When it comes to resumes and cover letters, everyone has an opinion. You’ll take your resume to a resume workshop on campus and get one piece of advice, then show it to your friend and get another, and ask a mentor and get told to ignore what the first two people told you. That’s because conventions about resumes and cover letters differ according to the job and the industry.
Resume and cover letter conventions also evolve over time. In the 1970s and 80s, many people included their height, weight and a photograph when they applied for the job. You can imagine how this led to discriminatory hiring practices. Thanks to Human Rights Tribunal cases and advocacy from workers who spoke out against the practice, employers stopped asking for photographs. (Some restaurants and bars still ask for photos when hiring servers, and while the practice isn’t technically illegal, it’s a sign that you should never work there). Cover letters used to be formatted like actual letters, but today very few cover letters are actually sent through the mail. Wasting 1/4 of the page on something that your prospective employer isn’t going to read doesn’t make sense anymore. Today, cover letters and resumes are adapting to the fact that many companies using software that forces you to copy and paste your resume and cover letter into little text boxes.
In this section, we’ll focus on how to make different decisions about your cover letters and resumes. We’ll avoid giving prescriptive advice and instead focus on helping figure out what your audience wants and how to market yourself effectively. In doing so, we’ll draw on a lot of the different skills we’ve learned this semester: analyzing an audience, persuasion, graphic design, plain language and more.
Customization is Key
Unless you’re applying to an entry-level position where the employer wants to hire a large number of people and is willing to train them, (such as some student summer jobs, fast food jobs, warehouse jobs etc.), a customized cover letter and resume will help you stand out from the rest. Many experts suggest that you will get more interviews if you create a personalized resume and cover letter for 5 jobs than if you send out the same cover letter and resume to 100 jobs.
Why? Because the average hiring manager looks at a resume for six seconds. That’s it. Six seconds stands between you and in interview for your dream job. If your resume doesn’t immediately show the hiring manager how you’re qualified for this job, then you won’t make it on to the next stage.
Because relatively few people actually take the time to create personalized job application materials, doing this can also provide you with a huge advantage. Stay away from templates and lists of “action verbs” you found on the internet, and take the time to create your own application materials.
To begin personalizing your resume and cover letter, first look carefully at the job ad. Let’s look at an example together. Here’s a real ad for a Marketing Communications Coordinator. When you read it, ask yourself:
- What tone does it take? How would you describe this workplace?
- What skills and experience does the position ask for?
- What soft skills (communications, leadership, etc.) are important?
- What values do you think the company has?
Marketing Communications Coordinator
Are you a new or recent marketing or communications grad that’s looking for an opportunity to make an impact? Is working for an organization that’s driven by a greater purpose important to you?
St. John Ambulance BC/Yukon (SJA) is looking for a Marketing Communications Coordinator to join our team. We’re BC and Yukon’s safety charity. SJA offers first aid training and safety products, as well as provides a range of charitable safety and wellness services to communities. Our humanitarian roots go back 900 years (yup 900, that’s not a typo!). Today, we’re part of the greater St. John network that spans the globe.
The Marketing Communications Coordinator fills a dynamic role that offers plenty of opportunity to hone and grow your skills as you help us make our communities safer. This position provides key support within our small and busy marketing team in our Vancouver headquarters. We’re looking for a self-starter with the ability to work independently on tasks with guidance provided along the way. As a successful candidate, you’ll focus on developing creative and engaging content through storytelling and design. We’re a very collaborative group, and your contribution will be important to help us meet our organizational and team goals.
Sound interesting? Here’s what we’re looking for!
