How to beat the system to get a great job

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When you want to get a new job, don't look at your resume to see what you could get. Instead, take time to build a resume that meets the requirements of the jobs you want. This doesn't mean using keywords that are in the job description. That is not going to work. Instead, look at the types of experience that are required to get the job you want, and then get yourself that experience.

1. Make up a project for yourself
You don't need to be paid in order to put something on your resume. A resume is about experience, not income. So invent projects for yourself, and do them, and make sure you execute exactly what you need in order to put a bullet on your resume. For example, if you need to be able to say you executed national campaigns, then do one.

Jessica Goodman is a great example of this. She just graduated from the University of Denver and she's looking for a job in public relations or marketing. Inevitably, the job she lands will involve social media. Because that's where both industries are headed.

In the meantime, Jessica created a project for herself that showed her college counseling office why they should be teaching students how to job hunt with social media. (And she wrote a blog post about it.) This is a great project because whether or not the college does anything with it, Jessica conceived and executed a project to promote an organization-wide adoption of social media tools.

2. Work for free
You don't need permission to get the experience you need to get the job you want. And you don't need to be paid to do every piece of work. It's true that if you work for free all the time, people will not value your work. And you'll have to marry very rich, or starve. But work for free sometimes, when you can gain important experience that you can leverage to get high paying work.

The way I got a nationally syndicated column was to write my column for free for two years. That's right. Every week for two years. And the way I got my first online marketing job was to nag my boyfriend for weeks and weeks until he let me do a marketing project for his company for free. (I did it for a project that involved U2, and I swear, that was my golden bullet for five years of interviews. Who doesn't like to talk about U2?)

3. Use other peoples' resumes to build yours
If you aim high — to jump a few levels in your field, or to switch fields but skip the entry level — then it's sometimes hard to conceive of what a resume should look like for those jobs. The best way to make sure you have the right resume is to find people online who have already had the job you want. Look at their resume. Look at the bullet points they've collected.

Then transfer those bullets to your resume and start figuring out how to make them true for you. It's focused skill-building and it's very smart — you gain the exact experience you need to get the job you want. So much of what we accomplish at work is not relevant to the next job we want. It's hard to control what you do in your job (but you should try). However, you can control the work you do for free. So start with the bullet you want to write for that work, and then maneuver yourself backwards into the work.

4. You don't have to do everything perfectly, just try
It's very hard to do something outside of what you know you’re good at. Usually, the first time is extremely difficult, which is why I suggest you do it for free. Give yourself freedom to execute on a plan to get that special bullet on your resume even if the execution is not great. Perfection is totally overrated, and just having the guts to make an effort is totally underrated.

The first speech I ever gave was at a business school. It was a disaster. I thought it was supposed to be ten minutes and it was slated for fifty minutes. The speech sucked. But when it came time to write the bullet, I could say that I “give speeches at business schools.” This opened the door for me to give speeches at lots of schools. (And, good news, they have all gone really well since then. Here's one.)

5. Have patience
You will need at least a few months to envision the resume that will land you the job you want, and then gather the bullets you need for that. It requires planning, and commitment, and a leap of faith — in yourself.

But really, all three of those characteristics make a great employee, so maybe that will be a bullet for your resume, too.

72 replies
  1. Danilo
    Danilo says:

    I find myself profoundly excited about this post because I want a great job and created projects for myself that would help me get one. My truest calling and passion is product and user experience development. So I bought a bunch of books and taught myself how to program for the iPhone. I shipped my first two apps in January. Great job, I’m coming for you!

  2. AnthonyF
    AnthonyF says:

    Thanx for validating what I’ve been saying. People ask for your help when making a resume but they don’t want to do the work needed to get the desired position.

    Great points about focusing on the experience and making your bullets true…

  3. Rhona
    Rhona says:

    Hey Penelope,

    Love the post, but whats happened to your font choice? Sorry but I find Times New Roman unreadable on screen. The rest of the site looks lovely and then we are cast back 20 years by virtue of the font.

    Rhona x

  4. Angie
    Angie says:

    Very timely post! I especially like #3 — great way to develop a focus. As for perfection being overrated, I especially like what my supervising editor often says: “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” (sometimes she switches it up to say “Perfect is the enemy of good.”)

    • Julie Aubrey
      Julie Aubrey says:

      From experience I can highly recommend Elaine Basham for resume writing!

      Elaine Basham and her business partner Sue Sarkesian work together with you to 1) put together an exceptional resume and 2) inform you of where on the web to be getting your resume out there and searching for jobs. Together their business is call The resume Group.

