Storytelling and Career Success

Last week at the CCPA’s Welcome Back Picnic, two English majors, after meeting me and hearing about the new CCPA, made their confessions… “I don’t want to teach…” and pronounced that they would be paying our office in Stokes 300 a visit soon. Hearing this familiar pronouncement from a fellow English major prompted me to revisit and update this piece I’d written a while back.

English majors (and others who take a liberal arts core) are highly qualified for countless jobs, and they posses all of the qualities required of a stand out job candidate. The key is being intentional about identifying the skills and knowledge you developed in the classroom and applying it to the new “discipline” of your career.

It’s true English majors are qualified for teaching—a challenging, noble, and fun career in its own right—and loads of other professions (see the What Can I Do With My Major resource, linked from our Majors & Careers page to gather some ideas.) English majors, and other students who are required to do a great deal of reflective analysis and writing, are also building skills that will help them write the most effective and persuasive resume and cover letters, and to really shine as a memorable candidate during interviews.

Despite Garrison Keillor’s frequent references to the (un)employability of English majors during his segments sponsored by the fictitious Professional Organization of English Majors, incorporating the elements of good storytelling into the job application process is a great way for candidates to clearly demonstrate their qualifications, professionalism, and enthusiasm for a position in a memorable, personable, and unique way so their application rises to the top, even during this highly competitive job market.

Here are a few lessons from English class that should be applied to your job search: 

Think before you write. Any good writer will tell you they spend a great deal of time thinking about a story before they actually put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. The same goes for the resume and cover letter. Job seekers must reflect on their skills, values, and interests and how they fit into a particular career path or organization’s culture before actually creating or updating their documents.

Carefully consider your intended audience. While some creative writers are indeed writing for themselves, writers who achieve some commercial success, and students who do well in English courses, tend to have a solid understanding of their intended audience(s) (i.e. their professor or fellow students) and the message they hope to relay to them. A resume should always be tailored to best match the applicant’s skills and experiences to the job opening, and a cover letter should always be written with the goal of impressing the hiring manager.

An interesting and relevant plot with memorable characters will keep the reader coming back to see how the story ends. Of course resumes and cover letters should always be professional, and in general it’s better to err on the conservative side, but approaching resumes and interviews as ways to “tell your professional story” and to use cover letters to create narratives that clearly explain how your past experiences have prepared you for job openings is a very effective way to persuade an employer that you may be a good fit.  Support your thesis (“I’d make a great –insert job title here—”) by including relevant and impressive details, and quantifying results and the impact you made on an organization.

Personal style and tone are how you make your mark. Thousands of resume and cover letter templates and samples are available online and in bookstores. Samples can be a helpful starting point, but following them too closely makes it hard to differentiate you from other candidates. Submitting a personalized, original letter with an appropriately professional tone is one of the best ways to set your application apart in a large stack of resumes.

Grammar counts. Strunk & White may not have been thinking about the job search process when they wrote The Elements of Style, but using correct grammar in error free documents is essential to a successful job search.

Visit the CCPA’s  resume and cover letter guides for tips and samples.

For more advice on applying your inner muse to the job search, read Quintessential Career write Kathy Hansen’s Career Storytelling Tools for Job Seekers.

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