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How Can I Make My Resume and Cover Letter Better?

This page will give you the tips and tricks you need to write a job-winning resume and cover letter.

Tips for Resumes and Cover Letters

Why do we need a resume and a cover letter?  What purpose do they have in the job search?  Are they important?  How much time should I spend on them?  These are all very good questions and so let's get to work addressing them.

The purpose of a resume and cover letter is to land you an interview.  They work as an introduction to your professional qualifications and experience.  They do not work as a personal introduction.  In fact, personal information about you is not considered in a job search and asking job hunters for some types of personal information is actually illegal.  

How important are resumes and cover letters?  For American employers, they are critically important!  American employers generally move very fast when they hire people.  Most jobs in America are given after a quick series of resume matching and interviewing.  You may get a job with only the right resume and a 30-minute interview.  For this reason, the resume and cover letter will be judged very carefully and your quality and fit for the job be judged immediately by your resume and cover letter.  This point is critical to understand: to have an equal chance against other qualified applicants, you must have a perfect resume and cover letter.  ANY mistake in format, mechanics, organization, or logic will cause your resume to look uneducated, careless, and of low quality.  In other words, you are being immediately judged by the beauty, clarity, impression, and style of your resume and cover letter.  Make sure you get it perfect!

Getting Started
Okay, let's get started with the writing.  Find yourself the right paper for the task.  This paper must be 8.5 inches by 11 inches (standard American letter).  Also, your resume needs to have a certain look and feel right from the start.  Don't use regular copy paper which tends to be thin.  Use a high-quality resume paper.  Some of these even have "watermarks" when you hold them up to the light.  This is a sign of quality and it shows the employer that you take your correspondence seriously.  Look for those papers that say "cotton bond" and "20Lbs".  Those are the truly, high quality papers.  Choose a conservative color like plain white, ivory, or tan.  A little color is okay, but nothing bright like sky blue, pink, or yellow.  Make sure you have fresh ink in your printer and choose a conservative font like Times Roman or Arial in 10-12 points for a professional look.

Resume Styles
There are actually 3 styles of resume writing.  They are chronological, functional, and creative.  Chronological, or organized by time, is the only one we are interested in here.  The other 2 are more fitting to artistic and non-traditional careers that allow more freedom of expression.  These styles can do a lot of harm to your job hunting if you are not in a such a career however.  For NPU students, we will focus on the chronological resume style as it is considered the most professional and popular resume format.

The Components of a Resume
Your professional resume must include 4 parts: identifying information (who you are), objective (what you want), experience (what you know), education (what you've studied).  Please note that what you know and what you've studied are 2 very different things.  In Silicon Valley today, you will find that your work experience carries a great degree of power, and often your education does not.  A company may decide to hire a person with only 2 years of community college work and 5 years of experience over a Stanford graduate with no experience, simply because of the value that they put on the work experience.  Keep this in mind when writing your resume and cover letter.  It's not the name of your school as much as what you can DO!

1) Identifying Information
The first bit of information you put on your resume will be your name, address, phone number, and email.  You can also put an office number if appropriate.  Make sure NOT to write in the margin (sides of paper).  Leave about 1 inch on all sides, top and bottom, to give your paper a framed look.  If you do write in the margin, you may as well forget about any chance to get that job.  Writing in the margins is one of the biggest mistakes a person can make and for Americans it is one of the ugliest mistakes.  Don't do it!

2) Objective
The objective is what you seek.  For example, "Objective: Lead Project Manager".  Try to keep the objective specific to a job area, but not too specific in case there are other jobs available as well.  For instance, if they have 3 jobs in the engineering department for "Lead Software Engineer", "Software Engineer - I", and "Software Engineer-II", then give yourself a chance at all 3 jobs by putting as your objective just "Software Engineer".  The important thing about the objective is just that it matches one of the job titles that their company currently has available.  If you choose to, you may also use a Summary.  This is like an objective but it has more information about your objective and why you fit the job.  Use a summary only if you have at least 5 years of experience because summaries are generally an executive tool to advertise in-depth experience.  If you do not have that background and experience, then a summary could sound a bit "too strong" for the job and for your qualifications.

3) Experience
You may choose to put your work experience before your education, or you can put your education first.  If you feel that your experience will be valued more than your education, or you feel that your education may not be as high or as appropriate as the competition's, then put your experience first.  Put your most recent job first, and work backwards.  Be sure not to leave to many "gaps" in time.  If you did not work for several years, you should have a reason listed.  Include the name and address (just city, state, country) of the employer, and include the dates that you worked there.  Be specific and include the month and year.  Next, include your job title for each job and write a concise description of that job (use the past tense grammar accept for the current job).  Don't be shy about your job description.  Don't be arrogant.  Be proud of your accomplishments and show your successes.  Use Action Words to convey a positive, results-driven worker. 

