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Telling Your Story

While many of us wish we could stick our heads in the sand and pretend that college lasts forever, the closer you get to graduation, the more important it becomes to think practically and methodically about how you will position yourself to land a job once you leave school. This section of the guide is designed to offer some advice about how you can leverage your classics background in order to be a highly attractive candidate in a competitive job market.

Your Résumé. A résumé offers your potential employer a snapshot of who you are and what experience and skills you will bring to the position. The Career Services Office at your school probably offers a résumé-writing workshop or maybe even one-on-one résumé consultations. You should definitely make use of these resources, ideally about a year before you’re ready to start applying for jobs. That being said, it’s never too late to reach out to your campus career center.

The skills you acquired as you earned your classics degree will likely come through most clearly as you describe your qualifications in sections like Work Experience, Service and Leadership, or Interests and Activities. Review the skills discussed in The Classics Edge and see which ones can be used to characterize the experiences you list.

A successful résumé is easy to read, organized, and concise. Use active verbs—past tense for previous experiences and present tense for current ones—that highlight the transferable skills you have that match the requirements of the position. For some suggested vocabulary, check out this list of action verbs you can use on your résumé from the Boston College Career Center.

Your Cover Letter. Your cover letter is where you will introduce yourself to your potential employer before they read your résumé and tell them what’s most important about you and your skill set. Your ability to make a good impression here will help ensure that your future boss goes on to read your résumé and any other materials you’ve submitted instead of setting your application aside. As with your résumé, take advantage of help from your Career Services Office well in advance with this tricky genre of writing.

The cover letter is the best place to highlight the transferable skills you’ve picked up during your classics degree (again, check out The Classics Edge). Since most of the other candidates will be discussing a similar skill set (like you, they’ll be using the job description to figure out how to tailor their letter to the particulars of the position), you need to include something that distinguishes you: engaging details from your own life experience. In essence, you can think of your cover letter as a series of short paragraphs that explain each of the skills you possess, how you developed them, and how you foresee them being useful to your employer in the job you’re applying for. Use the language of the job posting in your letter and avoid two extremes: a) simply reiterating your résumé and b) giving too many descriptive details and writing something more akin to a college application essay.

For example:

My ancient history courses have helped me to develop the skills necessary for a position in management consultancy, training me to use a wide variety of sources to understand the dynamics in an office environment. In researching and writing on Nero, one of Rome’s most notorious emperors, I have been trained to draw on and synthesize multiple sources of information, which allows me to address the incomplete, fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory nature of ancient evidence. For example, while Suetonius’s titillating biography of Nero cannot always be taken at face value—at one point he claims that spectators feigned death to avoid listening to Nero sing! —when read alongside Tacitus’s history and Seneca’s philosophy, Suetonius unquestionably enhances our understanding of this capricious and unstable ruler. By developing the ability to approach problems holistically, I have grown comfortable navigating unfamiliar contexts—from a new company to the Roman imperial court—learning how to discern the potential limitations and biases underlying the sources I rely on and to check my own assumptions.

Letters of Recommendation. Not every job application will require these, but it’s a good idea to ask two or three people to serve as references (that is, people who have given you permission to give their contact information to potential employers) and/or letter writers well before you actually start applying for jobs. These should be people who know you well and, ideally, have had the chance to interact with you in more than one context. Hopefully, at least one is somebody you’ve been talking to about your career plans over the course of your degree. If you’re a classics major, one of these people is likely to be one of your classics professors.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if somebody is providing a reference for you:

