14.2 Resumes and Cover Letters

Jordan Smith

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter reviewing this information, you will be able to

      • understand how to prepare a targeted and persuasive resume and cover letter
      • understand the information required in each section of a resume and cover letter
      • know how to apply the AIDA writing process to cover letters

Introduction

A résumé is the central document of your job application because it’s what employers focus on most when judging an applicant’s suitability for doing the job they’re hiring for. Does the candidate have the right combination of core and soft skills to do that job? Did they acquire those skills with the right combination of education, employment, and other experience? Are they able to put a document together in a clear, concise, correct, organized, and reader-friendly way?

The cover letter literally covers the résumé and is thus the first thing the hiring manager sees of you. the cover letter plays a key role in convincing a hiring manager to consider your application. Besides introducing the résumé and requesting an interview, the cover letter is a sales pitch explaining how you will benefit the company you’re applying to. In the communications test that is the hiring process, it also proves that you can put coherent, persuasive sentences and paragraphs together when writing formally on the employer’s behalf. The cover letter must be flawless because, like the résumé that follows it, even one writing error could be read as a sign of the poor quality of work to come and prompt the hiring manager to save time by shredding it immediately.

The resume and cover letter work together to put your best your foot forward.  These documents are the focus of the information below.

The Resume

Can you get to an interview without a resume? In most cases, the résumé is key to the hiring process.  Sometimes one writing mistake—even just one little typo can fail you out of the running so you don’t proceed to the oral component (the interview). Employers demand perfection in the résumé for the following reasons:

Figure 14.2.1: Top reasons resumes are rejected by hiring managers. (Liu, n.d.)
  • When the hiring manager’s task is to whittle down a pile of a hundred applications to about five for interviews, even one writing mistake in a résumé gives them the reason they’re looking for to dump the résumé in the shredder, thinning out the pile a little further.
  • A perfect résumé speaks volumes about how conscientious a job applicant can be about the quality of work the applicant will do. If a résumé is poorly written, the employer can safely expect a similarly poor quality of work if the applicant became an employee.

Employer expectations are high and rising. Gone are the days where a printed résumé was all you were responsible for. Today you must also project a professional image online in whatever employers find when they Google-search you—because they almost certainly will. Even your electronically submitted résumé must be written with a consideration of the electronic filters employers use to scan applications and pre-select only those that truly answer the job posting’s call. This section will help you increase your chances of getting to interview for the job you’ve been training so hard for by writing a résumé that meets employer expectations.

Assess Your Skills and Qualifications

The first step to putting together a winning résumé is to list your employable skills and qualifications. Which of your qualities make you hireable? If these don’t come immediately to mind or the wording eludes you, a good place to start is the vocational learning outcomes of your current academic program. These describe the skills that industry employers have said graduates must have to be considered for hire. Many of these skills are noted in the learning outcomes of your college courses.

Of course, you can’t possibly put all of these on a résumé because the full list would include too many, be too detailed, and would be worded in a manner unsuitable for a résumé. At this point, however, what’s important is that you begin a master list of such skills that you can tailor for the résumé when you see what skills and duties employers list in their job postings. Matching the skills you have with those employers want is the key to a successful application.

In addition to program-specific skills, you can also add a range of other skills. Get started by asking yourself the following questions:[1]

  • What specific computer programs am I good at? Do I have examples of work I can show an employer of how I’ve used them at an intermediate or advanced level?
  • Do I work well with others? Have I demonstrated this with my employment experience or with volunteer or extracurricular activities such as league sports or clubs?
  • Am I better at following instructions or giving them? Am I destined for leadership roles? What proof can I offer up either way?
  • Can I read, write, and converse in another language besides English? At what level of proficiency?
  • Am I a quick learner? Am I a creative thinker? Can I think of specific instances as proof of my answers to these questions if asked in a job interview?
  • Am I a good communicator in both written and spoken situations? What evidence can I offer employers of my proficiency in both?

Not only will a few pages of notes in answer to these questions help you prepare résumés and cover letters, but they will also help you prepare for the job interview later.

Developing Your Resume

To be competitive in any fierce job competition, a generic résumé—i.e., the kind that you made a hundred copies of to get your first job and handed out to every shop on the street that had a “Help Wanted” sign in the window—just isn’t going to cut it. Your best chance of succeeding is to make your applications stand out with superior quality, knowing that your application will be just one of dozens, perhaps even hundreds, vying for interview spots. Along with those marred by glaring errors, generic résumés are the first to go into the shredder.

