Want a New Job? Do This Seven-Day Prep First

Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash.

I need a new job. Maybe you do, too. If you haven’t yet allowed yourself to admit it out loud, there’s no better time than now. I yelled this so loudly in a parking lot once that I drew several alarmed looks (but no job offers).

Whatever the reason, acknowledging the need for a new job — or, more challenging still, a new career — is emotional, in large part because of the investment in energy and time that securing one takes. Articles that average out the time it takes to land a new job don’t always account for regional employment, trends in hiring, or professional competition. Whether due to the nuanced realities of the economy, a desire to hire local, or simply the struggle to transfer skills into a new arena, I’ve been on the hunt since January.

To make the most of my time, I developed an easily replicable process: an approach that has made it possible for me to knock out a custom resume for any position that interests me in 30 minutes or less, as long as I’m smart about selecting opportunities I’m qualified for. This toolkit will better organize your mind and materials — not to land just the next job, but the one after that as well. The product you create isn’t a finished resume, it’s the thing from which custom resumes are created. I call this the Cumulative Accomplishment Resume, or CAR. Writers, especially self-help ones, like acronyms, and this one makes for an easy tagline: your CAR will take you far.  

Because time is of the essence when a new job is at stake, I’ve structured this CAR-building process into seven days of tasks. This allows you to get a little bit done every day without feeling overwhelmed (or being tempted to procrastinate). If you want to get your CAR done faster, go ahead! You’re in control of your timeline.

Are you ready to make your work experience work for you? Here’s what you’ll need.

  • Your employment records: any hiring letters, contracts, letters of resignation, recommendations, and/or resumes you’ve written previously. You’re going to be mining these for data.
  • A computer with internet access, so you can check whether a former employer is still in business or locate your former bosses’ email addresses.
  • Word processing software and a place to save your progress.

Day One: Details

Once you’ve collected everything listed above, it’s time to mentally prepare yourself for this exercise. Clear your head and focus your mind on work. Turn on the computer and open a new document: “Cumulative Accomplishment Resume.” Today, you’ll be assessing your complete employment history, recording any and all details that might be requested by a future employer. Start with your current employer — or if you’re unemployed, with your most recent job. These are the details that need to be teased out:

  • Job title
  • Company name
  • Company address
  • Company website
  • Phone number
  • Supervisor’s name (put an asterisk by the name if the supervisor can be used as a reference)
  • Supervisor’s title
  • Supervisor’s contact information (phone number and email address)
  • Dates of employment (start to end)
  • Starting salary
  • Ending salary
  • Why did you leave/why are you leaving?

This is the information most commonly requested in online applications for larger companies, government entities, or recruiters. You may also be asked to re-supply these details on a written application when you’re in an office awaiting an interview. Having all of the information in one place makes it easier to access, and saves you a lot of time. I keep this information handy in its own PDF file and accessible on my mobile phone, which means I can supply my former supervisor’s phone number in seconds. I try to leave my salary history off of applications whenever possible, but if I’m ever feeling nostalgic for a particular employer, remembering that they only paid me $24,000 a year stops the warm fuzzies in their tracks. 

Once your most recent job details are recorded, do the same for every job that preceded it. List each job separately, even if you held multiple jobs within the same company. Last only a month? List it. This is a comprehensive record. When writing down the reasons you left, you might remind yourself of potential deal breakers for future jobs. Traditionally, only the last three jobs or 5–10 years of work experience will be requested on an application; however, having access to your complete work history will help you develop customized resumes based on relevant experience, instead of providing a line-up of past jobs. Also, while you can leave a job off a resume, you shouldn’t leave one off a job application. As I understand it, resumes are self-promotion tools and applications are legal documents.

Now that the basics have been recorded, it’s time to write down exactly what you were hired to do. What were your day-to-day responsibilities? Do you have access to your job description, the one your boss posted when you resigned? Write two-four sentences that best convey the essence of the job you did. One of mine reads like this:

The Exhibit Manager is responsible for oversight of the content, budget, staff, schedule, training, public programs, components, and technology within and pertaining to the exhibition space. Working with available resources, they play an active role in coordinating and executing grant-funded and mission-focused initiatives, ensuring audience engagement and grant compliance.

