Why is the focus in applying to jobs to be the same as everyone else?
September 2, 2015 7:00 AM   Subscribe

We are working on our resumes, cover letters, and interview skills in college. What I can't help but feel frustrated and at times bewildered about is how the emphasis is always on assimilation, or to be like everyone else.

The instructor said that a "fatal mistake" I made on my resume draft was that there was colour in it. All resumes, we were told, should be strictly black and white, nothing else. No images, no create fonts, nothing at all that could make your resume stand out. However, if there are innumerable other resumes applying to that position, wouldn't having a resume that was unique help your resume to be noticed? The point is to be noticed, is it not?

In cover letters, dress codes, and interview skills an atmosphere of hostility towards creativity and differences exists. We're told that we have to "sell ourselves" when applying to a position; however, it seems to me that what we're really doing is assimilating ourselves to meet this abstract ideal of what the "perfect" candidate is based on these seemingly arbitrary requirements.

Do employers really want this? Or is this hostility towards creativity and differences so prevalent in our society that this is simply a manifestation of it in job searches?
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Work & Money (45 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
What is your field? I think that the kind of job you are pursuing can really make a difference in this kind of presentation. I can't see an accounting firm, for instance, being particularly keen on a creative resume, but if could be an asset for a creative field/position (advertising or marketing comes immediately to mind for me, because a friend who works in corporate marketing has a lovely sleek resume that doesn't look cookie cutter).
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:05 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

If nothing else, black and white resumes are wise because you don't know if a hiring manager will be printing them in color or not, and if they don't you risk your resume looking like a garbled mess.

As to the broader question, a lot of it has to do with these being entry-level jobs. 90% of entry level jobs don't need creative geniuses or overly clever people; they need people who will show up, on time and sober, and get the job done. Zaniness can work against you there. Also, every "creative" thing you put on a resume, you run the risk of a hiring manager thinking is obnoxious; the boring path is generally safer.

I highly recommend the blog Ask A Manager for insights in to all parts of the job application process. If nothing else you'll probably get better advice than you would from your college's career center, those notoriously suck.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:06 AM on September 2, 2015 [18 favorites]

People who do the hiring look at a lot of resumes. The most important thing to them is that they be able to quickly extract the information they want about your education and experience at a glance. Using a bog standard resume format makes this easy for them. Anything fancy, including colours and strange fonts, makes it more difficult. Your resume will stand out, but it will stand out for being annoying.

Also, keep in mind that, regardless of the reason, this IS the way that resumes are done and so the very first thing the hiring manager will learn about you is that you can't even get your resume right.
posted by 256 at 7:11 AM on September 2, 2015 [50 favorites]

To be frank, it's hostility towards people who don't seem to understand the norms of the situation. If the standard in my field is black and white, times new roman 12 point resumes, and you're adding in a bunch of color, I worry that the next time I as you do to something, you'll misread the expectation and the norm.

I'm working in an academic/legal field with pretty staid, settled expectations, but nothing is worse than hiring someone who wants to reinvent the wheel rather than get the job done according to everyone's expectations.

1) express creativity in ways that are appreciated in the field you're applying to, instead of trying to change their worldview
EX: if you were interviewing with me, I'd be impressed by a well-written but different letter, or interesting ideas about what you might do in the job, but completely turned off by color in your resume.

2) If you're going to ignore 1), you have to be absolutely perfect.
Ex: I expect right justified TNR 12 point , if you're going to do something different, it needs to be professional design quality work. I'll still be a little put off by the choice, but I'll be impressed by the design.

There's nothing worse than hiring someone who's oblivious to the norms and expectations of a situation, and you don't want to signal that.
posted by mercredi at 7:11 AM on September 2, 2015 [29 favorites]

I think the point of convention and uniformity is to facilitate the processing of resumes - an HR person eyeballing the resume is just looking for whatever it is they need, and anything outside of convention will make that work more time consuming.
posted by Dragonness at 7:12 AM on September 2, 2015

You aren't selling your personality to a prospective employer, you are selling your job skills and ability to do work. Sure, you need to be personable, but as someone who hires regularly, I can tell you that I regularly have conversations with other panel members about how certain candidates have made presentation choices that obscure (willfully or otherwise) their work chops. It isn't about assimilation, it's about making sure the hiring manager has a relatively uniform way to compare candidates so that they can make a decision based on your stellar abilities.

Yes, capitalism sucks, but I can tell you that hiring an oddball onto a smoothly functioning team can destroy it quickly.
posted by OmieWise at 7:12 AM on September 2, 2015 [15 favorites]

A lot of the white-collar world is about putting on an act: "professionalism". It's possible to be cynical about this, or to see it as a necessity for helping people work together smoothly whether or not they like each other. The truth is a little bit of both.

they want to be sure you are capable of putting on this act, so they make you perform it during the application and interview process. The company itself might really value individuality once you are hired (or maybe not), but they want you to prove you can be a boring professional when necessary.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:12 AM on September 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Fitting in requires understanding the unstated rules and observing the hyper-local culture. That' (the observing and understanding) a basic social skill/life skill. Following all the trivial rules of job search shows that you have that life skill. If you write your resume in Comic Sans and with headlines in a script font, the problem isn't that it's not readable, that it's ugly or that you aren't assimilating. It's that you don't seem to know that many people think it's ugly and unprofessional. It's not your ugly resume that's the problem, it's your cluelessness. If they hire you, what other unspoken rules are you going to mess up?

