I have read a lot of cover letters and resumes. Like, A LOT. And because I often coach people who are looking to make a job transition, I am frequently asked how people can improve their application materials. I get this question enough that I thought it might be helpful to you (and, frankly, me) to compile this advice in one place!
Here’s my opening disclaimer: I am absolutely not a professional cover letter or resume coach. I’m also not a recruiter or an HR professional. When I work with people who are in job transition, I help them think about what career opportunities align with their purpose, values, skills, and the environment in which they thrive. Every piece of advice in this post is purely my own opinion based on years of hiring, serving on hiring committees, and my own personal experience. In fact, if one of my coaching clients asks me for cover letter or resume help, I typically encourage them to find another resource.
Ok? Cool. Here we go!
My first piece of general advice is to be real. Your cover letter and resume are often your first introduction to the organization. I think it’s more important to be real about who you are than to try to contort yourself into what they are looking for. Because if they hire you, you’ll have to be that contorted person rather than yourself. Being honest and authentic is always a good place to start, no matter how much you want the role. You are an asset. Be real about who you are and what you bring. You got this.
Next, think about to whom you are writing. Is the first stop for your application materials an HR department who will do an initial screening? Is there a hiring committee or just one person involved? Is the organization using a recruiter who will make recommendations based on certain criteria? I’m not suggesting that you would necessarily change your tone in these different cases, but it’s good to know if there is anything unique about the hiring process that you need to take into account. This is why I always recommend tailoring your materials to the role, the organization, and their process, rather than submitting the same stuff to several different organizations.
Finally, don’t think of your cover letter and resume as isolated documents. If I’m the hiring manager, I’m going to read these documents together, which means they can play off of each other. They both, in very different ways, tell me the story of you and your career:
1. Your resume tells me that you can do the job. Your cover letter tells me why you want the job.
Here’s my application material review confession: When I am hiring, I always look at the resume first. It’s not because I think it’s the most important document. For me, the cover letter is far more important. I look at the resume first for a quick check of your experience. Basically, do you have the professional experience that gives me a sense that you can do the job? I’m looking at the jobs you’ve had and for the skills that you’ve developed. So, even if you are trying to break into a new field and haven’t had jobs that are in that field, I’ll look for what skills you’ve acquired at the jobs you’ve had that tell me you can do the job.
Once I’ve looked at the resume to get a sense of your experience, I’ll then do a pretty deep read of your cover letter. More than anything, I want to know why you want this job. What I definitely DO NOT need is a rehash of your resume. My biggest pet peeve is reading a cover letter that just tells me everything I can see in your resume. Tell me in your cover letter why you are excited about this role.
2. Your resume tells me what you have done. Your cover letter tells me who you are.
I should be able to look at your resume and get a clear sense of your career journey. I should be able to see where you started and how you got to be where you are now. And I should get a pretty good sense of what you have accomplished in your various roles and skills you have acquired.
In your cover letter, I want to learn about you as a person and a professional. I want to know what kind of leader you are. My writing advice is that you should write how you speak. When I read your cover letter, I want to get a sense that you are talking directly to me. Cover letters can be pretty dry, and that has as much to do with how you are saying it as what you are saying. Now, I’m not suggesting that you tell me jokes, or that you give me tidbits about how you spend your free time on the weekends. Basically, if you read your own cover letter out loud and I want you to think, “Yes, this SOUNDS like me.”
3. Your resume is about the past. Your cover letter is about the present and future.
Your resume is a document that tells me about the things you have done up to this point. It’s a backward looking document. It’s historical.
Your cover letter should tell me why this is the job for you right now. Are you looking to challenge yourself? Are you making a transition? Are you looking for more responsibility? Has your career been leading you to this very role, and now is the time for you to go for it? If you see yourself as a leader in the field, tell me how you think this role helps you in your leadership now and in the future.
4. Your resume tells me about your progress. Your cover letter tells me about your passion.
Your resume is a story of your career journey. Where have you been? Have you moved up? Made lateral moves? And if there are places or spaces in your journey that make me curious and I want to know more, I’m likely to ask you about it in an interview.
I want to see your passion for the work in your cover letter. I want to see your personal connection to the work and the kind of heart you will bring. You don’t need to gush or go over the top. I should see your authenticity as you speak to what part of this job makes you want to come to work everyday. Start your letter by telling me a story. Grab me from the first sentence. I want to think, “I am really interested to talk to this person” by the time I get to the end of the page.