First Impressions: Job Interviews That Get You Hired (page 6)
Writing a Great Resume and Cover Letter
THE MOST EFFECTIVE tool in your job-acquisition kit is a professional resume that highlights your experience and accomplishments. You will want to give copies of your resume to contacts in your network, so that they can assess your skills and pass your information along to others. Even more to the point, you will need a resume and a well-written cover letter just to get a foot in the door for an interview. Your resume will be an interviewer's—or an employer's—first impression of you, and it will be the deciding factor in whether or not you get an interview.
Creating a resume can be a challenging task: How do you condense your skills and experience into a single, one-page document and still manage to express what is most unique about you? Putting together a winning resume-plus-cover-letter package, like all aspects of the job search, requires a little preparation.
Before focusing on the mechanics of resume and cover letter writing, give some thought to your previous work experiences. Whatever you do, don't assume that certain jobs don't count in the marketplace. You will discover that the secret to writing a good resume lies in the telling of accomplishments rather than tasks.
What's so Special About You?
The biggest mistake most people make in writing resumes is focusing on job responsibilities, instead of emphasizing accomplishments on the job. At the same time, you want to be pragmatic and show prospective employers that you have already demonstrated some proficiency in the skills for which they are looking, no matter what kind of work you've done. This is especially important for students and recent college graduates whose work experiences, at first glance, might seem limited or unmarketable for one reason or another. These obstacles, however, can be overcome.
For example, if you worked as a nanny when you were in college, you might be tempted to think that the experience was limited in terms of marketable skills. But you would be wrong. If the terms you use in your resume are relevant to the job you want, you can translate "taking care of kids" into "business skills." How? It's largely a matter of using the right vocabulary.
First of all, don't overemphasize the obvious tasks for which you were responsible as a nanny, such as watching three small children and opening the family house in Martha's Vineyard, and so forth. No doubt it takes a lot of organization, planning, and responsibility to care for three children, but what other skills did you develop and put into use? Did you have certain budgetary responsibilities as a nanny? In all likelihood, you did. So, if the job you want is in a financial services industry, for example, emphasize your experiences with money management. Exhibit 2–1 shows other ways you might capitalize on your experiences as a nanny.
Capitalizing on What You've Already Accomplished
Another way to maximize your work experience on a resume is to clearly specify what you've already accomplished. For example:
- If you want to emphasize your leadership qualities, don't just say that you were the editor of your college newspaper. Instead, itemize your accomplishments. For example, you met tight deadlines—in fact, didn't miss a single one—and published 32 editions of the paper over a nine-month period, and so forth. This will tell your interviewer that you are well organized and know how to meet certain business expectations.
- If you are interviewing for a job in a food-related industry, don't just say that you were a writer for your college newspaper. Instead, emphasize the fact that you covered the food beat for two years and wrote at least one story a month. This will be an especially resonant detail if, for example, your interviewer loves gourmet dining and is an avid reader of Bon Appétit.
The more you say about your experiences, some which might not seem that valuable to you at first glance, the better—as long as you describe them in a way that enhances your viability for a particular job. Make your accomplishments jump off your resume, rather than assuming that the interviewer will pick them out. The interviewer is not a mind reader. The only information he or she will have is the information that you provide in your resume, so make every word count.
Getting Started: The Nitty-Gritty of Resume Writing
Your resume should include some basic information:
- Your contact information (your name, address, e-mail address, phone number, fax number, cell phone number, etc.)
- Education history, including any awards or honors or time spent studying abroad
- Employment history, including internships
- Special skills (such as advanced computer skills or proficiency in a foreign language)
If you're a recent college graduate, or still in school, list some of the college activities in which you participated, such as student government, sports teams, clubs, or organizations. Any volunteer work should also be listed in this section.
Remember that your resume should be concise. You want to give potential employers a clear picture of yourself and the skills you could bring to a job, but you don't want to overburden them. No employer is going to sift through pages and pages that catalogue your experiences. Don't feel obligated to include every job you've ever had and every organization you've ever joined. If you were a member of the drama club for only one semester of your freshman year, don't include drama club in your Activities section.
