Most internships, research opportunities, and full-time jobs require you to submit a resume and cover letter as part of your application.
These documents introduce you and your experiences in a professional, succinct format to a potential employer or reference. Their purpose is to market you as an excellent fit for the position.
Explore this guide to craft or refine your resume and cover letter:
- Cover letters
- Resume tips
- Tailoring your resume
- Writing an effective bullet
- Submitting your application materials
- Sample resumes by industry
Your cover letter answers the employer’s question, “How does this candidate meet my needs?” A concise, focused letter of 3-4 short paragraphs demonstrates your ability to clearly and specifically communicate in writing. It also gives you the opportunity to show that you’ve done your homework. You can state why you want the position, how you fit with the organization’s culture and how your passion or goals work to the employer’s benefit. As with your resume, it is critical for your letter to be error-free.
How to Structure Your Letter
In addition to researching the organization, the job description is your key to writing a convincing letter. Begin by underlining or highlighting the skills, experience, and characteristics the employer is seeking and then use your letter to prove that you have those things. The middle paragraph(s) of your letter should be organized by the 2-3 most related, valuable skills you can offer. Resist the common mistake of talking all about your story without relating to their needs. Likewise, rather than stating what you hope to learn, talk about how your enthusiasm to learn will benefit them.
The Difference Between Confidence and Arrogance
Avoid using strong words (“I’m a perfect fit”) or referring to skill sets (“my excellent analytical skills”) without backing them up with specific examples. Here is where you can expand on your resume to describe how a past experience has directly prepared you for something specific that is listed in the job description.
It may not be meaningful if you simply state you are great at something. On the other hand, if you outline a situation where you used specific, desired skills with great results you’ll be able to relay your abilities in a confident yet objective way that demonstrates what you have to offer. This is what people mean when they say “show, don’t tell.”
The Importance of Tailoring
It will be blatantly obvious to employers if you try to use a general cover letter with only minor tweaks. Your research, initiative, and knowledge about the position and organization will make you stand out. For example, if you’re applying to work in a research lab, read and reference articles about the work in your letter to show that you’re following progress in the field. Make the most of referrals and connections by naming the person who referred you or any previous encounters you’ve made with the recipient or his/her colleagues. The familiar name will grab the reader’s attention.
As a first-year or sophomore, your resume will be broad in scope; it’s okay to list leadership roles and experiences from high school. Over time you will become more focused on professional interests and goals, and your materials will become more tailored to highlight the experiences that best represent the skills needed for positions you target.
What Your Resume Says About You
Your resume is a visual tool that markets who you are and what you have to offer to employers. The content and format represent your personal brand. A document that is error free, easy to follow, and visually clean indicates your attention to detail and clear communication skills. Strive to include and describe experiences in the way that is most meaningful to your audience.
What to include or not include
The following guidelines will help you make smart decisions about whether to include commonly seen content.
- Mailing address: Listing a physical address is no longer considered necessary. Expect employers to contact you by email or phone. If you are looking in the city where you are located, you can include an address to indicate availability. Otherwise, consider listing your LinkedIn profile or other career-related portfolio instead.
- Blog, portfolio, LinkedIn address, website: If you have these, include links to show examples of your abilities, but be sure to edit and manage your online brand. Everything you put online says something about you. Control the message.
- Summary statement: Most college students can skip this and instead use a cover letter or introductory email to describe the fit between the employer’s needs and what you have to offer. However, a summary is highly recommended for technical/ engineering resumes (in which case, it may serve the purpose of the cover letter) and for resumes of highly experienced people. A good summary statement focuses on specific accomplishments and skills related to the position you’re seeking.
- Education: List institution, degree, major(s) and minor(s), graduation date, and location. Include additional degrees, coursework, or special programs in reverse chronological order. Transfer students with significant experience at another school can also list that institution; however, it’s not necessary if the bulk of your degree was completed at WashU. Dual degree students should list both institutions. Study abroad can also go in this section.