The short paragraph should reflect the essence of what you were hired to do, nothing more. Blurbs like this can also be added to your LinkedIn page if you have one. Write a paragraph for each of your jobs, past and present. I copy and paste these into online applications when they ask for duties and responsibilities.

Let’s pretend I once held my exhibit manager job at an amazing museum that doesn’t exist (see: dream job). Here’s how I’d organize the information in my CAR, although you may choose to structure yours however you like. (Note: this wasn’t a real job nor is it a real place.)

Exhibit Manager

Museum of Modernist Architecture

The Exhibit Manager is responsible for oversight of the content, budget, staff, schedule, training, public programs, components, and technology within and pertaining to the exhibition space. Working with available resources, they play an active role in coordinating and executing grant-funded and mission-focused initiatives, ensuring audience engagement and grant compliance.

Company address

Company website

Company phone number

My supervisor

My supervisor’s title

My supervisor’s phone number

My supervisor’s email address

My starting salary

My ending salary

Why I left: to become a freelance creative consultant to museums and attractions.

Remember: in resumes, it’s what you’ve done in your previous roles that matters. Accomplishments are where invitations to interview are won and lost. You’ll focus on those next.

Day Two: Accomplishments

Open your CAR and locate your most recent job. Scroll past the details that you filled in previously and make your first bullet point. This is where you’ll record your first accomplishment.

What’s viewed as an accomplishment can run the gamut from meeting expectations to winning a national award. How many customers you manage on a daily basis might be an accomplishment, as can operating at capacity without incident. What do you think of when someone asks what you accomplished in your jobs? These sample questions will help you get started. Jot down anything that comes to mind, making separate bullet points for each achievement.

  • Did you get an award or exposure for your company?
  • Did you consistently stay under budget in your projects? By how much? Can you quantify a percentage?
  • Did your work help to raise revenue or reach? Did it bring in new donors or partnerships?
  • Did you collaborate or partner with others to meet a goal?
  • Did you leverage existing resources to do something new?
  • What impacts did you make?
  • Did you participate in a project team or committee? What was your role?
  • What new audiences have you engaged with?
  • Can you estimate how many people your work has reached?
  • Did you oversee the execution and delivery of any projects? What were they?
  • Did you make any recommendations that benefited the company?
  • Did you manage or supervise any staff, interns, or volunteers?
  • Were you involved in changing how things were done in your company? Did those things make work more efficient, more effective, or more profitable?

Check any previous resumes you’ve written and look for accomplishments that you might have forgotten. Don’t worry if your accomplishments seem a little disparate. Your varied experience is an asset if you’re making a career change. Don’t be afraid to write down (and share) accomplishments that are conversation starters. It’s okay to be a wildcard candidate; sometimes that’s what sets you apart. There is no accomplishment too small to note, especially if it’s relevant to the direction you want your career to take.

Through this process, you’re gaining a big-picture sense of your professional story. Who you are, what you can do, and how you’ve done it. When you’re writing, write in active verbs. Active verbs show action; they aren’t passive. Here’s a smattering of my favorites: produced, implemented, conducted, embarked upon, revitalized, coordinated, leveraged, devised, conceptualized, collaborated, revamped, evaluated, authored, piloted, developed, and created. Somewhere in my CAR is as an accomplishment that reads:

  • Oversaw the digitization of punk band Minor Threat recordings from the University radio collection, later transferred to Ian MacKaye.

While it doesn’t come up often, you better believe I don’t want to forget this. One of my career regrets is leaving that job before Mr. MacKaye visited the digitization studio in person.

