Chapter Five: Résumés and Cover Letters

Lumen Learning and Linda Bruce Hill

“The most important tool you have on a résumé is language.”

– Jay Samit

A résumé is a “selfie” for business purposes. It is a written picture of who you are—it’s a marketing tool, a selling tool, and a promotion of you as an ideal candidate for any job you may be interested in.

The word résumé comes from the French word résumé, which means “a summary.” Leonardo da Vinci is credited with writing one of the first known résumés, although it was more of a letter that outlined his credentials for a potential employer, Ludovico Sforza. The résumé got da Vinci the job, though, and Sforza became a longtime patron of da Vinci and later commissioned him to paint The Last Supper.

Résumés and cover letters work together to represent you in the most positive light to prospective employers. With a well-composed résumé and cover letter, you stand out—which may get you an interview and then a good shot at landing a job

In this section, we discuss résumés and cover letters as key components of your career development tool kit. We explore some of the many ways you can design and develop them for the greatest impact in your job search.

Your Résumé: Purpose and Contents

Your résumé is an inventory of your education, work experience, job-related skills, accomplishments, volunteer history, internships, residencies, and/or more. It’s a professional autobiography in outline form to give the person who reads it a quick, general idea of who you are, and what skills, abilities, and experiences you have to offer. With a better idea of who you are, prospective employers can see how well you might contribute to their workplace.

As a college student or recent graduate, though, you may be unsure about what to put in your résumé, especially if you don’t have much employment history. Still, employers don’t expect recent grads to have significant work experience. And even with little work experience, you may still have a host of worthy accomplishments to include. It’s all in how you present yourself.

Watch the following videos on creating a resume. You can view both or just watch the one that is aligned with your career stage.

Career Launchers:   How to Write a Resume (7 Minutes)

 

Career Changers and Advancers, 6 Steps to a Perfect Resume  (5.5 Minutes)

Elements of Your Successful Résumé

Perhaps the hardest part of writing a résumé is figuring out what format to use to organize and present your information in the most effective way. There is no correct format, per se, but most résumés follow one of the four formats below. Which format do you think will best represent your qualifications?

  1. Reverse chronological résumé: A reverse chronological résumé (sometimes also simply called a chronological résumé) lists your job experiences in reverse chronological order—that is, starting with the most recent job and working backward toward your first job. It includes starting and ending dates. Also included is a brief description of the work duties you performed for each job, and highlights of your formal education. The reverse chronological résumé may be the most common and perhaps the most conservative résumé format. It is most suitable for demonstrating a solid work history, and growth and development in your skills. It may not suit you if you are light on skills in the area you are applying to, or if you’ve changed employers frequently, or if you are looking for your first job.
  2. Functional résumé: A functional résumé is organized around your talents, skills, and abilities (more so than work duties and job titles, as with the reverse chronological résumé). It emphasizes specific professional capabilities, like what you have done or what you can do. Specific dates may be included but are not as important. So if you are a career launcher with little or no actual work experience, the functional résumé may be a good format for you. It can also be useful when you are seeking work in a field that differs from what you have done in the past. It’s also well suited for people in unconventional careers.
  3. Hybrid or Combination résumé: The hybrid résumé is a format reflecting both the functional and chronological approaches. It’s also called a combination résumé. It highlights relevant skills, but it still provides information about your work experience. With a hybrid résumé, you may list your job skills as most prominent and then follow with a chronological (or reverse chronological) list of employers. This résumé format is most effective when your specific skills and job experience need to be emphasized.
  4. Video, infographic, and website résumé: Other formats you may wish to consider are the video résumé, the infographic résumé, or even a website résumé. These formats may be most suitable for people in multimedia and creative careers. Certainly with the expansive use of technology today, a job seeker might at least try to create a media-enhanced résumé. But the paper-based, traditional résumé is by far the most commonly used—in fact, some human resource departments may not permit submission of any format other than paper based.

An important note about formatting is that, initially, employers may spend only a few seconds reviewing each résumé—especially if there is a big stack of them or they seem tedious to read. That’s why it’s important to choose your format carefully so it will stand out and make the first cut.

