Applying for a job gets more competitive every year. People entering the job market for the first time are often so overwhelmed with the whole process that they make common mistakes when writing their resumes and cover letters. Worse, hiring managers are often just as overwhelmed as applicants, which means that they're just looking for reasons to toss out resumes so that they can sort the applicants as quickly and productively as possible. These tips for resumes and cover letters explain how to increase the chances that your resume makes it past that brutal first pass, gets taken seriously, and helps you advance to the interview stage.
Continue Reading Below
What Are Cover Letters and Resumes?
It sounds like an obvious question, but it's worth taking a step back to think about it for a moment. Resumes and cover letters aren't just meaningless paperwork hoops you have to jump through; at least, good ones aren't. Resumes and cover letters are your primary job application and personal marketing materials. They don't get you the job, but they show that you are qualified for an interview. They may be accompanied by other materials, too, such as a formal application, a portfolio, or other work samples; but, at their base, they should convince prospective employers that you're worth meeting.
Your Cover Letter
Your cover letters, sometimes called a covering letter, is the formal introduction to you and your job application. Think of it like an email introducing yourself that pulls the hiring manager in to want to know more about you. A cover letter briefly summarizes:
- who you are,
- why you're interested in the position,
- what makes you qualified for the job, and
- why they should hire you.
A great cover letter explicitly shows why and how you're one of the top candidates for the position. It isn't an exhaustive explanation of every single one of your achievements. It should satisfy the hiring team's questions about whether you're qualified and leave them interested to learn more about you.
Your resume, also called a curriculum vitae or CV, is a more formal summary of you as a candidate, typically written with bullet points and fragments. The purpose of a resume is to highlight your most applicable and impressive experiences that are relevant to the open position. It is not a complete history of every job and responsibility you've ever had.
How Do Employers Use Your Materials?
To write a great cover letter and resume, you have to understand how the employer uses them.
The number one thing to know is that the hiring committee reads your cover letter and resume more than once and in different ways. The first time, they skim it looking for keywords. Skimming can be done by a human being or an automated system. Applicant tracking systems can scan your resume looking for keywords to determine whether you meet the requirements for the position. If you don't, you could be rejected on the spot. In other words, not only must you have the qualifications, but your cover letter and resume have to also show them in a way that a computer can read or a person will pick up when skimming.
The second time a hiring manager or committee reads your materials, they might pay attention to what you've written and how you've phrased it. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency, and the degree of formality count. The right level of formality depends on the industry and company culture. Or, they might still be skimming, depending on how busy they are.
So, plan for people to read closely in case they do, but set yourself up for success if they skim. Use clear headings, succinct bullet points, and short declarative statements. You're not writing a novel. You're creating documents that qualify you for an interview.
Tips for Resumes and Cover Letters
These tips will increase your chances that someone sees your resume and cover letter and that you get an interview.
1. Follow the Standards of Your Industry
If any advice about resumes and cover letters violates the customs of your industry, throw it away. For example, you'll hear that it's perfectly acceptable to change the job titles you've held if changing them makes them more accurate and understandable. However, that is not at all the case for people who work for the US federal government or the military. They have precise job titles and rankings that they cannot alter. If you're unsure, ask a mentor or experienced people in your industry.
2. Keep It Short
A resume is one page. A cover letter is a few short paragraphs. Three paragraphs, or around 400 words, is ideal. Four paragraphs might work, but remember that your reader is busy! They want to know do you qualify for an interview or not. Tell them that, and show them how. Get to the point. The next tip has some explicit guidance on how to do it.
3. Use Keywords
Given the rule of thumb that you have one page for a resume and three paragraphs for a cover letter, every word must count. Here's a huge secret about job applications: They come with a cheat sheet. The cheat sheet is the job description. It gives you all the keywords you need.
Here's how to identify keywords and use them to write your resume and cover letter.
1. Create a text document into which you copy and paste the job description.
2. Comb through the job description and look for required skills and attributes of the ideal candidate. Put these words in bold.
3. Identify all the bolded words that truly apply to you and your experiences (no fudging the truth here). Highlight them.
4. Write a few short, declarative, and accurate statements that use those keywords to describe your qualities, talents, and past work. For example, "I have a bachelor of arts in computer science." "I have one year of experience working as a design intern."
These statements become the foundation of your cover letter. From there, write a concise introduction and conclusion (they might also use some of your sentences from step four), and smooth out the transitions between the statements. If you ever struggle to write a transition, just start a new paragraph.
Keep the cover letter short, about 400 words. Get to the point, hit the key ideas, show that you qualify, and conclude quickly. Don't worry about writing anything unique in your conclusion. Use something standard: "I appreciate your time and hope we can discuss the opportunity more in an interview. Sincerely,..."
For the resume, focus again on including the words you highlighted. Use them throughout your resume. If the job description repeats certain words, make sure they also appear more than once in your materials.
