Powerful New Grad Resumes and Cover Letters: 10 Things They Have in Common
by Katharine Hansen
OK, you're graduating from college soon. Time to give your
resume and cover letter a checkup to ensure they are as powerful
as they can be. Powerful new grad resumes and cover letters
have several things in common, so you can kill a number of
birds with one stone with this checkup.
1. Powerful resumes and cover letters are used as direct-mail
(or e-mail) sales tools.
It's important to remember the purpose of a resume and cover
letter. They don't have to perform the task of getting you
a job since very few people are hired sight unseen. All they
have to do is get you an interview. So the primary mission
of a resume and cover letter is arouse the reader's interest
and sell yourself enough so that you get asked to meet with
The lesson here is to keep your documents concise and to
the point. You don't have to include everything about
yourself, and you should not include anything that's
not relevant. You don't have write your autobiography. Now,
granted, some college students have the opposite problem.
Instead of limiting the information they list on their resumes,
they worry about not having enough. Others are tempted to
list every class they've taken, every award, and every extracurricular
activity. Many of these items may be worthy resume components,
but for every item you're considering inserting into your
resume, ask yourself, is it relevant to the kind of job I'm
Course work usually isn't necessary unless it's unusual or
you have very little else to list in your resume. Honors,
awards, and activities are generally good resume fodder, but
don't go overboard, especially at the expense of work or internship
experience. I knew one new grad who had an impressive list
of honors and awards. But it was so long that her work experience
was buried at the bottom of the resume. Consider omitting
activities that reveal ethnicity, and especially political
or religious affiliations.
Let go of high-school activities and honors unless they are
truly exceptional or demonstrate an early interest in your
chosen career. Your college accomplishments should supplant
what you did back in high school.
2. Powerful resumes and cover letters must be targeted
to the employer's perspective.
When constructing your resume and cover letter, put yourself
in the mind-set of the employer. Ask not what the employer
can do for you but what you can do for the employer. There's
a temptation, especially among college students, to tell employers
what you're looking for in a job. We frequently see that tendency
in Objective statements. The old chestnut about "Seeking challenging
position with growth potential," is so overused that it is
meaningless to employers.
Employers want to know what you can do for them, how you
will benefit their companies, how you will impact their bottom
lines. While they're not totally oblivious to your
career hopes and dreams, your aspirations are not their primary
3. Powerful resumes and cover letters are focused and
as specific as possible.
The sad truth is that resumes and cover letters are read
for between 2.5 and 20 seconds. So you have only the briefest
moment to catch the employer's interest. The employer wants
to know as quickly as possible: What do you want to do and
what are you good at? He or she doesn't have time to wade
through lots of text to find out.
So how can you sharpen the focus of your resume and cover
Consider an Objective
Statement to sharpen a resume's focus. The objective
statement can be as simple and straightforward as the title
of the position you're applying for, which can be adjusted
for every job you apply for. Or you can embellish the Objective
statement with language telling how you'll benefit the employer.
Objective: To contribute strong ________ skills
and experience to your firm in a _________ capacity.
In this day of being able to manage our own computer
files, you could have several versions of your resume
that are exactly the same except for the objective. A
specific objective is always better than a vague or general
Include a Professional Profile. A profile section, also
known as a "Summary of Qualifications," can help sharpen
your resume's focus by presenting 4-5 bullet points that
encapsulate your best qualifications and selling points.
It's often a good idea to list relevant computer and foreign-language
skills in this section instead of burying them at the bottom
of your resume, as many job-seekers do. To see an example
of such a section, go to this sample
See more resume samples
(which require Adobe Acrobat Reader), including:
Tailor cover letters to specific jobs. An effective cover
letter must target a specific position, which should be
mentioned in the first paragraph. Don't list several possible
positions or say that you're willing to consider any position.
If you do, the employer will see you as unfocused or even
desperate. Read more about cover letter specifics: Cover
Letter Success is All About Specifics.
