Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Resumes, Cover Letters, and Interviews . . . Oh My!

I've had lots to say on the subject of interviews, but not much on writing resumes and cover letters.  That is, not until now.  After taking this fantastic webinar presented by LLAMA (Library Leadership & Management Association) and taught by Sharon Holderman, I finally have the confidence to share with you some crucial information about writing your resume and cover letter.  I strongly suggest that you view this webinar in its entirety but, if that's not possible, I have summarized the highlights for you here:

It shouldn't surprise you that assumptions are made about you based on what you say in your cover letter and resume.  As a result, it's important to package yourself nicely using these two documents.  Whether you have never written a cover letter or would like to just freshen up your resume, it's important to remember that these career summations should be professional in nature, use formal language, and should describe the work you have done using concrete language instead of abstract concepts.  Holderman describes this language as "Show, Don't Tell," meaning that it is better to write about specific accomplishments rather than listing vague job responsibilities.  Using the "Show, Don't Tell" method, your cover letter and resume should improve by leaps and bounds.

The important thing to remember about the cover letter is that it is supplementary information to the resume, which is the meat of the application.  The cover letter is meant to explain your interest in the position and to highlight several accomplishments, making your case as to why you are an outstanding candidate.  Using the "Show, Don't Tell" method, you will give specific examples of your work achievements and make connections between work you've done in previous jobs to the job description of the position you are applying for.  For example, it does no good to tell a potential employer that you were a staff trainer.  Instead, you want to show that potential employer exactly what it meant to be a staff trainer. Compare these two sentences:

  • I have 7 years experience as a staff trainer.
  • As a trainer for staff in branch of 20 employees, I successfully developed and executed training programs covering topics such as customer service and technology.
There is a sizable difference between these two sentences and it should be obvious which one an employer will prefer.  Additionally, the latter of the two sentences is more specific and will help a future employer draw similarities between your past position and this one.

Of course, being specific to the job description means writing a different cover letter for each job you apply.  While this can be a little time consuming, it puts you ahead of many candidates who write generic cover letters that could be mass produced for multiple jobs.  And, it should go without saying, never send a cover letter addressed to the wrong person or organization!  That is a sure fire way to get yourself put in the "No" pile.

The most important content of your application can be found in the resume.  Still using the "Show, Don't Tell" method, here are a few resume FAQs (view the webinar for a more in-depth coverage:)
  1. Should my resume be 1 page or more? You should have quality content in your resume.  If that means you only have one page worth of stuff to say about yourself, then 1 page is fine.  If you go past 1 page, however, all subsequent pages should be filled to maintain an appropriate white/black space ratio.  No resume should be 1 1/2 pages.
  2. In what order should I place everything?  There is no cut and dry answer to this question because it varies depending on the importance you place on different subject areas.  The top of your resume is prime real estate, so put the things you want to stand out toward the top.  This means deleting that "objective" section at the top of your resume.
  3. Is it okay to use color and/or graphics on my resume? We all want our resumes to stand out, but you definitely don't want it to stand out for the wrong reasons.  Depending on how you use the color and/or graphics, the result could be hit or miss.  Whatever you use, your resume should look good if printed in black and white.
  4. Should I include references? Whether you include references or not does not necessarily matter but placing the phrase "references available upon request" is a no-no.  If Human Resources wants references they are going to get them - and not because you told them to ask.  It is typical to include 3-4 references who can speak on behalf of your work history.  This means that family members, unless they have employed you, are not a good option for references.
Now that you've got your resume and cover letter together, you are ready to apply for jobs.  Unfortunately, the good old days of mailing in your documents are over and online application systems reign supreme.  Whether you love them or hate them, application systems certainly make the job of Human Resources a little easier by allowing the online system to sort through applications based on minimum qualifications and level out the playing field for candidates.  For best results, be sure that everything on the application and resume match and never write "see resume" in an application field.   While an application may seem tedious and redundant to your resume, most organizations require it and consider it to be as much a part of the initial impression as the resume and cover letter.  The good thing about application systems, however, is that you only need to fill the information in once and the system will remember you for subsequent positions you may apply for.

Once you've applied and an interview is scheduled, be sure to brush up on those skills and land the dream job you want!

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