4. Show Passion
Cover letters and resumes qualify you for an interview, but dozens of other candidates might also qualify. What can you do to separate your application from others?
Showing passion for the company, industry, or position certainly helps, and you can do it in the cover letter. How do you squeeze that in when you're already maximizing every word to prove that you're an eligible candidate?
Your opening line may be the single best place to express passion. In one sentence, can you say something about yourself and why you want the job? Be careful, as there's a fine line between passion and fandom, and a fan doesn't necessarily make a great employee. It's also really hard to not sound hokey. Another option is to put a section on your resume that shows an independent pursuit of something related to the job, such as recreational classes or personal projects.
5. Use Clear Language
Whether an automated system or a human being scans your resume, the language pops when it's clear and universally understood. It's okay to take a job title that's unclear (such as "lead marketing coordinator") and turn it into one that's more universally understood (like "marketing manager").
Resume writing can feel repetitive, especially in the verbs you use for bullet points. Change them up when it makes sense, but don't worry too much about repeating verbs. The substance is more important.
6. Emphasize Relevant Information
You are a whole person with many talents and experiences. The hiring team doesn't need to know about them all when they review your resume and cover letter, however. They only want to know about the ones that show you're qualified for the job.
Let's say you had a job where you were the writer, editor, and producer of content. Now, you're applying for jobs as an editor. On your resume, the bullet points about your previous job should emphasize the editing portion of that job. Yes, you did write and produce content, but that's not what's most relevant. A resume doesn't need to tell what you spent the most time on at a job or what was important to the previous employer. It needs to show what experiences you have that are relevant to the new potential employer.
So focus on the parts that are relevant to the new job. You can certainly add a bullet point about other skills and experiences you have from the previous position, as long as the relevant parts appear more prominently.
7. Don't Use Images
Do not use images on your resume or cover letter, unless it's appropriate for your industry or the country where you're applying for a job. In some countries, it's standard to put a passport-style photo of yourself on a resume. In the US, however, doing so can get you rejected before anyone even looks at your qualifications. Applicant tracking systems can be set up to automatically reject applications that contain images. It's for a good reason.
A headshot can show your gender expression, age, race, and other traits about you that employers can use to discriminate against you. In other words, it opens them up to a potential lawsuit. If they have a policy that rejects applications containing images, then the problem never comes up.
Exceptions apply, of course. If the job requires you to be on camera, for example, the employer might ask for a headshot or link to a reel showing clips of your on-camera experience. Even then, only send the materials they request. Don't volunteer anything extra.
8. Use Simple Formatting
Applicant-tracking systems use automated processes to scan your resume. In addition to looking for keywords, they've been trained to read headers, job titles, dates, and bullet points. Robots don't like background images, creative formatting, tables, and so forth. Format your resume plainly and use no more than three font styles.
For creative fields such as graphic design, however, you will probably want to ignore this advice.
9. Don't Rush to Hit Send
This next piece of advice—don't rush to hit Send—makes me cringe because I've violated it so often, always regrettably. More times than I care to remember, I was so eager to apply for a job that I sent in my application as fast as possible, only later to realize my resume had a typo, or my cover letter had a painfully verbose paragraph. There's always something I wish I had done differently.
Many job listings have a submission deadline. If the deadline isn't today, you gain nothing by sending the application early. Hiring teams don't look more favorably on applicants who submitted earlier than others. Some advice even has it that you're better off waiting until closer to the deadline, and that applying too early may make you look desperate and hurt your chances.
Job listings that don't have a submission deadline typically stay advertised for a minimum of two weeks, though six or eight weeks is probably more common. The point is, you can almost always hold off hitting Send, and you should.
Set your application and materials aside for a day. Let them simmer in your mind. Perhaps you'll realize there's something you want to change. If nothing else, it gives you another shot at proofreading your resume and cover letter with fresh eyes, or asking someone else for help with it. If there's no one you trust to take a look, you could use software like to Grammarly to vet your documents.
10. There's No Such Thing as 'One' Resume
Make a new resume and cover letter for every single job application. No successful job candidate has a resume. Specially tailor each one for each job opening. Assuming that you make it past the skimming stage of the resume evaluation stage, most hiring managers will appreciate documents that show that show that you are actually interested in the position they are trying to fill, not just any job.
Start with a resume template. Create a copy for every job application, and customize it from there. Label them in a way that gives you information about the position and employer.
When you send your resume, cover letter, and anything else the employer requests, pay attention to the file formats they request. If they don't specify, send PDFs.
Optimized to Qualify
As competitive as the job market is, hiring remains a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming process for employers. Employers are motivated to find good candidates and fill open positions. You can help them by making your cover letter and resume line up with what they want to see (as long as you're not stretching the truth to do so). The right candidates can be hard to find, but it's easier when an optimized resume and cover letter stand out from the competition.