Job Advice for New College Grads

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What Should I Focus On To Help Make Me A Good Candidate (More Than A Year Before Graduation)?

Posted by James M on January 9, 2009

This post is dedicated to those students who have a year or more left before they graduate from university.  For those that have less than a year, I’ll be writing a post for you soon.

In this post I’ll rank the key areas of focus in order of importance.  These rankings are not absolute and we’ll talk about some of the exceptions as we move forward, but all things being equal this is how I would rank them.

  • GPA
  • Work Experience
  • Research
  • Volunteer Experiences
  • Study abroad opportunities

Let’s break this down a little further:


For better or worse your grades are the number one factor influencing employers (at least on paper).  That isn’t to say if you don’t have a 4.0, you can’t get a job.  You most assuredly can.  But if you have 1 year or more left in your college career, you have enough time to significantly alter your GPA.  More importantly you have the chance to establish a strong upward trend in your academic performance.  So although you may not be able to say “I have a 3.8 cumulative GPA.”  What you might be able to say is, “Although I struggled early on in college and only achieved a 2.8 GPA going into my last year and a half of college, I was able to focus and achieve an overall GPA of 3.4 in my final two years.”

It is also important to note that your GPA is the only piece of your application that has minimum requirements for some entry-level positions.  Often times I have seen companies who require a 3.0, 3.2, or 3.5 GPA to apply for a particular position. This is not true of work experience, volunteer experience, undergraduate research, etc.  So, while your lack of work experience or research may inhibit your application, your GPA can, in a very real way, completely exclude you from particular positions.

The final reason to focus on your GPA is more of a philosophical one.  You are going to college to learn and your GPA is as good a measure as is readily available of your success in learning the target subjects.  Volunteering is good for the planet and work experience provides professional self-enrichment, but you are not going to school to work.  You are in school to learn, so that later in life, namely after you graduate, then you can begin a career.  Someone is paying a lot for your education, maybe your parents or a family member, maybe the government, maybe yourself, but either way your time in class is being paid for.  Do your best to respect yourself and your personal academic pursuits and the parties that are paying for your education.


Work Experience

Work experience is the next most beneficial item for boosting your application.  Although, a terrific research opportunity or volunteer experience may be worth giving up an internship or co-op for, work experience inherently offers something the other two options can not—a chance to work in the “real” world.  The chance to earn a paycheck.  The chance to be a legal member of a corporation or non-profit and have the responsibilities that go with that position.

Work experience is also the most practical of the areas I’m discussing here.  The reasons are obvious—if you are looking to work at a corporation or non-profit after graduation, what better way to prepare than working for one of those entities before graduation.  Make the most of your internships and co-ops, taking on extra responsibility when possible, turning in only the highest quality work, and doing as networking as possible.


Volunteer Experience

I am a big fan of volunteer experience, and I think it only becomes more important and applicable as your time in university diminishes.  My belief is based on the wide array of so-called “soft skills” (leadership, teamwork, etc.) than can be gained while volunteering.  Many of these skills and experiences are highly sought after by employers and are one of the key components they look for in work experience that we discussed above.  Work experience often has the benefit of being more relevant, however volunteer experience has the advantage that it is often more accessible.  Given a year or more, it is not at all uncommon to be able to lead multiple major projects, one every few months or so, at one or more community organizations in your neighborhood.  These projects don’t have to be complex, leading a park cleanup, organizing a food drive, or helping to make partnerships with new clients are all exceedingly valuable experiences that will really make your application stand out when recruiting season comes.  So start talking to organizations in your area and see what leadership roles that have now, or in the near future that you can hop aboard.



Research has both benefits and drawbacks.  Because research takes place in the academic environment it offers a great chance for personal enrichment in a particular area of academics.  Indeed most research projects involve very specific investigation and experiments in search of an answer to a specific hypothesis.  This narrow focus, benefits the student by making them a subject matter expert, at least in principle, on a particular topic.  But because of this specificity, the broader subject knowledge and body of skills used in a typical entry-level position in a corporation are not developed.

This has to be weighed against one’s ultimate career goals.  For some, who hope to go back to graduate school or get a post in a research laboratory or academic facility, research may be the most important experience to acquire while getting an undergraduate education.  However, for most students that is not the case, and in general an undergraduate research post does not offer the practicality and breadth of experience as more traditional internship or co-op work experience.

That being said some school’s research programs partner with outside organizations in more of a joint approach.  If this is the case, especially if the collaborative program is with one of your companies of interest, you should well consider this opportunity as one of the most valuable available to you as an undergraduate.


Study Abroad

Studying abroad is a great opportunity, especially if it incorporates a language component.  However, from an academic point of view, these experiences still amount to you attending classes at a university which has no more value than what you would have been doing if you stayed at your home university.

There may be exceptions to this rule depending on the company or field you want to work for.  For example, if you know in your heart of hearts that you want to work for a company in Italy or with a company with very close ties to Italy, then a study abroad experience in Italy may well be worth its weight in gold.  Barring such a situation however, study abroad experiences may not significantly change your application status.  This does not mean that you should avoid it however.  Studying abroad may well be your most enriching personal experience, and ultimately personal growth is more important in the long term than career growth.


The Final Word

All of this must be taken in context.  Of course there are amazing internships, research projects, and volunteer opportunities available that would shatter this structured hierarchy.  And if you come across such an opportunity then I strongly encourage you to take it.  What constitutes a great opportunity will vary depending on your career and life goals, but be bold and trust your instincts and these opportunities will reveal themselves to you.

