Education and Employment

Career Advice from a Pro: How to Secure Your Dream Job


Jobseekers today are in luck. Read on to learn why and gain timeless advice from a career management professional who can help you outshine the competition.

The "Great Resignation"

A wave of Americans left their jobs in early to mid-2021 in what is now known as the "Great Resignation." Lockdowns were lifted as the number of vaccinated Americans grew, and many organizations asked employees to return to in-person work. Faced with decreases in flexibility, time with family, and overall autonomy over their day, millions of Americans resigned.

Approximately 4 million Americans resigned in April 2021 alone according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some workers sought employment elsewhere with organizations better able to meet their needs. Others left the workforce entirely.

A resignation wave of this size usually indicates a healthy economy, but the pandemic caused a major recession and increased unemployment in the United States. Despite this, employers are still reporting labor shortages, which makes it a jobseeker’s market.

Employers report widespread labor shortages, making it a jobseeker’s market.

Even with this advantage, online job applications, cover letters, variance in work experience, the interview process, and the negotiation process leave some qualified professionals frustrated and out of work.

Fortunately, there are ways you can increase your chances of landing your dream job, and we’ve got them organized for you right here.

Advice from a Career Management Professional

John Nykolaiszyn serves as the director of FIU’s Office of Business Career Management. He brings over a decade of experience in recruitment and talent management to the students and professionals he aides.

In a recent interview, John and I discussed some of the best and worst practices in the job search and application process. From creating your resume all the way to negotiating your salary, John walked me through how to maximize your chances of success.

Your Resume and Cover Letter

It’s tempting to make your resume colorful and fun, especially if you’re in a creative industry. However, your resume might get tossed out if you use a creative template because of applicant tracking systems (ATS).

An ATS is a software application that scans resumes before an actual human reviews them. If your resume isn’t formatted so that the ATS can process it, your resume will be removed from the applicant pool regardless of your qualifications.

"The ATS doesn't care about color. It’s just looking at text," said John. "Resumes should be black and white. No color, no colorful font, no pictures. Use reverse chronological order - no functional resumes."

"Resumes should be black and white. Use reverse chronological order – no functional resumes."

John also emphasized the importance of getting specific about your work history and quantifying your accomplishmentsUse numbers to illustrate how well you do what you do.

"You have to break it down and go, ‘what am I specifically doing?’" said John. "Let’s use retail as an example. Yes, you folded shirts at the Gap, but did you win the contest where you sold the most outfits of the day? Were you the top salesperson for a period of time? How many sales did you average in a day? You have to brag about yourself and say these things because that behavior is something I may or may not be looking for [as an employer or recruiter]."

After formatting your resume and quantifying your achievements, customize your resume and cover letter to each individual job application. Use keywords and action verbs from the job description. When you use the language the job description uses, you may rank higher in the ATS and increase your chances of a real human seeing your application. For example, if the job description calls for an applicant who "creates copy" instead of an applicant who "writes," make sure you adjust your resume and cover letter accordingly.

Finally, avoid generic cover letters. Update your cover letter with the correct company or contact name for each new application and tweak the letter’s body copy to better fit each position. 

To summarize, do these three things to help your job application make it through the first cut:

  1. Use traditional resume formatting. No color, no creative templates, reverse chronological order listing work experience. 
  2. Quantify your responsibilities and achievements. Use numbers to explain your contributions.
  3. Use the right keywords. Use the action verbs the job description uses on your resume and cover letter where applicable. 

The Interview 

You formatted your resume and cover letter correctly, and you were invited to interview! Now, how can you prepare?

According to John, these are the four best practices for interview preparation: 

First, do your research. Study the organization that invited you to interview so you’re familiar with their brand, company culture, and organizational values. Be prepared to advocate for how you and your skills align with their values. This is especially important if you’re changing industries. How does your previous experience transfer to this new industry?

Second, network. As you’re doing your research, ask yourself who you know that can help connect you to your dream company, industry or position. Who do your friends and family know? Who is within your school’s alumni network? Leverage these connections and express gratitude to anyone who helps you. Nurture your network by reminding people you’re thinking of them every few months even when you don’t need help, and those same people will show up for you when you do eventually need help. 

Third, understand the employer’s needs. Study the job description. What specific skills does this job require, and how do you provide those skills? What value will you provide to this employer in general? What kind of person is the employer seeking, and what makes you that kind of person? Present your skills, experience, and qualities strategically to align with the employer’s specific needs. 

Fourth, quantify your accomplishments. Write down the numbers that demonstrate your success or the scope of your responsibilities. How many projects do you oversee daily, monthly, and yearly? What percent of organizational or financial growth can be attributed to you? Bring these numbers to the interview and be prepared to explain how you performed at the level you did. 

Job Offers and Salary Negotiations/Renegotiations 

If you already have a job or were just offered a new position, you may be wondering how to approach negotiations.

If you’re interviewing for a new position, make sure you have an actual official offer before attempting to negotiate anything. Any "negotiations" conducted without an actual offer are unreliable at best and misleading at worst. Secure an official offer, then negotiate your terms, and make sure you have any new terms on record before on-boarding into your new position. If the employer agreed to increase your starting salary during your negotiations, make sure you have that in writing before you start working.

If you’re already employed and seeking a promotion or higher salary, you need to justify why you deserve it. Unfortunately, earning a graduate or doctoral degree is often not enough to warrant a pay-raise unless it impacts your performance at work. You need to explain why your education makes you a better professional and how your new knowledge will help your organization excel. Either that, or you must demonstrate how your contributions to the organization go above and beyond your initial scope of responsibility when you were first hired.  

"You have to show value," said John. "You have to show what you've done, and you've got to brag about yourself. You can't just come to me and say, ‘Hey, I got a master's, and I want 10 grand.’ If you're not quantifying what you did or do in the office, I don't care."

If you earned a new degree, how does it impact your performance at work? What did you learn that makes you a better professional now than you were before your degree program, and how can you apply what you learned to help your organization?

Quantify your contributions when asking for a raise. If your employer can’t accommodate a raise but recognizes your contributions as significant, ask for other perks such as additional time off or a regular work-from-home day.

If you can’t negotiate or renegotiate your desired salary or benefits, you can also consider seeking employment elsewhere. This is particularly relevant for anyone seeking a major increase in pay. 

"You're not going to get a 20% raise staying at the same firm for 10 years," said John. "The world of work doesn't work that way. If you want that major raise, you're going to have to change jobs. You're going to have to change employers."

Final Thoughts 

At the end of the day, remember to relax. Applying for new jobs or renegotiating old contracts can be stressful for everyone involved, especially if you’re currently out of work. 

"People are still a little nervous, but you have to remember that everything is a process," said John. "People are working as hard as they can. Remember to be nice and relax."

Take a breath and be confident in yourself and your abilities. The bottom line is that there is a job out there for you, and it’s only a matter of time until you find it.