High rise offices in Chicago

“It will look good on your resume” is something I hear over and over again at university. And indeed, building your CV seems like a compelling argument for many students to join societies, volunteer or participate in extra-curricular activities.

If only you do enough impressive things like leading a society, then you will be rewarded with a fulfilling graduate job – that’s the logic many students subscribe to.

But is it actually true? Are resume-building activities a healthy way to develop a fulfilling career?

Leverage the myth of impressiveness to advance your career

If you think about it, students work on all sorts of amazing projects, from leading career-oriented societies for their college, fundraising for non-profits or starting their own side businesses.

But if you take a close look, you will see that these noble, innovative and fascinating projects are driven by two different groups of people. On the one hand, you have the pioneers, thought leaders and creatives who are on a mission to improve the world.

And on the other hand, you have a large herd of followers who do what they think will help them advance their careers. These are the people who join the university finance society because they think it looks good on their investment banking resume – when they actually couldn’t care less about the industry (hint: often, they only want to impress their poorer friends with their status and pay check).

However, as more and more people go to university, signing up for a career-related society at your college is no longer enough. The followers, who got ahead in the past by doing ‘all the right things’, are now going unnoticed in the masses – while innovators get lead amazing projects around the world.

The question then becomes: how can you be an innovator and what can you to stand out from the crowd? How can you use impressiveness to your advantage?

Using impressiveness to your advantage

Well, according to Cal Newport, the most impressive students are those who confound people’s attempts to answer the question ‘how did he do that?’. These are the people who write bestselling novels, start political movements and set up their own companies.

Now, let’s do a simple experiment to see if Cal is right. Suppose you are a hiring manager and you are evaluating these two candidates:

  • Samantha – She has been the editor-in-chief of her university newspaper for the past 2 years
  • Rachel – She wrote a bestselling novel was featured in the New York Times for four consecutive weeks

Who impresses you more?

For most people, there is little debate: Rachel is the star.

She has done something a lot of people dream about, but very few actually accomplish. And even though both girls’ accomplishments may command similar amounts of time and energy, we can’t really fathom what writing a bestselling novel takes. As a result, Rachel’s achievement appears to be more ‘difficult’ and ‘out of reach’, making her seem a lot more impressive.

So, how can you apply this idea of impressiveness to do something that is fun, but also helps you build your career?

Well, I would encourage you to start your own side project. Just find a community you like or grow your own tribe – and find ways to exceed their expectations. The secret to impressiveness then comes down using your network to shake loose exclusive opportunities that would be hard for people outside your community to simulate.

The catch of resume-boosting activities

Now that we’ve looked at how you can boost your resume, I want to issue a word of caution:

Recruiters can tell from your application or interview if you’re just doing something to polish your CV.

Polished resume

The hiring managers at big companies know that most people are in the game just for the money. They know that many students are far more interested in their first pay-check from a prestigious firm than the actual work they will do.

This means that you will stand out to hiring managers if you can show them that you are truly in the industry, company and position you are applying for. And as I already said, starting a side project is one way to let your interest shine through.

Do keep in mind though, that entry-level positions at large companies aren’t usually the best jobs you can get. Yes – they pay well, but many of them are notoriously boring (though there are exceptions). Recruiters know that young people often care about status and money than meaningful work. That’s why they write glamourous job descriptions that promise you heaven on earth. It helps them lure into starting some mundane data entry role.

Some other outrageous examples that I’ve seen are:

  • Media Distribution Officer vs. Paperboy
  • Chief Door Officer vs. Receptionist
  • Talent Acquisition Specialist vs. Headhunter

Be wary of fancy names which companies use to embellish job descriptions and make boring work seem fun. Instead, look for work you’ll actually enjoy and worry about the salary and status second.

Also, there is no point in sacrificing your happiness for a job you loathe, or postponing the life you want to live until retirement. You are much better off as a happy employee with a lower salary than being disgruntled and only playing the game for the money.

Combine fulfilment with a well-paid job

Fulfilment is more important than a well-paid job. After all, in 10 or 20 years when you look back on the start of your career, will you remember the dollar amounts on your bank statement or the times you were having fun with co-workers and friends?

Of course, you want to make enough money to live comfortably. But beyond that, what difference does it make if you earn an extra 1000€ or 10000€ a month?

Not much!

That’s why it’s way better to find a job where you can combine fulfilment with a reasonable amount of money.


Developing a T-shaped skillset

The secret to combining passion with profit is to specialise in an area with in-demand skills, while at the same time developing understanding of related disciplines. For example, as a marketeer you could choose to specialise in landing page optimisation, but you would probably also want to develop at least basic copywriting, SEO and email marketing skills.

This allows you to bring in your expertise on new marketing campaigns, but you would also work flexibly around your team and have the skills to respond to changes in the marketing industry.

Essentially, this idea of specialising in one area while also developing your skills in related fields – which we call becoming a T-shaped employee – allows you to work on the more challenging, interdisciplinary projects.

But how can you develop a T-shaped skillset?

It’s not as hard as it sounds. Just look for an industry you are interested in, and find a valuable skill to become an expert in. Honing this skill will give you a competitive advantage among other people in your industry. As you master your craft, try to work on different projects. This allows you develop other valuable competencies from your team members.

Say you love travelling and want to work as a tour guide. You’ll probably need to have reasonably good communication skills, but you could stand out by being the go-to-guy or gal for child-friendly tours. Or you could specialise on beautiful, lesser-known sights.

And of course, you can transfer experiences from one discipline to another. Like if you worked in B2B sales before, use your selling skills to win partnerships with the local tourism centre.

Or if you’ve been coding on the side and you want to go into finance after graduating from university, use those programming skills to develop new, faster solutions for data processing and analysis. This will give you a competitive edge over other candidates – especially if you can sell the value you will provide to the company in the hiring process.

Key takeaways:

So just to recap, don’t do something just to boost your resume. Instead, use your CV to convince hiring managers that you would be a good fit for the job. To craft a powerful story or narrative for your resume, you can:

  • Start your own side project to stand out to hiring managers
  • Look for jobs where you can combine passion with a pay check
  • Develop a T-shaped skillset to get a competitive edge over other candidates

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