- GPA: List your GPA in the Education section if you are proud of it or if the employer asks for it. You can list your cumulative GPA, major GPA, or science GPA depending on your goals. GPA should be written X.XX/4.00. This information is more important in some fields than others. Ask a career coach if you’re unsure.
- High school experiences: It is okay to list your high school and related activities as a first-year or sophomore. The closer you get to graduation, the more important it becomes to replace this information with more recent experience. You want employers to see you as a young professional.
- Relevant coursework: Avoid long lists of typical classes. Include this section only if you wish to highlight a few specific advanced, technical, or elective courses that directly relate to the position you’re seeking.
- Job experience: Restaurants, retail, camps, and work study all give you transferable skill sets including valuable experience managing information and relationships.
- Internships, research, co-ops, leadership, service, shadowing: Paid or unpaid, these are excellent ways to build your Experience section. Describe them in terms of your accomplishments. As your resume becomes more robust, you may want to break these into more tailored sections (e.g. Teaching Experience, Research Experience).
Tailoring your resume
The position description and/or organizational research will help you identify the employer’s needs and the characteristics they desire in an ideal candidate. Make it easy for them to see how you fit the bill with the following strategies:
Show them where to look
Devote the most real estate on your document to the experiences that will resonate the most with the recipient. You probably don’t need 4 bullets to describe your summer experience at Banana Republic, unless you’re gunning for a buyer role there.
Use headings that highlight critical skills
Within each section, list experiences in reverse chronological order. As you develop more skills and experience, you can replace one main Experience section with more specific headings that highlight skills or specialties that will draw the employer’s attention or address their needs (e.g. Theater Design Experience, Project Management Experience).
Use key words
Notice and match the language from the position description and the organization’s web site. This might mean slight tweaks to the way you describe your experience (saying “taught” vs. “coached”, for example), but shows that you understand their goals and culture. You could also work in key words by adding relevant coursework. Some companies use software to cull through applications based on key word recognition. Check out this list of 205 Resume Words (PDF) for ideas.
Be judicious about what you include
In most cases, as a college student, your resume shouldn’t go on for pages. You may have to cut out some things to make it easier for the recipient to focus on the most important things. It can be difficult to be objective about this, so seek opinions from others.
The Difference between a resume and a CV
A curriculum vitae (CV) is very similar to a resume in terms of most key formatting. Some countries refer to the CV the same way we refer to a resume. In the US, a CV is distinct from a resume in the sense that it is used primarily in academic and research circles or in medical careers. CVs are more comprehensive than resumes because they can go beyond one page, and therefore do not need to be as tailored. They typically include academic research, publications, and presentations. For some good examples, look for the CVs of some of your professors to see how they’ve represented their body of experience. For most undergraduate students, the difference between a resume and CV is negligible.
Employers spend just seconds reviewing each resume so it’s critical to make your information easy to absorb.
- Aim for one page: Most employers prefer one-page resumes. If you have more relevant content, two full pages is preferable to an odd half page.
- Margins and typeface: Margins should be even on all sides, but can go as low as .5 inch. With the exception of your name, which should be bigger, your typeface should be 10-11 point font. It’s generally smart to use the same professional typeface throughout.
- Make each line count: You might be able to slim down your name and contact information, or remove your mailing address. Rephrase bullets that have one or two words that run to a second line. Condense words and phrases to make them more concise without losing meaning.
- Eliminate old or irrelevant experiences: This is especially important if they can be trumped by recent, similar ones.
- Consistency and visual balance: Check for consistency and parallel structure in the way you list key information such as headings, titles, dates, and locations. Also ensure your document is visually balanced, meaning you fill the page evenly and leave enough white space.
- Use reverse chronological order: In most cases employers expect to see your most recent experience at the top of each section. If you have two concurrent experiences, list the most relevant first.
- Be wary of templates: These lock you into formatting that can be restrictive as your document evolves.
- Tailor section headings to showcase skills or group types of experiences: Rather than listing one giant Experience section, consider using more specific headings (e.g. Teaching Experience, Social Media Experience, Volunteer Experience).
