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How to write a great CV and Cover Letter

Breaking into a new career, no matter what industry you're vying to join, seems to get more and more competitive every year. New graduates are often overwhelmed with the process of applying to jobs and trying to get a foot in the door.

Believe it or not, hiring remains a very difficult process for employers. Good candidates are extremely hard to find. Often, the problem is that the best candidates don't know how to appropriately express that they would make the perfect fit for the job. A few simple technology tricks and tips, and knowing how the system operates, can fix this problem, though, and help you get the job you want.

How do employers use your materials?

To write a great cover letter and resume, you have to understand how the employer is using them. The number one thing to know is that people always read your cover letter and resume more than once. The first time, they skim it looking for keywords either by themselves or using a computer programme. The purpose of the skim read is to throw out any candidates who don't cut the mustard. To be considered a viable candidate, your cover letter and resume have to pass this stage. So you have to think about not just writing beautiful prose, but using the right keywords.

The second time potential employers read your materials, they read closely, paying attention to what you have actually written and how you've phrased it. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency, and the degree of formality of your language count. The "right" level of formality depends on the industry and company culture.

Match your keywords

To pass the first test, the skim read, you need to put the right keywords into your materials. But how do you know which ones to use? Luckily, the company gives them to you; They're in the job description.

One of the biggest pieces of advice I have about organising an online job search is to save everything, including the job description. I recommend creating a word-processing file where you will

  1. Copy and paste the job description
  2. Comb through the job description carefully while putting in bold keywords that mention necessary skills and attributes of the ideal candidate
  3. Identify which of those keywords truly applies to you and your experiences (no lying!)
  4. Write a few accurate statements that use those keywords in describing your qualities, talents, and past work.

The statements that you write in step 4 will become the foundation of your cover letter. All you have to do after that is make sure you write a concise introduction and conclusion, and smooth out the transitions between the statements. If all else fails in trying to write smooth transitions, just start a new paragraph.

Keep the cover letter short. In most cases, it should be less than 400 words. Get to the point, hit the key ideas, show that you fit the key things the company needs, and conclude quickly.

There's no such thing as "The One" CV

One important fact that many new graduates don't know is that they must make a new resume and cover letter for every single job application. No successful job candidate has "a resume." You need a specially tailored one for each job opening. Each resume and cover letter doesn't have to be radically different from the previous one, and occasionally, you may find two or three job descriptions that are so similar that you don't have to change much in your application materials at all. But to accurately match the keywords that the employer gives you, you'll need to rewrite your resume and cover letter every time.

When you send your resume, cover letter, and anything else the employer requests, use the file formats they specify; if they don't specify which format to use, always send PDFs.

Get organised: Save everything

As I mentioned, save the job description for each job application you complete. Also save the cover letter and resume, and name them in such a way that you can find them quickly and easily. I like to use the following identifiers in my file names:

Company name, position title, and date the application was sent (two-digit year, month, date so that May 28, 2012 becomes 120528).

The reason you need to save everything and make it easy to find is so that when you do get called in for an interview — and you will if you keep at it those applications! — you'll be able to review the position requirements, refresh your memory about what you've told the hiring committee about yourself, and remember to use the same keywords about your best qualities and skills in the interview.