Welcome to SixFigureStart®

Career Coaching by Former Fortune 500 Recruiters

Reader Question: How Do You Talk About A Personal Leave of Absence?

This question came after a webinar I led called: “How The Hiring Process Really Works.”

It was mind blowing to learn that my resume will probably not make it through the resume screening stage due to my current year-long (and counting) resume gap due to having a child (Note: in the webinar I mentioned that gaps of any kind, not specifically family-leave, raise red flags in a resume screen). In the meantime, how do you recommend mothers address a resume gap for time taken off to have a child and/or raise a family? In the beginning of my job search, I was very open to explaining that the gap was due to having a child, but I sensed some hesitation from several prospective employers once I revealed that tidbit of information. Lately my strategy has been to ignore the gap and only volunteer my motherhood status if asked. Should I explain the gap in my resume? What about in a cover letter?

Yes, you should explain the gap in your resume. No, don’t highlight the gap in your cover letter. And definitely NO, don’t attribute the gap to your kid(s).

First of all, for readers who haven’t heard me talk about gaps, I am a big believer from my 10+ years in recruiting that gaps are big dealbreakers in a resume screen. They are not dealbreakers for your search overall. It is actually not that difficult with the proper positioning to turn a gap to an inconsequential factor or even to your advantage. But that is only when you have a chance to position your gap – i.e., talk about it – and leading with your resume means you don’t have that chance to talk about it.

So, focus on networking and getting access to people so you can tell your story in a way that explains the gap in your resume. Mention the year (or more) as time you took for personal reasons. Then quickly move on to highlight what you did during the gap that is relevant to the employer at hand. If you studied something, talk about that. If you completed project work (whether volunteer or pro bono consulting or internships), talk about that.

You don’t want to dwell on the why of personal reasons because it’s not relevant, and you want to focus on what’s relevant. You also don’t know how the interviewer will react. You don’t know how they feel about working parents (or any other personal time off). Maybe they think you took too little time. Maybe they will start thinking about their own choices and wax nostalgic about their own family leave or get pangs of regret for not doing what you did. Maybe they will feel resentful that you made a choice they wanted to. Maybe they don’t care and will wonder if you always talk about personal things during a business meeting.

As you can see, there are many things that might occur if you bring personal issues into the discussion but they are all distractions. The best thing you can do is move on. This is the same reason why you don’t highlight the gap in your cover letter. The cover letter is to sell the good stuff, not the potential distractions. In the cover letter, you should mention the studies, project work, or whatever you did during the gap, so it’s clear there really is no gap, but don’t put any reasons there. Let them call you in based on what you did, not what you didn’t do.

The capital NO for not discussing kids is because it’s a distraction (as per above), but also because it is a hot button issue for some people. As a recruiter, I always wondered about candidates who freely brought up kids in the interview. Are they not aware that I am not supposed to discuss that in the hiring process – who doesn’t know that by now? Are they aware and trying to make me uncomfortable – what type of person would do that? Are they just unaware of the distinction between personal and business – what will they be like with clients if that’s the case? You can see that no good can come out of volunteering this topic. It is not about hiding anything. It is about having boundaries for yourself and for the prospective employer.


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Is It Possible To Over-Prepare For An Interview

In just this past week, several of my clients have sounded tired during our interview practice.  I even got a very detailed response that was related to, but not quite exactly on point to what I had asked.  These are hardworking jobseekers who I know are diligently working through the coaching assignments.  Is it possible to over-prepare for interviews?

Most jobseekers don’t prepare enough.  So don’t use this column as permission to slack off your search.  You still need to research the company, industry and specific individuals you will be meeting.  You still need to stay abreast of current events and be able to engage in timely discussions.  You still need to have the 3-4 key message points that will present you in the best light and position you appropriately for the specific job at hand.  So there is much work to do, and over-preparation is a rare problem.

Still, I’ve seen over-prepared candidates and other recruiters have seen them, so it’s worth discussing.  Over-preparation is when your answers sound rehearsed.  You lose the spontaneity and thoughtfulness in your responses.  Your answers may be relevant but not exactly on point because you sidestep the exact question and instead jump to the points you’ve memorized in your head. 

There is a better balance between under- and over-preparation, and the secret ingredient is listening.  For all interviews, you need to research and prepare your overarching message.  But with each interaction you need to listen to what is uniquely happening at that moment and adjust accordingly.  This means that you laser focus when you have an anxious or tough interviewer.  You let the story structure meander when you have a conversational interviewer.  You are ready with details or you move on depending on your read of what the interviewer wants.  In other words, you prepare in advance a wide range of responses but react to the moment at hand.  Preparation and practice is not a substitute for listening in the moment.  A good interview is a conversation to experience, not a monologue to prepare.

