8 Easy Steps to Your Best Résumé and Cover Letter

March 15, 2016

Research shows that some employers spend just six seconds looking at résumés. Everyone has a different opinion about what your résumé and cover letter should look like, but certain strategies can make your application stand out across the board.

Over the course of my 10 years of working in career services departments on college and university campuses, I’ve reviewed thousands of résumés and cover letters. Knowing firsthand what employers look for in candidates is invaluable knowledge that I now pass along to students and alumni in my work at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana. Now I want to help AAUW continue to empower women in the workforce by passing on my advice to AAUW members and student affiliates who are looking to land the internship, graduate program, or job of their dreams.

Here are eight tips for grabbing positive attention with your application:

Author and Louisiana Tech University Coordinator of Employer Relations and Recruitment Services Jennie Flynn-McKevitt

Author and Louisiana Tech University Coordinator of Employer Relations and Recruitment Services Jennie Flynn-McKevitt

1. Keep it concise.

For undergraduate students (and very recent graduates) applying to internships, entry-level jobs, or graduate school programs, a cover letter and résumé should each be a single page.

If you are someone who served in the military, has multiple degrees, or has worked professionally for a number of years, you may find that you have enough related content to fill two full pages.

2. Tailor your résumé.

When working on your single-page documents, keep in mind that they should have a balance of informative content, a streamlined format, and a neat appearance. What you write should fill the page but not overcrowd it; someone should be able to easily skim your résumé and cover letter and learn about you.

Never use personal pronouns like I, me, we, us, or our when writing your résumé. Instead, use category headings and bullets to accompany experiences and to document your accomplishments and the professional skills you’ve built. Carefully choose the experiences you include, making sure to match your skills with the qualifications outlined in the description of the position you’re applying for and leaving out items that are unrelated.

3. Organize now, customize later.

To begin the writing process for your résumé, create one master document that you continually update as you track your experiences and skills. Each time you apply for something new, start with a blank document and choose the format and which pieces of information to include from the master document based on the position’s description.

Do not use a pre-made template; employers can smell them from a mile away.

Get more tips, tricks, and samples!

Learn more about résumé and cover letter writing, by listening to the webinar led by author Jennie Flynn-McKevitt.
Listen now

4. Format your documents thoughtfully.

Choose clean and easy-to-read fonts (like Arial, Calibri, Garamond, or Times New Roman) between sizes 10 and 12.

Consider your audience when making choices about style and layout. Sections at the top of the page should be most relevant to the opportunity you’re applying for. Create customized categories where you group similar items together; for example, you may find that including a leadership experience section works well in addition to a work experience section.

5. Be consistent and professional.

You are aiming for error-free documents. Demonstrate to an employer that you are meticulous and attentive to detail by having no spelling or grammar mistakes in the final version you submit. Choose a style and format and stay consistent throughout both your résumé and cover letter.

Consider the e-mail address you’re using on your résumé and what your voicemail message on your cell phone sounds like. If you are actively sending out résumés, craft a brief and simple voicemail box message that will help the caller identify you.

6. Connect the dots for employers.

Take every opportunity to showcase your skills by writing about them effectively. Begin each of the bullets you write with an action verb. Action verbs signal to an employer that you possess specific skill sets.

  • Edited a monthly newsletter
  • Led weekly chapter meetings
  • Executed a campus-wide program that reached 1,000 students

Quantify your experiences to help employers better picture the scope of your responsibilities.

  • Edited a monthly newsletter
  • Led weekly chapter meetings
  • Executed a campus-wide program that reached 1,000 students

Most importantly, help the reader understand the result or outcome that performing that task brought about for the organization. This will help an employer better picture how you can contribute concrete results.

  • Executed a campus-wide program that educated 1,000 students about the barriers women face when pursuing careers in STEM

By including these descriptors, an employer can assume many traits about a potential employee. Show that you meet deadlines, are organized, have good time-management skills, prioritize tasks, and stay attuned to the needs of large, diverse audiences.

7. Craft your sales pitch.

Each time you apply for a position, it is best to send in both a résumé and cover letter to demonstrate how your skills and experiences align with the position you are hoping to secure. And yes, you do need to write a different cover letter for each particular position you apply for.
A typical cover letter consists of three to five paragraphs broken up into three main parts: the introduction, the body paragraphs, and the closing. The introduction introduces you, says what you are applying for, and summarizes why you want the position.

The body paragraphs are the most important part. Think of these one, two, or three paragraphs as your sales pitch, where you will demonstrate through examples how you have the skills that the organization seeks.

The closing paragraph serves as the bookend by thanking the employer for their time and discussing your enthusiasm for the role.

8. Utilize your networks!

Research demonstrates that students and alumni who partner with career services have a competitive edge over other applicants. If you’re a current student, set up a résumé and cover letter review with your school’s career services office. If you want additional help with your graduate school application, internship application, or job search, the office can point you in the right direction. If you already graduated, call your alumni institutions to find out what services are available to you.

Don’t forget that you don’t need a career services office to find someone to look over your materials. Send your documents to your friends and co-workers who have experience hiring in your field. A fresh pair of eyes can help catch simple mistakes and spot areas where you can condense or highlight different skills or experiences.

For even more information (and samples!) about résumé and cover letter writing, check out the webinar recording.

This blog post was written by Louisiana Tech University Coordinator of Employer Relations and Recruitment Services Jennie Flynn-McKevitt.


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