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by GINA DELAPA | March 31, 2009


When students ask me to critique their resumes, we start by discussing what kind of job they're seeking. Some students know immediately, and we spend the next 50 minutes tailoring their resume to their objective. For example, "Pharmaceutical sales within the Great Lakes region." Yet others, when asked about the job they want, say, "I'll take anything."

Unfortunately, these words don't warm an employer's heart. Employers generally prefer candidates who love their work and who know and care about the industry. Having a clear objective indicates you have this type of enthusiasm and interest.

What if you're not sure what interests you? Your goal should be to find out. This involves identifying your favorite skills and subjects, determining what motivates you, and then using this information to identify your desired job and industry (or short list of jobs and industries). Having only a few search targets will improve your chances of finding meaningful work more quickly.

There are several ways to learn more about your career interests. Four of the best methods include:

  1. Taking career assessments
  2. Writing personal success stories
  3. Reading job descriptions
  4. Conducting information interviews

You might want to combine one or more strategies before you settle on your career objective (or objectives, as the case may be). Here's the lowdown on each approach.

1. Career assessments

Standardized career-assessment tools are often called "tests," but of course you can't pass or fail them since they measure only your interests. You may have heard of the better-known ones, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory. Your college career center may offer these or similar tests, at low or no cost.

Such assessments can help broaden your options, confirm hunches and indicate what type of working conditions are ideal for you. However, no assessment can determine your career path. So when you hear people say things like, "I took that test, and it told me I should be a pig farmer," you know something's off. Either the test-taker misinterpreted the results, or someone overstated the test's ability.

Typically, a career professional will want to meet with you to find out which assessments are best for you. Once you've taken a test, you'll be scheduled for a follow-up appointment to review the results. Ideally, this session will be interactive, with most of the insights coming from you, not from the career counselor.

2. Personal success stories

Another, more intuitive way to gain self-knowledge is to complete an exercise from Richard Nelson Bolles' careers bestseller, "What Color Is Your Parachute?" (Ten Speed Press, 2004).

It's called "personal success stories." Here's how it works: Think of a time when you accomplished something you were especially proud of. It doesn't have to be job-related. Maybe you won the sixth-grade speech contest. Or you nursed a wounded animal back to health. Write a few paragraphs describing what you did, how you did it, and the outcome. Then write five or six more of these "success stories."

Review what you've written, and underline the verbs. What skills did you use? What subjects do you find recurring? What patterns do you see in the outcomes?

For example, the first time I completed this exercise, more than 10 years ago, several themes emerged: writing, speaking, helping people make better choices, and taking the lead on projects of my own design.

And though I'm not necessarily proud of this, I found another recurring theme: gaining recognition. This was what, for me, transformed ordinary events into shining moments. I loved the applause. That's probably why I belonged to Toastmasters (a public-speaking club -- members applaud everything) and spoke monthly at the Grand Rapids Jaycees. Making an audience laugh, as I often do, gives me what I think must be the greatest feeling in the world.

Not that I've ever wanted to be a comedian. Still, the information I gleaned from this exercise influenced the kinds of jobs I accepted. For example, when I was a financial-newsletter editor, I planned each issue (writing, taking the lead on projects) and helped readers take charge of their financial lives (granted, credit-card debt wasn't my favorite topic). I also enjoyed the recognition I received from co-workers and, occasionally, from readers who sent me letters. As a career counselor, I'm still writing, speaking and helping people.

What motivates you? Common drivers include doing what others say can't be done, being a leader, improving something or creating something of value. Knowing what motivates you -- and what doesn't -- can lead to informed and rewarding job decisions.

3. Job descriptions

Once you have a sense of your favorite skills and subjects, ask yourself how these might translate into possible careers. If you get stuck, try asking friends, family members, or the staff at your college career center for help.

The Internet or your local library is another good resource. "The Occupational Outlook Handbook," ( published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, includes information on hundreds of common jobs, including the nature of the work, earnings, working conditions and resources for more information. It's a quick way to narrow a list of job possibilities.

4. Informational interviews

Informational interviewing simply means talking to people who are doing the kind of work you're interested in. To find people to talk with and make appointments with them, ask members of your network for referrals or contact the person directly.

I took the direct approach when I thought I might like to write a newspaper column. I asked a writer whose work I enjoyed to meet with me, and he agreed. From that meeting, I learned I didn't like all the things that went with writing a column -- like spending years covering topics that would make credit-card debt seem fascinating. I also didn't care for the cluttered atmosphere of a newsroom. But that's the beauty of informational interviews: They help talk you into -- or out of -- a career path.

When setting up the interview, make it clear you're gathering information and not looking for employment. Ask for a reasonable amount of time, say, 30 minutes. Meeting the person at his or her workplace and observing the environment will tell you much more than if you conduct the interview over the telephone.

During the interview, observe how this person's job does or doesn't fit your skills, interests and motivations. Not sure what to ask? Here are some questions to start you off:

  • How did you get into this profession?
  • What do you like best about your work?
  • What do you like least?
  • What does it take to succeed in this line of work?
  • Can you think of one or two other professionals in this field whom I might talk to?

No matter how well the conversation goes, remember that you aren't there to ask for a job. While some professionals say it's fine to bring copies of your resume, in case you're asked for it, your mission is simply to gather information. And even if you find this profession isn't for you, send a sincere note of thanks for the person's time.

Gaining a Toehold

Suppose after all your research, you determine your ideal job, for example, is to become a public-relations specialist in the film industry. You may find you need to delve a bit deeper. Ask yourself which matters more: the job function or the industry. For example, would you rather do PR for a plumbing company or clean toilets for a film studio? Not that those are your only options, but you get the idea.

I just came from a college career fair where well-run employers were advertising competitive salaries and extensive training programs -- yet the fields these companies represented weren't necessarily glamorous. They included insurance, discount retailing and, yes, even the wholesale-plumbing business.

Too many college students automatically dismiss these industries and others they're unfamiliar with. Keep your eye on your ideal job but also be realistic. You're not making a lifetime commitment.

You gotta start somewhere. I once held temp jobs at two trucking companies and cleaned toilets for the now-defunct Larry's Broasted Chicken, in Coloma, Mich. You won't find this on my resume.


Filed Under: Job Search

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