Why Your Resume Isn’t Working and What to Do About It, with Mary Southern

Listen On:

If you’re sending out hundreds of resumes every week and getting no interviews, Find Your Dream Job guest Mary Southern has some advice for you. Stop. You have to create unique resumes for each position you apply for. Mary gives advice on how to fill out each section of a resume strategically, as well as how to talk about your career achievements. Storytelling makes you stand out as a candidate, and Mary shares how to tell your story using specific examples of successes you had in past positions. 

About Our Guest:

Mary Southern is the founder of  Resume Assassin. Mary’s company creates resumes that show your unique value and help you win interviews.

Resources in This Episode:

Generic resumes don’t work. If you want to know how to create a unique resume for every job you apply for, Mary can help you. Find out more by visiting her website at Resume Assassin

From our Sponsor: Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by TopResume TopResume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster. Get a free review of your resume today from one of TopResume’s expert writers.


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 396:

Why Your Resume Isn’t Working and What to Do About It, with Mary Southern

Airdate: April 26, 2023

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by TopResume. TopResume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster.

Get a free review of your resume today.

Go to macslist.org/topresume.

You send out your resume to an employer.

And you get no response.

And it happens again.

And again.

And again.

What are you doing wrong?

Mary Southern is here to talk about why your resume isn’t working and what to do about it.

She’s the founder of Resume Assassin. Mary’s company creates resumes that show your unique value and help you win interviews.

She joins us from Austin, Texas.

Well, Mary, here’s where I want to start. How can you be sure that it’s your resume that isn’t working?

Mary Southern:

It’s the top frustration that I hear from the job seeker’s that I work with. They come to me, and they typically have been firing off resumes to hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of employers, and their main concern is I’ll apply to this position and receive an automated rejection email. That’s one of the first signs that your resume likely didn’t make it past what’s called an applicant tracking system or sometimes known as the ATS, which is that first automated phase of the hiring process. And so, that’s the first sign.

Mac Prichard:

Well, we all get those automated messages when we send out applications. But how can you make sure that it’s your resume that is the issue and not, perhaps, your qualifications or your cover letter, or competition? What are signs that it’s the resume that’s at fault?

Mary Southern:

Yeah, that’s a great question, and today, what I would like to talk about are some really easy and actionable ways that you can implement today to make sure that your resume is optimized for the applicant tracking system and, essentially, you’re creating a resume that’s giving yourself the best shot possible of getting those interviews and avoiding those darn automated rejection emails. And I’d be happy to talk about that today.

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s dig into that, Mary. So, I know you have a list of tips you want to share with our listeners that will help them create resumes that are gonna get not only the attention of employers but get responses, and one of your top tips is you say people often aren’t clear in their resume about the job that they want. Tell us more about that, Mary, and why it matters and why it leads to employers rejecting your resume.

Mary Southern:

Sure, my first tip would be to create a strong headline. Now, the headline section will be the brief phrase right below your contact information. So it really highlights your value as a candidate. So the headline should reflect your target position, and it also allows you to condense your skills and work experience into more of a concise phrase that will really quickly impress the hiring manager.

And another really simple tip is to not forget to change your headline every single time you apply to a new position. Because your main goal here is to make it really abundantly clear to the hiring manager which position you’re targeting. So it may be that the headline reflects the specific target position, or it may be some variation of that.

So, if you’ve been a software engineering manager for fifteen years and you want to step into a VP of software engineering, perhaps instead of VP of software engineering as your headline, you might use senior executive software engineering to make it, again, abundantly clear to the hiring manager that that’s the position you’re targeting.

Mac Prichard:

And describe to us what these headlines look like on a resume because it sounds a bit like the old job objective. But that’s not what you’re recommending here, is it, Mary?

Mary Southern:

It’s not. So, the headline would be more reflective of the title at the top of your resume. So, it represents the specific position or the type of position that you’re applying to.

Now, what you’re referring to would be more of the executive summary, which would be right below the headline section, and that is a section that’s incredibly important, as well. And, I mean, really, your executive summary should be a short paragraph at the top of your resume right below that headline. So, there are numerous options that you can use here, too. So, you can either write a paragraph that summarizes your skills and experience or, alternatively, what you could do is write three to four really impactful achievements that are highly relevant to the position that you’re applying to. So, it really reinforces and clearly communicates the value that you bring to the target position.

So, you’ll have the headline above followed by that executive summary or those executive statements, those powerful achievements that show this is what I’m applying to, and this is why I am a great fit for the position. This is how I could step in and make an immediate impact.

And both of those sections can and really should be modified every single time you apply to a position. So, I hear of candidates that are just firing off, again, hundreds and hundreds of applications using the exact same resume, and they’re not taking the time to modify those sections to really give themselves the best shot possible of effectively moving past all of those HR systems.

Mac Prichard:

Why does that make a difference, Mary? Customizing your resume for every application? Because I meet candidates, as I’m sure you do, who say, well, it’s a numbers game, Mac. If I send out a thousand resumes, maybe my response rate, maybe I’ll only get ten interviews, but I can automate it, and that’s how it works.

