Beyond the black hole of the “submit” button

By: Kelly Cleary

With graduation less than two months away, now is high time for submitting job applications— which often means hitting that submit button again and again and again without any certainty of where your resume is headed, or who, if anyone, will read it. The job search can grate on one’s self-confidence and really leave you feeling like you have little control over your future, but there are ways to target your search so your resume is more likely to be on the short list and land you an interview.

As I see it, there are two main ways that people find job openings. They look at job boards, usually online, or they regularly scour the human resources/careers website of organizations where they think they’d like to work. While Monster and CareerBuilder do list thousands of jobs, the mass market nature of those sites often means your resume is floating in a sea of hundreds of other applications from people who also quickly and easily hit “submit”. Here are a few tips to help you make your way out of the job application black hole.

The Search – Job Boards & Researching Prospective Employers

  • Target your search. Instead of focusing on general job boards, visit industry and region specific sites, or other websites that have a more targeted audience in mind. For example, the jobs in PennLink have been posted by employers who have expressed a specific interest in hiring Penn students and alumni. If you are looking for a marketing job, go to the American Marketing Association’s jobs board. Better yet, if you’re interested in PR/Communications job in the Washington DC metro area, go to the Public Relation Society of America National Capital Chapter’s jobs site. You can find more information about industry specific sites on the Career Services website for each Penn School. Here is a link to the College page. You’ll find even more on our Online Subscriptions page.
  • Talking with people who work in the field you are interested in is a great way to discover which professional groups you should familiarize yourself with and sites you should bookmark and check regularly. Yes, I’m talking about Networking and Penn Alumni are some of the best people with whom to network.  And of course, the Career Services’ email distribution lists are also a great way to hear about job openings. Check with a career counselor for your school for more information.
  • Actively join and use your networks. Join and participate in professional groups in the “real” and virtual worlds. In addition to the professional groups such as the ones mentioned above, LinkedIn has become an incredibly powerful job search tool. In addition to being a place where you can look up people’s profiles and find networking contacts, you can join Groups related to nearly every industry and many specific regions, as well as alumni groups. In the form of digests, people regularly send job postings, resources and tips for finding jobs in a particularly field to other group members. This site provides an overview of LinkedIn.
  • Be proactive and creative in the way you research employers. Read the newspaper and trade journals to learn about organizations and industries that are expanding. If you hear about a job fair that happened last month, find the list of employers who attended since it’s likely that they may still have openings. And network, network, network! If the idea of networking stresses you out, start by doing a few informational interviews. In PACNet you’ll find supportive Penn alumni who have volunteered offer career advice to students and other alumni.

The Application & Follow Up

  • When you apply to a position, submit a flawless resume and cover letter (always send a cover letter) that is targeted to the specific position and company. This makes a big difference to the hiring manager. Applications that are not targeted to a specific position usually go straight to the “No” pile.
  • Targeting the resume and cover letter includes using keywords from the job description and the organization’s “culture” since the primary goal of those documents is to demonstrate to the recruiter or hiring manager that YOU are a perfect fit for the job description that they are seeking to fill.
  • And speaking of the hiring manager, he or she is your intended audience. Whenever possible, even if it takes a little homework, try to send your application directly to the hiring manager. As long as the job posting doesn’t say, “No phone calls,” sometimes you can find the name of the hiring manager simply by calling the organization and asking. Your network is also one of the best ways to find this information.
  • Follow-up. If you haven’t received any response regarding your application two weeks or so after you apply, (unless they say no phone calls) follow up with the organization by politely saying you are writing to confirm that they received your application and wanted to reiterate your interest in the position. You might also ask if the position is still open and inquire about their timeline.
  • The black hole. Alas, sometimes despite your best efforts it’s not possible to find the name of the hiring manager or to get through to the Wizard of HR behind the submit button. When that happens continue capitalize on what you can control like continuing to build your network, keeping an open mind about and attentive ear to prospective opportunities, and seek advice from career counselors and experienced professionals.

For more job search tips, check the Full-Time Jobs page of the Career Services page for College students and alumni or check the specific Career Services websites for your school or academic program.

Good luck with your search!

I Don’t Know What to Write…Help!