      Read her summary on her Linked in profile:

      I actually stumbled on Elaine by reading one of Penelope’s blogs/articles. (If I remember correctly Elaine had written Penelope’s resume at one time. ~ Penelope, correct me if I’m wrong.)

      One last comment the cost of their service is worth it!!!! After talking with them about my work experience (and lack of in some areas) I truly felt like I had someone in my corner supporting me! When I saw the resume Elaine wrote for me i almost wanted to cry. It was exceptional!

  5. Louise Fletcher
    Louise Fletcher says:

    Oh how true!

    One of the coaching questions we got via Brazen Careerist was from someone asking ‘I’ve been offered more responsibility but my boss says they can’t give me the title or the salary bump just yet. Should I say no until they give me a pay increase?’


    Especially in this economic climate, you have to make your own destiny.

  6. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    I was really fortunate to have a career counselor in college who helped me tremendously with the simple advice of taking the really important leadership and activities bullet points and putting them up in the job experience section. I had titles, and a job description, and success, so it really was experience, I just wasn’t getting paid for it. But employers don’t really care whether you are paid or not. All that stuff was in my portfolio anyway.

    This also helped me change my mentality about work while I was still in college. When you see that everything you do that’s related to your field is actually work, you treat it like work, and that’s what it becomes. You can decide to make something relevant experience simply by your attitude and the effort you put in.

    Now I make it a point to tell all the students, interns and job seekers I meet that if they don’t have experience, to get it – whether anyone is offering it or not.

  7. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    This post is really applicable to me right now, as I am searching for jobs outside, or tangential to, the field I originally landed in after college & graduate school.

    I’ve found a lot of advice, some conflicting, about resume formats online. For switching careers, many recommend a functional resume format is best. It will highlight skill sets that are not specific to a particular job and instead will place focus on the transferable skills that you can bring to the table in a new career. Though I’ve also heard that many people, including recruiters, don’t like resumes that aren’t chronological and may even turn them down. I don’t know how much truth is in this.

    It sounds like the kind of resume format that would lend itself to your advice is the functional resume. I like it! But am I correct in saying this, or would anything work, as long as it makes you shine?

    • Catherine
      Catherine says:

      Hi Amanda,

      I totally agree with you and I am in the exact same boat- I was in one field for after 7 years after school, but left for something more lucrative. Now I dread going to work everyday and want to go back to my field. ugh. Which resume type did you end up using and did it work for you? any feedback either way? I personally think recruiters need chronological, but again recruiters have no jobs these days anyway. If you chose the functional-how did you research how to make your resume stand out and be targeted to your new positions? Thanks!

  8. Miriam Salpeter, Keppie Careers
    Miriam Salpeter, Keppie Careers says:

    All great ideas, and a reminder to “drive your own career bus” ALL of the time, not just when you think you might lose your job! Often, careerists forget how much of their work destiny is really in their own hands.

    I suggest my clients use LinkedIn as a resource to learn about key skills necessary or desirable for professionals in their targeted fields. It is an amazing data base, not only to seek connections, but to find information. Also, remember that not every LinkedIn profile is great – even if the person is very successful. Be discriminating and emulate profiles that clearly are a “head above the rest.”

    My first boss always said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” So true. However, in this competitive environment, it’s so important to apply for opportunities with materials that represent the very best you have to offer. I’m biased, but I think that a coach or resume writer is an invaluable asset for a job seeker hoping to take that next big step!

  9. Jimmy
    Jimmy says:

    I believe that as a note, if you are building bullets on your resume to match to a job requirement, make sure that the actions you take to earn that bullet will be suffecient to deliver on the job. As we’ve seen in the past when there is a surplus of qualified candidates on the market, companies will feel very at ease with practicing fast failure with new hires.

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I saw the video of your talk about networking at Cornell about a year ago, thought it was very good, and am recommending it. Kudos to Cornell for making the speech available. I liked the content of the talk as well as the fact it included a discussion with the students.
    Suggestions for the people at Cornell –
    1) the video is over an hour long so I think it should be segmented into two or three parts,
    2) the length of each part should be displayed,
    3) pass a microphone to each member of the audience as they ask their questions, and
    4) schedule another talk with Penelope.

    Good post by the way and I’m glad to see you posting more this year.

  11. Monica
    Monica says:

    This is an excellent post, and I was glad to see that I’m already doing some of your suggestions.

    I am constantly thinking about how to differentiate myself from all the other 1000’s of job seekers. I know the kind of work that I want to do (urban planning), so I created a website to showcase my ideas, writing and research.