Résumé Contents and Structure

For many people, the process of writing a résumé is daunting. After all, you are taking a lot of information and condensing it into a very concise form that needs to be both eye-catching and easy to read. Don’t be scared off, though! Developing a good résumé can be fun, rewarding, and easier than you think if you follow a few basic guidelines.

Contents and Components To Include

  1. Your contact information: name, address (note that some recommend not sharing for security purposes, others recommend sharing to be complete), phone number, professional email address
  2. A summary of your skills: 5–10 skills you have gained in your field
  3. Work experience: depending on the résumé format you choose, you may list your most recent job first; include the title of the position, employer’s name, location, employment dates (beginning, ending); Working for a family business is valid work experience and should definitely be on a resume.
  4. Volunteer experience: can be listed in terms of hours completed or months/years involved. Use the same format as that used to list work experience.
  5. Education and training: formal and informal experiences matter; include academic degrees, professional development, certificates, internships, etc.
  6. Other sections: may include a job objective, a brief profile, a branding statement, a summary statement, additional accomplishments, and any other related experiences

Caution

Résumés resemble snowflakes in as much as no two are alike. Although you can benefit from giving yours a stamp of individuality, you will do well to steer clear of personal details that might elicit a negative response. It is advisable to omit any confidential information or details that could make you vulnerable to discrimination, for instance. Your résumé will likely be viewed by a number of employees in an organization, including human resource personnel, managers, administrative staff, etc. By aiming to please all reviewers, you gain maximum advantage.

  • Do not mention your age, gender, height or weight.
  • Do not include your social security number.
  • Do not mention religious beliefs or political affiliations, unless they are relevant to the position.
  • Do not include a photograph of yourself or a physical description.
  • Do not mention health issues.
  • Do not use first-person references (I, me).
  • Do not include wage/salary expectations.
  • Do not use abbreviations.
  • Proofread carefully—absolutely no spelling mistakes are acceptable.

Top Ten Tips for a Successful Résumé

  1. Aim to make a résumé that’s 1–2 pages long on letter-size paper.
  2. Make it visually appealing.
  3. Use action verbs and phrases.
  4. Proofread carefully to eliminate any spelling, grammar, punctuation, and typographical errors.
  5. Include highlights of your qualifications or skills to attract an employer’s attention.
  6. Craft your letter as a pitch to people in the profession you plan to work in.
  7. Stand out as different, courageous.
  8. Be positive and reflect only the truth.
  9. Be excited and optimistic about your job prospects!
  10. Keep refining and reworking your résumé; it’s an ongoing project.

Building Your Resume

Professional Summary and Skills

Professional Summary

What

A one to two line teaser statement about you as an employee related to the particular job for which you’re applying. The statement should “hook” the reader into learning more within the six to eight seconds they spend reviewing your resume.

How

  • Identify your top selling points as an employee. What do you excel at?
  • Use keywords and industry phrases from the job advertisement. Cater to what they’re looking for.
  • Write without the use of personal pronouns. I.e. Don’t use “I”.

 

Examples

Compassionate and accomplished human services provider with a passion for supporting those with substance abuse problems. Ability to create, implement, and lead recovery and rehabilitation programs.

Accomplished writer and editor with over 10 years of experience in advertising copy. Excellent ability to use voice and content to build thought leadership and convert leads into sales.

Creating a Summary from a Job Ad

Job Ad Responsibilities

  • Answering calls and making outbound reminder calls to clients
  • Checking-in clients and scheduling appointments for doctors and nurses
  • Client account research and conducting fee agreement appointments with clients and families
  • Data entry and reconciliation research
  • Verifying insurance coverage and obtaining authorizations
  • Conducting orientation appointments with new clients
  • Processing daily payments and logging deposits
  • Tracking paperwork due dates for clinical and other purposes

 

Professional Summary Example

Adaptable and precise administrative professional, skilled at tracking paperwork, researching accounts and scheduling appointments with excellent customer service and communication skills.

Skills

What

Technical (hard) and people (soft) skills are those you’ve obtained throughout your career. People skills are non-tangible skills that you utilize while working with other people. These skills are broad and can be utilized in many industries.

