Resumes and Cover Letters: Presenting Your Best Self

You might think that your first conversation with someone at a prospective employer is your first impression, but it’s not. Your resume and cover letter say a lot about you, long before you have a chance for personal interaction. So, how do you ensure that your resume and cover letter will move you to the top of the list?

A resume holds a lot of key details about a person. From the word choices to the formatting, you can market yourself by communicating your value and ability to make an impact through your experiences.

The structure of your resume is extremely important. Recruiters may often look at it for no more than 10 to 20 seconds. Kara Primrose, director of the Martin J. Whitman School of Management’s Career Center at Syracuse University, gives the following tips for a successful resume:

Appearance: Create a visual impact. Ensure that your document is formatted consistently, checked for spelling and grammar, fits on one page, and is saved as a PDF with your name in the file name.

Presentation: Always present your strongest qualifications first and quantify whenever possible to demonstrate results. Be sure to include keywords and phrases from your field. Use clear and confident language, consistent verb tenses, and powerful action verbs. Phrases are acceptable in order to be concise, and first-person language (“I” and “me”), as well as overly personal information, should always be avoided.

Information: While there can be slight variations in format, it is essential to include your contact information, education, experience, leadership/activities, community service, relevant skills, and perhaps some hobbies and interests. 

Description: When providing details for past and present experiences, make sure to provide a rich description to highlight your achievements, while also staying on-point. Similar to interviewing, use the STAR method:

  • Situation: Provide the company/organization name, location, dates, and title/role you held.
  • Task: What did you do in your role?
  • Action: How did you do it? What actions did you take?
  • Result: Why did you do it? What impact did you have?

Some applications may allow you to attach other documents, which will provide you with the opportunity to submit a cover letter. Make sure you don’t skip this step. Just like a resume, cover letters should be customized for each use to ensure you are targeting the specific company and opportunity you are applying for. You do not have to rewrite the documents each time. Instead, you can follow a basic template, which can be saved and reused with each application. To elaborate on this cover letter outline, Alicin Welsh, assistant director at the Whitman Career Center, shares some advice:

Before you start writing: Take time to thoroughly read the job description and highlight where your skills match those that are being asked for. These are the words you will weave into the stories you will share in the document. Also, research the company including the employer’s mission and values, if they align with yours, write about that in your cover letter. Brainstorm examples of your experiences that clearly showcase your strengths and select the most impactful ones for your letter. At the top of your document, copy and paste your name and contact information from the heading of your resume.

Addressing the letter: Addressing your cover letter directly to the hiring manager is the best way to start it. If you can begin with a personalized greeting to the hiring manager it shows that you’ve researched the company. If you cannot find this information, you can use one of the following: Dear Hiring Manager or Dear Recruiting Team.

Basic content: After adding your heading and addressing the cover letter, use the following structure for the body of the document:

  • First Paragraph: Why you are writing? The first line should indicate what job you are applying for, followed by a brief description of your education. End with why you are a unique fit for the position.
  • Second and Third Paragraph: Your skills and stories. Provide specific examples of your qualifications for the job. Create a value proposition by showing how the company can benefit from the knowledge and skills you will bring with you to the position. Note that you should not be restating everything on your resume, nor try to include everything from it. Rather, share more in-depth examples identifying how you have developed a skill or attained industry knowledge and why that makes you a strong candidate. Make sure to use the words you highlighted from the job description, and if you can throw in a few words from the company’s mission or values statement, that is even better! 
  • Final Paragraph: Summarize. Conclude with a brief summary, and indicate the next steps (a call to action). Make sure to thank the reader for his or her consideration and your intention to communicate in the future.

If you are interested in more career advice, visit the Whitman Career Center, or find more resources here.

Julia Fiedler
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