Of course, part of that skill is also understanding where the unspoken rules can be bent and when zaniness is ok or even valued. So, during the job search process you should that you have this important life skill and once you have the job you can use that important life skill to see when zaniness is ok.

Or, as my old roommate put it, you have to show them that you know how to play the game.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:13 AM on September 2, 2015 [9 favorites]

This gets into the idea of "taste". The point of taste (although a lot of people will try to use it to squash anyone who challenges them in an uncomfortable way) is really to let your differences show in a meaningful way.

You are a particular, brilliant, special person. Your differences are not one-dimensional enough that a bright pink headline, or a kooky font, captures them. These are easy things that anyone with a modern computer can do easily. There's more to you than that.

Perhaps what makes you different is expressed in a subtle word choice, but more likely it's in how you live your life, what you do, and how you do it every day -- in conversations where you're not trying to stand out, but simply focusing on the people you're with and on solving problems. The simple black and white, boring layout, invisibly predictable font choice résumé is like a picture frame. It's not even the words themselves, but the ideas behind the words, that are where the real you can be.

The reason that the boring, uniform "frame" of the simple, predictable layout is so helpful to readers is that it makes it not just easier, but possible, for them to work on getting to the meaning behind the words. Those funky font choices, or positioning that makes a reader take just a microsecond of attention, are more than just a temporary distraction. When your readers are as overloaded as people tend to be now, it can mean that they don't even get a chance to try to focus on who is behind the words -- that kind of focus is really difficult and takes some time and attention.

You are a lot more complicated than anything that can be conveyed in just one differently-colored bit of text. What you do speaks much more eloquently than anything else, and conveying the texture of your actions is so challenging that anything that distracts from that will prevent it.
posted by amtho at 7:14 AM on September 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

It really depends on your field and the size of the company. I work at a 50-60 people marketing agency. Doing something interesting and creative does stand out. We don't have a dedicated HR person, so it's "regular" people looking at the resumes, the people who will actually be working with the new hire. They want someone interesting. If you are applying to the government or IBM or something, it's a different story. All resumes will be going through software and a human won't touch it until it gets through that. Those jobs are better suited to boring.

The best way to stand out is to the opposite of what everyone is doing. I wouldn't want to work somewhere that looked down on an applicant for an interesting resume - how soul crushing must that place be that they just want everyone to be the same!

Again, depends a lot on your industry. Another place I worked didn't even want resumes, just LinkedIn URLs and your favourite cat gif.

My advice from the hiring side (as not an HR person) is to focus on the cover letter. Resumes are all blah, blah, blah. Cover letters give you the opportunity to show you understand the position/company, your personality and what you'll bring to the job.
posted by dripdripdrop at 7:20 AM on September 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Dependability and reliability are generally considered very important in employees. Showing you know how to "play the game" or "toe the line" or otherwise do what's expected of you is a way of demonstrating that you're not going to be flouting the rules and showing up late and insulting clients and otherwise acting as if your individuality is more important than the needs of the company. It's a way to signal that you know what the rules are and you respect the rules. (As others have said, it can therefore also serve a class-marker gate-keeping function; it may be helpful to think of it as code-switching.)
posted by jaguar at 7:20 AM on September 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you want to know what's really behind it, you need to realize what created almost all the people in the job market and therefore the market itself - public schools. The entire purpose of public schooling was to provide uniformity and a very minimal level of competence for factory jobs. In that, it succeeds admirably well.

Unfortunately, it's not what will get someone ahead in today's world - but it will ensure to keep the majority of the population at that same basic level of quality, because that's both what they've been taught to provide - and ingrained to accept.
posted by stormyteal at 7:24 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

What should stand out in your resume and cover letter is not fancy formatting, but content. As someone who reads resumes, cover letters, and conducts interviews on a regular basis what I look for is...

In a resume - a clear articulation of your accomplishments spelled out in numbers if applicable (email open rates increased 10% under my tenure).

In a cover letter - that the candidate has actually read up on the organization and can articulate some clear reasons why they particularly want to work here. How does the mission of the organization align to their passions, personal story, etc...

The resume and cover letter exist to get you the interview. The interview is where you should be able to demonstrate and show what makes you unique, creative, fun to work with, resourceful, and able to get results.
posted by brookeb at 7:25 AM on September 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Or is this hostility towards creativity and differences so prevalent in our society that this is simply a manifestation of it in job searches?

While this may be the case for some professions, I think you're painting with too broad a brush. That said, some search committees (regardless of profession) have to deal with so many applicants that a level of prejudicial hostility towards the candidates who appear oddball on paper may indeed develop...e.g., after weeks of fruitless interviewing.