    I haven’t written any articles yet (one is coming soon) but I’m already starting to tell potential employers about it.

    Yes, I’m writing for free, but I’m getting the publicity that I need AND employers will already know what they are getting with me.

    • Belinda
      Belinda says:

      You haven’t written anything, but you’re telling people that you have or you will or you might? That’s impressive.

      Blog posts, oddly enough, really don’t compare to actual published work.

      “Perfection is totally overrated, and just having the guts to make an effort is totally underrated.”

      It’s underrated for a good reason–who care if you tried? Trying isn’t doing, close only counts in horseshoes, and gold stars are for preschool.

      Trunk’s writing is really great, but her underlying philosophy makes fortune cookies look profound. PT should write a roman a clef of her life and make a ton of money.

      • Wil
        Wil says:

        I wonder what your line of work or field of study is, Belinda.

        This may surprise you, but there are fields of work/study (Sciences, R&D) where trying is what it’s all about. You don’t “do” physics or math. You try. You keep trying. You fail. If it’s something new, you fail a lot. You (hopefully) learn from your failures (key point #1). (Hopefully) you try something different (key point #2). Ideally, at some point you find a solution that works. Thus, the difference (and value) is derived from the learning and creativity that goes along with trying, which is what many/most employers are looking for.

        Got it? Alrightythen!

  12. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    I would like to add to point 4: You don't have to do everything perfectly, just try

    How about this: when you crash spectacularly at trying something, why not do analysis of what happened and come up with what happened, why it happened, and what could have been done differently? A lessons learned bullet on many of the crashes will help. If you can’t answer the what, why and different choices that could be made, just trying isn’t going to help you get that great job.

    On another note, even if you haven’t done a particular job, highlight any similar experiences.

  13. Raven
    Raven says:

    I wholeheartedly believe that volunteering and doing work for free is the best way to get experience. Right now, I’m “working” as a community journalist and an exhibit curator for a 2 local NPOs. I get experience, build up a portfolio and have connections who can reference my work. Not to mention, you gain contacts in the industry/career you are interested in entering.

  14. Kristi Daeda
    Kristi Daeda says:

    Love the post, Penelope.

    In my experience, small companies are great training grounds. There’s usually more to do than there are people to do it, and less channels to go through to get the go ahead. If someone was looking for a good place to pitch an idea like this, I’d start there.

  15. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    This is an awesome post, Penelope, and it’s really helpful for me right now. I sometimes forget that just because I didn’t get paid, doesn’t mean it’s not experience. So, I just opened my resume and added that I’ve been an interview subject on a radio show. It was just one time, I was very nervous, and it was unrelated to my day job (but totally related to my blog!) but very much a bullet point that needed to be there.

    This is not the first time you’ve offered excellent advice that I’ve put to good use so thanks!

  16. Mark F.
    Mark F. says:

    In difficult times, my recruiting team looks for the differentiator on the resume or in the interview. Volunteering is like the extra 5 points on the civil service test. It’s the intangible seperating you from the masses that often lands the job…Volunteering involves passion, committment and selflessness…all qualities employers look for, especially Gen-Y employees…
    I think your post is spot on today!!!

  17. J
    J says:

    Love it Penelope. Great advice and so really helps to get a good, clear picture of others who are doing what you want to do. It’s along the lines of bios- you should always read the bio of anyone that does something that is even close to what you want to be doing, so you can get an idea of their education, previous jobs, etc. And these things tend to have a snowball effect and you may find another bio or resume to read based off of the initial one. All good stuff.

  18. Froggylou
    Froggylou says:

    This post is exactly why I work two jobs and volunteer at two places. I’ve been on to this for years! And it’s working out beautifully for me.

  19. Grace
    Grace says:

    I think this advice can also apply to formal education. With more access to information than ever before, and with the ability to connect with those around the world, universities are no longer the only place to get advanced knowledge. If you have the drive, focus, creativity, and willingness to invest in yourself, you too can become an expert on almost anything. Just read all the books, stay current on the latest research, work alongside others in the industry, and get some work experience in the field. Also, you can easily specialize as you won’t be required to take courses you are not planning to use. Of course, I wouldn’t go to a self-taught brain surgeon, but not everyone has a job that requires a formal degree.

    Not everyone has the self-motivation required to do this, and the advantage of a formal education is that someone else is involved, helping you to be accountable. That, and it’s hard to get the bank to give you a student loan for self studies.

  20. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Jonathan Fields, author of Career Renegade, makes a great point in this video ( about transitioning to a new career path.

