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A Cup of Sympathy

How applying for a job can be full-time work.

For years I’ve worked as a tutor, helping kids through the college application process.

These poor kids come to me, completely stressed out and feeling a sense of panic as they face the daunting task of listing their high school accomplishments, grades, activities and, most difficult of all, trying to write their personal essays. 

I remind them, naturally, that where they go to college will determine all of their future happiness.

Just kidding. What I really say is, "Don’t worry. I’ll help you get through this and it’s not that bad, really, it’s not." And guess what? It’s really not that bad. 

What I mean, of course, is that it’s really not that bad for me. Offering up a little cup of sympathy for the adolescents is easy. I’m the grown-up. I’ve already applied to college, and that happened so long ago that I’ve consigned the experience to its proper place in my brain, where reality, senility and repression blend into a fresh new product called nostalgic misremembering. It’s a beautiful place, and one that bears no semblance to reality. If I could live there, I would.

But back to those kids applying to college. Sympathy, that’s what I was offering them, right? A little gentle consoling, full of knowing nods and encouraging pats. The Common Application is hard to get through, and nothing implies "I get what you’re going through" like a heavy sigh and a shared grumble about the unfairness of the process. 

For 20 years, I’ve offered up genuine sympathy for the application process. A month ago, my story changed because I wanted a job that required me to complete an online application. Correction: I started to apply for a job with a 24-step online application, complete with five essays and a mandate for educational transcripts and three professional references.

Abruptly, I’ve gone from feeling sympathetic toward those college applicants to feeling empathetic. And this is a turn for the way, way worse.

I’m not suggesting that the required information isn’t vital, but tell me this:  when was the last time anyone who’s been out of college long enough to have enjoyed her 25th reunion has been asked to recall her non-major GPA? Suffice it to say that when I left Hanover, New Hampshire, I thought my C+ knowledge of geology, astronomy and yes, human sexuality would recede into the past and die a tiny little distributive-requirements death. Alas, they’ve survived into this century. 

In my defense, I never should have taken geology. The only rocks I’ve ever cared about were the ones that got lodged in my shoes. And astronomy? For goodness sakes, I look to the heavenly firmament and think it’s pretty. To me, a Super Nova is a really great Chevy. And human sexuality? Suffice it to say there was no lab. Totally unfair.

Never mind. I never claimed to be a scientist. But what about this issue of references? It turns out that the perfect reference for item 22a of my application included asking my boss from 20 years ago to write on my behalf. Here’s the good news: she’s alive. More good news: I found her. Final good news: she agreed to write me a reference. Here’s the alarming news: She asked me to provide the evaluation she wrote for me on February 28th, 1990. 

What’s more shocking – the fact that she expected me to provide that evaluation, or the fact that I found it? Because I did find it. Is that worth putting on my rèsumè? 

Which brings me to the concept of my rèsumè and what should go on it. To be honest, for the last few years I figured anything I did that was vaguely noteworthy would serve to embellish my obituary, not my job search. Time to re-tool my outlook, I guess.

Maybe I’m just experiencing what so many others know – the pain and indignity of the Third Act, that unofficial stage when your kids leave home and you face an empty calendar until death, or spring break. It’s not that it’s daunting so much as it’s unscripted. 

The good news is there’s stuff to do out there. The bad news is you have to apply for it. Online. In 24 steps. 

Anyone up for a cup of empathy? 

Glo February 04, 2012 at 03:26 PM
So glad to have heard the rough draft along our bike route yesterday where more than rocks got lodged in our shoes (actually, that's not true). Anyway, my one question re: your column is: how do you get those accent marks above the "e's" in resume?!? ;)
Sally Higginson February 04, 2012 at 11:21 PM
Those accent marks are getting quite a buzz. Full disclosure: my young editor put them in. More disclosure: a few of my friends have pointed out that at least one of those accent marks tilts the wrong way. Final disclosure: Who knew?
David Greenberg February 05, 2012 at 12:45 AM
You're right - finding a job is a full-time job in and of itself. More bad news: You're not going to be likely to find a job through an online application process. I've worked with HR departments on hiring - and some of the processes to deal with the deluge of applicants (some qualified, most not), were interesting to say the least. Suffice it to say that if you're looking for a job, you need to target 3-5 companies, and then network with people who work or have contacts at those companies. You want to get an interview (informational to start) with the hiring manager. Then once you and the hiring manager have done the dance and the manager believes you'd be a good fit for the job, the manager tells HR to have you complete the requisite paperwork and you get hired. There's many networking organizations that target various levels of employment (entry-level to C-suite), and specific trades (accounting, computer science, IT, management, marketing, etc...). Finally, unless you're doing work in academia or as an expert witness, no one cares what job you held more than 10 years ago. And once you're past your first job, I've never seen anyone care about a GPA either. Typically they want some proof that you held the jobs you claim, and MAYBE a copy of the degree(s) you claim (or sometimes a transcript). Providing references up-front is a great way to burn out references - I typically made them available once we'd danced a bit, but before an offer to hire was made.
Mosaic53 February 05, 2012 at 01:01 AM
Agree with David's comments
Susie Watts February 05, 2012 at 04:04 AM
As a private college counselor, I too have been working with students for more than twenty years. I like your approach and how you keep things in perspective. A little humor never hurts either. My business card reads at the bottom, " College Direction is a fun place to get serious about college planning and test prep," and that is how I want it to be.

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