Extraneous and irrelevant information only distracts an employer from your skills and strengths. Most headhunters and professionals advise young professionals to keep their resumes to a single page. If your resume is longer than the sample in Exhibit 2–2, delete any unnecessary details.
Focus Your Resume on P-A-R: Problems Solved, Actions, and Results
For students and recent graduates, completing the Employment History section is often the most difficult part of writing a resume. One of the best ways to tackle this important part of the resume is to learn the P-A-R format: focusing on problems, actions, and results.
The P-A-R format is a resume-writing format designed to highlight your work experience by emphasizing three things:
- Basic job responsibilities of previous positions
- Accomplishments that resulted from your job responsibilities
- Value you added, or the ways your past employers benefited from your accomplishments
As stated earlier in the chapter, most resumes focus on job responsibilities. The P-A-R format focuses on job results by specifically describing your work experience in terms of:
- Problems (solved) + Actions (taken) + Results (accomplishments)
In other words, the P-A-R format enables you to sell your credentials in terms of your ability to solve problems, take initiative, and, most important, get results.
Exhibit 2–2 is a sample resume that illustrates how to use the P-A-R format effectively.
Note : Because the page size of this book is smaller than the standard 8½" × 11" resume page, this sample is set as two pages. Your resume should be only one page.
A good way to illustrate the concept behind the P-A-R format resume is to go back to the nanny illustration of a few pages ago. Let's say there was a wide age span in the three children under the nanny's care and a problem was entertaining all of them, despite their different interests. What action might have been taken to overcome this obstacle?
Well, first the nanny took the initiative to find an activity that at least two of the children would enjoy. The nanny arranged for them to attend an art class at the local elementary school, while the third child, an avid basketball player, enjoyed her favorite sport in the school playground. The result was that all three children were well entertained and learned new things at the same time. Not bad!
The nanny fulfilled the basic requirements of the job by looking after three children and keeping them entertained. But the accomplishments were various: The children were not only taken care of, they were given opportunities to both learn something new and be creative. For the parents—the nanny's employer—the value added was the knowledge that their children received more than they had bargained for (a nanny who would just do the job). Instead, they were the beneficiaries of an employee who showed initiative, excellent management and problem-solving skills, and good judgment. Meanwhile, the college student, who accomplished these things, probably didn't consider them useful work experiences at all.
Or take a case of a discouraged graduate who says his or her college job was "nothing much"—just clerking in a retail store over the holidays. In fact, this experience is quite marketable. Why? Because if you are a sales associate in a store at a high-volume time, you have to quickly master many skills, such as how to work with a team, how to provide customer service, and how to learn the merchandise. All of these are problems.
How did the graduate solve them? First, he or she had to act: on occasion, delegating responsibility to others or taking charge of tense situations when they arose between shoppers and overworked cashiers; or perhaps it was his or her job to reorganize the stockroom for more efficient use. It doesn't really matter what action the graduate took to resolve any of these problems, as long as the outcome, whether it was better customer service or increased sales, was positive.
All businesses have problems and expect the outcome of their employees' actions to be successful. If you use terms and phrases such as problem solving or teamwork to talk about your work experiences, you already sound as if you're in business. And that's a big plus.
The Benefits of the P-A-R Resume Format
Screening resumes is an essential part of the hiring process, but it is a formidable challenge for a prospective employer to decide who is best suited for a job when there is limited information for each candidate. Again, most resumes simply state a person's job responsibilities—the day-to-day tasks that he or she was hired to do, such as sorting the mail or handling customer complaints. But two people with the same occupation often get different results on the job. If that distinction (your skills and accomplishments) isn't made clear in your resume, you might be eliminated from the interview pool.
Today's prospective employers look for people who do more than their basic job responsibilities—they have to add "value"—just like the nanny and retail-store employee in the last examples. The P-A-R format shows a prospective employer that you can be counted on to do just that: Solve problems when they arise—as they always do—and take action without being told. In order to showcase these talents, your resume needs to prove that you were, indeed, valuable to previous employers. The P-A-R format helps you prove it by quantifying the results of your actions.
