Friday, March 26, 2010

Cover Letters: Show, Don't Tell

by Laurel Mylonas-Orwig

Let’s face it—writing a good cover letter is not an easy task. The ideal cover letter will highlight your relevant experience and qualifications, convey to the employer why you would be a valuable employee, and make you stand out of the crowd. To top it off, it needs to do all of that in a single page! This can certainly be a challenge, which is likely why many job seekers latch on to certain phrases and stick with them. These “career buzzwords” may seem like they get your point across, but such overused phrases usually only irritate the hiring manager. Instead of telling the employer about your attributes, a much better strategy is to “show” them, by giving examples pulled from your past work and volunteer experience.

Here are the top six phrases to avoid:

  1. Reliable/Trustworthy

  2. Team player

  3. Good communicator

  4. Problem solver

  5. Well organized/Detail-oriented

  6. Work well under pressure

It’s important to note that hiring mangers definitely are looking for these attributes, so I’m certainly not advocating that you avoid talking about them in your cover letter. But the fact is, just saying that you “work well under pressure” won’t convince the employer that this is the case. However, if instead you say “Translated the entire Facebook site into Arabic in 36 hours” (which, by the way, Facebook did not too long ago, though it took an entire team of engineers and translators to pull it off), that will definitely get your point across. Think of a cover letter as a very short paper for your favorite class (the class about you!). In a good paper, you would never simply make a statement without taking the time to back it up with evidence. The same is true of a cover letter. So, even though those career buzzwords are tempting when you’re rushing to finish an internship application, take the time to consider your experiences and give the employer some context that expresses why you’re so amazing.

Rephrasing 101:

  • Instead of “reliable”: “Within one month of starting at XYZ Co, was given responsibility of internship selection committee.”

  • Instead of team player: “Worked with a team of six to restructure department budget.”

  • Instead of “good communicator”: “Coordinated a campus-wide recycling drive that saved several tons of aluminum cans.”

  • Instead of “problem solver”: “Successfully resolved a conflict between student union and restaurant vendors.”

  • Instead of “well organized” or “detail-oriented”: “Indexed, edited and maintained clinic files for more than 1000 patients.”

A word about length: By showing your accomplishments off, your cover letter will likely get a little bit longer, since you’re using ten words instead of two. This can actually be a good thing, as it will force you to only detail the attributes that are especially relevant to that position. But if you’re torn between using a buzzword and spilling onto a second page, it’s better to run a little long (bear in mind that “a little” does NOT equal an entire second page. Or even half a page. Be concise!).

Do you have any suggestions for rephrasing buzzwords, or know of one we missed? Leave a comment below!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Get Excited About Online Networking: Alumni Careers Network

by Laurel Mylonas-Orwig

As this internship and full-time recruiting season forges ahead, don't let resume drops and interviews let you forget about one of the best tools to use during the job search: networking. In recognizing the importance of networking, professionally-focused social networking sites have sprouted up all across the internet and have been quickly gaining popularity. Networking not only has the potential to help you get more information about a specific position or organization, but it can really give an edge in interviews. With the creation of online networking it's never been easier to reach out and connect!

Along these lines, one resource that is available to all student and alumni at the University of Chicago is the Alumni Careers Network. The Alumni Careers Network is an on-line database of nearly 15,000 Chicago alumni who have volunteered to answer career-related questions and/or provide career-related mentoring and informational interviews to students and other alumni. To access the database, go to the Alumni Careers Network. and on the right hand side click on “search career profiles.” Then, log-in with your CNET ID and password after hitting the big red sign-in button.

How it works:
Alumni listed in the network have created profiles, which can be divided into two key categories: career contacts and mentors.

Career contacts share only their professional information on their profile, usually listing the organization in which they work for and their official title at that organization. By listing themselves as such, these alumni indicate that they would be open to questions regarding career development, organization culture, and specific job responsibilities. In addition, alumni will often be open to talking about the city in which they work, and may be able to refer you to other contacts. This can be particular useful if you are considering exploring a career overseas or in other far-away and exotic lands. Christophe, a member of the class of 2010, spent his third year abroad at the London School of Economics. During his internship search in London, he was able to use Alumni Careers Network to find alumni who could answer his questions about recruiting in finance abroad. Through networking he was able to get insight on the main differences between American and British work culture and information on how the recruiting process worked in London. Many of the alumni that he contacted were quite excited to hear from a student at their alma mater. In the end, Christophe worked in investment banking in London for his third-year summer internship.

Alumni who list themselves as mentors are willing to share more comprehensive information about their career experiences. They are also open to providing guidance and advice that will help potential mentees achieve success in their specific fields. Mentors can provide an independent and objective point of view on career development and professional goals in their chosen industries, and are a great resource if you're looking to form more of a one-to-one professional relationship with an alumni who is currently in the industry that you are interested in.

