The 5 biggest mistakes of career switchers

Summer internship recruiting is in full swing, which means I’m doing a lot of informational interviews with MBA students. I like talking to MBAs, especially the ones who are attempting the seemingly impossible—switching functions, industries, or both. They remind me of my own experience trying to weasel my way into the tech industry with a background in media & advertising.

The many times I was rejected from internships due to lack of experience.

The meetings with career advisors who tried to hide their obvious skepticism.

The steep learning curve as I struggled to communicate my ability to do the job.

It wasn’t easy, and I couldn’t have done it without a lot of support, grit, determination, and some luck. You career-switching journey will probably look very different from mine, and that’s fine. But I’ve learned a thing or two from my own experiences and from trying to help other career-switchers, and I’ve noticed some common missteps. Don’t let one of these mistakes hold you back.

You’re not connecting the dots.

You know (or strongly suspect) that you can do the job, but the recruiter doesn’t know that. You have to connect the dots for them as clearly and succinctly as possible so they know how your previous work translates to the job you want.

You can’t change your previous job titles, but you can get creative with how you describe the work you did. Sit down with a trusted friend or career advisor, someone who can provide an outsider’s perspective. Talk through the similarities between your previous role and the one you’re applying for. What skills or experiences do they have in common? When did you demonstrate those skills in your last job? The answers may not be obvious, so keep digging until you come up with 2-3 strong examples.

Now, write and re-write the bullets on your resume until they shine. Make sure your friend or advisor can understand what you’ve written with a minimum of effort. Remember that the hiring manager will be scanning your resume very quickly, so you don’t have a lot of time to get your point across.

You’re not addressing your weaknesses.

If you’ve got a well-written resume, no one will be questioning your strengths. But they will certainly question your weaknesses, especially if you’ve never done the role before. The most common weaknesses are on the soft skills/hard skills spectrum.

For instance: you’ve got a highly technical background but you really want to get in front of customers. Or maybe you’re great at working with people but need to be comfortable crunching numbers, too.

If this is the case, you probably need to make yourself sound more or less technical than you would normally. When I was applying to product management roles, I focused on the projects I’d done that required analysis and optimization to make up for the fact that I didn’t have an engineering background. On the flip side, an engineer applying for the same role would probably need to emphasize their communication skills.

You’re not using the right words.

Using language that is familiar to the hiring manager can help signal that you understand the role you’re applying for. Submitting a resume that’s full of unfamiliar jargon signals the opposite.

There are lots of resources to help with this. Start with the job description itself. Notice which verbs and phrases are emphasized. Next, stalk the company online. Besides the corporate website you can look for videos, interviews, blog posts, slideshows, and white papers. Last, schedule informational interviews if you can. Your goal is to understand how someone in a specific role speaks about their work so you can use that terminology in your resume and interviews.

“Speaking like a local” is especially important if you’re submitting your application online, which virtually guarantees it will go through some kind of electronic vetting system before it’s seen by a human being.

You’re not customizing your resume for each role.

When I was applying to internships, I created three “flavors” of my resume—product marketing, digital marketing, and product management. I kept each resume in its own folder and marked each revision with the date so I’d know which one was the most recent. Over the course of my internship search I probably did 5-10 major revisions for each version.

If you’re not customizing your resume for every role you apply for, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Even if the roles seem similar, there can be huge differences in what the hiring manager is looking for. Different roles also have different jargon (see #2 above), so you’ll need to deeply research each role. Don’t assume that your generic resume will always fit the bill.

You’re not learning from rejection.

Every rejection letter you get, and every interview you give, should be an opportunity for reflection and improvement. Where did you stumble? What questions were you unable to answer? When did you feel a lack of connection with the interviewer? Conversely, what questions did you answer particularly well?

Write down your impressions of the interview as soon as possible after it’s completed, while your adrenaline levels are still high and you have the best chance of remembering specific questions. You’ll want to look back over your notes when you’re preparing for your next interview.

It’s harder to learn when your resume falls into a black hole, but take each rejection as a sign that you’re doing something wrong (possibly one of the mistakes above). Go back over your resume with a fine-toothed comb and see where you can make it clearer, simpler, and more relevant.

Switching careers can be a challenging uphill battle, but it can be done. If you’re in the middle of applying to internships or full time opportunities, let me know if these tips help you. If you’re a successful career switcher, what would you add to this list?

BTW, here’s the ROI on my MBA

When I first told my mom I wanted to go to grad school, she got a pained expression on her face.

“But you’re going to be in so much debt!”

What could I say? It was true. From a purely short-term perspective, getting an MBA looked really scary. I was losing two years of income while accumulating more debt than most people ever carry aside from their mortgage. There were a lot of reasons not to go back to school, and I couldn’t be sure that the benefits would outweigh the costs. Continue reading

What I’m Really Thinking About During Our Informational Interview

It’s that time of year. The birds are singing, the flowers are in bloom, and thousands of MBA candidates are sending out informational interview requests. It wasn’t so long ago that I was in their shoes, desperate for help in my awkward, stumbling journey on the Dream Job Trail. My wagon had a broken axle, one of my oxen had died, and I was living under the constant threat of starvation. All I needed was enough money to pay a guide so I didn’t have to ford the river and risk losing all my supplies, when a member of my party died of dysentery and we had to stop to bury him. Continue reading

The Lost Art of Relaxation

It’s the last day of my epic post-MBA vacation. Tomorrow I return to the world of commuting, endless meetings, and regular paychecks. Right now I’m sad to see it end, but my leisure time and I haven’t always been on such comfortable terms.

Right after graduation, I was thrilled to finally have nothing to do. No homework, no meetings, no sitting in rush hour traffic for 2-3 hours a day. Did I mention no homework? This was the honeymoon stage. I slept in too late, ate luxuriously, and watched lots of bad TV. I rolled around in my vacation freedom like a dog in something particularly smelly. That’s kind of a gross metaphor, but you get the idea. Continue reading