  • Request a letter from your recommender with plenty of advanced warning, at least two weeks and preferably a month or more. Always give them the option to say no gracefully. They may be too busy (and you don’t want a stressed out, distracted person writing for you) or they might feel that they can’t offer a strong endorsement. Make sure you have a backup in mind in case they do say no.
  • Make it as easy as possible for your recommender to make you look like a great fit for the job. When you ask for a letter, include a concise summary of the position and the required qualifications so that your writer can reference these things in their letter. Make sure you also provide them with a link to the job ad and the company website, if relevant.
  • Don’t assume your recommender knows everything about you. Provide them with an up-to-date copy of your résumé and mention anything not covered on the résumé that might be relevant to the position and useful in their letter.
  • Don't be shy about telling your recommender explicitly what you hope they’ll talk about in their letter (e.g. “if possible, professor, it would be great if you could bring up my group project in CLAS 101 and my role in Classics Club”). This isn’t shameless self-promotion; you’re just making it easier for your reference to write the letter by stimulating their memory, and professors appreciate this. If they don’t feel comfortable including something, they won’t.

The Job Interview. While your classics degree is not going to be relevant to every question you get in a job interview, it’s still a good idea to brainstorm about how you might raise this topic before you get into the meeting. With a little planning, you can ensure that you stand out from other candidates, particularly if you’ve thought carefully about ways to articulate the connections between your classics experience and the job you’re applying for.

We’ve done a web search for the most frequently asked interview questions (you should too!) and singled out the ones that offer good opportunities to reference your classics background. Review each statement below for some suggestions about how to tackle them.

  • Tell us a little about yourself.

This is your opportunity to slip casually into the conversation that you’re a classics major, giving the interviewer the invitation to ask you about this (they may already be wondering). Because not everybody has had the pleasure of studying classics, you should have a brief, snappy answer ready to go in case you get the dreaded “classics . . . so you mean like Dickens/Mozart/Marx?”. For some suggestions on how to do this, check out this sketch produced by the Classics Department at Carleton College, “How to Talk about Your Classics Major: to prospective employers.”

  • What makes you unique? / Out of all of the candidates, why should we hire you?

There probably aren’t a lot of other classicists interviewing for the job and you can play this up as an advantage. Talk about how classics is uniquely interdisciplinary and have an example ready to go of a class you took/project you did that exemplifies this kind of holistic thinking.

  • What are you passionate about?

You need to prepare an answer that doesn’t just show your enthusiasm, but also stresses how relevant your passions are to the job you’re being considered for. Does the job involve a lot of data analysis? Talk about how much you loved sorting and categorizing pottery when you went on that archaeological dig. Does the job involve public speaking? Wax poetic about your admiration for Demosthenes or Cicero.

  • What are your greatest strengths?

Before the interview, pick one of the skills required for the job and think about how it can be tied to something you’ve succeeded at in your degree. Have you received any prizes for language study or for an essay you wrote? Are you the person all the students come to when they need help brainstorming a thesis statement? Have you been a tutor for a classics course? Have you been a leader in the Classics Club? All of these experiences can be woven into stories that highlight your unique attributes as an employee.

  • Describe a problem you encountered in the past and how you addressed it. What lessons did you learn from this experience?

The study of classics poses all kinds of challenges; this question allows you to turn those challenges into a desirable skill set you would bring with you to your new job. What did you do when there was a hole in the evidence you needed for your paper? Conversely, what did you do when two sources of evidence presented you with contradictory conclusions? How did you deal with the challenge of presenting on the ancient past to an audience of non-classicists?

  • Are you a team-player? / Tell us about a conflict that arose at work in the past and how you dealt with it.

The correct answer to the first question is, of course, yes. The trick is to offer a story that convincingly demonstrates your ability to work well with others. Talk about how you figured out how to work with that Geography major who had never taken a classics course before. Alternatively, because classics is such a small, tight-knit community, you could talk about challenges you overcame through exemplary teamwork with your fellow majors (planning a Homerathon, obtaining money for an outreach event, collaborating in the close living quarters and under the physical demands of a dig, etc.)

Questions of the “tell me about a time when . . .” type can be tricky to answer well. Check out Kat Boogaard’s advice at The Muse on how to use the STAR method to respond concisely and effectively when you get questions like this.