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Consulting Interview Case Studies and More

Posted by James M on December 9, 2008

If you are interested in the field of consulting, as many young entrants into the work force are, then indulge in this consulting smorgasbord I have put together for you.  I’ve included links to over 15 case study examples and explanations straight from the websites of some of the world’s top consultancies.   In addition, there are some great links to delve more into what a consultant actually does and what the companies themselves look for.  To view the referenced information, just click on the highlighted names or phrases which I’ve linked to the websites.

1) Let’s start with what you are probably most interested in—details about the dreaded case study interview.  I have complied a list of practice case studies (over 15 in total) and other interview preparation tips from some of the biggest names in consulting:

  • Oliver Wyman offers a fantastic, comprehensive interview preparation website with case method overviews, tips, strategies, a breakdown of different types of cases and 2 interactive full length practice cases.
  • Bain and Company offers 3 sample cases and a helpful set of “Crack the Case” interview tips.
  • One of the perennial rivals to industry leader McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) offers 4 practices cases as well as 1 interactive case.
  • Shrouded in secrecy, but purportedly able to fetch over $10,000 a day for a small team of consultants, McKinsey is the employer of choice for major MBA programs like the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Wharton’s famed business program at the University of Pennsylvania.  Their website is filled with case study information including two online cases, a case preparation video, and a downloadable tip sheet.
  • Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, better known simply as Deloitte Consulting, offers 3 practices cases for entry-level Analyst positions as well as 2 in-depth case examples for MBA hires.

2) Ace The Case offers three representative cases with sample responses including basic accounting calculations when requested by the interviewer.  A large volume of sample cases is available for a fee (Boo!! We like free stuff!).

3) Graduate Tutor has two resources for those interested in case interviews, an overview of the case interview process and a Top 10 Tips page.

4) Business week offers a great day-in-the-life series which includes several employees at consulting firms.  To view each person’s day-in-the-life, simply click on their name.

  • James FitzGerald is a government consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton.
  • Adam Watson founded his own consulting company Sequitur.
  • Courtney Anne Cochran is founder and principal at Your Personal Sommelier, a wine-consulting company.
  • Punam Ghosh is a strategy manager with Accenture, one of the largest consulting firms in the world.
  • Kelsey Leigh Kitsch is a Senior Consultant with Ivey Business Consulting Group, a small 12-person firm based out of Toronto.
  • David Grrison is a senior associate at Katzenbach Partners, a management-strategy consulting firm.

5) MBA Podcaster offers terrific programing for those thinking about going back to get an MBA.  In particular, they recently released a special consulting podcast featuring a panel of three top industry insiders:

  • Rich Schneider, Director of the MBA campus recruiting program at Deloitte Consulting.
  • Peter Sullivan, U.S. Director of people services at Booz Allen Hamilton.
  • Richard Wallen, Human Resources Manager at Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

Click here to listen to the special consulting podcast.

6) If you are willing to shell out some cash (why does everything cost money!??!), Vault offers some great information online as well as providing hard copies in stores.  They specialize in compiling industry data and conducting surveys.  I have a couple of their books at home and find them generally helpful, especially if you are interested in finding out what current and past employees have thought of a particular firm, or if you are interested in reading advice and interviews from industry professionals.  Click here to view their online consulting page and view the limited amount of info available for free.

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Should I list a low GPA on my Resume?

Posted by James M on December 4, 2008

I’ve gotten a few e-mails lately regarding putting a low GPA on your resume as well as a ton of referrals from Google searches on the topic so I thought a post addressing it was in order.  Ok, let’s not waste any time!

Table of Contents:

  • What will happen if I don’t put my GPA on my resume
  • What about just putting my major GPA on my resume
  • Arguments for listing your GPA
  • Arguments for NOT listing your GPA

Additional Blog Posts to help with a low GPA:

What will happen if I don’t put my GPA on my resume?

In most cases the recruiter will probably assume you have a low GPA.  Think about it, if you had a 4.0 is there any doubt you would slap that achievement front and center under your Education section?

How low will they assume your GPA is?  Well obviously that depends on the recruiter, but I think typically they will assume your GPA is somewhere between a 2.5 and 2.9 which is where, in my experience, most GPAs lie on the spectrum when they are not listed.

Rest assured all recruiters have seen many resumes without a GPA and have had to ask follow-up questions to obtain this information.  Therefore each recruiter will bring their own bias about what an unlisted GPA implies for a particular candidate.

What about just putting my major GPA on my resume?

The question of whether you can exclude your cumulative GPA in favor of your major GPA on your resume is a tricky one.  It is true that most employers put a premium on your major GPA over your cumulative GPA, however many may still require that you provide your cumulative.

In addition, major GPAs are more relevant for graduating students than those seeking an internship.  With graduating seniors a major GPA represents two years of continued in-depth work with increasing focus and difficulty as one moves from 300-level classes to 400-level classes (from Junior-level to Senior-level).  A major GPA for a college junior is usually made up of just a handful of classes which makes it much less relevant.

By listing a major GPA you may entice a recruiter to have follow-up communications to determine your overall GPA at which time you can begin an engagement about why your other relative merits should outweigh your GPA.  On the other hand there is the chance they will need your cumulative GPA to process your application and won’t have time to contact you to obtain that information.  More on that in a bit.

