Writing Well

Onward and Upward: Resumés and Cover Letters

A resumé is a persuasive summary of your qualifications for employment. It's designed to entice an employer into calling you for an interview. Of course, when they see your smiling face, they'll give you the job.

A resumé is always accompanied by a cover letter. They're a team, like Ben and Jerry or spaghetti and meatballs. Effective resumés and cover letters are neat and accurate, free from any writing errors, and usually no more than one page long.

As you write your resumé, emphasize the things you've done that are most relevant to the position for which you are applying and show how you are superior to other candidates. Be realistic, use the layout to emphasize key points, and relate your experience to the job you want.

Word Watch

A resumé is a written presentation of your educational background, job experience, and related talents and abilities. A cover letter is the letter that accompanies a resumé when you apply for a job.

Here are the facts you must include:

  • Name, address, phone number, and e-mail address (if you have one)
  • Education
  • Relevant experience
Writer's Block

Questions about your age, marital status, race, sex, and health are illegal. If you include any of this information, large companies will delete it from your resumé so they cannot be accused of discriminating. Include height information only if the job has a minimum height requirement.

Here are the facts you can include:

  • Career objective line to zero in on the position you want. Think of this as a “position wanted” ad for yourself. It's placed right after the heading. For an executive moving up, however, the career objective is usually omitted, since it's obvious where you're trying to go.
  • Previous and current employment.
  • Promotions.
  • Foreign languages and computer language proficiency.
  • Volunteer positions held.
  • Education and course work.
  • Honors and achievements.
  • References.

You're expected to put your accomplishments in the best possible light, but always tell the truth. Background checks are a hot topic in personnel circles today. Experts say a decade of litigation has nervous employers turning more and more to professional background checkers, who report that caseloads are growing at 30 percent a year. Investigators find discrepancies or outright lies in about one third of the resumés they check. Yours won't be among them.

An effective cover letter and resumé aren't like sweat pants: One size doesn't fit all. A successful cover letter and resumé are tailored to suit the employer's needs and your qualifications as closely as possible. For that reason, savvy people have several different versions of their resumé, depending on the specific job for which they are applying. There are two basic types of resumés, the work history resumé and the functional (skills) resumé. Here's each type of resumé in detail:

Work History Resumé

Word Watch

A Curriculum Vitae (CV) is the Goodyear Blimp of resumés: It contains every relevant thing you've ever done. Scholars use CVs instead of resumés to include all their publications, conferences, and professional affiliations. My CV is 22 pages long.

The work history resumé summarizes your accomplishments in reverse chronological order (starting with the most recent accomplishments and working backward). It stresses academic degrees, job titles, and dates. Use a work history resumé when …

  • Your education and experience are logical preparation for the job you want.
  • You have an impressive education or job history.

Academics, such as scientists and scholars, create a work history resumé that contains every relevant accomplishment, not just the high points. This type of resumé, called a curriculum vitae (CV), can run more than 10 pages.

Functional (Skills) Resumé

A functional resumé emphasizes your skills. Use this type of resumé when …

  • Your education and experience are not the usual preparation for the job you want.
  • You lack an impressive education or job history.
  • Arranging your recent work history in reverse chronological order would create the wrong impression (perhaps because you have been demoted, fired, or hopped from job to job).

Cover Letters

Like a resumé, the purpose of a cover letter is to get an interview. Although a resumé and a cover letter do overlap in certain areas, there are three crucial differences:

  • A cover letter is adapted to the needs of a particular organization; a resumé is usually adapted to a position.
  • A cover letter shows how your qualifications can help the organization meet its needs; a resumé summarizes all your relevant qualifications.
  • A cover letter uses complete sentences and paragraphs; a resumé uses short phrases.
Writer's Block

If you decide to drop some names in your cover letter, only use the names of people who will speak well of you. Be sure to get prior permission from the person to mention his or her name.

Tailor each cover letter to the specific company or organization. If you can substitute another inside address and salutation and send out the letter without any further changes, it isn't specific enough. Here's what to include:

  1. The major requirements for the job.
  2. Facts and examples that show how you can do the job.
  3. Details that prove your knowledge of the company.
  4. Qualities that employers seek: the ability to read and write well, think critically, speak effectively, and get along with others.

Some people find it difficult to write effective cover letters because they don't want to sing their own praises. My advice? Sing away. Good work rarely speaks for itself—it usually needs a microphone to be heard. Studies have shown that successful executives spend about half of their time on their job … and the other half on self-promotion and office politics.

To increase your chances for success …

  1. Do your homework. Take the time to know the company or organization you're contacting.
  2. Know thyself. Be aware of what you have to offer. Analyze your strengths and weaknesses. Be prepared to show the employer that you can do the job—and do it well.
  3. Be real. Focus on your readers' needs, not yours. Make your qualifications clear and emphasize how you can use them to help their organization.
  4. Get a name. Call the company and find out the name and title of the person to whom to address your letter. Addressing a letter to an individual shows initiative and resourcefulness. It also helps make sure your letter lands on the right desk. (It can also help make sure the recipient keeps his or her mouth shut that you're looking for a different job!)
  5. Get it right. Your letter will end up in the circular file if it contains writing errors or mistakes about the job or company. Have a trusted friend review your resumé. Be sure to pick someone who is attentive to details, can effectively critique your writing, and will give an honest and objective opinion. Seriously consider the advice. Get a third and fourth opinion if you can.
  6. Be classy and professional. Make your resumé look as good as you are, so laser-print it on plain, white paper. Typing and dot matrix printing can look cheesy.

I can't overestimate the impact a professional, individually tailored cover letter can create on prospective employers. It shows that you're a member of the inner circle: an intelligent, competent individual. Writing a brilliant cover letter can help you convince employers that you're someone worth hiring.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.