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Your challenge as an English major: what are your specific transferable skills?

Unlike a graduate of a technical program, whose skills may be more obvious to a potential employer, an English major faces the challenge of identifying a set of less obvious skills and of communicating those specific skills to employers in a meaningful way. As an English major, your task is to educate the potential employer about what an English major can do, and how your abilities match up with the job at hand.

The first step, then, is to think about how what you've learned as an English major is transferable to work situations. While it's probably true that no one is going to hire you to write sonnets or to explore the role of the female protagonist in 19th century fiction (more's the pity), many employers will be eager to talk with someone who has your skills in writing, editing, communication, critical analysis, research, problem solving, collaboration, managing information, summarizing and presenting data, meeting deadlines and managing time, working independently, and so on.

It's your job to extract these skills from your experiences as an English major and to communicate them to potential employers in a way that's meaningful to them. In other words, while an employer in the public relations field may not be moved by the fact that you completed a senior seminar on Virginia Woolf and got an "A," he or she is liable to pay attention when you explain that you have the ability to research and analyze a question so as to write accurately and persuasively about it.

For more information about skills developed in the English major, see the Humanities Advising Center Page.

What's the purpose of a résumé? To get you an interview.

When you write your résumé, your goal is to show the potential employer how your skills and abilities match the specific position at hand -- to convince him or her that it's worth the time to talk with you in more depth about your candidacy. This means that, within a very limited space, you must be specific, concise, and persuasive. This is not the time to expand, elaborate, or wax eloquent: you can do these things at the interview.

A résumé is a marketing tool, not an historical document.

Include only that information which is pertinent to the question, Why should someone hire me for this particular job? Stay focused, be concise, and think from the employer's point of view. What does the employer most want to know? What can this candidate do for me/my organization? If your experience in high school band can actually help you to demonstrate compellingly how you could be valuable to this particular employer, then it's relevant -- if not, leave it out. Don't write your life history. Your résumé should be targeted to the job for which you are applying. Be specific and particular in showing your interest and marketing your suitability.

How long will the average employer spend in the initial review of your résumé?
About 20 seconds.

If possible, keep your résumé to one page. Definitely use a clean, terse style. When a potential employer is screening a large stack of résumés from job applicants, yours may be judged in 20-30 seconds. It's important that you highlight your primary applicable skills and abilities in the top third of the first page -- the employer may not read much further during the initial review. Proofread your résumé carefully. Errors often screen out otherwise qualified candidates. Ask several people to give your résumé a quick review and tell you what they notice:

  • Is your résumé readable?
  • What grabs the eye?
  • Are the margins even, and is there sufficient white space?
  • Is the most important information in the top third of the page?
  • Is your contact information correct, and listed on every page?
  • Is your objective clear? (Does the employer know what you want?)
  • Do the skills, qualifications, and experiences listed relate to the job being targeted?
  • Is your résumé free from errors?
  • Have you followed all of the prospective employer's guidelines carefully?

What are they looking for?
Read job descriptions carefully and do your homework.

It's essential to target your résumé to the specific position for which you're applying, and to know something about the organization. Pick out key words in the job announcement that indicate the skills they're looking for, and be sure to highlight these skills in your résumé and cover letter. Find out as much as you can about the organization so that you can express yourself knowledgeably about how you'd fit into the organization and why you're interested. Design your résumé and cover letter so as to match yourself, point by point, to the job description.

What do employers recommend?

We asked some local employers who routinely hire English majors to give us some suggestions on résumés. Here's what they said:

What impresses you?

  • "Make sure that the first few lines of whatever you're giving to an employer are absolutely compelling. Remember that most people won't read past the first paragraph or so if something doesn't catch the eye."
  • "Easy-to-follow format, clear and concise descriptions of experience and skills."
  • "I look for clear, specific objectives. For example, don't say I desire to bring my experience in high technology to a large company, or, I am looking for a new challenge. That doesn't tell me anything."

Can you suggest any particular dos and don'ts?

  • "If we get a résumé with a typo, we throw it away. Our firm does writing, and the résumé can show your ability to check your work and put your best foot forward. The résumé is an example of your work, so it must be well written and correct."
  • "In describing previous work experience, don't include every detail. This isn't the place for a complete job description. But, do include enough of a description so the reader will understand what you've done. If it's overly cryptic, your history will be a mystery."
  • "If at all possible, immediately address the top one or two specific job requirements or responsibilities that were listed in the position announcement you're responding to, and use the exact skill words listed. Using employers' own words for skills (the skills that they want and that you have) will get their attention. Always try to use employers' vocabulary for qualifications instead of asking them to translate your skills and experience into their words."
  • "Think from the perspective of the reader. He or she has described a job and is asking two questions: 1.) Can this person described in the résumé do the job well? 2.) Is it worth my time to talk with him or her further?"