Of course this is all under the assumption that your career of choice is in the field you majored in.  Simply listing a major GPA if you are a career changer won’t do much for you—who cares about your Forest Management GPA if you are trying to go in to Construction Management?

Many of the arguments I provide in this article regarding the discussion of a no GPA vs. a cumulative GPA strategy also apply to a cumulative GPA vs. major GPA placement.  I’ll let you decide for yourself whether you want to solely put your major GPA on your resume, however I strongly recommend a dual strategy of placing both GPAs on your resume as in:

* Communication Major GPA: 3.41, Cumulative GPA 2.94

That way you highlight your major GPA while at the same time playing it safe if a recruiter wants to see both.  Let’s discuss some more argument for listing your GPA and then follow it up with some counter arguments about why it might be better not to list your GPA.

Arguments for listing your GPA

I think the arguments for listing your GPA differ depending on whether you are applying in person or online.  First, I’ll talk about in person applications and then online submittals.

In Person Applications

If you are applying in person there are really two strategies representing two different schools of thought of career consultants.  The school of thought I subscribe to is that you should list your GPA, and there are five main reasons I believe in it:

1.  Recruiter Assumptions – By using a resume with an unlisted GPA, the recruiter will almost always assume you have “low” grades, defined, as we talked about above, by their experience working with students who don’t list their GPA.  So the recruiter may assume you have a higher or lower GPA than is actually the case.  Either way this is bad for you—if they assume your grades are higher than they are it will be a let down when they find out your actual GPA; if they assume your grades are lower, you are going through the application process with an unnecessary handicap.

2.  Peace of Mind – Since no company is likely to hire you without finding out your cumulative GPA first, why not reveal it up front.  If you don’t, you’ll always have the fear in the back of your mind that when the recruiter does find out your GPA, they’ll kick you out the door.  I would rather go through the process knowing the recruiter is at least open to the idea that I am more than my grades.

3.  Minimize Recruiter Effort – I am a fan of making a recruiter’s job as easy as possible—I want my resume to be completely self-contained with all information easy to access.  Making the recruiter inquire about your GPA is one more thing they have to do.  This may not be a big deal if they are looking at one resume, but after looking at 100 in a matter of a few hours, it starts to get annoying.  You don’t want to be the brunt of a recruiter’s bad day.

4.  Recruiter Error – In addition, let’s imagine the recruiter forgets to inquire about your GPA or doesn’t notice it in the initial contact session with you.  Now imagine the recruiter has whittled the 100 resumes they spent two hours looking at down to 6 finalists.  But here’s the catch—they only have 5 interview spots open.  Given two candidates with similar experience do you think the chances are better that they will take the time to e-mail you and wait for your response, or simply choose to interview the candidate that has included all relevant information on their resume?

5.  Mitigation Techniques – There are a variety of resume techniques you can use to mitigate a low GPA on your resume.  See the links at the top of this article for more information on the technique specifics.

Online Applications

Submitting a resume that includes a GPA is even more critical when using an online application process.  Let’s talk about why.

1.  Difficult Engagement – During a career fair, company information session, or interview it takes a matter of seconds for a recruiter to inquire about your GPA and solicit a response.  When submitting online, the employer no longer has that luxury.  At a minimum, they have to take time away from what they are doing and give you a call or send you an e-mail.

In the best case situation you pick up their phone call or see their e-mail right away, but what if you don’t?  You could easily find yourself playing a game of phone tag and at worst the recruiter might get frustrated and give up.  And what about your e-mail, what if you are out of town or simply don’t check your e-mail for a few days?  This back-and-forth communication is all a waste of time at the expense of not only you, but also the recruiter.

2.  Busy, busy, busy – During a career fair, company information session, or job interview, the recruiter is able to carve out some one-on-one time and really spend a few minutes addressing your candidacy for the position.  In an online review process, that same recruiter may be sifting through hundreds of resumes trying to find an ideal applicant.  The only way to stand out in this case is on paper, and that means having a complete and well-flowing resume that doesn’t require the recruiter to do anything but read.

3.  Online Applications – Many online applications contain text boxes or drop down menus where you are required to list your GPA.  In this case not listing your GPA becomes moot point.

Arguments for NOT listing your GPA

Although I do not subscribe to this school of thought, there are some valid arguments which I’ll try to represent fairly.

In-Person Applications

1.  Recruiter Prejudice – Listing a low GPA subjects you to the subconscious prejudice of recruiters who won’t be able to separate you from your low GPA.  Although most recruiters are good natured and are there to help, it is true that all people carry biases regardless of how hard they try not to.

2.  Recruiter Engagement – Not listing your GPA allows you to engage the recruiter when the subject does come up.  Once the recruiter asks you about your GPA, you’ll be able to instantly address the shortfall and provide a verbal mitigation describing how your other qualities outweigh your low GPA.  However, I feel that this same strategy can be used when listing your GPA.  There is nothing stopping you from obtaining all the benefits of listing your GPA on your resume and at the same time engage the recruiter during first contact.

3.  Alternative GPA – As I discussed towards the beginning of this blog post, sometimes simply listing your major GPA is enough to satisfy the curiosity of employers regarding your academic aptitude.   This is because most employers put a premium on your major GPA over your cumulative one.

4.  Much Ado About Nothing – Maybe all this emphasis I am putting on GPAs is just overblown.  Personally, I think your GPA is one of the biggest contributing factors to your hire with a particular firm, but I am just one guy writing a career blog.  It is completely reasonable and possible that you’ll get a recruiter that just doesn’t care about GPA.  Maybe they can identify with low GPAs and so they don’t ask, maybe they judge you by their rapport with you first and grades second, maybe they think previous work, internship, or volunteer experience speaks volumes more than your grades.  Whatever the reason, all recruiters are unique so the importance they place on your GPA is all relative.

