Whether you are a student looking for your first internship, a graduate entering the workforce, or looking for a new job, a strong resume, a sharp elevator pitch, and a broad network are critical building blocks to get you into that interview where you can shine. No matter which of the pathways in this manual you take, this toolkit will help prepare you for that path.
Crafting a Strong Resume and Cover Letter
As mentioned in the welcome letter, your resume is really the marketing document that tells prospective employers who you are and why they should hire you. Every resume is telling the story of your experience and why that experience makes you perfect for the job. View sample resumes on Monster.com, but let’s start with key items.
- A Short and Strong Introductory Paragraph: If one or two sentences were the only words that a prospective employer would see, these are the sentences with which you start your resume. Officially, they answer the question of who you are and what you are looking for. An example: “With a demonstrated history in business administration, I’m looking for a position that will benefit from my business experience while promoting my interest in education.” In one sentence, the individual covered qualifications, knowledge base, and interest. Hint: Customize this paragraph for every job application so it matches your interests and the employer’s needs.
- Short, Descriptive Entries: Those later on their professional journey may have been at a job for a decade or more. A full description of the job could fill a book just as easily as a resume. Employers receive dozens, if not hundreds, of resumes for each position. There will be plenty of time, sitting in the break room once you have been hired, to tell your new colleagues about every exciting thing you have done in other jobs. Right now, however, you should:
- Keep each job to three to four bulleted accomplishments, each one no more than three lines long.
- Pick the three accomplishments that best fit the job description of the job you want.
- Reformat your accomplishments section to use words from the qualification section of the job description that match your experience.
- Tell a Complete Story: Sometimes there will be a gap in your resume, and sometimes the only thing you can do is explain it during an interview. Before you decide that, however, look at those gaps and ask a few questions:
- What was the primary way that I was occupying my time?
- If it is something I cannot put on a resume, like recovering from an illness, or searching for a permanent position, was there any volunteer or contract work that I was doing? Any skills building?
- If the answer to the previous question is yes, how can I put this on my resume in a way that makes it a part of the sales pitch for my employer?
- Do Not be Afraid to Add Some Color to Your Story: Different resume templates have spots for awards, interests, and volunteer activities. Use your judgment as to what to share with a particular employer (a law firm may not want to know about your passion for live action role-playing games), but do not be afraid to find a way to share some of the best parts of yourself.
- Have Your Document Proofread by Multiple People: Everybody makes the occasional typo or grammatical mistake. There is always the unfortunate word that spellcheck will not pick up, especially if you are a person with a disability using voice recognition software. Even with this reality, many employers will discount or discard a resume or cover letter with a typo. A great way to avoid this problem is to both use spell and grammar check and have someone else look it over in addition to yourself.
Your Cover Letter
Some people think of a cover letter as a thing of the past, something we do not need now that we no longer put our applications in the mail. Some jobs will not let you submit a cover letter, but if you can, you should. Your cover letter is written specifically for each job application. Do not summarize your resume, but use parts of your experience and your passion to communicate that you have thought carefully about what the job is, why you want it, and how you would be perfect for it. The cover letter is also the place where you can explain gaps in your resume in positive language. If you are returning to the workforce after a spinal cord injury, for example, you can say something like: “After building new skills and regaining my strength following an injury, this job represents the perfect opportunity to return to the workforce because…” It is also the place to set the employer’s mind at ease, for instance, if you are living in Idaho but applying for a job in Los Angeles. A sentence like, “Since I am moving to LA next month to be closer to my brother…” Let them know you already have a plan to get to Los Angeles if you are being offered the job. As with the resume, it is important that this letter not be lengthy and that it is carefully proofread. Use the letter as an opportunity to put your best self forward.
Spicing up Your Resume and Cover Letter with Action Words
We all have heard the expression that it is not only what you say, but how you say it. Varying your language and spicing up your resume and cover letter with strong action words can help make your resume stand out, even if it is the 50th one they read that day. Action verbs can catch the attention of a hiring manager or a recruiter in a way that just saying the same thing over and over again will not. You can learn more about this idea in in these two articles on the websites indeed.com and monster.com, both incidentally great places to search for jobs. For a list of such words, check out Appendix H: Action Words for Cover Letters and Resumes.
Building Your Network
Building your network is a key step to professional success, but networking successfully takes different forms for different people. Some people, especially those whose disabilities required them to build support teams from early ages, may be unusually gregarious, taking to new people and new social environments. Others, especially job seekers with disabilities that include social challenges, may find happy hours and other traditional networking environments highly unpleasant, if not completely ineffective. The key is to find the networking environment that works for you.
The tips in this section will help you think about some key strategies and considerations to find your best networking opportunities. As you read it, recognize that today’s COVID-19 climate, networking sometimes is best done via phone, the internet or other formats that are socially distanced.
