Compiling a résumé can feel like a daunting task. Just like essay writing, résumé creation works well as a process. Before worrying about the format of the résumé and where to place everything in a document, consider beginning by compiling an informal list of past and present work experience and education. Once you have a first draft, look at résumés in the field you are applying to, since every field has different standards and preferences. Remember: there are no one-size-fits all résumés. The key to constructing a polished résumé is tailoring your experience to the job to which you’re applying.

Writing Cover Letters

When reading cover letters, the key benchmark I use is simple: Do I get to know both the person and the professional? As we read a cover letter, we should have a sense that no other candidate could have written this particular document in this particular way. Hence, we respect and honor the individual.

In conversation, the term “cover letter” is used loosely to mean any professional letter that you write in an attempt to get a job, with the term “cover” denoting that the letter is usually a “cover piece” designed to introduce and accompany your resume. Thus, too many writers think of the cover letter as mere mechanical introductory fluff—disposable goods—when in fact it can be more important than your resume.

The best tip that I have heard on cover letter writing is that the letter is for the audience, not for you. Certainly you are selling yourself, but you do that best by molding your skills to what an employer needs and by knowing all that you can about your audience. This tells you that you should visit a company’s website, read the company literature, and have a specific person’s name and title to write to (you can always request this by phone or e-mail before you write). In sum, know what your audience is interested in and how you might fit into a company’s plans, not the other way around. Unless an employer instructs you otherwise, always include a cover letter with your resume as you apply for a job.

Tone: Making it Sound Good

  • The proper tone for the cover letter is one of an informed, straightforward, courteous, relaxed, literate writer.
  • Use “I” comfortably as a sentence subject, but avoid being too informal—overusing contractions or jargon could make you appear unprofessional.
  • Avoid being too cocky, aggressive, idealistic, or unrealistic; come off as mature, self-aware, and confident.

Appearance and Mechanics: Making it Look Good

  • Limit cover letters to one page, and type them using single-spaced or 1.5-spaced typing, with about one-inch margins or more on all sides of the page.
  • Skip lines between paragraphs.
  • Favor short paragraphs over long ones.
  • Use highly readable, tight, fonts, such as Helvetica or Times, and point sizes no larger than 12 and no smaller than 10.
  • Spell check, then proofread the hard copy carefully. Present the final version of the letter on durable white or off-white paper.
  • Mail your letter and resume flat in a large envelope rather than folded in a small one.  That way they will be easier to read and Xerox.

The Heading and Greeting: Following the Formats

  • At the top right or left corner of the page, type your address, your phone number, your e-mail address, and the date. Below that, at the left margin, put the name, title, and address of the person receiving the letter.
  • Skip a line or two, then type “Dear,” the person’s title (Dr., Ms., Mr.), name, and a colon.
  • If possible, find out the proper title, spelling, and gender of the receiver of the letter (all it usually takes is a phone call or a little web surfing). If you cannot be certain of the recipient’s gender, it is acceptable to use both the first and last name (i.e., “Dear Jan Morris”). If no name is available, use a logical title such as “Dear Human Resources Representative.” Greetings such as “Dear Sir or Madam” and “To Whom it May Concern” are old-fashioned—some even find them offensive—and should be avoided.

The Opening Paragraph: Showcasing Your Homework

  • Ideally, open with a reference to how you derived knowledge of the company or position.
  • If possible, provide context by some artful name dropping (“Ms. Judith Sowers, a Quality Control Specialist in your Meredith plant, informs me that you are seeking . . .”). Otherwise, simply be forthright about why you are writing the letter (“I am writing to you because . . .”).
  • Include particulars about the company’s activities and vision—prove that you have done your homework and know something about the company’s products and mission. Even quote a mission statement if you can.
  • Establish your own professional context by naming your major and school.

The Body Paragraphs: Selling your Skills

  • One paragraph may suffice here, but use more if necessary, especially if you have several different skills or experiences to sell. Stick to one topic per paragraph.
  • Through concrete examples, provide evidence of your work ethic and success—cite courses, co-ops, papers, projects, theses, or internships you have completed. Make your examples both quantitative and qualitative. Some writers use a bulleted list to introduce narrative examples of their skills. Some even provide URLs for their home pages or other web pages they helped to create.
  • Introduce your resume (“As the enclosed resume shows . . .”) and interpret it for your audience rather than simply repeat its details. Apply your education, work experience, and activities directly to the job, proving that you are a highly capable candidate.

The Closing Paragraph and Signoff: Exiting Gracefully

  • Keep your closing short and simple. Do not waste time. Be gracious and sincere, not falsely flattering nor pushy. Respectfully indicate your desire for further action, reminding the company of your availability.
  • Remembering that a company could try to call you over a break or during the summer, indicate relevant phone numbers right in the text. Provide your e-mail address as well.
  • Under the final paragraph, skip a line or two, then, directly under your heading address, type “Sincerely,” then handwrite and type your name beneath.
  • Indicate that a resume is included along with the letter by typing the word “Enclosure” at the left margin near the bottom of the page.