    He says that people can learn new skills and gather new experience by simply “giving up their TV time”, and using all the free tools and resources that exist on the Internet. Pursuing a new career path doesn’t have to involve going back to college or getting an “official” education. Something to think about next time you turn on CSI.

  21. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:


    I daresay if someone has the creativity, the enterprise and the patience to do what you suggest, they are better off working for themselves rather than seeking a job!

    At entry levels, they will not get the recognition or the reward proportionate with the contribution they make to an organisation; and it takes a while to progress upward in companies esp. in tough times when politics comes into the mix more headily than otherwise.

    A job really isn’t the ticket to heaven that it used to be for our parents’ generation. In fact, my corporate-job holding friends are right now wrecked with stress, uncertainty and the drain that politics and back-biting becomes.

  22. Dubious George
    Dubious George says:

    “Use other peoples’ resumes to build yours” reminds me of an old habit of mine.

    I used to collect coins. Unfortunately, I used to use collect other peoples’ coins and used them to build my own collection.

    It all ended in tears, but wasn’t without success in the short-term.

  23. Chris Gammell
    Chris Gammell says:

    In recruiting for engineering, I always look for hobbies that match your profession as a differentiator. If you work all day on an analog circuit but then go home and read about them in your spare time or work on a hobby involving them, it shows passion. And passion is something you can’t fake…it’s even pretty hard to show it on a resume. Some people say this shows one dimensional nature, but I think the people that look for “well-rounded” people aren’t looking for engineers.

    I think the main point is, show passion for what you do, either on a resume, blog (resume 2.0), project or in an interview. That’s how you’ll get noticed and that’s how you’ll get the job.

    ~Chris Gammell

  24. Benjamin Strong
    Benjamin Strong says:

    Perhaps a more appropriate title would be “How to beat the system to get, and keep, a great job”. Let me explain.

    Our travel budget was cut to zero. Our responsibility to market our program internationally, however, was not cut. We used your advice in number one and created a new project for our office.

    Because we are in New York City we negotiated with another agency to use some “regal” wood paneled rooms to hold informational meetings and ceremonies. We then created a new awards program similar to what we do internationally. Instead of traveling to India, Norway, or China we simply invite international embassy staff to our “regal” meeting space and hold the award here in the city. It’s perfect and gives us greater credibility when engaging our international partners.

    I am thrilled we were able to put this good advice to immediate use!


  25. matt
    matt says:

    hey penelope.

    patience? after owning two search firms and counseling thousands of people and building dozens of companies, there is a place for patience.

    can i add?

    1. define your perfect job. find out what it’s title is. then go to monster, careerbuild,, or whatever niche job board.

    2. do a search on the title.

    3. most of them will probably be posted by recruiters. submit there.

    4. write down the company names that are posting directly (no recruiters)

    5. who would you report to? you have your kick ass resume. you’ve worked for free, you’ve built some projects, you’ve had patience.

    6. now call the director, supervisor, agent, whoever you’d report to and ask for a meeting.

    7. don’t forget to CALL the recruiters. sometimes what they post is not the only job they are working on. (often what recruiters post are their hardest to fill)

    8. in summary CALL CALL CALL. pick up the phone and introduce yourself and set up a meeting.

    9. then call call call. again.

    good luck.

  26. Irina I
    Irina I says:

    Thanks for the post! I have come to most of these conclusions myself already, but the “use others’ resume to build yours” is something I have not thought of, but is so useful! I like this tip because it is easily implemented and gives clear direction on what to do.

  27. Jessica Maurice
    Jessica Maurice says:

    Great post Penelope. Good points to ponder, and also some good ideas in the comments aready. I’m definitely going to search out some resumes a step higher up the ladder….

  28. Elaine Basham
    Elaine Basham says:

    I love this advice! In this economy, if you don’t have a killer resume, you’ve hobbled yourself before you even know whether or not you should be in the running. You have to tell your professional story in a way that compels the person who makes hiring decisions to contact you.

    Volunteer experience IS becoming the X-factor that tells hiring managers you’re willing to go the extra mile. Volunteering/working for free are great ways to expand your skill set.

    But the best resume on the planet isn’t going to do you any good unless you also commit to being proactive in targeting the resume to the right people. You need a strategy and action plan to develop relationships with recruiters/hiring managers – make follow-up phone calls, check-in via email, and stay on their radar (without stalking them!).

    I do have to correct one point in Julie’s comment above – while I wasn’t the writer who created Penelope’s resume, I was one of the people who oversaw the process. Several years later, Penelope was a driving force in convincing me to form The Resume Group.

  29. Eric
    Eric says:

    Hello there.

    The second point is what I done when I thought about changing of carreer.

