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Looking For a Job?
Some Misconceptions About Applying for a Social Work Job and How to do Something About it.
Message From the Executive Director

Robert Schachter, DSW, LMSW

June 2009


I have just been through a search process to hire a new member of the NASW-NYC staff. Each time I conduct a search I am reminded that numerous applicants present themselves, both in writing and in person, in a way that probably prevents who they are and what they have accomplished from coming across in the most favorable manner. Anyone who takes a little time to address some of the issues relating to this is likely to increase ones chances of rising above the pack, assuming she or he has the basic qualifications for the position.

What is presented below are tips on getting and moving through the interview. They are based on personal experience as one who has been involved in the hiring process as well as on insights shared by social workers who have been leading career coaches and “head-hunters” involved in executive searches.

Easy steps to take at the outset

Before you apply for a position that you are interested in, there are two key steps that too anyone looking for a job should take. First, get all the information you can about the organization and program that you are applying to. With the internet, this has become incredibly easy to do. Then second, ask yourself several questions and set about to answer them, using your experience, judgment and intuition:

1. What are the problems that are being addressed? Why are these problems so difficult that funding is needed to create a program to address them?

2. Given the program, what are the outcomes they are likely to be looking for?

3. What are the processes that might be utilized to achieve these outcomes?

4. From your own experience with similar work you have done, what makes it hard for staff and the program overall to achieve its objectives? What would you bring into this new situation to help resolve or manage these issues?

This reflects basic research into and analysis of a position. Once you have done this, you are more prepared to apply for the job than you would otherwise be. To go further, find someone who works in that program or in one similar and interview them. The insights will be significant. Or check out a publication such as the NASW’s Encyclopedia of Social Work on related programs and approaches.

The Cover Letter

Many applicants for a job do not adequately take advantage of making a positive impression with their cover letters. It could be a great opportunity to do so, and a poor cover letter can reduce your chances of being considered. First, formatting of the letter is important. I see cover letters that do not follow any formatting principles whatsoever. Many that I have received were part of the body of an email where the formatting can be quite unpredictable once received. Sending a letter in an attachment helps, as does sending a hard copy with the resume as a back up if e-mails are what is expected . There are fundamental formats for writing a business or professional letter, and taking a look at this will serve you well. Putting your name and address, phone number and email address, along with your credentials at the top of the page, basic to a business or professional letter, will immediately separate you from many other applicants. This is quite easy to do.

One of the things I see over and over in cover letters is the phrase: “I am the perfect candidate for the job.” When you think about it, you cannot know this. What is probably more meaningful is to help the reader of your letter see that there are several reasons to believe that your prior experience appears to be quite applicable for the job being advertised. What the cover letter gives you the opportunity to do is to show why that might be.

Here is another thing to consider with the cover letter, and this may be a little bit more subtle. Many writers of cover letters use the bulk of the letter to highlight their experience, which is appropriate, but not enough. In many cases, what is being highlighted has little to do with what is being sought in the advertised position. Good cover letters highlight as much as possible those experiences which overlap with the job announcement. That is still not really sufficient.

Here is where I think you can make a difference: use what you have discovered from the basic research. If you can, use a little space in the cover letter, perhaps early on, before going into your own experience, to show that you have some familiarity with the organization, even if it is from the distance of the internet. Then discuss how you would bring your experience to the job in question. I have found that relatively few applicants do this; you can position yourself in a different and relevant way.

The Resume

There are many books on resume writing, no less workshops and consultants who can be utilized. However, just flipping through books that can be accessed in almost any bookstore of samples of different types of resumes will help. There are different types of formats and presentations of experience. Many of the resumes I see are formatted well enough, but poorly formatted resumes are likely to be set aside quickly, especially when there might be a huge pile for the reader to go through.

The next issue in resumes is the bare listing of responsibilities for each position held. This is what most resumes reflect, and if you do this you will not be doing anything unusual. Here is what I think takes you to another level: It can be quite meaningful to share very succinctly what you actually accomplished in each position. Of course, you may need to ask yourself: “What did I accomplish?” if you have not thought sufficiently about this. A resume that does this might be referred to as an accomplishments-oriented resume. The point is that by listing some accomplishments, you have moved from a bare listing of responsibilities to something additional and valued. In my own experience, such resumes have stood out.

The Interview

A colleague of mine who has probably conducted more interviews of social workers for clinical jobs than anyone, started off a presentation for graduating students on how to prepare for an interview by saying “dress appropriately.” She went on to say how people show up inappropriately dressed. That is very basic.

What I have found from time to time is that the person I have invited in for an interview, based on their cover letters and resumes rising to the top, is that the person is unprepared for the interview. I am talking about social workers with a lot of work experience. What would have prepared them? - the basic research that could have been done at the get go. Instead of demonstrating some basic sense of the organization, the program and the position, the person being interviewed runs the risk of appearing to not have done her or his homework.
What many, if not most, social workers bring into the interview is an eagerness to get across all of their relevant experience and hope that this helps make a good impression. This is not the key to the interview; it is important but not the top priority.

The top priority in the interview belongs to the interviewer, and it relates to the fact that the interviewer has a problem. The interviewer’s problem may seem to be hidden and unknowable, but it is not. From a social work point of view, we can anticipate the “interviewer-in-situation,” just like we should know and “person-in-situation.” The interviewer needs to fill a position for a particular program; the job is likely to be challenging for a variety of reasons, and no one wants to hire the wrong person. Behind this may be interviewers’ own anxieties and concerns about how they are doing, themselves (they are people, and employees). There is an opportunity in understanding this.

The definition of the interview could be, from the interviewee’s point of view: “I have a range of experience. I have been a problem solver and a team player. How can I be of help to you to make filling this position a successful outcome for you, the program, and the organization? Are there special challenges that I can help you address? Let’s see if I am the right fit for what you are being confronted with as you try to fill this position.” In my experience, it is refreshing to meet a person who has the presence of mind to take some responsibility for this in the interview.

Given the uniqueness of every situation and who the interviewer is, I cannot say exactly how this gets implemented in the interview. But there is likely to be an opportunity to ask questions, and when this is possible, the interview can turn from an uneven relationship to more of a dialogue, even if it opens up toward the end. The ideal may not be achievable, if there even is such a thing, but it is a direction to strive for.

After the Interview

There is one more thing that can set you apart from many others. Believe it or not, sending a card, a letter or email expressing thanks for the interview can be a big game winner. Too few people do it, and yet it scores additional points. It reminds the interviewer of who you are in the midst of seeing a lot of people. More than this, you can express interest in working in the program. The interviewer may not know that you are really interested. Also, if you learned something about the program from the interview, you might share that, as well as to say you look forward to a further opportunity to discuss the job.

An Additional Point: Networking

It is so often said that a key to finding a job, especially one that you would want, is to network. Some people are more comfortable with this than others. One of the best places in New York City to network is, of all places, NASW. This is no exaggeration. Through our committees and activities, social workers meet social workers that they might never meet anywhere else. New social workers meet future employers, get leads for jobs, and parenthetically, even meet their life partners. In many ways, this is exactly what NASW is about for many people.

Please feel free to email me at to discuss the topic addressed in this column

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