10 Things I Look for When I Screen Resumes and Cover Letters

Confessions of a serial resume screener: One of the things I enjoy most as a consultant is when I get to help companies find good candidates to interview. It’s fun meeting each one in an initial interview and trying to figure out if they might be a good match for the company and job. But before I bring anyone in, first I have to screen dozens of resumes and cover letters (sometimes over a hundred) to find those few candidates who seem most promising.

So what do I look for when I screen resumes and cover letters?

Glad you asked. Here are the ten things that make a candidate’s application stand out for me as a screener:

1. Well-organized, professional appearance – You may think that’s obvious, but I’ve seen lots of resumes that look sloppy. Or hard to read. Or thrown together. Or scrunched up as if I wouldn’t notice they’re trying to squeeze it all into one page. By the way, you don’t have to do that…especially if you have lots of solid experience you want to highlight and truly need more than one page.

But you also don’t want to pad it with the same old same old again and again; if that’s all you have, one page is more than enough. For example…if you’re an analyst, no need to simply tell me you did analysis at each job. I get that. Tell me what type of analysis and the result. Show me something interesting for every job you list that helps you stand out from the masses! Now THAT’s worth an extra page.

Also know that sometimes when resumes are scanned, the first page gets viewed the most, so let that page be loaded with your best stuff even if you have to create a Highlights section at the top to do that.

And don’t forget to check out sample resumes and cover letters to see what great ones look like. The thoughtful use of bold, spacing, formatting, and different fonts can make a resume come to life for the reader.

2. Relevant skills – Resumes and cover letters need to be tailored to the job. Sending out the same resume and cover letter to everyone, hoping they will take the time to figure out who you really are, is a waste of everyone’s time. If you do that, you really are asking me to find a needle in a haystack. When I have a hundred or so resumes to go though, I appreciate those people who take the time to carefully highlight skills that match the actual job requirements as listed in the ad.

You can create a section at the top of the resume for this if your most recent jobs don’t exactly match the new job. Also use bullets on your cover letter to bring my attention to these all-important skills.

3. Less is more – Show me you understand good business communication skills by keeping your cover letter short. I don’t need to hear the whole story of how you made the momentous decision to apply today – although if you are making a career change and want to tell me why or if there is some interesting personal connection to this job, tell it in a sentence or two. As for the resume…mention each job but limit yourself to tasks that show something special about yourself and, as much as possible, relate it to the position I’m looking to fill.

4. Specific technical skills – For example, if you worked on a PeopleSoft system, tell me which version and exactly what you did and, although recent experience carries more weight, mention any other relevant experience or training you had even if it isn’t all that recent. I’m hungry for that! (I often help hire people for information technology jobs, but this tip relates to most fields.)

5. Quantified results – Whatever your field, give as many details about your projects/ accomplishments quoting numbers, dollars and results where possible. If you increased sales or surpassed your goal tell me the percentage. If you handled a project, tell me the budget. If you managed a restaurant, tell me how many customers eat there in a week and how many staff you managed. If your idea saved your company money, tell me how much. You get the idea.

6. Initiative – I want your resume and cover letter to show me you are not just an average worker, but someone who will look for ways to do your best and make my company better. Use bulleted sections that start with action verbs like “led” and “created” and “improved” and talk about what you’ve accomplished that makes you special, rather than a sentence like “Handled assignments on a timely basis.” You’re expected to do that. What else do you have to offer a new employer?

7. A sense of who you are – Many resumes and cover letters look good, but they come off lifeless. No sense of the person and why i might want to meet them. This is hard to describe in a post, but you need to put some of your real self into it.  Cover letters are great for this since you can lead with something interesting (within the bounds of decorum of course), rather than the deadly dull “I saw your ad on Monster” or whatever.

This is your chance to market yourself to me and make me want to meet you! You do this by sounding real and by letting me see a glimpse of who you are in the way you write and how you organize your resume. Even what you choose to include and how you present it gives me a sense of the person.

I also want to get a sense of you as someone who takes responsibility, solves problems, commits to what they do, and is dependable. You can convey all that using your resume and cover letter.

8. Something that helps me remember you – I know I said to keep it short and not go on and on, but there is still a way to do that and be memorable. It could be with a great opening line on your cover letter – although the trick here is to create some interest without making it hokey or gushy; you want to stay professional while still revealing a bit of you.  You might mention someone you have in common or some interesting experience or skill that relates to the job. Or you might make sure you include one small unique accomplishment on your resume that stands out like “Hosted the 2008 Olympic Women’s Volleyball Team when they visited XYZ company.” (Uh…it has to be real or it counts against you.)

9. Good writing skills – Even if the job does not involve writing, most jobs nowadays require good communication skills. Both your resume and cover letter should be written carefully, paying attention to grammar and typos. People can reject you for just typos because they show you are careless. (Remember that spell check doesn’t always catch typos that are real words, so please ask someone else to proof both your resume and cover letter for you.)

