CVs, resumes, and cover letters
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What are the features of a good resume?
1. In as few words as possible, list what you did at each job. Both job title and your description of what you did are malleable: what you say must be true, but you can select which facts are relevant to the kind of work you are looking for, and you can also choose, and we can revise, how it is expressed. Descriptions omit "I" and start with a verb ("Shelved library books"; "Wrote software documentation for...."), in the past or present tense depending on whether the job is past or continuing. Mention quantifiably measured positive results of your work if relevant.
2. Avoid statements that are vague, including statements that merely convey optimism and enthusiasm or sound like business slogans. Self-confidence matters, but statements like "Always achieved highest expectations for outstanding performance" are perfectly meaningless and will do you harm.
3. Every word counts. Recruiters glance briefly at resumes and read at all only those that appear to them promising. Some will even not read it closely until an interview. Use all of the words that are needed and none that aren't.
4. "Know yourself" (and what you want): Do a self-assessment if you have not done so already. This is a process of systematic thinking, best done through writing, that aims at defining what it is you want to do and how, where, with whom, etc. An excellent comprehensive guide to self-assessment is provided by Kate Wendleton in her book Targeting a Great Career, which includes a number of exercises. The key exercise is called "seven stories," and it is commonly used in career counseling. The principle of this central aspect of self-assessment is one that career counselors also widely agree on: The best chance for success in a job or career lies in doing things that you both do very well and very much enjoy, and the theory is that these two tend to go together, and they need to.
Thus, in the seven stories exercise, one identifies "motivated skills." Skills combine talents and experience into things you do well; motivated activities are things you like doing, and so motivated skills are things you both do well and like to do. (Note that in America, with its very business-oriented culture of entrepreneurial individualism, there is a widespread notion that everyone must be pursuing, and work in an area of, their deepest and most fulfilling essential desire. "Do what you love, and the money will follow." However, if you persuade yourself to feel that way about an opportunity you have chosen because it is available, your asservations of authenticity in motivation may ring hollow. It is best to recognize that a close identity of opportunity and desire is ideal but never reached perfectly. This can make finding the right thing to do hard, but that is why it is important to work at, and most workers today do not answer this question once and for all in their youth but return to it periodically).
For the Seven Stories exercise, you start by brainstorming/remembering 20-30 things you have done in the course of your life so far. They need not have been for pay, and they need not have been work rather than "play"; they need only to be things that you did, and both did well and enjoyed. You then write a paragraph on each. You may need several days to remember your 20-30 best activities. When you have got this, you choose the seven that intuitively seem more appealing to you (you are trying to choose your future life). You then identify (Wendleton supplies a chart with a number of categories on the left) your most promising/enjoyable "motivated skills."
Now you can go back to your resume and look to make sure that these skills feature prominently or repeatedly. (You may want to simply omit things you did well but do not want to do: You must tell the truth, but not the whole truth or even the unvarnished truth). Wendleton's other exercises will help you decide things like what you like and don't like in a boss, what environment you would like to work in, what are you salary needs, etc. You can do this informally just by giving thought to these matters. They will likely play some role at least in your choice of what jobs to apply to or accept.
5. You may not need a "Job Objective." Do not include it if it serves no particular purpose; many people write these for themselves, answering the question what they want to do with their working life. This falls under the category of what in the career counseling field is called self-assessment.
6. A "Summary of Qualifications" or skills is often not necessary either. It probably is only useful if it makes points that are not so readily obvious in the job descriptions, or if you want to be selective about which skills used in your work experience are the ones you most want to offer. The self-assessment described in the previous paragraph can help here also.
7. You can omit jobs from your resume. (An application is another matter.) Consider omitting them if they are of short duration and play no key role in your career ambitions. Dates of employment can be presented with years instead of months so as not to call attention to very brief jobs.
What are the features of a good cover letter?
1. Know why you think this job would be good for you but don't say this; say why you think you would be good for the position. Many cover letter writers make this mistake.
2. Some recruiters will appreciate it if you show knowledge of their company. Ideally, you will have researched the company well enough to be able to suggest how you might be able to help them solve some of their actual business problems. You could say this in the letter or hint at it and elaborate in the interview if you get there.
3. It is ideal to begin with a brief paragraph mentioning some more interesting reason for having discovered this position than that you found it advertised. This can mean that you were referred by a contact with a company insider, or that, after finding them in an advertisement, something you learned about them through your research sparked your interest.
4. Some (e.g., Richard H. Beatty in The Perfect Cover Letter, an excellent guide) suggest two "meaty" paragraphs, one with a summary of your relevant background (including education), and one that "describes the value you can bring to the hiring organization" (Beatty, p. 45), in terms that reference specific, concrete positive results achieved from your work. This second paragraph comes first.
5. You close the letter by either indicating that you will wait to see if they contact you, or announce that you will follow-up. It makes sense to do the latter if you believe you are a very strong candidate. (Do not of course do so if the job announcement forbids it, as is often the case.)
6. Keep in mind that, just as most jobs are found through networking and not by applying in response to an advertisement of an opening, many jobs are not "filled" but created or adapted to fit what the company thinks the person they are hiring can best do for them. Your letter and resume answer the question: "What can I do for them?" This may turn out to differ from what you thought it would be.
In the interview, you will be able to help them find a place for you as you elaborate in more detail on the question of what you can do for them, and perhaps uniquely or uniquely well.