You in a Nutshell – aka Cover Letters and Resumes

Conventional wisdom has it that your resume shows your job history, and your cover letter shows you. The resume is technical, the cover letter is explanatory. And you should always, always, always customize both, inputting key phrases and terms from the job posting for a bit of extra oomph. Voilà! The hiring manager is impressed and your candidacy is assured.

So why the heck don’t interviewers ever ask me about what I’ve written in my cover letter?

It hasn’t come up once, in fact. Holding on to that old conventional wisdom, I would use any letter that ‘got me an interview’ as a template for every subsequent application, on the assumption that by getting an interview, I surely had written a good letter. A friend of mine does a lot of hiring in his job, and he donated the following advice:

Brian, circa August: Break up your resume visually so it’s not just a wall of text. Hint at your aesthetic and how you present information in general by making your resume strong on both content and formatting. That’s what I look for when I do hiring. That, and I want to see that the application has been customized to the job posting.

One pretty-pretty resume and four months later, I ran it and my letters past another friend, one who is notorious for getting a response seven out of 10 times on her applications. She works in communications (my target field) and has done some hiring herself.

Michelle, circa November: Your resume is very graphicky [sic]. It’s definitely not bad, and I’ve seen worse. You need to make it more ‘boom-boom-boom’ on content, showing who you are and what you’ve done. They don’t care about your personality, and they only look at your cover letter if your resume is decent. Your letter should just describe what you’ve done in your career. Don’t waste time customizing your letter or resume – I use the same one for every job I apply for, and they know exactly who I am and if I’m a good fit.

Ok, so that’s different. But are hiring managers really that diverse? I rather like the personality I injected into my resume based on Brian’s advice, but absolutely see the rationale behind Michelle’s – not least because it explained why no interviewer has ever asked me about my letters. And I’ve given similar advice to tons of people writing application essays. “Cut to the chase,” I’ll say. “The second an admissions officer has to wade through personality-laden enthusiasm before hitting the meat of your paper is the second you get tossed in the trash. Be direct. Be businesslike.” Good advice, eh?

As I touched on previously, it’s hard writing for yourself. An application isn’t like an article you’ve been assigned with defined parameters; it’s literally writing about you for you by you. What could be scarier? Give me the job of writing about someone else any day.

That being said, nothing is harder than looking in the mirror, and I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I couldn’t do that.

I struck a balance.

I kept some aspects of the formatting to avoid the ‘wall-of-text’ phenomenon Brian hates, but adopted the content-forward approach Michelle says gets her results. The first page is now my summary of qualifications, technical expertise and core competencies. Work history doesn’t show up until the second page! Just describing it that way almost feels like some kind of sacrilege, but looking at it side-by-side with my old one, I see the difference. Before, you had to dig me out of my work history. Now, the best parts of who I am are right up front. My cover letter? If hiring managers even deign to read it, they’ll get a terse, down-to-business prose summary of my career and accomplishments.

I’m probably mere months away (if not sooner) from yet another revamp of my applications, but I can ride out this experiment for now and see where it takes me. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get a job straight away and not have to worry about the hunt again for another few years.




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