By: David Ross

We all have those moments when we’re working on something and just don’t know how to get started. As a counselor, I’ll receive several questions about cover letters. What are they? What should be included? What are recruiters and hiring managers looking for? What makes a strong cover letter? How do I write the best, most unique, outstanding cover letter ever written? Slight exaggeration – but people always want to know this.

So why cover letters? What the’s purpose? A cover letter is a great chance to tell your story – not a detailed autobiography from childhood, but your story. Ideally you can use this forum to give more insight into your background – skills, qualifications, experience and convince an employer to interview you for a position. A strong, well written cover letter by itself will not get you hired but may be helpful as one piece of your application for a position.

What are areas or topics to cover in a letter? You want to think carefully about your education (not only majors/minors/classes, but also projects/cases/presentations), activities and of course work experiences. Identify the most relevant things you’ve done and highlight them in your cover letter.

Another thing that’s easy to overlook is your interest in the employer and organization. It’s natural to assume that because you’re applying for a position that you are demonstrating interest and the employer realizes this. However, that does not explain the rationale or motivation behind why you want to work for a certain company or organization in a specific role. You may actually make your letter more memorable if you express your reasons for being interested in the position. If you can include something interesting you’ve found in your research on the company, even better. But of course avoid common, trite generalities here.

Having read many cover letters and cover letter drafts, I would recommend avoiding the following pitfalls. Number one – try to avoid using a negative tone and do not draw attention to your weaknesses or flaws. Your letter should focus on reasons to bring you in for an interview not the opposite. Number two – avoid going on tangents and dwelling too much on a single experience. You may have a very interesting and unique example to share, which is great. But try not to get caught up on providing a lengthy, detailed account of a single experience. Your letter should cover a few key areas of interest to the employer opposed to one particular experience. Number three – try not to write things just because you think the employer wants to see them. You do want to focus on the things an employer values in a candidate, but make the cover letter your story. Let your letter reveal something about you that may not be readily evident. And number four, do not restate verbatim what is listed on your resume. You can certainly expand on a few items on your resume or consider adding information to supplement what’s listed on your resume.

Using Dirty Diapers to Illustrate Transferable Skills

Dr. Joseph Barber

I have been thinking about skills and competencies quite a bit just recently. This was triggered first by the fact that my introductory period working at Career Services recently ended. Many jobs have a 3-4 month introductory period, after which your progress is evaluated. All being well, this introductory period evaluation is a time to focus on future goals to reach for, and skills that should be acquired or put into action. In my case, the good news is that I passed the evaluation, and so here I am today! Ok, so it wasn’t really an exam where there are simple questions that need to be answered, of course, but an assessment of how effective I have been doing what is required of me in this role as career counselor for graduate students and postdocs. The only way to pass this kind of assessment is to illustrate the skills that I have by putting them into action to achieve measurable outcomes. Remember this last sentence, because this is really the key to being successful with any job application and interview. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

The second reason I have been thinking about competencies is based on the fact that I have just become a first-time parent. I’m a dad…, and all of a sudden I feel completely incompetent in terms of this enormous responsibility. Right now I dealing with the basics: burping, changing, rocking, changing, carrying, changing…, and this is already proving quite the challenge. I haven’t even got to the point where I need to figure out when to buy her first cell phone, how to teach her to drive, or how to convince her not to date boys from rock bands. Strange as it might seem, however, many of the skills I have been using here at Career Services are the same skills that I am trying to use when caring for a baby, and the same skills that most employers are going to find attractive.

I am talking about those elusive “transferable skills”. These are skills that you gain from one experience (let’s say completing a PhD in English), that you can go ahead and use in a totally different experience (for example, getting a job outside of academia as a development director at a non-profit organization). Your work on the writings of Oscar Wilde may not seem to have much application outside of university research, but what’s most important are the skills you put into action that allowed you to perform all aspects of this research effectively.

When you apply for jobs, employers not only need to see that you have skills, but that you can use those skills effectively. In your CV, resume, cover letter and interview, you need to be able to illustrate your skills in action by using real-life examples that show just how effective they are. Anyone can say that they are a good problem-solver. By showing how you solved a problem, and why solving that problem was ultimately important, you are much more convincing. It doesn’t really matter what the problem was, so long as you can show how you identified and addressed it.

