Blogpost by Jienan Chen
Photography by Jienan Chen
With thanks to Mackenzie Cruikshank
August 17, 2022
A resume is a key component of the job application process. It pays to write a good one that showcases to potential employers our skills and experiences. Consequently though, we often have a hard time writing a resume. What should we start with? What should we include in the resume? How much should we include? It seems like a daunting task.
Fortunately, here at OSP, we have our own in-house experts! I sat down and talked to our very own Mackenzie (Mack) Cruickshank, a Program Coordinator here at OSP. Mack coordinates our PEPS and Workbridge programs, which are intended to support people with barriers to seek out and achieve employment that suits their skills, capabilities, and interests. He shared some of his knowledge with me over the course of a three-hour interview:
Jienan Chen: I’m sure you meet a lot of people as a Program Coordinator. What’s your job like?
Mack Cruikshank: Yes. Well, the goal of OSP is to assist people with barriers find employment. Helping them build resumes is one aspect of what I do.
JC: Well, as you know, Maria Von Trapp sings in The Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning/ a very good place to start.” With resume writing, to begin with, what should one consider?
MC: Before starting a resume, it’s always important to look carefully at the job posting. Make sure you understand the description and requirements. If you don’t understand them, you can contact the employer by telephone and email.
JC: I suppose that one can also take this opportunity to learn about the workplace culture. I wrote a blogpost a few months ago on the topic of 2SLGBTQ+ people in the workplace, and the troubles they could face in an un-inclusive environment.
MC: Yes, and what you can do is to speak with any employees working for the employer to understand what the culture is like. If you’re gay and the people at the company are homophobic, well…don’t bother, you know?
JC: So, the first step in writing a resume is to understand the employer well?
MC: It is, but what you also need to do is to know yourself well, by conducting a self-evaluation.
JC: This sounds like something we would’ve done in grade school at around the time of parent-teacher interviews. “Describe areas you improved on this term” was a question I think I had to fill out once or twice.
MC: You’re not wrong; those are self-evaluations. The kind I’m thinking of now is similar, but just a bit more specific towards a job that you see advertised somewhere, like online or on a library bulletin. Actually, before you start your search for a job, you should’ve thought about your skills and successes. What do you know? What are you good at? What have you accomplished? These sorts of questions, you should ask yourself. This will help you to find a job that suits you and gives you some things that you can put down on your resume.
JC: They’re tough questions.
MC: Admittedly, they are, because you sort of have to stare starkly at yourself. But let me tell you, it becomes more difficult when, say, you need a job for financial reasons. You know, if you’re “I got rhythm, I got music, who could ask for anything more?” all day long, good for you. If not, the stress of finding a job to take care of bills can lead to anxiety, which can create a mental block. Part of what I do here in career exploration is to help people remember their strengths and abilities, hidden in the valley of the shadow of anxiety.
JC: On this topic, I suppose part of the challenge comes from being disheartened…you know, experiences with failing to secure a job.
MC: Right. The difficulty in finding and maintaining work can diminish your confidence in finding a job. By doing this self-assessment, you’re preparing for your resume-writing. That, in turn, is preparation for the interview because, believe it or not, interviews are like performances.
JC: So then, resumes are like scripts?
MC: That’s right. Knowing that you’ve got one and knowing that you’ve done the work to prepare one should make you feel more confident when you’re at the interview. Think of it from the perspective of a concert pianist. A pianist—should they feel nervous—can find confidence in the fact that they prepared for their performance by practising their Bach or Chopin for months on end. Now, I’m not saying that you necessarily need to spend months doing this self-assessment. At the end of the day, it pays off to take time to prepare for an interview. Knowing what to say, demonstrating that you’ve prepared for the interview shows the interviewer(s) that you take the job seriously.
JC: After all of this—evaluating the job description; the employer; and yourself, I’m assuming that one can then make up one’s mind on preparing a stellar resume.
MC: I’d say so, although you must think critically about what you read in the job descriptions. After you do the self-assessment, you should be able to answer three key questions:
- Will you enjoy the job? If you’re not going to, if you find the job boring, you’re probably going to become miserable and quit.
- Do you have the required skills?
- What’s your attitude towards learning any new skills? If you’ve got no desire to do so, then look for other roles.
JC: When one writes a resume, often one is stuck wondering what to include.
MC: Do you know “SMART”? It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Notice how I stressed “specific?” That’s really the filter here of what to include in your resume. Select skills and experiences that correlate with job requirements. If you’ve got some Excel training and the job requires it, mention it. Remember that the resume is there to help you get an interview. Basically, if the employer wants you to deliver a red car, don’t show up in a blue minivan.
JC: Is it possible that, if the employer wants a red car with an in-built GPS and fuzzy dice, someone shows up with those plus other gadgets and trinkets?
MC: Yes, and extra bits of information are nice to have on hand, especially if they’re personal stories.
JC: To build rapport?
MC: Partially, but personal stories on why you want the job—which you want to stick in your cover letter—alerts employers to any deeper reasons to why you’re applying to the position. You know, some people apply to a posting just because their skills match some of those in the job description. There’s not much passion there. Employers want to make sure that their employees like what they do. Otherwise, the workers will be, generally speaking, unproductive.
