Q. I've read that HR people spend about 10-20 seconds scanning a resume before making a decision. How much time are they spending on a cover letter? Do they generally read the cover letter first? Do they read the cover letter at all? Is the real and only reason for a cover letter to determine if a candidate can write effectively?
Well your first assumption is that "HR people" scan your resume at all! Most resumes are sent and accepted electronically via a job portal or ATS (Applicant Tracking System) so it's quite possible the first and real "scanning" is done as a result of any key word searches and algorithms within the career web site to help weed out the matches from the mis-matches. Don't worry, that's not to suggest there isn't any human interaction when it comes to evaluating resumes. Depending on the size of the organization, this task can be delegated initially to a coordinator or assistant before it even gets reviewed by a recruiter or a senior HR representative before it ultimately gets into the hands of the hiring manager for consideration. So as you can see there are many steps in the process of resume review then a simple 10-20 second initial scanning! As far as a cover letter is concerned and speaking personally as one who recruits, I do not pay too much attention to them as they seldom offer additional value that you can not get from a well executed resume. However, most companies still follow a traditional route when accepting resumes and prefer a cover "something" whether it is in the form of an email or letter to accompany the resume. The best thing to remember is to keep your cover letter brief. Your cover letter should really serve as an introduction, a calling card describing who you are and what you are looking for as far as a work assignment. The resume, if done well, should explain the rest. Most people make the mistake of using a cover letter to tell the story of their work history- save that for the in-person meeting or again let your resume tell the story. When in doubt, include a brief cover statement and make sure your resume is concise, accurate, preferably one page in length and immediately spells out for the recruiter your experience and work history. You don't want to have the recruiter flipping through pages of work history or try to figure out what type of job you are looking for. You might very well end up on the bottom of the resume pile!
Q. I have been actively job searching for a while now with very little success. Recently I found a position that is exactly what I want to do. I emailed the company my resume and even hand mailed them my resume personally just to reach out. I know that sounds obsessive, but I really want to work for this company. Is it too forward to call them to check the status of the position or to at least try and set up an informational tour/interview? I feel even if I don't get the position, which I hope isn't the case, that I'd still get to talk with people at the company because I'm really passionate about joining their team and learning more about them.
Finding anyway you can to accomplish your goal of securing a job in one of the toughest job markets in recent history is nothing to feel "obsessive"about. One of the biggest mistakes many job seekers make is that they believe by emailing, phoning and even hand delivering a resume is enough to ensure that the "recruiter" receives it and that they are in the recruitment pipeline. Not the case. In order to make sure you are noticed and even seriously considered for a position, your need to have exemplary follow-up skills is required. It's okay to email, call and even show up at the reception desk of the company you want to work for if you think it will work. However, finding and leveraging all of your contacts will ensure you've covered all of your bases. Leveraging your professional network can mean finding someone who works directly for the company who can make an introduction on your behalf to the hiring manager or recruiter. Locating and establishing internal referrals to help you network within the company is always a smart way to ensure that you get an exploratory or an in-person meeting. Being creative about how you use your network of contacts, whether it be as a referral source or as a direct internal contact will at the very least help you get a foot-in even if you don't leave with a job offer. In this job market, there is no room for being shy or hesitant-you've got to pull out all the stops (short of stalking that is!)
Q. I sometimes feel like I'm a step behind my colleagues (and possible competitors for a new job) because my alma mater is a small state school that's not well-known outside my immediate locale. How important is having a "name brand" school on your resume, and when does it stop becoming an issue (i.e. how far into a career)?
There is no secret that having graduated from a well known or Ivy League school does have its advantages when it comes to leveraging your career network, but it really depends on your degree level (BA, BS, Masters, etc) and who you are lucky enough to be interviewing with. If you are applying for specific positions that require a certain degree level, then yes, the school from which you graduated as well as your academic accomplishments are important assets and should not been seen as an "issue" or impediment to your career advancement. Many times what makes an interview successful is bonding with the recruiter or hiring manager. This happens when common interests are formed. When you and the recruiter or hiring manager have worked for the same employers, or have mutual professional acquaintances, have volunteered for similar organizations or associations and of course have graduated from the same school (regardless of the locale), all of which can help you make a connection. It's important not to feel the pressure because you may or may not possess the competitive advantage over your peers when it comes to your educational background. Remember ALL of your accomplishments whether they be professional, educational or volunteer need to be in your career-tool chest when arming yourself with what it takes to land your next job. You never know which one of your many accomplishments will make the recruiter take notice. It could be as simple as the Animal Rescue Shelter you volunteered for, or the fact you graduated from East Central College in Ada, Oklahoma.
Q. What is the most important skill to have to get a job, or promoted?
The most important skill to get noticed whether you are looking for a job or are under consideration for a promotion would be your ability to take initiative. There are a ton of people out there who have marketable skills and qualifications but if you don't know what to do with it or how to best apply those skills, you really are not a value to yourself or to anyone else. Employers look for skills which are adaptable because let's face it, companies are changing faster than an employer can update the job description. If you are adept at remaining flexible and finding resourceful ways to apply your skills and take the initiative to apply them towards the goals and objectives of the company, then you prove yourself to be a value to your employer whether you are just starting out or, are on your way towards a promotion.
Q. What is the range of costs for having a resume and cover letter professionally written, and how does one determine how good a writer is before seeing the finished product?
When reviewing costs on having a resume/cover letter professionally written it's always good to do your research first. The range of services and offerings out there given the economy has produced a surge of would be writers and "experts" in the career coaching and resume writing services where they should be posting a huge sign "Buyer Beware." Many people profess to be good writers and offer up templates for resumes that really serve only one purpose to fit you in the one-size-fits all category without any thought to customization or highlighting your own unique qualities as a job seeker. The costs range from $75 to thousands of dollars that is why it's VERY important to do your homework before buying into one of these services. Requesting references and testimonials from satisfied job seekers whose resume landed them a great job or really represented their skills in a unique way is a good first stop in finding out how good the person is you are considering in helping you write your resume. The services you purchase should include the following in order for it to be worth your while: 1) up to three (3) resume review sessions capturing your contributions and highlights of your background; 2) two (2) draft versions for you to review and 3) one (1) final draft in both word and PDF where you can make modifications later on. The process should not feel rushed and the career/resume expert should be asking you valid questions not just verifying dates, locations and titles from your employment history. If you get any push back as you consider hiring someone remember, follow your instincts and find someone who understands not only you but the industry you are looking to find work in as well.