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In this increasingly competitive job market, your first chance to make an impression is often the only one you’ll get. Most employers spend no more than 10 seconds on each application due to the volume they receive. So how do you make the most of those precious moments?
By writing an effective résumé and cover letter, you can accomplish three things:
- Prove you are qualified for the job
- Show you care about the specific position
- Demonstrate your understanding of the work world
Essentially, these documents are screening tools. They are used to narrow an employer’s search pool. Your goal is to market yourself and make potential employers want to meet you. If you start to prepare your materials early, you’ll be ready when an opportunity comes along.
Tell Us About Yourself: Résumés
Résumés are basically a listing of your educational and work experiences, as well as other details that make you qualified for a job. Your résumé needs to be nuanced and tailored for the specific field that interests you, while setting you apart from other candidates. Here are the basics:
What to Include
- Contact information: At the very top, as a header.
- Career objective (optional): Your goal in seeking this job. One sentence.
- Summary of qualifications (optional): A succinct description of your skills that match the position’s requirements.
- Employment history: A listing of your jobs and internships, with your responsibilities at each one.
- Education: Where you go and/or went to school and when.
- Other experience: Volunteering, student leadership positions, honors, awards, non-degree trainings, etc.
More Things to Include in Your Résumé
Note: If you need to include a list of publications or a curriculum vitae (CV), these can be attached as additional pages. According to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, a curriculum vitae is used almost exclusively when one is pursuing an academic job. It provides an overview of your accomplishments in teaching, research, writing, and editing in the realm of higher education.
These are the sections of your résumé:
Your contact information should be placed at the top of the page. There is no excuse for incorrect information, so be sure to check it twice. Also be sure to include at least your first and last name at the top of each subsequent page.
The objective statement is essentially the title of your résumé. The rest of the document must effectively support your title in order to get an interview. This should not be a description of duties, nor should it be too vague. Focus your objective on a specific goal that matches the job position.
Even if you do not use the targeted résumé format, it is recommended that you tailor your objective statement to each specific job and each specific company. Make sure to know the actual title of each job. If your résumé mentions a position that is not open, you may not be called for an interview.
Summary of Qualifications
This optional content is also knows as the “skills” section on some résumés. It is like the “greatest hits” of your experience. This section should highlight key skill areas and draw attention to those that specifically support your job goal. This can be done in either paragraph form or as a bulleted list.
A chronological résumé will list your positions, usually starting with the most recent and working backward. Include the dates of employment (or volunteering, etc.) and the position, location, and experience. Use action words like “developed,” “calculated,” “managed,” and others that show you taking initiative and being accountable.
A functional résumé does not necessarily require an employment history section. However, some employers will find this a little suspicious. If you have issues with employment history that you would like to disguise (for example, gaps in employment), use a combination résumé format and list dates, positions, and locations in the employment history section. There are certainly acceptable reasons for employment gaps, but be prepared to explain them.
Education and Training
This section should include all degrees and certificates earned after high school, and the expected date of graduation from your current program. List any graduation honors that you received, and include your grade point average if it presents you in a positive light. If you’re a recent graduate, include your major, research experience, or other information that is pertinent to the job.
Include all certifications, licenses, coursework, and internships relevant to the job. You can also include a link to your LinkedIn profile or personal Web site (as long as it only has work-appropriate information and pictures). On a related note, be sure to review your Web presence before applying for jobs. Many employers look up candidates on Facebook and other Web sites.
Tips on Translating Military Experience into Civilian Terms
It’s possible that everything from your job titles to your skills may need to be reworded. Remember, it doesn’t matter how qualified you are if your employer can’t understand your résumé.
Here are some resources to help you translate your experiences for civilian job applications:
U.S. Department of Labor, Employment & Training Administration, My Next Move for Veterans.
U.S. Department of Labor, Employment & Training Administration, Military to Civilian Occupation Translator.
Transition Assistance Online, MOS Code to Civilian Occupations Translator.
Organizing the Information
Before listing your skills and experiences, decide what format best highlights your accomplishments. Here are the options:
- Chronological: Your most recent position goes first. This is the most common format.
- Functional: Emphasizes your skills, rather than your employment history.
- Combination: Follows a timeline, but focuses most on relevant positions.
- Targeted: Customized for a specific job application.
More Tips on Organization
Chronological: This format focuses on your work history with the most recent position first. Most job seekers choose this format because it is the easiest way for employers to follow their career history. However, there are situations in which the chronological format will not be the most beneficial.
