It’s the time of year when many people change jobs. I’ve written about deciding when to switch roles, finding a new role, and doing well on your new team, but I haven’t discussed one of your key first steps: writing an effective resume and cover letter.
I’ve looked at hundreds, perhaps thousands, of resumes over the years. Nearly all were less impactful than they could have been. Nearly all described activity instead of accomplishments. Nearly all listed forgettable facts instead of striking stories. Many had formatting, grammar, or spelling issues. Many lacked search terms that employers seek, so the resume was overlooked even though the candidate was a match. What a waste! What a lost opportunity.
If you’re seeking a new role, do yourself and your potential new team a favor. Write a remarkable resume with a clear cover letter that gets noticed and remembered while getting you hired. Your resume, when written correctly, can also improve your interview, making it more memorable, personal, and compelling while causing you less stress. Interested? Let’s get started.
Since becoming a part-time career coach, I’m often asked to help update resumes, LinkedIn entries, and cover letters. The strategies I lay out in this column have helped my clients land great roles.
Why am I here?
Let’s start with your resume. How is it used? The bedrock of all good communication is understanding the purpose and audience. Resumes serve three purposes: to supply a source of keywords for candidate searches (primary audience: recruiters), to reflect the care and precision of the author (primary audience: hiring managers), and to provide topics to discuss in an interview (primary audience: interviewers). An effective resume fulfills all three purposes for their respective audiences.
Many resumes now include a “Skills” section at the top—yours should too (though some jobseekers place it after an optional “Objective” or “Summary” section). The Skills section lists all the keywords recruiters might use to find you. Often people list their skills as a few categorized bullets. Common skills categories include languages, tools, project, management, and/or business (the last three categories cover soft skills, like negotiation or agile practices). List every skill you’ve used at some point in your life. If an interviewer asks you about an old skill, say that you’re rusty but could pick it back up quickly, which is true.
The professionalism of your resume reflects on your professionalism as an applicant. Have someone proofread your resume and use the proofing tools in Microsoft Word. Look for misspellings, grammatical mistakes, inconsistent verb usage and punctuation, and sloppy formatting (e.g., extra lines, missing lines, mismatched fonts, and inconsistent spacing). You wouldn’t dress like a slob for an interview (hopefully), so keep your resume sharp too.
After the optional Objective or Summary section and the critical Skills section comes the Experience section (followed by Education and, optionally, Publications, Awards, and/or Interests). For the Experience section, list every job you’ve ever had in reverse chronological order, paid or unpaid, that involved professional responsibility. Include stints at fast food restaurants and regular volunteering at a food bank. Resumes are mostly electronic these days, so listing every job is fine (your relevant recent jobs will be on the first page). Each job is an opportunity to connect with an interviewer—you never know when you’ll meet a fellow violinist or ski instructor.
Your job experience will be the source of interview topics, so memorable connection is key. Stories taken from your experience are the most compelling and memorable, which is why the next step is filling your resume with stories.
Should you have an Objective or Summary section? You should if it helps you connect with a hiring manager or interviewer. If you’ve got a compelling objective or unique perspective that’s not apparent from the rest of your resume, place it at the top. (If not, skip this section.) The same goes for other optional sections like Publications, Awards, and Interests. If they help connect you with a hiring manager or interviewer, use them; otherwise, keep the focus on your stronger sections.
You have your story
The most common mistake I see on resumes (including my own) is listing activities instead of achievements. Activities are dull and forgettable—everyone does stuff—but achievements are exciting and memorable. Each accomplishment is unique, with associated stories of challenges, heartbreaks, and triumphs. Those are the stories you want to tell during an interview. They show passion, grit, growth, and impact—just the qualities managers want to hire.
In each job listing, replace your descriptions of activities with bulleted headlines of achievements. As with performance reviews, start with the impact, and then follow with your contribution. For example, let’s say you were responsible for ensuring your public web service was compliant with government security guidelines. The bullet headline would read, “Enabled $50M of government contracts by ensuring our web service met all security guidelines.” I’m sure plenty of other people were involved in those $50M contracts, but your work was challenging and crucial, so claim it. (Other people can claim their contributions.)
Considering the breadth of accomplishments you may have influenced, how do you choose which ones to list for each job? Keep in mind that more than five bullets for any job will be overwhelming and overlooked. Ideally, each job should have one to three bulleted achievements. Pick the ones with the best stories. These are the accomplishments that were hardest to achieve, taught you the most, had the largest impact on customers, and/or made you most proud. Even a failure that acted as a turning point in your career can be a fantastic story to include. Whichever bullet an interviewer chooses, you’ll have a compelling story that demonstrates grit, growth, impact, and passion.
Have we met online?
These days, recruiters will often ask for or accept your LinkedIn profile in lieu of a resume. You want to have both an online and PDF version. However, experienced engineers prefer to avoid maintaining two copies of the same content in different places (the DRY principle). The solution for many professionals, including me, is to have only a LinkedIn profile and use the LinkedIn “Save to PDF” feature to produce the offline copy.
