Undergraduate Blog / Career Development

Article: Cover Letters, Resumes that Earn You A Second Look

Craft Cover Letters, Resumes that Earn You a Second Look
by Carol Lippert Gray – October 10, 2008 

If you plan to make a job move soon distinguish yourself from the thundering herd of job-seekers that’s building in the market. You’ll need a dazzling cover letter and a brilliant resume: a total package designed to sell your skills and talents to potential employers.Yes, you may have heard it all before, but what follows is a primer for even the most professional. Follow these instructions and you’ll increase your chances of getting hired; fail on these forthright steps and you’ll fall off most hiring managers’ desks quicker than you can say, “Next!””A resume is a clear snapshot of where you’ve worked. A cover letter explains why you want to be in the position you’re applying for,” says Diane Albergo, director of career services and human resources at Financial Executives International, the New Jersey-based membership organization for senior-level corporate finance professionals. But if you’re more comfortable organizing numbers on a page than words, the prospect of composing such a package can be daunting. Apart from turning the job over to a professional, however, there are ways to make the process painless and productive. 

First, a note about form. Both the cover letter and resume should be typed on the same substantial-looking paper – and the paper should be the standard 8 1/2 x 11 inches, in white or ecru. Your contact information should be centered at the top of the page. Use a typeface like Times or Arial, not a decorative font. Use black ink only – and use the same font throughout, in a type size between 11 and 14 points.

Ask the company what its preferred method of delivery is (snail-mail or e-mail). If several sets of eyes will be perusing your package, find out whether your paper weight is within the company’s scanner capability. And don’t staple the pages if they are to be scanned.

Your Cover Letter

“A strong cover letter is as important as an effective resume,” says Paul McDonald, executive director of Robert Half Management Resources. According to Job Hunting for Dummies by Robert Half chairman Max Messmer, “The opening paragraph of the letter should accomplish two things. First, it should announce the purpose of the letter (even though the purpose may seem obvious). Second, it should give the reader a compelling reason to read on.” Further, Messmer says, “the body of each letter focuses on what the writer can offer and not what the writer wants.”

Even so, brevity, as they say, is the soul of wit: The letter shouldn’t be more than one page. Keep it brief and powerful by using action verbs to provide examples of your accomplishments and strengths. In the first paragraph,”Summarize your strongest qualifications and skills,”McDonald says. In the second, “Outline your skills and experience. Show how they match the position requirements.” You could include an optional third paragraph designed to convince the employer that you have the personal qualities and motivation to succeed. Then conclude by thanking the addressee for reviewing your material and offer to expand on or clarify anything you said.

If you’re going to e-mail your resume, you still need a cover letter, says Albergo. “If you’re going to get yourself noticed, keep the subject line concise. And be sure your e-mail address is professional, not like ‘Hot Chick #1.’”

Albergo advises making your cover letter the body of the e-mail rather than a separate Word document. Then, when the addressee opens the e-mail, she says, “There are your words. They grab attention and involve one less step [for the addressee to take].”

She also suggests highlighting some of your key skills in bold type. “Let it stand out a little more so it jumps out on the page,” she says.

Your Resume

“What a resume is, in short, is a one- or two-page summary of your work history, educational background, and work-related personal qualifications. Its fundamental purpose is to give prospective employers a convenient and reasonably efficient way to determine, at a glance, whether you warrant a closer look,” according to Job Hunting for Dummies.

And the phrase “at a glance” is critical. Most hiring managers spend no more than 15 seconds scanning a resume before either setting it aside for further consideration or discarding it. So your resume has to make you worth a second look.

“Make it easy to read,” McDonald says. That means using bullet points and leaving balanced areas of white space on the page. It also means using simple, direct language, avoiding overused phrases, adjectives, internal company jargon and acronyms. “Could a high-school student understand it?” he asks. At the same time, he says, “Avoid vagueness, especially in finance and accounting. It creates mistrust.” And, he adds, “Don’t include your age or marital status.”

An executive-level resume can be longer, McDonald says. “It should tell stories and illustrate your competencies and accomplishments. Provide measurable data for each accomplishment.” Thus, you might write:

  • Achieved 60% ROI when the industry standard was 20%.
  • Earned a reputation for coming in on time and under budget on all projects.

Customize your resume for each job opportunity, sharing your strategic vision for the future.

Include a personal statement at the top. You might say, for instance, “Over 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. My skills include x, y and z,” Albergo says, “Keep it results-driven, rather than highlighting your roles and responsibilities – keep your marketable skills front and center.”

Organize your information: about the companies you’ve worked for; your on-the-job responsibilities and accomplishments; education; certifications you’ve earned and workshops attended or led; awards and letters of recommendation; military service, if relevant; and work samples, if relevant. Also line up some references, but don’t include them on your resume. Rather, say, “References available upon request.”

Then select the resume format that best highlights your skills, experience and job-search goals. Select from among the chronological, functional and combination formats.

  • Chronological: This format displays your employment history in reverse chronological order, starting with your current job and working backwards. Use it if you’re staying in the same or similar line of work, because it will show career advancement and continuity. Don’t use it if you’re changing careers, if you have large gaps in your work history or if your current job objective is vastly different from your last job.
  • Functional: “The functional resume is organized around your skills, experiences, and accomplishments and not on the specific jobs you have held at various points in your career,” says Job Hunting for Dummies. “It omits entirely or mentions only in broad terms the jobs you’ve held and when you held them.” Use it if you’re changing careers, if you have long gaps in your work history or if the objective of your current job search is vastly different from your last job. But beware: it could raise red flags about continuity and context.
  • Combination: Also called the chrono-functional resume, it combines aspects of the two other formats. It works best when you’re staying in the same line of work and want to highlight your accomplishments and skills.   

Regardless of which format you choose, though, use accurate dates for your tenure at each job, even if there are gaps. “Don’t ever lie,” Albergo says. “People understand gaps more today than they did 20 or 30 years ago.”

But before you affix a stamp or hit the send button, proofread both your cover letter and your resume. Then proofread them again. And again. And have someone else go over them, too. Make sure they’re typographically and grammatically perfect and flow well. Don’t let your blooper appear in the next edition of Job Hunting for Dummies, which offers these actual doozies as examples:

  • Curses in liberal arts, curses in computer science, curses in accounting.
  • Disposed of $2.5 billion in assets.
    Instrumental in ruining entire operation for a Midwest chain store.
  • Extensive background in accounting. I can also stand on my head!

If you do eventually turn the job over to a professional, “Make sure you’re familiar with it” Albergo says. After all, you wouldn’t want an interviewer to be more conversant with your career history than you are.

Originally published May 3, 2005