Transforming Your Resume by Highlighting Your Achievements
In order to quantify your work experience and distinguish it from other candidates, your resume should:
- Give employers specific information about what you did and how you did it
- Use numbers to measure your results
For example, suppose your friend Susan worked as a customer service representative in a bank. On her resume, Susan might describe her job in the following way:
- Responsible for maintaining a high level of customer service to a base of clients with sophisticated banking needs.
Delivering excellent customer service is a real skill, and not everyone can do it. Yet the way the job description is written, it seems as if Susan was fulfilling only the minimum requirements of maintaining her accounts. At the same time, by not mentioning sales goals or revenues—the kinds of words you expect to hear from anyone in sales—Susan sends her prospective employer the message that, as customer sales rep, she wasn't focused on how much revenue she brought into the company. How could Susan meet sales targets if she didn't know her sales goal?
Now let's analyze the entire statement, piece by piece. Put yourself in Susan's shoes and answer the questions that follow:
- "Responsible for maintaining"
- Questions your resume should answer: Were you maintaining (i.e. just carrying on in the footsteps of your predecessor) or did you do something different to keep in constant contact with your customers? What did you do specifically?
- "a high level of customer service"
- Questions your resume should answer: How did you know it was a high level? Did your boss tell you? Was there a report? Was it tied to revenue or a percent of increase in sales? Do you have any awards or thank-you letters from customers?
- "to a base of clients"
- Questions your resume should answer: Who were your clients? How many clients did you have? Were they in similar or a wide variety of industries? Did you increase the client base or did it stay stable? If it was stable, how did you contribute \ to that stability?
- "with sophisticated banking needs"
the portfolio, the size of the account, or the complexity of the services?
- Questions your resume should answer: What do you mean by sophisticated? Does it have something to do with variety in
Remember, you want to prove that you did the job better than the last person because of your actions and the results you achieved. And you can prove it because specific actions and quantifiable results speak for themselves.
- This is how P-A-R formatting can improve Susan's original statement:
- Weak description: Responsible for maintaining a high level of customer service to a base of clients with sophisticated banking needs.
- Great description: Initiated quarterly industry briefings for preferred clients in consumer services area, resulting in the company's highest level of service excellence in five years.
How P-A-R Prepares You for Great Interviews
There is another advantage to putting your resume into P-A-R format: It is excellent preparation for job interviews. In fact, you can look at your P-A-R resume as an outline, or a summary of your accomplishments. Because most interviewers base their questions on information from your resume, you will be better equipped to answer them if you have already organized your thoughts and articulated your accomplishments. This, of course, is what the P-A-R format encourages. So when a difficult interview question comes your way, such as, "So Susan, what do you think was your greatest accomplishment at the XYZ company?" you will be ready to answer.
Proofread, proofread, proofread!
Spell-check your resume and triple-check your grammar. Then have a couple of friends or a teacher proofread the resume to catch errors you might have missed. Whether you're submitting a printed resume or an electronic one, spelling errors and careless mistakes could cost you an interview.
Use Powerful Vocabulary to Highlight Your Skills
When you describe your job experiences, use strong action verbs to describe your duties and highlight the skills you used on the job. For example, suppose your friend Molly worked as an administrative assistant for a magazine. In the following example, she outlines her duties there, but she only lists them. By leaving out the action verbs that emphasized her own initiative, it becomes merely a job description, rather than what she made out of the position:
- Weak description: Filing, research on competitive markets and customer demographics, product database, clerical duties.
Now look at the difference a few action verbs make:
- Great description: Reorganized filing system and performed clerical duties to increase office efficiency. Conducted research on competitive markets and customer demographics. Created and maintained product database, increasing productivity in six departments.
Molly's job description emphasizes her initiative and effectiveness on the job. Action verbs help create a picture of an energetic, dynamic employee.
As you incorporate action verbs into your resume, choose only the ones that work best with your individual skills and accomplishments. Try to refrain from using the same action verb two or more times. Even if you've held the same type of job with several different employers, use different words to describe each of your employment experiences. Exhibit 2–3 lists some strong action verbs you might use on your resume, although this is not a comprehensive list. Take some time to brainstorm and devise more words that describe your duties and accomplishments.
