A carefully constructed resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile can help get your foot in the door. Here are some best practices to follow as you create or revise those things for your job search.
When you hear people talk about “your resume,” there are a few things they might be talking about. Defined traditionally, it’s a short document (typically one page) that you submit alongside a job application. It highlights the important information a potential employer should know about your background and qualifications.
Often, people use the phrase more broadly to mean the entire array of your professional experiences — pieces of which might live on your submitted resumes, your LinkedIn profile, your website (if you have one), and any number of other places. I’m going to start with the first definition: the document itself.
Our #1 piece of resume advice
So many people feel like they can’t apply for any jobs until they really felt like their resume was perfect. Our biggest piece of advice for you: Don’t do this. Especially now.
Of course you want your resume to be as impactful and polished as possible, but practically speaking, it’s going to take way too long (or, more likely, be impossible) to get it “perfect.” Job hunting might take longer during this pandemic. Don’t let it hold you back.
Because here’s the thing: Resumes are important, but they aren’t going to be what gets you a job — you are going to get you a job. Hiring managers are going to read your resume very quickly, and probably not thoroughly. It’s just a foot in the door; it doesn’t do the heavy lifting. Get your resume in a good place using the tips below, and then start submitting applications. You can (and should, and will) polish and revise it as you go.
What it looks like
You’ll see a lot of advice out there about the “right” way to format a resume, but in reality, what’s best depends on the kind of job you’re applying for. Your resume should match the job you want.
If you’re applying in a more formal or traditional industry (like accounting, for example), stay conservative and straightforward: Times New Roman font, size 11–12, black. But if you’re applying for a creative role, or at a company that’s known for being fun and design-focused, then you can probably give your resume more personality.
If you aren’t sure what’s acceptable in your industry, start with a quick Google search (“resume examples for accounting jobs”). Then reach out to people in your network who work in that industry and ask them for advice — bonus points if they conduct interviews as part of their role.
It’s not necessary, but if you don’t feel confident creating a formatted resume from scratch or want something particular, you might choose to purchase an inexpensive template.
How long it is
The best practice for resume length is one page of information. There are some cases where it might need to be longer — like if you’re in an industry where that’s normal, or you’re applying to a high-level position and have many years of work experience — but otherwise, one page it is.
If your resume is design-heavy and you’re applying within a less “traditional” industry, it might be OK to have a front and a back — but not because you’re trying to fit more information. Try typing the information you want to include into a more “traditional” template to make sure it could fit on one page, if it had to.
What goes in it
Your resume should include your name and contact information; your educational background; your related work experience, including past roles and associated responsibilities and accomplishments; and a short list of your most relevant skills. There are several different ways you might organize that information; rely on the industry-specific research you did before to help guide you.
Some people also include a short “objective statement” at the top that describes the kind of company or role they’re looking for, although that is becoming less common. I’ve often found that instead, including a “branding statement” that sums your most relevant qualifications can be more helpful.
Be sure the information you’re including feels relevant. For example, if you have a college degree, you don’t need to list your high school in the education section (unless, maybe, you went to a well-known technical high school related to your field). Your past work experience probably doesn’t need to include more than three previous roles; if you have a rich employment history, you can pick and choose the roles that relate to your application most directly.
Quick note: Even though you’re only going to include a few of your past roles on any given resume, it’s still worth spending time writing resume-style descriptions for all of them. This is where that second definition of “resume” comes into play, and why it’s really not so different from your one-pager. If you put in the work to frame all your past experiences strategically, you can mix and match them any given application. Then you can also add them to your LinkedIn profile and website … and it will help you talk about them more confidently when you’re networking, too.
Peppered throughout your resume should be relevant “keywords” — words or phrases that relate to the kind of job you’re looking for. Keywords help because they stand out to hiring managers as they look over your resume, showing that you have the kind of experience they’re seeking. Companies might also use software that scans for certain keywords in order to narrow down their pool of applications.