Oh…and you get a big plus if your writing is clear, to the point, and makes your case well. You don’t have to be Shakespeare…just take the time to do your best.

10. Dates that are easy to read and understand – Sometimes I get resumes without dates or with the dates scattered around, making it hard to piece together the picture of what, where, when, and how long! You’re not going to fool anyone by trying to hide your dates. I need to know where you worked, when you were there, and how long you stayed. If it looks at all suspicious, I move on to the next one.

If there are gaps (and many of us have them, including me), you can fill in the time with volunteer work or school or a project you took on or a book you wrote or something solid. If that’s not possible, depending on what it is, you might want to mention it in your cover letter*. But in most cases it’s probably best to try to wow them with what you do have to offer – enough to tempt them to at least want to talk to you on the phone – and then make sure you have a clear explanation you feel comfortable with when you get asked about it in an interview question!

This goes for apparent job-hopping too. Some screeners won’t even bother, but more and more screeners recognize there are good employees who for one reason or another had a few short stints in a row.  As someone who almost never stayed in one place more than one or two years until about 7 years ago (when I began free-lancing for the same organization – although in various areas), I can tell you there are still ways to market yourself effectively. But often it takes a really good resume and cover letter!

*Note: If, for example, you’re returning to work after many years of taking care of your family, that’s a fine thing to mention in the cover letter. Just don’t go into the details. Less is still more!

Hope that helps. Good luck in your job search. And don’t forget to tell us when you get the job. We love to celebrate!

Ronnie Ann

If you need help with your resume or cover letter, you might find some useful additional tips here:

Resume Help

 

About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.

Comments

  1. Mohammad Hayat says:

    Great tips and gives a good idea what the reader of resume is looiking for.

  2. Denise K. Antich says:

    Ronnie Ann,
    Some great advice and very direct and to the point! Thank you!

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Mohammad and Denise. Good luck in your own job hunts!

  4. Stephanie Benford says:

    Ronnie Ann:
    I am 45, look around 30 and have been told by recruiters/resumé reviewers to leave specific dates off if the job was more than 10 years ago (I was in my last position 12 years, held one for four and the other for seven) in order not to be screened out based on age. I don’t want to be eliminated because my resumé looks shady. On the other hand, these professionals are advising grouping my previous two jobs under “relevant experience” without dates. What are your thoughts?

  5. Hi Stephanie!

    Smart of you to question the experts (even me!) and come to your own conclusion. Rest assured…it’s actually standard practice to advise people to handle their older experience that way.

    My own resume does that too. Since I also use my resume to reframe & target my experience toward where I want to go, I include a section (without dates) called Primary Skills just under my name and contact info. But there are many ways to handle your less recent experience, and a review of some samples from a site like Susan Ireland’s (look at samples below the Google ads) might be worth your time.

    Fear not…as long as you tell the truth about your recent info and skills, this is totally legit and should help you get past a good deal of small-minded screening!

    One thing I’m not sure about is whether maybe your 4-year job could be listed with dates too. It might make your resume look more substantial. That would still make you in your 30s at first glance. And you might not even need to mention your other job unless it directly relates to the job you want now.

    But each industry is different and if the recruiters in your industry advise this and that feels right to you, just know it’s perfectly in keeping with current practice and not shady at all.

    Hope that helps, Stephanie. Best of luck! Would love to hear how things turn out for you. 😉

    – Ronnie Ann

  6. Ronnie Ann, lately, I noticed that people have been neglecting quantified results when it is so critical in highlighting your accomplishments. It’s easier to keep up with your sales and call numbers if you are updating your resume every two or three months.

  7. Good reminder Mark! Thanks. Especially in a tight economy, employers look for a person who can produce real results.

  8. Hi Ronnie Ann –

    I thought this seemed like an appropriate post to submit my comment. I have been job searching now for 16 months (I know!) and this afternoon one of my most trusted mentors basically said that I have a lot of red flags and she cannot comprehend why I haven’t been hired yet. I was laid off twice within the past 3 years (both due to company economic reasons) – his response was that “If one of my best employees lost an account, I wouldn’t let them go – it’s a red flag”. We work in two different industries (I have agency experience – he did not). I tried to explain the nature of the agency beast – you shed salaries, not necessarily talent.

    I should be interviewing for a couple of positions in the next week or so (yay!) – how do I address my “red flags” in my past?

  9. Hi Kathy!

    Glad you asked this question because I think it’s one a lot of people share with you. 😉

    First, although as Ricky Ricardo so often told Lucy “You have some splainin to do!”, the fact that you have some interviews coming up (yay!) shows they are open to you. More often than not, it’s more the way we handle these things than the flags themselves.