4) Education
List all your colleges and universities.  Do not include High Schools as Americans feel that this is not relevant education.  Include your school's name and location, the dates you attended, and your degrees from that school.  Include any honors you have received such as "Phi Beta Kappa", "Summa Cum Laude", or "Magna Cum Laude".  If your G.P.A. was very high, it's okay to list these as well.  If it was below 3.0, then it's better to leave it out.

Other information
There are many things that you should NOT include on your resume.  Never send a photo (unless you are applying for a modeling or acting job of course).  Never include your age, marital status, number of kids, reasons for leaving jobs, past salaries, health information, or any information about your ethnicity and race.  An employer may ask you if you can legally take a job in the U.S., and they also may ask about your language abilities.  You MAY put on your resume any foreign languages you speak, professional memberships and associations, awards, degrees, and honors, publications, licenses, titles, military service, security clearances, and even hobbies if they relate to the job.  Keep this extra information limited though, because it may work against you.  Most employers will have already decided if you are worth an interview based on education, experience, and the quality of your writing.

Some employers will want to talk about your qualifications with past employers, teachers, or friends.  These "references", however, should not be listed by name and telephone number on the resume, as that information is personal to the person who is your reference.  A more acceptable practice is to put on the bottom of your resume, references available upon request. When, and if, the employer requests the reference, then you may provide contact information.

Writing the Cover Letter                                                Top Ten Cover Letter "Don'ts"
The cover letter is where the employer gets a first look at your communicative style.  Since the resume is more a table format of information, it is actually less revealing about how you communicate.  Your communication skills can be judged more directly by the cover letter you write.  A cover letter is like a dialogue.  It should have a conversational tone, but also be professional, direct, concise, and written with a clear business format and organization.  Follow the same conventions for margins that you did with your resume (1" margins) and be sure to write your cover letter on high-quality, 8.5 x 11inch paper.  There are 2 different styles for formatting, and both are acceptable.  For the sake of confusion, I will teach just the more popular one.  Put your name and address in the upper right corner (but not in the margin) and the employer's name and address one space below it, and to the left margin.  You may also include a date in the upper left corner at the margin.  Next, skip down 2 or 3 lines and put the greeting.  The greeting should be all capitals and it is always better to use the person's name if you know it (more friendly).  Here are some examples of greetings to choose from:

  • Dear Mr. (Ms., Mrs.) (last name);
  • Dear Sir or Madam:
  • To Whom It May Concern,

You may choose to end the greeting with either a comma ( , ), a colon ( : ), or a semicolon ( ; ), but you can not use a period ( . ).  Next, skip a space and use block writing for the "body" of the letter.  Block writing means that you do not indent the first sentence of a paragraph.  Instead, the first sentence begins on the left margin.  When there is another paragraph, then a space is left between the paragraphs.  

The Body
In the body, your first paragraph should say very clearly and concisely what your objective is.  This is like the main idea of an essay and it should show that you are confident about your abilities to pursue this kind of work and are most interested in the position being offered.  This first paragraph may paraphrase your objective from your resume and give the employer a very clear understanding that you want that job.  In the next paragraph or paragraphs, you should begin a determined persuasive argument that you are the perfect fit for that job.  Again, you may use your resume for details and explain more about your qualifications, experience, and education as it relates to this job.  Action Words will again be your best friends here.  In the conclusion paragraph, thank the employer for the opportunity and leave him with the feeling that this is the right fit.  How to leave him with that feeling will depend a lot on your research about that job, the company, their needs, and their corporate culture.  Let him know that you are standing by to discuss this fit further and would most welcome a call.

The Closing
Close your letter politely and cordially with one of the following closings:

  • Sincerely,
  • Sincerely Yours,
  • Respectfully,
  • Respectfully Yours,

There are other closings, but I would be careful since not all of them are appropriate to the occasion.  For example, "Best Wishes" sounds too much like "goodbye".  "Regards" sounds a little bit informal for this occasion.  "God Bless You", well, what if they are not a practicing Christian?  Stay safe and use one of the above closings to be certain of the right effect.

That's about it.  Now you just need to tailor the cover letter and resume for the individual job description.  Do your research and try to market yourself as the answer to their hiring problems and you should have a good chance at an interview.  Once you get an interview, then you're really ready to get serious.  Check out the Interviewing pages for more information.  GOOD LUCK!


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Last modified: December 20, 2003