NOTIONS: Job-seeking 101: Most applicants don’t pass course

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Every few years about this time, I offer free job-seeking advice for collegians. Judging from the resumes deluging my company, it’s time to hum this tune again.

The first line of the first song in the musical comedy “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is “How to apply for a job.” That’s also the name of a course I’ve long proposed to colleges and universities.

While more colleges are doing that, there’s a frequent flaw: waiting until the students’ senior years, when these vital lessons come too late to influence internships.

Still, many candidates fail miserably at even the most rudimentary job-seeking skills. So I’ll once again pitch my course proposal.

Job-Seeking 101 would be mandatory for college sophomores. The curriculum would cover the spectrum: how to select careers, the importance of internships, how to research prospective employers, how to gain entry, how to interview and follow up.

There would be portfolio reviews, resume and cover letter critiques, sample screening tests and mock, on-camera interviews. Most important: messagehoning exercises so each student could explain what they’ve studied and how it’s relevant in particular situations.

Here are some topics I’d teach:

It’s about the job, not you

Nearly every resume my firm receives begins with an objective. In many, the objective has nothing to do with employer needs and everything to do with applicant desires.

“I hope to obtain a job that will allow me to advance my knowledge of important concepts,” said one. “[A job that will] provide new and valuable skills that will help to further my career,” said another.

Earth to applicants: Your prospective employer exists to serve customers, not to run a continuing-education program for you.

Cover letters can be equally self-serving. “This would be a great experience for me and I am excited to be applying,” said one. “I am very interested in any entry-level position within your company,” said another.

Sometimes, applicants even customize their resumes for the wrong business. One letter sent to my ad/PR consultancy sought “an entry-level position in the field of sales.”

Research matters

Collegians should know how to do research. Letters arriving at my firm often are addressed to “Human Resources,” “Human Resource Manager,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” “Dear Madame or Sir,” and “To Whom It May Concern.”

None of those people work here.

For many years, Pam Klein (now deceased) handled much of the hiring at our firm. But even those few who phoned to request her name often forgot to ask the spelling. It was common to find letters addressed to Klien, Kline or Cline (the author of the latter cited “reporting and research” as “special skills”).

Write well

No matter what you want to do for a living, you’ll have to communicate. Your first assignment is your cover letter and resume. Yet the words we receive from graduates, even would-be communicators, often are garbled.

“Please accept this letter as an application for the public relations internship which I was informed of by my aunt,” said one. “Ambition, self-sufficient, a self starter, organized, good communications skills, goal-oriented, creative, strong leadership, and hard working are just some of the skills I possess as my resume shows.”

“As a motivated self-starter, I am taking the initiative to contact your firm at this time in order to express my interest in joining your associates,” said another “In appreciation for the merit and time involved in building a trusting, mutually profitable relationship I have included this modest statement regarding my character and vocational perspectives, as well as a brief resume for you to better assess my employment potential.”

Timeliness is next to godliness

Most letters requesting summer internships and entry-level jobs arrive in April, one month before graduation. However, we often receive our first application in November and sometimes ink the deal as early as February. By April, we’re sending out “sorry, you’re too late” letters by the dozen.

Internships are essential

A few years ago, during spring break, I took my sons to Cleveland for a few days. While there, we toured the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. During our tour, my would-be journalists got to meet the woman who hires such professionals. She told them about recent graduates who arrive at her doorstep bragging about classroom learning, lofty grade-point averages and table-waiting summer jobs. Then she told them that if prospective employees haven’t worked internships, formal coursework and fancy grades don’t matter. I’m glad my sons heard that.

Say thanks

Most interviewees never send thank-you notes. At many workplaces, the ones who don’t aren’t hired.

Key lesson

College degrees aren’t points of difference. They’re points of entry. It takes more than a sheepskin and self-serving resume to set you apart.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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