Career 101: Resume and Cover Letter

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Last week, my friend Jenny kicked off her Career 101 series by sharing tips about the most impactful way to go about your job search. The VP of human resources and talent acquisition is back for her second installment – this time providing some guidance around how to make your resume and cover letter stand out, including a list of things to avoid, too.

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Don't forget to check back next Tuesday for her tips on acing your next job interview and also on March 3rd for the final post of the series The last post will be a Q&A for Jenny (so leave any questions you have about careers in the comment section of these posts)!

Before You Get Started 

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Many job seekers come to me hoping that I hold the key to making their resume stand out amongst a sea of similarly experienced people. I’m sorry to say there isn’t a silver bullet. What I can tell you though, is that the best thing you can do for yourself is to have a resume that clearly and succinctly communicates your experience. Acing this difficult task will set your resume apart from the others from the get-go.

When I read your resume and cover letter, I am trying to get a solid understanding of the skills you bring to the table, a sense of your aptitude and willingness to learn, and some insight into your personality. 

It can be overwhelming to think about strategically summarizing what you do everyday, or what you did in a previous role in just a few bullet points and a cover letter. Hopefully this will help you get started. 

Writing Your Resume

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Because writing what you do every day at your current job or previous job can be overwhelming, I’d recommend starting with your job description (it's even better if you have one provided to you by your company). Think about what you want to highlight and bring to the surface and focus on those things. Ask yourself if they are in line with what the company you are applying to sees as beneficial. As a hiring professional, I am trying to get to know you through your cover letter and resume. Help show me your personality, your strengths, your skills, and how we would benefit from hiring you.

1. The Objective Statement.

Before you attack, think about the position that you are applying to. You may want to craft a compelling (and succinct!) Objective Statement at the top of your resume. This is particularly effective if your current or past experience isn’t directly related to the job for which you are applying.  While I'd like to think that all hiring professionals are reading your whole resume and thinking critically about where you might add value, the reality is, they might be buried in submissions. Don't leave them to their own devices to discern how your skills are transferrable. Tell them! Explain why you want to make the transition and what makes you relevant. Think of the Objective Statement as the lens through which you want the reader to view the rest of your experience. If you are aspiring to make an industry change or a career shift, this is the place to explain WHY you are interested and HOW your past experience makes you a good hire.

You also don't HAVE to have an objective statement. If you think you present a compelling case in the cover letter, or your fit in their organization is obvious, or you feel you don't have anything to say that is interesting / compelling / adds value, then no problem! Skip it. 

2. Bullet Point Descriptions of your Role and Responsibilities.

Think about what you want to highlight about your current role, and what experience might be the most relevant for the role you are trying to land. I often recommend, for the sake of brainstorming, that you start by casting a wide net - create a master list that has everything you do (or did) in that role. You can pull from your master list and edit your resume based on the role and company to which you are applying. 

3. Do Your Research and Customize Your Submission. 

Once you have a well crafted objective and lists of what you did in each job, tailor them for each submission. That is not to say that you should fabricate or sugar coat the experience that you've had, but you should think strategically about what to highlight. 

Reading a prospective employer's job descriptions, looking at the profiles of their current employees on LinkedIn, and doing your research will help give you clues about the best way to customize your content. What are the types of adjectives they’ve used on their website or in the job description? Work those words into your resume. At the end of the day, you should be spelling out exactly what your experience is and taking out the guesswork for the resume reader.

Formatting Your Resume

 I get asked a lot of questions about resume formatting. While this can vary from industry to industry, here are my two cents on this topic:

1. The One Page Rule. 

Going over one page for a resume doesn't bother me. If you have compelling information that you feel is pertinent to the job at hand and need to go over, go for it. But, if you feel like you are trying really hard to extend your resume and fill in the page, then don’t go push yourself to get there. The content of the resume is so much more important to me than the length. 

2. Education. 

Depending on the field you are in, the correct placement for your education might vary. My rule of thumb: If it’s not directly relevant, I don’t need to know your Alma Mater as the first thing I read about you. It may be different if you are in, say, the medical field in a specialty. The exception here of course is if you are just out of school and don’t have much job experience, then go ahead and put this first. As you get a more varied body of professional work, I'd move your education to the bottom of your resume.

3. Consistency. 

Another tip I have is to remain consistent in your tenses. I have no preference, but my inclination is to speak to your current job in the present and your past experience in the past. I am also not a stickler for things like full sentences. You can use bullet point answers, but I do keep an eye out for consistency. That is, if you are going to add a period at the end of a bullet point, then add a period at the end of each and every bullet point.

