Chapter 42: Résumés and Cover Letters
Lumen Learning and Linda Bruce Hill
“The most important tool you have on a résumé is language.”
– Jay Samit
A résumé is a “selfie” for business purposes. It is a written picture of who you are—it’s a marketing tool, a selling tool, and a promotion of you as an ideal candidate for any job you may be interested in.
The word résumé comes from the French word résumé, which means “a summary.” Leonardo da Vinci is credited with writing one of the first known résumés, although it was more of a letter that outlined his credentials for a potential employer, Ludovico Sforza. The résumé got da Vinci the job, though, and Sforza became a longtime patron of da Vinci and later commissioned him to paint The Last Supper.
Résumés and cover letters work together to represent you in the most positive light to prospective employers. With a well-composed résumé and cover letter, you stand out—which may get you an interview and then a good shot at landing a job.
In this section, we discuss résumés and cover letters as key components of your career development tool kit. We explore some of the many ways you can design and develop them for the greatest impact in your job search.
Your Résumé: Purpose and Contents
Your résumé is an inventory of your education, work experience, job-related skills, accomplishments, volunteer history, internships, residencies, and/or more. It’s a professional autobiography in outline form to give the person who reads it a quick, general idea of who you are, and what skills, abilities, and experiences you have to offer. With a better idea of who you are, prospective employers can see how well you might contribute to their workplace.
As a college student or recent graduate, though, you may be unsure about what to put in your résumé, especially if you don’t have much employment history. Still, employers don’t expect recent grads to have significant work experience. And even with little work experience, you may still have a host of worthy accomplishments to include. It’s all in how you present yourself.
The following video is an animated look at why résumés are so important. Read a transcript of the video.
Video: Why Do I Need a Resume?
Elements of Your Successful Résumé
Perhaps the hardest part of writing a résumé is figuring out what format to use to organize and present your information in the most effective way. There is no correct format, per se, but most résumés follow one of the four formats below. Which format do you think will best represent your qualifications?
- Reverse chronological résumé: A reverse chronological résumé (sometimes also simply called a chronological résumé) lists your job experiences in reverse chronological order—that is, starting with the most recent job and working backward toward your first job. It includes starting and ending dates. Also included is a brief description of the work duties you performed for each job, and highlights of your formal education. The reverse chronological résumé may be the most common and perhaps the most conservative résumé format. It is most suitable for demonstrating a solid work history, and growth and development in your skills. It may not suit you if you are light on skills in the area you are applying to, or if you’ve changed employers frequently, or if you are looking for your first job. Reverse Chronological Résumé Examples
- Functional résumé: A functional résumé is organized around your talents, skills, and abilities (more so than work duties and job titles, as with the reverse chronological résumé). It emphasizes specific professional capabilities, like what you have done or what you can do. Specific dates may be included but are not as important. So if you are a new graduate entering your field with little or no actual work experience, the functional résumé may be a good format for you. It can also be useful when you are seeking work in a field that differs from what you have done in the past. It’s also well suited for people in unconventional careers. Functional Résumé Examples
- Hybrid résumé: The hybrid résumé is a format reflecting both the functional and chronological approaches. It’s also called a combination résumé. It highlights relevant skills, but it still provides information about your work experience. With a hybrid résumé, you may list your job skills as most prominent and then follow with a chronological (or reverse chronological) list of employers. This résumé format is most effective when your specific skills and job experience need to be emphasized. Hybrid Résumé Examples
- Video, infographic, and website résumé: Other formats you may wish to consider are the video résumé, the infographic résumé, or even a website résumé. These formats may be most suitable for people in multimedia and creative careers. Certainly with the expansive use of technology today, a job seeker might at least try to create a media-enhanced résumé. But the paper-based, traditional résumé is by far the most commonly used—in fact, some human resource departments may not permit submission of any format other than paper based. Video Resume Examples; Infographic Résumé Examples; Website Résumé Examples
An important note about formatting is that, initially, employers may spend only a few seconds reviewing each résumé—especially if there is a big stack of them or they seem tedious to read. That’s why it’s important to choose your format carefully so it will stand out and make the first cut.