The UCLA Career Center, for example, suggests, “Get to know what your professional acquaintances like to do in their spare time. Do they have a special interest? Do they volunteer for a cause? Ask questions, listen carefully and become well versed in their areas of interest and expertise.” This not only shows personal interest in them outside of what they can do for you, but it should also help you feel more comfortable approaching them.
According to the UCLA Career Center: “Everyone you know and everyone you meet is a potential source of career advice and referrals to other individuals. Make a list of who you know. Include the names of roommates, friends, friends of friends, parents and relatives, classmates, TAs and professors. Add bosses and coworkers (past and present), and people you have met at the health club, while traveling or doing volunteer work. Expand your list with people from social, political or religious organizations. Include your physician and dentist. Suddenly, your list of connections has grown by leaps and bounds.”
Social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn can be helpful for keeping track of all of the people you know, but make sure to pay attention to how you present yourself on those platforms if you use them. It is a good idea to go through your profile and newsfeed and make sure that the “you” that comes through there is the “you” who you want a potential new boss to meet.
The UCLA Career Center also suggests: “Before you begin the networking process, be sure you are clear about the kind of job you want and are qualified for, whether you’re willing to move and where, the salary you expect, your lifestyle requirements and so on. By clarifying this kind of knowledge for yourself, you’ll have more confidence.”
Not only will it make you more confident, but it also will help your contacts have a better idea of how they can help you. Many times, people job hunting think it is more helpful to be general so you can investigate whatever comes your way, but really the opposite is the truth. If you are specific, then your contacts know what you want and can point you as close as they can get. Keep in mind that it may have most of what you want but not all of it. You should be flexible and look at opportunities that you do not expect. The more specifics you provide, the better a match you will receive.
The USC Career Center provides nine steps on how to network, which can be useful if you need help breaking it down into individual tasks:
- Determine what information you want to learn.
- Think about people you already know who might lead to someone with the information you are seeking. Start making a list of the people that come to mind, including family members, friends, neighbors, classmates, former employers, colleagues, former colleagues, former professors, and supervisors. Include contacts you might know through social, professional, and civic affiliations.
- Update your LinkedIn profile with your current contact information, a professional picture, and relevant experience.
- Google yourself and check your online presence. When possible, eliminate information that may seem unfavorable. If the site or post is outside of your control, think about how you would respond if asked about it.
- Begin contacting people you know and share your career aspirations. Introduce yourself to new professionals and request a 30-minute informational interview to learn about their industry, organization, or profession.
- Prepare for the informational interview by writing out your questions, preparing for questions they might ask you, and printing out fresh copies of your resume.
- Dress in the attire appropriate to your desired industry for networking events, interviews, and informational interviews, even if the meeting is virtual!
- Send a thank you note or email within 24 hours of your meeting.
- Invite your new contacts to connect with you on LinkedIn and keep in touch. Remember: a strong network is critical to a successful lifelong career!
Even if you take all these steps and thrive on social interaction, this can be exhausting. You may get tired, overwhelmed, and frustrated at several times during your job search. When this happens, it is important to remember both that this is normal, and, that, once feeling that way, it is time to stop for a while. Do something that recharges you and be aware of your own mental health. It is better for you in the long run, but also leads to better networking. Good networking requires you to put your best self forward, and no one can do that when they are exhausted.
One of the best tools for putting your best self forward is to use your “elevator speech.” What is an elevator speech? Based on the idea that you would have less than 30 seconds to actually talk to someone with whom you are riding an elevator, it is the 30-second, 8- to 10-sentence version of who you are and how they can help you.
This is critical when you are trying to bring someone onto your job searching team or into your networking process. Whether you meet someone at a networking party or work activity, you need to get them interested into enough that they will decide to help you. Be sure to cover what you can do for them, or for the people to whom they will introduce you.
What do you need to create a successful elevator speech? A website created by the University of California at Davis has a great overview of 10 topics you need to write a carefully planned and prepared presentation that grabs attention. We have modified these slightly to focus exclusively on a job search.
- Smile to your counterpart, and open with a statement or question that grabs attention: a hook that prompts your listener to ask questions. (Note: Even under a mask or via phone, it is important to smile as that comes through in your voice.)
- Tell who you are: describe yourself.
- Tell what you do and show enthusiasm.
- Tell what problems have solved or contributions you have made.
- Offer a vivid example.
- Tell why you are interested in your listener.
- Tell what very special skills or talents you can offer him or her.
- What are the advantages of working with you? In what do you differ from the average candidate?
- Give a concrete example or tell a short story, show your uniqueness and provide illustrations on how you work.
- What is the most wanted response after your elevator speech? Do you want a business card, a referral or are you looking for an invitation to submit a resume and/or cover letter?