- 1 – 2 years marketing or communications experience, or equivalent relevant education
- Experience in written storytelling
- Experience using Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Premiere Pro), Canva, and other design apps
- A strong creative eye
- Excellent verbal and written communication skills
- Experience building social media content and managing social channels, including a working knowledge of Hootsuite and other social media tools
- Proven knowledge of video creation and editing, including video creation for social media
- Awesome copywriting and editing skills for web, social, and newsletter/email content
- A proven ability to meet deadlines
- Great organization skills
- Experience with or exposure to media relations is an extra plus
Our office is located next to Oakridge Mall with handy transit access. We offer comprehensive benefits and extra perks like on-site parking (if you’re inclined to drive), a retirement savings plan, and more.
This is a hands-on and exciting role. If you’re a rising star looking for purposeful fit, send us your resume and cover letter. Please include your salary expectations. If you’re selected for an interview, we’ll ask to see a few samples of your best work.
We appreciate and thank you for your interest in our charity. Please note that only shortlisted applicants will be contacted.
You might have noticed that the tone of the piece is upbeat and casual. It uses exclamation marks and phrases like “yup, that’s not a typo.” A lot of the wording (“rising star,” “recent grad”) suggests they’re looking for a young person who has ambition. It also suggests that this office is perhaps more casual and less hierarchical than other companies. You might imagine that they would value innovation and creativity. Someone who works there would also have to believe in the charity’s work.
It’s clear from the job application that they’re looking for someone with strong writing and graphic design skills, as well as some experience in marketing and communications. Storytelling is mentioned, and they also ask for writing samples if you make it to the interview round. That means your cover letter’s going to be important, since they’ll be using it as evidence of your writing skills. You’ll also want to make sure your resume is well-designed to provide evidence of your graphic-design skills. (This doesn’t mean that you should do something splashy and hard-to-read, but your resume should give the hiring manager a sense of your ability to use basic graphic-design principles).
Writing a Clear Resume
Alison Green, who runs the popular blog Ask A Manager and has written several books, including the How To Get a Job e-book, suggests that job-seekers ask themselves one important question when deciding what to put in their job application documents: “What did you accomplish in this job that someone else wouldn’t have?” (Green, pg. 15).
In your job, you might have 10, 20 or even 50 job duties over the course of a year. Following this advice doesn’t just help you decide what job duties to include in your resume, but it also helps you be more specific and persuasive. Let’s look at an example:
Job Duty: I prepared tax returns for customers.
Job Duty That Focuses On Accomplishments: I had a 99.5% accuracy rate when preparing tax returns, which put me in the top 2% of all employees.
The first example describes what everyone in that position did. The second example shows how the job seeker accomplished something that the average person wouldn’t have done. It’s more specific and persuasive.
If you are new to the workforce, you might initially struggle to find examples of what you did that the average person working in a job wouldn’t have done. But in nearly every job, you can find one area where you excelled. For example, maybe you worked as a salesperson in a clothing store and were constantly called upon by coworkers to deal with difficult customers. Maybe you speak multiple languages and were able to communicate effectively with a broad range of customers.
When you begin writing your resume, think back to the jobs you’ve held, then freewrite about what you did that the average person wouldn’t have done. Turn this into a short, well-edited bullet point list.
Show Don’t Tell
Whether you’re creating a resume or a cover letter, you will benefit from the old piece of creative writing advice that says “show don’t tell.” In creative writing, this means that instead of saying “the character was angry” or “the house was spooky,” you should describe the actions. (“The door to the old house was boarded up, but in the window I saw a collection of doll’s heads, each one painted with strange symbols.”) But showing not telling is also great advice when discussing soft skills in your resume.
Many employers value soft skills like teamwork, leadership, communication skills or problem-solving skills, and so many people put these on their resume. But it’s not enough to simply say “I’m a great leader.” Anyone can say this. I could say that I’m a nuclear physicist, but that doesn’t make it true.
Instead of telling your employer that you’re a great leader or an engaging writer, show it. Think of a time when you showed leadership skills, then mention it in you cover letter or resume. Instead of saying you’re a good writer, use your cover letter and resume to let your writing skills shine.
