College & Workforce Readiness

What I Learned From Helping Students Build Résumé and Interview Skills

By Catherine Gewertz — February 13, 2019 3 min read
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Los Angeles

Yesterday morning, I traded my reporter’s desk for a high school library in East Los Angeles, where I served as a “mock interviewer” for students who are trying to build their career-readiness muscles. What I learned inspired me and broke my heart a little.

The morning was the latest in an ongoing series sponsored by the Los Angeles Education Partnership, a 30-year-old nonprofit that uses corporate and philanthropic funding to support schools in Los Angeles. One of the ways it does that at the high school level is to gather volunteers for “mock interview” mornings.

About 25 people volunteered in yesterday’s session, from retired educators and marketing executives to officials of the Los Angeles Rams (and me). We were interviewing 11th graders at Esteban Torres High School, in a working-class, predominantly Latino neighborhood of the city.

The first student I interviewed, Aaron, impressed me. He’s just what employers want to see: a bright, well-spoken young man who arrives on time and well-dressed for the interview. His résumé boasted technology and graphic-design skills that will help him as he builds a career as a video game designer.

He kept great eye contact with me, and offered thoughtful answers to my questions. When I asked Aaron how he resolves challenges, he had a great answer: He said he’d work together with co-workers to identify the problem, weigh various solutions, and choose a fix that works for everyone.

Other than noting a few small formatting problems on his résumé, the only feedback I could offer Aaron is that he might want to research the company a little more before he arrives, so he can ask questions about the work itself, rather than just its pay and benefits.

When the next student sat down at my table, the picture changed completely. Kevin was clearly nervous. He looked at his lap more than at me. He bounced his left knee constantly, and chuckled at odd moments. I felt bad for him, and encouraged him to take a breath and start over.

Kevin had little clue how to answer an interviewer’s questions. When I asked him what led him to apply for this imaginary job, he offered generic responses like “I think I could do a good job.”

We worked together on a list of questions he could prepare next time for a real potential employer. We talked about the importance of good eye contact and a follow-up email the next day.

But my main concern was that no adult had ever helped Kevin recognize the value employers might see in his life experiences. He told me he’d never had a paying job. But he ignored the things he’d done for free. Kevin helps organize church fundraisers to send needy children to summer camp. He gets down on his knees to help neighbors tile their floors.

These are impressive choices that show off Kevin’s good character and his willingness to work hard. But he didn’t include them in his résumé or mention them in the interview. It made my heart hurt.

I suggested to Kevin that he include these activities in his résumé and make sure he discusses them with interviewers. I told him how his work had impressed me. He gave me a big smile and quickly looked down at his lap.

Matthew Moor, LAEP’s college-and-career-pathways coordinator, said it’s common for teenagers to leave such things off their résumés.

“A lot of students overlook the value in the things they do, like taking care of younger siblings,” he said. “They work in their communities, but don’t correlate it with leadership. It’s those daily things they don’t think of as important or worth mentioning.”

The next day, I’m still thinking about the way Kevin sees his life. Adults had failed him; no one had ever helped him see how impressive his community work was.

The adults in young people’s lives—teachers, counselors, school volunteers, family friends—can help. We have a role to play in helping teenagers see the value of their experiences, and teaching them to sell those experiences as strengths to employers.

Photos: Volunteers Debbi Laidley, top, and Scott Hayes and Alex Floch, bottom, in mock interviews at Esteban Torres High School. —Catherine Gewertz for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.