To see an example of illustrating skills, and to show that transferable skills really are transferable, let’s look at what I am spending most of my time doing right now (career counseling and child care), and see how I can market these experiences effectively.  Here are some of the most important transferable skills that you should always be on the look out to put into action:


  • Career Services: Successfully coordinated panel discussion program by inviting three speakers to talk about alternative career options for scientists for an audience of 40 students.
  • Child care: Utilized on-line resources to improve effectiveness of baby swaddling technique, leading to a 20% reduction in infant ‘evil arm’ escapes, and maintenance of doctor-defined core body temperature.


  • Career Services: Gained working knowledge of Dreamweaver to update Career Services website, and added multimedia resources (Articulate presentation, audio clips, video interviews with alumni) to enhance experience for users.
  • Child care: Maximized daily productivity by utilizing quiet periods in early evening to powernap, leading to effective use of nighttime hours to provide child care with no decrease in day-time work output.


  • Career Services: Presented 4 workshops to groups of 10-25 students on career strategies, wrote 3 blogs, and assisted in the development of 4 PowerPoint presentations to effectively communicate career advice to wide diversity of graduate students and postdocs.
  • Child care: Maintain detailed logbook of feeding, pooping, and sleeping activities performed by child to provide pediatrician with accurate representation of daily activities.


  • Career Services: Collaborated with 6-person team to develop in-print and online program evaluation forms for use after each workshop and panel discussion given during spring semester, to assist in tailoring programs to meet the needs of students.
  • Child care: Complete efficient removal of soiled child packaging units by identifying behavioural precursors to child discomfort prior to loud audible indicators, resulting in additional 40 minutes of sleep for over-worked co-parent.

Project management

  • Career Services: Identified and contacted 4 alumni to request participation in video interviews during career fair; recorded and edited video footage to create podcast for Career Services website to assist students in developing strategies for maximizing outreach to employers.
  • Child care: Coordinate scheduling of 3 local family assets to assist in daily care of child, moving care resources to upper or lower levels of care facility to facilitate needs of volunteers of different age-ranges with varying locomotory abilities.


  • Career Services: Identified need for technology updates to allow office cameras to record complete mock interviews, and worked with office manager to order and acquire updated resources.
  • Child care: Developed stepwise process to systematically identify causal factors leading to infant crying, resulting in 30% reduction in Tylenol consumption needed to address noise-related cerebral discomfort.

Team work

  • Career Services: Partner with career counselor to develop interactive workshop on transferable skills by identifying program goals, creating group exercises, and framing discussion points based on experience of presenters.
  • Child care: Coordinate all daily activities with co-parent to effectively manage resource acquisition, consumption of nutrients, reorganization of living space, and financial responsibilities, leading to 50:50 division of labour, and 100% completion of household chores.


Well…, leadership skills are an important area for me to focus on in the future. Hopefully, when I coordinate the Biomedical & Life Sciences Career Fair as part of the Graduate Team here at Career Services, there will be plenty of opportunities to illustrate my leadership skills. From the baby perspective, I continue to work with my wife to develop our strategic plan for effective child-rearing. We can come up with all of the house rules we want (e.g., no computer or TV in the bedroom), but an illustration of leadership skills in this case will be sticking with these rules. I’m no fool…, I am expecting this to be a near impossible task!

Take a look at the list of transferable skills I have provided above, and try to look back at your own academic and non-academic experiences to see if you can come up with effective illustrations of you using these skills to achieve quantifiable outcomes. If you have trouble finding a good example for a particular skill, try looking for new and different experiences where you can put this skill into action (e.g., joining a club, volunteering). If you are interested in thinking more about transferable skills, then consider meeting with us here at Career Services

CareerCast: Succeeding in an International Setting

by Jaclyn Chen (W ‘12) & Angie Luo (C ‘11)

This week we are featuring four students who have interned abroad. They’ve worked private and public, Asia to Africa. If you’re thinking about potentially going overseas, these students have great insight in dealing with the language barrier and adapting to the local culture and work environment.

If you have particular interest areas that you would like us to cover, shoot us an email at Enjoy!

Want to watch on your mobile device?  Click here!

Guest Blogging at Going Global – Volunteering Abroad

Career Services Job & Internship Coordinator Shannon Kelly is featured on the Going Global blog. She discusses her international volunteer experience outside Bath, England.

Monkton Combe, UK

Check out the interview and learn how you too can go abroad, get off the beaten path, and lend a hand all at the same time!