What are Resumes and Cover Letters, and Why Do I Need Them?
Think of Apple without the apple. Think of McDonald’s without the golden arches. It’s hard, right? That’s because marketing matters.
Your resume is an advertisement, and you’re the product. This simple 1- or 2-page document is the central marketing device of your job search, as it will be the first impression you make on employers.
While a resume lays out the facts of your career, a cover letter is a chance to convey your personality, highlight your accomplishments through storytelling and explain any issues that can’t be explained by the resume.
Read on for our tips on how to compose a job-winning resume and cover letter, and how one can complement the other.
Key Sections of Your Resume
Lynda Spiegel, a top-ranking resume writer with a background in human resources, puts it bluntly: “Without the resume, how would anyone know anything about you?”
It’s your chance, she explains, to pitch your value proposition to an employer.
Above all, your resume should be clear, concise and easily scannable by hiring managers, recruiters and ATS (applicant tracking systems), which many employers use to review resumes, and find worthy candidates.
Here are the sections employers will expect to find in your resume:
In the header, you should list your name and contact information (e.g., email address, phone number). Depending on the industry or job, you may also want to include the URL of your LinkedIn profile here, as well as other social media profiles.
Your professional summary statement, normally placed beneath the header, should have a few brief sentences or bullet points that provide a snapshot of who you are. Make sure to mention your most marketable attributes that match the job you’re applying for.
This is the heart of most resumes. Typically, the work history section focuses on your last 10 years of work experience, beginning with your most recent employer. Include your dates of employment and a concise bullet-point list of your achievements for each job. You can save relevant volunteer work, extracurriculars and internships in a separate section titled “Other Experience.”
Spiegel cautions against including every job you’ve had in your work history. Instead, focus on the most relevant jobs. “Maybe you’re a marketing manager now, and 20 years ago, you worked at Rite Aid stocking shelves,” she says. “Just because you did it doesn’t mean it belongs on your resume.”
If you have older work experience you’d like to include, you may want to create a section titled “Previous Work Experience.”
This section will vary depending on the job. Highlight 4 to 8 of your most salient skills based on the job description. Don’t forget to include soft skills – the interpersonal skills you bring to any job situation (e.g., leadership, communication).
Education and Training
Before you write this section, see what level of education is required by the employer (you will find this in the job description). If you have a college degree, you don’t need to include your high school degree (or GED credential). Begin this section with your most recent degree.
Why You Should Customize Your Resume
Contrary to popular belief, resumes are not one-size-fits-all. You should customize your resume, at least a little bit, for every job submission.
Start by analyzing the job description. Here’s an example of a line you may find in a job description for an IT professional:
Monitoring and maintaining computer systems and networks.
Here’s how you could work that wording into your work experience of summary section:
Monitored and maintained computer systems and networks at large corporation for 5+ years.
For more ideas on how to customize your resume, review our job-specific resume templates.
Writing the Right Cover Letter
Kamara Toffolo, a popular job search strategist, says cover letters are an important part of the application process. “We can only control what we submit, and we’d never want to be in a position where we didn’t submit a cover letter only to find out it was desired by the person doing the hiring.”
Cover letters shouldn’t simply regurgitate what’s in your resume. “They’re more human and more personal than a resume,” Toffolo says. Here’s how she suggests using your cover letter most effectively:
Tell the parts of your story that your resume can’t
Cover letters give you a chance to go beyond the bullet points on your resume. Sure, the resume shows the evolution of your career as a data analyst, but why did you become interested in data in the first place? This is where you tell that story.
Clarify any red flags, such as a career gap
This is particularly useful for someone who set aside their career for personal reasons (e.g., raising a family, caring for ill parents). Simply adding a sentence or two explaining the circumstances will go a long way in assuaging fears. Here’s an example:
For six months, I focused on caring for a terminally ill family member. It was undeniably difficult, but during that time, I learned a lot about [insert relatable skill or piece of wisdom here], and I feel better equipped than ever to take on a leadership role in [insert industry].
Explain why you’re making a career transition
Cover letters are a perfect forum for explaining why you are shifting careers. You may want to devote the heart of your cover letter to this explanation. Here’s an example:
In reflecting on my role as a teacher, I notice several similarities between my work and the responsibilities of a nurse, including:
[list ways your skills and experiences transfer nicely into the new role]
Highlight your awareness and understanding of the company you’re applying to
This is all about research. When you’re applying at a new company, read their press releases and any news stories written about them. Then, in your cover letter, write a few sentences that show you understand their challenges—and explain how you’ll address each one.
Showcase core strengths that will be attractive to the target company
Take an impressive bullet point on your resume that happens to align with the employer’s mission. Explain how you used that skill in a real-world work scenario. This is a powerful way of communicating your talents.
Before you start writing your cover letter, make sure your resume is up to snuff by checking out our job-winning resume templates. With a strong resume and an engaging cover letter, you stand a better chance of landing your next gig.