To *get* the interview, predictability and conformity of presentation matters. Content matters more, but the presentation is sort of the "gatekeeper." *During* the interview, content still matters most, but your uniqueness/personality/"fit" is usually also going to be actively examined.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 7:28 AM on September 2, 2015

I'm sure this is field-dependent, so I can only answer from my academic-staff-member perspective: When I look at resumes, I am looking through a lot of them quickly and trying to extract the useful information and figure out if someone is in a "yes", "maybe" or a "nope" pile. This means some things can be helpful in moderation (bolding, italics, formatting that clearly draws attention to the important things), some is probably neutral (font choices as long as they're readable, color unless used extremely well or egregiously badly), but your mention of images gave me a visceral cringe. I cannot imagine, in my field, an image being used on a resume in a way that would be useful to me as an employer. I think it would just be taking up space that could be used better to showcase your skills, and would make me think you didn't really understand what parts of your resume were valuable and relevant to the job. Which makes me think you didn't really understand what the job is, which makes me nervous about you as a candidate.

Essentially, I can imagine unusual graphic features moving a resume to the "nope" pile or being neutral, but I can't imagine it moving a resume to the "yes" pile that was otherwise iffy. Isn't going to help you, and could hurt you, in my field.

I value creative problem solving and different ways of looking at issues, but I don't feel that your resume graphic design choices tell me anything about the kind of creativity I would value in your as an employee. I want you to tell me about your creativity in the interview via actual experiences that you have had where you used that creativity to good effect in the workplace or in your life or classwork, not by your document layout skills.
posted by Stacey at 7:31 AM on September 2, 2015

No images, no create fonts, nothing at all that could make your resume stand out.

One reason stuff like that is frowned upon is that it only stands out if a few people do it. Including some images or fancy fonts is not that much of a high bar with todays technological means, everybody would be doing it if it was acceptable. The hiring person will end up looking at 50 amateur attempts or copy/pasted generic templates, and nobody will have gained anything from it: unless you are hiring a graphic designer, you don't really care about design beyond something that doesn't look like it was thrown together the night before.
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:34 AM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Came in here to say what amtho said. Since you're human, I'm pretty sure that your creative spirit runs much deeper than adding some color to a resume - and that's a good thing! The good news is that outside the relatively narrow realm of resume design (and some other hard-to-ignore norms of job searching), many companies do value creative approaches. It can never come at the expense of real work, though.

Anecdote: There was a designer at my company who applied using a resume formatted like an infographic, which is a HUGE no-no on every job searching site I've ever read. How do I know what her resume looked like? Her new bosses loved it so much that they sent it around with her welcome email as a sample of her work. It was, indeed, pretty damn cool. I work for a creative company on the West Coast that values good design, but that resume would never have worked for my job (editorial assistant) in the very same company. It really comes down to knowing your audience.

Final note: Imagine working for an employer that does value flashy resumes. (As an aside, when interviewing, you should be evaluating the company as much as they're evaluating you, and making sure that the job is one you would enjoy in terms of workload, duties, culture, personalities, and so on.) You're a hardworking employee, and the guy next to you slacks off all day - but when he does manage to pull something together and slaps a few fancy fonts on it, the boss loves it, and soon he gets promoted while you're still toiling away in the salt mines. Does that sound like a good workplace? Because you may be inadvertently filtering for this kind of situation by having a resume that doesn't follow the usual norms.
posted by sunset in snow country at 7:36 AM on September 2, 2015

You could think of it this way - assuming that you're applying for a job which is not primarily "creative"*, you don't necessarily want to be competing based on something as subjective as creativity.

Let's say that you really like blue, and you really like retro fonts. I - the hiring manager - unconsciously associate blue with a childhood trauma, and I think that retro fonts are unprofessional. You're getting dinged for no reason, even though you're an awesome accountant.

Or let's say that I am a homophobe with gender issues, and I decide that the twiddles you've put on your resume aren't masculine enough. Again, you're getting dinged.

Or let's say that you put a personal motto at the top of your resume, and it expresses a view that I find abhorrent, trite, ignorant or childish. Or unpatriotic, unmasculine, whatever. Dinged.

Where it's not relevant, creativity introduces a vector for confusion, discrimination and bad hiring choices. Just look around at some of the interview threads we've had here - I particularly remember the one where the asker wanted to know whether the butch/queer/gender-nonconforming candidate was basically signalling that she was a discipline case/bad fit, despite being well qualified. That one worked out in the end, but it just goes to show how much subjective, bias-inducing shit there already is in the hiring process. The resume is one place where you can be reasonably intelligent and just hack the damn expectations, no matter your background.

It is much, much better to get hired based on clear-cut qualifications and then use your creativity to distinguish yourself on the job and rise in the ranks. (I, for instance, do more interesting work than I did at first because I was able to do some writing/design stuff not in the original job description.)

*My job, for instance, contains creative elements - I write stuff, design templates, etc - but even those things are pretty structured and I'm being creative within a pretty narrow range. I can't just decide that this year's institute brochure will be an art nouveau pastiche, or that I'm going to write 300 words on a new fellowship program in the style of Donald Barthelme. I can't even decide that this year's brochure will be primarily green instead of our official colors.
posted by Frowner at 7:36 AM on September 2, 2015 [9 favorites]

Color = not a serious candidate, IMHO. It might work for Elle Woods, but it doesn't work elsewhere.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:43 AM on September 2, 2015

The point is to be noticed, is it not?