A targeted résumé, however, is tailored to present what the job posting asks for. An employer’s job posting is a wish-list of all the skills and qualifications that would set up the applicant for success in the position advertised and reflects the selection criteria the employer applies to every job application. The employer expects that each section of the resume will prove the applicant is perfect for the job, as well as meet general expectations for quality of writing—clarity, conciseness, correctness, and accuracy—as well as document readability and organization.

You have three options for types of résumé based on your situation and what the employer wants, each defined by how they organize the content:

1. Reverse-chronological résumé: For each experience section (Education, Employment, and Related), this résumé lists your professional activities starting with the present or latest (most recent) at the top and your first (oldest) at the bottom. A key feature is a column with date ranges in months and years beside each educational program, job, and relevant activity you’ve done. This presents the hiring manager with a snapshot of where you’re at right now in your professional development, how you got there, and where you came from.

Reverse-chronological résumés can be revealing in ways that might not cast you in an entirely positive light. Exclusively short-term employment and significant gaps in your work and educational history will raise red flags [2].  However, there are alternative ways of organizing a résumé.

2. Functional (a.k.a. competency- or skills-based) résumé: Rather than organize the résumé around experience sections measured out in months and years, the functional résumé makes important skills the subheadings. The bullet points that follow explain in more detail what each skill entails, how it was acquired through training or education, and how it was practiced and applied professionally. The functional résumé is ideal if you have questionable gaps or durations in your employment or educational history because it omits or de-emphasizes date ranges.

3. Combination functional and reverse-chronological résumé: This is the most popular form and the basis for the guide on targeted résumé parts given below. It uses the reverse-chronological format for the standard experience sections showcasing the applicant’s educational and employment history but adds a Skills and Qualifications Summary at the beginning to highlight the applicant’s abilities and credentials that match what the job posting asked for.

Some employers have strong preferences for one résumé type. Helpful employers will specify which they prefer in the job posting. If not, however, your only recourse is to contact the company and ask what their preferences are. Rather than cheating, this shows that you care enough about meeting employer expectations to be proactive on the communication front.  Use a standard email address like yourfirstname.lastname@emailprovider.com

Resume Sections

Let’s look in detail at how you can make your résumé meet common (but not necessarily all) employer expectations in all parts of a combination reverse-chronological/functional targeted résumé.

Personal Information.  The personal information header appears at the top of the document.  Use your full legal name.  Below or beside your name, add your contact information, including your physical mailing address, phone number, and email address. Whatever phone number you give, ensure that the personalized message that a caller hears if they’re sent to voicemail is a professional one. Also, don’t use your work email address unless your current employer is okay with you using it to look for work elsewhere.  Finally, space permitting, include a personal website such as a link to your LinkedIn profile and/or online portfolio

The Objective statement should mention the company and position in question.  This type of statement confir,s to the employer that the résumé is targeted. Like someone on a date who makes the other feel special by saying that they’re interested only in them, the Objective statement singles out the employer as the applicant’s priority.  A targeted résumé’s Objective statement focuses on what exactly the applicant can do for the employer. See below for an example.

Example: To contribute to an increase in sales at Company XYZ as a top sales representative.

Skills and Qualification Summary. This section follows the Objective because of its importance in declaring in one neat package the major skills and qualifications that match those in the job posting. If the job ad lists four main skills—let’s call them skills “ABCD”—the candidates who list skills ABCD in this section will have the best chance of getting an interview because they frontload their résumé with all the top-priority items the employer seeks. Doing this shows you can follow instructions and says to the employer, “I read your job posting and am confident that I’m what you’re looking for.”

Your Skills and Qualifications Summary section helps you pass the filter that many employers use to scan electronically submitted applications to ensure they’ve used enough of the job posting’s key words. If your application fails to mirror exactly the key terms listed throughout the job posting, the employer might not even see yours.

Dividing the Skills and Qualifications Summary into sub-lists related to categories of the job will increase your chances of meeting the employer’s approval. To use this highly prized real estate on the page effectively, consider arranging the sub-lists in three columns; a couple could be for job-specific technical skill sets, another for transferrable soft skills. Only do this, however, if you’re sure that your application formatting won’t be electronically filtered out. Some of the online application services will convert résumés into scannable formats, often scrambling text into an unreadable mess.

Table 14.2.1 provides and example of how to organize a table with categories highlighting your job skills.

