Résumés and Cover Letters

What you’ll learn to do: Produce a résumé and a cover letter

A résumé and a cover letter are two essential documents for a job hunt. While neither one will necessarily get you that job on its own, you won’t even make it to the interview with out them. These documents are important marketing materials for the product: you.

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss the purpose and contents of a résumé
  • Identify characteristics of an effective résumé
  • Create a résumé customized for a specific job opening
  • Identify characteristics of an effective cover letter

The Purpose of Résumés

A résumé is your first introduction to a potential employer. 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 Leonardo da Vinci’s Handwritten Resume (1482)

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 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, 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.

You don’t need to be new to the employment world to struggle with what to put in a résumé. This is an important advertising tool that takes time and skill to demonstrate how your past experiences and education fit a new position. Remember the soft skills discussed earlier. They work in any résumé. From there, you demonstrate your successes.

The following video is an animated look at why résumés are so important. You can read a transcript of the video “Why Do I Need a Resume?” 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.
  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.
  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.
  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 plain-text, traditional résumé is by far the most commonly used—in fact, some human resource departments may not permit submission of any format other than a document-based, plain-text résumé.

An important note about formatting is that initially, employers may spend only a few seconds reviewing each résumé—especially if there are a lot 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.

As potential employers do that first review, they are looking to see the evidence that you match, at least, all the minimum specifications in their ad or job listing. (If you do not match 100% of the minimums, and list it in the resume, then do not apply.)

Practice Question

Writing Effective Résumés

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. (Refer to Module 2: Writing in Business for learning about  word processing software used for document creation. This is a good example of a Microsoft Word document.)

To get started you will create your baseline or generic résumé. This is the hardest part where you gather your best experiences together. Later, we will learn how we modify this resume to better match each position we apply for. The order of the following sections may change depending upon where you are in your career and your match to the new position. For example, if you are a lifeguard and are applying to be the lifeguard supervisor, you would list that work experience early in the résumé. If you are a lifeguard while you finish your college degree in Accounting, then you would list your education before your work experience. This is one of many reasons to modify a résumé for each position applied to.

The purpose of a résumé is not to get a job, but to get to the next level in the screening process.

The following activity will introduce you to the components of a résumé, what you should and shouldn’t include, and a few good and bad examples of resumes.

Click here for a text-only version of the activity.

Practice Question

Digging In Deeper

There are a few sections of a résumé that merit deeper discussion as they should be the main content of the document:

  • Work experience
  • Volunteer experience
  • Education and training

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, and employment dates (beginning, ending)

Work experience is on all résumés, even if you feel the work is not directly connected to the job you are trying to get. Even a first-time entrant to the job market has some experience. Perhaps you have been a baby sitter or lawn mower. Those hard skills of diaper changing or emptying grass bags may not be a part of the new job, but your reliability and customer service will be.

Listings of your work experience should offer sufficient detail that the reader could check your background if needed. Do remember this document is marketing you, so while one would never, never ever lie, it is okay to list the jobs you’ve had that are most relevant to the current position, but you do not need to list every job you’ve had. If you have been in the work force for twenty years, that first job you held for two years as a cashier may not be relevant to this District Manager job that you are now applying for.

There are times where location establishes the veracity of your background. At other times, the location may not be relevant. Say you have worked for one company for ten years and been transferred to three cities. The employer’s name is likely sufficient without listing all the various locations in which you have worked for them. However, if you have moved from a small store to managing a flagship location, for example, then location can be a critical part of the impact of the listing in your résumé.

Dates can be another touchy subject. Perhaps there has been an awkward time where you went through several jobs in quick succession, and you would prefer not focusing on all those early departures. You could consider another résumé format, or while still listing the jobs in order, remove the dates or perhaps only list the years, rather than months and years. Be aware that any resume gaps or other chronological anomalies are going to raise questions. Be ready to address these in your cover letter and in a prepared answer when you get to the interview stage.

Work experience is frequently listed near the top of the resume page or perhaps just below the Education section.

Volunteer experience

Assuming that you are not applying to a non-profit organization, use volunteer jobs in a limited fashion. For people new to the workforce with limited paid job experience, they can show important skills. They may also support the concept of a well-rounded, socially connected employee. With volunteer experience, there is the risk of triggering some unknown (implicit) bias of the employer. If you are listing your volunteer work to demonstrate leadership and organizational expertise, it will be up to you if you want to include your volunteer coordination of a local Beer Pong league (which may seem unprofessional to some) or your organizational work at any politically aligned organizations (which may not align with the politics of those in charge of the hiring process).

No one wants to work for a company that would intentionally discriminate, and you should not; however, it is sometimes wise to be sensitive to the things readers might read into your résumé before they meet you.

If your only work experience is volunteering, list it high in the résumé. If it is a supplement to work experience, list it toward the bottom of the résumé.

Education and Training

Formal and informal experiences matter; include academic degrees, professional development, certificates, internships, etc.

Education is most often separated from other sections with various titles such as Training or Certifications. When detailing your formal education, list from your highest degree down. If you have a high school or G.E.D degree, list it only if you have no college experience. Once you have college experience to add to your resume, the prior schooling is assumed and does not need to be listed.

