I was recently approached by someone at a conference with the most earnest question I've ever received following a business talk. He started by saying, "I have sort of a strange question. It's not for me but for my daughter."
Oh, jeez, I thought, is this some kinda matchmaking attempt here? This is gonna be awkward to have to explain that I'm married and that this made me a little uncomfortable and he should probably--
"She's about to graduate as an English major -- how can she break into your line of work?"
Great job, Ego. Helpful as always ...
But hey, on the bright side, THIS was a question I could get excited about answering! I've long harbored a little bit of resentment that my college only ever positioned liberal arts majors as a great track to teaching, journalism, PR … and that's it.
The only problem? It was really, really hard to answer that question on the spot. I did my best to provide a few ideas that he seemed somewhat satisfied with, but in the name of English majors everywhere, I wanted to flesh out a better answer. Because I firmly believe that all liberal arts students are desperately needed in the inbound and content marketing worlds. I have nothing against marketing and management degrees, but businesses today are struggling to transition from the traditional push methods of marketing to a better way more based on storytelling and creating content.
Know who's already wired like that right from the start? English majors! History majors! Psychology! You get the idea.
So these tips are for you, fellow liberal arts majors. We need you now more than ever -- this is your time.
Tip #1: Position your degree as the ability to explain complex topics.
Conveying that you can think critically and communicate well thanks to your English or history degree sounds nice, and it's important. But it's really just a check in the box. Everyone says that same exact thing.
It's not a way to stand out beyond others with your skill set, or even those with any degree if you think about it. (What successful full-time professional can't think critically and communicate well?)
No, it needs to be more than that. Your explanation of the value of a liberal arts degree needs to plug directly into content or inbound marketing, if that's where you want to head in your career. And a large component of this world centers on education and delivering value through content. So a better way to position your major is to explain that you're trained to synthesize complex ideas into meaning that anyone could comprehend.
In my case, that was English literature. I had to read dense works, old works, new works, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and prose … then analyze and discuss it through the written or spoken word to an audience who not only thought "that was well-communicated" but "I've learned something thanks to that."
Sounds like modern marketing to me!
Tip #2: You need differentiators beyond writing ... but don't let anybody tell you it has to be coding skills.
Admittedly, I hear this a lot: "Writing has become the baseline skill you need to succeed in marketing today."
True! But that doesn't mean everyone can do it well. To the contrary -- most candidates I review for writing-focused job openings can't actually write!
Plenty of business leaders lately love to proclaim that coding is the single best differentiating factor for hiring any candidate. Want to work on marketing? Learn to code. Aspiring salesman? Bang the phones, then ship some code. Scooping ice cream all day? One large code, please.
I've reviewed anywhere from five to 20 resumes for writers and content marketers every single week over the past several years and can say with certainty that great writing is still hard to find and worth paying for as a business.
If you want to learn something from all the folks crying about coding, it's this: You definitely need to complement your core skill with something else. So if your core skill is indeed writing, learn to be a great, great writer ... then go acquire a tangential skill.
If the prospect of diving into anything technical scares you, that's fine. But you should learn to design, shoot video, host a podcast, oversee and execute the strategies behind marketing, or learn to build audiences using that great writing skill of yours. (Great audience builders are harder to find than great writers, to be honest.)
The trick is to showcase this all in an application or interview.
But don't sit there horrified that you "have to" learn a technical skill. Would that be useful? One hundred percent, yes. Is it required to succeed? No, absolutely not. And don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
Tip #3: You get precious little attention from employers. Make every moment count!
Here's how to get the most out of that boilerplate cover letter template your school gave you: Throw it the #%$& out! (And if you're REALLY committed, tie it to a raft, set it on fire, and ship it out to sea.)
Never, ever, ever, ever (x1,000) send a modern company a boilerplate cover letter! Ever!
You all know the ones I mean:
They start with about a thousand random names and dates in the top left which adds zero value to the letter but are remnants of snail mail-only centuries past.
Then it proceeds with the always-personal intro of "Dear Hiring Manager" (please -- my friends call me H-Man!).
Next comes the declaration that you are "very interested in pursuing this role." (Showing off creativity here usually means changing the "very" to something like "incredibly." Nothing screams creativity like knowing your synonyms!)
Finally, the letter puts the reader out of her misery by listing everything you've ever done using massive blocks of text.
Sound harsh? It's the truth.
And if you're an aspiring content marketer, that simply doesn't help you show off your ability to use digital real estate to resonate with an audience, even if that audience is your future manager or HR rep.
Content and inbound marketers understand a simple truth: attention is harder and harder to capture today.
My advice? Treat the email you send as your golden opportunity to capture attention. Don't even wait until someone opens the attachment in the first place. Use the email body, and do something much more remarkable than a boilerplate letter.
Think of it this way: that email is the very first click a hiring manager makes. Every click after that requires even more attention. A product manager would tell you that you're asking for too many steps in the user flow when the user (the hiring manager) is looking for the solution on Step 1. So make the actual body of your email pop! Use better layouts, place content directly into the body, or re-think the cover letter entirely to present the real you. Just don't waste that precious real estate and attention that is your email.
After all, if you can't resonate right away and cut through the clutter of sameness with your job application, how can a business entrust you to do so with the content you'd create for them?
The traditional cover letter is dead. Long live whatever comes next.
Tip #4: Highlight your process just as much as your final product or work samples.
Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to create a hit blog with proven audiences at a young age. That doesn't disqualify you from being an excellent marketer.
Plus, not every internship provides you with super interesting work to showcase later. Employers understand that (the smart ones, anyway).
So whether or not you've successfully built an audience or launched something remarkable, try to articulate to an employer that you understand the process behind creating something worthy of an audience. This is key -- content is about the commitment and the process just as much as it's about the final product. Too may people and businesses "sort of" do it, and it fails. It's about selecting the right concept and then executing on that concept. Rinse and repeat.
If you can articulate your ability to do that? You'll stand out.
When I interviewed at and successfully landed a job at Google years ago, for instance, I spent more time talking about my personal blog abouts sports (and all 12 of its readers) than I did my academic record or extracurriculars. The hiring manager wanted to know about my process of setting it up, crafting content, distributing that throughout the web, and so on. They wanted me to prove that I could pursue a passion and execute systematically and sustainably ... even if my mom was my top reader at that point.
So, if you can showcase your process to move from idea through to launch, great! Even better, if you can talk about how you distributed that content and marketed it, or discuss the data points you measured and ways you learned and improved, then you're well on your way to a successful interview.
It's YOUR time, if you're willing to put in the work.
Career services in too many schools are leading you astray, fellow liberal arts majors. It kills me. There's an entire, huge industry out here that needs your skill sets.
Sure, it might take some work. Boilerplate cover letters intended for nameless, faceless "hiring managers" should be reconfigured for humans. The fear of being different needs to be replaced with the desire to stand out. And the career center's pale listings of same-old, same-old needs to start including exciting new roles in content.
But I'm telling you -- there's plenty of demand, and you can be the supply. (Whoops, sorry -- that's econ. Just disregard that.
So, students, I hope this adds value. And parents, marketers, and educators, it's time to empower liberal arts students better. Maybe you're already doing so and should talk about it. Maybe you're stuck in the old ways and need to evolve. But don't leave it to shmoes like me and brave fathers like the one who approached me.
These students deserves better. Plenty of jobs await. And how often do we get to say that?
Originally published Nov 20, 2013 8:00:00 AM, updated October 20 2016