Managing your job search messaging from the conscious to the subconscious

By Dr. Joseph Barber

The career exploration and job search processes are very active, fully-conscious experiences. It is important to be intentional, proactive, and to communicate in very direct ways your career goals to yourself (yes, sometimes you still need convincing too) and others. Throughout the process, however, there are some occasions when paying attention to communication happening at a more subconscious level is also important. Sometimes you can use this to your advantage, other times, you want to make sure that it is not putting you at a disadvantage. Here are some examples:


When you reach out to someone to request an informational interview (an opportunity to learn form them about their job and experiences getting to where they are today so that you can use this information as you possibly apply for similar jobs), there are a handful of reasons why they may say yes to your request to chat:

  1. They are an awfully nice person, and love chatting with new people
  2. They benefited from someone helping them in a similar way in the past, and are happy to pay it forward with you
  3. They are actually looking for a possible candidate for a role that might match your experiences and interests
  4. Someone has recommended them to you as a great person to speak with

Points #1-3 are specific to your contact’s needs and interests – you won’t have any influence here. Point #4 involves an external party, however, and this begins to create a situation where you can have an impact. In terms of networking, if I can reach out to a contact and bring in a third party into my introduction (e.g., Julie says that you will be a good person to reach out to with my questions), then I am giving my new contact a good reason to respond to my outreach because they probably don’t want to lose any of the social reputation that they now feel that they have (albeit at a subconscious level). After all, if Julie recommends them as a great person to talk with, she can also change her opinion and feel the opposite if she hears that they don’t actually take the time to chat to people she recommends. Leveraging this type of subconscious social pressure by reaching out to people you know so that you can then reach out to people that they know is an effective networking strategy. This won’t guarantee that people will respond to you, but it certainly increases the likelihood that they will.


Most of the resumes you send when applying for jobs will first be “read” by Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) that matches your keywords to those from the job description to determine whether there is a high enough match for your application to be passed on to an actual human. For the time-being, it is likely that these robots are just doing their tasks in an objective manner without too much of a subconscious to worry about (at least I hope so!). However, when your resume makes it through to an actual person (thanks to all of the customizing you did before submitting it), it is time once again to think about how your language and formatting can affect what they think about you.

Small fonts and margins, and a lack of any white space in your resume will make it feel cramped, slightly intimidating, and possibly overwhelming – not concepts you want associated with you. On the other hand, resumes with too much spacing between lines, excessive margins, overly large fonts, all spread out over multiple pages will make it hard for the reader to picture all of your experiences at once. It will feel as if you are communicating too slowly and inefficiently.

Your resume will have an experience section. If you call it “Work Experience”, you may be limiting what you talk about to formal, paid positions. However, if you call it “Relevant Experience”, then not only do you create a subconscious signal to the reader that what they are going to being reading is relevant to them (you still need to make sure it is), but you can also include experiences that are not purely employment related. For example, you can talk about your research as a student or postdoc, or an independent project you worked on with outside collaborators, or the role your played as part of a student group or club. So long as the experience is relevant to the job you are applying to, in terms of the skills you are illustrating, then they can be concentrated together in this one section.

Occasionally, people will create a section in their resume that is called “Other Experience”.  The term “other” doesn’t leave the reader with much in the way of exciting imagery to associate with the experience or skills. Indeed, if the writer doesn’t know what these experiences or skills represent, then the reader is going to have a much harder time deciphering the value of a section that feels a little like a “stuff” section.

When it comes to writing bullet points in the resume, a commonly used phrase to describe experiences is “responsible for…”.

Responsible for coordinating a 300-person professional development event in coordination with 4 local universities

The challenge with this phrasing is that the reader has a couple of options in terms of what they will take away from this. If they, and their subconscious, are feeling generally optimistic, then they may feel that you have successfully taken on lots of responsibility – which is a positive. Alternatively, if they are feeling more pessimistic, they may note that while you were responsible for doing this, you didn’t actually state that you did it. Yes, you were meant to have done it…, but that is not quite the same thing. A more direct approach that minimizes the ability of the reader to take away alternatives meanings from the bullet point will be to focus on the actual skill used, and how successful it is.

Coordinated a 300-person professional development event in collaboration with senior administrators at 4 local universities, bringing in 14 employers and 22 alumni

Overusing verbs such as “helped”, “participated”, and “worked on” will also create a less tangible image of you in the mind of the reader, because it is hard to picture exactly what you may have been doing when you say “worked”. What specific images to these bullets create in your mind?