The point is to be noticed for the right things. A creative font is not the right thing.
posted by jeather at 7:45 AM on September 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

I think its less "hostility towards creativity and differences" than it is a more practical desire to avoid future friction. The employer doesn't exist so you can have a satisfactorily creative career, they exist to manufacture widgets or sell seaside condos or whatever --- having happy employees is nice but not the main point, and having employees who each insist on going their own ways leads to inefficiency if not downright failure.

You say you're in college --- but I assume you've probably held retail or food service jobs, right? Okay, say you were working in a clothing store. One of the employees decides to re-do the entire front window display, just because they feel they can do a more creative and less 'boring' job of it than the experienced and/or professional window designer did. So.... they re-dress the mannequins in edgy gender-bending ways or pose them provocatively "because it'll grab people's attention". Then they fail to understand when the boss fires them on the spot, because it grabbed people's attention, all right! Every parent shopping in the mall is freaked by the questions their toddlers ask about it ("why is that man's hand up that lady's dress, Mommy?"), and one and all those parents sign petitions to boycott that store forever.

My point is, sometimes, especially at entry-level positions, they aren't looking for creativity: they're looking for someone who will accept and fit into the company culture and not make waves. They don't want to risk hiring someone they'll end up having to fire so they have to go through the whole hiring process all over again: they're looking for someone who understands there's a time and a place for a bog-standard professional appearance, on paper and in person.
posted by easily confused at 7:50 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lots of HR offices scan résumés into a computer and then use OCR to search for keywords to extract so they can evaluate who they want to consider more closely & whole doesn't even make the first cull.

Simple b&w w/ no elaborate fonts, images, or colors speeds up this process and makes it easier for the machine.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:51 AM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

You should be striving to stand out with the *content* of your job application materials. I've reviewed resumes and I'm much more interested in a job applicant who has incredible experience than someone who used funky fonts or color on their resume. It's great that you have a fun personality but as an employer, I just want to find someone who can make my life easier by doing their job well.

I've worked at some pretty buttoned-up nonprofits and sending a colorful resume would make me think that you don't understand the norms for behaving in a professional environment. I don't expect a 22 year-old to know how to act in a business setting and I know that's something people can learn but a wacky job application makes me think this applicant would rather show off their design skills than their experience and unless I'm looking for a designer, that's not going to appeal to me. I also worry that they're trying to distract me from the fact that they don't actually have the experience or skills that I'm looking for. If you thought your experience and skills would make you a standout job applicant, why didn't you make a normal resume?

Put yourself in the position of the person reviewing resumes for the position. If someone sends me a colorful resume, I feel concerned that they don't have good judgment. If I bring them in for an interview with me and my boss and they prove that they do not have good judgment, now my boss thinks that I don't have good judgment. Many entry level positions receive literally hundreds of applications. My boss and I only have so much time to review resumes and interview people. Why would I take a chance on someone who already demonstrated poor judgment? How do I know that they're not going to show up for an interview wearing shorts or send all-staff emails inviting people to their house party or curse in a conversation with the CEO?

Strive to make the substance of your application stand out. Then it doesn't matter what font or color your resume is.
posted by kat518 at 8:04 AM on September 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

And even though there's success stories of "creative resumes in creative fields", that still isn't always optimal. The problem is you're failing to get what a resume is for. It's a tool for sharing your personal information and experience. That's it.

If you work in a creative field, you also provide a portfolio of your work. You can make your portfolio whatever expression of creativity you want. If I worked in a creative field and wanted to do a "creative" resume, I would still provide a secondary copy that's normally formatted for ease of printing, reading, and note taking.

Even in creative fields you may need to write up documents or emails. Have you ever gotten an email from someone that uses a bright blue cloud background or a big loopy font? I have it. It's really annoying and makes my job that much harder. An email isn't supposed to be pretty, it's supposed to convey information. Just like your resume.

The distaste of "unique" resumes doesn't stem from not conforming, but because you're failing to understand the purpose of a very simple document. And if you can't understand that, what else are you going to fail to understand?
posted by mayonnaises at 8:07 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a university professor who teaches a career preparation course within the studio art department. So our resumes can be some of the more creatively designed ones - people do not look askance at some imagery, color, or interesting font choices when hiring for graphic designers or print technicians.

However, many good artists accidentally sacrifice the primary purpose of a resume in pursuit of demonstrating their artistry and creativity - the resume is first and foremost a marketing document designed to highlight your experience and skill. If you make choices that are aesthetically pleasing but that make the document more difficult to parse, you have lost track of the primary purpose of the document. A manager is not going to want to turn your resume every which way because you designed a beautiful sphere of text. Bar graphs are lovely visual aids, but on a resume it just makes the eye linger on your weakest skills. Managers do not want to have to spend time in figuring out if in fact a flyer/poster for something else entirely got mixed into the resumes. Plus, losing track of the primary purpose of the document implies that you may lose track of the primary purpose for future assignments.