Day Three: Other experience

It’s unlikely that your job history fully encompasses everything that you’ve done or are capable of doing. Take this opportunity to make note of everything outside of work that you may or may not have been paid to do, but that has professional value to it — volunteer jobs, community activities, leadership roles. Jot it all down and try your best to remember when you did it. Do the same for freelance gigs or anything else that falls just outside the purview of traditional employment. Add this experience to the end of your CAR, following all the work you’ve done thus far. You may not reference these experiences frequently in your resume writing, but it’s still valuable information to have at your fingertips.

Volunteering demonstrates commitment. Writing for a blog may reveal a knack for content creation. Operating a YouTube channel shows you know how to use audiovisual equipment, edit a project, and reach an audience. A membership in Toastmasters makes you a better public speaker. You might think that model building is only a hobby, but building models for low-budget movie productions takes skill. Remember to frame these experiences as accomplishments as best you can. As a face-painter, did you manage crowds? Have your photographs been published anywhere? How many views does your blog receive each month?

My “other experience” section includes writing newsletters for Pets on Wheels, arranging happy hours for a convention crowd, and doing wound simulation for an emergency services drill. I’ve yet to have an occasion to include the last one in a resume, but the perfect job is out there!

Once you write down all of these experiences, you might start observing patterns in your interests outside the office. This can be a humbling exercise, especially if your jobs and your interests don’t match up. It’s for precisely that reason that it’s important to list them out. If you don’t, it might never occur to you to reference your theater experience in your resume. You can, if you remember you have it when it’s relevant.

Sometimes listing all of your additional experience will spur you towards a career change; however, you shouldn’t necessarily assume that you need to work in events management just because you enjoyed setting up those happy hours. It’s all about skill transfer, not finding and following your passion. Follow opportunity instead.

Day Four: Professional development

Today, you’re going to create a section on your CAR for professional development. This will have several sub-sections.

The first is formal education. Start with high school. Education should always be included on your resume, and though you don’t need to list your high school if you have a college degree, some applications will ask where you went to school and when. Record it all. Make a note of your GPA if those records are available, because some employers request it. I scanned my transcripts and keep PDFs available to attach to applications when required. Write down relevant classes and credits towards a degree program even if you didn’t complete the degree. Some employers will allow you to substitute years of experience for missing years of higher education.  

Education isn’t just about what you learned in school, though; you likely learned even more outside of it. In today’s fast-paced environment, there’s an expectation that you’ll do what it takes to keep pace with changes in practices, technology, and knowledge. Consider what professional development opportunities you’ve received since you got your first job, be it workshops, webinars, non-credit courses, conferences, licensing, or certifications. Make sub-headings for each of the types of professional development that you’ve done. Yours might be conferences attended and online webinars, or it could consist of certifications and associate-level coursework.

If you’re well into your career, you might have had the opportunity to lead professional development seminars or speak at conferences. These are also accomplishments, so if you’ve not already included them elsewhere in your CAR, take the time to write them out. My own professional development section includes the following sub-sections: formal education with a listing of individual classes applicable to the work I do, workshops attended, workshops led, conferences attended, conference presentations led, webinars, and certifications.

Day Five: Skills

Some web-based application portals require candidates to upload their resumes and then list their skills, so it’s worthwhile to be prepared. Skim your CAR and see what stands out to you. Have you created or managed budgets? List budgeting as a skill. Are you proficient in any office or industry software? List the programs. Social media savvy? List the platforms.

Skills don’t have to be learned or practiced through paid employment alone. If you’re handy in a fabrication shop, a future job might benefit from your skill.My professional-level photography skills can be a selling point to potential employers. Make a thorough note of anything that could be counted as a skill, even if you’re not applying for those types of jobs right now. 

If your list is coming up short and you aren’t sure what constitutes a desirable skill, take heart. As you begin applying for jobs, you can take notes on which skills employers are looking for. Maybe you have those skills already and didn’t realize it — and maybe it’s time to improve your skill set.

Read and revise

It’s time to check your progress. Read through what you’ve written. If you have a partner, a mentor, or a trusting friend or relative, ask them to take the time to go through it with you. A fresh set of eyes might help you to recall more details about past positions and accomplishments.