 Caroline Ceniza-Levine, career coach, writer, speaker, Gen Y expert and co-founder of SixFigureStart™ (www.sixfigurestart.com), coaches jobseekers using a recruiter’s perspective of what employers really want and how the hiring process really works. Formerly in corporate HR and retained search, Caroline has recruited for Accenture, Citibank, Disney ABC, Time Inc and others. Caroline is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Professional Development at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs and a life coach (www.thinkasinc.com).

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Avoiding Burnout From Your Job Search

Recently, I was interview coaching an otherwise very qualified and hardworking jobseeker.  Her vibe was frustrated, closed and all around unpleasant.  Essentially, she was a perfect example of the burned out jobseeker.  When you’re burned out from your job search, your interview responses get defensive.  You come across as an energy drain when you network.  You dismiss leads prematurely because you assume the worst.  Here are some ways to combat burnout before it derails your job search: 

Schedule weekly breaks from your search.  Many jobseekers I see start their search with a flurry of work and then go cold.  Then they restart, only to stop again.  Regular, systematic action is the best pace for your search, so schedule regular, systematic breaks as well.  Maybe a Wednesday afternoon at a museum, or an evening class unrelated to your search.  An added bonus is that these extra-curriculars are great examples of being well-rounded and interesting outside your professional work.

Pick an optimistic job search buddy.  Working with someone is a great way to stay motivated and have built-in accountability.  But beware that get-togethers don’t devolve into pity parties.  It’s okay to be candid if you’re feeling down but you have to move on, so pick a partner who will help you do that.

Celebrate wins big and small.  Keep a tab of the things that are going well with your search – the new people you’ve met, the old friends you’ve reconnected with, those meetings where both parties hit it off.  You should be constantly reviewing your search anyway to find the things that work for you that you can repeat and also to troubleshoot areas to fix.  But don’t forget to celebrate the things that are working also to remind yourself that, yes, you can do this, and it’s just a matter of time. 

We all have been to parties with the guest that just sucks the fun out of anyone they meet.  You don’t want to be that person.  Refresh as needed.  Hang out with positive people.  Encourage yourself with real evidence from past wins.  Avoid job search burnout at all costs. 

Contributed by Caroline Ceniza-Levine of SixFigureStart™. Caroline Ceniza-Levine, career coach, writer, speaker, Gen Y expert and co-founder of SixFigureStart™ (www.sixfigurestart.com), coaches jobseekers using a recruiter’s perspective of what employers really want and how the hiring process really works. Formerly in corporate HR and retained search, Caroline has recruited for Accenture, Citibank, Disney ABC, Time Inc and others. Caroline is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Professional Development at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs and a life coach (www.thinkasinc.com).

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How Final Round Job Interviews Are Different…Or Not

A workshop participant recently asked me, “How do I prepare for my final interview at [major financial institution]?”

Kudos to this person for recognizing that final round job interviews are different from other interviews.  At the finalist stage, the prospective employer knows much more about you and can tailor the interviews accordingly.  So dissect the rounds prior to this one and review what everyone who interviewed you asked and what you answered.  You need to be consistent.  You need to recall everyone by name (to show that you care).  You need to be able to summarize what you discussed (to show that you were listening).

However, you can never know that this is indeed the final round.  Unless you are a student and there is a very structured “Super Saturday” campus recruiting process where all interviews are completed in a day, it is never clear – even if they tell you it’s the final – that it’s the final.  A key decision-maker may not show.  The job spec may change ever so slightly just after finals time, and it turns out they need to screen for additional things.  Because you should never feel certain the final round is the final you need to interview as if there will be more rounds.  Don’t get over-anxious that this is a make or break.  Don’t get presumptuous pushing for a decision or making a hard close.  In this way, treat the final round like any earlier job interview.  Explicitly reiterate your interest.  Have intelligent questions to ask.  Leave them wanting more. 

I don’t want to give the impression from the above general pieces of feedback that I would not change how I coach a client through subsequent job interviews v. a general first round.  Since the employer knows more at this stage, so should my client.  We would need to review exactly what she said, not just to ensure consistency, but to assess what worked and what didn’t, what was left unclear or unsaid, what needs to be highlighted or refined.  Ultimately, the strategy for dealing with subsequent job interviews is highly personalized because each interview changes the nature of the job search relationship.  As the candidate, therefore, you need to be tracking this type of data and review it for what needs to be done specifically at this time and for this employer.  If you have two “finals” with two different employers, your strategy would still be different (same you, but different targets).  Final rounds are different, but each job interview is different, and a distinct, highly focused approach to each is required.

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3 Tips For Productive Interview Practice

A lot is written about how to interview well.  Most of the advice includes the benefit of practice.  But do you know the best way to practice?  You do not want the practice to turn into canned, impersonal responses.  You do not want to practice only specific questions so that you can’t deal with a question you didn’t expect.  You don’t want to practice bad habits.  Instead, here are 3 tips for productive interview practice:

Practice the process.  Dress up for your practice interview.  Set the environment to match where you might be.  Match the practice as close to the reality as possible.  In my mock interviews with clients, we open the session in interview mode.  No warm up coaching.  We just start.  The small talk we do is in the style of what would happen in the real interview.  That’s the way interviews are, and that’s the way they need to be practiced.

