You’re Hired! How to turn an application into an offer

Written by:Elisa Birnbaum
September 23, 2012

Dawn Green’s story is fairly typical. A marketing professional with 15 years of experience at an advertising agency, she decided to make a career switch last year. “It was time for a change,” she says. “I needed to do something with a higher mission and purpose.” After much thought, she chose the nonprofit sector in the area of fundraising and event management, excited and hopeful about the prospects. But there’s where the reverie came full stop. After sending out about 40 applications over the course of five months, she received no interviews. Not one.

We hear it all the time. Candidates are facing an increasingly uphill battle. The economy has seen better days and many say the competition is more intense than ever before. “It’s not always a reflection on them,” assures Karin Lewis of JVS Toronto. Keep in mind, she adds, it’s tough on both sides. Employers are bombarded with resumes, making the process ever challenging.

So the good news is you’re not alone. The sober news, however, is prospects need to step it up a notch. “Don’t assume you’ll just walk in and get hired; demands are much higher today on the job searcher,” she says emphasizing the search is a 9 to 5 job. So what can applicants do to put their best foot forward? We asked the experts to divulge the common pitfalls and some tips for gaining that much-needed edge.

Resumes and more resumes

It’s a conversation Daniel Bernhard may have wanted to have before a prolonged 10-month search that saw him sending out 50 resumes, with only one interview and no call back. “I hit a brick wall, I didn’t know why,” he sighs. The lack of success was a particular head-scratcher considering his assets, including degrees from the University of Cambridge and London School of Economics and experience in the UK’s nonprofit sector. “I thought I was in good place when I returned to Toronto,” he explains. “But instead I found myself at a disadvantage.”

He also found himself with no choice but to embark on involuntary self-employment, working as a consultant. Not everyone is able to pursue entrepreneurship, however. And for those making a career switch the process is proving more difficult still.

To help with hers, Green met with a career coach who offered some invaluable advice, with re-working her resume top on the list. She suggested a functional resume instead of the traditional chronological one, a common practice for those making a career switch as it highlights transferable skills. But the decision is not a unanimous choice for all. “It could be good but it could also raise some red flags for employers who think there’s something you’re hiding,” explains Lewis. To forestall those issues, what’s most important is to network and establish strong references. Work at getting people to introduce you to prospective employers and then vouch for you.

Green is doing that too, with networking and informational interviews imperative in her to-dos. Rebecca Jones (last name changed) has been eagerly sending out resumes too, with success equally elusive. Having worked in television for over a decade, she met with the aptly named Foot in the Door Consulting to better craft her approach at finding a job in the sector.

The first step? Fix up that cover letter. “I needed to get rid of some fluff, make it more concise and not stray off-topic,” she says. The letter shouldn’t be superfluous; it should be tailored specifically for the position at hand. As for the resume? Rebecca learned to tailor that too, ensuring she mention skills and experience most relevant to the position in question and possibly leave out the rest.

“Spend some extra time to ensure you have all the right information on the resume and cover letter before you send it,” echoes Megan Thomas of the YMCA of Greater Toronto. “It could make a difference between getting an interview and not getting one.” And ensure the documents are individualized as much as possible.

Interview training

Fellow client Suzanne Stoltz adopted similar changes to her application. Shortening her resume from three pages to two was also imperative. But the former communications strategist for the RCMP learned an even greater lesson in nonprofit speak. “So much is about wording and vocabulary,” she says. I needed to know what language to use.”

Stoltz was also able to get a sense of a realistic pay range for her skills – a valuable piece of information for interviews. And she worked further on her interview skills, engaging in a practical exercise of exploring typical questions and tightening up answers. “I got a better interview approach after my coaching sessions,” she offers. “I had two interviews and passed both.” Good news. Except she’s still waiting for that offer.

If you received a first interview but not the second, it may be a good idea to meet with a counsellor to review your approach, says Thomas. It’s possible you did nothing wrong, she adds, and the other candidate simply had a better relative package. “But sometimes it’s the way you answer and the vibe you gave off,” she explains, adding things like showing up on time and dressing professionally all play a big part.

