Tips for Resumes and Cover Letters

Get Organized: Tips for Resumes and Cover Letters
Breaking into a new career, no matter what industry you're vying to join, seems to get more and more competitive every year. New graduates are often overwhelmed with the process of applying to jobs and trying to get a foot in the door.
Believe it or not, hiring remains a very difficult process for employers. Good candidates are extremely hard to find. Often, the problem is that the best candidates don't know how to appropriately express that they would make the perfect fit for the job. A few simple technology tricks and tips, and knowing how the system operates, can fix this problem, though, and help you get the job you want.
Get OrganizedThis post is meant for new university graduates who are looking to get into the job market. I'll share some of the tricks I've learned over the years for organizing your resumes and cover letters so that your job applications are as effective as they can be. Much of the advice I've learned comes from interviewing headhunters, hiring managers, HR professionals, and job placement assistants. Some of it also comes from my own experiences as both a member of a hiring committee and an applicant.
What Are Resumes and Cover Letters?
Briefly, resumes and cover letters are your primary job application materials. They may be accompanied by other materials, too, like a formal application questionnaire and portfolio or other work samples.
Cover letters, or covering letters, are the formal introduction to you and your job application. Usually, a cover letter is the body text of an email.
Resumes (sometimes called curriculum vitae or CV) are formal summaries of you as a candidate, typically written with bullet points and fragments. Usually, resumes are PDFs attached to the cover letter email. The purpose of a resume is to highlight your most applicable and most impressive experiences that are relevant to the open position. It is not a history of your employment and job responsibilities—more on that in a moment.
How Do Employers Use Your Materials?
To write a great cover letter and resume, you have to understand how the employer is using them. The number one thing to know is that people always read your cover letter and resume more than once. The first time, they skim it looking for keywords. Sometimes, they use technology to do the first skim read. Your resume and cover letter may be sent through a program that literally scans it looking for keywords that the hiring committee has defined. The purpose of the skim read is to throw out any candidates who don't cut the mustard. To be considered a viable candidate, your cover letter and resume have to pass this stage. So you have to think about not just writing beautiful prose, but using the right keywords. I'll tell you how and where to find them later in this article.
The second time potential employers read your materials, they read closely, paying attention to what you have actually written and how you've phrased it. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency, and the degree of formality of your language count. The "right" level of formality depends on the industry and company culture.
Keyword Matching
To pass the first test, the skim read, you need to put the right keywords into your materials. But how do you know which ones to use? Luckily, the company gives them to you. They're in the job description!
One of the biggest pieces of advice I have about organizing an online job search is to save everything, including the job description. I recommend creating a word-processing file where you will
1. Copy and paste the job description
2. Comb through the job description carefully while putting in bold keywords that mention necessary skills and attributes of the ideal candidate
3. Identify which of those keywords truly applies to you and your experiences (no lying!)
4. Write a few accurate statements that use those keywords in describing your qualities, talents, and past work.
The statements that you write in step 4 will become the foundation of your cover letter. All you have to do after that is make sure you write a concise introduction and conclusion, and smooth out the transitions between the statements. (And if all else fails in trying to write smooth transitions, just start a new paragraph.) Keep the cover letter short. In most cases, it should be less than 400 words. Get to the point, hit the key ideas, show that you fit the key things the company needs, and conclude quickly.
These same keywords that the employer used in the job description need to appear in your resume as well. Most resumes of recent college graduates are only one page long, and employers expect that. In certain fields (nursing and academia come to mind) employers expect longer resumes that provide more detail (list of certifications, for example, or list of published works). Your professors and university's career center can help you with some of those industry-specific details.
No Such Thing as 'One' Resume
One important fact that many new graduates don't know is that they must make a new resume and cover letter for every single job application. No successful job candidate has "a resume." You need a specially tailored one for each job opening. Each resume and cover letter doesn't have to be radically different from the previous one, and occasionally, you may find two or three job descriptions that are so similar that you don't have to change much in your application materials at all. But to accurately match the keywords that the employer gives you, you'll need to rewrite your resume and cover letter every time.
When you send your resume, cover letter, and anything else the employer requests, use the file formats they specify; if they don't specify which format to use, always send PDFs.
Save Everything
As I mentioned, save the job description for each job application you complete. Also save the cover letter and resume, and name them in such a way that you can find them quickly and easily. I like to use the following identifiers in my file names:
  • company name,
  • position title, and
  • date the application was sent (two-digit year, month, date so that May 28, 2012 becomes 120528).
The reason you need to save everything and make it easy to find is so that when you do get called in for an interview—and you will if you keep at it those applications!—you'll be able to review the position requirements, refresh your memory about what you've told the hiring committee about yourself, and remember to use the same keywords about your best qualities and skills in the interview.
Resume and Cover Letter Tips
A successful job hunt really does require some forethought about your process for putting together application materials, organizing and saving them, and reviewing them. Here's a short summary of those tips.
1. Match keywords. The employer gives you the answers to their skim-read test. Use them!
2. Keep it short. Keep your cover letter to about 400 words or less and your resume to one page (unless your industry uses other standards).
3. Save everything. Save the job description, as well as your cover letter and resume, for every job application. Label these files so that you can find them and review them easily if you are called to an interview.
4. Tap your professors, contacts, and university's career center. Ask for advice, feedback, and help from everyone you can. You'll inadvertently do some serious networking in the process, too.


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