Keywords are probably not going to single-handedly make or break your resume, but it is worth doing the research and including the ones that make sense. Plus, keywords can also help you get discovered on LinkedIn (I’ll get to that in a minute) and any other places you post your work experience online.
The “right” keywords for your resume will be specific to the type of job you’re applying for. Start by looking at a lot of different job postings for the kind of role you want, even if you don’t plan to apply to that specific company. Read through the postings, look for words or phrases that come up a lot (especially in the qualifications and responsibilities sections), and include them in your resume as they’re relevant to your experience. As you apply for specific jobs, make tweaks to the resume you’ll be submitting so that it matches up with the actual keywords that company uses.
The part of crafting a resume that takes the most careful thought is deciding how to describe your previous responsibilities and accomplishments in the work experience section.
Use your keyword research to help you write these descriptions. Also, be specific, and include quantifiable, tangible details whenever possible. Think beyond what you did to why you did it and what happened because of it. If you had a measurable effect on performance, state it.
For example, rather than “Designed digital assets for web and social media,” you might say something like, “Designed and created 10–20 social media assets per week in order to drive engagement and elevate the brand’s visual style.” Rather than “Wrote articles for the company’s blog,” you might say, “Researched, wrote, and built four longform articles per week in order to drive traffic and improve rankings on search engine results pages,” and follow that with “Executed and iterated on the brand’s content marketing strategy, driving a 10% increase in web traffic month over month.”
Skills and non-traditional experience
Typically, a resume includes a short list of your most relevant skills, too. Take a few minutes to make a separate, longer list of as many of your skills as you can think of. Include hard skills, like any software you use proficiently, as well as soft skills, like communication and time management. Then you can pull from that list as you craft your resume.
That might even include thinking about things you’ve learned in these last few months. Have you built new skills working remotely, or even through volunteering? Freelanced a bit? Found a time management technique that works well for you? Taken any online courses or learned any new hard skills? These things are part of your unique story; they demonstrate your drive, and maybe even your resourcefulness.
Getting it ready to submit
Right before you send your resume off, take the time to polish it. Your resume is a demonstration of your professionalism — often the very first one a potential employer will see.
Have someone whose opinion and experience you trusted look it over for you, checking that everything is clear and impactful. You could also choose to pay for a professional review, or even a session with a career coach to review it together — if you don’t have anyone to review it for you, if you’ve been stuck in your job search and want to make sure your resume isn’t a reason why, or if you just feel nervous about it all, that might be a good idea.
And finally, right before you send, proofread it with your own eyes. (Pro tip: Reading it *out loud* actually really helps.) Run spell check several times. Maybe use a service like Grammarly. Don’t let typos distract that hiring manager from how amazing you are.
Your cover letter
A cover letter is a letter (bet you didn’t see that one coming) that summarizes why you’re applying for a given job and why you think you’re the right choice. Back before the age of electronic applications, a cover letter was intended to sit on top of your pile of papers and set the stage for what the hiring manager would find inside (hence the “cover” part of the name). Nowadays, they often take the form of an email, a one-page PDF that you upload with your application, or even information that you type into a form field.
Not every open role requires a cover letter, but if you have the option to attach one, it’s worth doing it. With so much competition for jobs right now, take every opportunity you can to stand out.
You’ll need to customize every cover letter you send to the specific job you’re applying for, but doing that will be a lot easier if you know ahead of time what kind of story you’d like to tell about yourself and your qualifications.
Telling your story
A cover letter is ultimately an opportunity to pitch yourself before you’ve even met the people reading your application. It’s your chance to show your unique magic; to tell them what makes you great.
So first, if you haven’t yet, spend time thinking about your personal narrative — your authentic story that connects the dots between where you are and where you’re trying to go. It contains all the talking points you lean on when you’re introducing yourself, networking, applying, and interviewing.