You also have to consider the end user and their method of printing/copying/distributing the document - if you made a gorgeous bleed document (color printed to the edge of the page) and their printer has mandatory .5" margins and only prints B/W, your design is going to be altered so you should make sure it works visually with subpar printer/copier constraints, too.

Also, in trying to separate yourself in a good way, you risk separating yourself in a bad way - choosing Papyrus as a font on your resume is not going to elevate your resume, nor are Word-generated banners or clip art. Even if it is in good taste, it may just not be a good fit for your audience. One of my students has a very tasteful, easy-to-read resume, but her header was actually a sidebar and it was causing some controversy as to whether that was a good choice or not. (I was okay with it, to be honest - it wasn't too out of the box and it was all totally legible.) So she made a less visually pleasing header-as-header version and has been taking a general survey, and by far the majority of respondents are preferring the latter one. So she'll use the header version even though both of us agree that it's a slightly worse design - disregarding the market is a poor choice for a marketing document.
posted by vegartanipla at 8:11 AM on September 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

This reminds me of the Arrested Development scenes where Tobias is loading up his packages to casting directors with glitter, which then explodes all over the directors' desks. It's an attempt to stand out, but by doing something flashy with your resume you run a huge risk of annoying the person you're hoping to impress.

I agree with what's said above - a lot of this may depend on the field. I work in the law, which is pretty traditional. But beyond that, consider the purpose of your resume. If I'm hiring for a position, I use cover letters and resumes to screen for the people that can do the work. That's why there's a focus on academics and job experience. I'm not going to bring someone in for an interview if they haven't demonstrated already that they can do the work to a satisfactory level. The interview is for feeling out whether the applicant is creative, whether they're a good fit for the organization, and whether I would want to be stuck in a conference room with them working on a big project for hours on end. Keeping your resume in the general format recommended by hiring directors and job coaches makes the screening process easier for me, as others have noted above. It's the same reason every court sets requirements for formatting legal briefs - judges are sorting through tons of them, and they want to receive them in a predictable format that makes it easy for them to extract the important information.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:17 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

You want to stand out in a way that's relevant to what you're going to do. If you're a designer, sure, it's probably good to show a little creativity in your resume design. But I'm pretty sure you're not, if you're getting advice like you're getting from your school. What do you plan to do? I think a better way to demonstrate your creativity is to tackle a problem that you'll be likely to solve in your future job (through an internship, a contest, your current job, whatever) in a creative way, and then include that example in your resume or in a description in your cover letter.

All that said, if you feel disgusted by conformity you should probably avoid a standard corporate job and go work for a startup (or a design firm, even if you're not a designer).
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:32 AM on September 2, 2015

The point is to be noticed, right?

Not exactly. For the hiring manager, the point is to get their inbox down to a pool of qualified candidates, as painlessly as possible. They weed through a stack of very similar resumes with some kind of basic criteria to get the stack down to some number of resumes that he/she could imagine reading in full. These criteria might be expressed as "has the degree required for the position" and "has the necessary skills" and "has relevant experience" and "sent resume to right address" but really boil down to "can follow the basic instructions laid out in the ad". Doing unusual things with your formatting can come across an awful lot like "can't follow instructions".
posted by aimedwander at 8:55 AM on September 2, 2015

>The point is to be noticed, is it not?

Nope! The point is to not have something on your resume that causes them to remove you from the pile. Some of the things that might get you culled, you can't help (no experience, degree in an unrelated field). You don't want to be culled over something you can control (misspellings, formatting that gets screwed up when printed, non-standard resume choices that lead the HR person to think you think of yourself as a special snowflake, who will create a lot of work for them.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:58 AM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Do you want a recruiter to think you have substance, or do you want them to think you're a lightweight that can't follow directions or adhere to basic rules? Use your answer to guide how you develop your resume.
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:59 AM on September 2, 2015

maybe it depends on context (yay - most obvious statement ever). but my most successful curricula have always looked distinctive.

maybe you're applying for jobs that are too automated / dumb, where - as someone says above - the only aim is to not be discarded. when applying for academic research, or jobs in small companies / startups (where i have always worked), that's not, in my experience, the case.

also, i am not sure this is the best place to ask a question which is essentially "should i conform to the social norm". but i guess that's more a thread for meta.
posted by andrewcooke at 9:01 AM on September 2, 2015

I think this is mostly a matter of teaching to the lowest common denominator. When used tastefully and well, color or choice of fonts can enhance a resume's appearance. However, having a slightly-better-looking-than average resume doesn't really matter much to hiring managers; they care more about your relevant job skills.

And on the flip side, it is much easier to make your resume look bad by using non-standard formatting than to make it look good, and the teacher of this class is not running a print design workshop. It's easier to be in the business of saying "no non-standard design elements" than to have the class all go wild with formatting and end up with 50 non-standard designed resumes, 45 of which are hideous, and have to individually critique the design choices of them all to explain which are good and which are bad.
posted by phoenixy at 9:15 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

The other thing - I think that it's best to understand the baseline first. You go out in the world, you get an entry-level job by being an ordinary entry-level person, you get to know your organization and related people/groups and then you're much better able to determine which company will be thrilled by your innovative diorama-style resume and which company really wants to see the regular format.