Functional: This format emphasizes your skills and experience, rather than employment history. Those who are changing career fields or those who have significant employment gaps most often use this format.
Combination: This format includes chronological and functional formats. It highlights your most relevant skills and accomplishments, while de-emphasizing your employment history in less relevant jobs. It also provides the chronological work history that some employers prefer.
Targeted: This format is customized to a specific job and written specifically for an employer’s needs. A targeted résumé can be time-consuming because you have to create a different one for each job application, but is impressive and shows that you have done research on the position.
Tell Us Why You Want This Job: Cover Letters
The purpose of a cover letter is to introduce yourself to an employer, offer a frame of reference for your interest, and provide a sample of your writing ability. Some employers will focus on the cover letter, while others will focus on the résumé. To present yourself in the most professional manner, invest time developing both.
Including a cover letter is always to your advantage, even if the job posting doesn’t specifically ask for one. If applying for a job online, you may have the opportunity to attach materials to your application. If necessary, you can combine your cover letter and résumé into one continuous document.
More Effective Cover Letter Content
Always address your cover letter to a specific person in the organization. If you’ve spoken with someone at the company previously, make sure you mention this. Either address your cover letter to the person, or mention him or her by name in the first paragraph.
After viewing a job post, do some research about the organization and also whom the position is likely to report to, or which department it is in. Never use “to whom it may concern.” You can search online, use an internal contact, or call the company’s human resources department to find out. Ask how to spell the person’s name, his or her job title, and find out if the person is male or female (so you know to use Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.)
Worse comes to worst, you can use the supervisor’s likely title, such as “Manager of Finance” or “Director of Outreach.” If you can’t find any information, use something like “Hiring Manager.”
Cover Letter Content
Keep your cover letter short and to the point, and always use complete sentences. It should never be longer than one page.
Here’s what your cover letter needs to include:
- Introductory paragraph: Note the job for which you are applying and how you heard about it, especially if it was through someone within the company or known to the hiring manager. Make a positive statement about your interest in the position and include a sentence that states your confidence in being a good match for it.
- Describe your experience: In this section (1-3 paragraphs at most), list training and achievements that relate to the job desired. Focus on showing employers how you can help them and on your strengths. Use numbers, percentages, and statistics as illustrations of your achievements when possible. Make sure to use action verbs. Write in the past tense for previous jobs, and use present tense for current jobs.
- Summary and next steps: Restate your enthusiasm for the position, and briefly summarize why you are a strong candidate. Thank the reader for the opportunity and say that you are looking forward to further conversations. You can also suggest a next step, such as, “I will call next week to follow up on my application.” If you say it, though, follow through.
- Conclusion: Encourage the reader to contact you with any questions or if they would like to discuss things further. Provide a closing statement—“Thank You,” “Sincerely,” etc., and sign the letter. Also provide your name, printed beneath where you will sign.
Some employers will ask up front for references, while others will request them after you’ve had at least one interview. Create a separate page for this information (using the same design as your other documents), and always ask your references before including them and offer a copy of your résumé and a brief description of the job you’ve applied for.
Application Do’s and Don’ts
- Ensure there are no spelling, grammatical, or punctuation mistakes. Don’t just rely on your computer’s spell-checker, as it won’t catch words that have two meanings and other nuances.
- Make sure the layout is easy to read and visually pleasing.
- List the most important information in the first half of your résumé.
- There’s no need for fancy paper, though you can use heavier stock thn standard copy paper.
- Avoid graphics unless you are in the field of design.
- If you’re an undergraduate, focus on experiences after high school, unless you had a particularly notable job, internship, or award prior to college.
- Only use the word “I” in your cover letter, not in your résumé.
- Revise your résumé and cover letter as needed.
- If you have special circumstances, such as military service, learn how to incorporate this into your materials.
Never include relatives, friends, or people you do not know. Most appropriate are those who have supervised you in a work environment, or professors and advisors who can attest to your abilities.
When drafting your résumé, take notice of areas where you need more experience or skill development. Look into certifications and internships to gain skills. The time you spend improving your knowledge base, and communicating that knowledge to employers, will pay dividends over the long term.
Get help or find out more
Bucknell University, Career Development Center, Creating an Effective Résumé
The Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Résumés
The Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Résumé Structure
The Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cover Letters