Writing an effective bullet
Your goal is to make it easy for a future employer to see your capabilities, based on what you’ve done in the past. Are you good on the phone? Comfortable fielding questions from the public? Reliable with major projects requiring organization? Experienced at analyzing data on Excel? Employers will only know if you tell them.
- Say what you actually did: It does no good to use fancy words if your description is unclear or doesn’t make sense. When the employer initially reviews your document, you won’t be there to provide explanations or insight. Avoid vague phrasing and state your contributions accurately, simply, and clearly. Review this list of resume action words (PDF) to help you craft your messaging.
- Give numbers and details, in a concise way: How much money did you raise? How many people did you manage on the committee? Which major companies were on your client list? How, exactly, did you personally contribute to the project? Don’t use a lot of words, but paint a defined picture.
- Example Bullet:
- Helped plan sorority social
- Example Bullet Revised:
- Collaborated with 5- member executive team to plan, promote and execute a social event that raised $5,000 for a St. Louis nonprofit. (Depending on your goals, it may be wise to explain your contributions more specifically: Managed project timeline for executive team by sending weekly goal reminders and organizing update meetings to ensure progress leading up to the event. Facilitated debrief meeting afterwards to note what we can improve for future events.)
- Example Bullet:
- Focus on accomplishments: When possible, state the results of your efforts rather than just your responsibilities.
- Describe your experience through the lens of transferable skills: Determine which aspects of your previous work most relate to the employer’s needs, and describe your qualifications accordingly. For example, customer service skills your gained in retail could be valuable in other client-based work.
Prepare a list of references on a separate page instead of writing “References available upon request.” That way, you will have them ready to go if an employer asks for them. Copy and paste your name and contact information from your resume onto a second page and list the name, title, address, phone, and e-mail of three to four people. Great people to list include professors, employers, student group advisors, and internship supervisors. Contact all references before you submit your list to ensure that they are comfortable acting as a reference for you. Once you have provided the reference list to an employer, contact each reference and provide him/her with the job title, description, company name, and the name of the person who may be in contact.
Submitting your application materials
Pay close attention to what the position description says about submitting your materials.
It’s rare that you’ll give someone a hard copy of your materials, but some people remember when it was important to print them on quality heavyweight paper. Most employers at a career fair are fine with typical copy paper. If you’d like to use resume paper, it’s available at the campus bookstore or office stores.
It is extremely important to exercise professionalism when corresponding with employers through email. Be sure to use a concise, business-like style and check for spelling, punctuation and grammar. Choose an appropriate subject line. When applying for a job, an example of an appropriate subject is “Alex Wiseman, Assistant Account Executive.”
When you send your cover letter and resume via email, we recommend that you send them as one PDF attachment. State the position you are applying for and introduce your attachment in a 3-4 sentence email that also includes your phone number.
If you choose to make your cover letter the body of the email, we suggest you draft it in a Word document first to ensure thoughtfulness and professionalism.
Online Application Forms
Some employers require applicants to paste resume information into online application fields. In this case, you may want to remove your resume formatting so that the information is organized and easy to read in electronic form. If an application requires you to list your skills, carefully consider those you wish to include and provide a comprehensive list. Applicants are often sorted by the skills and experiences provided on the application.
Most electronic resumes are sent in Microsoft Word (.doc) or Adobe Acrobat Reader (.pdf). However, some guidelines might ask you to submit your resume as text-based or ASCII format. A text-based resume will eliminate most of the formatting such as bold, italics, bullet points and underlining. Review your text-based resume before you submit it to the employer. Be sure to check spacing and page alignment if you are pasting it from a Microsoft Word document.
Employers in some industries use computer systems that use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology to scan and screen resumes. You may want to work with someone at the Center for Career Engagement if you have questions about preparing a scannable resume. Electronic and scannable resumes are only to be used at the employer’s request.
Resumes samples by industry
- Reverse Chronological Style Resume Examples (PDF)
- Pre-Medical Style (PDF)
- Technical Style Resume Samples (PDF)
- STEM Sample Resume (PDF)