Themes may begin to emerge. Maybe management is where you shine, or maybe you deliver your best results working independently. Perhaps your experience is pointing you in the direction of a career change. Whatever the case, reading your employment biography will bring those strengths into focus — and might shine some light on your weaknesses. (Now you have an answer to that dreaded interview question!)

A resume writer can finesse your wording, but a quick edit for content and grammar will allow you to start using your CAR faster. I prefer human proofreaders to programs personally, but use what’s available to you. From this point on, your CAR will serve as a foundational document for your resume writing. If you’re pressed for time, you can start using it to build your custom resumes now, but I strongly encourage you to read on and stay with me.

Day Six: The job hunt begins

It’s time to research and read recent descriptions of jobs that you might be interested in applying for. At this point, don’t limit yourself to local jobs; this is more of a global industry check. Job aggregators like Indeed have search engines that can quickly locate an abundance of opportunities all over the country, but they don’t always list professional-level positions, so you’ll need to expand your research. Many professions have networks and associations that support their professionals and reach them directly. There’s an association for radiologic technologists, themed entertainment professionals, professional resume writers, you name it. As you uncover these associations, look for job banks — that’s where you’ll find a lot of great job descriptions. 

Once you’ve located a handful of job listings that fit your interests and goals, note the skills and experience. Look for the actions among the job responsibilities. What would you be doing in that role? Look closely at the wording used in the ads and how the ideal candidate is described. Are you using those words to describe what you’ve done? Have you forgotten to list a key accomplishment that would relate to this position? If a job lists skills that you don’t have, can you gain those skills while still employed? Think like a hiring manager. What makes you a good candidate for this job? How will that be reflected in the custom resume you create for your application?

Honing in

Now it’s time to do a location-specific job search. Where do you want to work? A day of research can go a long way towards landing you your next assignment.

Bookmark all the job boards and employment pages you find that are specific to your experience and interests and that announce relevant opportunities within your desired location. Use your browser to set each of those pages as homepages that load on startup. This encourages you to parse through the listings every time you open your computer, which is an effortless way to kickstart your job hunt.

I used this strategy to find a job across the country in New Mexico four years ago. A state-wide professional association announced open positions and, when I saw one I liked, sent in a customized resume within 24 hours. My current search window is set to eleven pages. If there’s a job in my field, I’ll be one of the first to know.

If an organization you want to work for doesn’t have an employment page or association affiliation, try to find a phone number. Contact the HR department and inquire where and how they advertise for jobs when they’re available. Express your sincere interest, because a phone call does interrupt the workday. Alternately, see if you have any connections to the company that might reveal where it lists opportunities. Follow the company on LinkedIn, if it’s an option. Don’t rule out asking for informational interviews at places that interest you, either. Your authentic enthusiasm is a networking tool.

Day Seven (and beyond): Applying for jobs

Your CAR is complete and your job search is in motion. You’re ready to begin the application process! There’s no set timeline associated with applying because it’s going to be ongoing until you land the job you want. How long it will take is dependent on too many factors to count.

Use your CAR to tailor each and every resume to the potential job. Re-read the job description line by line and match up your accomplishments to their requirements and job responsibilities. That’s the purpose of the Cumulative Accomplishment Resume; it gives you something to pull from.

Here’s an example. A job that I want to apply for includes the following responsibility in its description: “perform ongoing financial management as well as long-term planning and reporting.” Looking at my CAR, I’d try to find accomplishments that fulfill that responsibility from the jobs I’ve already done. These two match it well:

  • Developed and managed the department’s annual $250K budget including all income and expenses for each of its programs. Reconciled Visa statements monthly with the Finance Department and kept track of grant-provided monies for reporting purposes.
  • Managed the completion of a three-year National Science Foundation grant, reallocating the $45,000 remaining in funding in the second year to achieve project goals for years two and three. Completed and submitted all required reports to the NSF.

