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Do’s and Don’ts for Resumes and Cover Letters

By Mark Weber


When you have approximately 15 seconds to grab the attention of an employer who’s scanning your resume and cover letter, how can you make a strong first impression? Here’s a roadmap.

First, before you even begin working on a resume and cover letter, clean up your online presence. Employers routinely do an Internet search of candidates, and the best resume and cover letter in the world won’t be able to help you if an employer sees something online that tarnishes your reputation.

Next, identify your strengths, and focus on your transferable skills. In particular, focus on specific examples to illustrate your strengths. Business experience, strong communication skills, contributions to the community, and significant accomplishments at work are examples of valuable strengths that will help convey a fuller, more impressive picture of your worth in the workplace.

Once you’re ready to begin writing, following a few simple do’s and don’ts can demystify the process.

Resume Do's

  • Make your resume a strategic marketing document, not a career obituary. Instead of simply listing by rote everything you have ever done, be strategic in what you include and how you present it.
  • Include information that sells you as a candidate.
  • Whenever possible, quantify and qualify your statements to add impact by saying things like, “I supervised a team of seven,” “I increased sales by 200 percent,” or “My contributions resulted in company savings of $50,000.”
  • Know your audience, and tailor your resume to the position.
  • Explain all terms. While you know what was involved in receiving a particular award or what membership in a certain student group means, the employer may not. Adding a parenthetical briefly explaining a non-universal term will make all the difference.
  • Include relevant and interesting information. Interesting resumes make for interesting interviews.
  • Proofread, and don’t rely on spell check.

Resume Don'ts

  • Don’t include misleading information. Your integrity is at stake. Although it’s important to sell your experience, you should never overstate what you actually did in a particular position.
  • Don’t include irrelevant information. As a litmus test, for each item on your resume, you should ask yourself, “Does this relate to what the employer is seeking?” If the answer is “no” then leave it off.
  • Don’t include everything you’ve ever done. Given that you have approximately 15 seconds to advance your cause, less is more. Write your resume with a focus on quality over quantity. Each item on your resume should be relevant and add value.
  • Don’t send a resume without an accompanying cover letter and deprive yourself the opportunity to sell yourself.

Cover Letter Do's

  • Write letters that advance your cause. Write a well-organized letter. Your letter should have a thesis statement—why the employer should hire you—and topic sentences for each paragraph to guide the reader through your qualifications and highlight your strengths and transferable skills.
  • Think like a lawyer and treat your cover letter like an exercise in legal writing. Write clearly and concisely, and back up your assertions.
  • Use descriptive examples, and show rather than tell. For example, “I held four elected leadership positions in college, including student government president” is more interesting and compelling than simply saying, “I have strong leadership skills.”
  • Personalize your cover letters, and whenever possible, write directly to an individual. While it’s fine to use a form cover letter you’ve developed as a starting point, you should craft each cover letter to address the needs of the individual employer.
  • Focus on what you can do for the employer, not what the employer can do for you. Rather than highlighting what you hope to get out of the position, highlight what skills you’ll bring to the position.

Cover Letter Don'ts

  • Don’t simply repeat what’s on your resume. Your cover letter is where you can bring your resume to life and put your accomplishments in context.
  • Don’t be reluctant to sell yourself.
  • Don’t bury the lead. The “lead” in a cover letter is your strongest selling point about why you’re an exceptional candidate. Don’t make the employer search for this; instead, make sure it’s clear in the first few sentences.
  • Call attention to negatives. For example, if you’re targeting a position in Chicago, despite having no ties to the area, you can address why you want to practice in Chicago without saying, “Although I have no ties to Chicago…” Take the time to craft thoughtful and persuasive resumes and cover letters and rest assured, you’ll stand out from the crowd.

Mark Weber

Mark Weber ([email protected]) is Assistant Dean for Career Services at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.