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.

How Is Your Major or Concentration Related to Job Opportunities?

By Barbara Hewitt

Preregistration for fall 2010 is nearly upon us and many students (particularly sophomores) are starting to feel some angst about what they “should” choose as a major or concentration.  Should they declare a minor?  Will study abroad be important to recruiters?  Is it better to study something you love or something you think is practical in terms of getting a job?

There are unfortunately (or maybe fortunately…) no easy answers to these questions.  Job applicants bring many different qualities to an employer, and it is not easy to distill down in a few short paragraphs what employers are looking for when searching for a new employee.  It really depends on the industry, job function, culture of the organization and, of course, the individual interviewer.

What you study in college is not the only thing employers consider when hiring.

For some jobs, what you study DOES matter. If you want to become a Certified Public Accountant, you need to complete a certain number of accounting courses, so concentrating in accounting makes sense.  Organizations that hire actuaries prefer very quantitative candidates who have passed at least one actuarial exam, so often gravitate towards actuarial science, math or statistics candidates.  However, there are plenty of jobs that are much more flexible in terms of background.  Want to be a reporter?  It will likely be more important that you have writing experience and writing samples (including published articles) to send in with your application than a specific major.  Working for  the Daily Pennsylvanian or writing press releases for a public relations firm as a summer intern will likely impress a prospective employer more than if you were, say, an English major with no published articles.

What you study is just one way of building and demonstrating a skill set for a particular field, but there are many other ways of doing so. For example, if you are interested in marketing, it makes sense to take some marketing, psychology, statistics, and/or communication courses while at Penn. All of these courses can help you think about marketing from a theoretical viewpoint, and also help you develop very tangible skills that will be attractive to employers.  However,  there are plenty of other ways to get marketing experience outside of the classroom. Join MUSE (Marketing Undergraduate Student Establishment) at Penn.  This is a great way to have the opportunity to interact with accomplished industry professionals, attend marketing related career fairs, get involved in marketing case competitons, and perhaps even become involved in a marketing consulting engagement for an organization.  MUSE isn’t the only career related group on campus – Penn is fortunate to have clubs focused on retailing, real estate, finance, consulting, insurance, social entrepreneurship, and many other areas.  Joining such professional clubs can  help you explore and eventually break into your field of interest.  In reality, you can get excellent experience in almost any club on campus, given that most clubs have marketing, financial and other leadership roles.  Taking on such a role can help you develop tangible experience that employers will value.

In the end, you will need to convince a prospective employer that you have the skills and interest for succeeding in their organization, but you can demonstrate this in many ways including your choice of classes, extracurricular activities, and previous work experiences. In very few instances does it boil down to just what you studied.

Career Services provides several resources which can help you explore the ways in which different courses of study fit into various career fields.

CAS: First Jobs and Grad Schools of Graduates

Wharton: Concentrations and First Employers Link

General “What Can I Do With This Major” site

Post-graduate Career Plans Surveys (with jobs listed by students’ majors/concentrations in the back)

Of course, as you pre-register for courses in the coming weeks, do come in to speak with a career counselor if you would like to discuss the various options you are considering.