WHEN a group of college seniors, friends since high school, gathered for an informal reunion during Thanksgiving weekend, the conversation turned surprisingly serious. Instead of dates and parties, classes and professors - the usual topics - their talk centered around a new subject: resumes and cover letters.
"My counselor told me to get more action words in it," said one young woman. "Writing the resume wasn't so bad - it was the cover letter I dreaded," added another, noting that some of her classmates are preparing two resumes, one business-oriented, the other emphasizing education. A third friend, a design student in a work-study program at a co-op university, explained that he once mailed a resume in a black envelope. "I wanted them to notice me," he admitted. "By the time I graduate I'll have this down to a system," he added with a laugh.
To a parent overhearing parts of the conversation, comments about campus career centers, resume workshops, and "exploring my options" signal a youthful sophistication about job-hunting unimaginable to an earlier generation of college seniors. For those of us who graduated in the '60s, a job search seemed relatively simple. We filled out a few application forms, we went for an interview or two, and we were hired. Resumes were reserved for those whose work history included more than summer employment.
No longer. Today it isn't enough for applicants simply to look good in person, attired in the proper dress-for-success suit and schooled in the appropriate interview demeanor - respectful, mature, and above all enthusiastic. Job-seekers must also look good - very good - on paper.
Not just any paper, either. It must be a high-quality parchment bond, marketed for just such a purpose, sometimes with a "helpful instruction manual" included for those who don't have access to professional advice. As one measure of the growth of this mini-industry, the Boston Yellow Pages include three pages of ads for resume services, offering everything from student rates to round-the-clock printing.
"Be the one they want to hire!" trumpets one ad. "Take the X-Press... to career success!" promises another, as if a properly written resume can assure not only a job but promotions as well.
The current king of the resume industry might well be Wayne Starr of Kansas City, Mo. His bold approach involves sending out hundreds, even thousands of resumes for each client. One $400,000-a-year lawyer paid Mr. Starr nearly $40,000 to blanket personnel offices around the country with 19,700 packets - a mega-effort that did land him a job. Starr employs nearly three dozen college students to forge clients' signatures on cover letters - a skill the students might wisely decide not to mention on their ow n resumes.
Is this what the employment market has come to - generating a paper blizzard of what has been dubbed "junk resumes" in hopes that someone, somewhere, will notice?
Writing a resume serves a useful purpose. As students organize a patchwork of summer jobs, internships, and college courses into a one-page autobiography that says, in effect, "Hire me," they learn to identify skills and define goals. As one recent graduate admits, "I like being able to look at my resume and see my accomplishments."
Yet if getting a foot in the door depends on who has access to the best professional help, the fanciest laser printer, the slickest packaging, and the biggest postage budget, what happens to those who may be well qualified for a job, but whose approach on paper is more modest?
Salesmanship takes many forms, and an honest, well-written resume ranks as one of the quietest, most honorable marketing tools around. But the design student, currently revising his resume for the second time, makes a point when he says, "How can you sell yourself with just a piece of paper?"
In the world of the young, a resume clearly ranks second only to a driver's license. Will baby sitters have to submit resumes next? Stand by. In the meantime, it's no longer who you know, but the fax numbers and corporate addresses you know, as the artfully written summaries of brilliant careers continue to roll from sea to shining sea.