Worked on key projects that resulted in 20% increase in revenue

Participated in group projects related to research and development


Being the most confident version of yourself is a great goal to have during job interviews. One way to communicate confidence at the subconscious level is to ensure that you have strong beginnings and strong endings your answers. This is a common beginning of an answer people give to questions I pose in mock interviews:

“Ummm…., I think…”

Both of these utterances drain the impact that your answer will have. Here are some better responses:

“Yes…, I…”

“That’s a great question…, I…”

“I was actually thinking about this question this morning, and I…”

The questions you will ask during an interview are also important (because you are definitely going to ask some questions, right!?), and should be framed from an optimistic standpoint. Some students are tempted to ask a positive/negative question:

“What are some of the best and worst part of this job/employer?”

This might be a question better suited to an informational interview, rather than a job interview. In a job interview, none of your interviewers are likely to want to paint the job or their company in a negative light, and so you wouldn’t get valid information anyway. However, making people think about the negative aspects of their work life will make them experience a wave of negative emotional states inside, and your interviewer’s subconscious might associate you with these negative states since you were the one who triggered them. As the interviewers gather to discuss the final candidates, any negative feelings associated with you, even at a subconscious level, are not going to help your cause.

I have seen advice that asking the “what does an ideal candidate look like from your perspective?” question at the end of the interview gives you a last chance to convince the interviewer that you can be that candidate. There is certainly some truth to this. There is also a risk that by answering the question out loud, the interviewers create an ideal image in their head that no longer matches you and your skills and experiences. Asking this question may undo some of your hard work from the interview, and leave the interviewer wishing for more – even if they had been happy that you could do the job based on what you had already answered moments before. They wouldn’t be interviewing you if they thought you couldn’t do the job. You should spend the interview providing illustrations of your skills in use so that they can see what value you bring, and then skip this question.

And asking questions that force your interviewer to do some of your work for you will also leave them feeling a little deflated about the experience. For example:

“What questions haven’t I asked that you think it would be important for me to ask?”

The job search process is a great time for you to market the best, most confident version of yourself with dynamic examples, lots of energy, and good dose of optimism. Doing this in the right way will ensure that you are leaving the best impression on the conscious and subconscious of your future employers.

Why You Should Add Resume Details

by Emily Barrale, Associate Director

Creating a resume can be an intimidating process. It’s hard to know how to highlight your skills and strengths in a way that makes you stand out. Your descriptions of your jobs/internships/extracurriculars experiences are the best way to show off what you would bring to a role.

Start by focusing on what you’ve done in each experience. What skills did you use? What were your accomplishments? What were the outcomes related to your work? Start your sentence with a strong action verb (created, managed, researched); we have a whole list of examples on our website. Next, try to add a little more detail about the scope of your role. Adding quantifiable details is a great way to provide context to your experience. For example: how many people attended that event? How many students did you teach or tutor? How much did that social media campaign increase engagement? Finally, always pay attention to the job description. One of the best ways to stand out as a candidate is to highlight the skills and qualifications they’re looking for on your resume through your experiences.

Here are a few examples of how to flesh-out details on your resume, to help illustrate why this is so effective:

Alpaca Groomer’s Club, Member

  • Coordinated social events for the Alpaca Groomer’s Club.

Alpaca Groomer’s Club, Member

  • Coordinated 4 events, each with 25+ attendees. Managed pre-event logistics, including securing venue, food, and alpaca-themed decorations. Maintained a fun experience for attendees while staying under budget.

The Teacup Factory, Waitstaff

  • Waited tables/served food. Handled customer complaints.

The Teacup Factory, Waitstaff

  • Managed the largest serving section while ensuring prompt and accurate food delivery. Received positive feedback for remaining calm and friendly while finding fast resolutions to challenging customer complaints.

Jester Inventory Co., Intern

  • I processed inventory in Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word.

Jester Inventory Co., Intern

  • Created an excel spreadsheet to streamline inventory calculations and tracking which were previously done manually, increasing productivity and cutting down on the number of errors made by 25%.

Showing your skills and strengths, rather than just telling them, will help you stand out as a candidate.

If you’re struggling with cover letters or resumes, or if you just want a second pair of eyes to look them over, you can submit them for review and we’ll be happy to help.

Crafting an Effective Law School Resume

Mia Carpiniello, J.D., Associate Director

With the law school application season upon us, I thought our prior blog post on crafting an effective law school resume would prove helpful to our current applicants. So, read on below! And don’t forget to also check out the two sample law school resumes provided on our pre-law website (, which will serve as helpful guides to you as you prepare your own law school resume.