Online Applications

Choosing a strategy of an unlisted GPA on an online resume is extremely risky.  Since you won’t be able to use the engagement strategy for unlisted GPAs I described above during the submittable process (as you can during a career fair or other recruitment event), you’ll have to hope you make it to the interview rounds where you can begin this discussion.  In addition, as I stated above, many online applications have a separate text box or drop down menu for you to list your GPA, so not listing it on your resume becomes moot in that case.

Well that’s it for today, I hope you found this post useful.  As always, if you have any questions feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at

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Resume Formating Template

Posted by James M on December 2, 2008

Welcome to the first in a series of resume template blogs I’ll be writing.  Each one of these templates will be tailored toward a specific type of candidate—worried about a low GPA, nervous about your lack of work experience, concerned that a previous job was more relevant than your current one—I’ll be providing resume structures and tips to cover all of these issues.

Who is this format good for?

This resume format is ideal for the candidate who is not concerned with their GPA and who’s background is biased towards work and/or internship experience (as oppose to volunteer experience or strong classroom involvement such as class projects or undergraduate research).

Resume Format

This resume uses the format:

  • Objective
  • Education
  • Experience
  • Computer Skills / Additional Activities / Community Involvement / Etc.

Example Resume

Objective: Position with the Microsoft Technical Leadership Program utilizing my real-time software internship experience and leadership skills gained through extensive student government work

Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering
University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Expected Graduation Date: Jun 2009
Grade Point Average: 3.54

Work Experience:
Intel Simulations Division
Phoenix, AZ                                                Jun. 2008 – Sep. 2008
Real-Time Software Engineer

  • Created software simulations that administered CPU performance tests on a GE X45 processor hardware test bed
  • Used efficient coding techniques to create simulations that saved 20 minutes over the previous testing run time
  • Created and maintained ISO-9450 compliant user documentation on 5 major simulation branches

Associated Students of the University of Washington
University of Washington, Seattle, WA            Jan. 2008-Jun. 2008
Elections Committee Chair

  • Coordinated the successful completion of the 2008 student body elections while managing a committee of 4 people and a budget of $8,000
  • Increased the number of candidates by over 40% and voter turnout by 4.3% (1615 total votes) over the 2007 totals

UW Leaders Program
University of Washington, Seattle, WA            Aug. 2007-Jun. 2008

  • Administered a program containing 15 mentors and 25 undergraduate participants
  • Oversaw weekly organization of leadership curriculum and guest speakers
  • Raised $800 and organized a weekend retreat
  • Increased program applicants by 100% and yearly funding from $500 to $2000

Computer Skills and Languages:

C++, Java, Python, FORTRAN, CORBA Interface Patterns, GE X45 Simulation Test Bed, Microsoft Access, Linux

5 Format tips

1. Font Type and Size – I suggest using a simple font type like Arial or Times New Roman in a type face of 11 or 12 points.  Try to avoiding using multiple types of fonts even for your name or address.  Multiple font types are often over utilized by students at the expense of readability and professional appearance.

2. Using Caps – Avoid using all cap headings.  Studies show that caps decrease readability.  Try reading an entire paragraph in all caps and you’ll quickly see this is true.  The exception is online application that offer a plain text box entry system for your resume.  Since these don’t allow font modifications such as bolding, all caps services as an acceptable alternative for your headings.

3. Bold, Italicized, Underlined – You can create a completely readable and clear resume using only bolded headings without other text effects.  Like font type, font effects are used far to often, almost always at the expense of clarity and flow.

4. Consistency – Check, double check, and triple check that your resume is consistent.  This means that all font is the same size, all spacing is the same, and dates, company names, and job positions appear in the same place in the same format throughout your resume.

5. Text Position – I think the text format that provides the easiest flow, and gives you the most bang for your buck in terms of available space on your resume, is left aligned headings with text appearing underneath (not to the right) of the heading.

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Career Profile – Systems Engineer

Posted by James M on December 2, 2008

Systems Engineering is a fairly new field that developed out of modern large-scale integration projects like those at Boeing and other system integrators.  System Engineers generally work across multiple teams on projects involving integration of two or more systems and often perform so-called trade studies to evaluate several possible solutions to a technical problem.

One piece of advice I would give those interested in this field is not to focus too intently on the term ‘Systems Engineer”.  For example, in my old position I was part of a software group and held the job title of Real Time Software Engineer.  Even so, I didn’t written a lick of code in 3 and a half years and my work was best described as Systems Engineering.  Instead, you should focus more on the type of work you want to do and then find job descriptions that meet that criteria.

So for example if you look online at the staffing system of a particular company you may see a lot of openings for “Systems Engineer”.  In addition to those positions try looking at more traditional engineering job titles as well and delving more into what your day-to-day activities would be as you move through the hiring process.  This will probably involve asking the employer at the interview about how much multi-disciplinary work you’ll have the opportunity to take part in.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Systems Engineers are often facilitators.  Because you work across multiple large and complex systems and teams of people, you can’t know everything about every system.  Therefore, a Systems Engineer often relies heavily on members of other teams and often acts as an intermediary to bring people from different teams together to find a solution.  Systems Engineers often end up specializing in a particular area (i.e. real-tme software) and over the course of a career eventually get to the point where they have medium depth knowledge of a wide range of technical areas.