JC: From what I’m understanding, you’re saying that when one writes a resume, one should list specific strengths, skills, and abilities, and achievements that correspond to job requirements that are posted in a job description. In conjunction with these, it’s nice to have some extra tidbits of information, mostly personal stories, on hand to justify one’s decision for pursuing the job.
MC: You’ve got it. And the kind of accomplishment that’s really nice to have is a time when you showed some struggle and tenacity to reach an objective. That shows you can learn a skillset with much effort. But now, in coming up with these sorts of things to put on your resume, as you said, it can be daunting.
JC: It really is like that struggle that artists have when they face a white canvas.
MC: And the trick to handle that is the same in both cases: get something onto the white canvas. In the case of the painter, it would be some colour. In the case of someone writing a resume, what I recommend people to do is to keep a running resume. Build a list of your skills. Write them down and as you customize your resume to different jobs, add to the list, or remove some items. Something else that you should consider is that (especially if you don’t have much work experience) that volunteer experiences count too. For instance, I always include my soccer coaching on my resume because it shows that I’ve got teamwork and leadership experience.
JC: Now, some people who have big gaps in their work history, or a lack of work experience might choose to compensate for that by including a lot of achievements—possibly irrelevant—on their resumes to make themselves look good? Is this good?
MC: Spending effort on talking about accomplishments and skills communicates a confident tone, which can compensate for the gap. Communication shouldn’t be overlooked. After all, the point of a resume and an interview is to market yourself, right?
JC: I remember in my first year at the University of Alberta that my Lister roommate—an engineering student—took a course called “English for Engineering Students” or something like that. I suppose that what this proves is that there is a specific kind of language or communication in each field that a resume writer might want to keep in mind when they are preparing one.
MC: To an extent, yes. However, I’d say that for jobs such as working as a cashier at a grocery store, it’s not as important. On the other hand, if you’re trying to get maybe an engineering job…that’s when it’s a different story.
JC: I see. One thing that I was told by Dr. Charles Keim from MacEwan University is to include some of the terms on a job posting on a resume. He said that it has something to do with computers.
MC: Yes, it has to do with HR, which today may use applicant tracking systems to sieve through resumes. This has resulted in resumes becoming more simplified, being written effectively to help this system.
MC: As I said, because applicant tracking systems are being used in the “selection process,” subjective or ambiguous things—such as experiences, personalities, and soft skills—are being taken out in resumes.
JC: I see. Are there drawbacks with this simplification?
MC: Well, there are some people who have suffered from a change in health. They must stop working for a period to undergo treatment and recover. When they want to find a job again, the gap in their work history might be observed by applicant tracking systems examining resumes. Then, the system might reject it
JC: So now there’s a human involved in evaluating your writing?
MC: That’s right. Combining what I said about communication, you should write something that conveys a confident tone that essentially sells your strengths and skills, as well as explain why there’s a gap in your work history. But when you’ve got a chance to speak to an interviewer, it can be tricky to address concerns. People who haven’t got experience dealing with health struggles may have a more difficult time understanding people who struggled or are struggling with health issues. If the person chooses to disclose it, they should focus on the positives, their successful recovery.
JC: I’m reminded of the film "Front of the Class", based on the life of Brad Cohen, a teacher with Tourette syndrome. When he goes around looking for a job, he decides whether to be upfront about it with the interviewer, or not. Eventually, he finds a teaching position, apparently after twenty-four interviews.
MC: Yes, some people will choose not to disclose their health information. After all, its sensitive private information. The issue is when an interviewer examines your work history and asks you to talk about it, answering, “I’ve been ill; I’ve recovered; I’m ready to work”—even with Caesar’s “I came; I saw; I conquered” spirit—does not fundamentally answer questions regarding your work history. But as I said, these kinds of questions aren’t legal to begin with.
JC: It’s a complicated topic.
MC: It is.
JC: You mentioned that in SMART, “M” stands for…measurable, right?
MC: Yes, measurable.
JC: So, what one should write down in their resume should be both specific and measurable…I guess quantifiable is a better term to use.
MC: Yes, it’s imperative to be specific. How specific? I used to remember all my job start and end dates. You don’t necessarily need to be that detailed. What is important is to provide quantifiable measures for some of your accomplishments. You know, instead of “helped to improved sales,” write “helped to improve sales by 40%” or something like that. By being specific—such as dates, you’re helping to build trust. Furthermore, by being specific about things, you’ve got points to answer potential behavioural questions in an interview, those classic “Tell me a time when…” questions.
JC: It really is all about a stellar interview.
MC: That’s the end goal of your resume: getting an interview. And to do it, understand the job and the employer, understand yourself, and then in your resume, build trust that you will succeed in their workplace. With good preparation, you should feel less nervous speaking with an interviewer, and be more convincing of why they should hire you.
JC: Thank you for all this free information. It’s true when they say you learn something new every day.
MC: Its nice talking to you. If you have any questions on anything I said today, just contact me, and I’ll answer what I can.
If you found this information helpful, we have a lot more to offer you! Go to www.https://osp.ab.ca/peps/ for information about our PEPS program, or www.osp.ab.ca/workbridge for information about WorkBridge. If you have questions about which program is right for you, or you would like to register, contact us at 780-784-7170 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org