The Riley Guide: Resumes & Cover Letters
Whether you're applying for a new position, negotiating a raise, looking for freelance work or proposing a promotion, you'll make more headway if you avoid common mistakes in career correspondence. Even the most ideal candidates and proposals can make a poor impression if they break basic formatting rules, ignore rules of business etiquette or fail to follow the right distribution channels. In this article, we'll walk you through a variety of business correspondence, pointing out avoidable missteps along the way.
Writing an effective cover letter boils down to two basic principles: Professionalism and personalization. Professionalism mostly consists of following formulas – phrasing your greeting and closing according to the rules, and structuring the letter as a whole in a way that makes your point clear. Personalization, meanwhile, consists of tailoring your letter to include references to specific people and positions, as well as including keywords related to the recipient's field of work. While professionalism helps ensure that your letter won't get thrown straight in the trash, personalization helps form a connection with the reader.
Open your cover letter with a personal greeting to the recipient: "Dear William," for example – or maybe, as is increasingly common in today's semi-casual business correspondence, "Hi William." If you don't have the contact's name, use "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To whom it may concern," or a greeting like "Dear hiring manager." The main body of the letter is split into three parts:
- A sentence that builds an immediate connection with the reader – for example, the name of the person who referred you, a reference to an aspect of the company that inspired you to reach out to them
- A very brief pitch, which may be a description of the skills you can bring to the company, or a mention of the proposal or project you're including with the letter
- An explanation of what you expect the next step to be – such as a follow-up meeting or a phone call
Effective cover letters often consist of just three sentences, and almost all of them run under a paragraph in length. The point is to make an impact by using those sentences to maximum effect. If you don't know much about the company's current mission or goals, spend a few minutes on Google (and/or talking with your professional contacts) and dig up some info about its situation that you can work into your letter. And of course, if you're replying to a job listing, make sure your letter repeats keywords and phrases from the advertisement. After that close out with a "Warm regards" or a similar phrase, then sign your name below – and you'll be all set.
Thank you letters can serve as a handy way to keep the lines of communication open after a job interview – successful or otherwise – a meeting or just a conversation at a tradeshow. They send a message of respect to the recipient, and also help keep you in his or her thoughts, which may turn out to be important for your career in ways you don't even expect right now. Like cover letters, thank you letters consist of three main parts:
- A statement of thanks for the interview, offer, etc.
- An explanation of your current thoughts about this stage of the process – for example, that you're confident you can help with a certain situation
- A reference to the expected next step in the process, such as a meeting or deliverable
A thank you letter doesn't have to be as formal as a cover letter – though it can be, if necessary – and its purpose doesn't always have to be as clear-cut, either. A large part of networking is simply maintaining open-ended conversations and fostering general goodwill – so don't be shy about letting your professional contacts know that you're thinking of them in a positive light.
Letters also form crucial parts of the departure process from any job. Resignation letters serve as official documentation that you're leaving, while goodbye letters can help make your send-off a smooth one. Your resignation letter only needs to be a few sentences long: Just state the position from which you're resigning and the date you'll be leaving. It's also customary to include a few words of thanks toward the employer, regardless of how you actually feel at this point. A goodbye letter, on the other hand, is less formal – just an explanation of when you'll be leaving, what your current plans are, and how you can be reached once you've left.
There are lots of potential reasons to turn down a job offer – salary and relocation being two of the most common – and following your instincts may be the best decision you can make, regardless of the current state of your job market. Getting stuck in a bad job is really just a waste of time – time you could've spent looking for a position that meets your needs better. So even if you don't have a better offer on the table right now, declining an unsatisfactory offer is a decision you'll rarely regret as much as a decision to accept an unsatisfactory job.
When you decline the offer, there's no need to mention your reasons, no matter how ridiculous the salary offer or recommendation requirements may have been. Some career coaches recommend sending your declination in letter form, while others advocate declining over the phone or in person. Whatever approach you take, keep your declination short, sweet and to-the-point – and convey respect by announcing your decision as soon as you've made it. You never know who the employer's professional contacts may be, or under what future circumstances you might run into the person who made the offer.
