following @jenica26, my thoughts on resumes and cover letters

Over at Attempting Elegance, Jenica wrote some advice on cover letters that’s been getting a lot of attention. As someone who was unemployed for a year post-grad-school, I wrote a lot of resumes and cover letters and have Opinions on them, but you should go read her advice first, because it’s good advice, and because, unlike me, she or someone like her may someday soon be in a position to hire you. Go read it. I’ll wait.

You done?

OK, good. So here are my opinions on resumes & cover letters.

  1. Your resume is not about the past. No one’s hiring you for your past; they’re hiring you for your future. The past is just the best tool you have to illustrate it. The resume cannot be a lifeless list of past job duties. (Duties aren’t even about you — they’re about your former employer. You aren’t the person your perspective employer wants to hear about either, really — like most conversationalists they want to hear about themselves — but they certainly don’t want to hear you going on about your past significant others.)
  2. The application package is a story. People like stories. People can relate to stories. The resume and cover letter should leave them with the sense they’ve just read a coherent narrative about one person. (Of course the resume isn’t written in narrative form! But its secret heartbeat is the same.) They should create an arc of where you’ve been and where you’re going — an arc that pulls the reader forward and invites them to see where you’re going in their organization. And there should be a dramatic unity to the whole, because readers should be left with a sense of you as a unique person, not as a scattered set of skills across a page.
  3. The application package is a thesis. Just like all those undergrad English and history papers that most librarians wrote so many of: you have a thesis, and you are marshaling evidence to support it. Let me save you time and tell you your thesis for every application you will ever write: it is, “I am wonderfully well suited for your job, and putting me in it will create value for your organization.” There! And your evidence is accomplishments and anecdotes from your previous experience that illustrate your suitability for the things outlined in the ad, plus anything else that your research of the organization has led you to believe they want in that role. (This is how you build that dynamic arc that drives forward: by putting the past in an evidentiary role.)

What this comes down to in practice:

  • Strong verbs.
  • Every bullet point on the resume should start with a strong verb. Nothing in the passive voice is a strong verb. Neither is anything like “participated” or, in most cases, “liaised”. Verbs used in the job description are usually golden.

  • Accomplishments.
  • There’s a difference between job duties and job accomplishments. When I was a teacher, I had the duty of teaching classes. But I had the accomplishments of developing a new honors curriculum, and demonstrating public speaking skills in front of tough audiences, and working effectively with a wide range of personalities and stakeholders in the process of doing so. Which were, yeah, pretty much the things I had to do to carry out my duties, but communicated a lot better (especially to non-teachers). And they’re things I can write to match the job requirements in a whole lot of ads. (FYI I found it very hard to translate my experience into accomplishments at first; the book So what are you going to do with that? was very useful. It’s aimed at Ph.D. students deciding to leave academe, but I think useful to anyone trying to break out of a “school” mindset and into a “work” one.)

  • Good anecdotes. For every job, I’d sort through all the requirements, identify all the ones I could make a compelling case for, and then identify anecdotes from my past experience which demonstrated those abilities. My cover letter would then be 2-3 of those anecdotes (plus introduction and conclusion), told in a way which tied them back to the language of the ad. One reason this is good: people like stories, above. Another reason: once you’ve identified the most compelling half-dozen anecdotes from your experience you actually can cut and paste a lot of your letter; yes, you have to tailor the intro and conclusion to each job, and yes, you have to tweak a bit of the phrasing in each anecdote to match the ad, but you can quickly assemble a first draft from cut and paste. I found this saved a lot of time but more importantly got me over that horrible gnawing writer’s block that is staring at an empty document that was only going to, you know, dictate my future.

I found that using these strategies pretty reliably got me at least a phone interview (which, as far as I’m concerned, is the purpose of a resume and cover letter). Of course, until the job I’m now in, I didn’t get an offer, so please don’t be looking to me for interview advice (though Jenica, if you have any advice on that…)

So, internet. What’s worked for you?


17 thoughts on “following @jenica26, my thoughts on resumes and cover letters

  1. I liked this approach very much. A professional Seminar I went to about e-portfolios etc. stresses #2 the “telling of a story.” I have embraced this approach with my design students, be it a presentation, portfolio or a thesis: beginning , middle and an end = tell me a story. Thank you for sharing it Jenica.


  2. Yes, times infinity. Cover letter story arcs = perfect opportunity for all those creative writing majors out there. Thanks for the post!


  3. I totally agree with most of this, especially the part about how the only point of a resume is to get you the phone interview. But I should add – I’ve spent a decade in the tech industry, and have participated in dozens of hiring decisions, and I’ve never read a cover letter. Never seen a cover letter. HR has never bothered to forward one of those along when I’ve been asked to phone screen or interview someone – they only send the resume. So maybe the cover letter encouraged someone in HR to set up the phone screen, but it had literally zero impact on anyone further along in the decision process.


    1. Yes, thank you! That is one of the points I meant to address but forgot. The things I’m saying hold in libraries and education, the fields with which I’m most familiar. But different fields have different hiring cultures and people should use their own local knowledge. It definitely doesn’t apply to software — I don’t know that Grant has ever written a cover letter (it takes him thirty seconds to apply for a job and it takes me a week — SO jealous). Even the resume-writing advice is different there. And federal jobs are a whole other can of worms I largely avoided opening.

      So: yes. Local norms may vary; this doesn’t apply everywhere.


  4. This is great advice, thank you for sharing! I’ve taken several classes and workshops on resume and cover letter writing and this is not the model I’ve been taught. That said, it does strike me as much more dynamic and useful.

    Any chance you be willing to share a redacted sample letter? Thanks!


    1. I also do that (in most instances — there are some places where 2 pages is appropriate). That’s why I hold myself to 2-3 anecdotes; any more and I can’t keep to a one-page limit.

      This is part of why it’s so important to brainstorm about anecdotes that match the job duties — every anecdote has to address multiple requirements to make it all fit. And why strong verbs are important. It’s hard to address a whole job ad (which may be more than a page!) in a one-page letter, so every word has to count.


  5. It may be amusing for your readers to note that the message that actually led you to your current job was not a cover letter, but this blog comment: “I wish, wish, wish I had the skillset to jump on this bandwagon. But I will pass the link around.”


    1. Yes, it’s ironic that, for all the energy I put into leveling up at cover letters, that skill ended up being totally irrelevant to landing my job.

      Which leads to further advice for all the job-seeking readers out there: it’s a cliche but networking really does help. And if you’re enthusiastic about something, or you want something, tell people. How else will people know that you, and their opportunity, belong together?


  6. Great advice, thanks! If possible, please share an example of an “anecdote” that would be appropriate in a cover letter. How to write an effective one that is both short and to the point? How detailed should the story get? I apply for special library work, where cover letters are not viewed in the same way as in academia. I have yet to pin down what SLs want to see in a letter – a recruiter at the SLA Annual admitted that she, personally, doesn’t care for them, and feels that resumes should stand on their own. With differing opinions, it seems like every one has one about cover letters! In my case, I keep it to one page, but I like to know more about using anecdotes.


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