Also consider specific tailoring for resumes. According
to a new study by Career Masters Institute, employers want
resumes to show a clear match between the applicant and
a particular job's requirements. A "general" resume that
is not focused on a specific job's requirements is seen
as not competitive. Now it may not be realistic or practical
to change your resume for every job you apply for, but you
can change certain elements, such as the aforementioned
Objective statement and the Professional Profile section.
Another alternative is to have more than one version of
your resume. Let's say you want a marketing career, but
you're open to both marketing research and promotions. You
could craft a version of your resume for each niche.
Consider adding a graphic. This suggestion is pretty radical,
and it's not for everyone, but a very small, tasteful graphic
on your resume and/or cover letter could sharpen your focus.
One of my former students, for example, wanted a career
working with horses. She placed a tiny horse graphic at
the top of her resume. Her career focus was instantly apparent.
Another student pursuing a law career used a tasteful scales
of justice graphic; another interested in international
business had a small world map graphic.
4. Powerful resumes and cover letters make the most of
your college experience.
Too many college students miss the opportunity to exploit
valuable experience on their resumes and cover letter because
they overlook unpaid experience. Experience is experience.
It doesn't have to be paid. Anything you've done that has
enabled you to develop skills that are relevant to the kind
of job you seek is worth consideration for resume and cover
letter mention. That's especially true if you don't have much
paid experience. The key, as noted in #1, is relevance.
Consider the following in evaluating what experience and skills
you've gained that are relevant to what you want to do when
And go ahead and list material from these areas under your
Experience section. Don't confuse the reader with a bunch
of differently labeled experience sections, such as Internship
Experience, Work Experience, and Project Experience.
5. Powerful resumes and cover letters portray your skills
as transferable and applicable to what you want to do.
You may think what you've done is not relevant to your future
career, but you can probably spin the experience so that it
demonstrates the transferable and applicable skills that most
The value of transferable skills is a major reason I urge
students to list sports in the Experience sections of their
resumes -- because athletics so often provide the teamwork,
leadership experience, and competitive drive that employers
6. Powerful resumes and cover letters focus on ACCOMPLISHMENTS,
NOT job duties and responsibilities.
In the recent study by Career Masters Institute, content
elements that propelled employers to immediately discard resumes
included a focus on duties instead of accomplishments, while
documented achievements were highly ranked among content elements
that employers look for.
Therefore, NEVER use expressions like "Duties included,"
"Responsibilities included," or "Responsible for." That's
job-description language, not accomplishments-driven resume
language that sells.
Instead, emphasize the special things you did to set yourself
apart and do the job better than anyone else.
Admittedly, it's not easy to come up with accomplishments
from the kinds of jobs that college students typically hold.
But it's important to:
Start tracking your accomplishments NOW.
Start HAVING accomplishments NOW!
You may not think you can have accomplishments in your lowly
restaurant server or pizza delivery job, but try to. Ask your
boss what you can do to improve. Strive to win any awards
(such as Employee of the Month) that your employer offers.
Find ways to go above and beyond your job description.
7. Powerful resumes and cover letters use action verbs
Action verbs in your resume and cover letters increase the
strength of your writing and make you sound dynamic to employers.
Luckily, there is no lack of sources for lists of action
verbs; you can find them all over the Web (including Quintessential
Careers' Job-Seeker Action
Verbs) and in nearly every resume and cover letter book.
Almost as important as using action verbs is avoiding weak
Do. Try "conduct," "perform," or "orchestrate."
Forms of the verb "to be." Instead of "was," say "served,"
Work. Everyone works. Be more specific. Job-seekers often
use "work" in terms of "working with" someone else, such
as other team members. In that context, "collaborate(d)"
is often a good substitute.
Received. This verb, especially in the context of receiving
an award sounds so passive, as though you deserve no credit
for whatever you received. Always say you "earned" an award
or honor rather than "received" it.