Hard or tech skills are those that are tangible and display your ability to perform concrete tasks.

Skills

How

Your resume can contain four to eight skill bullets highlighting competencies you’ve obtained throughout your career. Your bullets should be relevant and specific to the position for which you’re applying.

Search the job ad for key required skills. When choosing your bullets, be mindful of how each skill is useful and necessary to the employer and the eld. Add additional descriptive words to take your bullets from generic to field-specific.

People (Soft) Skill Examples

  • Adaptability/Flexibility
  • Analytical Thinking
  • Attention to Detail
  • Collaboration/Teamwork
  • Communication: Interpersonal, Leadership, Written, Verbal
  • Composure
  • Creative Thinking
  • Critical Thinking
  • Decision Making
  • Diplomatic
  • Initiative
  • Leadership
  • Listening
  • Multitasking
  • Organization
  • Planning
  • Prioritization
  • Problem Solving Tact
  • Time Management
Technical (Hard) Skill Examples

  • Accounting
  • AutoCAD
  • Automotive Repair
  • Bookkeeping Computer
  • Programming
  • CPR
  • Customer Service
  • Drawing Blood
  • Editing
  • First Aid
  • Manufacturing Microsoft
  • Project Management
  • Record Keeping
  • Research
  • Systems Analysis
  • Web Design
  • Word Processing

Remember that your résumé is your professional profile. It will hold you in the most professional and positive light, and it’s designed to be a quick and easy way for a prospective employer to evaluate what you might bring to a job. When written and formatted attractively, creatively, and legibly, your résumé is what will get your foot in the door. You can be proud of your accomplishments, even if they don’t seem numerous. Let your résumé reflect your personal pride and professionalism. A resume is also a “living document” and will change as your experiences and skills change.

Your Cover Letter

A cover letter is a letter of introduction, usually 3–4 paragraphs in length, that you submit with your résumé. It’s a way of introducing yourself to a potential employer and explaining why you are suited for a position. Employers look for individualized and thoughtfully written cover letters as an initial method of screening out applicants who may who lack necessary basic skills, or who may not be sufficiently interested in the position.

Often an employer will request or require that a cover letter be included in the materials an applicant submits. There are also occasions when you might submit a cover letter uninvited (also called a letter of interest). For example, if you are initiating an inquiry about possible work or asking someone to send you information or provide other assistance.

With each résumé you send out, always include a cover letter specifically addressing your purposes.

Characteristics of an Effective Cover Letter

Cover letters should accomplish the following:

  • Get the attention of the prospective employer in 3-4 paragraphs – be succinct!
  • Set you apart from any possible competition by showing your unique voice, attention to detail and knowledge of the company.
  • Identify the position you are interested in and how you learned about the position or company.
  • Answer the employers question of “Why is this person interested in this particular job at this particular company?”
  • Present highlights of your skills and accomplishments that are directly relevant to the employer’s stated needs in the job ad.
  • Express genuine interest in the company. Do research online include something about them in the second paragraph. The mission statement is a great place to see what they value!
  • Please the eye and ear and show off your writing skills and attention to detail.

The following video features Aimee Bateman, founder of Careercake.com, who explains how you can create an incredible cover letter. Download a transcript of the video.

Video: 5 Steps to an Incredible Cover Letter

Licenses and Attributions

CC licensed content, Original:

All rights reserved content:

  • WHY DO I NEED A RESUME? Authored by: Leinard Tapat. Located at: https://youtu.be/Yc4pgOsUJfA. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
  • Resume Tips for College Students From Employers. Authored by: Clarkson University. Located at: https://youtu.be/fYavOr8Gnac. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
  • 5 Steps to an Incredible Cover Letter. Authored by: Aimee Bateman. Located at: https://youtu.be/mxOli8laZos. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
  • Resume Tutorial. Authored by: Cameron Cassidy. Located at: https://youtu.be/O5eVMaPZWmM. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom essay removed (exists elsewhere in this work).

Adaptions: Relocated learning objectives. Image of helping write a resume removed. Image of piles of paper on a table removed.

License

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Blueprint for Success in College: Career Decision Making by Lumen Learning and Linda Bruce Hill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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