Education is listed in a similar fashion to Work Experience. List the name of the school, location (yes, there is a Miami in Ohio (Miami University) and in Florida (University of Miami). If you are under forty, list the graduation year for any degree. After that age, the choice is yours about listing the year. If you are still in college and expect to graduate in one year, it is fine to list that year. The reader will know that you are finishing the degree by next May.

There are other relevant items of training that should be listed to improve your chances of earning an interview. Label that section as such and then follow a standard listing that is usually the name of the training or certification, provider or certifying body, and date. For example, a CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) certificate means more to those applying to be paramedics than accountants and might be optionally listed or not at all listed. Yet a CPA (certified public accountant designation) will be a huge boon to those applying to some type of accounting or bookkeeping position and should be listed. Certifications are generally listed toward the bottom of a resume.

Creating a Customized Résumé

On the prior pages, we learned the purpose and sections for résumés: simply to help you get to the interview. To get there, your résumé must quickly demonstrate how you meet all the minimum skills the employer requested and perhaps more. You cannot change who you are and what experiences you have, but you can change the way the information is presented. In this section, we will demonstrate how the common building blocks of a résumé may be constructed and reorganized to help you look your best.

First, let us address how to build each building block. At this point, they are offered in no particular order. We will talk about formatting later as well. This section is written for the typical chronological résumé since it is the most common. The skills learned here may be modified to match the types identified earlier in the chapter.

Building Block Section Example  Comments
You and contact information Max P Kimble345 Baxter Street

Columbus, TX 12345



While most employers will call or use email, the postal address adds an air of stability.Avoid any “sillybaby@yahoo.com” type email address or KimbleandKids@home.com.”  Open a new email account that is just yours and has a professional tone. Never, never ever, use your current employer’s email address when applying to a new employer. An employer’s email address is only suitable when applying within the same company.

The phone number you use is likely a cell. Be sure your voicemail message is updated to a professional greeting. Ensure that number is not shared or answered by anyone else who might offer a less than professional greeting.

Objective or Career Objective Do not use. All this does is talk about what you want. Employers are not hiring you to make you happy, but to satisfy their own need.
Skills or Career Summary Skills: Leadership, CPA, type 100 wpm, able to work in fast paced environment.Career Summary: Experiences in sales management with five years in sales and three years in sales management. All years meeting or exceeding quotas. Customer satisfaction levels exceeding all peers. Fill this section with six to eight specific skills and abilities needed by the job you are applying to. Or use short sentences or phrases to highlight relevant successes.Here you can quickly tell a workplace story to verify your ability. Use the words and order of skills to match the ad. Focus on minimum requirements before preferred requirements.
Work Experience Sales Manager, Friedo Inc, 2014–present

  • Exceeded annual objective by 10% in seven of ten years.
  • Delivered seventeen unsolicited proposals every year.
  • Guided team of three to on-time delivery of sales bids in 100% of opportunities.
Notice how the job title, company, and year anchors the important part. The important part is describing what you did in terms of the measurable successes you had.Notice how the bullets are constructed in parallel fashion.

Repeat this process for each relevant job. Use the most current positions that relate to the ad. Add non-related jobs only to fill in a page to at least three-quarters full.

This should not be a job description. Instead, it should focus on your accomplishments and your role in the work. The bullets below represent what not to do. Can you see the difference?

Sales Manager, Friedo Inc, 2014–present

  • Sold systems based on annual sales objectives
  • Created unsolicited proposals as requested
  • Work with team to create sales proposals and presentations as assigned.
Education MBA, University of Florida, 2003BA Communication, St Charles University, 2001 The examples of the education are the simplest listings.If you have a GPA of 3.5 or above, list it. You worked hard and earned it. Some will list at 3.0. Below that no one will ask or will particularly care—the fact that you graduated is the point.

If your experiences in college match the ad, help the hiring company see that by listing them.

There is no need to list high school or G.E.D. if you are in college or have attended college. If not, then list the high school from which you graduated.

Here are more detailed options for listing education when someone is applying to an accounting position.

MBA, University of Florida, 2003

  • 12 credit hours advanced accounting including Cost Accounting, Inventory and Material Accounting and Investment Accounting

BA Communication, St Charles University, 2001

  • 16 hours in Accounting, Minor in Accounting


Other Sections:

  • Certifications
  • Volunteer
Use as needed.

With these building blocks in mind, you may build your first résumé. With that solid foundation, you will reorder and reword to match the requirements of the job that you are applying for. It’s often a good idea to create a “master” résumé that contains all of your experiences and qualifications, then when applying for a new position, you can make a copy of that master and trim it back to only include relevant experience—that way you won’t find yourself trying to come up with the perfect wording for each job every time you want to use it in a specific application.

Perhaps the most important part of creating your résumé is proofreading. Your résumé should follow standard American English conventions (assuming you’re applying to a job in America) for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Once you have finished creating your document, take a short break and then return to your résumé with fresh eyes (or have someone else take a look!).

Practice Question

Writing Effective Cover Letters

What Is a Cover Letter?

A cover letter is a letter of introduction, usually three to four 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 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: 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 purpose.

This purpose is to let the receiver know how well you match their needs. It is a careful blend of the direct and persuasive letters you read about earlier in this book.

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 “5 Steps to an Incredible Cover Letter” here.

Practice Question

Cover Letter Resources

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 Article on Cover Letters via LinkedIn This article on cover letters posted on LinkedIn may lend some helpful professional insights on writing an engaging cover letter.
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