What’s been your experience, Mary, working with both your clients and employers? Is it a numbers game, or does quality trump quantity?

Mary Southern:

Quality trumps quantity every single time, Mac. So, you really don’t want to be spinning your wheels. I mean, time is so important. If you’re firing off a thousand applications, a thousand resumes to different positions, and you’re only hearing back from a couple of those, that would be a huge red flag for me. And I think one issue that some of my clients are concerned about when we talk about tailoring their resumes is the time that it might take to do that.

You don’t need to take an hour every single time you apply to a position to make some of these changes. You can simply take five to ten minutes to create a strong headline that represents the target position, make some adjustments to your executive summary based on the position that you’re applying to and even the company that you’re targeting. What are their pain points? What are those major achievements and unique values that you bring to that position and to that company?

An even easier way to maybe take five minutes to tailor your resume would be to swap out the keywords or the skill section, and yes, you do need a keywords or skills section. That’s an incredibly important section, and that one is typically right below the executive summary, and there are lots of different names for this section, but it’s also the easiest way to increase your chances of moving past that applicant tracking system. So, simply pulling keywords, you know, major sailing at keywords directly from that target job description, sprinkling those in somewhere in your resume. Again, the easiest place being potentially that keywords or skill section is another way that can really give your resume the best shot possible of getting past the systems.

Mac Prichard:

Can you overuse keywords in your resume?

Mary Southern:

Yes, you certainly can. So, it’s one of those things that I’ve had clients that have asked me, oh, what if I use white font and embed keywords somewhere in my resume where the hiring manager can’t see? Or what if I copy-paste the job description word-for-word into my resume using white font? Or embedding it in my resume to try to trick the system?

And it doesn’t work that way. You don’t want to over-saturate your resume with keywords or buzzwords. The goal there would be to strategically use keywords, integrate them into, yes, the keywords or skills section. But also the professional experience section, with tangible evidence of results with those keywords.

So, kind of moving down into the professional experience section, this really shouldn’t be a laundry list of your day-to-day duties. But this is a great chance for you to use those keywords to really, you know, highlight your achievements, the impact of those achievements, and putting quantifiable numbers to the impact, as well.

Mac Prichard:

Terrific. We’re gonna pause right here, Mary, and take a break. Stay with us. When we come back, Mary Southern will continue to share her advice on why your resume isn’t working and what to do about it.

Are you ready to act on Mary’s advice?

The experts at TopResume can help, too.

Go to macslist.org/topresume.

TopResume will review your resume for free.

Go to macslist.org/topresume.

You’ll get tips you can use to improve your resume right away.

Or you can hire TopResume to do it for you.

Go to macslist.org/topresume.

Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Mary Southern.

She’s the founder of Resume Assassin.

Mary’s company creates resumes that show your unique value and help you win interviews.

She joins us from Austin, Texas.

Mary, before the break, we were talking about why your resume isn’t working and what to do about it, and you walked us through some key sections of a resume, the headline, the summary of experience, skills, and then professional experience, and we talked about keywords, and how to use them strategically.

I know another reason you identified in your work that resumes may not be working is that you’re not outlining your experience with the position you want. Can you tell us more about what you have in mind here, Mary?

Mary Southern:

Absolutely, yeah. When you’re approaching resume writing, and a big part of what I like to do when I’m writing a resume is use story-telling. So, your goal should be to create a really compelling story that shows not only what you’ve done throughout your career but, even more importantly, how you can step into the position that you’re applying to and make that immediate impact. So, the professional experience section is a wonderful way to implement that.

So, like I mentioned previously, you know, the professional experience section really shouldn’t be a laundry list of your day-to-day duties. Instead, you should really think about including a short paragraph that describes your role followed by actionable bullets highlighting those major achievements. So, when you’re writing out your major achievements, this is another really great opportunity for you to really align your background and your impact on your previous companies with the specific position that you’re applying to.

So, when you’re writing out your achievements, I recommend that you use the CAR method, and that stands for Challenge, Action, Results, and when you’re writing out your bullet, you should write it in reverse order. So, you should start with the results, followed by the action. So, achieved three million dollars in additional revenue by winning two new enterprise accounts would be a great example of using the CAR method and then writing it out in reverse because your goal is to show the action first.

So, did you increase revenue? Did you improve a process? Did you spearhead a project or an initiative? Reduce costs? Streamline workflow? Everything that shows the value and then, if you can put numbers to that, “improved operational efficiency fifty percent by implementing a system that streamlined workflow across numerous departments.” And the more specific you can get, the better with your achievements.

And in terms of achievements, I would really challenge you to start tracking those achievements every single month. So that when it comes time to updating your resume, you’re truly prepared. In fact, I’ve actually started creating my own Word document with a list of achievements, and I mean, you truly would be surprised at how quickly you forget the details of an achievement after it happens. So, I’ve kind of gotten into the habit of writing down an achievement right after it happens so that I don’t forget the details.

But if it’s easier for you to make a list every single month, I would certainly encourage you to do that so that at the end of the year or next year, five years, when you decide to start your next job search, you’re ready to update your resume and you’re really making your life a lot easier.