       Programming Language                      Software                      Interpersonal
  • 3 years’ advanced proficiency in C++
  • 2 years’ intermediate use of C#
  • 1 year of familiarity with OpenGL
  • 3 years’ advanced proficiency with 3ds Max
  • 5 years’ functional proficiency with Photoshop
  • 2 years’ familiarity with Java
  • Excellent leadership and teamwork skills
  • Advanced writing and presentation skills
  • Fully bilingual (reading, writing, speaking) in English and French

Employment Experience. The Employment Experience section follows the same format as the Education section. List your jobs in reverse-chronological order with your current (or most recent) job first and your earliest last. List the month/year date ranges in the same position as in the Education section. The months are important because a date range such as “2015-2016” is misleading if you worked a few weeks before and after New Year’s, whereas “Dec. 2015 – Jan. 2016” honestly indicates seasonal work.  Figure 48.2 presents a sample employment experience section.

 

Figure 14.2.2: Sample employment experience section that list employment experience in reverse chronological order,

At the beginning of your working life, include whatever jobs you’ve done (except perhaps newspaper or flyer delivery) but make them relevant by adding transferrable skills as subpoints underneath. While you should omit task-specific skills, definitely list transferrable skills (e.g., teamwork) that match those listed in the job posting. As you can also see in Figure 9.2.2.5, each bullet-point skill begins with an action verb for consistent parallelism, the verb for the present job is in the present tense, and those for the past job are consistently past-tense verbs. Use clear, high-impact action verbs such as the following:

Achieved
Analyzed
Approved
Averaged
Collaborated
Constructed
Contributed
Converted
Coordinated
Corrected
Delegated
Designed
Directed
Enabled
Engineered
Established
Expanded
Expedited
Facilitated
Grew
Implemented
Improved
Increased
Initiated
Innovated
Introduced
Investigated
Managed
Organized
Overhauled
Pioneered
Prioritized
Provided
Reduced
Represented
Resolved
Restructured
Reviewed
Revitalized
Screened
Served
Spearheaded
Spurred
Streamlined
Strengthened
Supervised
Targeted
Transformed

Fleshed out into bullet-point descriptions of skills in a three-part verb + object + prepositional phrase structure, some of the above action verbs may look like the following:

  • Collaborated with team members consistently in working groups improving departmental processes
  • Streamlined collaborative report-writing processes by switching to Google Docs
  • Organized annual awards dinner celebration for a department of 150 employees
  • Designed 13 internal feedback forms in the company intranet for multiple departments
  • Secured government program funding successfully for eight departmental initiatives

Focuses on quantifiable achievements with actual numerical figures and place adverbs after the verb rather than begin points with them (e.g., not Consistently collaborated with team members) so that you always lead with verbs[3]. To make your accomplishments more concrete, Google executive Laszlo Block advises you to structure them according to the following formula:

Accomplished X as measured by Y by doing Z

Even if your job is just a grocery store cashier, you can quantify your achievements and put them in perspective. Instead of “Processed customer purchases at the checkout,” saying “Served 85 customers per day with 100% accuracy compared to my peers’ average of 70 customers at 90% accuracy” demonstrates your focus on achieving outstanding excellence with regard to KPIs (key performance indicators), which hiring managers will love[4].

As you add more industry-specific work experience throughout your career, you can move those transferrable skills to go under only career-oriented entries in this section and delete non-industry-related work experience. A decade or two into your working life, you’ll have a solid record of only career-oriented work experience in résumés targeted to career employers.

The gold standard of experience that employers want to see in a résumé is that you’ve previously done the job you’re applying for—just for another employer[5]. This means that you can carry on in the new position with minimal training. If that’s the case, you certainly want to place your Employment Experience section above your Education section. Otherwise, recent college graduates should lead with their more relevant Education section, appealing to employers hiring for potential rather than for experience, until they get that industry work experience.

References. In the context of the résumé, references are former employers who can vouch for you as a quality employee when asked by the employer you’ve applied to. You have two options for how to fill out your References section:

  1. Simply say “References available upon request” under the heading “References” following the Related Experience section.
  2. Include a References section with actual entries when applying to a smaller organization that will likely make quick decisions about hiring.

If you include actual references, put them all on one page at the end of your application document so they can be separated out and shredded at the end of the hiring process. Three or four references is best, and each must be someone who was in a position of authority over you, such as a manager or supervisor, for at least two years, ideally. The assumption is that less than two years is not enough time to fully assess the consistency of an employee’s work ethic. List your references in order of what you expect to be the most enthusiastic endorsement down to the least. Do not include coworkers, friends, or family members among your references.