 

"Writing Cover Letters" was written by Joe Schall, The Pennsylvania State University, as a part of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' OER initiative and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

 

More Advanced, More Daring Résumés

Even though technical fields favor conventional and old-school rules, many students, particularly those with extensive experience or a diverse background, stretch the limits slightly—and smartly—when creating their résumés. Creative format and content choices on your résumé certainly are permitted, as long as they enhance rather than detract from utility and appearance.

Creative Format Choices

Although format must remain accessible so the eye can readily scan the résumé both horizontally and vertically, creative format choices such as the following can enhance résumé content:

  • Jazzing up the heading. If nowhere else, many writers give the heading of the résumé a bit more dazzle by using different fonts and sizes, perhaps even drawing a line or using an underscore beneath the heading that crosses the entire page.
  • Experimenting with tabs and margins. By experimenting with format options for the entire document or for portions, you can change margin settings in order to get more information onto a particular line or onto the entire page. Informal tables and the use of tabs also economize on space. Still, aesthetically, avoid using less than one-inch margins at the page’s edge or more than three different indentations within a single line.
  • Providing visual emphasis. Obviously, capitalization, boldface, underscore, and italics enhance both the appearance and hierarchy of information on the résumé. Beware, though, of graphic overkill, and keep in mind the intuitive hierarchy we employ as readers: Capitals and boldface typically represent important information, while underscore and italics imply subordinate material.
  • Using a résumé template. Résumé templates, which tend to offer a variety of fonts, preset fields for blocks of text, and even sample text itself, can certainly make a résumé look pretty. Keep in mind, however, that résumé templates do have constraints in format, they often put categories into a different order than they would be on an undergraduate résumé, and the resulting résumé may not be suited to the conventions of your field. If using a template, be sure you manage résumé content and appearance in a way that suits your circumstances and keeps you in charge of form.

Creating Special Sections                                     

One way to elevate your résumé is through difference. Special sections highlighting specific traits that employers seek can make your résumé rise above the crowd. Typical approaches writers take include the following:

  • Creating a special section based on specialized experience. Common special categories include “Leadership Experience,” “Military Service,” “Professional Qualifications,” “Communication Skills,” “Teaching Experience,” and “Research Experience.”
  • Taking a “skills” approach. Drawing from the model typically used in post-graduate professional résumés, some writers open the body of the résumé with a “Skills Summary” or similarly titled section, detailing their skills and how they acquired them.  A common strategy is to think both quantitatively (“Four years of experience programming computers using . . .”) and qualitatively (“Superior customer relations skills acquired through . . .”). The skills approach can go beyond simply one section, with other section titles including the word “skills” and work experience descriptions focusing on the skills acquired. The focus should be on outcomes and personal and professional attributes that would apply to any job performed, regardless of your field of study.

 


"More Advanced, More Daring Résumés" was written by Joe Schall, The Pennsylvania State University, as a part of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' OER initiative and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

 

Common Action Words Used to Describe Job Experience

Accepted Coordinated Experienced Made Recognized
Achieved Correlated Experimented Maintained Recommended
Adapted Counseled Explained Managed Reconciled
Adjusted Created   Mapped Recorded
Administered Critiqued Facilitated Measured Recruited
Advised   Financed Mediated Reorganized
Allocated Decorated Formed Modeled Reported
Analyzed Defined Formulated Moderated Researched
Appraised Delegated Founded Monitored Retrieved
Approved Demonstrated   Motivated Reviewed
Arranged Designed Generated   Revised
Assembled Detailed Governed Navigated  
Assessed Determined Grouped Negotiated Scheduled
Assigned Developed Guided Nominated Screened
Assisted Devised     Served
  Diagnosed Handled Observed Set forth
Balanced Digitized Headed Operated Shaped
Budgeted Directed   Ordered Simplified
Built Discovered Implemented Organized Solved
  Displayed Improved Originated Sorted
Calculated Dissected Improvised Overcame Sparked
Catalogued Distributed Increased   Strengthened
Checked Drafted Indexed Participated Supervise
Clarified   Informed Performed Supplemented
Classified Earned Initiated Persuaded Systematized
Collected Edited Innovated Pioneered  
Communicated Effected Inspected Planned Trained
Compared Empowered Inspired Predicted Transcribed
Compiled Encouraged Installed Prepared Transformed
Composed Enforced Integrated Presented Translated
Computed Engineered Interpolated Presided  
Conceived Enlarged Interviewed Prioritized Unified
Conducted Enlightened Investigated Produced Utilized
Confronted Enlisted   Programmed  
Constructed Established Justified Promoted Valuated
Consulted Estimated   Protected Validated
Contracted Evaluated Keynoted Provided Verified
Controlled Examined      
Converted Executed Led Quantified Weighed
Conveyed Expanded Logged Questioned Wrote