Writing an Effective Résumé/Cover Letter

What Are Résumés and Cover Letters?

A résumé is a document that highlights a job applicant's skills, professional credentials, education, and work history. Although some employers rely primarily on job applications when filling openings, many expect a résumé. There are a number of styles a résumé may follow depending on the applicant's circumstances and experiences, as well as the type of job that he or she is seeking.

A cover letter is an applicant's introduction to a prospective employer, and it should touch on the contents of the résumé without completely restating that material. The letter should highlight the qualities that make the candidate especially qualified for the advertised position. The cover letter should also directly request consideration for the job for which the person is applying.

What Are Some Types of Résumés?

The chronological résumé, which is the most traditional form, lists the positions that an applicant has held in chronological order, starting with the most recent employment and proceeding back in time. Such a format is typically the best choice for an applicant who has worked continuously in one field and can demonstrate increasing levels of achievement and responsibility. Employers often prefer this type of résumé, because it is easy to read with regard to employment dates and job titles.

Combination résumés include elements of both the chronological and the functional formats. Combination résumés generally list skills at the top and then contain a reverse-chronological work history below. Such résumés are often useful for applicants looking for work in fields that require highly specialized skills and knowledge. However, they hold the same drawbacks as the chronological résumé for individuals who have an inconsistent work history.

Should a Résumé Include an Objective or a Summary of Qualifications?

After the contact section, most résumés lead with an objective or a summary of qualifications. An objective section is most useful if you are new to the job market or changing careers. If you are more experienced, your career path and objectives will be more evident from your work history. In this case, some human-resource professionals suggest that experienced job seekers forgo writing an objective and instead use a summary of qualifications.

Writing an Effective Résumé/Cover Letter

Human resources: The department in a company that is responsible for hiring and managing employees.

Writing an Effective Résumé/Cover Letter

An objective should be concise and tailored both to your skills and experience and to the specific job you are aiming to get. It is helpful to use keywords from the job posting, especially as many employers store résumés electronically and can do a keyword search to quickly locate matching résumés. An objective should detail the manner in which you can contribute to a business rather than the ways in which you would find the job personally enriching. It is best to keep objectives simple and direct and to avoid vague generalizations.

A summary of qualifications consists of three to five sentences summarizing your skills and experience, as well as personal attributes, and should be customized to the position that is available. As with the objective section, generalizations should be avoided. It is important to use dynamic language and best to refrain from using the pronouns “I” or “me.”

What Other Sections Should a Résumé Include?

There are several basic types of résumés that can be used to apply for job openings—such as chronological, functional, combination, or targeted. Choosing the right one for your particular situation is

There are several basic types of résumés that can be used to apply for job openings—such as chronological, functional, combination, or targeted. Choosing the right one for your particular situation is the key. NAN728/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM.

Most résumés should include an education section that describes your educational background. If you have a bachelor's degree or higher you do not need to include information about the high school you attended. The education section should include colleges attended, any degrees earned, and the year of graduation. Some professionals suggest that older adults who are returning to the work-force or making a career change should omit graduation dates. Recent graduates should include information about any major or other areas of specialization, and they might also share their grade point average if it was above 3.0. Established professionals may omit this information.

An employment or work history section is an important component of most résumés. This section should include the names and addresses of former employers, past employment dates, and the names and contact information of past supervisors. It should also include a description of the job duties performed, highlighting those that are most relevant to the job that the applicant is seeking. Functional résumés, which emphasize skills and experience over employment history, still typically include some of this information, but they can be arranged according to their relevance to key job skills rather than chronologically.

How Should a Résumé Look?

The visual appearance of a résumé can have a high impact on your chances of getting an interview. Studies have suggested that the average employer spends about 35 seconds looking over a résumé to see if it is worth keeping. In order to make it past this initial screen, you should make sure that your document is easy to read and that it highlights the information most important to the employer. Using one of the conventional résumé formats is helpful, as most hiring managers will find them easiest to read.