The pandemic has surely altered aspects of your personal narrative, especially if you lost your job because of it. You already did some thinking about the skills and experiences you’ve gained up above, in the resume section of this article. But also think about how it affects your story, your goals, and your motivations. What’s shifted given this challenging period of all our lives? How has your experience of the past few weeks changed what will be important to you in your next role? Is this an opportunity for you to move into a slightly different type of job, perhaps one that you’re more passionate about? Why this job, now? How have you used this time to reflect and become an even better version of yourself? (It’s a pretty good bet that you’ve done this in some way over the past month=w.)
And then, once you’ve done this thinking and you feel confident in the story you’re telling, you can start to create talking points about your experiences and skills. Go back to those job postings you found when you did your resume keyword research and look for common themes. What are these companies asking for? What do you have that can help? From that research, you can start to build yourself a little library of paragraphs that you might mix and match according to the individual job you’re applying for.
The big thing to keep in mind when writing cover letters is that you want to highlight what’s in it for them — not why you want the job. Don’t list your aspirations and explain why this role will help your career. Instead, focus on the skills you bring to the table and relate them back to the role you’re applying for (and if you can, the company’s mission too).
Customizing your cover letter for applications
Once you’re ready to tailor your cover letter to a specific job, start by doing some research to decide who you’ll address it to. A little effort can go a long way. If you know the name of the hiring manager (aka the person who will make the ultimate decision about whether to hire you), write to them. Otherwise, consider addressing it to the relevant team (ex. “Dear Ellevest Advisory Services team”). Try to avoid the overused and impersonal “To whom it may concern” or “Dear hiring manager.” We also recommend steering clear of gender-binary greetings like “Dear sir or madam.”
As for structure, a cover letter traditionally begins with a short introduction explaining how you heard about the job and why you want to apply for it. Alternatively, if you have a really strong story or connection to the company’s mission, you might use something like that to grab attention. Next, write a few paragraphs where you bring your personal narrative into it, providing that context about you and your professional background, and what makes you uniquely qualified for the job. Finish it off by thanking them for their consideration and stating that you look forward to hearing from them soon.
Finally, again, proofread proofread proofread. (And double-check that you haven’t referenced the wrong hiring manager, company, or role — it happens more often than you’d think!)
Your LinkedIn Profile
There’s a reason we saved this section for last: If you put in the time to create a really good resume and cover letter, then you’ll have all the ingredients you need to make a great LinkedIn profile. And that’s even more important right now, as virtually all of our networking has moved online.
The “About” section at the top of your profile, sometimes called your Summary, can lean on the work you did for your cover letter. This section should be two or three paragraphs long; it’s where you introduce yourself, talk about the kind of role you’re looking for, and position yourself as someone with the experiences, skills, and motivations to do that kind of job well. Don’t rush this; LinkedIn itself says that this section “strengthens your first impression in a way no other profile section can.”
Then add your education and experience. You have a bit more space here than on a one-page resume, but you don’t have to include every job you ever held (or, again, your high school education). Only include the experiences that feel relevant to the type of jobs you’ll be applying for.
If you haven’t done the keyword exercise from the resume section above, now is the time to do it. Because your LinkedIn profile is a web page, it’s even easier for recruiters and hiring managers to look for those keywords, and they might even help you pop up in search results. Don’t overdo it by stuffing as many keywords in as you can — you want your profile to read like you’re a human, not a robot — but pepper the most relevant ones throughout your profile so that they help to position you the way you want.
There are other sections you can include in your profile, too. You can use the “Featured” section to showcase your best work, including files (think stuff that would go in a portfolio), your website, and even well-performing LinkedIn posts. You can list any relevant certifications and volunteer experience you have, too.
Finally, this may be social media, but it’s also a very professional space. Proofread your profile several times. Have a professional photo — it doesn’t have to be stiff or super formal, but it shouldn’t be informal, or of low quality.
Once your profile is ready to go, update your “headline” (the one that goes just under your name) to indicate that you’re seeking roles in your industry. And if you haven’t yet, post an update to let your network know you’re looking.
Just to reiterate: All these materials are important pieces of the job application puzzle, but they are not going to be what gets you a job. You are going to get you that job. Trust in yourself and your qualifications, and let them shine out in your resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile.
And then hit submit.
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