Tailoring Your Resume Isn't 'Cheating'

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Do you ever feel pigeonholed when you're looking for a job? Make sure you're not pigeonholing yourself.

Some job-seekers paint their skills and experiences in identical language whenever they send out a resume or go to an interview. But talk to a career specialist, and they'll tell you candidates who don't modify their presentation to fit a specific employer's needs are shooting themselves in the foot.

"You should never lie, but you absolutely must re-position yourself. You have to say, 'What would be of most interest to this employer?'" says Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a nationwide career counseling network.

"You don't have to say everything you've done" in past jobs, Wendleton explains. "You just have to say those things that are most important to your target market."

Career changers or recent graduates with little experience may feel it's dishonest to play up those parts of their background that relate to the role they seek. Commenting on our story Cover Letters: Not Extinct, Just Evolved, one eFC user wrote: "How do you tailor yourself to the needs of the employers if you have never done what they are looking for? That, I think, falls within the category of cheating."

Yes, misstating facts is unethical. But candidates still have ample scope to decide how to present themselves, and which features of their work history and personality to put forward. For instance, it's perfectly legitimate to rephrase past job titles, as long as your wording reflects either the actual function you performed or your level of responsibility. It's also legitimate to modify job descriptions, moving to the top those achievements or activities that relate most closely to the specific role you're applying for.

Flexibility is Healthy

Being flexible about how you view yourself and present your qualifications is natural and healthy, says Jay Gaines, chief executive of Jay Gaines & Co., an executive search firm focused on senior roles in finance, information technology and manufacturing. "Most people don't have deep, fixed ideas about their careers," Gaines says. Especially if a candidate has limited experience, "You want to experiment, you want to explore, you want to see if you can maybe find your sweet spot. There is nothing unethical about looking at your background fluidly.... Most people have the ability to perform more than one type of role."

For example, Gaines says a back-office professional may demonstrate exceptional interpersonal skills suitable for client-facing roles. He's seen people move from information technology to sales on the strength of how well they managed internal relationships. A background in product development or marketing also can be a bridge to sales or relationship management.

Wendleton rattles off successful transitions by Five O'Clock Club members, including her own switch from technology specialist to counselor. When making her move, she played up her one year of experience training people to use computers, and de-emphasized the technical side of her background.

Adopt Your Target's Terminology

Among the lessons she draws: "You have to use the jargon of your target market. That way, you're making it easier" for employers to see you in the proper light.

One club member wanted to return to sports marketing, where he had a 15-year career before spending five years at a mortgage unit of Citibank. When he called sports marketing contacts, they were put off by seeing "mortgages" near the top of his resume, Wendleton says. The solution was to place a "summary" section right below his name and address, in order to spotlight his sports background, and re-word his most recent job title and description to emphasize his marketing skills and remove references to mortgages.

The summary began, "Fifteen years in the leisure / sporting goods industry." His last job title changed from "VP - Segment Director, Shelter Business" to "VP - Business Director." The initial line of its new description read, "Ran a $4.6 billion business."

Get Out of Your Pigeonhole

"De-emphasize the specialty area, and emphasize the accomplishments," Wendleton also says.

For example, another club member had worked entirely in international divisions. At the time of his search, there were no job openings in international within his target industry. So he purged his resume of the word "international." Still another member found her extensive background in sugar sales came off as too narrow when she sought positions with bulk foods businesses. The problem disappeared after she changed her resume's mentions of "sugar" to "bulk foods" - which was accurate, since sugar is a bulk food.

Originally published Sept. 5, 2007.

Do you tailor your resumes and cover letters for each prospective employer? Share your advice by posting a comment below.

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