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May-June 2007 Selected Content

Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman

Resumes That Work

Sometimes you need a resume. Although many people think there is a standard format a resume should follow, it is much more effective to choose content and a layout that clearly communicate your strengths. Here are suggestions specifically for homeschoolers on creating an effective resume.

But first, consider the role that resumes actually play in job searches. You may hear that the way to get a job is to send out as many resumes as possible, either in response to specific job postings or to organizations you would like to work for, and wait for employers to call you to request an interview. Occasionally this approach works. However, 80% of job openings are not made public. Instead, they are given to someone the employer already knows or knows about, possibly someone currently working for the organization. In addition, 90% of job seekers pursue the 20% of job openings that become public. That's tough competition.

So how do you get a job? One short answer is, "It's not what you know; it's who you know." For a more detailed response, see books such as Richard Bolles' excellent classic What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changers.

Then why does anyone need a resume? Sometimes the approach of sending out resumes works. Sometimes you get a lead on a job in some other way and a resume is required as part of the application process. In other words, a resume is like a calling card. It's necessary but not sufficient. You have to have one, but just having one probably won't get you a job.

Note: Although resumes are sometimes required for applications for activities other than jobs, for the sake of simplicity this column will refer only to jobs.

Deciding What to Include in Your Resume

Where do you start? Take a deep breath. It can seem like a daunting task to condense your whole exciting life and all your amazing talents on one or two pages in a way that will convince someone (who is probably not a homeschooler and therefore likely to be more conventional than you are) to hire you. It seems daunting because it is. It may become more manageable if you remember two things. First, your resume is neither your autobiography nor your justification for continued existence. It is an opportunity to convince someone to invite you to a personal interview so they can learn more about you. Keeping that in mind simplifies your task considerably. Second, the first resume you write is often the most difficult. Once that's done, you'll have a starting place for future resumes.

Taking time to plan and write a resume helps clarify your thinking about what kind of a job you want, what skills and abilities you have, what you might want to learn, and more. Try to see it as an opportunity, not a chore.

Before choosing a format for your resume, decide what you want to include. This is contrary to much resume writing advice that suggests that you sit down with a standard form and fill in the blanks. Beginning with content will help focus your resume on what the employer is looking for and on your strengths. Your resume is also more likely to be unique, which is often an advantage if you're competing with others.

It often works well to list what the employer is looking for. Think of specific qualities and skills that will be necessary or helpful for this job. But also include general qualities such as taking responsibility, exercising initiative, being polite, communicating effectively, etc. (For ideas about what employers are looking for, see our recent column "Acquiring Strong Letters of Recommendation," Home Education Magazine, January-February, 2007, available at http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/241/takingcharge/html.)

Then decide what from your experiences and skills is most likely to convince the employer that you are qualified for the job. It's great if you have experience that's directly related to the job you are applying for, but you may not, especially if you are young. However, careful thought will reveal much that you can include, especially if you consider activities that are not conventional jobs or schooling. It may help to ask yourself two questions:

(1) What experiences have I had with the subject matter or general areas that this job focuses on? Include volunteer work, hobbies, organizations you belong to, people you know, books you have read, etc. For example, if you are applying for a job as a bookkeeper, include "Learned to manage and be comfortable with columns of numbers by following major league baseball statistics in detail for the past three years."

Remember that as a homeschooler, you have had different experiences than most young people, including more interaction with the real world. A conventional resume does not usually include these experiences, but they are an important part of your background and what you have to offer, so do not overlook them.

(2) What have I done that may have little or nothing to do with the job at hand but that demonstrates that I have the qualities it requires? Consider the list of general qualities you made. Include things like: "Learned to plan and take responsibility by planning, shopping for, and preparing dinner for our family one night a week for the past two years."

Remember that it's your responsibility to point out to the employer how these experiences qualify you for the job. Conventional thinkers often need these things pointed out to them. Saying, in effect, "Hire me because I follow baseball and can cook dinner" would probably not be effective. But conventional thinkers often catch on when you explain. We were recently asked a conventionally educated mechanic who obviously does outstanding work when he first got interested in cars. He said he started out so young that he had to stand on a stool to reach the engine. When we commented that there's something special about skills one learns at a young age, he said proudly, "I'm a natural, not a professional. There's a difference."

Sometimes it's a good idea to include things employers will want to know and will ask about if you don't include them, since it may be easier and less awkward for you to put them in your resume than to have to explain them in a phone call or personal interview. Also, employers are not allowed to ask about things such as your age and marital status. If you think such information would be to your advantage, consider including it in your resume. (You can also plan to mention it during a job interview, but including it in your resume may help you get the interview.)

Writing the Text

Once you know what you want to include, write it down. If you don't like to write, try putting down what you would tell someone or perhaps even talking to someone who's willing to take notes for you. Don't worry about things like spelling, grammar, punctuation, or length. Just write-or talk.

Emphasize your strengths. Include areas in which you excel and consider leaving out those in which you are limited or lacking. Remember that there is nothing you absolutely must include except your name and contact information. (A job objective is usually good to include since employers expect one and may be confused if it's missing.)