And what about when you don’t hear back? We’ve all read the postings that exhort candidates to “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” But should they adhere to these warnings? Green has. “Normally I would follow up but all of them say ‘do not contact us, only shortlisted candidates will hear back’,” she says emphatically.

There are different perspectives on that, admits Lewis. “Follow up if you want to but know it may be a risk.” If it’s been two weeks, it may be fair to ask if a decision has been made. And be sure to ask the prospective employer upon leaving the interview how long before they expect to get back to you to ensure your follow-up is reasonable.

Sometimes it’s a matter of being patient, adds Thomas. The alternative can lead to critical errors. “People don’t take kindly to you calling them five times to see if they’ve received your resume,” she explains, as an example. It may be appropriate at certain times to send one follow-up email, she adds. “But remember you still may not get a reply back and that doesn’t mean you then send three more emails.”

Talking about applications, what’s the best advice to those who say it best to wait till the last minute before sending one in, the argument being one’s application thus ends up at the top of the pile. “It may be true,” admits Lewis, “but my sense is the sooner the better.” Keep in mind, even with a dedicated deadline on the posting, overwhelmed employers may stop looking if they’ve already found candidates they like.

Voluntary engagement

To further enhance her chances of being the chosen candidate, Stoltz is also volunteering as the PR manager at a local charity. Jones and Green have been doing the same. It’s become an almost essential ingredient to the job search, one that experts believe can lead to enormous payoffs, not only in terms of the experience prospects gain but the networking opportunities it opens for them. In fact, it wasn’t until she started volunteering at a local animal charity in 2010 that Rebecca realized the sector was the right fit for her.

Some also advise taking on full-time nonpaid internships, though not everyone’s a fan. Bernhard, for one, believes finding a volunteer placement was the best advice he didn’t take, explaining how free internships is common to every sector these days. “He was right,” affirms Bernhard of a colleague’s suggestion. “I refused to do it since I feel it is exploitative but I’m living with the consequences.”

Training

In many ways it does come down to capacity and choice. With the hope of expanding hers, Green registered for a certificate in fundraising management. Going back to school for re-training is popular step for many. Since starting down the nonprofit path, Rebecca began a Certificate in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Management from Ryerson University, hoping to gain not only an education but networking opportunities too. No question it’s a tough climb but with the right approach – often tweaked with the help of a professional, especially if you’re making a career change – a tremendous amount of patience and hard work, that career offer may be closer than you think.

Some additional tips from the experts

*Networking is great but it’s important to be selective, says Thomas. “You shouldn’t attend every event you’re invited to.” Find those most tailored to your job search.
*Watch your social media presence, knowing employers will find you online. “You don’t have to be perfect but ensure you’re present and competent online,” says Lewis.
*Whether you’re doing research on companies, looking for jobs or putting up a detailed profile, LinkedIn is the place to be, adds Lewis. “You’re already a different caliber candidate if you’re looking there.”
*Send thank-you notes after interviews.
*Things to leave off your resume always, with no exception: your photo, date of birth, marital status and Social Insurance Number.
*It’s a good idea to put a summary of your experience – tailored specifically to the job at hand – at the top of your resume. “The summary reflects that you’ve read the posting,” says Lewis.
*Getting onto a nonprofit board can be a great volunteer experience. You can find postings on each nonprofit’s website, on CharityVillage’s Volunteer Listings, or Altruvest’s BoardMatch.
*Treat your volunteer work as an essential part of the job search.
*Make sure you have three or four references available that are up-to-date and are made aware that they’ll be receiving a phone call. “Send them your resume too so they remember what you did before them before taking the call,” advises Lewis.
*“There are no stupid questions when you’re unemployed,” offers Thomas. The mistake is not asking any because that can lead to erroneous assumptions, such as, re-training and career counseling doesn’t exist for older people or cold-calling is not a good idea etc.
*Never forget you’re not alone. “There are programs, agencies and services that can help, even if you just want someone to listen to,” says Thomas. “It’s so natural to feel frustrated and want to give up but it’s important not to, to know there are people willing and waiting to help.”

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and co-founder of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at: info@ellecommunications.ca.

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