Liz Hruska 300x300

As a career counselor, I am frequently asked about resumes and cover letters. Students and alumni want to know the importance of each and what employers are looking for. I use my own experience to answer these questions, but I keep the preferences of employers top of mind. In talking regularly with employers at career fairs and events, as well as on panels through the career and internship preparation class I teach, I’ve gained much insight on what they’re looking for in job applications. Additionally, every couple of years, the U conducts large-scale surveys for employers who hire U of M alumni. Seeing the perspectives of thousands of employers helps me understand hiring practices across industries. Employer surveys also offer feedback on where U of M students and alumni show strength and where they can improve. Based on these resources, I’ve put together some insights on writing great resumes and cover letters.

Cover Letters

It’s difficult to predict which employers will value cover letters and which won’t, but in general, the larger the organization, the less importance they may place on cover letters. These larger organizations, however, may have other pieces of an application process, such as an online applicant tracking system which requires you to input lots of information about yourself and your experiences.

Cover letters often matter much more to smaller or medium-sized employers, or to more mission-driven organizations (e.g., nonprofit, government, education). Of the employers stating cover letters are important, they attest that the most important pieces they look for include the following:

  • skills developed through past experiences (including brief examples with results)

  • interest in and knowledge of the organization (showing the research you’ve done on the employer)

  • career objective (“My long term career objective is…”)

No employer that values cover letters wants to read something generic. One way to avoid writing a generic letter is to spend some time researching an employer and mention that you did so.

Employers also encourage students to write a customized letter, something that is clearly written for their specific job and organization. No employer that values cover letters wants to read something generic. One way to avoid writing a generic letter is to spend some time researching an employer and mention that you did so. Include a specific finding that piqued your interest, matched with your values, or corresponded with someone in your own experience background. I advise students to pick specific things from the job description to reference in the letter. This may go something like: “In reviewing the project coordinator job description, I was pleased to see you were seeking someone with experience in…”

7 Tips for Resumes

When it comes to resume writing, U of M Career Services staff have similar helpful data from our employer survey. We generally know what employers want and don’t want to see. We also know how the resumes of U of M students and alumni match up with employer preferences. Here are seven tips for crafting your resume.

  1. Employers want to understand your paid and unpaid experiences, including work, internship, and volunteer experience, as well as your leadership experiences. Use bullet statements to emphasize skills and outcomes. The general format for a bullet statement is: action verb + details + results.

  2. Employers also say that your education is a key selling point. We generally advise current students to position education toward the top of your resume.

  3. About half of our employers like an objective on your resume. Their preference is a general career objective summarizing the type of job and organization you are seeking. For example, “Motivated student seeking summer marketing internship within a health care setting, using business coursework, strong writing skills, and related volunteer experience.”

  4. Employers want to understand your key qualifications and skills when they read through your documents. Use your resume  as a way to customize your experiences into skills and qualifications that match up with the requirements of the specific job you’re applying for. Have the job description in front of you as you edit.

  5. For an entry-level candidate, the majority of employers prefer a one-page document. Employers tell us that they frequently will spend only about 5 to 10 seconds on an initial read of your resume so keep your materials concise. The exception to this is government employers, who would generally prefer more detail and depth.

  6. When it comes to how our students and alumni are doing with resumes, employers again say that quality of writing, misspellings, and grammar errors are their predominant critical feedback. Again, find your English major friends, visit your college career center, or connect with community resources for feedback.

  7. Finally, visual appeal and ease of reading on a document is really important to employers. Look at a lot of sample resumes and seek out feedback from career counselors and folks who have hired in the past. See what stands out for readers on your document. One of my favorite exercises is to show a resume to someone for 5 to 10 seconds and then ask them what two or three things they remember about this resume and candidate. Try this for yourself and if your readers aren’t remembering the things you want them to, edit until the right content stands out.

Good luck!