How a New Resume and Cover Letter Got Her the Job Interview!

She came to me a few weeks ago with an ok resume and so-so cover letter – and seemed doubtful that merely changing either of them could make a major difference to her stalled job search. It can and it did. Luckily, she was open and that’s all anyone can ask.

My client and I worked on her resume together. I asked about all the things she’s done (jobs and volunteer) and what she really wants from a job. Your resume and cover letter present a picture of who you are and, more important, who you will be for the company.

Aim your resume and cover letter to get the job you want

She had done many interesting things even at her young age, but her resume was a snooze – plus it wasn’t organized in a way that clearly show and emphasize her strengths.  So I made some suggestions, and she prepared a draft. Then we discussed the changes she’d made and what else we thought would help – and she edited it a few times more. It only took a few hours total of working together (spread over a few days) to come up with a much better resume. One she felt good about – and one that really stood out to employers.

Now I am not a resume expert by any means – at least not through formal training. Most of my understanding comes from years of looking at resumes and preparing my own that got me interviews. But armed with that knowledge (and a quick review of some of the resume examples in Susan Ireland’s book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Resume) I rolled up my sleeves and did my best to help. We also dug in and reworked her cover letter. (No matter what anyone tells you, both resume and cover letter working together make a strong job search tool.) And it worked big time.

So what’s the resume miracle?

She sent her new resume and cover letter to the company she most wants to work for…and heard back from them within few days.  She got the interview! Plus, within the same week, she heard back from 2 other companies she contacted at the same time. (It’s smart not to put all your resume eggs in one in basket.)

Now I don’t expect this to happen for everyone. OK. I didn’t even expect it to happen that quickly for her! But I did know her new resume was going to get a lot more action. And I also knew the one-two punch of a new improved cover letter was going to be part of the magic.

According to Susan Ireland, you have about 8 seconds to impress a resume screener. (In some cases probably less.) So let me share a few of the basics things I think helped my client and might also help you:

Resume Tips that Get a Resume Noticed

  • Make it easy-to-read and attractive. That may sound obvious, but I used to get a lot of messy or poorly formatted resumes from talented people. It really matters. The screener thinks “If they couldn’t bother to take the time to make this look better, why should I take the time to read it?” Or worse yet “If this person thinks this presentation is good enough when it means so much to them, why should I assume they’ll do a better job in their job?”
  • One page preferred, but NOT if it means a hard-to-read resume. Early on in your career, one page is a good rule to follow. But even though she just got her degree a year ago, my client has a lot of things going for her that she was trying to squeeze in. Unfortunately, instead of improving her chances, she actually made her resume less likely to be looked at. And so, we made it into two pages. (Note: As you get enough good experience under your belt, a 2-page resume probably makes more sense. Also, most resume experts advise us to only show the last ten years of job experience unless there’s something especially relevant earlier on.)
  • Even if your resume is more than one page, try to get a lot of good stuff on the first page. The first page carries more weight (whether electronically or visually scanned), so do what you can (even if it means cutting a few of those less-critical bullet points) to load it with enough juicy tidbits to get them interested.
  • Highlight your strengths. If you’re trying to change fields or have older experience you want them to notice, add a section in the beginning called Highlights or Primary Skills or something like that. List a few items that emphasize those strengths you most want the reader to notice in relation to this new job and what you’re looking to do next.
  • Use strong action words like Developed or Led or Created rather than something weak like “worked with others to make the project happen.”
  • Emphasize things you made happen. Did you lead a project? Did you save the company money? Or make them money? Did you come up with a new idea? You don’t need to list everything you did – just those things that really show the new company you have the skills they’re looking for and bring something special to the table.
  • Use bullets rather than paragraphs. Your resume will get skimmed in seconds before they decide to put it in the “NO” pile or the “YES” or “MAYBE” pile. You want to make it easy for them to see what they’re looking for and decide to give it (and you) a chance.
  • Use keywords. Whether your resume is put into a database or simply scanned visually, remember to use keywords that leap out at them. I was once a business analyst in user-based system designs. So I would make sure I used “business analyst”, “business process”, “user-friendly”, etc. It might help to prepare a list of keywords separately and make sure you use them in appropriate places in your resume.
  • Look at some good sample resumes and try to make yours as strong. You can find a variety of good ones (as well as sample cover letters) at Susan Ireland’s website.
  • For multi-page resumes put your name and a page number on each page. Also let them know that it’s continued, since pages can get separated. (See samples for formatting ideas.)
  • Check CAREFULLY for typos. Like it or not, people throw out resumes just for typos, thinking you’re not very good at details. And don’t just trust your spell-checker. My client had one embarrassing word that was a real word, but definitely not the one she meant.
  • Make sure it prints out the way you want it to. Don’t try to squeeze in extra things by making margins too small. It might make for a sloppy print-out. Also, if you have more than one page, use page break to set where you want it to break.
  • What about the Education section? I usually like to see the education section at the end, but if, as in the case of my client, you don’t have too much work experience (or relevant experience) and your education is especially relevant to the job you want, then by all means put your Education section toward the top, just below your Special Skills section. Both will help market you for the job you’re looking for NOW and not one that might match other skills you have.
  • Do you have publications? My client had them listed in various sections and the power of so much work at such a young age was being lost, so I suggested combining them (even her thesis papers) in one section at the end called Publications.