Résumé Contents and Structure
For many people, the process of writing a résumé is daunting. After all, you are taking a lot of information and condensing it into a very concise form that needs to be both eye-catching and easy to read. Don’t be scared off, though! Developing a good résumé can be fun, rewarding, and easier than you think if you follow a few basic guidelines. In the following video, a résumé-writing expert describes some keys to success.
Video: Resume Tutorial
Contents and Components To Include
- Your contact information: name, address (note that some recommend not sharing for security purposes, others recommend sharing to be complete), phone number, professional email address
- A summary of your skills: 5–10 skills you have gained in your field
- Work experience: depending on the résumé format you choose, you may list your most recent job first; include the title of the position, employer’s name, location, employment dates (beginning, ending); Working for a family business is valid work experience and should definitely be on a resume.
- Volunteer experience: can be listed in terms of hours completed or months/years involved. Use the same format as that used to list work experience.
- Education and training: formal and informal experiences matter; include academic degrees, professional development, certificates, internships, etc.
- Other sections: may include a job objective, a brief profile, a branding statement, a summary statement, additional accomplishments, and any other related experiences
Résumés resemble snowflakes in as much as no two are alike. Although you can benefit from giving yours a stamp of individuality, you will do well to steer clear of personal details that might elicit a negative response. It is advisable to omit any confidential information or details that could make you vulnerable to discrimination, for instance. Your résumé will likely be viewed by a number of employees in an organization, including human resource personnel, managers, administrative staff, etc. By aiming to please all reviewers, you gain maximum advantage.
- Do not mention your age, gender, height or weight.
- Do not include your social security number.
- Do not mention religious beliefs or political affiliations, unless they are relevant to the position.
- Do not include a photograph of yourself or a physical description.
- Do not mention health issues.
- Do not use first-person references (I, me).
- Do not include wage/salary expectations.
- Do not use abbreviations.
- Proofread carefully—absolutely no spelling mistakes are acceptable.
Top Ten Tips for a Successful Résumé
- Aim to make a résumé that’s 1–2 pages long on letter-size paper.
- Make it visually appealing.
- Use action verbs and phrases.
- Proofread carefully to eliminate any spelling, grammar, punctuation, and typographical errors.
- Include highlights of your qualifications or skills to attract an employer’s attention.
- Craft your letter as a pitch to people in the profession you plan to work in.
- Stand out as different, courageous.
- Be positive and reflect only the truth.
- Be excited and optimistic about your job prospects!
- Keep refining and reworking your résumé; it’s an ongoing project.
Remember that your résumé is your professional profile. It will hold you in the most professional and positive light, and it’s designed to be a quick and easy way for a prospective employer to evaluate what you might bring to a job. When written and formatted attractively, creatively, and legibly, your résumé is what will get your foot in the door. You can be proud of your accomplishments, even if they don’t seem numerous. Let your résumé reflect your personal pride and professionalism. A resume is also a “living document” and will change as your experiences and skills change.
In the following video, Résumé Tips for College Students From Employers, several college graduate recruiters summarize the most important points about crafting your résumé. Download a transcript of the video.
Video: Résumé Tips for College Students From Employers
Résumé Writing Resources
|2||The Online Resume Builder (from My Perfect resume)||The online résumé builder is easy to use. Choose your résumé design from the library of professional designs, insert prewritten examples, then download and print your new résumé.|
|3||Résumé Builder (from Live Career)||This site offers examples and samples, templates, tips, videos, and services for résumés, cover letters, interviews, and jobs.|
|4||Résumé Samples for College Students and Graduates (from About Careers)||This site offers a plethora of sample résumés for college students and graduates. Listings are by type of student and by type of job. Résumé templates are also provided.|
|5||Job Search Minute Videos (from College Grad)||This site offers multiple to-the-point one-minute videos on topics such as print résumés, video résumés, cover letters, interviewing, tough interview questions, references, job fairs, and Internet job searching.|
|7||42 Résumé Dos and Don’ts Every Job Seeker Should Know (from The Muse)||A comprehensive list of résumé dos and don’ts, which includes traditional rules as well as new rules to polish your résumé.|
Activity: Create Your Résumé
- Compile data reflecting your professional and educational skills and accomplishments.