Each reference must contain the following pieces of information:

  1. Full name in bold, followed by a comma and the reference’s official job title capitalized (e.g., Manager, Supervisor, CEO, or Franchise Owner)
  2. Company or organization they represent (or represented when you worked under them, though they’ve since moved on to another company) in plain style.
  3. Phone number as employers checking references prefer to call, rather than email, so they can have a quick back-and-forth conversation about the candidate.
  4. Email address to allow the for the potential employer to set up a time for a phone call with the reference or to ask for details in writing if a phone call is somehow difficult or impossible (e.g., time-zone differences or international calling charges).

It’s very important that you confirm with your references that they will provide you with a strong endorsement (use those words when you ask) if called upon by a potential employer. Don’t be afraid to ask. Providing references is part of a manager’s or supervisor’s job. They got to where they are on the strength of their former employers’ references, and there’s a “pay it forward” principle motivating them to do the same for the employees under them. If they don’t believe in your potential, they’ll likely be honest in advising you to ask someone else.

The Cover Letter

An important distinction in the content between the résumé and cover letter is that the former is focused on your past, the cover letter on your future with the company. Many job applicants wastefully use the cover letter to express in sentences what they listed in point-form in their résumé. To be persuasive, however, the cover letter must convince the employer that you will apply the skills and qualifications developed through previous work, education, and other experience to your future job. They want to see how you think you’ll help meet their business goals and fit the company culture. If you answer the “What’s in it for us if we hire you?” question that hiring managers direct towards any cover letter, you increase your chances of getting an interview.

Is a cover letter even necessary? In cases where you know that the employer thinks they’re just a waste of time, then you can obviously skip it. Sometimes job postings will helpfully clarify whether they want a cover letter or not. What if they don’t say either way, though? The safe bet is to write a cover letter as part of your targeted approach to the job application. It’ll show the hiring manager that you’ve made the extra effort to explain how well you suit the job and give them more information to make a well-informed decision about you. Adding a cover letter looks better than all the applicants who didn’t bother

As a direct-approach message, the cover letter generally follows the AIDA pattern of persuasive message in its four paragraphs:

A for Attention States emphatically what job you want and that you qualify
I for Interest Summarizes how you will apply your skills and qualifications
D for Desire Explains why you’re interested in the company and job itself
A for Action Requests that the reader consider you for an interview

Cover Letter Sections

Let’s look in more detail at how to write each of these four cover letter paragraphs plus surrounding parts.

Opening Salutation. The most impressive cover letters address the hiring manager formally by name in the opening salutation (Guffey et al., 2016, p. 398). “Dear Ms. Connie Jenkins:” tells the employer right away, “Take me seriously because I’m a targeted résumé” compared to the droves of applications introduced by generic cover letters beginning with “To whom it may concern:” or, worse, with no introductory cover letter at all. If the job posting said whom to address your application to, doing this gives you an early lead in the competition because it shows that you can follow orders, which not everyone does.

If the job posting made no mention of who the hiring manager is, finding their name also shows that you’re resourceful and conscientious because you care about finding the right person to deal with—qualities employers love. You may have to dig for that information on the company website, by Google-searching for the company’s HR or recruiting personnel, or calling the company to ask whom you can address your application.

Job Opening Identification. If your cover letter responds to a job posting, its first paragraph should be a brief couple of sentences that do no more or less than the following:

1. State the official job title of the position you’re seeking, as well as the reference number if one was provided in the job posting. Get right to the point by saying emphatically, “I am applying with great enthusiasm for the position of . . .” or “Please accept this application submitted with keen interest for the position of . . . .” Don’t waste the reader’s time with redundant lead-ins such as “I’m Todd Harper and I’m applying for . . .”; they can see your name at the top and/or bottom of the page.

If the job posting included a reference number, include it in parentheses after the job title. Also include it in the bolded subject line above along with the job title. Employers use job reference numbers to direct applications to the correct competition, especially if the company is large enough to run several at once.

2. Say where you found out about the job in the first sentence after naming the job title. If you were recommended by someone in the company, name-dropping works well here. Even if you don’t have an “in” from networking, say where you found the job posting or if a recruiter recommended it.

3. State that you’re qualified for the position by asking the hiring manager to read onward. Be courteous in this request. A concluding sentence such as Please consider the following application for details regarding how I meet the required qualifications for the position nicely introduces the following paragraphs and résumé.

If your cover letter introduces an unsolicited application—i.e., it’s a “cold call” prospecting for work rather than responding to a job posting—take a more indirect, persuasive approach than the direct one advised above. Start by asking if the employer is in need of someone who can do what you do, then detail the skills you have that will benefit the employer.