The best Systems Engineers I know can balance not only the technical aspects of a problem but also the business aspects and the long term life-cycle impacts.  This is because the best technical solution doesn’t always imply the best solution from a cost, schedule, and risk point of view.

There are a few skills I notice good System Engineers having and they all revolve around the multi-disciplinary aspects of large-scale integration.  First, good System Engineers have a lot of experience with suppliers, subcontractors, and customers.  Knowing how to deal with a subcontractor when they are late developing a key item or negotiate with a customer when an important component doesn’t meet specifications is a very important skill.

Second, they know something about evaluation and testing and by association “selling off” a requirement to the customer.  When a contract is signed the goods or services provider signs a contract with the customer detailing the requirements of the good or service (these requirements are just one part of a larger contract structure).  At some point in time, these requirements must be tested to satisfy the customer that you are delivering what you promised (whether a requirement is well written is often defined by its testability).  Because System Engineers often work with requirements and requirements relate directly to testing, a good System Engineer is always evaluating how a particular technical solution will be tested.

Third, Systems Engineers know something about the life-cycle of a program.  When you deliver an aircraft to a customer, for example, that is not the end of the story.  The aircraft must be maintained and the parts, labor, and knowledge-base to repair an aircraft have to come from somewhere.  In addition, aircraft are often modified years after delivery as technology continues to improve.  Good System Engineers have the long term life of a product in mind as they search for the best technical solution.

Of course on top of these business oriented skills, a broad technical knowledge of a particular system is always required.  Usually this just comes with time and experience.  The best Systems Engineers I know probably have an average experience level of 15-25 years.  Of course, you have to start somewhere, so don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge required to be successful.

As far as the type of tasks a Systems Engineer might work on, I can try to give a fictional example that demonstrates a typical situation and the issues you might deal with.  Say, for example, a supplier is suppose to deliver a hydraulic spring for use in a landing gear, however you recently discovered the spring isn’t rated to the appropriate tonnage and you get tasked with figuring out a solution.  (These sorts of disconnects happen all the time–why would you choose a supplier in the first place if their product doesn’t meet your requirements?  A variety of factors lead to these surprising sorts of problems.)  One answer might be to work with the supplier to modify the spring.  But because the spring has to be re-egineered there is a cost and schedule delay to completing the landing gear module.  Maybe the supplier offers instead to sell you a higher weight-rated spring that it already produces, but that is a slightly larger size and therefore doesn’t connect properly with the landing gear wheel housing.

So what do you do?  There are a variety of possibilities.  Perhaps you work with the current supplier and help provide resources to re-engineer the spring to meet specifications.  Perhaps there is an adapter you can buy that will help the more robust spring fit with the already fabricated wheel housing.  Perhaps your company is frustrated with the supplier’s schedule delays and you decide to risk trying to find a new supplier that already has a spring that meets your specifications.  Perhaps you conduct a study to show that, although the original spring doesn’t meet spec, it nonetheless provides a safe landing gear for the customer.  In that case you may have to rewrite the prime contract specification with the customer and try to sell them on the idea.

Other things you’ll need to consider when searching for a solution:  spares–what happens when the spring breaks, how will the spares be supplied, how easy is the spring to repair when it breaks, is the supplier in danger of going out of business soon (this happens to many small companies), if so who will supply the spring?  Testing: if you choose the more robust spring and adapter, how will you test it?  Requirements–do any requirements need to be rewritten or can they naturally be interpreted to be independent of the spring selection.  Other technical teams–if you choose the new spring does it add extra weight to the aircraft that might affect handling?  What about aerodynamic affects during take off and landing?  Will the sensor and/or software that monitors the spring’s hydraulic pressure need to be modified?

You can see that these sorts of situations get very complicated very fast and for that reason can be exciting, challenging, and frustrating all simultaneously.  And I think the complicated nature of these problems lend themselves well to people who have both a broad technical and business background.

If you like those kind of problems, you will probably like Systems Engineering.  The caveat of course is to make sure you can get on a good program with good people around you. I know some Systems Engineers who do the type of work I’ve mentioned above and others who sit at a desk working with requirements all day compiling comments other engineers made into a spreadsheet (obviously much less glamorous).  Again, I think this goes back to trying to find a job doing good work and worrying less about having the title of “Systems Engineer.”

Let me know which career profile you’d like to see next by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me at:

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Interview Questions – What is your biggest weakness?

Posted by James M on November 28, 2008

This is one of the most difficult questions for entry-level job candidates during the interview.  There are some helpful tips about what makes a “good weakness” and an important structural framework that will help you ace this question on the interview.

We’ll work our way backwards on this one.  First, I’ll give an example and analysis of how to answer this question correctly, then I’ll delve more into what a bad answer looks like  and how to get yourself to a place where you can respond to this question in a way that will impress the recruiter.

Example Response
So let’s talk about an actual response to this question and what it might look like.  Let’s imagine that my lack of leadership skills is my weakness of choice and I read a leadership book and did some basic volunteer work to help shore up my weakness.

“What is your biggest weakness?”

