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During the holiday break people must have given some thought to career planning, which also resulted in a few interesting questions sent in by prospective participants. Agnes Banyasz, career strategist addresses five that have a strong general appeal.

I hear and read a lot about the importance of ‘standing out’ with my application material, but am very unclear about how this can be achieved when most applicants are pretty good already. I don’t want to stand out by being too much ‘out there’. What would you advise?

This is a question I hear frequently, and I usually suggest to approach it a different way: by forgetting about the notion of ‘standing out’ with some real, imagined or concocted extraordinary characteristic or attribute, and rather focus on ‘staying in’ the recruitment process for as long as possible, ideally until the job offer. Solid preparation will enable you to jump the hurdle of any online test and make it to the next level. In-depth research of the role, the organisation and its place in the industry will give you good understanding of the micro and macro context, which you can gainfully and clearly demonstrate in the customised CV, targeted cover letter and any phone or face to face interview situation, and stay in as a well prepared, interesting and desirable candidate.

Should I bother with the cover letter or just write a quick note? I heard that recruiters spend less than a minute on each application, in which case they won’t have time to read my letter anyway.

Yes, please always bother with the cover letter. Experienced recruiters and selection committee members need only to glance at a letter to establish if it’s a mass produced standard letter with only the name of the company and role changed (sometimes even that is forgotten) or it’s a letter that is worth reading. Your letter says a lot about your communication and thinking style and allows you to build a bridge between your knowledge and skills gained through past experiences and the role you are trying to get.

I’ve written down answers to many behavioural questions but still get nervous during interviews and often ramble instead of giving a good answer. Do you have any idea how to change this situation?

Writing down answers to possible interview questions can be a useful first step in your interview preparation, as it helps you to gather your thoughts and identify key points. At the same time, memorising these written answers and trying to ‘recite’ them is not a good idea as it uses up too much mental capacity, doesn’t allow for spontaneous, dynamic thinking and natural flow of the dialogue. You probably get nervous when you cannot recall the exact answer and start rambling because your previous thought process got interrupted. I suggest you move away from fully written down answers and instead line up half a dozen good examples from your past experiences – study, extracurricular or work – and match these to particular behavioural situations. If improvising doesn’t come easy to you, practise these examples to as many questions as possible, but make sure you maintain the capacity to adjust them to the situation. Your answers should match your general communication style, and when they do, they roll off your tongue easily, sound genuine and make you interesting.

A friend feels that so far she hasn’t done a lot to build her soft skills. Before attending the roundtables she would like to know more about the format because she dislikes workshops that have a lot of contrived role plays and group activities.

The Roundtables are designed and delivered in a format that stays true to their name – through relaxed collegiate discussions around a table where everyone’s voice matters, all comments and questions get addressed, information and ideas get shared and opportunity is created for acquiring new knowledge and skills. Case studies are often used and each roundtable ends with a Q & A session.

Roundtable topics will cover:

  • Self awareness and creating your career trajectory
  • Working to strength
  • Show your best angle in your CV, letters, LinkedIn profile and interviews (bringing your current CV as well as information about jobs you’d like)
  • Build your network

I don’t have any professional experience and would like to know how to shape my resume for roles in my professional area.

Not everyone can amass professional experience during the university years and employers are interested in your overall experience rather than just discipline specific roles. So call the section on your CV ‘Experience’ instead of ‘Professional Experience’ and depending on how long you have been working, list most or all your roles, which, apart from some internships, have most likely been in retail, customer service, tutoring, sports coaching, hospitality, etc.

These jobs say a lot about you in addition to the skills acquired and demonstrated; show that you could manage your time between studies, paid work and hopefully some extracurricular activities too, and in the cases when you stayed in a role for longer than a year, it indicates that your employer was satisfied with the quality of your work. So no job is too small and no experience is insignificant and all can contribute to your success!

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