Skills and Qualification Summary. Use your second paragraph to explain how you’ll apply the skills you’ve learned and practiced throughout your educational, work, and other experience to benefit the employer in the position you’re applying for. Getting right to the point with this in a solicited application (responding to a job posting) is vital because anything you include that doesn’t instantly convince the employer that you have what they’re looking for is going to sink your application quickly. Avoid the trap of simply repeating and stretching out the Skills and Qualifications Summary section of your résumé into full sentences.

Make the paragraph instead about how you’re going to benefit the employer, using those skills to help the company achieve its business goals, which requires knowing and saying what they are. This is why you were advised to research the company at the outset of the application process and note their products and/or services, clientele demographics, and mission/vision statement. Show that you know what they want and have the necessary skills to deliver exactly that. If you convince the employer that you bring a skill set to the table that will set you up for success in the position right away (with only minimal mandatory training), you’re a step closer to the interview. If you list skills that only partially mirror what the posting asks for (or, worse, not at all), however, you’ve moved your application a step closer to the shredder.

Employer Preference. Though many applicants meet the required baseline qualifications for the job, only those who look like they will be a good “fit” in the company or organization culture will be invited for an interview. The paragraph that follows the qualifications paragraph is crucial to convincing the employer that you’ll fit in nicely. To assure the employer you will be truly happy in that position, say what attracts you to it and to the company in general. Perhaps you have been a customer in the past and were really impressed by the product or service and the people you dealt with, and now you want to participate in the effort to make more satisfied customers like you’ve been. Saying that your priority is to make the company’s customers and stakeholders happy, perhaps by paraphrasing the mission or vision statement available on their website and making it your own, goes a long way toward convincing the employer that you’re their kind of people.

Closing Requests. End your letter’s message concisely with two or three sentences that do the following:

  1. Thank the reader for considering your application. Politely phrase this as a request to read on to the next page: I very much appreciate your considering me for this position. Please review the attached résumé for a more detailed explanation of how I meet or exceed the required qualifications.
  2. Request an interview. Since winning an interview spot for a chance to get a job offer is the entire goal of the application, make your intentions clear by stating your desire to talk in person. You can say that you look forward to meeting and discussing further your “fit” in the organization, since that’s exactly what they’ll be doing with the interview. Though some cover letter writing guides advise ending with confidence, saying something like you’ll be contacting them to arrange an interview or, worse, thanking them in advance for the job offer to come or asking when you can start the job will appear entitled in the worst way. Any statement that assumes certain victory looks like you’re saying that this opportunity is owed to you rather than earned. An important part of being courteous here at the letter’s closing is being humble.
Figure 14.2.3: An image of a solicited cover letter that meets the criteria described above. (Business Communications, 2019)

pen and paper icon    1. Write a targeted résumé for the job posting you chose. Moving forward, you can use this as a model for how to excerpt a targeted résumé from your generic CV.

2. Write an unsolicited cover letter for your dream job. Take the indirect approach and be convincing in how you present your pitch.

References

Business Insider. (2016). A business insider reveals what an a perfect resume looks like [Video]. Youtube. https://www.thejobnetwork.com/this-is-why-your-resume-was-rejected-infographic/

Careercake. (2013). 5 steps to an incredible cover letter [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxOli8laZos

Liu, J. (n.d.). This is why your resume was rejected [Infographic]. The job network. Retrieved from https://www.thejobnetwork.com/this-is-why-your-resume-was-rejected-infographic/


  1. (Guffey, M. E., Loewy, D., Almonte, R. (2016). Essentials of business communication (8th Can. Ed.). Toronto: Nelson. pp. 377-378)
  2. Vandegriend, K. (2017, November 30). Hiring manager resume pet peeves, must-haves, and red flags. Career Story. Retrieved from http://careerstory.ca/blog/2017/hiring-manager-resume-pet-peeves-must-haves-and-red-flags
  3. Guffey, M. E., Loewy, D., Almonte, R. (2016). Essentials of business communication (8th Can. Ed.). Toronto: Nelson. p. 387)
  4. Block, L. (2014, September 29). My personal formula for a winning resume. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140929001534-24454816-my-personal-formula-for-a-better-resume
  5. Vandegriend, K. (2017, November 30). Hiring manager resume pet peeves, must-haves, and red flags. Career Story. Retrieved from http://careerstory.ca/blog/2017/hiring-manager-resume-pet-peeves-must-haves-and-red-flags

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14.2 Resumes and Cover Letters by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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