Layoffs. Downsizing. Transitions. It’s a scary time to be out in the job market. If you’re hunting for a job, you’ve probably been handing out resumes like crazy. The problem is that, when you really look at a resume, every single one is the same. They’re all on the same size of paper, easily shuffled into a stack, just the way human resource managers like them.

There’s just not a lot you can do to stand out with a resume: hiring managers have no qualms about tossing oddly-sized resumes, funny-smelling CVs and lengthy explanations about where you’ve been lately. No hard feelings about it — I did a stint in HR and I would do anything to get through that never-ending stack of resumes, even if it meant denying someone the opportunity for a job just because they had sprayed perfume on their resume.

There is a way to stand out without irritating the hiring manager, though: a portfolio. I mentioned fairly recently that a portfolio can go a long way in convincing a prospective employer, and that portfolios aren’t just for art students. You can have a portfolio in any career — if you paint houses, you can take photos of the work you’ve done. If you’re a software developer, you can take screenshots of your applications. No matter your field, though, there are a few ways to make your portfolio shine.

  1. Put your portfolio online. If you email your portfolio as an attachment, no hiring manager will open it for fear of viruses. If you drop off a physical portfolio, every hiring manager will cringe at the thought of going through more paperwork. But if you simply email a link, you’ve actually got a chance of getting someone in human resources to click on it — after all, it’s just a link. It won’t take any time at all to click on it, and what’s the worst that could happen? So take the time to scan everything in. It’s worth your while.
  2. Don’t require any downloads. Don’t include PDFs, Word files or anything else that a prospective employer has to download and open. That goes double for executable files — apologies to all the fantastic developers out there, but employers would rather look at pretty screenshots than try to figure out the software you created. This may mean that you will need to take the time to ‘improve’ a project that you did quite awhile again: maybe you’ll need to add some HTML to a written document.
  3. Organize your portfolio. You don’t need to alphabetize your projects or anything like that, but it should be easy for prospective employers to figure out what to click. That means no fancy flash, no unlabelled links. As a quick litmus test, try sitting Grandma down in front of your portfolio / website. If she can’t figure out where to click, it’s guaranteed that there is an HR manager out there who will be equally lost.
  4. Add context. Write labels and descriptions for the items you’re including in your portfolio. A memo that solved a crisis at your last job may not impress a prospective employer if they don’t recognize the effect it had. Descriptions are also an opportunity to toot your own horn — you can talk about the problems you encountered and the skills you used. No matter how polished the items in your portfolio, though, your descriptions should be equally polished. Consider them a writing sample and an opportunity to show off those great communication skills that every employer requires.
  5. Focus your portfolio. Even if you’re a salesman / graphic designer / clog dancer, your portfolio doesn’t need to reflect that. Instead, you should focus on the job you’re actually going for. You can create separate portfolios for each of your career paths, but focus on what you really want to do next, not what you’ve done in the past.
  6. Go for the multimedia. Not all job skills can be expressed in writing or through photographs. Out to prove your sales skills? Maybe a few graphs showing how you improved sales are your best bet. Looking for a career as a mascot? A video of you working the crowd is bound to impress more than a picture of you standing around in costume. It’s your portfolio: you set the rules on what sort of media you want to include.
  7. Get your own domain name — or not. If you’re planning to maintain your portfolio in the long run (which can be a good thing even if you’re planning to stay with your new job for the long haul), sure, getting your own domain name is a good idea. But using one of the many sites that allow you to post samples of your work is also a good option. Say you’re an interior decorator. Your prospective boss won’t care if you can maintain a website. Focus on taking high quality photos of your work, and post them to Flickr. Your portfolio can be that easy. Just beware of user names that seem brilliant at 3 AM.

As a rule, I try to limit my portfolio to projects I’ve actually completed at others’ requests. As awesome as I think some of my more personal work is, it hasn’t been through anything close to the critical process that something I’ve done for hire has. But if you’re looking for a few items to pad your portfolio, volunteer your services. Your work will still go through a critical process, but you don’t have to find a job just to improve your chances of getting another job.

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