Since I found multiple examples from different jobs I performed, I’d copy and paste both accomplishments into the resume I’m creating for this job, under their respective job titles, company names, and dates. Here’s how this might look:  


Exhibit Manager

Name of company

Dates of employment

  • Managed the completion of a three-year National Science Foundation grant, reallocating the $45,000 remaining in funding in the second year to achieve project goals for years two and three. Completed and submitted all required reports to the NSF.

Department Director

Name of company

Dates of employment

  • Developed and managed the department’s annual $250K budget including all income and expenses for each of its programs. Reconciled Visa statements monthly with the Finance Department and kept track of grant-provided monies for reporting purposes.

I would repeat this process for each of the responsibilities listed in the description, adding new bullet points for each match. If I ran out of space, I’d edit the accomplishments down to include only the best-matched and most relevant examples. The more you do this, the more familiar you become with your CAR, and the faster it goes.  

Each resume you submit should do its best to position you as the ideal candidate for the job. Different companies rarely use the same job descriptions, and the expectations of one company will not be the same as the expectations of another. Making resumes specific to individual opportunities shows effort, interest, and respect for the organization; it also helps illustrate how you can help them in the hiring process. Ultimately, the company wants to hire the person who is the best fit, not necessarily the most experienced candidate. That said, you can show off a little. I like to include one offbeat accomplishment in my resume, as long as I can frame it in an interview as a trait that makes me a desirable candidate, like creativity.

In formatting a resume, consider substance above style. Unless you’re a designer or working in an industry that places value on aesthetics, what your resume includes is more important than what it looks like, so long as it’s professional and proofread. The ideal length of a resume seems to be two pages; some organizations prefer it be limited to one. No resume you submit is meant to be a comprehensive history. Carefully curate what you choose to include. If an accomplishment is irrelevant to the job you’re applying for, consider leaving it off. Never send your CAR; that’s a resource, not a resume. 

I save a digital copy of each resume I create so that I can use them as templates for new jobs that come along. Every resume’s file name includes the name of the company and the job title. Each is saved as a word-processing document, but when it’s time to submit, I export them as a PDF file that includes my name. Saving the editable files saves me the trouble of starting from scratch every time I write a resume, which can be multiple times a day depending on my prospects. As the saying goes, work smarter.

From experience, I’ve learned that hiring committees will follow the links included in a resume. This means that if you include an online portfolio or testimonial page, include the link. I nestled mine into the top right corner on the first page of my resume. I’m able to see the traffic on the page, which helps me to know that companies are interested. I only include this link when relevant, but potential employers can Google me and get to it on their own.

Finally, make sure that you save a copy of the job description! I save PDF files of each job description and hold onto them until a company tells me “no.” If I’m interviewing, I bring a printed copy of the description with me to the meeting or I have it at the ready during a phone screening.

You Got the Job!

Congratulations! But don’t rest on your laurels. Once you’re employed, keeping your CAR updated will make it easy to apply for any other opportunities that come along, including grants or side hustles.

There’s another hidden level that you might unlock if you keep your CAR up to date after you’ve taken a job. If you’re tracking your own progress, you can report it to your supervisors. After 11 months with a new employer, I used a list of my accomplishments to negotiate a 9 percent raise. A perfect performance evaluation would have netted me only 3 percent, and most of my accomplishments were outside the bounds of the day-to-day responsibilities I was evaluated upon. After listing all of my accomplishments and how they benefited my employer, I also included up-to-date salary information from a survey of professionals in my field. This boost helped not only me but the person I hired to replace me when I was promoted. It made the company rethink the value of that role.

It’s for this reason that reframing your job around what you can do makes you a valuable player. Your accomplishments within a single job don’t just benefit the company; they also benefit you, if you know how to use them to your advantage. The time you save when you stop writing resumes from scratch gives you more time for skill-building, networking, and interviewing, the things that will help your job search the most. You don’t need to update your resume, you need to create your CAR.

Thea Aronson has worked in the GLAM field for over 15 years and recently mounted her latest job search with an eye towards changing careers. Her approach to resume writing has been so successful in getting her interviews that she almost pulled a Douglas Adams on her article’s deadline.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Career Change series.

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