Part of this may be a reaction to too many cover letters that only repeat material from the resume or parrot the job ad it’s responding to.
It’s still worth talking about cover letters, though. Even if you’re applying online via e-mail, the body of your e-mail is going to be your cover letter.
Keep your cover letter to three or four paragraphs, five maximum. Dwell on specific accomplishments of yours, name up to eight things you’re proud of yourself for if you can, saving the details for your interview. You can summarize things from your resume, but don’t repeat anything that’s in your resume. It’s a delicate balance. You have to say enough to make someone want to read your resume, but you can’t really talk about your resume. You have to say enough to make someone want to interview you, but you can’t go into what you’re going to say in the interview. You have to make bold statements, but they have to be true. You don’t want to repeat information about the job, like the requirements. The hiring manager already knows the requirements. Just get across that you meet those requirements without going through them like bullet points. Or skip the requirements altogether. Talk about the company’s goals and how you can help meet them.
Your first paragraph should address in general terms what goals of the company you can accomplish or how you meet the job qualifications, making sure to mention the exact job title you’re applying for. The middle paragraphs are going to explain in more detail how qualified you are and summarize your accomplishments, along with maybe a personal touch – some non-work related thing that humanizes your cover letter. If you’re going to tell something personal about you, don’t tell too much and only mention the story if it will interest the reader, is relevant to your career objective, and will add weight to your list of qualifications. Like, you could make a case that, having been deathly ill when you were young fostered your interest in providing health care. Your last paragraph is going to thank the hirer for his consideration and let him know that you plan to make a follow up call soon.
Do enough research to find out who in the company you can address your cover letter to. Send your cover letter and resume as high as you can in the company. Send it to the President, Director, or CEO of the business. Send it higher than the hiring manager, to his boss. Send it to the hiring manager last. Find out the names of each of these people and don’t address them to their job titles if you can help it. It might even be okay to call the place you’re applying to and just ask for this information, but it depends on the type of work you’re looking for. Big companies may see stuff like this as company secrets, while your local store probably doesn’t care.
The most important thing in your portfolio is your resume. Something I’ve read a lot of conflicting information on is whether your resume should fit all on one page still or not. I used to tell everyone, keep it to one page no matter what. Some HR staff, though, are so used to reading resumes online, or have computer software that reads the resumes for them, that they don’t think it’s so important to keep it to one page anymore. But then I’ve also heard about software that reads only the first page of the resume! So, brief is still good. Make it concise and focused. If you can’t squeeze it onto one page, don’t worry anymore. If you have years of IT experience and you need 10 pages, do that. But if you have less than five years of job experience, by all means keep it to one page. There’s lots of shortcuts you can take. You don’t need to list every job you ever had, just the jobs relevant for what you’re applying for in the last 7-8 years. Don’t write paragraphs or even complete sentences, just bullet-point everything. Under education, you can leave out high school entirely unless you have no college degree. You don’t have to include the years you went to college. You do have to include the years for when you worked, but you are not obligated to list the months you started and stopped. Instead of highlighting your job skills under each job, use a separate “summary of skills” section and list them all at once.
Don’t bother with references or even saying “available upon request.” Well, of course they’re available upon request. If a HR person calls you and asks for your references, are you ever going to say no?
The average HR person looks at a resume – assuming he’s looking at all anymore and not using scanning software -- for about 8 seconds. How? Two things. One, he’s just scanning for certain words. Make sure your resume contains those key words. You’ll know which words need to be in your resume by studying the job ad carefully. Any requirements listed in the job ad had better be featured prominently in your resume. Make them even more prominent by highlighting them. And make sure you include every variant on those keywords possible. If you are applying for a job that requires management skills, try to say manage, managed, managing, and as many other variants as you can think of. Try to say in natural language just how those keywords are relevant to you. If you can’t, if there are just too many variants for you to work into your bullet points, still don’t leave those words out. If you have to, as a last resort, include a keyword section and write them all in there.
The other HR trick to remember is that the whole thing is not going to be read. Not even to the bottom of the first page. At best, someone will probably read the first two-thirds of your first page. So make sure that all the good stuff is up front. If your job history is what’s most impressive about you, put that up front. If your education is what’s most impressive about you, that goes up front. And, except for bullets and standard punctuation, you’re not going to use anything else fancy in your resume to a big company. No horizontal lines. No graphics. Even boldface, indenting, and unusual fonts you might have to give up. Even at best these are going to break someone’s attention away from what you have to say. At worst, scanning software won’t be able to read them and your resume will simply be ignored. So, if you’re submitting your resume to a big company, forget all about what you learned about resume layouts in the past. The exception is if you’re applying at a small company or the independent branch of a large chain, where you’re sure a person, and preferably someone who isn’t in Human Resources or a professional hiring manager, but a “normal” manager, is going to be looking at it. Then it’s okay to use a little color, maybe a small graphic at the bottom, and all the formatting that makes your resume stand out to the human eye.
List computer skills. Be specific! “Word” or “Internet” experience is not enough, but “Word 6.0” or “HTML coding” is. Like I said before, it’s okay to have pages of keywords for computer skills, if it’s that type of work you’re applying for. If you don’t have computer skills at all, then you’re in the wrong workshop.