Writing Winning Resumes and Cover Letters
It’s the foot in the door moment. The opportunity to establish a preconception of who you are and what you do for a potential new employer. Why, then, are so many cover letters and resumes well below par? As specialist recruiters, we see the whole spectrum, from the glittering to the use-as-scrap-paper. So, to help you write a resume and cover letter that gets you the interview, we’ve compiled a quick list of our top tips.
Right out of the gates, a cover letter is NOT a resume. A cover letter is an introduction of your resume and your appropriateness to the role, addressed to a specific person. Retyping an abridged resume does not make for an appealing read as a cover letter!
Dear Miring Hanager
The first key point is to address the right person with the right spelling, and personalise it if possible. This might seem obvious, but around 50% of cover letters we have seen have had the wrong address. 50%!! If there is a way to immediately discredit your intellect and attention to detail, it’s getting the first thing a hiring manager or interviewer will see embarrassingly incorrect. So if you use a template for a cover letter, change the address and all the relevant position details before you send it out.
Brevity is the soul of wit
Unless the organisation has specific requirements for a cover letter (addressing certain questions or stipulating length), it’s best to keep it brief and less than a page. A clean, one page cover letter is immediately more appealing than a wall of text, and hiring managers are looking for a quick indication of fit for a position, not your hot take on War and Peace. Save that for the blog.
Short, but specific
Content wise, it’s smart to pull out a couple of the key selection criteria from the position description and write a few short sentences on how your experience maps neatly to those criteria. Use a specific example of your experience to illustrate a general point.
You do you (within reason)
Finally, feel free to inject your personality. This is an opportunity for someone to get a snapshot feel of who you are, and an honest representation is better than something obsessively sanitised to the point of blandness. Be professional, of course, but think about how who you are as a person could give the letter a unique twist.
At a fundamental level, the most important thing to think about when writing your resume is the context of the person reading it. Context is critical – it’s how this whole time you knew resume means resumé and not resume, you know? Does a hiring manager or HR person at this organisation know about your previous role and organisation? What information does the person reading this need to make a good judgement about you?
Take the time, once
The reason that a lot of resumes aren’t terrific reads is because they are a major pain in the ass to do. We get it! That said, if you bite the bullet and do a really good job of it once, successive iterations are easy and only require small edits to keep your resume looking superb.
English is a heck of a language, which is why it’s worth the time to run a spell check over your work so that a person applying for a CEO role doesn’t look like they lack the smarts, discipline or attention to detail to get they’re, their and there right. Failing that, get your partner, children or barista to read it, but external eyes are always handy to pick up any little grammar snafus you may have missed. It’s easy to get snowblind with your own work.
Formatting is sexy
When you think about who is going to be reading your resume and what they want to see, in almost every instance that person doesn’t want to read 20 pages of it, so keep it compact. Two to three pages is a maximum as a guide for what’s appropriate.
But content is sexiest
In your heading, include your name and a specific role/area that you’re a specialist in. Pro tip, map that to the position description for the role you’re applying for! Generally it’s valuable to attach a clear, hi-res headshot to establish a connection and build some identity with your audience, but there are instances in which this may not be appropriate. Reach out to your recruitment consultant if you have any questions about the advisability of including a photo.
In terms of general structure, on your first page it’s good to open with a career snapshot of major successes you’ve enjoyed in recent roles. Rather than just listing a series of roles at places you’ve worked, give an insight into how your work enabled that organisation to successfully meet its goals.
To really make this impactive, research the key selection criteria from the position description and illustrate how specific actions you’ve taken in roles in the past are indicative of your ability to meet those criteria. Simply saying ‘a proven track record in delivering strong outcomes’ is, firstly, not very good writing, but secondly is meaningless because there is no specificity supporting the statement. Everything you include needs to keep tying your work to the success of an outcome for past organisations to consistently provide an appealing context for your audience.
Your second page is where you can go into some wider detail listing previous skills, education and prior roles. It’s good to have a brief overview of any key qualifications, skills and education to verify your capacity, but these shouldn’t be the highlight of the document as the priority is to establish a behavioural and values fit to the organisation. The information in this section should stay relevant to the position you are applying for, too. Your time at the local coffee shop in 1998 might have been formative, but probably isn’t relevant to the six figure marketing role you’re applying for.
Sizzle to go with the steak
While content is critical, don’t underestimate the value of a bit of design. We know that most people aren’t design savvy, but a few quick adjustments and a bit of colour and add some sizzle to your steak. Canva is a terrific free and easy to use option to brighten up your resume, and there are a whole stack of templates online to use as inspiration. A text heavy but colour/design free word document can be a bit depressing, even if the content is superb.
If you have any questions about how to make your resume or cover letter stand out for that next interview, reach out and we’d love to help. Otherwise, if you’re considering changing roles, be sure to check out our guides on presenting well to the market and getting interview ready!