Brenda Bernstein grew up in New York and was educated on the East Coast, but she’d always considered herself more of a small-city person. In 2008, she visited Madison.
“I fell in love immediately with the lakes, the farmer’s markets, the coop, and the bike paths,” said Bernstein, now owner of The Essay Expert LLC. “After a few days here, I was already running into people I knew at the co-op. I knew this was home pretty immediately.”
She was trained as an attorney and practiced as a public interest lawyer in New York City for 10 years.
Question: How would you describe the leap from being a lawyer to founding and running a resume company?
Answer: I have been editing my friends’ and family’s writing for as long as I can remember. Living in New York, practicing public interest law, I was also doing business as a college admissions essay coach. I put signs up around Park Slope, Brooklyn, that said “Yale English and NYU Law,” and people trusted me enough to let me help craft their kids’ essays. Kaplan also hired me as a law school admissions consultant. I still work part time for them.
I moved to Madison after I decided to stop practicing law. I approached the UW Law School Career Services, which offered me a part-time job where I dove into a lot of resume writing for law school students. It was good to have that job to tide me over, since quite honestly I did not know what I was doing as a business owner.
A friend told me, “Write down all the things you can do for people,” and resume writing was on the list — along with Linked- In profile writing, bio writing, and college and law school essay coaching. I created a LinkedIn profile, hired someone to create a website for me, filed my business registration papers in Wisconsin, and voila! I had a business.
Q. Do you still practice law?
A. Nope. I am officially retired from the N.Y. State Bar.
Q. Why did you leave the practice of law?
A. Law was never really a good fit for me. I liked advocating for clients, and I liked that I got to interact with real New York life — people with HIV, people who lived in the projects, the poor and the elderly. I liked going home every day knowing I had made a difference. But I never liked the actual practice of law.
I didn’t like arguing, especially when I had to jump through hoops to get results that should have been taken care of in the first place. I had clients win cases, only to die before they got their hearing or their settlement. I much prefer what I’m doing now, though I would never change what I chose for 10 years after law school.
Q. You list yourself as a top-certified resume writer. Who certifies resume writers?
A. I realize most people don’t even realize that resume certifications exist. Mine are through Career Directors International (CDI) which I believe is the most rigorous of the certifying organizations.
I have a CARW (Certified Advanced Resume Writer), CMRW (Certified Master Resume Writer), and CERM (Certified Executive Resume Master). Certifications generally require a practice project or two, grammar and writing tests, and submission of high quality resumes. There are only a handful of people worldwide who hold the more advanced certifications. Currently, 18 people hold the CERM.
Q. Is Madison a good place to start a business?
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A. Madison has been a wonderful place to start a business. I took advantage of the Small Business Development Center’s courses which supported me with writing a business plan. I connected with other businesses through Dane Buy Local, MAX (Madison Area Idea Exchange), and other networking groups. And ActionCOACH — with coaches Susan Thomson and Mike McKay — has provided me with amazing business coaching.
Q. Why do people have to hire an expert to do a resume?
A. Resumes need to be tailored to the position the person is applying for. Many people when they write their own resume want to write about everything, and they end up sounding unfocused. Many companies use Applicant Tracking Systems — computer systems that read each candidate’s resume.
A professional resume writer will ensure that your resume is formatted properly. Otherwise there can be whole chunks that are not read at all, or the resume can be thrown into the “no” pile based on missing keywords. A self-written resume might be appropriate for some people. I have books on DIY resumes for people who want to write their own: How to Write a WINNING Resume and How to Write a STELLAR Executive Resume.
Q. What’s the biggest mistake that people make when presenting their experiences and education?
A. The biggest mistake is writing about job duties instead of accomplishments, closely followed by what I call “death by bullets.” I’ve seen 20 or more bullets in one section – a sure way to put the reader’s brain on tilt.
With education, a big mistake would be saying you have a degree when you did not complete the degree. Honesty is paramount in every resume. Another mistake is highlighting an accomplishment from your academic years if you’ve been out of school for 10 years or more.
Q. Have you ever seen anything that is truly unique in a potential resume?
A. I had a client who was a Chief Financial Officer and Comptroller who wanted to be an Executive Assistant. We had to finesse a lot of her experience to make her look like the right candidate. She found her dream job. I also recently worked with an executive who wants to be a sorority house mother.
Q. What’s your personal life like?
A. I absolutely love yoga which I practice four times a week, and I have been swimming three times a week for 20 years. My newest passion is salsa dancing. I go out dancing three times a week between The Brink and the Cardinal. In the summer I enjoy growing veggies in my backyard garden.
Q. How do you measure professional success?
A. If I am growing and being challenged, and also seeing results, I consider myself successful. One of my biggest successes in my business was writing my first book, How to Write a KILLER LinkedIn Profile, and watching it rise to become an Amazon bestseller.
Right now I am excited to be working with a “membership by nomination only” organization based in New York City who has retained The Essay Expert to write resumes for its executive members.
Q. What’s the next big thing you want to accomplish?
A. The next thing I have in the works is publishing a trade version of my book, How to Write a WINNING Resume, with Skyhorse Publishing.