Delivering Your Cover Letter and Résumé

This is a true story: A woman walked into a retail store located in a mall and asked if the company was hiring. She was told that she would need to submit a résumé. The woman then sat on a bench in the middle of the mall, hand wrote a résumé on a piece of notebook paper, and brought it back in. Obviously, she did not get called back for an interview.

While the preceding is an extreme example, many presentation mistakes are made by job seekers. You have worked hard putting your résumé and cover letter together. So why would you want to fold it up, stuff it into a small envelope, and send it out, hoping it will look as good when it arrives as it did when coming off the printer?

When sending your hard copy résumé, treat it with care. If you do not treat it with care, why should the person on the other end? Use quality paper and mail it in a full-size envelope so it can go flat, particularly if you know the résumé will be scanned. There are many good résumé papers out there. Choose a paper weight of some substance, but do not go as far as card stock or cardboard. If possible, choose a paper that has matching envelopes, and use the same paper for your cover letter. Some stationery comes with matching folders as well to help keep damage to a minimum. This is probably as far as you want to go. You do not need to bullet-proof your résumé or send it in a fancy folder; further, if your résumé is going to be scanned, you do not want to make the person on the other end have to remove your résumé from some elaborate binder.

There was a time when people sent résumés out on neon paper or some other attention-grabbing stationery in the hopes that this would help get their résumé noticed. This practice likely will get your résumé noticed—and tossed. Garish paper will only make you look less professional. There are few cases where a piece of attractive stationery will help, but as a general rule, conservative is better. Even some of the fancier marble-effect paper borders are garish. Typically, a nice white or off-white paper will suffice. For those seeking more conservative positions, choose a bright white or light gray paper. Others may want to lean toward ivory. If your paper has a watermark, hold it up to the light to figure out which side is "correct." (You will be able to read the correct side.) This is the side you want to print on.

Try to avoid the temptation to send your résumé in a fancy package, using a gimmick, or attaching your résumé to a box of chocolates and addressing it to the CEO. Antics like these will more often than not make you look foolish. Those in creative fields may get away with a nontraditional résumé or delivery, such as a brochure or clever marketing package, but these are few and far between.

If possible, print your résumé and letters using a laser printer. This will ensure the best print. Inkjet printers can smear or the lettering can flake off once the paper is dry (especially if the paper is folded). Mail a copy of your résumé to yourself before sending it to employers. This will give you an idea of what your résumé looks like after it has gone through the mail, and you can then make any necessary adjustments.

To Staple or Not to Staple

The jury is still out on this one, but the recommendation from this camp is to use a paper clip instead of a staple. This keeps your pages looking nicer, and again, if the résumé is going to be scanned, it is much easier to remove a paper clip than a staple. Do not worry—the paper clip won't cost you much extra in postage.

One thing you must keep in mind is that the paper clip can come off. What does this mean for you? You must put your name and page number on subsequent pages of your résumé and letters if they are longer than one page. You do not need to repeat the entire header of your first page; your name and page number will suffice.

Electronic and Scannable Résumés

Putting your résumé out there electronically can occur a few ways. Your résumé could end up in an electronic database even if you send a hard copy. Many companies scan résumés into a computer system, at which point the system "looks" for keywords. If you have enough of the correct keywords in your résumé, it might be read by a human being. Keywords for scannable résumés can be grouped together in a keyword list or scattered throughout the résumé within the text. If your résumé is sent electronically, it will go through the scanning process automatically.

Sometimes you do not know if your résumé will be scanned. Try to find out by contacting the company. If it is scanned, you want to include as many keywords as possible, and if sending a hard copy, you want to address some formatting issues. All résumés that are scanned should be written in a traditional font such as Times New Roman or Ariel. Because scanned résumés are then converted by a computer system into an ASCII format, it is best to keep your scannable résumé simple, or you may want to submit an ASCII format résumé in the first place (see what follows). If you are unsure if the résumé will be scanned, you can send two hard copies: one of the "pretty" version to be read by a human and a second, simplified version that can be scanned.

If you did not use an objective in your hard copy résumé, add one for your scannable résumé. You want to name the job title that you are after. Use a simple font, and keep your font sizes between 10 and 14 (up to size 20 is okay for your name). The rule is that you want to use a font where none of the letters touch each other. Because of this, avoid using underlining, as this can confuse the reading system. Underlining touches letters that fall below the line, such as p, g, j, etc. Italics is generally okay as long as you use a simple font. Avoid using decorative fonts. All caps are okay in replace of fancy headers. Also avoid any fancy bullet points (such as diamonds, checks, or checked boxes); use round ones instead but not "hollow" round bullets. The scanner will read those as the letter "o." Write out words for symbols, such as "and" instead of "&" and "percent" instead of "%."

Keep your overall formatting simple. Use white space to your advantage for separating sections of your résumé rather than boxes or lines. Do not use a newsletter format, as this will confuse the scanning software.

When sending a résumé to be scanned, provide as clean a copy as possible; preferably one fresh off a laser printer and sent in a flat envelope. Do not print your scannable résumé on fancy paper that has a marble appearance or specks. Try to avoid faxing your scannable résumé whenever possible, as fax machines tend to create marks on the printout that can cause problems for the OCR reader (optical character recognition, the program that deciphers scannable résumés).

Mary B. Nemnich and Fred E. Jandt provide the following tips for scannable résumés in their book, Cyber Space Résumé Kit (Jist Works, 2001):

  • Keep layout simple.
  • Keep fonts simple.
  • Keep your copy clean.
  • Use good-quality paper.
  • Send originals whenever possible.
  • Use a high-quality photocopier for reproductions.