4. Contact Info. 

Add easy contact info at the top of the resume. I should be able to figure out how to contact you very quickly. 

5. File Type. 

Many employers use what they call Applicant Tracking Systems to keep track of their pool of candidates. I can appreciate a beautifully designed PDF resume (as long as the focus is on the content and it's easy to read), but these resumes aren't searchable in a lot of these systems. If you send a beautifully crafted PDF file, consider also sending a Word Doc or another parsed version of your resume. 

Your Cover Letter

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The sheer volume of submissions can make it tough to read all of the applications in detail. So, in an effort to grab the attention of a hiring professional, here are a couple of tips I'd recommend for your cover letter.

1. Stand Out. 

Find ways to articulate what makes you stand out. Ask yourself whether the sentence you’ve written is a sentence that everyone else would write. If it is, scrap it.

2. Personalize. 

Optimally, when I read your cover letter, I want to walk away feeling like I know you a little bit better. It’s not to say you have to chat me up like a friend, but I like to get the feeling that I got an authentic read on the type of person you are. Remember, as much as you want a job, you also want to be sure that the company is right for you, too. If you’ve been authentic (about what you want, what motivates you, what makes you happy), you'll more likely land in a role that's a great fit for you.

3. Brevity. 

Bear in mind that I read A LOT of applications, resumes, and cover letters. Be concise. Of course if it’s immensely compelling and well written, then I don’t mind if it’s a little longer.

4. Content.  

Understandably, people have a hard time coming up with a compelling hook for their cover letter. While you might take an interesting or humorous tone or slant, your cover letter shouldn't feel like shtick. Exercise judgment here. Ask yourself a couple of questions: Is there a personal reason why you’re applying? Is there an angle or approach to the job that is interesting? Do you have a reason why you love the company so much, or find that it’s such an ideal fit? Spell out why you want to work there. If it’s a company you love, but a position you’ve never had before, considering telling the story of your transferable skill set.

What Not to Do

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None of these are written in stone, but here are a few things to think about: 

1. One of the most common mistakes I see on resumes is that people have a tendency to use “un-hearable” words. I consider words that everyone uses (and overuses) to describe themselves as being un-hearable. These words start to become meaningless noise to me. Think about the words you use and ask yourself if they are actually adding any value to your sentence before including them. Do the words that you are using uniquely describe you? 

2. This is funny, but common. Many people include a section called “Additional Skills” on their resume in which they include things like Microsoft Word, Email, or Excel. Slash this from your resume. At this point, it’s a given. If you are knowledgeable in a highly specialized program, this is the place to put it, but if it’s a program that many candidates know how to use, then it doesn’t belong there.   

3. Keep high school details out of it (unless there is something particularly unique or compelling). I’ve seen SAT scores and High School GPAs on resumes for people who have been working for many, many years.  

4. Don’t fib about your skills. I love reading interesting things about candidates, like proficiency in a martial art or fluently speaking multiple languages. However, I recommend not overstating. For instance, if you are a computer engineer, only list the coding languages that you are prepared to speak to (or disclose varying levels of expertise). If you claim expert-level knowledge and are tested on it but can't answer, it makes me call into question the rest of your experience.   

5. Don’t weigh down your resume. If there is something that you can say in 5 words, don’t use 12.   

6. Don’t blanket send your resume and apply to 9 different roles within one company. Choose one or two positions that are relevant and craft a targeted resume, cover letter, and objective.  

7. This may seem insanely obvious, but proofread your resume and cover letter over and over again. You can’t claim attention to detail if you have errors in either of these. We get so many cover letters that are obvious templates and are addressed to the wrong company! It would be a shame to have a great cover letter and resume, but errors that distract from the content. Some companies take typos more seriously than others. I tend to notice mistakes, especially for candidates applying for client-facing roles.  

8. Don't send links to your LinkedIn profile, personal blog, website, Facebook page, etc. UNLESS these links add insight and value to your application. Is your LinkedIn profile fully fleshed out? Exercise good judgement; what would a potential employer want to see?

 9. I won't go so far as to say "Don't be visible on social media." That would be crazy. But at least be aware of how you might come up in a search on Google. Know what is visible to the public about you on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Alter your privacy settings if you need to. Better to not be evaluated on anything other than your on-point application, great experience, and polished interview skills. 

Next week, I'll be going over the interview process and how to follow up. Leave any questions you may have below and I'll be sure to answer them in the final installment of Careers 101!