If a job interview is where you make your case for employment, your resume is the opening statement. It should tell a compelling story about your candidacy, presenting relevant facts as concisely and persuasively as possible. It should lead employers to the conclusions about your experiences that you’d like them to draw, as opposed to inviting employers to connect the dots themselves. And it should create an impression that will linger long after the 30 seconds to which most employers will limit a first pass of your resume.
The truth is that even the most selective law firms receive applications from many more qualified students than they can accommodate in a summer class. The task of screening the resumes frequently rests with law firm recruiting departments; they have the bandwidth to handle the volume of submissions their firms receive. But it is often difficult to determine which candidates to invite for interviews. So recruiting departments are only too happy to seize on the applications of candidates who’ve done the hard work of distinguishing themselves.
Here are 10 things you can do to make your resume stand out:
1. List a strong GPA and any relevant awards or honors.
Law firms first look to see whether students meet their academic criteria. If you are applying to a firm that has a GPA cutoff that you meet, list your GPA. Otherwise, the firm may assume that you fall below the cutoff and decline to consider you further. You should also list any relevant awards or honors you’ve received. If it’s unclear from the name of the award what you achieved, you should include a parenthetical or short description.
2. Attach a cover letter and writing sample.
A cover letter is an opportunity to discuss aspects of your candidacy that aren’t apparent from your resume—your particular interest in the firm and geographic market, for example. It also presents an opportunity to address any negative aspects of your candidacy upfront. A compelling cover letter may persuade a firm to view your candidacy much more favorably than they might have otherwise.
Cover letters should be organized and concise, and tailored to specific firms. They should also focus on the value that you will add to potential employers, rather than what the employers can do for you.
Writing samples help employers understand your ability to organize and structure arguments in persuasive terms. Many firms, including Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, review writing samples carefully to understand a candidate’s capacity to communicate effectively about complex or fact-intensive issues. Employers will assume that your writing sample underwent multiple drafts and that writing instructors or supervisors reviewed it carefully. Accordingly, they will expect the writing sample to be polished and free of errors. A poor writing sample can be fatal.
3. Include activities or memberships that show leadership and engagement.
Memberships in student groups or other groups are most impressive when they demonstrate your ability to lead others or balance significant commitments. If you hold a leadership position in a group or were responsible for a substantial project, you should mention those things.
At Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, we look for experiences that help us identify driven individuals who take ownership of projects and are strong communicators, team players, and multi-taskers. We are especially impressed by resumes that reflect both academic excellence and active, versus passive, participation in extracurricular activities.
4. Rather than list job responsibilities, describe employment in a way that showcases achievements and identifies impact.
Students who merely list job responsibilities for each position they’ve held tell employers more about those positions than about the students’ contributions to them. When recruiting departments evaluate resumes, firms are looking for students who will make an impact. You should therefore describe your experiences in ways that identify your specific contributions to the roles. Offer details and, if possible, quantify your impact. If you previously worked as a sales manager and boosted regional sales 20 percent during your tenure, you should mention that. Even the most mundane experiences can be described in ways that show the value you added. But be careful about overselling.
5. Don’t list all of your work experiences.
It is important to be selective about the experiences you include on your resume, if you have that luxury. You have a limited amount of space, and you want to use it as wisely as possible. Large employment gaps may be conspicuous but, beyond that, employers will understand that you’re trying to highlight the experiences and skills most relevant to them.
6. Add publications and papers you’ve written if you still have command of the underlying content.
References to your publications and papers can showcase your intellectual ability. They may also provide an opportunity during an interview to demonstrate that you can reduce complex concepts to a simple and concise explanation.
Be prepared to discuss any publications or papers in a way that demonstrates mastery of the underlying content. If you can’t—because, for example, the details around your college thesis are now hazy—it is better to omit the related references from your resume.
7. Make sure that your resume is aesthetically pleasing.
Resumes that are clean, well organized, and properly formatted invite viewers to read them; help viewers recall important information about the candidate; and suggest that the candidate will produce work of similar quality for the firm. Formatting errors, bare-bones resumes, and resumes crammed with information stick out like a sore thumb.
8. Include an interests/hobbies section.
Unique and uncontroversial interests and hobbies can become identifiers that help firm personnel positively recall the candidacy of a particular student. During interviews, interests and hobbies are often good conversation starters. They provide a more holistic view of a student and help the student establish links with particular interviewers. Firms sometimes use them to gauge a student’s passion levels.
If you have questions about whether to include an activity that reveals a political or potentially controversial affiliation, ask your career services office for advice.
9. Don’t exaggerate experiences or contributions.
Firms expect that your resume will tout your accomplishments. And you should expect that notable achievements will draw attention from firm personnel, who will flag the achievements for firm hiring committees.
But it will quickly become apparent during an interview if you exaggerated or even misrepresented your experiences—especially if your descriptions relate to legal work. Avoid exaggerations and misrepresentations. Your credibility is everything.
10. Avoid disqualifiers.
One way that firms narrow a crowded field of qualified candidates is to set aside resumes that contain disqualifiers: mistakes, omissions, formatting errors, different font types, misspelled firm names, misspelled recipient names, incorrect salutations, etc. Proofread your resume and accompanying materials multiple times, and ask others to proofread them too. You don’t want small and fixable errors to undo all of your hard work.