handshake

An inside look at what employers want to see.

Furthering your education as an adult usually has one purpose: to learn the skills to help you prepare for a new job. Once you graduate, the main goal is to apply to open positions and get the job of your dreams. While your education can help you get a foot in the door, it can be frustrating trying to figure out what hiring managers and interviewers want to see in candidates. We sat down with Marie Davis, Penn Foster’s Director of National Employer Partnerships, to give you the inside look at what employers really want!

Marie partners with human resources and training and development departments at leading companies, so she’s well aware of what stands out to them, for better or worse. Here’s what you should know.

Resume, references, and cover letters.

Reading the Business section of the news

Q: What makes a generally impressive resume? Is there anything employers specifically look for?

A: New hires are an investment for the company, so employers look to see what a new hire can bring to the company. They are seeking three common financial outcomes on a resume from your current or previous jobs:

  • Did you make the company money? This could be increasing sales, completing orders efficiently, increasing the number of customers for the company, etc.
  • Did you save the company money? Saving on supplies, establishing a process that can reduce costs, or offering new ideas on saving money are all good things.
  • Did you increase business or make others better? You could have made a positive impact on distribution numbers, delivering on goals, helping and supporting your team, or even sharing new ideas.

Social impact is important, too! Employers want to see how your work had an impact on customers and/or your community. Does your work help, advance, or support others? How does you work or skills play a role outside of the job?

Q: How much, really, do employers pay attention to your references, resume, and cover letter?

A: This can really depend on the job you’re seeking. The resume itself will generate an interest in employers based on:

  • WHO you worked for (including length of time)
  • WHAT you did (your job title)
  • And HOW did you make an impact there.

Now, most applications are done online and, while resumes and cover letters can be attached, it’s the online application that gets you to that next step.

When you submit your application, employers will take a quick look to determine if they want to take the next step in the process with you.

For specialized work, such as in skilled trades or apprenticeships, referrals from past customers and clients are more important than personal references.

Q: Do you think employers prefer certain resume styles? If so, what are your top tips for submitting the best resume possible?

A: Online applications have changed the way we apply and importance of traditional resumes. Now, employers often make decisions about a candidate based on the answers to the online questions. If a resume is attached to the application, it is usually reviewed only if the answers to the questions are aligned with what the employer is looking for.

Interview attitude.


Q: What are three things that employers dislike seeing in an interview? Do these things automatically disqualify you for the position?

A: For me, the number one turn off in an interview is negativity. Negativity can be displayed in many different ways and some potential candidates don’t even realize it’s happening. Some examples:

  • Blaming others for what may have gone wrong at another place of work, whether it’s a coworker, bosses, or customers. Having someone tell me how others made them fail makes me question if they take responsibility for their work.
  • Talking poorly about their company or boss throughout the interview or complaining about the customers and unresolved issues. You are entitled to your opinion but an interview is not the place to explain that. It is more valuable to show that you can find the good in any relationship and that you are focused on growth.
  • Giving up! Don’t throw up your hands and say “I have no idea” or “I don’t know what to say.” You’d be amazed how often this happens when I ask applicants an open-ended question.

While these things don’t automatically disqualify a candidate, it definitely makes it harder to see the great qualifications an applicant has. Employers will wonder if they should take a chance on this person.

Q: What should you do if you get caught off guard by a question during the interview?

A: Take time to think about the question! Don’t panic or become negative. Your body language says so much about how you react to a question and how you answer. Stay upright, be thoughtful, and ask for clarification if necessary. I have actually responded to a question with “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that” in a light, upbeat manner. Then, I’d talk through the answer with the interviewer, not just talk at them to make sure my answer was clear and on point.

Q: What really is the best way to answer the “what is your greatest strength/weakness” question?

A: Be honest! You know these questions are going to come up in the interview, so take some time to think about what positively sets you apart from others and what makes you a great addition to a team.

But you also should think about what may have slowed you down or caught you off guard in the past. That could be taking on too much, not always delegating responsibilities when you should, or not having a reasonable work/life balance. If you admit your weaknesses, make sure to mention that you’re aware of them and give examples of how you are working on them.

Building skills.

Two young professionals in a meeting

Q: What are your thoughts on furthering your education to increase your chances of employability?

A: Always continue to learn in your chosen field of study! This doesn’t mean you have to choose more education versus working; you can do both on your own schedule. Reading industry or business books, networking, and attending industry conferences are all ways in which you can learn beyond a formal education.

When you do pursue furthering your education, make sure you know why and what you hope to accomplish to make it worthwhile and keep you motivated. Also listen to and learn from your mentors, supervisors, and industry leaders. Doing all of these can lead to increased employability, as long as you stay motivated and driven to succeed in your field.

Q: What skills should someone learn to boost their resume and build leadership skills?

A: There are a few things that can help, such as:

  • Becoming a mentor, advisor, or peer leader within your company or even in a recreational club to show off your leadership capabilities.
  • Giving back socially to your community or within your current employer’s business.
  • Showing you can connect and communicate with others through social media and outreach networking to make a positive impact.
  • Learning customer service solutions, which shows you can resolve conflict and keep customers happy.

Q: What can a student or graduate do to boost their chances of being hired?

A: Be confident in yourself and your ability to make a difference with that company. There’s a difference between arrogant and confident, so make sure to stay on the side of “confident.”

Think of it this way: As the company you’re applying to is looking to hire great candidates, you’re selecting companies you’d be proud to work for. Also, make sure they know you’ve done your homework and have a few examples as to why the company is a great fit for you.

The bottom line?


Many employers are looking for the same thing, no matter the industry. They want responsible, confident leaders who can make a positive impact on the company. Training is important, especially in many technical or medical fields like HVAC Technician or Medical Assisting, but, according to Marie, “attitude sets the stage for success.”

If you’re positive, caring, and interested in going the extra mile, that attitude will shine through. Leadership and other soft skills can be learned through education and training programs like Penn Foster’s Career Readiness Bootcamp, but make sure to spotlight the amazing person you already are.