“Well, after being assigned a group project in a film production and editing class, I was tasked with leading our group of 5 students to make a short 45-second commercial.  Although we completed the assignment on time, I noticed my leadership skills were lacking.  The group continually looked to me to lead them and I had trouble striking a balance between delegating the work evenly and wanting to do it all myself.  Some sections of the project I spent 12 hours a day doing while other times I delegated so much work I had nothing to do.  In addition, when disputes arose between team members about the direction of the film or a particular type of editing style, I didn’t know how to handle the disagreements and because of the constant fights one person dropped out of our group.

I knew if I wanted to be a successful television editor, a job that involves delegating a lot of tasks, I would need to learn how to lead a team more effectively.  I remembered hearing about a book called The One Minute Manager on a business talk show I was watching a while back so purchased that book and was able to read it in about two weeks.  It gave a lot of great advice, particularly about delegation and giving constructive criticism.

In addition, last month I sought out an opportunity to lead a group of 25 volunteers during a day long park clean up project.  I inspected the park before the event to see what areas might need the most cleanup and talked to the local chapter of the parent organization about useful tips based on past clean up projects.  This helped me get a good sense of the delegation needed before the event even started.  This was an item the book recommended—having a plan for the distribution of work before it comes time to actually parse the project into small tasks.

The day of the event several volunteers didn’t show up so I had to re-delegate a few tasks.  I used the strategies I read about in the book to help motivate the team as well as worked very hard myself to show the team I was committed.  When there were disputes about who wanted to do what job I was able to talk to several volunteers to find a balance of work.  In particular no one wanted to do the “boring job” of pulling weeds so I decided to assign every volunteer a few minutes doing it.  Because the volunteers spent most of the time doing other tasks that they had chosen and each volunteer felt the system was fair, they didn’t mind pulling weeds for a short time.

I have already started reading another book entitled Leadership 101 to continue to learn about the art and science of leadership.  In addition, I signed up to lead another park rejuvenation project early next month.  This project involves 40 people and I’m excited to challenge myself and continue to improve my leadership skills.”

Example Response Analysis
Notice that this answer uses a modified form of the STAR framework I talked about in my Behavioral Interview Questions post.

  • First, I talked about the initial situation that led me to realize that leadership, the weakness I choose for my response, was a problem.  I mentioned the task or project I was assigned and what went wrong.  Notice that I was very specific about the particular elements of leadership I was weak on—delegation and resolving disputes.  The more specifically you answer this part of the question the easier the entire question will be to answer.  For example, depending on who you talk to, leadership might involve dozens of different components. Improving one or two elements of my leadership skills at a time is much easier than improving every the entire continuum of leadership itself.
  • Second, I formulated a realization of career success that involved improving upon the weakness.  Using one of my long term goals of being successful in the film industry I framed an “improvement space” that existed to achieve that success.  It is good to have some motivation for the improvement you have chosen.  There are hundreds of different attributes in a professional career and no one person is strong at all of them.  You should pick and choose the attributes you want to be strong at based on your career goals and interpersonal strengths.
  • Third, I talked about my plan—how was I going to improve on this weakness?  In my case I read a leadership book and then decided to sign up for short leadership position with a local non-profit organization.   Actually doing something about my weakness shows tremendous initiative and gets past the “fluff” that the typical candidate uses in their response.
  • Forth, I talked about the situation where I led more successfully.  What happened this time when those same issues of delegation and resolving disputes came up?  How did I handle them differently and achieve success this time around?  In particular I cited a strategy shift that was informed largely by the information I acquired in the leadership book I referenced earlier.
  • Fifth, I talked about future plans for improvement.  This is really a great way to wrap up the question.  Show the interviewer that although you’ve made some improvements to date, you are taking the initiative to get to a state of excellence with regard to your current weakness.  It also shows a very positive attitude.  Showing a track record of initiative and a positive attitude will get you much further than you can imagine in an interview.

A poor response to this question
Now let’s look at a response to this question from a slightly humors angle.

“What would you say is your biggest weakness?”

“My biggest weakness is that sometimes girls are jealous of me because I’m just too pretty.”

Yes, that is a bad answer, but maybe not for the reasons you think.  Yes, it is bad because it is conceded and uninspiring (albeit a joke in this context), but, even worse, being exceptionally pretty is not a weakness.  Neither is being a perfectionist.  Let me repeat that.  Being a perfectionist is NOT a weakness.  If the average HR representative had a dollar for every time someone said their biggest weakness was being a perfectionist or their biggest strength is working with people, they’d have enough money to retire and take up sailing.

Answering “weakness” questions this way is insulting—to yourself.  It shows that you have very little, if any, self-awareness.  That’s right I said it!  We all have enough actual weaknesses without needing to take a positive characteristic and put a negative spin on it.  Moreover, these answers are cliche, overused, and boring.

What makes a “good weakness”?

Ok, so now let’s look at the constituents that make up what you might call a “good weakness”.  In other words a weakness that actually challenges you in your life and passes muster with a recruiter during an interview.

  • First, it should be a weakness that has actually given you problems in the past.  You need to be able to tell a story (as we saw in our example response) about how this weakness has inhibited you, so having a vague sense about what you would like to improve isn’t enough.  You need concrete examples, so spend some time thinking about group projects, internships, volunteer experience, etc. and try to think of some situations where you didn’t perform up to par and what characteristics of yourself contributed to that.
  • Second, it should be a weakness that you have actively worked to improve.  This is really the key part of your response.  If you can really delve into this “improvement space” if you will, you’ll hit the ball out of the park on this question and leave a fantastic impression with the recruiter.
  • Third, you’ll need an example of how things worked the next time you were put in the same situation. There is sort of a before-and-after type dichotomy at play here.
  • Lastly, if you are a non-traditional applicant to a position you may want to consider mentioning your lack of experience in a particular area as your weakness and describe how you’ve mitigated that gap.  For example, say you are an art major applying for an investment banking job.  The obvious weakness would be your lack of a rigorous financial background.  So you can talk about how you took some finance and accounting classes, how you joined the finance club, how you read the Wall Street Journal regularly, etc.  Doing so will help to kill the “elephant in the room”, namely why in the world an art major is cut out for investment banking.  It is better to tackle these non-traditional applicant situations head on rather than assuming you are on equal footing as more traditional candidates.

