In today’s workforce, the career “ladder” is an outdated concept. Modern careers tend to involve more lateral movement between roles, businesses, and segments, gathering experience and skills along the way. Some even include gaps of time between roles. This may be due to a layoff, or perhaps an intentional break from the job in order to further our career or take care of family. The point is, very few of us really follow a linear path.
However, some interviewers continue to favor a more orthodox career story. This is especially true if they run any sort of automated process, which relies on a computer program scanning resumes for keywords. If you have an unconventional career history, it can feel like the odds are stacked against you in an interview. You have to not only sell, but also explain, your career journey.
There is good news, though. More positions than ever are being filled via networking. So even those with the most unusual resumes have the opportunity to get past the computer, and into an interview. Once they get their foot in the door, they can articulate the unique value they bring to a role. And unique is what the best businesses really want.
Be proud of your career journey, regardless of the route it took you. Then, you can use these ideas to nail the interview process.
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Don’t dodge the issue
Depending on the unconventional nature of your resume, you may be tempted to avoid it altogether in an interview. Particularly in the case of career history gaps, dodging the issue can be attractive.
This approach puts you on the back foot if asked directly. It’s usually better to be honest and open about anything in your resume that might strike the interviewer as unusual. It’s certainly not a good idea to outright lie. This is simply storing issues for later.
Identify what in your career history is causing you concerns. Maybe you have career gaps you will need to explain, or you don’t have the direct experience that the job listing demanded?
We all have a bit of ‘impostor syndrome’ in interviews. Maybe you think that it has all been a mistake, and the recruiter will suddenly realise you are wholly unsuited to the position? That’s normal. Don’t panic, and instead think about how to use your unconventional experience as a positive.
If you’re describing a non-standard career path, then some of your experience might not be familiar to the interviewer. For example, if you have served in a niche military role, or started your own business in an unusual field, the recruiter probably knows little about what your world looked like.
Make sure you use simple, understandable language to explain what you did. Give ideas of an achievement that makes you proud, one which the recruiter can grasp. Maybe you travelled for a couple of years. Address this, but perhaps also throw in how you funded this time away. Saying, “I spent a year working my way around the world, visiting 10 different countries, and volunteering for 8 diverse organizations” is much more impactful than, “I took a year off.”
If you have unusual professional experience, then steer clear from using overly technical terms. Instead, try to connect with the interviewer on a human level. This might mean you come up with a succinct and simple description of previous roles which were actually quite technical. Run them past friends and family to check that they’re understandable to the layman.
Or if you took time out of conventional employment to pursue a passion, or care for a family member, think about how you explain your choice without getting sucked into a rabbit hole. Have a few words prepared in advance to avoid rambling or sounding unsure.
Focus on transferable skills
What a recruiter is looking for in an interview is transferable skills. Even if you’re describing time out of the workforce, you may have built skills and experiences in a way that you can ‘sell’ in an interview. Identify the skills that are key to the position, and think about how your experience plays into these requirements.
Maybe you were caring for a family member. Focus on the skills you developed — perhaps managing multiple priorities, liaising with public services, or really, truly listening empathetically to others. These are experiences that will support you in any management position, or where you take some element of leadership.
Or perhaps you started a business which ultimately failed. The success (or otherwise) of the business isn’t really relevant to the interviewer. What they are looking for is more the thought process, drive, and passion that led you to that path in the first place. They’re also interested in the technical skills you may have picked up on the journey, not to mention the resilience required to get back into the workforce after an unfortunate setback. Hold your head high as you describe all of this.
Live and breathe the right behavior
Understand the types of behavior the interviewer is looking for and think about how you authentically live and breathe them. For example, if you have dabbled in several career options, without having really settled on one, your recruiter might be concerned about your dedication to the position. You can tackle this head on.
Explain why the role is right for you, and why this one attracts you in particular. You can also demonstrate this by doing your research, being well prepared, and coming to interview with ideas that show you’re in it for the long term.
If you’re concerned that you have gaps in academic or professional qualifications, take time to research how you can close these gaps. Maybe there are opportunities to study online or part-time to gather the relevant skills. By showing that you are willing to continue learning and growing, you are demonstrating commitment to the role before you even get it!
Be proud of who you are
So you’re not a cookie cutter type? Good for you. You will find the right business or role that suits you, where you can best utilize your skill set to excel.
Whether your unconventional history was starting a new business of your own, taking time out to care for a loved one, or using your precious time to travel, you followed your own path. You will find an employer who values that above a ‘simple’ step-by-step resume.
Because you showed some individuality and drive, you have something unique you can bring to the party. Remember that and walk into your interview with pride.
Has your career path taken you on a few detours? How have you approached these in subsequent job searches?