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Five resume and cover letter survival tips that could save your job search’s life.

job searchThinking about making that job or career change as fulfillment of your 2015 resolution? Let me help you navigate the adventure of a job search. I’m not just an instructor; I’m a resume and cover letter survivalist.

I’ve taught business writing for over four years now, and I’ve applied for, declined, and accepted my fair share of positions in the workforce. I once tallied it, but I’ve long since forgotten and moved on from those numbers. All of that is to say, I know what I’m talking about here.

Despite the articles, videos, blog posts, podcasts (you name it, I’ve provided the media channel in hopes of the tips sinking in), I see my students commit the same universal acts of resume and cover letter disaster because they miss these key tips.

1. Drop the dead weight of the “Objective”. I know you know how hard it is to write an objective that really knocks your reader out of his or her chair. Instead of just letting it go (thank the young child in your life for the musical reference you probably just went to), you instead drag down your resume with one of two dead-weight objectives.

You either, A., write something like this: “To obtain a position in the marketing field that utilizes my customer relations skills and furthers my career goals” (BORING and not really any more telling than the pure act of application).

Or, you, B., write something like this: “A team player ready to further career goals through team-oriented professional development and utilization of marketing, customer service, analytic, detail-oriented skill set procured through on-the-job experience and education success” (Blech and double blech…I don’t really know what this means and you lost me at “team player”).

Why is that you either go totally bland or way too much? It’s because the objective doesn’t really serve your purpose well—which is to say “I want this job because I’m damn good at what I do, and I want to do that for you.” Instead of just cutting the cord with this antiquated strategy, you drag down your resume with this waste of space and end up doing more harm than good.

EXCEPTION—Use your objective to tell an employer why you’re switching fields or making a career change. But, the key is, don’t try too hard here. Talk to your reader—without all the garbledy-gook.

2. Cut “References Available Upon Request”. Speaking of antiquated. Of course you’ll provide references. They know that. Again, wasted space. Your resume is prime real estate. Location, location, location now means details, details, details. Use that space to give me the details.

3. Identify your survival key words and use them meaningfully. What if I told you there’s a resource that tells you exactly what the employer is looking for, and you could use it to ensure a high percentage automated review match to your resume? There is. The job post. Seriously. Look at the job post with a highlighter (or highlighting function on your computer) and highlight all those key words the employer is looking for in the post. Those words need to show up in your cover letter and resume…more than once.

Here’s how you test it. Use a word cloud application like Wordle or Word It Out. These tools are a great way to see just what’s popping out in your resume. Trust me they’re amazing and so easy to use. And, they’ll quickly show you how well you match up.

4. There’s no time to rattle off your life story. Time is of the essence when it comes to resume survival. Mara Woloshin wrote in her 2009 article, “Writing cover letters – the perfect personal pitch”, that “No one wants to hear your life story”, and it has stuck with me ever since. Your cover letter is your pitch. You get one page and two paragraphs (if you’re applying outside of academia) to write it. That should trigger the reaction of “Gosh, my cover letter needs to be impactful and succinct and detailed.” Instead I think it triggers “I need to say a bunch of stuff that either says nothing or repeats the same thing until I fill this page. I should just refer them to my resume if they want to know the details and instead ramble on and drop a bunch of buzz words that everyone else will be using.”

Stop rambling. Think before you type. Tell the reader who you are and what amazing talent you’ll be able to bring to the office—IN DETAIL. It’s not about you. It’s about them—the employers. Turn those “I” sentences into skills and benefits sentences, and cut out the unnecessary rambling.

5. Most importantly, know who your failsafe is. You’ve looked at your resume lots of times, and you’ve probably spent many painful hours with your cover letter. Give it up to someone else who hasn’t seen it. Let them read the cover letter out loud to you. You’ll catch any minor errors this way.

Mistakes are deadly in the job search. They will kick you out of a search faster than you can say, “Wait I’m actually very detail oriented.” You’ve one shot to get it right. The reason many mistakes happen is because you’re working way too hard to create sentences you’d probably never ever use again or say in any conversation. Stop trying so hard. You’re forcing yourself into mistakes that are killing your chances at coming out alive and landing an interview.

There’s another reason to have someone else read your resume. Give your reader just a few seconds (because that’s really all you get) and ask what stands out. If your reader hesitates, that’s a good tip for you. Nothing is standing out. Either go back and edit or move content around. If he or she rattles off something you’d rather not stand out or misses what you do want to get noticed, again, edit or move or add. Other eyes are always helpful.

There are so many other tips to offer, but those are the most important. I hope they help you to come out of your job search a survivor ready to take on your next adventure.

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