How to mitigate and improve a weakness
To really set your response apart, you’ll need to show that you’ve actively tried to mitigate the weakness you described.  First, you should think hard about the conscious and subconscious steps you’ve already taken in the mitigation process.  Perhaps you did some soul searching and concentrated extra hard on a particular characteristic the next time you did a group project or sought a different position with your volunteer club to help fill a knowledge gap.

If you haven’t begun to work on your weakness yet, no need to worry.  It is never too late to start working on self-discovery and self-improvement.  After spending some time thinking hard about what some of your key weaknesses may be it is time to start improving upon them.  Depending on how much time before your job search commences you may be able to do any one of the following:

  • Take additional university classes to cover any knowledge gaps you may have.
  • Join a club at school or in the community that focuses on a particular area of study or soft skill.
  • Consider volunteer opportunities.  They are likely the fastest and most efficient ways to shore up key weaknesses such as leadership and teamwork.
  • Do some independent research.  Depending on your school, major, and available professors, undergraduate research can often be set up on short notice and tailored to cover specific gaps in your knowledge or skill sets.
  • Consider simple things such as subscribing to publications, newspapers, reading online journals etc.  Sometimes it is the simple initiatives we take that set us apart.
  • Take community classes.  Public speaking, organization, leadership and many other courses are often available at community colleges in the evening or from various community organizations.
  • Consider student government.  Many school’s student government and other school sponsored organizations offer really great chances to quickly gain valuable soft skill experience.

Note that you don’t need to be 100% complete with this process by the time of your interview.  If your weakness is public speaking a simple story about how you have enrolled in a public speaking class offered by Toast Masters, given your first intermediate length speech and received positive reviews will do wonders.  Because we are allowed to be somewhere in the process of improvement, I wouldn’t worry too much about having a short time line.  All you need is to show the initiative to improve yourself and one simple example of your improvement thus far and you have competed the ingredients needed to do fantastically well in your response.

Also note that you need to walk a thin line—after a certain amount of improvement a weakness ceases to be considered such and can actually be thought of as a strength.  That is not the type of situation we are looking for here.  We are looking for you to be somewhere in the process of shoring up the weakness.

Well there you have it, everything you need to do to hit the ball out of the park on this question in the interview.  You really only need a couple of weeks to get from square one to a completed series of story points for this question.  Just spend a little bit of time thinking about your weaknesses and take a few steps to mitigate it either on your own, by getting involved with your university, or seeking out a community organization.  Along the way you’ll gain a lot of insight and experience that you can use elsewhere in your interview.

If you have any questions about any aspect of your job hunt or would like a free in-depth resume consultation, I invite you to e-mail me at

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Types of Interview Questions – Logic Questions

Posted by James M on November 23, 2008

Microsoft made logic questions famous in the 1990’s and early 2000’s and many other companies have since adopted them, although their use has declined slightly in recent years.  This brand of question is generally reserved for engineers, although it is not unheard of for it to be included in interviews of applicants for other types of positions.

Two of the most famous logic questions are:

  • Why is a manhole cover round?
  • How would you build an alarm clock for deaf people?

There are many variations of logic questions and entire books and websites have been dedicated to tackling them.  In this post I’ll give you two examples of how you might answer this sort of question.

One of the best sites I’ve found for lots of examples of this question type, as well forums discussing the answer, can be found here.

After reading this post you may want to consider reading the “sister” post about guesstimation interview questions.  This branch includes such famous stumpers as “How much does Mount Kilimanjaro weight?”  To read this post now click here.

Please note that these are not trivia questions—that is you are not expected to actually know how much Mount Kilimanjaro weighs for example.  The important skill to demonstrate while answering is your train of thought and the logical steps you mentally go through.  Unlike behavioral questions where you can take a minute to compose yourself before you answer, it is essential that you begin sharing your thoughts out loud immediately after you hear the question even if you are just in the process of wrapping your head around the problem.

I think this is best shown by example, so allow me to do my best.  I’ll write this in a free flowing casual style with minimal attempt to use exact grammar.  The goal is to replicate a process similar to what you would probably end up saying if you were in an interview:

How would you build an alarm clock for deaf people?

“Hmmm, let’s see.  If you have to wake a deaf person up obviously a sound would do no good.  So what are some ways I normally get woken up that aren’t sound?  Um…I guess you could have an alarm clock that pokes a person, but that is difficult to implement.  One time I got woken up by having water dumped on me so you could spray some sort of liquid on them, but that gets messy.  But on the other hand it might work, let me write it down and maybe come back to it later.