    Candidly I could have a resume full of red flags, but the way I present the information (leading with a skills/ qualifications section and filling in gaps with volunteer or consulting/ freelance work) lets me show I’ve made good use of the time and helps me get to the interview where I can splain for myself.

    So first and foremost, get real comfortable with the idea you did nothing wrong and you have a ton to offer your new employer – no matter what your mentor’s question might bring up in you. True, layoffs often are a time to let people go who may not be up to speed, but also new folks, expensive folks, and people who they may have hated to let go but had no choice. Your job is to come up with the most honest and yet positive explanation and then quickly move on to something positive about yourself that helps them see what strengths you bring to this particular job.

    A great story might even offer something you learned from the layoff, what you’ve done to strengthen your skills since then, and how you are ready and determined to throw yourself 100% into this new job – and why this particular job is so ideally suited to you. Basically answer, don’t divert, but then move on to paint the picture of you now and in the future; the past is over and we all have had things like this happen. In fact, in one interview I once had an SVP of a major bank said “Without mistakes to learn from and obstacles to overcome, we’d never get better.”

    And btw…I have friends who have worked in your field and even the best of them get let go and wind up with long periods of unemployment. It’s pretty common in this industry & not such a red flag any more. In fact, one friend who had to do freelance for almost 2 years is now happily in his 3rd year with a great agency. As I said, it’s all in the way you handle it.

    So come up with your personal marketing plan, believe it, and go into each interview ready to help them see you in the new job. And while you trust your mentor in many things, trust yourself in this one, OK?

    Hope that helps. I wish you the best of luck, Kathy! PLEASE keep us posted.

    Ronnie Ann

  10. Tim Mitchell says:

    Great article.
    One question, not job hopping just have had a number of positions where the location or entire corporation closed within 2 – 2 1/2 years after starting there. Most of the companies were major players in their field.
    How do handle this so it does not look like job hopping?

  11. Hi Tim!

    Been there done that many times myself. 😉 Your best approach involves how you present yourself on paper (resume and cover letter) and in person. Hope this helps:

    How to Handle Annoying Red Flags in Your Resume

    It’s a different world out there now – and the good part is many employers get that people go through what you’ve gone through, Tim.

    Good luck!

    Ronnie Ann

  12. Hi,

    I’m 16 and looking for a job, but I’m not really sure what to put on my resume.

    I don’t really have any work experience other than baby sitting my nieces and nephews. I have worked with my parents cleaning and painting houses for about 3 years. I’m homeschooled so I don’t have any grand academic achievments or awards. Any suggestion on how I could utilize my “prior experience”?

    One more thing, because I don’t have much experience outside of the family I only have family references. How would that look on my resume?

    Thanks a bunch!

    Rachel

  13. Hi Rachel!

    I have to admit this is a bit outside my precise field of expertise, but here goes…

    No matter what age you are or what your experience is or isn’t, an employer wants to know she or he can trust you to be responsible and fulfill your commitments. They also want to know you’ll be someone pleasant to work whom they can trust 100%. So your job is to figure out what you have done and what you can offer that proves that – and then somehow show it on your resume and cover letter. At your age they aren’t expecting much more than that.

    All this depends on what you’re looking for of course. If it’s brain surgery…you’ll need a bit more experience. 🙂 If it’s office work…do you have typing skills? Can you file? Can you do data entry? Can you answer phones? Or maybe you want to work in another type of environment like food services or retail. Whatever it is, just try to aim your skills as best you can toward their needs. I’ll leave this up to you to figure out. 😉

    The resume itself should have your name and contact info at the top. Then, in your case, an objective that shows you want this kind of job. (Good resumes nowadays get tailored to EACH job.) Then a section of special skills. Then education (or you can put this at the end since you’re not in college yet.) Then talk about how you assisted in your family business, what you did, responsibilities you took on, etc. Also talk about your baby-sitting and how responsible you were and how much they liked you, etc.

    For resume samples, go to SusanIreland.com.

    And bolster your chances with a GREAT cover letter that really shows all the qualities I mentioned. Hint: You want to aim yourself to their needs and not talk about all your needs.

    Don’t worry about what you don’t have – including outside references. Use what you have. Most jobs at your stage of life are learned as you do them anyway. If you show you are determined to be great, they’ll get that. 😉

    I wish you all the best, Rachel. Please let us know how it goes, ok?

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  14. Ronnie Ann,
    What excellent points you make about resumes! As you mentioned, there are many people who feel that one standard resume will work for all applications. However, that is not always the best way to present oneself.

    I, personally, update my resume for each specific job offering in my industry – corporate communications. There are writing positions, PR, marketing communications, employee communications, public affairs, community relations, change management communications and more that fall under that category.