Your resume is one the several components that ultimately comprise your applications to law school.  Many students (and alumni) at Penn usually have some kind of resume in their possession – some are very up-to-date (for those actively applying for internships, jobs, or fellowships) and others have not seen a substantive update since high school graduation.  While some applications will ask you to list your most significant experiences directly on the application, there are often only a few lines to do so and the expectation is that you keep that brief and prioritized.  With that in mind, your resume is actually a very important aspect of your law school applications since, for many schools, it is the only opportunity to list and describe all of your activities, achievements, and involvements in full detail.  Law school admissions committees are very interested in how you spend your time and energy outside of class, so it is essential that you create a strong, accurate, and flattering portrayal of yourself on your resume.

There are several ways, however, that distinguish a law school resume from the aforementioned resume you might use in job or internship applications.  In addition to the two sample law school resumes I have provided for your reference on our pre-law website (under Law School Application Components), here are five (relatively) easy steps in converting the latter into the former.

  1. Stop cramming everything in.  Since law school admissions committees want you to use your resume to represent a full picture of your involvements, the days of eight-point fonts and 0.2-inch margins are gone.  In fact, most law schools will happily accept resumes that are 1-2 pages in length.  That’s right, your resume can finally be longer than one page for these purposes.  With that in mind, clarity and readability is critical.  So, widen those margins (to 1-inch) and increase that font size (to at least 11-point font… 12-point font is great, too) and feel free to increase the spacing between entries as well.  All of your terrific achievements and activities will be much easier to read and admissions officers will thank you for that.

  3. Stop leaving things out.  Now that you have 1-2 pages, you can (and should) feel free to revisit older drafts of your one-page resume and include the less significant, but certainly important experiences that didn’t make the final one-page-resume cut.  In fact, it’s important for law school admissions committees that you account for your time – both during the academic year and over the summers – so, again, they can see the full picture of who you are and what you have done as a candidate.  So, that summer that you worked as a lifeguard or a waitress or a camp counselor – that can now reside on your law school resume as well.
  4. Toot your (academic) horn.  After all, this is an academic program to which you’re applying.  Your Education section should be complete and detailed and, without exception, the first section that appears on your law school resume.  This is also the space to provide any academic highlights that might not appear directly on your transcript, like the title of your Senior Honors Thesis or detail about your study abroad program, to draw the admissions committee’s attention to your scholarly accomplishments.  On the same note, if you have accumulated any academic honors – Dean’s List, Honor Society inductions, Departmental Prizes – it is recommended that you create a separate section on your law school resume that enumerates and, if necessary, explains them.  You can title this section heading something like Honors and Awards, for example, and this section should also directly follow your Education section for consistency.

  6. Give extracurricular activities equal real estate.  Law schools are filled with innumerable student groups and organizations and, perhaps unsurprisingly, law school admissions committees are very interested in filling their incoming classes with active and engaged students who will contribute to their vibrant student life.  So, your participation in extracurricular involvements in college – especially those activities in which you ascended to leadership roles – is highly relevant and interesting to admissions committees, as are your more professional experiences.  You should treat your extracurricular and leadership activities with the same level of detail and depth on your law school resume as you would, say, your summer internships.  Provide the dates that you were involved, descriptions of your activities and responsibilities, the positions/titles you held and, of course, make sure that these campus activities have their own appropriate section heading.

  8. Say good-bye (for the most part) to high school.  Law schools are interested in the adult version of you and, as a senior or an alumnus/a, that will largely not include activities and honors from high school.  That’s not to say that, if you had a few significant experiences and/or prestigious accomplishments before coming to Penn, that you couldn’t still list them on your law school resume.  But those should not be more than a few (1-2) and should be chosen thoughtfully.  If you had a significant leadership in a high school club (President, Founder, etc.), achieved a distinctive honor (Valedictorian, Class Speaker, National Merit Finalist, etc.), or substantively participated in a significant activity outside of high school (lab research, summer internship, etc.), then you still might consider including them on a law school resume.  But, it’s time to delete that you were the Secretary of the French Club in your sophomore year of high school.  And please delete your high school GPA, however impressive it is (and was, at the time, to the Penn Undergraduate Admissions Office).