Cover Letter to Get Employers to Look at Your Resume

  • A great cover letter is your best chance to get noticed! This is your opportunity to sell yourself. And, if your resume isn’t as strong as you would wish, your cover letter can help you help them to realize why you are precisely the right person for the job. So take the time to tailor it to this particular job and do NOT use some obviously general cover letter that will get tossed (along with your resume) in a second.
  • Start with a proper greeting. Dear Mr. or Dear Ms. if you have their name. If not, try to find it. Otherwise, Susan suggests something safe like Dear Manager or Dear Recruiter and not “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam”.
  • You want your cover letter to stand out. So why are you making it so boring?
  • Make the first line interesting. My client had been using the standard “I am applying for the job listed…blah blah blah.” And I do mean blah! I’m not suggesting you make the first line so attention-grabbing you risk annoying them. But you can at least point out someone you have in common. Or something you read about the company. Or lead with a strength that is right on target with the job description and then go on to say that’s why you’re so interested in this particular job.
  • Tell them what makes you so special. Usually in the second and or third (if necessary) paragraph.
  • Use bullets if needed. If you have a few things you want to emphasize, use bullets rather than writing long, wordy paragraphs. Your cover letter’s job is to focus their attention FAST and get them curious enough to want to speak with you so you can sell yourself. And that’s all you need it to do.
  • Use the last paragraph to thank them for their time and/or consideration and try to establish a follow-up/next steps. You might say you’ll contact them in some number of days or simply say you can be reached at 555-555-5555 and look forward to hearing from them soon. Or some such statement, depending on things like the company size, industry, formality of its hiring process, and whether you got there through networking. (Note: You can imagine that no company would appreciate hundreds of people all saying they’ll follow up by calling. But then again…sometimes it works to do that. So that decision is all up to you. 🙂 )
  • Close with sincerely or something similar. As long as it’s within the general realm of commonly-used closings, you’re fine. No need to get too creative here.
  • Keep your cover letter short! You’re not trying to tell your whole story. Just the highlights – especially those that relate to the job description.
  • Again…check for typos! Remember, one typo can undo all your hard work.

One more thought about cover letters. Sometimes, especially when you’ve been trying for a while and feel like you have nothing to lose any more, you can really go all out with a cover letter. Someone I know was looking for months for her first writing job, and was tired of getting rejections.

So one day she just sat down and wrote to her dream employer (a magazine) without one bit of self-censorship. She just told it exactly as it came out (with some edits, of course).  She said they were the only magazine within their company’s publishing group she’d even consider working for – and went on like that. She not only got their attention – she got an offer! But here’s what I really think happened…I think she finally let her real voice shine through, rather than going into formal cover letter mode. So my last bit of cover letter advice is…

  • Let your real self shine through in your cover letter! Don’t think you have to be bone dry or formal. If you feel enthusiasm, show it (without going hog wild, of course). Use real-sounding language – not slang. Just as I always suggest that when you interview you should be yourself, the same is true of a cover letter. When I was a screener, I used to read so many stilted, awkward cover letters, that when I finally got one with a natural tone that was also well-written, I took extra time with the resume. In fact, in one case, I found a woman whose resume was a little weak and the people I worked for weren’t really interested in her for that reason, but I saw something in that cover letter and called her anyway. And she got the job!