I remember when I was a kid I had a bed pad that gave me a small shock if I wet the bed so maybe something like that would work.  Like a pad of some kind, but shocking someone might suck.  But I’ll write it down anyway as an option.  What else could a bed pad do?  Let’s see…oh it could like vibrate maybe.  Actually, I have seen beds that vibrate in movies.  Yea, it might be good to have some sort of bed that shakes, but now that I think about it that is expensive and limits the type of bed one could have.  Ok, so back to the bed pad idea, only instead of shocking, it would vibrate.  It would lay on top of the bed but underneath the sheets.  It could vibrate when the alarm goes off and this would wake up the deaf person.  But I guess it would still be useful to have a bedside type clock that they can look at during normal circumstances to view the time, or if they have guests over.  So the vibrating bed pad and bedside clock could be one unit and be attached by a chord.  But that might be annoying and dangerous if there is a chord that you could trip over.  Um…maybe the bed pad and clock unit could actually be separate but communicate wirelessly.  So the bed pad would have a small receiver in it, and when the clock unit alarm goes off, it can send a signal to the bed pad and tell it to vibrate.

So I think that would be the final design.  A bedside clock that functions very similar to a traditional bedside clock, with the added feature that it can send a wireless signal to a bed pad that would then vibrate to wake the subject up.”

So as you can see the answer is a very free flowing thought process type response.  First, I went through an initial description of the problem in my head—alarm clocks use noise as a wake-up mechanism, but if you are deaf this wouldn’t help you wake up.  Second, I started brain storming ways you might wake someone up based on my own experience of getting woken up.  It is key to use some reference points for the assumptions, estimations, and solutions you create.  If you have a eureka moment in an interview and come up with an answer it will do you no good since the interviewer won’t be able to evaluate the thought process you used to create the solution.  That’s why it is so important to talk out loud and use your own experience to formulate a solution as you work through the problem.  Third, I talked my final bed pad solution out, thinking about what would and wouldn’t work and why that was the case.

Again, there really is no “right” answer to this type of question.  Maybe you want to have the deaf person wear an electronic bracelet that emits a small electrical shock to wake them up, maybe you want them to wear a watch that vibrates, maybe you want to spray them with a small mist of water, maybe shine a very bright light on their face—there are a million different answers.  The important thing is to find something that makes sense to you, after all it is you and your ideas that are being interviewed.

If you have any questions about this post or need any other guidance in your job search, feel free to e-mail me at:

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Resume Tips – How to deal with a low GPA

Posted by James M on November 6, 2008

One of the biggest fears many graduating seniors express when attempting to find a job is the all important GPA.  And there is no denying that your GPA is one of the top factors influencing recruiters during their selection process.  As well it should be, it is a strong indicator of the amount you have learned in college and the amount of work you put in.

That being said, your GPA is not the only factor affecting your candidacy and there are plenty of examples of people who have lower than desired GPAs who get great jobs by supplementing their grades with other experience and taking the time to market themselves well.  So how do you put a positive spin on a low GPA?

Well there is a little trick and today I’d like to share it with you.  But first I’d like to digress briefly.  The first piece of advice regarding your GPA is to actually put it on your resume.  I can’t tell you how many resumes I’ve seen without a GPA listed. With few exceptions (such as a school grade no disclosure policy) I think it is a real mistake not to list your GPA under the Education section of your resume.  It is extraordinarily unlikely that you will make it to the offer stage with your target company without them finding out your GPA at some point along the way.  They may ask during the career fair, during one of the interview rounds, or they may ask for your transcripts as proof of graduation before you are hired.  So why not just put it out there so you can start to have the discussion about how you are more than your grades?

Ok, on to the trick I mentioned above, which is to actually put down two different GPAs on your resume.  Let me explain.  The first will be your cumulative GPA for all of college up to that point.  But it is really the second GPA that does the work for you.  This second GPA should be a logical grouping of classes that has a calculated GPA higher than your cumulative.  For example, it may be all of your senior year classes.  It may be upper division classes in your major.  It might be your major GPA itself if it is significantly higher than your cumulative.  Or it may be the GPA of a specialization within your major that is often part of the curriculum at many schools.

So let’s look at some real world examples of groupings you might use as they would be listed on your resume:

Senior-level Accounting GPA
Mechanical Engineering Major GPA
Comparative Literature Specialization GPA

So after choosing a grouping the process becomes pretty easy.  You just get a copy of your transcripts and calculate the GPA of the grouping you choose.  If you don’t know how the calculation works at your school, you can often find it in the academic handbook.  So after you have decided on a grouping and done the calculation you might get a line under your Education that looks like this:

Cumulative GPA: 2.54; 400-level Accounting class GPA: 3.18

So finally let’s put it together and see what your Education section might look like on your resume:

Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering
University of Washington, Seattle, WA
December 2007
Grade Point Average: 3.05
Senior level engineering class GPA: 3.44

What you are doing is really two-fold.  First, you are giving a visual indication of solid academic performance.  And man whenever I see this dual GPA method I just love the way it looks!

More importantly you are indicating to the employer that you have a deep understanding of some target subject or set of classes, in the example above, in senior level engineering coursework.  This also shows the recruiter that your academic performance got better with time and that you were able to hunker down towards the end of college.  For that reason, my advice would be to try and create a grouping from the second half of college.   Choosing from the later half of your college career demonstrates improvement with time and involves more relevant classes that have occurred more recently.

For an additional tip on dealing with a low GPA check out my post entitled: “Resume Tips – Discussing Number of Hours Worked.”

Well I hope you find this little trick useful.  Most students I share this with get really excited about the chance to show a positive side of themselves and this trick really does help.  If you have any questions about this post or need tailored advice to your specific job search, including free resume consulting, please e-mail me at

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