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#HRinsider: 5 Questions for Alison Green of Ask a Manager

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With so much advice out there for job seekers, it’s hard to know where to focus your efforts. To get a little clarity and direction, we asked Alison Green, the blogger behind the popular website Ask A Manager, five common questions we get from our readers. Here are her responses.

I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs. Why am I not getting any call backs for interviews?

Usually when people tell me this, the problem is their resume and/or their cover letter. Often people are very sure that their resume and cover letter are fine, but then when I look at those documents, they’re not strong at all.

The two most common problems are that the resume just lists job duties but doesn’t reveal anything about how the person actually performed at those jobs (for instance, it lists “managed website” rather than something like “increased Web traffic by 20 percent over 12 months”) and that the cover letter is bland and uninspiring. If your cover letter basically summarizes the information in your resume, it’s not accomplishing anything for you—you almost might as well not send one. But readers regularly tell me that when they start adding personality to their cover letters, they start getting calls for interviews.

Must-read resources:

I am trying to break into a new field where I don’t have much experience. How can I get a hiring manager to notice me?

In this market, it’s tough. You’re going to be competing against candidates who do have experience in that field, and employers don’t have much incentive to take a risk on someone without a track record in what they’re looking for when they have plenty of good candidates who do have that track record. That means that you’ve got to really highlight for them exactly how your skills are transferable — don’t assume they’ll figure it out for themselves. Be explicit about connecting the dots and explaining what in your background is “evidence” for why you’d excel at the job you’re applying for.

Must-read resources:

I want to do something I love, but I need a job right now. What are my options?

There are lots of ways to do things you love in life and make a difference in the world, but that doesn’t always mean through paid employment. You can volunteer, work for a cause on the side, and make a difference in so many ways other than in a 9-5 job. Additionally, just because you’re not in a job you love right now doesn’t mean that you never will be. Sometimes you need to do work you’re not as passionate about in order to position yourself to be hired for work you’re passionate about later. So the bar for success shouldn’t be, “I’m currently working in a job I love making a difference in the world.” A more realistic bar for success on this front is “I’m finding ways to make a difference in the world which may or may not be through my job, and meanwhile I’m working in a job that I’m pretty good at.”

I know that can sound discouraging, but I think people end up so much happier in the long run when they’re clear-eyed about the realities of the job market and the fact that their career and their passions might not intersect right now.

And really, for what it’s worth, most people who earn a living doing what they love didn’t start out on that path. It happened gradually over time. So strive to do something that you’re good at, something that brings you a reasonable amount of satisfaction, and something that can earn you a living. But it’s okay for the things that you really feel passionate about to be things you do outside of work, if that’s how it turns out.

Must-read resources:

I’ve been out of work for a while and am worried about how this looks to employers. What should I do?

Find ways to keep growing professionally — take classes, volunteer, work on your skills. Volunteering can be an especially great thing to do during a period of unemployment, because the right volunteer job can keep your skills up-to-date, give you recent work to put on your resume where you otherwise would have a period of no activity, expose you to new fields, and expand your contacts.

It can also give you early leads on job openings and build the network of people who are able to vouch for your work. It can also be a great way to build a track record in a new area. For instance, if you want to do grant writing but don’t have any experience doing it, you might find a small nonprofit that would welcome your skills, which will allow you to build your portfolio and point to real-life projects in interviews. (Keep in mind that in general, if you’re interested in this kind of substantive volunteer work, you’ll have more luck if you reach out to smaller organizations, which usually have greater needs for volunteers and are more willing to take a chance on someone untested.)

Must-read resources:

There is so much advice out there for job seekers. What job search advice should I ignore?

One piece of bad advice that I hear a lot is to use gimmicks to make your application stand out — whether it’s fancy resume designs, having your resume delivered by overnight mail, or sending it along with a box of cookies. That stuff turns off good employers. The way to stand out in a job search is to be a highly qualified candidate, have a resume that shows a track record of achievement, write a great cover letter, and be responsive, thoughtful, and enthusiastic during the hiring process. It sounds boring, but it’s effective.

There’s also a lot of advice out there telling job seekers to focus on things that really don’t matter — like calling to find out the hiring manager’s name so you can address your cover letter to them (we don’t care; “dear hiring manager” is fine), or to call to follow up on an application (please don’t!), or building your “personal brand” (employers don’t care about your personal brand; we care that you do good work). Again, job seekers should focus on having an awesome cover letter and a resume that shows a track record of excelling in relevant work. That’s really what matters.

Must-read resources:

Here are a few other articles written by Alison Green that you might find helpful:

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As the blogger behind Ask a Manager, Alison Green functions as the Dear Abby of the workplace, answering readers’ questions daily on career, job search, and management issues. She’s also the author of How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager and Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader’s Guide to Getting Results, and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.

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