Monday Mornings with Madison

Writing a Great Resume and Cover Letter

Writers and marketers are often asked to help write, revise or review a Resume and/or Cover Letter.  Sometimes, it is for friend in search of a new job.  Sometimes, it is for a business owner who needs to raise capital or increase a line of credit.  Sometimes, it is for a colleague being considered for a seat on a company’s Board of Directors.  Resumes and Cover Letters are the most basic, fundamental tools used to speak on behalf of professionals today. After all, what is a Resume and Cover Letter but self-marketing… an individual’s own personal brochure and commercial.

After decades of helping others to draft or tweak their self-marketing documents, the average writer or marketer becomes something of a Job Connoisseur or Resume Coach.  In providing this support, the seasoned Resume Coach sees a lot of the same mistakes over and over.  Regardless of age, experience or occupation, many people — from the greenest up-and-coming novice to the most experience executives and professionals — commit the same errors on their Resumes and Cover Letters.  The most common errors are basic fundamental glitches having to do with grammar, spelling, syntax and punctuation.  Another common error is overstating or saying too much.  Another common mistake has to do with the mindset or perspective with which the documents were written.  For anyone in the process of writing or updating a Resume or Cover Letter, here are some words of wisdom to consider.

1.  Have the Right Mindset.

Before beginning to write or edit a Resume or Cover Letter, consider the audience and the point of the information.  The harsh truth is that no employer is interested in the candidate himself or his needs or goals.  No banker or investor is interested in the entrepreneur’s philosophy.  No head hunter wants to ‘get to know’ a prospect.  An employer or banker or search committee is interested only in their own needs and what is important to them.  If there is a job to fill, the hiring manager needs to find the best candidate for that vacancy.  If there is a Board seat to fill, the search team needs to identify the individual with the right skills, personality and resources to be an asset to the organization.  If a banker is considering funding a project, that lender is looking for signs that the applicant will be successful.  That means every word in a Cover Letter and Resume should speak to that and only that.  While there may be a time and a place for self-introspection or flattery or waxing poetic, it serves no purpose on a Resume or Cover Letter.  Save all that for a face-to-face meeting (if there is one).   Instead, the person sending a Resume and Cover Letter would be wise to use these documents to “make the case” for what he has accomplished in the past and how that relates to what the recipient of the Resume needs now.  It should also explain what the person can and will do to be effective in the future.  The Cover Letter and Resume should remain focused squarely on that.

Take note that good marketers do the same thing when marketing a company’s services.  Savvy marketers understand that clients don’t care much about a company’s name or awards or slogans.  Customers want to know what that business can do for them…. how that company can help solve a problem or fill a need.  Coca Cola doesn’t market ‘soda’…. It sells “thirst-quenching goodness, refreshing taste and a burst of energy” (from all the sugar and caffeine).  In marketing, the focus is squarely on the benefits not the features.   The same is true when preparing and presenting a Resume.  The person’s Resume should show how he can benefit the recipient.  Every word in the Resume and Cover Letter should speak to that.

2.  Choose Words Carefully.

Anyone preparing a Resume or Cover Letter should think of these documents as valuable pieces of real estate.  There is only a limited amount of space – a few sheets of paper — for the “candidate” to market him or herself to the target audience…. whether that is a hiring manager, bank manager or an executive committee member.   Cover letters are ideally one page in length, but should definitely not exceed two pages at most.  Resumes should be one to two pages, or three at the most for a person with considerable years of experience.  Only a Curriculum Vitae can be longer than three pages and that is used typically by college professors, medical professionals, attorneys and others who regularly publish scholarly material.  Since this “real estate” is limited and valuable, the space must be used to maximum efficiency and effectiveness.  Words must be chosen carefully.  Remember, less is more.  The hardest thing to do in writing is to be concise.  The best Resumes and Cover Letters are concise.

3.  A Great Cover Letter is Customized!

Each Cover Letter should be written specifically for the opportunity that is being targeted.  For example, if the Cover Letter is being written in response to a job opening, it should be highly customized to speak to that particular posting about that particular opening with that particular company.  The specific information provided as well as the tone of the letter should be written with that job in mind.  Some job postings are very brief while others are very detailed.  Some are matter-of-fact while others have personality.  The Cover Letter should match the tone of the posting.  Of course, that takes a LOT of time and requires a lot of writing / editing.  That is where most people go awry.  Many people send a canned Cover Letter, reusing it again and again, and think that their Resume will speak for itself.  Consider that many people – from employers to bankers and from search committees to head hunters — will scarcely review a Resume if the Cover Letter fails to impress.  A good Cover Letter helps get a Resume beyond the screeners and secretaries into the hands of the decision-makers.   A great Cover Letter grabs the audience’s attention and makes them take notice.  In fact, a really impressive Cover Letter matters as much or more than a Resume.   The best Cover Letters are impactful.

4.  Prepare Multiple Resumes.

Some people think that having various different Resumes (simultaneously) is wrong and could be perceived as being a chameleon-like… changing colors to suit the situation.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Not only is it not wrong, it is perfectly acceptable even by the strictest moral standards to have multiple versions of one’s Resume.  The reality is that no Resume can encapsulate everything a professional has ever done or accomplished.  It is important to customize a Resume to bring to the forefront those experiences and accomplishments that would matter most to that particular reader.

In fact, most professionals do have several different versions of their Resume for the various types of opportunities that might present.   For example, a developer might have one Resume to share with investors and lenders and a different Resume for marketing and media purposes.  A Resume written by a developer to give to investors might be more focused on past deals and include sensitive financial information.  A Resume that that same developer shared with the Media might include more background and biographical information and less financial data.  Like the Cover Letter, it is important for a Resume to be tailored to deliver the information that would be of most value to the target audience.

5.  Get an Editor

No matter who is writing the Resume and Cover letter, it is important that at least two or three pairs of eyes look over the documents once they are “done”.  No one is perfect and writers cannot catch their own written mistakes, no matter how keenly they try.  Having someone who is persnickety and detail-oriented review each document carefully increases the odds of catching grammatical, punctuation, spelling and syntax errors.  The writer should listen with an open mind to comments and suggestions, and make changes accordingly.  If someone says that the Cover Letter sounds pompous, change the tone.  If a friendly critic comments that the Cover Letter is too long or boring, shorten it and add some personality to it.  Constructive criticism should be embraced.

In the end, a Cover Letter and Resume are meant to say what the person cannot “say” for him or herself.  It is important that those words be accurate, effective and clear in their representation.

Quote of the Week

“Emphasize your strengths on your resume, in your cover letters and in your interviews. It may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people simply list everything they’ve ever done. Convey your passion and link your strengths to measurable results. Employers and interviewers love concrete data.” Marcus Buckingham


© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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