The University of California at Davis further provides a checklist for fine tuning your elevator speech:
- Write down all what comes up in your mind.
- Cut the jargon and details. Make strong short and powerful sentences. Eliminate unnecessary words.
- Connect the phrases to each other. Your elevator address must flow natural and smoothly. Do not rush.
- Memorize key points and practice.
- Have you really answered the key question of your listener: What’s in it for me?
- Create different versions for different contacts.
Preparing for the Interview
Answering Common Interview Questions
The interview can be stressful as it is one of the most important parts of the job-hunting process. This section is going to help you get through that initial anxiety by knowing what you want to bring to the table. First, take a deep breath. Think for a moment.
You have made it through the initial screening process. Out of the hundreds of resumes submitted for this job, something about you made this employer want to talk to you. They already have seen something of value in your application, and now you must build on it.
Now is a good time to focus on why you want the job, both because you will have to answer that question and because excitement about your potential future will tend to replace anxiety.
The other way to minimize your stress is to prepare answers to questions you might receive. The good news is that interviews tend to be predictable. Employers often will ask the same categories of questions during an interview whether you are applying to become a CEO or for an entry-level job. Knowing what these categories are and why they are being asked of you can give you the edge to ace the interview if you take the time to prepare. It also will reduce your anxiety, which will allow you to better connect to your interviewer. Keep in mind that everyone has a little anxiety going into an interview; if you are lucky, it will start to disappear as the connection is made.
Now, what exactly are those categories? Key categories of interview questions typically include:
- Tell me about yourself?
- What are your strengths and weaknesses?
- How do you handle stress and pressure?
- What is an example of a difficult situation you faced and solved?
- Why should we hire you?
Let us talk about each of these categories.
- Tell Me About Yourself? This is a question some people hate to answer. Often an employer will begin an interview with a simple question such as, “Tell me about yourself?” or “Who are you?” or “What can you tell me about yourself?” Employers often ask these kinds of question for two reasons. First, they may want to help put you at ease by starting the interview with a simple subject that some people find easy to do: talking about yourself! Second, hiring somebody for a job is often about judging someone’s personality and figuring out if this fits with the employer’s team, culture, and work. They cannot do that unless they know their candidate a little. Use strong action words to describe yourself. Do not ramble on too long and avoid sharing too much personal information. Focus your conversation on the kinds of skills and qualities that would make you a great choice for this job. Give people a peek about the real you and move on to the next question. At the same time, if you have thought about why you might be a good fit for their team, emphasize those characteristics of yourself in your description. After all, that is what they are looking to learn.
- What are your strengths and weaknesses? This question will likely come quite regularly, so you can avoid anxiety by preparing for it in advance. It is a common question because employers need to know what you, as a prospective employee, are good at, what you are bad at, and what you might be doing to get better. This question measures a job seeker’s level of self-awareness and their commitment to becoming a better employee if somebody were to hire you. This is also a chance for you to be upfront, open, and honest with an employer, which can really distinguish you from other candidates for the job.
It is relatively easy to talk about strengths, what you are good at doing, and what you like doing. However, it is far more important in an interview to talk about your perceived weaknesses AND what you are doing to improve them. Any applicant can talk about what a hard worker they are or how often they are on time or what a great job they have done in the past. It is far more impressive in an interview if job seekers talk about a weakness in some aspect of their job in the past AND how they are actively working to get better at that part of their job. Employers will invest time and money in a worker if someone is consciously committed to getting better rather than just someone who will coast along and never improve. When answered clearly with honesty and sincerity, this question can be an opportunity to shine. Still, it is important to be brief in describing any weaknesses and move back to your strengths and how you can help the potential employer.
- How do you handle stress and pressure? Most interviewers will try and get a sense of how a job seeker does when things get rough, trouble happens on the job, or what happens when things get busy for the team. Being a good employee means figuring out what will happen with your team when challenging projects come your way and understanding how a team member will handle additional stress or pressure to perform. There is no need to panic if you get this question. Again, it is important to prepare for it in advance as this question is a great chance to talk about how you handle stress, pressure, and manage your work. It also is a great question to show your employer how you process new information, respond to new challenges, or show how you are willing to get the job done.
You are a successful person in the world, either on a job, in your family, or both. This is the time to share those real-world successes, not to bring up hypothetical situations. Consider sharing about how you handle school stress or family pressures. For example, if you have a disability due to an accident, you can talk about how you achieved success in rehab and learned new skills that make you ready for this job. Talk about times in previous jobs where you have had to work through big workloads. Keep it positive and make sure you reemphasize your strengths.
