How to Tweak Your Cover Letter and Resume for More Impact

Most employers don’t kiss on the first date. Or, to put it another way, they’re not going to hire you based on your resume. Your resume should not focus on trying to get you a job – it should focus on getting you an interview. That means creating a CV that teases an employer into really wanting to know more about you. Along with your resume, your cover letter should not provide TMI. It should provide limited information that makes you memorable and a candidate who’s resume needs to be read.

Reviewing some of the tried-and-true basics of cover letter and resume writing, along with examining a few tips and tricks that sometimes divide resume-writing “experts” will help you create a personal sales pitch that gets you that all-important invitation to come into meet a potential employer.

Organize Your Thoughts

Before you begin writing a cover letter or updating a resume, take a blank sheet of paper or open a new word processing document and list the information you want to include in each, ranking the information in order of importance. The purpose of a cover letter is to get a potential employer to understand your personal brand (what your main selling point is) and to read your resume. The purpose of a resume is to get an interview.

List the most pressing questions you think an employer will have the candidates applying for this question. Rank them in order of importance to the employer. This will help you decide how you can best answer these questions, if they need to be addressed in the cover letter or resume and where you should place them.

The Cover Letter

If the purpose of a resume is not to get you a job, but to get you an interview, what is the purpose of a cover letter? It’s not to get you an interview – it’s to establish your personal brand and get the reader to want to read your resume. If you’ve been in the workforce long enough to have established your creds, your cover letter should tell a prospective employer, “I understand you’re looking to fill a specific job. I’ve not only worked in the position, but I’ve been successful at it and can help you improve your business.”

Highlight the fact that you’ve worked in the position before and include only one or two key accomplishments that tell an employer, “You need to read my resume because I can make you money/save you money/increase sales” or whatever the employer wants that position to do. Don’t tell a potential employer how you can do these things. Teasing him with the fact that you can improve his business will make him want to read your resume to find out how you can do this.

•Start Strong

Get to the point with your opening sentence, which is to tell a potential employer, “I can help you improve your company.” Your opening should focus on the fact that you can help the employer, not that you are awesome based on your education, accomplishments or work history. Consider asking a question, such as, “Are you interested in a webmaster who can increase your traffic while reducing your costs?” What employer can answer that with a no?

Don’t re-hash your resume and make your cover letter an intimidating wall of text. When you’re done with your first draft, look at each piece of information you’ve included and ask yourself what would happen to the letter if you deleted that piece of info. If that piece of info doesn’t make the potential employer strongly want to read your resume, delete it.

•The Case for Bullets

Many cover letters go straight into the garbage because employers want to get to the resume. They know that most cover letters are either a re-hash of the resume or a trite introductory letter. If you want to make information stand out on a cover letter and make it easy to read and understand, use bullet points. Some HR pros feel this makes the cover letter look unprofessional and more like a marketing brochure. Others feel that making a cover letter more like a sales piece is the whole point. Make sure your bullet points are there solely to make a potential employer want to know, “How did she do that? I need to read her resume.” Tell “what” without telling “how.”

•Is a P.S. Powerful of Unprofessional?

Another strong visual on a cover letter is the P.S. Many people read the P.S. on any letter before they read anything else. It can contain one important piece of information you want to impress on your reader. For example, if you’re applying for communications position that requires blogging skills and experience, you might include, “I’m currently finishing an online workshop on WordPress and have created and maintain a blog using this platform at”

Some people believe a P.S. is an unprofessional add-on, while others see it as a powerful opportunity to highlight something important about yourself. If you receive a letter with a P.S., do you dismiss the writer as a hack or look at the information and judge it on its merits? Give it a try and see what you can come up with that will make a strong impression on a potential employer. If you don’t like what you come up with, don’t include a P.S.

The Resume

•Focus on the Reader

While you might be proud of the many things you’ve accomplished during your career, an employer only cares about what you can do for him. That should be the emphasis of your resume – demonstrating your achievements and successes in the context of what they mean for a potential employer. Use a format that lets potential employers quickly find that information that’s important to them. Are you dates of employment really that important that they should start each line of each job you’ve held? Which is more important, the positions you’ve held or your employers’ names and locations?

•Objective, Skill List or Qualifications Statement?

Many people still include an objective at the top of the resume, which tells an employer what you’re looking for in a job or long-term career. This can lead to a statement that talks about what you want instead of what you can offer an employer. Does someone hiring a human resources manager really care that you want an interesting position where you can use your HR skills at a growing company?

The skills list also presents a challenge. When you place a box or row of one- or two-word skill descriptions at the top of a resume, the more skills you list, the less of a specialist you seem to be in any one of them. While you might have eight high-level skills, including all of them in four boxes in two rows doesn’t tell an employer that you’re a star in any one of them. At the very least, set off two or three in bold face and the next five or six in a smaller point size.

A qualifications statement lets you give a one-sentence overview of who you are. An HR benefits manager, for example, might include, “Experienced human resources professional specializing in developing high-quality employee benefits using cost-effective internal strategies and external vendor products.”

Remember the point of these three resume techniques – to give a quick, macro-definition of who you are. This means that in almost all situations, less is more.

•Stress Accomplishments, Not Duties

You’ve probably read and heard this for years, but many people still focus on their job duties as their CV’s main highlights. Don’t focus on describing your duties. In many cases, a potential employer knows what a specific job entails. Focus on listing, in bullet point, your achievements. This will let an employer know what you can potentially do for her.

•Use the Active Voice

When you list your accomplishments, don’t put them in the passive voice. Using the active voice tells the reader you were responsible for the changes – they didn’t just happen. For example, instead of writing, “Department experienced a 30% decrease in turnover,” write, “Reduced employee turnover by 30%.” Instead of writing, “Revenues exceeded prior year by 22%,” write, “Increased revenues 22% over the prior year.”

•Review Friends’ Resumes

A good way to examine your resume more objectively is to look at friends’ resumes, especially those who work in your field. Tell close friends you’re working on your resume and ask them if you can look at theirs. Examine them as if you are an employer looking to a fill a specific position. Does the resume immediately give you the information you want, or it it’s purpose to simply list all of the awesome things you’re friend has accomplished?

In addition to reviewing friends’ resumes, look at the LinkedIn pages of people who hold similar positions to you, looking for what they are stressing as their strong points. When you’re done with your resume, ask your peers to read them from the perspective of an employer and ask for their advice.

Got any Cover Letter or Resume Tips?

Are you someone who hires? If so, please list some of your pet peeves when it comes to resumes and cover letters, and tell us what the best resumes you’ve seen have in common.

More Resources

Harvard Law School: Cover Letters

CUNY Graduate School of Journalism: Cover Letter

Forbes: 5 Ways Your Cover Letter Lost You The Job

Indiana University School of Journalism: Cover Letters

Work Life Group: Ten Things Recruiters Hate about your CV

Forbes: Want an Unbeatable Resume? Read These Tips from a Top Recruiter

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