If you think that your experience as a homeschooler is an asset for the job, feature it in your resume and briefly explain why. However, if you think the employer is likely to be put off by homeschooling, translate your homeschooling experience into conventional school terms. For example, "Completed three years of high school at a small private school. Expect to graduate in June, 2008." Or if you and your parents agreed on the requirements you needed to meet to earn a diploma from your homeschool, you met them, and your parents awarded you a diploma, you can write, "Graduated from Lincoln School, June, 2006" (Suggestion: Choose a fairly conventional name, rather than using your last name or something unconventional like End of the Rainbow Institute.) If you have finished high school and taken college level courses through the Internet or at a community college or a university or have earned college credits by taking CLEP tests, you can write something like: "Graduated from Lincoln School in June 2006; have earned 15 college credits."

Once you have decided what you want to say, rewrite it. Include as many action words as you can, such as organized, led, managed, initiated, founded, successfully solved. Bullet points with incomplete sentences are effective and easy to read. Be specific whenever possible. "Sold my homemade bread" is less effective than "Developed recipes, baked, and sold 20 loaves of bread each week to 10 customers, 2003-05."

Finally, shorten your text as much as possible without sacrificing clarity. Generally, one to two pages is a good length for a resume. (Ignore the "rule" that limits you to one page.) Make a game of eliminating words. Read each word. Is it essential? Read each sentence. Is there a shorter way to say the same thing? Strunk and White's classic book Elements of Style suggests eliminating one third of what you have written. Ironically, it usually takes longer to write shorter, but the results have more punch. It's worth the effort.

(Okay, we tried. How many words can you eliminate from the preceding paragraph? [smile])

Creating an Effective Presentation

Presentation is critical! Study sample resumes online and/or in books on resumes. Decide which formats draw you into a resume. Imagine yourself sitting in a fancy office with a window overlooking a skyline. In front of you is a stack of resumes. Create one that will appeal to you at first glance, be easy to scan and find key information, communicate clearly, and make you want to meet its author.

Although there are standard formats for resumes, there are no hard and fast rules. Think outside the box; don't be limited by what you think a resume should look like. Plan yours to showcase your strengths. Downplay your weaknesses or omit them.

A conventional resume has sections something like:
• Contact Information
• Job Objective or Summary of My Qualifications
• Work Experience
• Education and Training
• Skills

However, you can choose section headers that will help you communicate your strengths and qualifications and make it easier to include a wide variety of experiences and activities. For example, if you are applying for a job in a travel agency, include a section titled Travel, Travel Experiences, Travel Adventures, etc.

Use fonts, spacing, and bold type to show how your resume is organized. For example, you could put the major headers in 12 point bold against the left margin and indent sub-points in 10 point regular type. Be consistent in your use of punctuation, spacing, bold or italics, font sizes, etc. Bullets are often helpful. Don't use type smaller than 9 or 10 points. Make paragraphs six lines or less. If you have more to say than that, start a new paragraph.

Use "white space" (empty space) effectively. It is usually better to add an extra page to create enough white space than to squeeze everything onto one or even two pages. Emphasize key points and sections by surrounding them with white space.

Put your contact information at top of the first page. Include your full name, mailing address, phone number, and email address.

Proof carefully, especially if you are applying for something that requires written communication, a strong academic background, or attention to detail. Even if you are a good proof reader yourself, be extra careful. Read the text slowly aloud, pointing to each word as you read it. If possible, ask several family members, friends, or acquaintances to proof it for you.

Take advantage of the opportunity a computer gives you to customize your resume for different applications. You don't have to start from scratch each time. You can make significant changes in a short time. Change the job objective, the order in which things are presented, etc. If you are working from a master that has been thoroughly proofed, keep track of what you change, so you know which parts need to be proofed and which don't.

Resources

Read sample resumes. They are easy to find on Internet or in books on resume writing in a library or bookstore. But trust your own judgment. Just because a resume is published in a book or appears on the Internet does not mean it is well done or would be appropriate for you.

Reading resume tips and suggestions can be helpful. Numerous books and Internet sites are available. Choose one or more that appeal to you. Consider Internet sites carefully. Many free sites are actually trying to get you to post your resume on their website, buy their book, enroll in their career counseling service, etc. Sites that are not trying to sell something, such as a university sponsored writing lab, may be more helpful.

However, remember that general ideas from books, websites, and this column are addressed to a general audience. Choose what is appropriate to your situation and ignore the rest. You're in the best position to decide what should be included in a resume that will emphasize your strengths and be appropriate for the job or other position you are applying for.

Conclusion

Writing a resume can be a good way to clarify your thinking, present your skills and experiences (including those that are unique to homeschooling), and increase your chances of getting a job. Feel free to ignore what you have heard about what a resume is supposed to look like. Create one that demonstrates the unique ways in which you are qualified and have what the employer is seeking.

© 2007, Larry and Susan Kaseman

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