- What is an example of a difficult situation you faced and solved? Employers often like asking for anecdotes or stories from your previous jobs or work you have done. Employers ask these types of questions because it is a great way of identifying potential problems or strengths. It also is a great question for getting into specifics and a chance for a job seeker to showcase their knowledge, skills and abilities in action! As such, when you go into an interview, you should be prepared to bring up an example of a time at a previous job or at school where you faced a discreet problem. Define the problem, talk about how you figured out a solution, and outline steps you took to solve the problem.
So much of professional life depends on new problems emerging and responding to them in real time. Employers want to know they can count on you to be a problem solver. Unlike the last question, this is not the time to bring up personal situations, as people want to know that you know to keep your personal challenges separate. If you do not have a work situation to share, share one from a volunteer or other public-facing position. Like all other questions, it is important to get to the point quickly and show how it is relevant to you being the right person for this job.
- Why should we hire you? This is usually the last and most important question an employer is going to ask. The hiring manager will typically look at hundreds of applications and go through dozens of interviews to find and hire the right person. As such, when they ask you this question, it is your last chance to leave a good impression and really distinguish yourself from every other person applying for the job. Having a good answer to this question really depends on you doing your homework and thinking about what you bring to the table for this specific job and organization.
To succeed in this and other questions, before your interview, spend a lot of time on the company’s/organization’s website. Read their mission statement. Go onto LinkedIn and see if you can find other people who have held the job title for this position. What qualifications did they have? What accomplishments do they list? Go onto Google and look for past news stories about the company and their work. It will give you relevant information that can help you prepare for your interview.
This question can be fantastic for a prepared interviewee because it will show preparation and interest. When you deeply research the organization and really think about what you can do for it, this is your opportunity to shine!
Would you like to know more? This series of articles covers some of the most asked interview questions. You do not necessarily have to have answers to each question but give some serious thought to how you might answer them.
- “Top 10 Job Interviews Questions With Examples of the Best Answer,” thebalancecareers.com/top-interview-questions-and-best-answers-2061225
- “27 Most Common Job Interview Questions and Answers,” inc.com/jeff-haden/27-most-common-job-interview-questions-and-answers.html
- “50 Most Common Interview Questions,” glassdoor.com/blog/common-interview-questions
- “125 Common Interview Questions and Answers (With Tips),” indeed.com/career-advice/interviewing/top-interview-questions-and-answers
- “How to Ace the 50 Most Common Interview Questions,” forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/01/11/how-to-ace-the-50-most-common-interview-questions
Asking the Right Questions
Ask lots of questions. Toward the end of an interview, the hiring manager often will ask interviewees if they have any questions. This is a critical question in the life of an interview, and you need to have a good series of questions ready to be asked. Do not let the interview end right then and there. Here are some questions you can ask:
What would success in this job look like?
What qualities are most important for success in this job and organization?
What do you most like about your job?
What is a big project you are proud to have worked on or what is problem that you solved at work?
What are some things that previous people in this job category has been able to accomplish?
Questions such as these show whether you are engaged with the interview and whether you really, really want the job.
Do I Disclose My Disability?
One of the most common questions for a person with a disability facing a job interview is whether to disclose a disability and/or the need for disability accommodations on the job. The answer is, sometimes.
It is possible you have a disability that is visible to the person interviewing you. However, that is usually not the case as most disabilities are not visible. According to AskJan.org, deciding when to disclose can be a difficult choice for a person with a disability. If you have a nonvisible disability such as brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, knowing when to disclose your condition can be a real dilemma. This is because employers can have stigmas around disability or can be afraid the costs of accommodations for someone with a disability will be high. However, most accommodations are extremely inexpensive or even free. At the same time, some employers specifically want to hire people with disabilities for a variety of reasons, including that they are federal contractors or have seen studies or have personal experience with the success of employees with disabilities
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you can request an accommodation at any time during the application process or while you are employed. For example, if you are deaf, you may want to request to use video relay or an ASL interpreter for your job interview. There also may be something in your resume that you want to disclose by sharing your disability. This is a tactical decision, which must be made in the moment, with pros and cons, but:
You do not need to disclose your disability too soon.
According to AskJan.org, many people with nonvisible disabilities may feel they are not being completely honest with an employer if they do not tell everything about their disability up front at the time of their interview. Just remember that you are not obligated to do so. When you disclose, which usually will be after you accept a job, just provide basic information about your condition, your limitations, and what accommodations you may need.
A Reminder on Usage
Each pointer in this kit is designed to help you better prepare to use the pathways in the rest of this guide. They are not designed to create hard and fast rules that you must follow. If a tool or tip seems like it is not relevant for you or your experience, do not use it. Do not, for instance, become so determined to use power words that you lose your own voice, or get so caught up in your perfect elevator pitch that you interrupt a strong natural conversation to deliver it. No matter how mechanical the steps in this guide might seem, there is no magical single path to success. When you feel ready to start on your path, find the pathway that is right for you. Good luck!