by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
OK, you’re graduating from college soon. Time to give your resume and cover letter a checkup to ensure they are as powerful as they can be. Powerful new grad resumes and cover letters have several things in common, so you can kill a number of birds with one stone with this checkup.
1. Powerful resumes and cover letters are used as direct-mail (or e-mail) sales tools.
It’s important to remember the purpose of a resume and cover letter. They don’t have to perform the task of getting you a job since very few people are hired sight unseen. All they have to do is get you an interview. So the primary mission of a resume and cover letter is arouse the reader’s interest and sell yourself enough so that you get asked to meet with the employer.
The lesson here is to keep your documents concise and to the point. You don’t have to include everything about yourself, and you should not include anything that’s not relevant. You don’t have write your autobiography. Now, granted, some college students have the opposite problem. Instead of limiting the information they list on their resumes, they worry about not having enough. Others are tempted to list every class they’ve taken, every award, and every extracurricular activity. Many of these items may be worthy resume components, but for every item you’re considering inserting into your resume, ask yourself, is it relevant to the kind of job I’m seeking?
Course work usually isn’t necessary unless it’s unusual or you have very little else to list in your resume. Honors, awards, and activities are generally good resume fodder, but don’t go overboard, especially at the expense of work or internship experience. I knew one new grad who had an impressive list of honors and awards. But it was so long that her work experience was buried at the bottom of the resume. Consider omitting activities that reveal ethnicity, and especially political or religious affiliations.
Let go of high-school activities and honors unless they are truly exceptional or demonstrate an early interest in your chosen career. Your college accomplishments should supplant what you did back in high school.
2. Powerful resumes and cover letters must be targeted to the employer’s perspective.
When constructing your resume and cover letter, put yourself in the mind-set of the employer. Ask not what the employer can do for you but what you can do for the employer. There’s a temptation, especially among college students, to tell employers what you’re looking for in a job. Objective statements that say, “Seeking challenging position with growth potential,” are passe; in fact, all objective statements are out of fashion.
Employers want to know what you can do for them, how you will benefit their companies, how you will impact their bottom lines. While they’re not totally oblivious to your career hopes and dreams, your aspirations are not their primary concern.
3. Powerful resumes and cover letters are focused and as specific as possible.
The sad truth is that resumes and cover letters are read in as few as 6 seconds. So you have only the briefest moment to catch the employer’s interest. The employer wants to know as quickly as possible: What do you want to do and what are you good at? He or she doesn’t have time to wade through lots of text to find out.
So how can you sharpen the focus of your resume and cover letter?
- Include a Professional Profile. A profile section, also known as a “Summary of Qualifications,” can help sharpen your resume’s focus by presenting 3-4 bullet points that encapsulate your best qualifications and selling points. It’s often a good idea to list relevant computer and foreign-language skills in this section instead of burying them at the bottom of your resume, as many job-seekers do.
Consider using our Resume Professional Profile/Qualifications Summary Worksheet.
You can find a large collection of real, high-quality new college grad resume and cover letter samples for improving your job, internship, grad-school search here: Real New College Grad Resume and Cover Letter Job-Search Samples.
- Tailor cover letters to specific jobs. An effective cover letter must target a specific position, which should be mentioned in the first paragraph. Don’t list several possible positions or say that you’re willing to consider any position. If you do, the employer will see you as unfocused or even desperate. Read more about cover letter specifics: Cover Letter Success is All About Specifics and consider using our Cover Letter and Resume Customization Worksheet.
- Specifically tailor your resume. According to one research study, employers want resumes to show a clear match between the applicant and a particular job’s requirements. A “general” resume that is not focused on a specific job’s requirements is seen as not competitive. Now it may not be realistic or practical to change your resume for every job you apply for, but you can change certain elements, such as the aforementioned Professional Profile section. Another alternative is to have more than one version of your resume. Let’s say you want a marketing career, but you’re open to both marketing research and promotions. You could craft a version of your resume for each niche. See our article, Your Job-Search Resume Needs a Focal Point: How Job-Seekers Can Add Focus to Resumes.
- Consider adding a graphic. This suggestion is pretty radical, and it’s not for everyone, but a very small, tasteful graphic on your resume and/or cover letter could sharpen your focus. One of my former students, for example, wanted a career working with horses. She placed a tiny horse graphic at the top of her resume. Her career focus was instantly apparent. Another student pursuing a law career used a tasteful scales of justice graphic; another interested in international business had a small world map graphic. Note that this technique is only for resumes seen by the human eye — in networking or career-fair situations, or after the resume has passed a screening through the employer’s Applicant Tracking Software and is viewed by people.
4. Powerful resumes and cover letters make the most of your college experience.
Too many college students miss the opportunity to exploit valuable experience on their resumes and cover letter because they overlook unpaid experience. Experience is experience. It doesn’t have to be paid. Anything you’ve done that has enabled you to develop skills that are relevant to the kind of job you seek is worth consideration for resume and cover letter mention. That’s especially true if you don’t have much paid experience. The key, as noted in #1, is relevance. Consider the following in evaluating what experience and skills you’ve gained that are relevant to what you want to do when you graduate:
- Summer jobs
- Campus jobs (work-study)
- Entrepreneurial/self-employed jobs
- Temporary work
- Volunteer work: school, church, club, not-for-profit organizations
- Research papers/projects
- Campus activity positions
- Fraternity/sorority/social club positions
- Extracurricular or sports leadership positions
And go ahead and list material from these areas under your Experience section. Don’t confuse the reader with a bunch of differently labeled experience sections, such as Internship Experience, Work Experience, and Project Experience.