    I used my hobbies. That was not only hobbies in fact. I worked for severals years as an online team leader but I was volonteer. At this time, I didn’t really thought about it like “work” but more like “hobby”. Then, when I gave to it a second thought I realized that I could make it valuable in a resume.

    I was hired by the leader company in my domain two weeks later.

    I use to give a lot of resume advice to young people for their first or seconds jobs. They really often forget the great things that they accomplish in their day to day life.

    Just because you don’t consider your hobbies like work doesn’t mean it cannot be transmutated into it on a resume.

  30. Henway
    Henway says:

    1. Make up your own project
    2. Succeed at it and you’ll have something to put in your resume.
    3. Succeed well enough and heck, you can work for yourself, and not get a job ever again.

  31. Nithya
    Nithya says:

    Thanks for pointing out that the resume is about experience, not income. As a stay-at-home mom for the last severeal years, its been a struggle to get back to the work force. I’ve heard a lot of similar stories from other SAHMom’s too. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work during this time that involved using my accounting education and abilities. I do hope that hiring managers will value experience without income and consider the candidate as a potential employee.

  32. Ann
    Ann says:

    Great post! I’m an internal corporate recruiter and one of my biggest challenges is helping current Employees frame their experience and sell themselves like external candidates do. Often our current Employees are just as or more qualified/talented, but they don’t know how to present themselves. Hiring managers will give the benefit of the doubt to an external candidate who we have no experience with instead of a current Employee which is contrary to what one would think, but happens never-the-less. We work with our Employees to create individual development plans so they can compete with the externals when future openings occur. Your advice will be very useful to many of our Employees in our talent development pool. It’s a very clear, concise, step-by-step way of looking at how to make yourself more qualified for the position you want.

  33. Neal Wiser
    Neal Wiser says:

    Great post, but I take issue with “Use other peoples' resumes to build yours.” If you’re honest and use other resumes a something to model after, that’s one thing. However, I recently received a resume from someone seeking a position in my company and the applicant had actually copied, word for word, very specific points from MY Resume (I had interviewed with him the previous year, so he had a copy of my resume). Needless to say, he didn’t get the job, but I wouldn’t encourage the practice.

  34. Jeff Miller
    Jeff Miller says:

    I just started reading your blog. Wonderful stuff.

    I am an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, graduating in May. I decided to put together a website to help market myself on the job market. So far it’s been a great way to focus my goals, think about interview questions, and to pull together an overall marketing plan for myself.

    Anyhow, I look forward to reading your book.

  35. Ryon Harms
    Ryon Harms says:

    It’s funny because I doing research for a project that I started for myself when I came across this blog. For the last two years I’ve been working as the President of an Investor Relations firm but all along I’ve had a secret desire to work in social media. So now that I’m unemployed I started my first community. It’s called The Hunted. It’s a free central repository of inside information that gives job seekers an edge over employers. Members share interview experiences like names and contacts of HR personnel and hiring managers, as well as any other information they think will help fellow members applying to that same company later on. Check it out if you’re interested:

  36. Faryal Humayun
    Faryal Humayun says:

    To land the desired job, social networking has proved very beneficial. This includes searching in the job directories, job portals, and using tools such as LinkedIn, FaceBook and Twitter.

  37. Capileira
    Capileira says:

    What a great mostly well overlooked statement. “Don’t send your resume – build your resume according to the requirements of the job offer.” Can’t agree more; your tip to work for free (here and there) to achieve new work experience is a good option while unemployed too.

  38. arya
    arya says:

    Absolutely right. People are not looking for resume only but their experince.
    But, we must more creative to blow up ourself.
    This 5 Steps are very great article. very useful for jobseekers or company.


  39. William Mitchell, CPRW
    William Mitchell, CPRW says:

    The goal is to “speak” to the reader’s needs, so the even-handed approach rarely works, especially in this economy. A good resume is more art than science since every individual’s background is going to be somewhat different. Two professionals seeking the same position could have two vastly different resumes. This is why I am not so sure about the recommendation to build one’s resume from the resumes of others. Without knowledge of why things were done, you’re still shooting in the dark.

  40. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    “Perfection is totally overrated, and just having the guts to make an effort is totally underrated.” There’s nothing more motivating than such a statement. The idea of working for free can be devastating for some but imagine the times and efforts wasted looking for jobs that you will never be qualified without the experiences you can gain through volunteer work or service. Sometimes the very best lessons gained in life are those from the moments we shared our time for free because we enjoy what we do. Not that I suggest that we work for free, we just need to know when to help (without expecting anything in return).

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