Or, alternatively, if you have an internship between now and application time, and you get a feel for resume practices in your field, you can also use your judgment and veer from the norm. It may well be that when you're actually looking for work, you'll be applying to companies where nonstandard resumes are welcomed.

"Pick your battles" is an important lesson, I think. We all choose different ones, of course. But "I want the hiring manager to see and value difference in resumes, and I am willing to risk my employability until I find the right hiring manager" isn't necessarily the best battle to pick. You're talking about systemic change - and a systemic change based on something of uncertain value, since there's a lot to be said for being able to compare similar resumes and dealing with personality/creativity later in the process - and you're saying that you want to go in as an individual and duke it out to try to achieve systemic change. That seems like it has very little payoff even if you succeed, and the odds are against you.

On a larger level, there are areas where it's very difficult to accommodate a lot of individual creativity - you don't want creative tax returns, creative medical records, creative bibliographies, etc. You don't even necessarily want "creative" standards for employment. Large, standardized bureaucracies (especially public one) are some of the few places where women and people of color have made significant gains in salary, power and employment - and that's because the standards for being Director of Heating are laid out clearly in a boring way, and if you do a good job with them, your "creativity" isn't up for grabs, so there's no traction for "we only really respect the kind of creativity that white straight guys who went to Ivies tend to display; the creativity of women of color from public schools is trashy and stupid". It's worth thinking about how we as a society define and value "creativity" and how this intersects with justice.
posted by Frowner at 9:26 AM on September 2, 2015 [9 favorites]

What an employer wants (or should want, if they are a good employer) is to hire someone who will be good at their job and work well with their coworkers. It's OK to want to stand out (you want to be one of the ones who is chosen to be hired, after all) but you want to stand out for being the best one for the job, not because you used flashy gimmicks. If I saw a flashy resume that was trying sooo hard to be cre8ive! and unique! through its format, I admit that I would have to remind myself not to pre-judge that the person didn't have the credentials to do the job--otherwise, why all the smoke and mirrors? Can't they stand on their own two professional feet?

Yes, you should 'sell yourself.' You should research the things the company is looking for, the (yes) unique skills you have which you can bring to the table, the things about you which make you a wonderful candidate for the position. You should learn about how you come across to others, that the way you are perceived matches how you really want to be, that you're sending the message to employers that you want to be heard by them. You should tailor your resume uniquely to the position; you should write a creatively excellent and informative cover letter. You should interview with verve and drive and personality, showing what you're made of and what you have to offer.

At the same time you should be assessing the company for whether they meet your needs and expectations--it's a two way street. Maybe you don't want to work for a place that would ding you for a little extra color, and that's a valid choice for you to make, if it's one you can afford to. It's not so much about dull conformity and "an atmosphere of hostility towards creativity and differences;" it's about keeping the focus on the things which matter. I don't know what kind of jobs you're applying to, but the point, for most people, is not "to be noticed." The point is to get the job.

It should be a job at a company which matches well with what you want to do and how you want to do it, sure. And you should take those things into account as you assess the company, too, and try to get some perspective on how they assess you. Don't advertisements that are trying too hard to be noticed but actually don't seem to have much substance behind them bother you when you look at them? Do the people you're talking to seem to focus more on looking like they're doing good work and treating you well or actually making the workplace a good place to work? Does it seem like a place where you belong?

Ask A Manager was mentioned earlier. She has a lot of very solid advice, and a whole category called "Gimmicks Won't Get You A Job". She also has multiple articles on what (in her opinion as a former hiring manager in the nonprofit field) makes good resumes and cover letters.
posted by spelunkingplato at 9:27 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

ou aren't selling your personality to a prospective employer, you are selling your job skills and ability to do work

I would take this one step further -- employers are most interested in your manageability. That is the prime directive. They want employees who are manageable, even at the expense of skills and intelligence. This is why you will find yourself surrounded, in the workplace, by people whose skills are mediocre and worse.

Conformity looks like manageability to prospective employers.

There are exceptions and different industries value creativity (or the appearance of creativity differently - or even at different times in the work life cycle.) But at the end of the day, even in creative fields, being compliant and manageable and no contradictory will win out.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:27 AM on September 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

I work in design and have interviewed a few designers, and some level of creative resume design is expected. However, even with creative resumes, the ones that stand out in a good way are subtler than you think: they're clean, present the candidate's info in a way that's easy to scan, and generally show compatibility with the company/job. (A super-creative resume, even if it was the most amazing, beautiful, phenomenal resume in the world, would actually count against someone interviewing for our team, because it's not really the kind of work we do. I'd assume that the resume genius would be a fantastic employee for two months and then leave for something more compatible with his interests.)

The standard advice for earning a promotion is to first demonstrate that you're fantastic at the job you have right now. A resume's primary job is to communicate your credentials, not to catch someone's eye.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:39 AM on September 2, 2015

I used to teach an undergraduate Business Writing class with an extended unit on job search etiquette/documents, and so I understand where you are coming from, but I understand much more where your teacher is coming from, and where you are seeing a desire to quash individuality, I see your teacher as trying very hard to help all the students in your class to stop making classic mistakes.

