mistakes, you've made it to the Top 40! Up until now, you've almost wanted to NOT stand out, because that would have got you eliminated. But when it gets to this stage you want to stand out for all the right reasons. Here are some keys:
- Be specific. Most recruiters and hiring partners have looked at enough resumes and cover letters to know when what they're reading could just as easily been sent to the competitor next door. Carefully study the employer, what they do and what they're looking for. Then cater your materials to specifically address that employer. Take a task listed in the job description and show how an experience you've had has specifically prepared you to accomplish that task. If you've accomplished similar tasks before with success, that's even better and you should communicate that!
- Be unique. Law student/graduate resumes and cover letters can be very similar and can almost put a recruiter or hiring partner to sleep. So you want to highlight what makes you special and different from the others. This is not where you highlight your fixation with Twilight or Breaking Bad, nor is it where you emphasize how smart, hard working or passionate you are. That will look and sound like everyone else, and not get you through to the next round. What you should be doing is describing an experience(s) that has shaped you and your thinking, and how that will benefit the employer and therefore makes you the best candidate.
- Be brief. Again, recruiters and hiring partners are going through dozens of applicant materials. They don't have time to read a novel, and will appreciate you saying what you have to say in as few words as possible. Unless law is a second career or there is some other unusual circumstance, our office will recommend your resume be no more than one page. Similarly, cover letters should never be more than three to four paragraphs. In fact in one recent survey, over 67% of employers said a cover letter should be ½ page or "the shorter the better."
We'll talk more next week about how to distinguish yourself in a positive way in the interview and beyond. I intended to include it in this post, but I couldn't do it without violating #3!
Connect with Daniel: Daniel_Hare@Baylor.edu and @BaylorLawDaniel on Twitter.