If you're ready to launch a new project or move up the company ladder, a written proposal often forms a critical part of the pitch process. As long as you've got a solid track record with the company, the process ought to go pretty smoothly – whether you get a "yes" or a "no" – as long as you craft your proposal professionally and make a strong case for your idea. The professionalism is the easy part – it just consists of following a few rules – while the strong case part is largely up to you. Still, this section's got some tips on both aspects.
No matter what kind of proposal you're planning on making, it's always a good idea to gather support – or at least test the waters with your company's decision-makers – before you start putting in the hours on the proposal itself. Keep these conversations informal – you don't want to seem as though you're going over anyone's head – but be sure to make it clear how your proposal would help each person with whom you chat. You'll also want to do some background research on similar positions or proposals – for example, asking colleagues whether this kind of attempt has worked in the past, doing some statistical research on sites like BLS.gov (the official website of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), or asking professionals in your network how successful people have approached projects like yours.
A request for a raise or promotion is one of the most straightforward types of proposals. Nerve-wracking as it may be, it usually only takes one or two conversations to find out whether it's possible or not – and you can do most of your background research online, by looking up salaries for other workers at your level, in your field and in your geographical area. Timing, however, is crucial in a request for a raise. Make the request when the company's just had a strong quarter, and you'll stand a much better chance than if the moment you seize is a moment of company crisis. And if you've just completed an impressive project, all the better.
Proposing a new position can be trickier, but it's not all that unusual, especially at larger companies. As with any employer negotiation, it'll help to framing your proposal in terms of the company's needs and financial situation. Emphasize how many hours, and how much money, could be saved by putting a person in the role you suggest – although, for obvious reasons, you won't want to suggest that your current position could easily be eliminated. Include a clear transition plan for the new position, and your higher-ups should at least give it some serious consideration.
At some point in the interview process, a prospective employer may ask you to submit a sample of your writing. The reason for this varies depending on the type of job in question – some employers may simply want to make sure that you've got a solid grasp of basic grammar and spelling, while others may be testing your typing skills. In fields like journalism and copywriting, many employers ask for samples of your previous published work, and may also ask you to compose a short off-the-cuff essay on a topic of their choice.
As long as you've got no major problems with basic typing, grammar and spelling- and, if you're applying for a writing-oriented job, with prose and paragraph structure – you shouldn't have any problems making a positive impression with your writing sample. Most employers are looking for a sample 500 words or under, and will be satisfied with the result as long as it's free from errors in spelling and sentence structure.
If you're given your own choice of topics, you'll want to choose one that demonstrates your understanding of the type of work you'd be doing if you're hired – for example, if it's a job in a legal field, focus on presenting law-related ideas as clearly as possible. At the same time, feel free to inject a little of your personality into the writing sample, and even throw in some humor if appropriate. Don't forget to use at least one or two specific examples of the idea you're describing, which will help make your writing more memorable. And overall, be sure your writing is structured and concise: Bring up an idea, cite some arguments and examples, then finish up by recapping your main point.
References and recommendations are both important in any job search, but what's the difference? References are more traditional – for example, a former supervisor who agrees to be listed on your resume, and chat about you in a positive light with any interviewers who call. Recommendations, on the other hand, are a little more in-depth – they tend to come from people like academic advisors and mentors, who've worked with you closely over a long period of time and can speak from experience about things like your moral character and your expertise in your field.
It's always advisable to ask your references' permission before listing them on your resume, and many career coaches also recommend coaching them a little, so they have some idea of which of your traits you're hoping they'll emphasize to prospective employers. It's also worthwhile to cultivate extra goodwill with anyone you plan on using as a reference at any point in your career – which is a process that begins early in a professional relationship and continues for many years. After all, a person who talks to you on a semi-regular basis – even if it's just friendly chatting – is much more likely to summon genuine enthusiasm than someone who hardly knows you.
