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Resume Writing Guide: Customizing Your Resume and Cover Letter

Your best way to grab a potential employer’s attention is to target your resume and cover letter to the specific job.  Here’s how.

It is a frustrating fact of life that competition in the job market is tough right now.  Practically every one of us has the experience of submitting a resume and never hearing anything back.  Most of the time this is because the hiring manager is drowning in resumes!  They are so overwhelmed with responses that they simply pick out the first few that look good enough to interview.

Obviously, with these odds, it is extremely important to write a resume and cover letter that will grab the hiring manager’s attention within the first few seconds.  The best way to do that is to customize both documents so that they target the specific ad.  Don’t list your qualifications and expect the hiring manager to make the leap to realizing you are perfect for the position; make it obvious by writing your resume and cover letter in direct response to their ad.

Here are a few tips to get you started.

1) Study the job ad closely.

This requires more than a quick reading of the ad.  When you are studying an ad, you are looking for two things: the skills the position requires, and the specific phrases the hiring manager or HR person used in the ad.  Both will need to be incorporated into your resume and cover letter, so don’t be shy about circling or highlighting the important bits!

For instance, if the ad states that they want someone who is familiar with specific computer software, that definitely should be one of the skills listed on your resume.  Likewise, if they say they want someone with good time management skills, why reinvent the wheel?  If they used that phrase in the ad, most likely they will be looking for it when they skim your cover letter and resume.  Using the same keywords from the ad won’t seem unoriginal, as many jobseekers fear, but it will show them that you were paying attention to the ad — and believe me, potential employers notice when you don’t.

2) Remember the 30-second rule.

For the most part, hiring managers only devote a few seconds to every resume they look at.  They skim your cover letter and read the summary section of your resume, and if there isn’t anything to jump out and grab their attention, they go on to the next applicant.  You only have about 30 seconds and a handful of lines of print in which to make your first impression.

No prospective employer is going to read your entire cover letter or resume if it’s not immediately obvious that you meet the needs for the position.  In other words, you need to get right to the point.  Your cover letter should indicate in the first or second paragraph that you have the requested skills, such as years of experience, specialized skills, etc.  Likewise, the bullet points in your summary should highlight the skills you have that the ad specifically says they are looking for; if the ad lists many skills, choose the most important ones and fit the rest into the later sections of your resume.  Your summary should only be about 3 to 5 bullet points long.

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3) Remember to sell yourself.

The ultimate goal of your cover letter and resume is to sell yourself as being the best possible candidate for the job.  Remember that famous JFK line, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”?  Take that advice to heart: When you are composing a cover letter and resume, you should be asking what you can do for this employer.

In other words, remember to focus not on you — what experience YOU have, qualities that describe YOU — but on what you will bring to the position.  Don’t say in your cover letter that you have lots of experience; state what your experience will mean for your employer.  Quantitative statements are also good, as they give the hiring manager a tangible idea of your capabilities.

4) Take your time.

The obvious drawback of customizing your resume and cover letter is that it takes more time.  You can minimize the time by having a resume and cover letter template, with your basic information and a sketch of your cover letter.  That way, you only have to change the details before sending the documents out.  Even so, it could take half an hour or an hour to apply for a single job.

Sending out the same documents to every employer is much faster; you can apply to 30 jobs in the blink of an eye.  But what is the point, if your resume isn’t even going to get noticed?  An hour spent crafting a targeted resume that is more likely to land you an interview is much better time spent than an hour sending out a dozen or more resumes that never get so much as a second glance.

Customizing your resume and cover letter is not an easy task to undertake — no one ever said it would be.  But when you take the time to do so, it shows, and you are much more likely to impress prospective employers and stand out from the competition.

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