    Therefore, I have a “summary” for each genre and update each resume accordingly. I also save them by category title, month and year so that I always have one I can update.

    I do the same thing with my cover letters. Add to that, I try to mention the company’s name in the cover letter to provide a personalization element that should (hopefully) get the reader’s attention. Again, I save each cover letter as above.

    I also keep a list of accomplishments per job/company. Like many of the posters, I too have had a very “checkered” work history. Every company I have worked for save one in the last seven years, has either been sold, split or reduced the workforce due to economic or other external issues.

    Luckily, I formed my own freelance DBA and have managed to find a few freelance opportunities to provide me with “accomplishment” statements for my resume.

    The name of the game is not just “job searching,” it is MARKETING! If anyone ever asks a job seeker what they do (especially during transition) they can truthfully answer – I am a marketing representative or even call themselves a “director of marketing” for the XYZ (substitute their initials) company! Sounds good and it is the absolute truth!

  15. Thanks Susan! These are great tips. And you are so right about it being a big marketing game now – at least for the most part. As a fellow freelancer (I tried it and stayed footloose and fancy free 😉 ), I echo how valuable this interim experience can be.

    I wish you the best of luck in your career. Thanks again for offering some sound self-marketing advice!

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  16. Hi Ronnie Ann,
    After a career spanning more than 20 years I decided to take some time off to go back for a Masters in a different field while raising my daughters. How would you highlight on a resume the projects that you did during the Masters program that were part of your coursework but demonstrate particular skills – would it be under “education” or a “special skills” section or in another place?

    Also, I see many advisers saying to limit experience to what is most recent. For me, most of my experience is not so recent but I still feel it demonstrates certain qualities and skills. Wouldn’t someone looking at a resume note, for example – “This person has been doing project management for 18 years. That’s a lot of experience.”?

    Thank you!

  17. Hi Anna!

    I use my Special Skills section to highlight relevant information (including quantifiable things like numbers of years) and make sure to aim all experience on the resume in the direction I want for my future.

    Since at your stage Education is usually toward the end of your resume (although your cover should emphasize any recent experience that shows you are exactly the right person for this new job), you might want to put these projects somewhere in the beginning if they show why you are THE one. But I’m not a trained resume pro, so maybe in your case Education could be up front – not sure. My approach is to put yourself in the eye of the screener and think what would most make you stand out as the person who best fits the job.

    Susan Ireland has a wonderful site with all kinds of samples and free info. I think you’ll find some help there. She also might answer this particular question on her blog. I’d trust her on this topic since she really knows her stuff!

    Congratulations on your recent degree and best of luck finding a great job, Anna!

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  18. Hi Ronnie Ann,
    I have posted in the Post Interview OCD Blues section before this, unfortunately I didn’t get the job I was writing about. I do have a question though regarding my cover letter. A company I interviewed with is hiring once again. In my cover letter, should I bring up the fact I interviewed there but was unsuccessful or just forward another cover letter and resume without bringing that fact?
    Thanks
    Alex

    • Hi Alex,

      Sorry you didn’t get that job last year. Hope it goes much better this year!

      Very interesting question! I think that I would play this one “by ear,” and submit a new cover letter and updated resume without mentioning that you have interviewed there unsuccessfully before.

      My first reaction is not to mention the past unless one of them brings it up when you get to the interview stage. If you see a familiar face, and they seem to recognize you, you could remind them of last year’s situation, but I don’t think I would otherwise.

      Good luck!
      Susan

  19. Kseniya says:

    Hi, Ronnie Ann.
    I was wondering if an effective resume objective should always state the specific name of a position. Would something like this work or do I need to be more specific: “Seeking entry-level information technology position utilizing my education and skills in web-design and computer troubleshooting”?

    • chandlee says:

      Kseniya,

      When you have the opportunity to customize your resume objective you should customize it so that it highlights your relevant experience. There are many entry-level positions, so a more focused objective to the one above might be.. “To provide Level 1 and 2 support for Computer Support as a member of the _< >__ help desk team for Windows 7.

      Typically web design and general computer troubleshooting are two different job types so only mention the focus area that is appropriate for the job you are applying to.

      Good luck!

      Best,
      Chandlee

  20. My mother recommended my older brother attach a photo of himself to his resume. He got hired specifically and literally because he put a face to the name. Have you ever seen or heard of this before?
    In my cover letter, how do I mention employees I know personally?

    • Hi Nathan,

      I generally don’t recommend people attach a photo — unless they are applying for a modeling or acting gig. That said, it is important to put a photo on your LinkedIn profile — and many people do attach a photo to their e-mail signature if using Microsoft Outlook or another application.

      In your cover letter, start the letter with the name of the person you know…Through < >, I learned that your organization is a great place to work. I write to express interest in < >

      Good luck and all the best,
      Chandlee

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