A Few Words about Keywords

Keywords should not be confused with your action verbs. Keywords are nouns or short phrases that describe your experience, education, and other important information. Become familiar with your industry's "buzzwords" and incorporate them into your résumé. Keywords can be compiled as a list but can also be worked into the text of your résumé. The scanning software scans the entire résumé, so keywords will be picked up no matter where they are placed. Use synonyms wherever possible to increase your chances of getting more "hits" in the system. You need to use a keyword only once for the computer to recognize it.

If using acronyms, use the written-out version as well as the acronym itself. For example, you would want to write out Bachelor of Science as well as using B.S. Because you do not know how the program searches for keywords, listing both forms will ensure that the program has every opportunity to locate your pertinent information.

Many books exist on the topic of keywords. Wendy Enelow's book, Best KeyWords for Résumés, Cover Letters, and Interviews (Impact Publications, 2003), provides a wide range of samples of how keywords can be incorporated into text. Use your industry's literature and professional organizations to get a feel for keywords specific to your field. Job listings are another good source for finding keywords; look for nouns and adjectives. Also review your skills list.

Remember to be truthful. Even though you want to garner as many hits as possible, you do not want to add a bunch of keywords to your résumé that are not appropriate for your situation, even if those words are on every keyword list you review for your industry.

E-mailed Résumés

Unless specifically stated otherwise, always paste your résumé into the body of an e-mail when using this option for sending. Many companies will not open attachments for fear of viruses and worms but also because they may not be able to open the attachment depending on the software used to create it.

To paste your résumé, convert it into an ASCII document to ensure that the recipient can read it. Not everyone is equipped to read HTML coding, and your "fancy" hard copy version may include HTML.

ASCII (pronounced "askee") stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange and can be read by most systems. To save your hard-copy version as an ASCII version, open the document in your word program and "Save as" a plain-text file using a new file name. Other programs may allow you to save as an ASCII (DOS) file. At this point get rid of all the stuff that makes your résumé look pretty.

Highlight all of the text and change it to Courier size 12. Change your heading information so that it is listed in a logical order. Left-justify the document, get rid of any tables, and remove any tabbed spaces. Change any bolded, italicized, or underlined characters to normal text.

If you have added a picture graphic in the form of a line, delete it. You can add a line using a keyboard character. Generally speaking, any character that you create with the keyboard can be used in an ASCII document, but stick to the simpler ones to be safe. A line of separation can be created by using a series of dashes, asterisks, periods, or the tilde sign. For bulleted items, do not try to make any warp-around text line up with the sentence above it by using the space bar. In other words, let your text wrap around naturally, and use hard returns (the "Enter" key) to create space between sections or paragraphs (but not within paragraphs).

If your résumé is longer than one page, delete all the headers that state your name and page number on the subsequent pages. In the e-mail version, the recipient will not know if your original résumé was one page or more. However, the recipient will not be able to view the entire résumé in the e-mail screen. He or she will need to scroll down to read further. This means that, similar to your hard copy version, you should highlight your qualifications near the top of the résumé. Make your reader want to see more.

When you are done reformatting, close the document and reopen it. At this point you look for any odd-looking characters that may be left over. Change these as needed, save your changes, and you have an ASCII document. You may want to give your ASCII résumé a test drive by e-mailing it to yourself or a friend to see how it comes across in different programs.

Online Résumé Databases

Many online résumé databases allow you to post your résumé online. Often this includes walking through a process where you enter your information step-by-step. (Some now allow you to upload your résumé directly from its original file, such as a Word file.) When posting your résumé into these systems, use your ASCII résumé that has already been created and proofread. This will make the process much easier on you and will ensure that your information is already in an acceptable format.

When looking for jobs, many companies will provide a link to their own website or an e-mail address. Follow the instructions the company provides. If the ad asks you to e-mail your résumé, e-mail it—do not use the link to automatically send your résumé that you have uploaded. Cut and paste your ASCII résumé and address it to the e-mail address given. You want your résumé to go directly to the company as quickly as possible.

If the company provides a website, follow the link and look for another link with information about current openings. Some will provide a different e-mail address or contact information from what is listed on the job board site, or the company may use its own form for you to cut and paste your résumé. Use this option rather than using the quick link on the job board site. Again, you want your résumé to go directly into the company's database.

The following are some of the bigger job search sites:

  • America's Job bank: http://www.ajb.dni.us
  • CareerBuilder: http://www.careerbuilder.com
  • TrueCareers: http://www.careercity.com
  • CareerPath: http://www.careerpath.com
  • HotJobs.com: http://www.hotjobs.com
  • Monster.com: http://www.monster.com
  • NationJob Network: http://www.nationjob.com

You may also want to check into:

  • CollegeGrad.com: http://www.collegegrad.com/
  • College Central: http://www.collegecentral.com
  • CollegeRecruiter.com: http://www.collegerecruiter.com
  • Experience: http://www.experience.com
  • InternshipPrograms: http://internships.wetfeet.com
  • InternWeb.com: http://www.internweb.com
  • MonsterTRAK: http://campus.monster.com
  • SummerJobs.com: http://summerjobs.com

For a comprehensive overview of electronic résumés, refer to Résumés in Cyberspace (Barron's Educational Series, 2000) by Pat Criscito (or visit her website at http://www.patcriscito.com). In addition to an in-depth discussion on the subject, the author provides an extensive list of websites by industry and related subject matters.

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