The 3 F’s of Resume Writing

by Maxine Mitchell, Graduate Assistant

3 tips for students preparing their resumes for summer internships and full-time opportunities:

Please, please, please keep your resume on one page! Choose a form/style that is aesthetically-pleasing to you, and easy to read. Play around with the placement and titles of each section. Utilize shading, spacing and underlining to draw the readers’ eyes to particular words, phrases and roles. The white space on your resume is as important as the content.
While some fields tend to be flexible about resume formats from potential candidates, others remain quite traditional. Take note of your roles of interest, and do a bit of research to learn more about company culture. We strongly encourage you to preview the resume samples available on the Career Services website for assistance, as they reflect the varying academic/extracurricular experiences of students at Penn.

When selecting a resume font (and there should only be ONE), please keep in mind the industry(ies) that you’re applying to. Maintain consistent formatting throughout your resume. Make use of the list of action verbs available on our website to put forth a detailed and concise description of your roles and activities. Prioritize, consolidate, and cut when necessary. After completion, proofread for spelling AND grammatical errors. Career Services offers resume and cover letter critiques – an opportunity for you to get another set of eyes on this important document.

Last, but not least, have fun! There is no one way to create a resume, so feel free to explore formats, styles and fonts!

Change your feet…, and other useful career advice

Dr. Joseph Barber

Those of you who have watched Disney’s “Brave” will probably have taken away some of the following points from watching the film:

  1. Your fate is in your own hands – be proactive and stand up for what you believe in
  2. Some witches believe that turning people into bears is the answer to any problem
  3. Don’t buy gammy spells from scaffy witches!

There is all sorts of important career-related advice one could probably take from this film – I’ll leave you to extract most of this. It is pretty direct in terms of the message it tries to get across…, unless you are four-year-old who isn’t very familiar with Scottish accents. If you happen to be one of these people, then the film makes no sense at all. With that nice Scottish accent, the key message of the film, “change your fate”, ends up sounding more like “change your feet”. I know this because when I asked my four-year-old what she thought “Brave” was all about, she said it had to do with taking your shoes off and getting new ones. From her perspective, Brave was all about finding the right shoes – a process involving:

  • Magical sprites
  • Terrifying bears
  • Limb loss
  • Suitors competing with one another
  • Mother-daughter arguments
  • Witches
  • Spells
  • Regret, resentment, and guilt
  • More terrifying bears
  • Mother-daughter bonding
  • Self-discovery
  • Did I mention the terrifying bears?

It is perhaps not surprising that my daughter is not so keen on going shoe-shopping when given the choice. From her perspective, the high likelihood that some of these situations may arise must certainly be a trifle off-putting. Actually, changing your shoes is still not a bad analogy for all sorts of good career-related advice in terms of the process of changing your fate. In fact, it is a much more practical approach that is easier to visualize and implement. I might be wary of messing with the cosmos by playing with my fate…, but I am much less scared by the notion of trying on a different pair of shoes for a while to see if they fit, or if I like the way they look, or the direction they are taking me.

The advice I am going to extract from this film for you, however, is focused on how you talk about your experiences in your application materials. Accents don’t interfere with what you write in your cover letter or CV/resume, although poor English certainly does, but there can be accent-like issues. If you describe your experiences and skills by talking solely about your academic research in a very academic research kind of way, then you will have a “research accent” or an “academic accent” to your resume. People who read this resume who are not researchers (perhaps they are program administrators, HR staff, or business executives) may not understand what skill you are trying to demonstrate when they read your descriptions because of these accents. They may take away a completely different meaning from what you have written, even though it sounds like it makes perfect sense to you. As you apply for jobs in a broad range of career fields, you will need to become familiar with the different accents you can use to translate your experiences in different ways. It can be hard to first understand and then learn new accents if all you do is read about them online, so the best approach is to immerse yourself in environments where those around you are using these accents all the time. In other words, network with people working in different career fields and find opportunities to interact with them (e.g., volunteer opportunities, informational interviews, internships). You’ll pick up some of the accent in no time at all, and it will be very helpful in your applications and interviews within that career field.

Whether you hope to change your fate or your feet, you will find that the fantastic network of Penn alumni you can connect with through QuakerNet and LinkedIn will be invaluable. Like the wisps, they can point you in the right direction…, unlike the wisps, they probably won’t lead you down a path that ends with terrifying bears (probably). Listen to what they say and use what you hear to help you refine the way you talk about your own experiences.

Next time, perhaps I will talk about the career advice you can glean from Disney’s “Frozen”. Here’s a hint, I think it will be along the lines of “Let it go…, Let it go…”

The question is, what is “it”?