Resume and Cover Letter Language

Effective resumes and cover letters offer proof of accomplishments and skills while leading the readers to picture an individual they would like to meet. Though the layout and content are important, the words, phrases, and sentences themselves do much of the work. Here are a few suggestions gleaned from our review of employment materials at the Writing Center.

Consider the audience

How many applicants do you think the employer will be reviewing? Odds are, you will be one of many. You will need to stand out! Find out how you can market yourself in a unique way that makes you stand out for that particular job and consider length, depth of information, etc., accordingly.

What kind of organization is it? Be sure to do your homework about the organization. Once you know what kind of work they do, what their mission is, and how you would best fit with them, you are likely to write in a more effective way for that specific company. Understanding your audience is key!

Use your own words and sentences

It’s hard to transition from the opening short paragraph to the body, but write your own sentence! Sentences you find in a sample resume or cover letter look copied and unimpressive. The reader will have seen these before.

Example 1: “My academic work combined with my hard-working attitude gives me the qualities necessary for marketing in a forward-looking organization like yours.”

Weak: This looks as if you can send it to 100 employers. It is not specific enough for the readers to know whether or not you are qualified enough for a position.

Example 2: “Let me describe the marketing experience I’ve gained through course work and my internship at ABC Enterprises.”

Strong: This gives the readers some detail about the kind of experience you have had.

Frame the objective

Do this in terms of what you can offer that the organization wants. Do not copy, do not write empty compliments, and do not convey desperation. Write to the needs of the opening or the spirit of the company or organization; you can glean this from its web site or other materials. For example, if a hospital says it “Serves the human spirit,” frame your objective to show your understanding of this objective.

Weak: A position with the opportunity for advancement in marketing with a major company like ABC.

More specific: A position in health-related marketing, where my athletic experience and proven interpersonal skills can help with product placement. [or with clientele development, sales, etc.]

More specific: An internship related to economics in the Washington, D.C. area, where my fluency in Arabic can help with interpretation of news media from around the world.

More specific: A position in communications in a health care setting, where my background in philosophy and ethics will contribute to service to the whole person. [web site mentions a holistic approach]

More specific: A position in Human Relations in an urban health care setting; my fluency in Spanish and work experience with various immigrant populations makes me an effective communicator with diverse employees.

If you can’t offer fluency in Arabic or coursework in ethics, consider what you can offer: leadership experience, a caring attitude as shown through volunteering, or people skills gained through funding raising for your club or working for dining services.

Use fresh language

  1. Do not copy letters or phrasing.
  2. Vary sentence beginnings:
    1. My work as a communications intern polished my design skills; for example, when I . . .  I use PhotoShop to . . .
    2. The teamwork required in playing Division I sports has assisted me in many ways. For example . . .
    3. As the chair of the cancer fundraiser, I learned much about how to motivate volunteers.
  3. Vary sentence length.
  4. Run a multi-syllable analysis; you can even do this by squinting. Use both short and long sentences. Too many short sentences? You may not have developed your ideas from fact to example. Too many long sentences? Do you always go for the long word instead of the short one? Check each long word — your potential employer will appreciate someone who writes concisely.

Proofread with several methods

  1. Read aloud to make sure each word has the ending it should and each sentence has the punctuation that you are adding with your oral reading. Then read the paragraphs from the last sentence to the first. As you hit each sentence, ask whether it feels like a complete sentence.
  2. Look for punctuation niceties.
    1. A comma after introductory phrases or clauses.
    2. Semicolon only to divide complete sentences or in a long list between phrases that have internal punctuation.
    3. Colon only after a complete sentence, not after “such as.”
    4. Possessives are correct.
  3. Consider the genre:
    1. Find a recent business communication book to look at letters.
    2. Basic guidelines: centered; about 6″ line lengths; NOT right-justified; single-spaced; uses a standard format that includes the recipient’s address justified on the left; does NOT include your name in the heading.
  4. Emailing your letter?
    1. Basic guidelines: uses white space; though less formal, conforms to all conventions of readability and politeness; short paragraphs, but not too short; full sentences; no “&” or other abbreviations; crisp language; appropriate subject line.
    2. Write it out and send it to yourself. Revise. Reset in a new email message and send.
    3. Be sure to follow attachment guidelines; if none are given, consider the recipient’s capabilities and equipment. Perhaps you should send the attachment in a couple of formats.