Found a job you want? Here’s a reality check: Your generic resume probably won’t get you noticed by the employer. Here’s how to use cues and key words from the job description to make your application stand out.
1. Ditch the generic resume.
A generic resume doesn’t do much to convince an employer that you’re the best fit for a job. Veterans tend to relate their military experiences on their resume, in their cover letter and in their interview (if they get that far). This makes for good stories and may sound impressive to a civilian, but it is often hard to find a connection between military experiences and the workplace skills or attributes an employer seeks.
Another veteran tactic is to “shotgun” out a bunch of identical resumes to many different job postings in the hopes that one will “stick.” But guess what? Every other applicant is using the same tactic. Employers will choose the applicant who stands out as best meeting their expectations specified in the job posting.
2. Look at both the job description and the job requirements.
Searching through job postings is boring and often depressing, especially if you’re not sure whether you qualify, based on the job requirements, or whether you actually want all the jobs you’re looking at. A common technique is to “whittle down” the job postings by scanning the job requirements section and applying only to the jobs for which you meet the requirements.
This is partially due to a military background, where your package or application for a particular posting or assignment will only be considered if you meet the requirements, such as rank, time-in-grade, occupational specialty, or experience. In the job search world, however, you can make a case that your experiences or particular qualifications suit you for a job even if you don’t have X number of years in one position or Y education.
The most common way to do this is to link your military experiences to the job description, showing that what you did in the past is substantively the same, or at least very similar, to what the job will ask you to do. If you can make a convincing case that you’ve succeeded at the job before, even under a different name in the military, the employer will be willing to look past any lacking qualifications.
3. Identify key words and attributes.
This is often the biggest problem with veteran resumes: they talk about how the military has prepared them for the job, but fail to align themselves with the actual expectations of the job. Job descriptions and requirements all use keywords. Some are personality-based, like “communication skills,” “verbal and written communication,” or “customer service;” some refer to physical requirements like “travel required” or “flexible schedule;” some explain what you’ll be doing in the job like “cross-functional team” or “external agencies.”
These key words should be your starting point when listing your military experience. You will need to tell the employer explicitly that you fit the job by phrasing your resume and cover letter in those key words. If the job requirement states you must have a record as a self-starter, you will need to have resume bullets (yes, multiple if you can) that actually say this or that military experience required you to be a self-starter to be successful…and, most importantly, that you were successful.
If the job description indicates you will have to do a specific task, you must have resume bullets that actually say that you have done that task in a military context.
4. Trim the fat.
There are two things candidates put in their job application documents: things that interest them and things that interest their employer. Veterans, who often have great pride in elements of their service, have an especially hard time letting go of certain experiences when it comes to their resumes. They want to spend valuable space and time talking about something cool they did with a particular weapon or project, or about their combat experience, when most employers aren’t all that interested.
Unless you are taking a job as a SWAT member, your weapons or combat experience don’t really tell an employer much about your performance in civilian jobs. Besides, all that extra military stuff clutters up your resume and draws attention away from the all-important key words. So briefly mention your combat experience or the cool training you did in an exotic country – it’s good to put that little tidbit at the beginning, because it makes you look very interesting and pulls a reader into your application – but spend your time focusing your experiences on the key words.
That way, whoever reads your resume has a positive impression because of the cool things you did, but also has an overall impression that you are a perfect fit.
5. Do your research.
The job description can help you with more than your resume and cover letter. It can help you with the interview, too, especially if you answer questions and talk about yourself by referencing those key words and expectations. However, you can do one better: you can get an idea of how the job for which you’re applying fits in with the company’s structure and culture.
Dropping a line in the interview like, “I noticed that your company motto is X, and I understand that this job fits into that by…” or “I read an article in Y publication that noted how your company has focused on Z. I can contribute to that focus in this job because of …” will greatly impress your interviewer.
By articulating how the job fits into the larger scheme of things, you will stand out from the few other candidates who are otherwise perfect fits, but who have limited their application to the job itself (as if it existed in a vacuum).
It may be difficult and boring to comb job postings for keywords, but for the jobs you really want, it’s worth it. Used properly, that job posting can tell you how to make yourself exactly what the employer is looking for – and that’s how you get hired.