Writing an Effective Résumé/Cover Letter

The font or fonts you choose can also have an effect on the document's readability. Most fonts are either serif or sans serif. Serifs are the small lines attached to the ends of letters that give them an edged appearance. Times New Roman is an example of a serif font. Sans-serif fonts such as Arial do not include these lines and generally have a rounder appearance. Serif fonts are very readable at larger point sizes and therefore work best for section headings. Sans-serif fonts are more readable than serif fonts at smaller point sizes. Most experts suggest a sans-serif font for blocks of text in a résumé. A contrast between two font styles can be visually appealing, but if you prefer to be consistent by using a single font, a sans-serif font is the best choice.

How Long Should a Résumé Be?

Conventional wisdom dictates that résumés should be no more than one page. Keeping the résumé short is usually the best strategy for recent college graduates and for others who are new to the workforce. More seasoned professionals might need additional pages to best showcase their accomplishments and to be competitive with other candidates. Even job seekers with limited experience may need an additional page for references if prospective employers request that they submit them with their résumés.

If you are attempting to make a career change to a completely different field, a shorter format might be best. A functional résumé will necessarily exclude work experience that does not lend itself to the new position. Functional résumés may be more than one page if your related experience is extensive.

What Are Some Common Mistakes Made in Résumés?

When applying for a job, first impressions are very important. Mistakes in a résumé can cause employers to dismiss you as a potential employee, even if you are otherwise qualified for the job. Therefore, it is vital for you to make sure that the materials you send out are as flawless as possible.


In addition to requesting your résumé and cover letter, future employers might also ask for a list of references. A reference is a person who is willing to speak about your previous work experience, skills, and work ethic.

If an employer asks you for references, they will most likely state the number of references they need. If they do not specify a number, it is appropriate to list two or three. When you submit your references, list them with their full name and preferred title (such as “Mrs.” or “Ms.”) and include work addresses, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers so that the employer has a variety of ways to contact them.

You should pick references who you believe will speak positively and professionally about your work abilities. References are generally current or former bosses or direct supervisors; they may also be teachers, coaches, or advisers. Since employers are interested in your workplace experiences, references should not be friends, family members, or others who know you strictly in a social capacity.

After you choose potential references, contact them to see if they are willing to speak on your behalf. To those who agree to serve as a reference, provide a copy of your résumé to refresh them on your work experiences and specific skills. This added information will allow them to speak more fully to an employer about you. Also, give your references plenty of advance notice that an employer might contact them, and let them know about the job you are applying for and why you want it.

It is good etiquette to send your references a handwritten thank-you note to show your appreciation for their time and help. It is also considered polite to update them on the status of your job search.

There are several common mistakes related to a résumé's language and visual style. Spelling and grammar mistakes are easy to make but especially important to avoid, because they may suggest poor communication skills as well as a lack of care and attention to detail. You should always proofread your résumés carefully. Visually, résumés should look clean, well organized, and symmetrical. Too many visual elements can detract from the content of the résumé. Hiring managers may deal with a high volume of résumés and may not be inclined to search out the relevant details on a document that is visually confusing.

What Kind of Information Should I Include in a Cover Letter?

Writing an Effective Résumé/Cover Letter

If possible, it is always best for you to get the name of a hiring manager or supervisor to whom you can address your cover letter and résumé. If this information is not available, most résumé professionals advise that people avoid generic phrases such as “to whom it may concern.” Instead, it is acceptable to simply begin the introductory portion of the letter.

The first paragraph of a cover letter should name the specific job that you are seeking. If you learned of this job through professional contacts, this is a great place for you to mention names. A prospective employee recommended by professionals known to the hiring team will likely have a leg up on the competition.

The second paragraph should contain a short summary of your career, customized to mesh well with the company you are approaching. Next, you should list the most significant professional accomplishments that relate to the job you are pursuing. This can be done in bullet form, or it can be written out as a third paragraph.

In closing the cover letter, you should state an intention to maintain communication and indicate a time frame for when you plan to follow up on the résumé. You can also request to be contacted for an interview. Contact details are unnecessary here, because they should be included at the top of the résumé.

What Are Some Common Mistakes Made in Cover Letters?

Writing an Effective Résumé/Cover Letter

In addition, because cover letters are now commonly submitted by e-mail, it may be tempting for those writing them to use the informal language typical of online communication. However, cover letters should always be professional in tone, whatever the mode of transmission. They should be free of spelling and grammatical errors and should not use slang or Internet abbreviations.