Some tips on how to make contact via the Alumni Careers Network:

1. Start with an introduction of who you are.
In the subject line, include something that would indicate that you got their information from Alumni Careers Network. Tell them a little about yourself: for instance, your year, your concentration, and what you hope to achieve professionally. Providing an introduction not only seems more personable, but will also give the alumnus a clearer idea of the context in which they should be addressing your questions. For instance, answers to questions might be very different depending on whether you're a third-year in the College or a graduate candidate in the Statistics department.

2. Ask meaningful questions.
Make sure that the questions you ask are career-related. While it might be fun to find out what someone's favorite color or favorite food is, these types of questions might just be a little too personal for the context in which you're establishing contact.

3. Maintain a professional tone.
While the alumni that you contact are likely not recruiters or interviewers, they are still giving you their time and effort to help you in some way, so it's important to make a good impression. Although the communication that you initiate is through email, this still means that this is your only shot at making a good first impression. Keep in mind that first impressions will, more often than not, set the tone of your chain of communication.

4. Don't forget to say 'Thank you'!
As always, gratitude is appreciated.

Do you have any successful networking stories, or tips to share with other students? Leave a comment below!

Special thanks to Lucy Liu, guest author of this week's blog post.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ditch the Dead Fish: What Your Handshake Says About You

by Laurel Mylonas-Orwig

Winter quarter is prime season for internship recruitment. As students perfect applications and prepare for interviews, we’ve seen many of you for counseling appointments and practice interviews. You’ve probably heard the same tips over and over: tailor your resume and cover letter, dress professionally, learn how to tell your story succinctly, send a thank you note, etc. These are all important pieces of the application/interview puzzle. But one aspect you probably haven’t thought much about is the “mating ritual” of the professional world: the handshake. Although it may seem like an insignificant part of your interview, this seconds-long gesture can have a big impact on an interviewer’s first impression of you. And as the old saying goes, there’s no second chance at a first impression.

So, you might be wondering, how can I convey that I am interested, excited and engaged just by pumping someone’s hand up a down? More importantly, how can I avoid scaring the interviewer, or creating an awkward situation? Well, first things first. Here is a list of the five handshakes you should avoid:

  1. The Bonecrusher
    This is the person who seems to think that their interest in the position is directly related to the amount of pressure they can exert on the interviewer’s hand. In reality, this is just a good way to turn someone off from the very start. Unless you’re interviewing for a position in mud wrestling, avoid turning the other person’s hand into pulp.

  2. The Eager Beaver
    In many ways, a handshake is a bit like a first kiss, with both parties waiting for it but neither sure who should initiate it. Although there’s no surefire way to avoid this slight bit of awkwardness, make sure that if you do go for a handshake, the other person is paying attention. You should always avoid just grabbing the other person’s hand and pumping it up and down—this over-eager approach won’t earn you any points with the interviewer.

  3. The Dead Fish
    There’s almost nothing more off-putting than this type of handshake. When meeting a potential employer, you want to convey that you are assertive, professional and engaged—and the dead fish does exactly the opposite. If you’re uncomfortable shaking hands with someone, just remember to grasp, squeeze gently for 1-2 seconds, and release: polite and inoffensive.

  4. The Cling-on
    Not to be confused with the alien species featured on Star Trek, a clingy shaker is like an ex who just won’t let go. Nerves and excitement can be a heady combination, but battle through the fog and remember that three shakes is plenty. Now move on.

  5. The Lefty Surprise
    Sadly for the lefties of the world, the right-handed majority is keeping you down—or at least as far as handshakes are concerned. This is one case where it’s better to blend in with the rest of the crowd and just offer your right hand, since the alternative is ending up with an awkward dance as you both struggle to connect. Unless there’s a clear reason you can’t shake with your right (i.e., your hand is in a cast, etc.), jump on the right-handed bandwagon.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, honestly, it’s just a handshake; how important can it be? The truth is, if you have a good handshake, no one is likely to remember it. But if you have a poor handshake, it can become a stigma of sorts—and it can definitely impact your chances of getting a job, as a University of Iowa study proved. Business professor Greg Stewart conducted an experiment in which students were sent into mock job interviews. In the interview, they met with a hiring manager and an undercover handshake rater. Afterward, each assessor gave the subject a score. It turned out that the students who had the best handshakes were also considered the most favorable candidates. Could this be a coincidence? Maybe. But regardless, in today’s economy, you want to give yourself every advantage possible. So if you want to be a mover and shaker, ditch the dead fish and put your best hand forward.

Do you have a favorite handshake story? Share your comments below! And remember, if you have questions about anything from your handshake to your interview wardrobe, CAPS is here to help.