Tip: Invest in a good thesaurus. It will be invaluable to you as you plan and write your resume.
One final caveat: If you are creating a scanner-friendly resume, use nouns instead of verbs to describe your job experiences. In the previous resume, for example, Molly wrote that she "managed files." If Molly were writing an electronic resume, she would instead note that she was responsible for "file management." A search engine looking for power nouns, such as "management," would pinpoint Molly's resume, giving Molly a better chance of getting her resume on the desk of a human resources professional.
Choosing Your References
Choose your references wisely. In general, interviewers want the names of former employers, but if you have only held one or two jobs, you could also include professors, coworkers, professional acquaintances, or even your high school principal. Try to choose people who will be enthusiastic and have knowledge of your skills and abilities.
Be sure to ask each individual if he or she is willing to be a reference before giving contact information to employers—your references will appreciate the heads up and can take some time to think about what they would like to say about you. If possible, point your references in a certain direction. For instance, you might say, "The bank seems interested in my leadership ability. Can you talk about the time I took the lead with the group research project you assigned?"
You do not have to include your references on the resume itself. Instead, type a separate list of at least three references and provide all relevant contact information. Print this list on quality resume paper; and if you're submitting a hard copy of your resume to an employer, make sure you use the same type of paper for both documents.
Writing Strong Cover Letters
One of the most common misconceptions among job seekers is that the resume is the only marketing tool to use, and the cover letter is nothing more than an ancillary formality. In reality, your cover letter plays as important a role as your resume in capturing the attention of a potential employer and selling you as a viable candidate for a job.
Virtually all employers value an applicant who has strong written and oral communication skills. Your cover letter shows an employer whether or not you can communicate clearly and persuasively. After all, a resume is typically a series of bulleted lists, phrases, and short sentences, but a cover letter represents an actual sample of your writing ability.
Unless you impress an employer with your cover letter first, he or she probably won't read your resume. In other words, there's a chance your cover letter will be your only opportunity to convince a potential employer that you're a viable job candidate. Both the wording and the overall appearance of your cover letter should complement your resume.
Your cover letter should not duplicate the information that is already on your resume. Instead, try to match key job information you've received from the ad or informational interviews. Use your one-page cover letter as a marketing tool designed to:
- Introduce yourself
- State exactly the job for which you're applying
- State your contact (if applicable)
- Refer the reader to key information on your resume or convey information about yourself that's not in your resume
- Briefly demonstrate why your experience, skills, and accomplishments are a match for the open position and/or that company
- Convince the reader to investigate your resume
- State that you will follow up
Exhibit 2–4 offers more guidelines and tips that help you create a professional looking cover letter.
Every cover letter should highlight things about you that are of direct interest to the recipient. Before sending a resume and cover letter to an employer, try to develop an overall message and package to market yourself. (See the samples in Exhibits 2–5 and 2–6 at the end of this chapter.)
Finally, remember that your cover letter and resume give potential employers their first glimpse of you, so do your best to demonstrate that you will be a proficient and valuable addition to each company you write to. And don't forget to use the P-A-R format to demonstrate your full capabilities:
- the Problems you solved,
- the Actions you took, and
- the Results you achieved in your past experiences
For more information on how to write great resumes and cover letters, see LearningExpress's Resumes That Get You Hired. After you have taken these steps and supplied yourself with the documents you need, you will be prepared for the next step: researching companies and discovering what you want from a job and an employer.
First Impressions Count: Be on Time or Call Ahead
"I was meeting a candidate at a restaurant. After I had been waiting outside the restaurant for 20 minutes, he still had not appeared. When he did show up ten minutes later, he just said that he had run late and was sorry. This communicated to me that either a) he didn't want the job, or b) he didn't have good judgment. Yes, emergencies happen, but if you are going to be late, call the restaurant and try to get a message to the person with whom you are meeting. Don't just assume that they will wait for you."
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