- Assess the main résumé formats and select one that meets your needs.
- Create a first draft of your professional résumé.
- Compile all needed information for your résumé, including your contact information, a summary of your skills, your work experience and volunteer experience, education and training (including your intended degree, professional development activities, certificates, internships, etc.). Optionally you may wish to include job objective, a brief profile, a branding statement, additional accomplishments, and any other related experiences.
- Select one of the résumé builder tools listed above in the Résumé Writing Resources table.
- Create your résumé, following instructions at your selected site.
- Save your document as a PDF file.
- Follow instructions from your instructor on how to submit your work.
Your Cover Letter
A cover letter is a letter of introduction, usually 3–4 paragraphs in length, that you attach to your résumé. It’s a way of introducing yourself to a potential employer and explaining why you are suited for a position. Employers may look for individualized and thoughtfully written cover letters as an initial method of screening out applicants who may who lack necessary basic skills, or who may not be sufficiently interested in the position.
Often an employer will request or require that a cover letter be included in the materials an applicant submits. There are also occasions when you might submit a cover letter uninvited (also called a letter of interest). For example, if you are initiating an inquiry about possible work or asking someone to send you information or provide other assistance.
With each résumé you send out, always include a cover letter specifically addressing your purposes.
Characteristics of an Effective Cover Letter
Cover letters should accomplish the following:
- Get the attention of the prospective employer
- Set you apart from any possible competition
- Identify the position you are interested in
- Specify how you learned about the position or company
- Present highlights of your skills and accomplishments
- Reflect your genuine interest
- Please the eye and ear
The following video features Aimee Bateman, founder of Careercake.com, who explains how you can create an incredible cover letter. Download a transcript of the video.
Video: 5 Steps to an Incredible Cover Letter
Cover Letter Resources
|1||Student Cover Letter Samples (from About Careers)||This site contains sample student/recent graduate cover letters (especially for high school students and college students and graduates seeking employment) as well as cover letter templates, writing tips, formats and templates, email cover letter examples, and examples by type of applicant.|
|2||How to Write Cover Letters (from CollegeGrad)||This site contains resources about the reality of cover letters, using a cover letter, the worst use of the cover letter, the testimonial cover letter technique, and a cover letter checklist.|
|4||Cover Letters (from the Yale Office of Career Strategy)||This site includes specifications for the cover letter framework (introductory paragraph, middle paragraph, concluding paragraph), as well as format and style.|
Licenses and Attributions:
CC licensed content, Original:
- College Success. Authored by: Linda Bruce. Provided by: Lumen Learning. Located at: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/collegesuccess-lumen/chapter/resumes-and-cover-letters/ License: CC BY: Attribution.
All rights reserved content:
- WHY DO I NEED A RESUME? Authored by: Leinard Tapat. Located at: https://youtu.be/Yc4pgOsUJfA. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
- Resume Tips for College Students From Employers. Authored by: Clarkson University. Located at: https://youtu.be/fYavOr8Gnac. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
- 5 Steps to an Incredible Cover Letter. Authored by: Aimee Bateman. Located at: https://youtu.be/mxOli8laZos. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
- Resume Tutorial. Authored by: Cameron Cassidy. Located at: https://youtu.be/O5eVMaPZWmM. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom essay removed (exists elsewhere in this work).
Adaptions: Relocated learning objectives. Image of helping write a resume removed. Image of piles of paper on a table removed.