Mr. Phillips Goes To Washington (state university)
Mr. Phillips, a.k.a. Mike, shared his thoughts on writing effective cover letters and resumes with students at Washington State University in Vancouver and, now, you.
Last month I traveled to the beautiful campus at Washington State University in Vancouver where I was a guest lecturer for a technical and professional writing class taught by professor Craig Buchner. I spoke about writing effective cover letters and resumes for job applicants.
Although I somehow managed to talk for an hour and fifteen minutes, the essence of my presentation can be distilled into two simple points:
1. Know your audience.
2. Check for spelling and grammatical errors.
This may appear to be non-information, but believe me, if you’re out applying for jobs right now, many among your competition are sending the same generic resume and cover letter to all prospective employers without regard for the company or position they are applying for. If you are guilty of such things, this blog is for you.
How does this look in practice?
Now, I have enough empathy to recognize that applicants resort to these tactics in an effort to cover the most ground possible while expending the least amount of personal energy. Unfortunately, this is a flawed tactic, mostly because the people getting hired aren’t using this tactic. As a golden rule, you always want to personalize your writing to the specific job and company you’re applying to.
At AM:PM PR we’ve seen cover letters that begin with “Dear to whom it may concern” – kind of a mashup between two boringly generic introductions. People will sometimes do this when they can’t find the appropriate hiring manager. But you can get around this problem using Google to find the correct contact. Or if it’s a small company, identify someone that appears to be senior-level that you feel you might have rapport with due to common interests or experiences. Personalize your outreach, but don’t be too cheesy (or stalker-like).
In other cases we’ve seen people gloating about their attention to detail in the same paragraph as a major typo. We’ve received long-winded cover letters that read like novellas, yet have no direct application to any position we’d ever have at our business.
Another writing tip is to include some information in your cover letter to acknowledge that you’re familiar with the company and position that you’re applying for. Spend some time with the prospective employer’s website, read some recent news coverage. Use what you learn and insert it into the cover letter to foreshadow how your resume will be directly applicable to the position you’re applying for, and demonstrate some enthusiasm.
Finally, tweak your resume so that your past experience is relevant to the position you’re applying for. If your previous experience is baggage handling and you’re applying for a writing position, you may need to get creative. But don’t get so creative as to lose credibility.
A Final Word
First impressions are important, and even seemingly inconsequential typos can make for a dour first impression among potential employers. You can’t underestimate the importance of good writing, punctuation and grammar. If these are areas where you lack expertise, it may be worthwhile to call in an expert to help you.
You can avoid all the aforementioned problems if you customize your resume and double-check your work before submitting. Two seemingly simple ideas, but woefully lacking from a surprising amount of job queries and applications.
For more, here’s a handy WikiHow entry titled, “How to Write an Email Asking for an Internship.”
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