A solid base of references, though, also reaches onto the Internet these days, in the form of your profiles on social media websites – most of which your prospective employer is likely to investigate. You don't necessarily have to promote your professional skills on every social network, but it's still your responsibility to manage your online reputation – even if it's just to privatize access to certain information and photos.
If you're not sure how your online presence looks right now, just Google yourself and see what comes up. You'll also want to update your social media profiles with a current photo, and make especially sure that any career-related info on sites like LinkedIn is up-to-date and accurate. Many employers Google all their potential hires, and the practice is becoming more common all the time – so if you take your job search seriously, it's well worth your while to tighten up your online persona.
Getting request to discuss your previous salaries can feel like one of the most awkward parts of a job interview – especially if you're asking for a significantly higher salary. And although there's no law requiring you to reveal your previous salaries to a prospective employer, it can hurt your chances in the running for a position. Even so, a lot of career coaches strongly advise politely refusing a requ st to discuss your previous salaries, for three main reasons:
- It's personal and confidential information.
- Previous salaries don't determine your current value as an employee.
- Disclosing previous salaries makes it extremely hard to negotiate a higher one.
Another option is to gracefully dodge the question by saying something like, "Well, I know that people in this type of position, in this city, typically make around $40,000 per year." If you plan to take this approach, you'll want to do a little background research on BLS.gov, the website of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which includes a user-friendly search engine to help you track down salary info for hundreds of fields. And yet another possibility is to reveal some of your previous salaries strategically, in a way that demonstrates upward progress – implying that you expect that trend to continue with this job.
No matter which of the above approaches you plan to take, though, you can save yourself stress by spending a little time considering in advance what you'll do if the employer just won't take no for an answer. Is this particular job worth the risk to you? That's something you'll have to determine on a case-by-case basis.
An effective modern resume isn't just a list of previous positions and skills – it's a dynamic document that adapts to the purposes and requirements of a variety of distribution channels, as well as to the expectations and desires of prospective employers. Most resumes get tossed in the trash can – physical or digital – within seconds, so you'll be doing yourself a favor if you take some time to distinguish yours from the competition.
Start by developing a "core resume," which is basically a traditional resume: Your contact info at the top, a list of previous positions you've held, and a summary of your competencies and special skills. But this is just the start – the next step is to use this document as a base from which to develop versions tailored for specific employers and job openings. This isn't actually all that tricky – it mostly amounts to three types of tweaks:
- Trimming your employment history down to positions relevant to the work you're applying for
- Changing the wording to emphasize the relevant aspects of your work at those positions
- Throwing in some keywords from the job posting and/or the employer's website
Beyond this, just keep your resume short (one page, maximum) stick to simple fonts (i.e., Arial or Times New Roman), and focus on particular numbers as much as possible – for example, "28 percent improvement in efficiency" or "processed 500 documents per day." And while it might seem obvious to point out that your resume should be 100 percent free of spelling and grammar mistakes, many hiring managers say they receive resumes with these errors on a daily basis – so don't forget to spell-check and proofread carefully.
A word to the wise, by the way: Quite a few people think they can get away with fudging some of the details on their resumes – but this carries more of a risk than you might think. According to the 2004 Reference and Background Checking Survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 96 percent of all organizations check up on the backgrounds and references of prospective hires, and nearly 50 percent of those organizations reported that those check-ups found inconsistencies in dates of previous employment, criminal records, former job titles and past salaries. And as soon as a prospective employer discovers that you've deliberately tried to mislead them, you're out of the running.
Two things you don't need to worry about disclosing in detail on your resume, though, are your legal right-to-work info and any security clearances you happen to have. Employers will request these things anyway, if they need, to know about them, at some point in the interview process – and many career coaches recommend against listing it in public resume databases. If a job posting specifically asks for info on your security clearance, it's entirely reasonable to simply say "yes" (if you have it) in your initial resume and application, then talk through the details later in the process. And as far as right-to-work goes, it's enough to say that you're a citizen of the United States, or name the work visa you have.
