Over the past few weeks, I've been screening applicants for several high-level positions. But despite their seniority, some of the submissions I've seen have been horrible! So with the New Year being a time when many people start to think about looking for a new job, perhaps it's time to reiterate what I consider to be some of the golden rules for job seekers when sending resumes and writing cover letters.
1. Take time to draft a good cover letter
Most people devote a lot of time to polishing their resume, asking others to suggest improvements and give it a critical review. This is not usually the case with cover letters. More often than not, it shows.
I ALWAYS ask applicants to send cover letters. Why? Because it gives me a much better insight into what kind of person I might be looking at. My recommendations for cover letters are:
a) Make it a letter, not a paragraph: A cover letter represents how you would draft a letter to a client. If all I get is one or two paragraphs that tell me how wonderful you are, I'm not going to be impressed.
A cover letter is an opportunity to personalize yourself, to show me you've done a bit of research into the company / position for which you're applying. I'm looking for three-to-five paragraphs, and if you can list specific accomplishments that match the job requirements listed in the job ad, extra kudos to you. That scores points with me.
b) Keep it professional:Over-familiarity doesn't impress. Neither does over-confidence. One applicant recently wrote "it would be in your best interest to interview me." My IMMEDIATE reaction was "oh, really?", and the resume instantly found itself in the "thanks-but-no-thanks" pile.
I don't care how well qualified someone might be technically, all positions require a modicum of manners and informing me that something is in my best interest is NOT good manners. Unless the job description asks for someone with an over-inflated ego, this is almost guaranteed to lead to an instant rejection.
c) Pay attention to your grammar: It amazes me how many applicants start each sentence in a cover letter with the word "I". If the word "I" starts each of your sentences ("I was instrumental in …" "I received such-and-such an award …" "I am eager to …" etc.), it suggests that you correspond with others in a similar way. That's not impressive, especially for senior positions.
It's a given that the cover letter is supposed to talk about you, but many ways exist to structure sentences without starting with the word "I". If you can't think of any, ask other people for help.
2. Take time to adjust your resume
While it's obviously a good idea to ask others critique your resume and offer suggestions, I also recommend making minor adjustments to make sure it matches each job description as best you can. In other words, customize your resume each time you submit it.
But don't forget to proof it before hitting "send". I recently received a resume for a high-level finance position in a large non-profit organization. But the resume stated that the person believed his skills would be of great benefit to Amazon.com.
Remember, resume reviewers are not only looking for reasons to interview you, they're also looking for reasons NOT to interview you. Additionally:
a) Keep your formatting consistent. If you capitalize all the words in your current job title, then capitalize all the words in ALL your job titles. Another example: If you use "space/dash/space" to separate years of employment (e.g., 1998 - 2005), then do that on EVERY date. Inconsistencies stand out and look like you have poor attention to detail. Choose one formatting standard and stick with it.
b) Tell me you want the job I'm advertising. I'm a fan of using "Objective" as the first line item and drawing a direct correlation to the position for which you're applying. If my job ad is for "Vice President of Operations" in a retail chain, then you gain great advantage by telling me your objective is to be the vice president of operations in a large retail company. Conversely, if your objective is simply "to provide quality results that make an impact in a retail environment," or worse yet, if you don't list an objective at all, you lose points.
c) Put the most pertinent information on the top half of the first page. I want to think "WOW" in the first six seconds. Unless you're applying to be a word processing specialist, if the first thing on your resume is a bullet-point list of all the computer programs you're capable of using, that tells me you may not know how to prioritize and/or you don't understand how to impress a potential client.
Four or five bullet points that provide QUANTIFIABLE, specific accomplishments and use direct verbiage from my job ad will impress me.
d) Keep resumes to one or two pages — possibly three. A one-page resume may not be enough to list all your accomplishments and how they correlate to the requirements listed in the job ad. I am quite content looking at a two page resume, even two-and-a-half pages.
Three full pages seems like overkill to me, and if you send four or more pages I'm thinking you don't know how to summarize information well enough.
One applicant's seven-page, nine-point font resume went straight to the "thanks-but-no-thanks" pile. Sorry, I don't have time to read a book. If you think you need that much space demonstrate that you're qualified, you aren't qualified enough in the "professionalism" category.
e) Don't include your photo or a personal logo. Leaving aside whether or not photos and logos will become more common in future years, as a resume reviewer, I'm not ready for them. Unless you're applying to be a model or a graphic designer, such practices will not impress me and I'm likely to think that you don't understand what it means to be professional.
As a screener / interviewer for hire, these are my thoughts on how to make a better impression when applying for a job. Others will have different opinions on some of these points, but my clients (top executives looking to fill other executive or direct-report positions) agree with what I've listed above. Feel free to comment / agree / disagree - I'm always open to hearing what others think about this, from whichever side of the interviewer's desk you're sitting.