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Jen's guide to getting a cool job without freaking out - Part I: Promotional perfection
By Jen Lass

It's that time of year again. You sit paralyzed in front of your computer trying to guess at the magic words that might prompt a potential employer to hire you - or at the very least invite you for an interview. Time is running out as you wonder, 'Should I mention that I worked last summer?' 'Do I tell them that I play hockey on the weekends?' 'Should I talk about my grades?' 'Do they care that my favourite food is ice cream?' Let's face it - you have a lot to offer. There are many details about yourself that you could give to employers. But, as you probably suspected, there are some aspects of your life that aren't appropriate to discuss in a job application.

The Principles of Self Promotion - Just as there are unspoken rules about surviving school life, there are general guidelines that are rarely passed on to students when they're trying to break into the working world. I reveal these essential tricks of the trade to you now:

Short and Sweet - Employers will often get hundreds of responses to a job ad. I can guarantee you that they will toss your hard work directly in the trash if your application is any more than a total of three pages in length. Résumés should never be more than two pages long. Similarly, covering letters should always be less than one page long, single-spaced.

Follow the Rules - Job ads outline specific methods of applying for a position. It is important that you take note of these carefully. If employers ask you not to apply by phone, they mean it. If they want both a résumé AND a covering letter, it's for a good reason. If you want to avoid being disqualified for the job before even applying, read the application rules and follow them exactly. There are some exceptions to these rules, but be careful about when and how you choose to deviate from an employer's instructions. Know the company you're applying to. Visit their Web site, or simply call and ask whoever picks up the phone what the organization does. Find out how large the company is, and how many departments there are. This will give you an idea of how to approach your application. If a company is large, you will want to follow the application procedure exactly - without exception. If it is small, you might try applying in person or phoning the contact from the job ad.

Only Tell Them What They Need to Know - As exciting as your life is, there are some details that employers just don't need to know. Following this principle will also help you achieve the 'Short and Sweet' principle. It is appropriate to talk about your relevant work or volunteer experience, awards you may have received, education, hobbies and some basic personal contact information. Facts that are inappropriate include marital status, age, criminal history, other personal information about your family, religion or heritage and salary expectations. Some of this information is actually illegal for employers to ask, so by volunteering these details you put them in an awkward situation. This principle also requires that you adjust your covering letters and résumés so that the information about your work experience is specific to each job. Don't reminisce about your days as a dog walker if you're applying for a desk job in a fast-paced law firm.

Be Perfect - Another way to lose your chances at job success is to provide an application that is full of grammar errors. Even one spelling mistake can knock you out of the running. Spellcheck, spellcheck, spellcheck. Then have someone else read over your résumé and covering letter for errors that the computer might have missed. By the way, don't forget about the accents on 'résumé'.

Get it There - Unless otherwise specified in the ad, try sending your application through every means available - fax, e-mail, mail. That way, if whoever receives your faxes accidentally tosses them, your application still has two other chances of getting through.

Practice, Practice, Practice
You all know that 'practice makes perfect.' So in keeping with the final principle mentioned above, I recommend that you make rough drafts of your résumé and covering letter before presenting them to employers. Show your first attempts to others and get their feedback on more than just your spelling - have them look at the organization and description of your achievements. Also, ask your school's career centre or guidance office about seminars that might give you further advice.

But knowing how to promote yourself and actually doing it are two different things. To learn more about the rules of covering letters and résumés, keep an eye out for the next article in this self-promotion series: Part II: Unravelling the Mystery of the Covering Letter.
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