-Students who aim for creative in these documents often end up in “confusing”, “non-functional” (where creativity with crappy software results in a document most computers can’t even open--one such document once crashed our classroom computer for twenty minutes), and “amateurish” (what looks creative to a 19-year-old who has very little notion of document design often looks horrifying to people who are experts in the field. For example, a lot of people think Papyrus font looks cool and mysterious). Now, you may be more sophisticated and self-aware than many of your classmates, and unlikely to make mistakes like these, but your teacher has no way of knowing which students have good ideas for breaking the boundaries of the form (1% of the class) and which students have terrible ideas for breaking the boundaries of the form (99% of the class).

-I have read horrible resumes and cover letters in real life job searches (“My name is [real name] but everyone I know calls me Princess because I am one”, for example), and I have read even more horrible resumes that undergraduates turned in for grades. Matching a resume and cover letter to the needs of what a job ad is looking for is a learned skill, and it uses coded language and an understanding of certain fields. It might seem boring or restrictive, but that is literally the point. People do not want to hire someone who cannot be bothered to learn the requirements of the hiring process, because those people often overlap with people who cannot be bothered to learn the requirements of a job. They can’t guess that your creativity will be used in the best interests of the company. All they know is that their first impression of you is that you are reluctant to follow certain rules (wherein the rules are: the letter should say this here, include this information, and lack any major red flags).

-Red flags! So many students intend to be creative and instead fill their documents with horrible “DO NOT HIRE ME” red flags.

1. The student who was applying to an entry-level position and volunteered, in a cover letter, to fire anyone else at the org who was not pulling their weight.
2. The student who described herself as “full of spunk.” Look, I am as sorry as anybody that our porn-saturated culture has poisoned the well of that phrase, but NO.
3. The student (applying to a food-service job) who described herself as a perfectionist who was willing to throw out anything that didn’t meet her standards so she could start from scratch. Soooooo, she was a perfectionist who still made mistakes (???) that had to be completely thrown away, because instead of salvaging them she would rather just start over at double the cost in an industry with the thinnest of profit margins? NOPE.

-You would be SHOCKED to discover how few college students are able to wrap their heads around business casual/work attire/interview-wear. I would give them explicit guidelines, I would show images, I would give lists of don’ts, I would make it part of the grade, and still students would show up on days with dress codes wearing

-club gear
-sports team branded polo shirts
-flip flops
-see through tops

Giving restrictive guidelines is not a judgment of more creative clothing. It is an attempt to rein in the insanity of what some people are going to think is “appropriate”.

Also, having worked in various professional environments— you would be shocked and horrified to know how many people in power make unexpected assumptions based on what an interviewing candidates wear. Your teacher is not trying to make your clothing boring. Your teacher is trying to make your clothing invisible, so that the person interviewing you is focused on your experience and possible contribution to the team instead of anything else you might accidentally express through clothing that isn’t basically a shroud. You can express your personality when you get the job (at some jobs).

-Besides all that, the kind of creativity most employers want is not something that can even be conveyed through font or design. They want to know how you inventively solved a problem. They want to see interesting experiences on your resume. They want to see interesting projects described.

Once your documents get you in the interview room, and your clothes have been boring enough not to raise any eyebrows, that is where your creativity matters. You can tell them about the things you’ve created, invented, improved. I told an off-hand joke at my last job interview and my then-future (now-current) boss laughed for several moments in sheer surprise. You aren’t really crushing your individuality in this process. You are just foregrounding certain elements of yourself and your training so that you can get to the point where someone finally says “so! Tell me more about yourself.”
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:42 AM on September 2, 2015 [54 favorites]

The point is to be noticed, is it not?

A toddler throws a tantrum to get noticed; flashy, ridiculous coverletters and resumes are the job-hunting equivalent. I review lawyer resumes and coverletters regularly. Most applicants got good grades in school, seem reasonably intelligent and attended well-regarded schools. That said, I'm lucky if I look at application packets and 2 out of 20 people have a professional coverletter where nothing stands out as strange or poorly worded or with overly flowerly language or something that is just generally idiotic. Those 2 people stand out as special. I don't think most people realize how unbelievably bad most resumes and coverletters look and sound. By adhering to what you are supposed to adhere to, you are in fact being unique, sadly, and you WILL be noticed - in the right way - if your resume and coverletter are polished.
posted by gatorae at 9:54 AM on September 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

The point is to be noticed for your amazing skills and experience and education, not for your font choices. Unless you are literally applying for jobs as a font designer or something similar, they don't care if you're good at picking out cool fonts. Lots of color/graphics/fonts/etc. simply distracts from the CONTENT of your resume, which is what you want people to be paying attention to and noticing.
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:47 AM on September 2, 2015

I've reviewed a lot of resumes. With only one exception (and she was a highly skilled graphic designer), every one that had graphics or colors or something weird was a terrible resume otherwise. A stylized resume signals that you are trying to hide your lack or experience or skills.
posted by radioamy at 11:20 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I hired someone in part because of a pretty cool infographic-style resume. This was in part because it was for an internship, so some youthful enthusiasm trumped the slight faux pas of me not being able to figure out what school/program she was at from her resume.