Mac Prichard:

How have you helped your clients who may not have kept lists like that go back and document achievements? What has worked for them?

Mary Southern:

Yeah, and that’s a great question, and I encourage my clients to go back and look through performance reviews and really take time to think about each individual position and company that they’ve worked for to consider what achievements. What was the impact that I made there?

I guess one issue that a lot of my clients run into is, well, this isn’t necessarily my achievement. This is an achievement that I worked collaboratively with several individuals across several departments to execute this achievement. It wasn’t just something that I did. But what I always remind my clients is most achievements, most major things that you achieve within your company and throughout your career, are collaborative.

So, it’s okay to list an achievement similar to that on your resume, even if it’s not something that you’ve done on your own. So, perhaps, chatting with colleagues, chatting with old bosses or supervisors, and really thinking of different creative and unique ways that you drove change and transformation in the company.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned storytelling a moment ago, the importance of telling your career story in your resume. How do you help your clients do that so that they create a resume that is gonna get a response? What has worked for them in telling their career stories in their resumes?

Mary Southern:

Yeah, storytelling is so interesting, and I’m very passionate about it and for those that are both changing careers and those who are looking for either a lateral move or a step up within the same industry or type of position that they’ve been in, the most effective use of storytelling that I’ve found is really using similar language that’s used within the job description to align with your brand, with your value proposition, and, again, with the way that you’re writing your entire resume from your headline to your executive summary, through your professional experience section.

So, thinking from the eyes of the hiring manager. What do they want to see within this specific position? And then pulling out and highlighting those skills, those experiences, and those achievements in a way that’s really unique to you.

Mac Prichard:

Again and again, you come back to, Mary, the importance of tailoring your resume to the position you want. What would you say to people who are using generic resumes?

Mary Southern:

Stop. It’s not doing you any justice. Now, let me backup. So, an ATS-friendly resume is what I typically create. So, a lot of my clients are applying through company websites, they’re applying through LinkedIn, or they’re applying through other major job boards, and if this is the case, that’s when it’s incredibly important for you to tailor your resume to the specific position.

Now, if you are solely working with a recruiter, it’s still important that your resume is pretty highly tailored, but the recruiter will be advocating for you, so they’ve already built the relationship internally with the company that you’re targeting. So it’s not as important to make sure that you’re keyword-integrating and ATS-optimizing if you’re only working with a recruiter.

But the majority of job seekers and the majority of the clients that I work with are open to working with recruiters, but they’re typically applying through LinkedIn and other major job boards, as well, which is why it’s so important that you really learn how to implement some of these strategies to tailor your resume to every single position.

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s been a great conversion, Mary. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Mary Southern:

Sure, so I’ve really been working on expanding my network on LinkedIn. So, I’m always creating new content on LinkedIn and trying to provide the most value and advice there as possible. And I’ve also, I’ve been working with clients from entry-level through the C-level, so I’m continually analyzing current HR processes, analyzing resume writing best practices, to make sure that I’m doing everything possible for my clients to win the most interviews as they possibly can.

Mac Prichard:

Well, I know listeners can learn more about you and your company and your services by visiting your website, resumeassassin.com, and that you also invite listeners to connect with you on LinkedIn and, as always, I hope they’ll mention they heard you on Find Your Dream Job when they do reach out to you.

Now, Mary, given all the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about why your resume isn’t working and what to do about it?

Mary Southern:

Sure, so I want to give a quick example. I had a client that came to me after he was laid off. He was applying to numerous positions, was getting no feedback, no interviews. We worked together. We created a very highly tailored resume to the position that he was targeting, and within three weeks, he had thirty interviews and seven job offers at very high-profile companies with at least a twenty-five percent increase in pay.

The main thing that he did was make sure that his contact information was on point. Don’t use grumpygirl08@Yahoo.com for your email address. You want to make sure that you’re using a professional resume. Make sure that your LinkedIn profile brand aligns with the brand of your resume. Adjust your headline. You want a strong headline that reflects the position that you’re targeting. Your executive summary should also reflect the skills, experiences, and major achievements that are relevant to the positions that you’re targeting. The keyword section is extremely strong and, again, reflects the target position. And your professional experience focuses on your achievement, the impact, the value, and putting numbers to that and also quantifying the impact to show, again, how you can step into that individual target position and absolutely make an impact.

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be John Tarnoff.

He’s a coach, a speaker, and an author who helps mid and late-career professionals achieve meaningful careers.

John’s latest book is Boomer Reinvention: How to Create Your Dream Career Over 50.

You may hear no – or nothing at all – from hiring managers when you look for work.

And as this happens, it’s easy to get discouraged.

Join us next Wednesday when John Tarnoff and I talk about how to build confidence in your job search.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

This show is produced by Mac’s List.

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Our sound engineer is Matt Fiorillo. Ryan Morrison at Podfly Productions edits the show. Dawn Mole creates our transcripts. And our music is by Freddy Trujillo.

This is Mac Prichard. See you next week.