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Employment Documents

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Getting a job is hard work. Higher than normal unemployment and significant increases in the number of college graduates mean that even well-qualified applicants may find it challenging to land the position they want. This chapter endeavors to help you set yourself apart – in a positive way – by improving the one part of the job search you can control: your application materials.

The sections that follow will help you create and improve your job materials by connecting information gleaned from job ads and corporate websites to experience you already have so that you can position yourself as uniquely qualified for the position you want.

On Wooing Your Audience (Or Not)

Imagine for a moment that you’re in the market for a new significant other. Well, good news: your friend, Imma MutualFriend, claims that she knows your perfect match and tells you all about this person. From what you’re told about this match, you’re interested too. Imma promises to connect you two soon.

Flash forward, and the time comes for you to meet this supposed match. At a party, Imma points you in their direction. With the goal of wooing this person with all of your wonderful qualifications, you approach your match.

When applying for jobs, a well-written cover letter is just as important as a well-written resume. While the resume is designed to provide an overview of your relevant skills and qualifications, the cover letter is your opportunity to discuss relevant experiences, connect those experience to qualities and qualifications from the job ad, and to display your personality to your reader. In other words, the cover letter is your chance to humanize yourself to your reader and to give the reader a sense of who you are and why you’re uniquely qualified for a particular position.

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.

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 the Conventional Résumé

I learned about résumé writing from my students. The students with the best résumés, I found, were those who understood that a résumé is principally an objective summary of your skills and achievements, secondly a subtly clever argument that you are worth hiring, and finally a reflection of your individuality. The key is to work within the conventions while building a résumé that only you could have written. The best way to begin is to study the conventions, then mimic the qualities of a good model, with an eye for places where your individuality can emerge.

Computer Scanning of Résumés     

One of comic Steven Wright’s jokes provides a nice little lesson in irony: “I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn’t park anywhere near the place.” Similarly, our work lives are rich in irony: Just as technology has enabled any one of us to build a résumé that is stunning in appearance, blaring bells and whistles, the irony is that technology now also sometimes requires us to create résumés virtually stripped of form and dazzle. Companies, especially large ones, occasionally require job candidates to submit a “scannable résumé”—that is, a résumé written so that a scanner, using optical character recognition software, can code your résumé into a database.

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

Quality Checking Your Résumé

Once your résumé is composed, it must be quality checked. Three prominent issues that arise in a quality check are content, format, and computer-related problems.

Reconsidering Content

  • Look over the résumé and be certain you have considered effective wording and strong candidate material within each category, as detailed in the previous page of this manual.

The Graduate Student and Post-Graduate Résumé

Undergraduates often tell me they are amazed at how long it takes to compose a résumé (part of this is mere perception, I think, due to the weighty nature of the document’s importance). I tell them they should plan to spend between a few hours and a day every year revising their résumé for the rest of their professional lives, and that an undergraduate résumé with a strong foundation is their best preparation. Obviously, post-graduate and graduate student résumés are grounded in the same principles as undergraduate résumés, but new rules emerge with the new circumstances.