The other day, I was scanning through resumes for one of my open positions when a co-worker dropped by to recommend a friend of hers who had applied. “He’s amazing,” she said, “and would be perfect for this role.” I went back to the applications and realized I had put him in the “probably not” pile. “I’ll talk to him,” I said, thinking that I’d have one conversation and pass.
Turns out, he was perfect for the position and made it to late stages in the interview process. So why did his resume almost get tossed? Because he had a bit of a different background than I was initially looking for for the role, and his application didn’t connect those dots quite so clearly.
Or frankly, maybe they did—and I was just powering through resumes as fast as I could and focusing on the ones that clearly looked like the best fit.
Either way, this situation shows why it’s so important to make it abundantly clear to the hiring manager how your experience will translate into the role you’re applying for. Or, as one of my favorite career coaches Jenny Foss says, making sure you’re a “smack-in-the-forehead” obvious fit for the job.
How, exactly, do you do that? Assuming your experience actually does translate (and if it doesn’t, head here), here are a few quick little strategies you can try today.
Don’t Be Afraid to Add Context
If you have a pretty common job title at a well-known company—Content Manager at Marriott International, for example—and you’re applying for jobs similar to the one you have, it’s probably pretty clear what you’ve done.
For many of us, though, that’s not the case. Let’s say you were a Content Manager at a place called Winston Transportation United (fictional, but you get the picture). Most people would have no idea what that is—or what a Content Manager actually did for a company like that.
Or maybe you work for one of those employers that likes quirky job titles. You’re not a “Content Manager,” you’re a “Wordsmithing Wizard” or a “Language Guru.” That sounds fun, but again, not the most clear to hiring managers about what you actually do.
In either case, you’ll want to add some context of how your role relates to the one you’re applying for. And don’t wait for your bullet points to do that (sorry to say, many of them don’t get read); instead, do it right up front, when you’re listing your job title and company.
To go back to the Winston example, let’s say you want to put your content management skills to use at a magazine publisher. You might do something like this:
Content Manager | Winston Transportation United, Chicago
Publisher of largest national transportation magazine, circulation 1M
If it’s your job title that needs more context, you’ve got two options. One, you can change it to reflect something that’s more recognizable. No, this doesn’t mean swapping “Marketing Coordinator” with “Director of Sales and Marketing,” but updating a word to reflect a still-accurate but more common title is perfectly OK. (More on that here.)
The other option is to create a summary statement or headline on your resume, such as “Content manager with 6+ years experience in transportation and healthcare sectors.” Which brings me to:
If Your Resume Doesn’t Tell the Story, Tell it With a Summary
The resume summary is basically a few short statements with a headline that highlights your top qualifications and most relevant experiences for the role. It’s commonly used for senior-level candidates, who want to pull the highlight reel of their decades of experience closer to the top of the page, or for career changers, who want to tie together themes or transferrable skills.
But really, anyone can use it to show, right away, how your background fits the job at hand. Do note, though, for this to actually work, you must tailor it. I’ve seen resumes for editorial positions that include headlines and summary statements focusing on graphic design or public relations—and that’s a smack-in-the-forehead obvious sign that the candidate is not a fit.
Ideally, you’ll want to include the position title you’re applying for or something very closely related (maybe you haven’t been a “Sales Director” before; but that’s not to say that you couldn’t call yourself a “sales leader” in your summary statement), as well as key words and phrases used in the job description.
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Lead With What Matters Most
I was recently looking at resumes for copywriters, and pulled up one that started with the candidate’s education section—the first line of which was a law degree.
Sure, lawyers do spend hours a day combing through documents, and most are detail-oriented folks with a strong grasp on language, and all of that’s relevant to a copywriting position. But what’s even more relevant? Actual writing and editing jobs, which the candidate had plenty of. So why not lead with that?
If you’re a new grad, maybe your educational background does matter most, but for most of the rest of us, it’s going to be our past work experience. Note, though, this doesn’t have to be your most recent experience. While the reverse-chronological resume is the most common format, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a section at the top of your resume with ‘Relevant Experience,’ followed by the remaining experience below. Muse career expert Lily Zhang walks through this in detail here.
Give it a Try Before You Submit It
In most cases, you’ll never know if you passed the smack-in-the-forehead test unless you’re called in for an interview. But why not give it a whirl before your resume gets in front of the hiring team?
Send your resume to a friend, and ask what roles he or she thinks you’re applying to, based on she sees. If she says something completely different, you know you have some work to do. And before you say “But wait—my friend knows nothing about my work!” remember that the first person reviewing your application might be a recruiter, an assistant, or someone else who doesn’t know the ins and outs of your field. So a set of unbiased eyes might be even better than an industry insider.
Another option? Drop both your resume and the job description into a word cloud creator like Wordle. The same words and phrases should jump out to you in both.
Even if you know, through and through, that you can do this job, you’ll never get the chance if you don’t get past that first screening. Taking the time to make it smack-in-the-forehead obvious that your experience lines up with the job requirements is an extra step, but it’s very often worth it.
Photo of person on computer courtesy of Paul Bradbury/Getty Images. .
Adrian was The Muse’s first employee and Editor-in-Chief who built the Muse content team from the ground up. Now, she is the founder of Sweet Spot Content, which helps world-class brands and thought leaders tell their stories. She's also the author of Your Year Off, a digital guide to taking a sabbatical and traveling the world. Say hi on Twitter and Instagram.More from this Author