Threatening to overtake verbs in importance on resumes and
cover letters are keywords. Employers are increasingly relying
on digitizing job-seeker resumes, placing those resumes in
keyword-searchable databases, and using software to search
those databases for specific keywords -- usually nouns --
that relate to job vacancies. Most Fortune 1000 companies,
in fact, and many smaller companies now use these technologies.
Experts estimate that more than 80 percent of resumes are
searched for job-specific keywords.
The bottom line is that if you apply for a job with a company
that searches databases for keywords, and your resume doesn't
have the keywords the company seeks for the person who fills
that job, you are pretty much dead in the water.
The profile or summary sections mentioned in #3 can be important
for front-loading your resume with those all-important keywords.
8. Powerful resumes and cover letters contain NO typos
This characteristic should go without saying, yet in our
we still see typos and misspellings with alarming frequency.
Remember that it's not enough to spell-check your documents
because you may have used a perfectly spelled word -- but
it wasn't the word you wanted. For example, a word frequently
seen on resumes and cover letter is "possess," but some job-seekers
accidentally spell it "posses," which is the plural of "posse."
Proofread your resume and cover letter. Put them down for
a few hours, come back, and proofread again. Then get a friend
or family member with a good eye to proof them for you.
9. Powerful resumes and cover letters are reader-friendly.
The Career Masters Institute study ranks easy readability
highest of all resume characteristics in terms of first impressions.
The employers surveyed ranked use of bullets second highest.
Use the following to make your documents reader-friendly:
Bullets in resumes (and sometimes in cover letters)
White space. Make sure your documents have reasonable
margins. In my opinion, the default margins in Microsoft
Word are wider than they need to be (1.25" on the left and
right and 1" at the top and bottom). Margins can be as narrow
as .75" if needed. My partner uses the "thumb test." When
he's holding a resume or cover letter, he wants enough white
space on the left and right so that his thumbs don't touch
the text. Of course, he has big thumbs, so 1" left and right
margins suit him better. Also make sure you have a line
of space between all the jobs listed on your resume and
between all resume sections. For cover letters, equalize
the white space at the top and bottom of the letter so that
it is centered vertically on the page.
Type large enough to read (no smaller than 10.5 point).
Now, about the one-page "rule." Job-seekers, especially
new grads, are often cautioned to keep resumes to one page.
And it's good advice. You should keep it to one page if at
all possible. But if your experience is exceptional, don't
sacrifice readability just for the sake of keeping the resume
to one page. I've seen job-seekers use nonexistent margins
and tiny type just to squash their resumes onto a single page.
At the same time, if your resume spills over to fill just
a small part of a second page (less than half the page), it's
probably best to condense to one page by cutting content.
10. Powerful resumes and cover letters include every possible
way to reach you.
Powerful resumes and cover letters do no good if the employer
can't reach you. Most college students wisely list both their
campus and home addresses and phone numbers on their resumes.
A surprising number of the resumes our resume
service receives omit an e-mail address; these days, an
e-mail address on your resume is a must. Don't forget your
cell phone number, if you have one. In fact, don't overlook
any way an employer could reach you, including fax and pager
numbers, if available.
When you're in job-hunting mode, make sure the outgoing message
on your residence-hall answering machine or voice-mail sounds
professional. I've called many students in their dorms and
gotten some pretty outrageous messages that would likely turn
A good way to ensure you have all relevant contact information
on both you resume and cover letter (remember that the two
could get separated) is to use the same "letterhead" on both
documents, which also makes for an attractive package. It
also never hurts to repeat your most important contact information
in the last paragraph of your cover letter.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article?
Get more information (definitions and links) on key college,
career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's
Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen is a former speechwriter and college
instructor who provides content for Quintessential Careers,
edits QuintZine, an
electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and prepares job-search
correspondence as chief writer for Quintessential Resumes
and Cover Letters. She is author of Dynamic Cover
Letter for New Graduates; A Foot in the Door: Networking
Your Way into the Hidden Job Market; and, with Randall
S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters and Write
Your Way to a Higher GPA, all published by Ten Speed Press.
She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.