I hope some of these job search tips help. As I said,  I don’t claim to be an expert in this area. I just know what’s worked for me, for people I know, for people I’ve coached, and for people I’ve helped hire. At the very least, it’s worth giving it your best shot.

Good luck with your own job search!

***

UPDATE: Although my client got the dream interview, that job didn’t pan out. But this is still a success story. Want to know how her story turned out in her own words?

How to Find the Perfect Job in 10 Agonizing Steps

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Work Coach Cafe archives: Looking for some quick resume tips?

5 Must-Do Resume Tips from a Fellow Blogger

 

About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.

Comments

  1. Great post filled with lots of good advice! And you’re exactly right about the cover letter; beginning with “I am applying for the position…” is dry as toast. Yeah, they may have multiple positions open, so you want to make it clear what you’re after, but liven it up. An opener that has worked for me in the past is:

    “I want to be your new [title]. Here’s why you should want me.” I then follow it with the most relevant [to the potential employer] highlights of my career or pertinent skills or, even better, something that reflects what their ad said, either in the job description or about themselves as a company.

    Another place to see how the company thinks and talks about itself is at the company website. Unless you’re answering a blind ad, find out what you can about the company before applying. This will give you more ideas for how to talk about yourself to them, especially in the area of keywords.

    And finally, in this electronic print-on-demand age, once you’ve polished your resume, don’t think it is engraved in granite. When it makes sense, edit a version for a potential employer based on what they’re looking for, highlighting different accomplishments or skill sets, depending on what their needs are. It should all be true and all be you, but make it the best you possible.

  2. Excellent suggestions Terry B!

    Good reminders to tailor your resume and cover letter to each particular job – and the best clues for that come from researching the company and of course the job description itself!

    That last line can’t be said often enough:

    “It should all be true and all be you, but make it the best you possible.”

    Much thanks!

    Ronnie Ann

  3. It’s true– I had no idea how much I was underselling myself until I got that feedback.

  4. TEB should know because this is her story. Thanks for adding your voice. I like what you say about underselling. Too often people don’t realize just how much they’re underselling themselves.

    Good luck converting that interview – and the others – into the job you want! I’m so proud of you. 🙂

    Ronnie Ann

  5. Hi! Wanted to check back in and confirm– since I redid my resume and cover letter style a few weeks ago, I have had a dramatic increase in my response rate. This week: four interview requests. (Thank goodness! I was getting worried!)

  6. Hi Ronnie and TEB,
    What great advice and sincere motivation for people who have been searching for awhile in this economy.

    Can’t thank you enough. Are either of you available to help with my resume and coverletter? If so, that would be a tremendous help.

    Thanks again.

  7. Hi Lewis!

    Sorry to take so long in getting back to you. It’s been a hectic week here. Thanks for the kind words.

    I wish I could help you, but I’m not looking to take on any new clients right now – and TB is happily working at her new job. You might try some of the links here:

    Resume Help

    Best of luck. It really does make a difference, so don’t give up. Oh…and if you need help and don’t have enough to pay a professional, you might want to explore the Pongo ad on my site. Now I don’t guarantee it’s the best resume and cover letter ever, but it’s an online service and might help you get noticed. (Please excuse my mentioning a sponsor. ANY good online service would be a possible way to go.)

    Good luck!

    Ronnie

    • I couldn’t agree more, especially about really targeting your resume to your dream job. I think one thing that job seekers are often concerned about is making minor adjustments to their resume for concern that they may not be using the same one for each interview. It is perfectly OK to have more than one format and slight variations.

  8. jmkenrick says:

    Great post. Thanks for the advice.

  9. Thanks jmkenrick. Even I was amazed at how well it worked for her! 😉

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