For more about using this technique in cover letters, see Making the Most of Your College Experience in our Cover Letter Tutorial. See also our College Experience Worksheet for Resume Development.
5. Powerful resumes and cover letters portray your skills as transferable and applicable to what you want to do.
You may think what you’ve done is not relevant to your future career, but you can probably spin the experience so that it demonstrates the transferable and applicable skills that most employers want:
The value of transferable skills is a major reason I urge students to list sports in the Experience sections of their resumes — because athletics so often provide the teamwork, leadership experience, and competitive drive that employers seek.
For more about transferable skills, see Transferable Skills — a Vital Job-search Technique. For more about portrayal of transferable skills in cover letters, see Emphasizing your Transferable and Marketable Skills in our Cover Letter Tutorial. And see our Transferable Skills Worksheet for Resumes and Cover Letters.
6. Powerful resumes and cover letters focus on ACCOMPLISHMENTS, NOT job duties and responsibilities.
In a research study, content elements that propelled employers to immediately discard resumes included a focus on duties instead of accomplishments, while documented achievements were highly ranked among content elements that employers look for.
Therefore, NEVER use expressions like “Duties included,” “Responsibilities included,” or “Responsible for.” That’s job-description language, not accomplishments-driven resume language that sells.
Instead, emphasize the special things you did to set yourself apart and do the job better than anyone else.
Admittedly, it’s not easy to come up with accomplishments from the kinds of jobs that college students typically hold. But it’s important to:
- Start tracking your accomplishments NOW.
- Start HAVING accomplishments NOW!
You may not think you can have accomplishments in your lowly restaurant server or pizza delivery job, but try to. Ask your boss what you can do to improve. Strive to win any awards (such as Employee of the Month) that your employer offers. Find ways to go above and beyond your job description.
For more about accomplishments, see For Job-Hunting Success: Track and Leverage Your Accomplishments and our Accomplishments Worksheet.
7. Powerful resumes and cover letters use KEYWORDS and action verbs!
Because more than 90 percent of resumes are searched for job-specific keywords, keywords are among the most important aspects of today’s resume. Most employers rely on placing job-seeker resumes in keyword-searchable databases and using software to search those databases for specific keywords — usually nouns — that relate to job vacancies. Most Fortune 1000 companies, in fact, and many smaller companies now use these technologies.
The bottom line is that if you apply for a job with a company that searches databases for keywords, and your resume doesn’t have the keywords the company seeks for the person who fills that job, you are pretty much dead in the water.
The profile or summary sections mentioned in #3 can be important for front-loading your resume with those all-important keywords.
To read more about keywords, see our article, Tapping the Power of Keywords to Enhance Your Resume’s Effectiveness and our Resume Keywords Worksheet.
Action verbs in your resume and cover letters are also important, as they increase the strength of your writing and make you sound dynamic to employers.
Luckily, there is no lack of sources for lists of action verbs; you can find them all over the Web (including Quintessential Careers’ Job-Seeker Action Verbs) and in nearly every resume and cover-letter book.
Almost as important as using action verbs is avoiding weak verbs:
- Do. Try “conduct,” “perform,” or “orchestrate.”
- Forms of the verb “to be.” Instead of “was,” say “served,” “functioned,” “acted.”
- Work. Everyone works. Be more specific. Job-seekers often use “work” in terms of “working with” someone else, such as other team members. In that context, “collaborate(d)” is often a good substitute.
- Received. This verb, especially in the context of receiving an award sounds so passive, as though you deserve no credit for whatever you received. Always say you “earned” an award or honor rather than “received” it.
8. Powerful resumes and cover letters contain NO typos or misspellings.
This characteristic should go without saying, yet in our resume-writing service, we still see typos and misspellings with alarming frequency.
Remember that it’s not enough to spell-check your documents because you may have used a perfectly spelled word — but it wasn’t the word you wanted. For example, a word frequently seen on resumes and cover letter is “possess,” but some job-seekers accidentally spell it “posses,” which is the plural of “posse.”
Proofread your resume and cover letter. Put them down for a few hours, come back, and proofread again. Then get a friend or family member with a good eye to proof them for you.
9. Powerful resumes and cover letters are reader-friendly.
Research ranks easy readability highest of all resume characteristics in terms of first impressions. The employers surveyed ranked use of bullets second highest.
Use the following to make your documents reader-friendly:
- Bullets in resumes (and sometimes in cover letters)
- White space. Make sure your documents have reasonable margins. In my opinion, the default margins in Microsoft Word are wider than they need to be (1.25″ on the left and right and 1″ at the top and bottom). Margins can be as narrow as .75″ if needed. My partner uses the “thumb test.” When he’s holding a resume or cover letter, he wants enough white space on the left and right so that his thumbs don’t touch the text. Of course, he has big thumbs, so 1″ left and right margins suit him better. Also make sure you have a line of space between all the jobs listed on your resume and between all resume sections. For cover letters, equalize the white space at the top and bottom of the letter so that it is centered vertically on the page.
- Type large enough to read (no smaller than 10.5 point).