The two secrets to a better resume and cover letter

Job seeking can be frustrating and challenging activity. When submitting a resume and cover letter to a prospective employer, applicants engage in a grueling game of mind-reading that they can’t win, asking themselves what the employer is looking for when only the employer can reveal that.

In an ideal world, employers would produce a detailed job description and spell out on paper what the basis for a hiring decision. Not the obvious—everyone wants great communicators and team players who work well unsupervised and are energetic go-getters. If you truly lack these abilities, it’s time to rethink your job search. What we’re talking about are skills: What software does the employee need to know? What experiences should the employee bring to the table? What special skills should the employee have?

To determine if you really are a good fit for the position, “deconstruct” the job description and make a list of everything the employer is looking for. Formatting it as a checklist works well. Then, the two secrets to a better resume can work their magic:

1. Don’t lie. Never say you can do something you can’t, that you’ve done something you didn’t, or that you know something you don’t. The temptation to embellish may be strong, but it will quickly sour an interview if your experience “planning the conference” is revealed to be “assisted at the conference registration table.”

2. Make a careful effort to match your skills to what the employer is looking for. Many people who are reviewing resumes will be zeroing in like a hawk on key phrases—“gave presentation to board,” “designed new website application,” “edited company white paper” that are in the job description. Make sure your resume contains as many of the items on your job description checklist as possible, and don’t make the person reviewing your resume hunt for them. Use the exact same terms and phrases that are listed in the job description. If it says “Conduct field work in marketing” and you’ve done that, make sure your resume says “Conducted field work in marketing,” verbatim.

Job-hunting is hard work, and a resume is only a small step along the path to success. But don’t let a misleading or confusing resume stand between you and your goal.

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