I’ve been taking some career coaching classes lately. (Fear not. I promise not to jeopardize my non-expert status too much.) Anyway…while we were talking about resumes, one of the people in my class asked “Do resumes really matter? It’s all in the cover letter.”
After I got up off the floor and brushed myself off…oh the horror…I tried to explain why cover letters, while indeed a powerful job search tool, can’t be expected to bear so much of the burden.
Why a resume still matters even with a GREAT cover letter
Let me be clear. When done right, cover letters can undo a great deal of the harm done by so-so resumes. But not in every case – and certainly not reliably enough to give your cover letter so much responsibility for whether or not you get a job interview!
The situation we were talking about in class was one of a woman – let’s call her Joan – who for several reasons decided to return to work in her early 50s after three years of semi-retirement from a rather successful career. (She still continued her volunteer work.) Her resume is filled with top-level positions, both in the private and non-profit sectors. Senior Vice President, CEO, Board Trustee, Executive Director, etc.
But what Joan wants now is to change her brand and find less-demanding but still fulfilling work in an organization she cares about. And she needs someone to be willing to give her that chance.
The Great Cover Letter Myth
The Great Cover Letter Myth tells Joan to just take her regular old resume (maybe slightly revised) and write a great cover letter explaining why she wants to contribute her skills in a different way now. And truth is she might hit that one person who reads it and takes the time to really see why she might be terrific at handling this particular job.
But not every resume screener is good at seeing beyond the details or has the inclination to do so. Also, it says something about Joan if she doesn’t even take the time to help paint the picture for the resume screener - or if she doesn’t even realize why that may be a good thing to do. And anyway…why leave it up to luck or the kindness of strangers? Doesn’t it make more sense to help potential employers connect the dots?
Without doubt, Joan does need a strong cover letter. (In fact everyone should have one that they then tailor to each job.) But she also will greatly increase her chances if she reworks her resume using some or all of these suggestions:
- Lead with a summary section emphasizing transferable skills (like problem solving or grant writing)
- Visually de-emphasize titles
- Carefully highlight accomplishments within each job (as best as possible) in a way that paints the picture of someone ideally suited for the new job
- Consider a skills-based resume where the titles are even further de-emphasized
Of course, she’ll still meet with resistance. Some employers are afraid of people who they see as “over-qualified”. But whatever you do, you don’t want to add to that perception in any way. Joan’s most important job now is to help potential employers see her as “rightly qualified”. And if she’s smart, she’ll make sure her resume – along with her cover letter, her personality, and lots of creative networking – helps people see her that way.
Do you have more suggestions for Joan?