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Valerie Jarrett—who once hired Michelle Obama—shares the secret to a stand-out resume

Valerie B. Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, speaks to 5,000 attendees, at The White House Summit on The United State of Women.
Cheriss May | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Valerie Jarrett knows a thing or two about impressive resumes. In her own career, the former senior advisor to President Barack Obama has held leadership and management roles over four decades in law, business and politics.

So when Jarrett is reviewing the stacks of resumes that come across her desk, she's looking for something that stands out — something unexpected.

"I'm looking for somebody who's not afraid to go off the beaten path," Jarrett tells CNBC Make It. "That could be a travel abroad experience, foreign language certification or unexpected major in college."

Why? "It's an indication they're not afraid to take some calculated risk," she adds, "and I like for people to have enough self-confidence that they can 'swerve,' as I call it."

Jarrett's own non-traditional path includes growing up in Iran, where her father sought a better job than he could find in segregated America and was a doctor who ran a children's hospital. After a brief stint in London, Jarrett spent her formative years in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, as movements for racial and gender equality surged. After earning an undergraduate degree in psychology from Stanford and a law degree from the University of Michigan, she returned to Chicago and transitioned from a career in corporate law to one in public service.

I like for people to have enough self-confidence that they can 'swerve,' as I call it.
Valerie Jarrett

During the summer of 1991, Jarrett was deputy chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. A resume came across her desk attached to a handwritten note from Susan Sher, a top Chicago lawyer and one of Jarrett's close friends, urging Jarrett to meet with the "bright" and "mature" job applicant.

"The name at the top was Michelle Robinson," Jarrett writes in her book "Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward."

Jarrett writes that she saw Robinson (Obama's maiden name) was a second-year associate at a private law firm but didn't want to practice law, which made her curious to know what the public service-minded professional wanted to do in her next role. And more importantly, she was eager to hear how the 26-year-old Chicago native thought a job with the mayor's office would fit into her own professional path, following an education at Princeton and Harvard Law School.

"I'm looking for people who have that sense of adventure, and you can usually see that on a resume — it'll pop out," Jarrett tells CNBC Make It. "It's the kind of thing where, when you see it, you know. You took a chance, and it wasn't just the cookie cutter experience that people who play it safe do."

A scheduled 20-minute appointment turned into an hour-long conversation, and Jarrett ended up offering Robinson a job on the spot (even though she didn't have the authority to do so). But the urgency paid off and kick-started a working relationship to a friendship that has shaped both of their careers.

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