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Writing The Killer Resume And Cover Letter

Writing The Killer Resume And Cover Letter

Resume writing is an art. An entire consulting profession exists to guide the harried job-seeker through the process of drafting a resume. A good resume may help land the job of your dreams, while a bad one will most certainly scare employers away. But you don’t need an expert to write a great resume on your own—all it takes is a little time and creativity.


Before you start to draft a resume for a prospective job, make sure you know about the company. Do some basic research in order to understand the company’s goals and objectives: Who is in management? Who would you be working for? What is their background? This information will also be useful in any interviews you conduct with the company.

The key to a good resume is to stand out. Your resume may be among dozens of others and you need to distinguish yourself from the pack. Therefore, your resume should be unique, easy to read and accurate.

Good content is not enough; your resume must look good to get noticed. Avoid pre-made resumes such as the templates provided by Microsoft Word. A headhunter once told me that when she is looking at a number of resumes for a single position, she automatically eliminates all resumes that follow the same layout. Another way to get your resume shredded is to send it in with typos or mistakes. Employers toss sloppy resumes without hesitation. Check and double-check your spelling, grammar, dates and figures. If you have a close friend willing to help you out, it always pays to have another set of eyes go over your work.

A good resume strikes a balance between unique and conservative. While it may depend on the position you are applying for, it is wise to avoid frills and innovations. Most employers want to see black ink on white or ivory bond paper. Colors, pictures or fancy fonts are not appropriate unless you’re Legally Blonde.

What information should you include in your resume? The standard format is to list your name, contact information, objective, relevant employment history, education and any special training or skills you have accumulated.

Contact information is an obvious but sometimes overlooked item in a resume. In your contact information, provide a street address and one or two phone numbers. It is also appropriate to provide an email address.

The “objective” portion of your resume is discretionary. This is typically a one-line description of why you are applying: “Seeking employment as a graphic artist in order to join a creative team and expand my portfolio.” The objective needs to be short, but specific. Don’t just say, “I want a job.” Conversely, do not write an entire paragraph explaining your childhood dreams, personal interests and professional aspirations. I heard about an employer who read off the applicant’s wordy objective in the interview and said, “So you’re here to do this?” The applicant replied lamely, “Well, that’s what the resume says.” The interviewer shot right back, “Don’t you mean what you say here?”

My personal opinion on the objective is that it’s not a vital portion of the resume and it’s very easy to mess up. If you’re going to use an objective, tailor it for each specific position.

Your employment history should include company name and location, the dates you were employed, your job title and a brief description of your duties. As a member of my organization’s hiring team, I like to see concrete specifics about previous responsibilities. Avoid terms like “interfaced with public,” “shifted paradigms in management,” or other employment buzzwords. If you can, include a few bullet points of specific achievements on your resume: “Increased sales 15% during my tenure,” or “secured company’s largest contract for that business year.”

Also list your education history and any specialized training you have received. Many people wonder whether to list education or employment history first. A good rule of thumb is to stress your strong points first—if you have excellent academic credentials and no work experience, start with your education. If you’re still working through college but have a good work background, list that first.

Resumes should be one page in length, maybe two pages if you need to list references, but HR professionals tend to agree that shorter is better. My office once received a three-page resume from a girl who had only recently graduated from high school. Too much information.

Finally, make sure you are accurate. Accidental mistakes are bad enough, but intentional inaccuracies tend to catch up with you. More and more these days employers are running checks on an applicant’s resume. Apart from the moral implications of lying on your resume, you will lose a job opportunity and poison your reputation within that professional community.


Cover letters are fun. If the resume is the depository of dry factual information about your background, the cover letter is an opportunity to blow your own horn. Many employers depend more on your cover letter than on the resume for assessing your suitability.

Cover letters should be one page in length. A good format to follow is the “three paragraph” letter. In paragraph one, introduce yourself and explain which position you are applying for. It is useful to mention where you heard about the job, especially if you have a friend or relative who currently works for the company.

In paragraph two, explain how your background qualifies you for the position. Do not simply repeat information from the resume; highlight aspects of your background that correspond with the job’s requirements. You could also mention how this position fits with your career objectives. If you learned about the job through an advertisement, pay close attention to any requirements or specific needs the ad mentions and be sure to address these in your cover letter. If the job announcement says they need someone with communication and computer skills who can work in a fast-paced environment, point out your excellent communication and computer skills. Do not merely intone, “I can work in a fast-paced environment.” Prove it: “My most recent position involved meeting daily deadlines and securing a specific quota of sales per week.”

Paragraph three tells the employer what you want. Tell them you want the job. Indicate when you are available for an interview and if it is appropriate, tell them when you will follow up with a phone call or visit.

Resumes tend to present the same information no matter where you apply, but cover letters should be tailored for each new job.


Job hunting presents some unique problems for young professionals.

A common problem for college students and new graduates is what to say if you have no work experience. Just remember that you don’t have to be a paid employee to gather experience. Make a list of activities you have pursued: volunteer work, church work, ministry opportunities and temporary summer jobs. Then list the specific training or skills you acquired from each activity. If you can focus on skills that complement the job’s requirements, you’ll distinguish yourself from the other applicants.

What if you are applying for a job and have no comparable work background? Maybe you want to work for an accounting firm and the only job you’ve held was at McDonalds. On both the resume and cover letter, focus on the skills you developed rather than on the position you held. Skills that transfer from one unrelated job to another are called “parallel skills.” If you were a manager at McDonalds, you bring management experience into your new job. If you worked the drive-thru window, you’ve got customer service experience. Emphasize any relevant parallel skills you gained from past employment.

In today’s world of instant communication, is it appropriate to fax or email your resume? It depends. The prevailing rule is to send in a hard copy resume. It is usually only appropriate to deviate from this rule if the employer provides a fax number or email address.

Writing a good resume and cover letter is hard work. Fortunately, once you make the initial investment of time it’s easy to modify your resume as you move from job to job, and the effort you put into it will pay off in getting the job you want.

[Michael Reitz is an attorney and works for a nonprofit organization in the Washington, D.C. area.]

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