Practice phone interviews.  All of my clients practice phone interviews, not just live.  You need to handle phone interviews differently than live interviews.  The atmosphere is different – there is a danger of being too informal as you are typically in a more comfortable space.  The medium is different – energy doesn’t travel well over the phone.  The conversation is harder – you lose the visual cues so you have to listen more carefully in order to engage your interviewer.  If my clients are up to it, we tape the interview – no way to argue with their own voice saying those jumbled, hesitant, off-target responses.

Practice with someone who can actually help you.  One client gave me an interview response he learned from a family member that had me burst out laughing.  Turns out, as I expected, this person hadn’t been on the market for a decade, which explained the out-of-touch response.  Before you take advice, think about where it’s coming from.  If it’s a jobseeker, are they successful and do they work where you want to work?  If it’s a recruiter, what is their agenda and why are they being so candid?  (When I recruited I never gave candid feedback for liability reasons,)  If it’s a coach, are they psychoanalyzing you or do they know what it takes to get someone hired?  You want to get credible advice that you can actually use.  You don’t want to practice bad (or laughable) interview technique.

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Don’t Tell Me About Yourself

When recruiters ask the popular question, “Tell me about yourself,” they don’t really want you to tell them about yourself.  Recruiters don’t care to know where you’re born or why you selected that college or how you got your first and subsequent jobs.  They may ask and nod appropriately but they don’t really want to know.

Instead, they only want to know about you in relation to them.  If where you grew up means that you have an affinity to a geography that’s pertinent to an open position or their searches in general, then they care where you grew up.  If your first job is a direct parallel to a role they may have for you, then they want to hear about that.  The items of interest aren’t about you, but rather the link between you and the position.  Therefore, your primary objective isn’t to talk about yourself but rather to make that link between you and the position.

To this extent, your answer to “Tell me about yourself” can and should be different depending on who is asking you.  There are many facts about yourself so you can still be truthful while being selective.  Select those facts that highlight and strengthen the link between you and the person with whom you are speaking.  This of course implies that you know something about the interviewer and the position (remember to do this critical research!).  Then you can pick specific stories and examples that parallel the skills and experience you are expected to have.  You can highlight the interests that confirm you are motivated for the right reasons.  You don’t just tell them about yourself, but you reveal the myriad reasons why you are exactly what they need.

Remember, tell me about yourself = tell me why I should hire you.

Your interests = your desire for the job

Your background = your relevance to the job

Everything you say must promote and further your candidacy.  There is no line of questioning in the interview that is separate from the job.

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3 Tips For Harnessing Your Best Energy For A Job Interview

As a former recruiter I have seen too many candidates start their best interviewing 15 minutes or more into a job interview!  By this time it’s too late, and the impression has been sent that you are lackluster, not interested or otherwise not qualified for the opening. Instead, you need to arrive at the interview with your energy already at its peak in the reception area.  Here are 3 tips to ensure that, whether you stubbed your toe on the way in, squeezed through the worst traffic or just got up on the wrong side of the bed, you can still perform at your peak for that key job interview:

Listen to an uplifting song during your commute.  It doesn’t have to be the theme from Rocky, but it needs to be something that sets the upbeat, positive tone you will need to get you pumped for the interview.

Carry an index card with a motivational quote written on it.  When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.  This is a nice example from Peter Marshall but pick whichever one that resonates with you.

Use a picture or other visual to set the tone.  I look at a picture of my kids before I go into a big meeting.  It puts things into perspective for me (i.e., whatever happens with the meeting, I have a great life).  It puts me in a good mood.  It gives me that extra push (I want to land this deal for them!).

The picture, the quote, the song take very little time and effort from you but can be powerful motivators to bring out your best in that next big meeting.

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SixFigureStart on Examiner.com

Read my thoughts on what recruiters think of Exploratory Interviews in Heather Huhman’s recent piece for the Entry Level Careers Examiner:


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Don’t Leave The Interview Without Knowing These 3 Things

A job interview is a two-way street. Employers are checking you out, and you hope they pick you. But you are also checking them out, and you want your next move to be the best one for both of you. So don’t just answer the questions they happen to ask. Read the 3 key items you absolutely need to know in my latest post for Vault.com:


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How Do I Talk About Being Laid Off In The Job Interview?

While layoffs are more common and carry less stigma, it is still true that employers generally prefer employed candidates to unemployed. So you need to be truthful and acknowledge the layoff, but you don’t need to dwell on it. In fact, you want to move away from the topic quickly and refocus back on the positive aspects of your career. A good way to structure what you should talk about is to take your cues from the employed candidates.  Read my specific tips on how to do this in my latest post for TheGlassHammer.com:


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