Recently someone I don’t know emailed me to ask for feedback on her resumé. This person, let’s call her Charlie, had been applying for lots of jobs and wasn’t getting called back. Although Charlie and I don’t work in the same industry, I had some feedback for her about how to write and structure her job application.
I’m by no means an expert on HR, but I have applied (successfully and unsuccessfully) for a lot of jobs during my career. When I worked at Facebook, I helped with hiring for the content strategy team and reviewed hundreds of applications. Here’s my best advice based on some common mistakes I’ve seen over and over again:
Include a thoughtful, relevant cover letter
It’s surprising how many people don’t bother to write a cover letter. Or if they do, the letter is so generic it could be for any job. Employers want to feel like their role is special and important to prospective candidates. A good cover letter can go a long way in conveying that. It’s also the perfect opportunity to introduce yourself and let your unique voice shine through.
Respond to what’s asked
Read the job description and requirements carefully. Make sure to clearly and succinctly address how you meet the criteria in your cover letter or at the top of your resumé. Don’t try to respond to every requirement, but pick a handful that are the most “you” and speak to them.
In your resumé, don’t just provide a chronology of your previous jobs. In short form (bullets are fine, maybe even preferred), list a few key tasks and responsibilities for each role on your resumé. Better yet, list some key outcomes you achieved in the role. For example: Instead of saying “Filed documents”, say (if it’s true) “Set up and managed over 10,000 files”. Don’t make people guess what you did or the impact of your work.
Avoid generalities and clichés
Avoid saying things that could apply to almost anyone. Instead, look for the things that are unique to you and that make you a good fit for the role.
For example, instead of saying “I’m responsible and organized”, say “I managed a cat hotel where I was responsible for keeping up to 25 cats fed, watered, clean and entertained 24 hours a day.”
Keep your cover letter to under one page and get to important information quickly. You have maybe 30 seconds to explain why you are a stand-out candidate. Don’t be afraid to use bullets where it makes sense. They’re easier to scan than long sentences or paragraphs.
Ideally, your resumé should be under two pages long. You don’t have to list everything you’ve ever done. Just focus on the roles you’ve had that are relevant to the job you’re applying for. If you’re applying for a content strategy role, it probably doesn’t matter that you worked a babysitter when you were 16 years old.
Be confident and direct
Don’t undersell your accomplishments. Think about your unique combination of skills — what you’re proud of — and be direct about them. Women in particular tend to undersell their accomplishments and should be especially on the lookout for hedging language that makes them sound less successful than they are.
Structure content for scanning
Use headings, typographical hierarchy and bullets to make your resumé easy to scan. There are lots of free resumé templates online. Here are a few: https://www.themuse.com/advice/the-41-best-resume-templates-ever
Pay attention to details
Spell and grammar check your documents on whatever word processing tool you use. Get a friend (or two) to read things over to catch anything you’ve missed. As a final pass, read it out loud to yourself so you can catch errors or awkward turns of phrases.
Apply for jobs you want
In your cover letter, say why you want the job and be genuine. A good employer is not just looking for a set of skills, but for someone who will care about the type of work they’ll be doing. If you can’t think of a true reason to be excited about the role — something that’s specific to you — then maybe it’s not the right role to apply for. If you have any choice at all, try to apply for roles that you can imagine yourself doing well.
If you’re looking for a new job this year, good luck!