Harman is 20 years old and has had two jobs. Currently, he works in a warehouse, but last summer he worked at his uncle’s hardware store. His goal is to get a co-op position in accounting, and he’s not sure how to represent his experience in a way that will make him look professional and ambitious. He did freewrites about both jobs. When he compared the two, he realized that in both jobs, he took on extra duties and enjoyed helping people. Taking on extra duties shows that he’s ambitious, and helping people shows his good communication and teamwork skills.
Harman turned his freewrites into bullet points to include on his resume. He made sure to show his soft skills rather than tell them. For example, instead of saying that he’s ambitious, he described taking initiative to get certified in forklift operation.
Here’s what he came up with:
Warehouse Loader Jan. 2018 – present
- Took initiative to get certified in forklift operation and industrial first aid and was promoted to Lead Hand.
- Balanced speed with accuracy to build secure pallet loads.
- Communicated effectively to coworkers in English, Punjabi and Hindi.
Sales Associate May 2018 – Sept 2018
Local Family Hardware
- Was quickly promoted from the slow daytime shift to the busy weekend rush due to my customer service skills.
- Was selected to give in-store tutorials on home improvement projects to customers. Delivered presentations in both English and Punjabi.
- Was named Employee of the Month in June because of my ability to make customers feel listened to and welcome.
What Should Go In Your Resume?
As we’ve already said, your resume should be set up to be skimmed easily. You’ll want your name, address, phone number and email address to be at the top. From there, it really depends on what the prospective employer will be looking for and what about your experience is most persuasive.
For example, if you’ve taught yourself multiple programming languages and have created apps or games for fun, but you haven’t yet been paid to do this, you might create a “Technical Skills” section above your work experience that lists in point form all of the programming languages you know. If you have a unique skill set that might not be immediately obvious when someone looks at your resume, you might choose to write a 1-2 sentence summary of yourself as a candidate, such as “Ahmed Muhammad is a PMP-certified Project Manager who specializes in managing construction projects in ecologically sensitive locations.”
Most resumes will include:
- Your work experience. You may choose to combine volunteer and work experience. Depending on how long you’ve been in the workforce, you might leave off unrelated jobs or jobs that you held a long time ago. If you’re 5 years into your career as an accountant, for example, there’s no need to include the house painting job you had during the summer in your first year of university. These should be listed from most recent to least recent. It should also include the name of your company, your job title, when you worked there and what you did.
- Your education: Once you’re out of high school, this should include just post-secondary experience. You can include your GPA (if it’s impressive) and your major.
- Any awards, honours or recognition you received, such as scholarships.
- Technical skills: If you’re going to include a list of skills you have, make sure to include only technical skills, such as an ability to use the Adobe Creative Suite, rather than soft skills like an ability to work in teams.
What Not To Include
Alison Green tells us that the objectives section “adds nothing and takes up space” (pg. 13) and at best simply restates that you’re interested in getting a job, which the employer already knows. It’s also not necessary to include hobbies or other interests, unless these relate to the position. (For example, if you’re applying to work at a company that makes yoga clothing, being a yoga enthusiast might be useful). Remember: the goal of a resume is to get an interview, not to have a potential employer know everything about you.
When designing his resume, Harman decided that the most persuasive part of his resume is his 3.78 GPA and the fact that he’s been on the Dean’s List for the past two semesters. He also knows how to use different programs like QuickBooks, Excel, Sage, Word and the Adobe Creative Suite. He decides to list his technical skills first, followed by his education and then his work experience. He lists his technical skills in bullet points, and under his education he makes sure to include his GPA and the fact that he’s been on the Dean’s List.
Harman uses clear headings and makes sure that his formatting is easy to read. He gets his friend to check his spelling and grammar. He adds lines between the different sections to allow readers to skim. His resume is ready to go!
Writing a Great Cover Letter
Your cover letter is your chance to speak directly to your potential employer, so once again it’s important to personalize it. According to Allison Green,