Storytelling & The Job Search, Or Why English Majors Make Successful Job Applicants

By Kelly Cleary

“Perhaps the only job I’m qualified to do at this point is to write cover letters,” was a response I recently received from an English major to whom I had given a glowing critique for a very well written application letter.

While it’s true that there is a long tradition of English majors who fell into the world of career counseling (including me), of course, as an English major that student is qualified for a great deal more than writing cover letters (see First Jobs & Graduate School for Penn grads and What Can I Do With This Major (general). That said, she raises a good point—English majors, and other students who are required to do a great deal of reflective analysis and writing through the study narrative forms 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 comical 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.

Career Services resume and cover letter guides are available here:

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.

Author: Kelly

Kelly Cleary is the Senior Associate Director of Career Services for College of Arts & Sciences undergraduates.

3 thoughts on “Storytelling & The Job Search, Or Why English Majors Make Successful Job Applicants”

  1. Nice! I might add:

    It can help to imagine the interviewer or the person you’re submitting your resume to. Then ask yourself, what’s the ideal “story” of the person they’d like to hire?

    For example, would they love someone who rose quickly through the ranks of their first job? Or someone who has established their work ethic and reliability? Or someone who has developed a special passion for this line of work?

    Then compare that imagined narrative with the facts of your own life. Finally, think: what story about your life and work experience is both true and also most likely to appeal to someone who’s ideal job-applicant story is the one you imagined?

    Next, create an outline of that story. Finally do two things:

    1. Prepare an oral version of your answer to “tell me about yourself” that uses that outline;
    2. Find the relevant elements of your resume and present them in a way that reflects and supports that outline.

    Doug Lipman
    The Storytelling Coach

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