Adapting your resume for specific employers is one part of the process, but it's also worth your while to prepare a few versions for various channels of distribution. Since you'll probably only use paper resumes for in-person meetings and interviews, you'll also want to prepare copies in Portable Document Format (PDF), which preserves all formatting and fonts exactly as they appeared on your screen – in Microsoft Word format (.doc), which is preferred by many employers, and in plain text format, which will come in handy for submitting through text-only forms on online job boards.
When submitting your resume via email, be sure to choose a subject line that's clear about the reason for the email – for example, "Legal Assistant Applying for Chicago Paralegal Position." Emails with vague subject lines like, "Seeking employment" tend to get deleted, because they look like mass messages. Treat the body of the email like a cover letter, and follow the tips in the first section of this article to make sure it grabs the employer's attention. And, as described in the section above, be sure to throw in plenty of keywords related to the job posting in question.
A surprising number of people don't read many job postings in full, which means they often miss information that directly results in the trashing of their resumes. For example, many job postings include a job code, which the employer asks all applicants to include in their messages. Other employers may simply include odd little requests – for example, "Please include your favorite color in your message" – to help save time by filtering out applicants who aren't detail-oriented enough to read the post in full. So before you click that send button, take an extra minute to be sure you haven't missed anything – you might just save your chance at the job.
Sharing your resume online does mean exposing yourself to a certain amount of public scrutiny – but many job board sites allow you to control how much of your information gets shared. Some sites, like LinkedIn, are even designed around internal communication systems that allow members to communicate without sharing any personal info at all, if they'd rather not. Some job seekers prefer to set up email addresses just for the current job search, and some even remove all company details from their resumes, opting instead to substitute terms like "a small local construction firm" or "a Fortune 500 banking company."
The level of online privacy you'll need to opt for depends on your employment situation – for example, you might be concerned that your current boss will stumble on your resume, in which case you'll want to err on the side of caution – and however much (or however little) you want to share about yourself, you can find at least one website that'll let you share to that degree, and no further.
Take a little time to investigate each site where you're considering posting your resume – you'll probably want to post your resume on one or two of the largest broad-based job boards, along with one or two sites dedicated to your own particular niche or field. Read over the privacy policies of any sites to which you're considering signing up, because many job search websites earn a little side income by selling members' info to advertisers. And avoid sites that require you to enter any personal info just to take a look at listings. Any legitimate site will at least allow you to browse without registering, even if access to employers' actual contact info is members-only.
You may be tempted to supplement your job search with a resume distribution service – also sometimes known as a "resume-blasting" service, which sends your resume to hundreds or thousands of potential employers in return for a fee. While this might seem like a powerful tactic, many career coaches advise against it for a variety of reasons. For one thing, these services don't always make it clear where they get the thousands of email addresses to which they submit resumes – and some of them spam resumes to employers who haven't signed up for their lists.
Some resume-blasting services aren't exactly clear about what they promise in return for your money, either. Just because they blast your resume to thousands of email addresses doesn't mean those addresses are all regularly checked, or that the people on the other ends of them are empowered to make hiring decisions. Take a few minutes to investigate any service you're considering with the Better Business Bureau and with RipOffReport.com – and plug their name into Google, too, to see what others are saying about them.
Although this scattershot approach to self-marketing isn't as likely to be effective as some old-fashioned in-person networking – quality, as usual, tends to yield richer results than sheer quantity does. Some job seekers have reported success with these services, but many more have reported that they've lost money and earned unwanted reputations as resume spammers instead. But if you decide it's worth those risks, just make sure you get a written guarantee of the promised results, and pay with a credit card (not a debit card) so you can dispute the charges with your card company if you have to.
Cover Letter Guides — Complete guide to many aspects of cover letters, packed with specific examples.
Managing Your References — All kinds of tips on choosing your references, and on making the most of them.
Susan Ireland's Resume Site — How-to articles, examples, and lots of other resources for resume writing.