Are there particular formats or styles that are preferable?

  • "The format is less important than the content. The reviewer needs to know education, skills, and work experience. Other information, such as organizational affiliations, volunteer work, and activities can also be useful as long as they're related; however, if it makes the résumé too long, added information could just make it seem more cluttered."
  • "I prefer the functional style résumé, as compared with the chronological style résumé. The functional résumé highlights your skills. Employers don't want to read a long laundry list of what your prior job responsibilities were. They want to know about the transferable job skills you have that will benefit them in the new position."

Can you suggest ways that recent graduates with no professional experience can convey their skills and abilities to a potential employer?

  • "If the individual had some types of non paying work, i.e., volunteer work or internships which demonstrate abilities related to the position in question, then these should be highlighted."
  • "I believe that even new college graduates can talk specifically about their characteristics when they are short on work experience: self confidence, intellectual horsepower, integrity and trustworthiness, drive for results, problem solving, communication skills, strategic thinking, creativity, building team spirit, etc., can all be demonstrated in other ways."
  • "I encourage new graduates to think more broadly about their experience, and not limit it to what they did for pay. Skills and experience can be gained in other ways, for example, in community service, through civic or professional affiliations, in volunteer work, and in internships."

What are your suggestions for cover letters?

  • "The cover letter is critical. It's more important to me than the résumé because it lets us know how people connected with us or came to us -- why they're interested in our firm. Company research is very important. Direct the letter to an actual contact when possible instead of 'to whom it may concern.' Demonstrate that you understand what the firm does and what its mission is. The cover letter shows us if you're doing your homework or if you're just broadly canvassing the universe with your résumé to see if someone thinks you look good on paper."
  • "A good letter reflects a genuine interest in the job. The letter is really you introducing yourself to the prospective employer, so you want to convey that you understand what the job is about, that you're excited about the prospect of doing the job, and that you have the necessary skills to do it. The letter should convey a sense of confidence (but not so much that it sounds arrogant or pushy). Do remember that you're addressing someone who's a stranger to you: avoid being overly casual or taking risks with things like humor."
  • "Try to be as specific as you can. Think about what you'd like to know if YOU were hiring someone. Let's say you were going to pay someone a salary to mow your lawn every week. What would you want to know? Let's say your job candidate had never mowed lawns before: What other skills and characteristics would you look for that would be related?"

How should I format my résumé?

There are a number of ways to format and organize résumés. The style that you choose for each position you target should be determined by who your audience will be and what you're intending to highlight about yourself. This will change from position to position and from employer to employer. If you're applying, for example, for a position in an educational or legal setting, you may want to use a more traditional, chronological style of résumé. On the other hand, if you're short on job experience for the particular job being targeted and want, instead, to highlight your related skills, you may decide to go with a functional-style résumé.

Click here for some sample résumé formats and explanations of their uses.

Writing a Scannable/Electronic Résumé

Most organizations are now filing résumés in computer database systems. Often applicants are asked to upload the résumé initially to an organization's employment web site, or, if résumés are sent by mail or e-mail, they are scanned into a computer. The system then matches the résumé against the specific qualifications sought for current job openings, using keywords.

If an organization wants a scannable résumé, they will ask for it. Many provide specific instructions for formatting your résumé with their specifications (c.f. the UW's own employment site's Résumé Tips) and submitting it for consideration.

Use Nouns. In scannable résumés, nouns are dominant. Computers search for words like proofreader, analysis, manager, or Excel to match the qualifications that are being sought.

Keep It Simple. Avoid decorative, uncommon typefaces. Underlining, italics, bolding, and bullets are not recommended. Stay with white or ivory paper. Avoid graphics and shading, and don't format with columns.

Use White Space. Computers like white space. They use it to recognize that one topic has ended and another has begun.

E-mail in Text Format, not as an attachment. Because of the numerous e-mail viruses out there, many people are reluctant to open an attachment that comes from someone they don't know. Unless the employer specifically asks for the résumé by attachment, you're better off with plain text contained in the body of the message. If you want to preserve your formatting, offer to send or fax a paper copy to the potential employer as a follow up. Click here for an example of an e-mail résumé.

Don't Fold It. Use an 8.5 x 11 envelope to avoid creases.

Reluctant to part with your fancy formatting? Submit your formatted résumé with a plain, scannable copy attached.