Résumés and Cover Letters

A counselor going over a résumé with a student.

The most important tool you have on a résumé is language. —Jay Samit, digital media innovator

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define the purpose and contents of a résumé
  • Identify characteristics of an effective cover letter and résumé

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. You can see the letter and read the translation at Ladders Career Advice.

Résumés and cover letters work together to represent you in the brightest 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. With a better idea of who your 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.

The following video is an animated look at why résumés are so important. You can read a transcript of the video here.

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 appeals to you the most?

  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. Reverse Chronological Résumé Examples
  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 new graduate entering your field 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. Functional Résumé Examples
  3. Hybrid 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. Hybrid Résumé Examples
  4. Video, infographic, and Web-site résumé: Other formats you may wish to consider are the video résumé, the infographic résumé, or even a Web-site 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. Video Resume Examples; Infographic Résumé Examples; Web-Site Résumé Examples

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. In the following video, a résumé-writing expert describes some keys to success.

Contents and Components To Include

    1. Your contact information: name, address, phone number, professional email address
    2. A summary of your skills: 5–10 skills you have gained in your field; you can list hard skills as well as soft skills (refer to the Professional Skill Building topic in this course)
    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)
    4. Volunteer experience
    5. Education and training: formal and informal experiences matter; include academic degrees, professional development, certificates, internships, etc.
    6. References statement (optional): “References available upon request” is a standard phrase used on résumés, although it is often implied
    7. 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. See Action Words and Phrases for Résumé Development.
  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.

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.

In the following video, Résumé Tips for College Students From Employers, several college graduate recruiters summarize the most important points about crafting your résumé. You can download a transcript of the video here.

Résumé Writing Resources

WEBSITE DESCRIPTION
1 Résumé Builder (from LinkedIn) Turn your LinkedIn Profile into a great résumé in seconds. Pick a résumé template, customize the content, print and share the result.
2 The Online Resume Builder (from My Perfect resume) The online résumé builder is easy to use. Choose your résumé design from the library of professional designs, insert prewritten examples, then download and print your new résumé.
3 Résumé Builder (from Live Career) This site offers examples and samples, templates, tips, videos, and services for résumés, cover letters, interviews, and jobs.
4 Résumé Samples for College Students and Graduates (from About Careers) This site offers a plethora of sample résumés for college students and graduates. Listings are by type of student and by type of job. Résumé templates are also provided.
5 JobSearch Minute Videos (from College Grad) This site offers multiple to-the-point one-minute videos on topics such as print résumés, video résumés, cover letters, interviewing, tough interview questions, references, job fairs, and Internet job searching.
6 Student [Career] Services (from Employment Ontario—Community Employment Services)

Buzzwords and Skills to Include in your résumé

Action Words and Phrases for résumé Development

Checklist of Personal Skills

7 42 Résumé Dos and Don’ts Every Job Seeker Should Know (from the muse) A comprehensive list of résumé dos and don’ts, which includes traditional rules as well as new rules to polish your résumé.
8 How to Write a Resume: A Step-By-Step Guide [+30 Examples] (from Uptowork) This site describes common résumé tips and offers advice for landing a job.

Your Résumé: It’s Like Online Dating

The following essay by Jackie Vetrano is excerpted from Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom. It’s a true-to-life story comparing job hunting to online dating. The writer’s “lessons learned” are meant to enlarge your awareness of your career goals as you attend college.

It’s Like Online Dating

Searching for a job, especially your first job, is a lot like online dating. It begins as a time commitment, gets nerve-wracking towards the middle, but ends in success and happiness if you follow the right process.

Like many single people with access to current technology, I ventured into the world of online dating. I went for coffee with potential mates who were instant no ways, some who left me scratching my head, and a few who I found a connection with.

But hang on. We are here to talk about professional development, not my love life.

Being on the job hunt is not easy. Many spend hours preparing résumés, looking at open positions, and thinking about what career path to travel. Occasionally, it is overwhelming and intimidating, but when taken one step at a time, it can be a manageable and an exciting process.

The first step of online dating is the most important: create your dating profile. Your profile is where you put your best foot forward and show off all of your attractive qualities through visuals and text. Online daters find their most flattering photos and then season the “about me” section of their profile with captivating and descriptive words to better display who they are and why other online daters should give them a shot.

Résumés follow this same logic. Your résumé should be clean, polished, and present you in your best light for future employers. Like dating profiles, they are detailed and should paint a picture for other prospective dates (or future employers) supporting why you deserve a chance at their love—an interview.

The unspoken rules of online dating profiles are very similar to the rules for writing a résumé. Whether you like it or not, your online dating profile and résumé both serve as a first impression. Profiles and résumés that are short, filled with spelling errors, or vague are usually passed over. Unless you are a supermodel and all you need is an enticing photo, your written description is very important to display who you are.