She was very creative and smart, and I spent a lot of time both managing her and soothing the people who had asked her for A and gotten Q over and over and over. I actually think she will do fine in life, but climbing the ladder from an entry-level job may not be the path she ends up on, because man, so. much. of. my. time.

Your resume tells a story and that story intersects with my experience. For the quote-unquote real job I hired from a pretty plain resume.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:33 PM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Here's the thing. Anyone can be creative if there is no structure. Anyone can write a poem in free form verse. Throw a few random words onto a page and you've got creative. But you almost certainly have a really bad poem which is self obsorbed.

Then if you try to write a sonnet, your early efforts working within the restrictive form will tend to hit the obvious subjects, the familiar rhymes and it will come out as a Moon in June type of poem.

The hardest thing of all is writing an original sonnet, a good sonnet while staying in the restricted form.

Going through an interview, or writing a resume is like writing a poem. A bad interview you just chat away at random, any old thing that is important to you, and your probably talk about yourself (love me! I'm nice!) rather than about the company hiring you (You will get punctuality. You will get increased sales.) We already know you want a job. The interview process is to determine that you know what they want and can can give them what they want.

But in fact you won't know the very special things that they want until you get the job. They may want someone who can encourage them through their four o'clock slump, they may want someone who can find and correct mistakes rapidly so their marketing material starts to improve, they may want someone who can sound attentive when they answer the phone, but you can only tell them generic things about yourself: "Energetic, enthusiastic, motivated, accurate, detail oriented, good listener...."

Your best way of hitting the few random things they need is to give them the standarized information. You may be a champion water-skier, but the only reason that is important is because you can use it as an example that you are dedicated in pursuit of your goals. It really doesn't matter to them if you are a champion pole vaulter, baby-sitter, lapidariast, contra-dancer or blacksmith except as a red flag that you may be more interested in pole-vault practice and waste your time on the job talking about the kids you baby sat.

During the resume, interview, cover letter process you are helping them tick boxes. Yes, they are hostile to creativity and differences because at this stage it's a change of subject. It's like if you ask someone how fast they can type and the reply is, "Not only can I type, but I am a ballet dancer!"

So at this stage yes, stifle creativity, stifle originality - because it's in the wrong place.

It honestly sounds rather to me, from your question that you are looking for approval and a social connection more than you are looking to wring money out of the soulless monolith of capitalist society. It's like your ego is on the line, and you want the interviewers to like you and validate you.

Job hunting is not a place to develop your personal identity and self worth. If you try that, you'll think there is something wrong with you when they hire a typist who can type faster than you, or a receptionist who is prettier than you are. In fact job hunting is the process of finding the best available job for your marketable skills. Your creativity is great and it IS a selling factor but only within the very tight parameters of a job interview uniform and a plain black and white resume. Anything else comes across as wanting to be paid for being special rather than being paid for doing the work.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:32 PM on September 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's easy to stand out by doing something different. It's hard to stand out by doing something everyone else can do, only better. Employers want the latter, not the former.

Let's say you're looking for a babysitter for your kid. One applicant comes with his face painted blue. Creative! Another comes with a track record and letters of recommendations. Boring. But which would you hire?
posted by mono blanco at 1:46 PM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Another hiring manager here to add to the pile-on (sorry):

Yes, I'm not boring. I appreciate creativity. Not now. I'm using your resume to look up information. I expect it to do the job of providing me that information easily and clearly. See very many dictionaries with cool fonts and colors? No you don't.

Mentioned already but I want to emphasize why even if it doesn't obstruct the function, it's still a bad idea -

1) Dunning-Krueger effect. It tells me someone has told you what I likely want to see in a resume (the normal stuff) BUT YOU decided you know better. So you're the type that won't pay attention when people are trying to help you?

2) I've seen it. You think you're being unique? It's been tried, and probably the exact same way. I roll my eyes and say to my co-screener, oh yay, I got another "unique," "creative" person (with air quotes)

3) Similar to #1, but more subtle, but it's an entry level position, come on. How about if we just do the basics for a while instead of trying to one-up the competition with gimmicks? In a first job I want someone with a "I can learn your ways" attitude, not a "My skills, let me show you all of them" attitude. In more senior people, I might be open-minded for something I don't even know I want yet. A large factor in the entry level is "can this person probably do what they're told without too many surprises popping up?" A strange resume tells me no right off the bat.
posted by ctmf at 7:08 PM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I look at a lot of resumes, and when I run into colors (almost never) or non-standard formats (very occasionally) it slows me down and makes it harder to understand the key pieces of information.

The content of the resume (and truly personalized cover letter) is really important. Make sure this little glimpse of who you are communicates as much as possible. Let the reviewer learn everything they can about you efficiently, not spend time/focus/energy on parsing the format.

Also, if design is one of your skills, list a project on your resume and link to a good display of your work.
posted by reeddavid at 11:51 PM on September 2, 2015

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