Unlike the LinkedIn “Build a resume” feature, the “Save to PDF” feature requires no extra work and doesn’t keep information in two places. Instead, the “Save to PDF” feature, found under the “More…” button at the top of your profile, saves a subset of your current profile in a nicely formatted PDF resume. Try it and see for yourself.
A few tips for using the LinkedIn “Save to PDF” feature:
- Anything you type in your LinkedIn profile’s “About” section will appear at the top of your resume under a “Summary” heading. Thus, you should keep your About section short (or empty, if you don’t want a Summary heading on your resume).
- “Save to PDF” will not include your entire LinkedIn list of skills and endorsements, just the top three you drag and drop to “Top Skills” when editing the skills and endorsements section of your profile. Thus, choose those top three skills thoughtfully, and submit your LinkedIn profile URL to recruiters so they can search against your entire list of skills and endorsements.
- LinkedIn doesn’t provide an easy mechanism to add bulleted lists under the description of your past jobs. However, you can still copy/paste bullets into the descriptions. Just find a bullet style you like on the web (LinkedIn has a helpful page of graphics), and copy/paste it in front of your text.
Once you’ve fixed up your LinkedIn profile, you’ll want to clean up your overall social media presence as well. Recruiters and hiring managers may search for you across the internet. There’s no need to be an angel, but you should avoid being offensive.
Who are you?
You’ve got a supercharged resume full of compelling stories about your varied experience. Now, you need to share it broadly with potential hiring managers. I describe an optimal job search strategy in How to Land Your Next Job with Skill. Central to this effort is a concise and clear cover letter. Here’s an example.
My name is <your name>. I’m seeking a position as a <your desired role>. You and your team are a great fit for me because <one or more reasons>.
I’m excited to talk to you about your team and the opportunities available. Please feel free to schedule a few minutes for you or your designate to meet with me in the next week or so. You will find my resume attached or please check my LinkedIn profile.
Talk to you soon,
<your preferred first name>
Notice that the letter is short (two paragraphs) and clear (name and role upfront), conveys excitement about the team, and is directed toward action. Also notice that only the second half of the third sentence needs to be customized to the target team, which makes the email easy to reuse yet personal and genuine.
You might be tempted to write more about your qualifications or experience, but long emails don’t get read (heck, second paragraphs don’t get read). Instead, count on your excitement and attached resume to speak for you.
A cover letter to friends in your network is quite similar.
Hi <friend’s preferred first name>,
I’m seeking a new position as a <your desired role>. Do you know of any openings on a team that <one or more reasons that make a team a great fit>?
If so, I’d be delighted to talk to folks on that team about the opportunities available. Please feel free to forward this request to anyone interested. My resume is attached, or they can check my LinkedIn profile.
Thanks so much for your help,
<your preferred first name>
Again, the letter is short and clear, conveys excitement, and is directed toward action in a format that’s easily reused. Soon you’ll be swamped with appointments.
You talking to me?
Now it’s time for screenings and interviews. A great side benefit of having a resume filled with stories of achievement is that your resume can serve as an interview cheat sheet. Before a screening or interview, scan through your resume’s story headlines: the bullets under each job. Remind yourself of those experiences, what made them memorable, and what you learned from them. You can even practice telling the stories to willing friends and family members.
During a screening or interview, you’ll be asked questions like, “Can you tell me about a conflict or stressful situation? How do you convince others to follow you, or when do you decide to follow them? What’s the hardest thing about collaborating across groups or working with customers?” You could provide generic interview answers to these questions, but a more compelling, memorable, and relatable approach is to tell a story that demonstrates your work in action. If you can’t remember a good example offhand, glance through your story headlines and pick one that applies. Then say, “You know, I often have to do that. For example, there was a time…”
When you tell your stories, always start with an overview. (For graph nerds, do a breadth-first traversal of the story.) Then pause to see if your interviewer wants you to continue, wants to drill down on any aspect, or is satisfied and wants to move on to the next question. Remember, there’s not much time for a screening or interview, and you’ve got lots of compelling stories to tell.
An effective resume and cover letter can be enormously beneficial to landing a great role. They can help recruiters and hiring managers find you, make you seem diligent and professional, and highlight your memorable accomplishments that make you a uniquely desirable hire.
Start by listing all your hard and soft skills in a Skills section toward the top of your resume. Then replace the lists of activities under your jobs with bulleted headlines of your achievements, each starting with the impact followed by your contribution. Ensure your resume is proofread, catching misspellings, grammatical mistakes, inconsistent verb usage and punctuation, and sloppy formatting. Align your resume with your LinkedIn profile, clean up your social media presence, and use a clear, concise cover letter to engage friends and hiring managers on teams that interest you. Finally, use your resume as a cheat sheet during interviews to tell compelling breadth-first stories about your lived experience.
Job searches are difficult and time-consuming. Change is always hard. Resumes and cover letters play an outsized role in either helping or hindering your efforts to find the right position. Spend a little time constructing your supercharged resume and sharp cover letter in order to wax those interview skis and zip down the slopes to your next adventure.