Your résumé should capture who you are, your skill set, education, past experiences, and anything else that is relevant to the job you hope to obtain. Knowing your audience is a key factor in crafting the perfect resume. Logically, if my online dating profile presented studious and quiet personality traits, I would likely start receiving messages from potential mates who are looking for someone who is seeking those traits. By taking a similar approach while writing a résumé, you can easily determine the tone, language, and highlighted skills and experiences you should feature. The tone of your résumé is dictated by the nature of the position you hope to obtain in the future. For example, hospitality jobs or positions that require you to interact with many people on a daily basis should be warm and welcoming while analytical jobs, such as accounting or research positions, should reflect an astute attention to detail. Your choice in language follows similar logic—use appropriate terms for the position you are seeking.

Unlike online dating profiles, your résumé should include your important contact information, including email address, telephone number, and mailing address. Some advise refraining from listing a mailing address, as this could create a bias due to some organizations that are looking for a new employee who is already in the area.

Unfortunately, this bias cannot be foreseen, which means you should use your best judgment when listing your contact information. If you include this contact information on your dating profile, you may have some very interesting text messages in the morning.

—Jackie Ventrano, Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom

Vetrano’s essay is continued ahead  in the “Cover Letters” section of this page.

Activity: Create Your Résumé

Objectives:

  • Compile data reflecting your professional and educational skills and accomplishments.
  • Assess the main résumé formats and select one that meets your needs.
  • Create a first draft of your professional résumé.

Directions:

  1. Compile all needed information for your résumé, including your contact information, a summary of your skills, your work experience and volunteer experience, education and training (including your intended degree, professional development activities, certificates, internships, etc.). Optionally you may wish to include job objective, a brief profile, a branding statement, additional accomplishments, and any other related experiences.
  2. Select one of the résumé builder tools listed above in the Résumé Writing Resources table.
  3. Create your résumé, following instructions at your selected site.
  4. Save your document as a PDF file.
  5. Follow instructions from your instructor on how to submit your work.

Your Cover Letter

Several stacks of cover letters on a table.

Cover letters matter. When you have to go through a pile of them, they are probably more important than the résumé itself. —woodleywonderworks

What Is a Cover Letter?

A cover letter is a letter of introduction, usually 3–4 paragraphs in length, that you attach to your résumé. It’s a way of introducing yourself to a potential employer and explaining why you are suited for a position. Employers may 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.

 Cover Letter Examples

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: 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
  • Set you apart from any possible competition
  • Identify the position you are interested in
  • Specify how you learned about the position or company
  • Present highlights of your skills and accomplishments
  • Reflect your genuine interest
  • Please the eye and ear

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

Cover Letter Resources

WEBSITE DESCRIPTION
1 Student Cover Letter Samples (from About Careers) This site contains sample student/recent graduate cover letters (especially for high school students and college students and graduates seeking employment) as well as cover letter templates, writing tips, formats and templates, email cover letter examples, and examples by type of applicant
2 How to Write Cover Letters (from CollegeGrad) This site contains resources about the reality of cover letters, using a cover letter, the worst use of the cover letter, the testimonial cover letter technique, and a cover letter checklist
3 LinkedIn Cover Letter This site contains articles, experts, jobs, and more: get all the professional insights you need on LinkedIn
4 Cover Letters (from the Yale Office of Career Strategy) This site includes specifications for the cover letter framework (introductory paragraph, middle paragraph, concluding paragraph), as well as format and style

Your Cover Letter: It’s Like Online Dating

The following is another excerpt from the “It’s Like Online Dating” essay by Jackie Vetrano. Writing a cover letter may feel like a chore, but the payoff will be well worth it if you land the job you want!

It’s Like Online Dating

Sending a Message—The Cover Letter

After searching through dozens of profiles, online daters generally find a handful of people they can picture themselves with. There’s only one way to find out more about the person, and that’s by sending the first message.

The challenging part of the first message I send through online dating sites is determining what to say. I’ve never met these people before, but I do have access to their dating profiles filled with their hobbies, hometowns, and more. This is a perfect starting point for my message, especially if we both root for the same football team or if the other person likes to run as much as I do.

Your cover letter serves as an introduction to your future employer and should complement your résumé to create a shining first impression. It is incredibly challenging to sit in front of a blank screen trying to find a good starting point, which means you should look at the job posting and organization’s Web site for ideas about what to include.

Generally, these job postings provide a set of hard skills (such as proficiency with certain technology) and soft skills (such as public speaking, teamwork, or working in a flexible environment) required and desired for the posted position. This information provides you a list of what should be explained in your cover letter. Demonstrating your hard skills is a simple enough task by using examples or stating certifications, but describing your soft skills may require a little more thought. These soft skills can be exhibited by discussing specific examples of past experiences in previous jobs you’ve held, volunteer work, or work you’ve done in college classes.

After you have crafted your cover letter, you should send it to a few people you trust for their opinion and overall proofreading along with the job posting for their reference. It’s obvious that your cover letter should be free of spelling and grammar errors, but these trustworthy individuals will also be able to provide helpful insight about the examples you’ve used to display your soft skills.

—Jackie Vetrano, Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom