How to Look Good on Paper: The Secrets to Writing a Resume and Cover Letter for Your First Job Out of College

Every semester, I teach an English Composition class for freshmen college students. While the students are not always excited about the intricacies of essay writing, they do perk up when I spend a class on writing cover letters and resumes. Most of my students already work, usually in part-time jobs in the service field. Once, I had a student who took care of horses, a position that sounded pretty neat to me. But none of them planned to remain in their positions. All came to college to better their careers, and so, as their writing teacher, I thought it behooved me to help them prepare for the written aspects of job applications for their first job out of college.

The Students First Perspective of Resumes and Cover Letters

Most of my students are in the dark about the intricacies of the application process. Many gained employment thanks to a friend or family member or simply by walking into a restaurant and asking if anyone was hiring. When I start to mention cover letters and cover letter templates, I’m often met with confused looks.

“What’s a cover letter?” a student will usually ask. Another will ask, “Is it like the essay you have to write to get into college?”

I tell them a cover letter is not just a copy of a college admissions essay. Yet they do have some similarities: in both, you’re trying to impress someone while keeping to a tight word count. And like the college essay, it’s always tough to tell who reads cover letters and how much they count.

Still, they tend to get a little ahead of themselves by worrying about the cover letter. Before they tackle it, they need to master the resume.

The Secrets to Writing Your First Job Resume

Just as one’s academic CV matters the most when applying to college, one’s resume takes precedence when applying for a job. I first show the students resume examples via PowerPoint slideshow. I show my own resume as an example, which often leads to a student asking, “Are you looking for a new job?”

Why Keep Your Resume Current?

To the students, it’s quite strange to update your resume unless you’re looking for a new job. I explain to them that a resume should always be updated. Why? Because sometimes you have to look for a new position on short notice. Best to be prepared. Plus, if you must do it all at once, you’re likely to produce subpar work that doesn’t properly catalog all your skills. Better to tweak the resume whenever you do a new activity or work on a new skill. 

What to Put On a Resume If No Experience?

Once rest assured that I’m not looking to leave them, students will start to tell me they’re not sure how this resume advice will help them now. “I have no skills or experience,” one will say. Others will nod in agreement. “I don’t even know what I’d list,” someone else will add. “That I wait tables?”

I understand their confusion. I’ve been there myself. It’s easy to assume, yes, you have a job, but none of those skills are transferable or all that impressive, right? But take a look at any quality resume example, and you’ll see that it’s all in the presentation. This past school year, when a student mentioned they had no skills, I inquired as to what their job was. They worked for a party planning company. Did they set up the parties? Yes. Did they talk to the customers? Yes. Did they respond to customer demands? You bet. Had they ever trained anyone new? Oh, yeah, just last week.

Resume With No Work Experience, Unlikely Isn’t True.

Sounded to me like they had some skills! I used that student’s experience to craft part of an example resume, writing how they have direct customer satisfaction experience and are ready to respond to changes in customer requests on the fly. While my students may not be working on Wall Street, their jobs come with obstacles and frustrations, which grant them key skills they can use in future positions. No one “only waits tables.” They work in a fast-paced environment with others and respond to patrons’ requests within minutes.

The student’s eyes light up at this. They start to realize that they do, in fact, have some items they can list on their resume.

Practicing Writing a Resume

After this lecture, I assign students to write a portion of their own resumes for homework. They probably put more work into this than any other assignment during the semester. Come the next class, students have their example resumes ready and have taken what they once felt were thoughtless jobs and explained how those positions instead granted them valuable skills for the workplace and for their future careers. In fact, we often end up agreeing on minimum wage jobs that people sometimes dismiss actually requires a lot of skills. The key is not to take anything you do for granted. Almost any action on the job shows a skill and how you deal with responsibility. Portraying on your resume that you’re responsible and adaptable is just as important as the degree listed.

How to Write a Cover Letter that Stands Out

Next comes the cover letter. I tell the students they can find cover letter templates for their specific position online (the cover letter one does for a professorship, for instance, will be different than the cover letter done for a quality assurance position). However, I assure them there is really one key to making a cover letter that stands out: using it to explain why you’re ideal for the position in a way that doesn’t just repeat what is on your resume.

Cover Letters that Stand Out, and Don’t Brag

Easier said than done. Even as someone who writes, I find cover letter writing to be a challenge. Bragging about yourself without seeming like you are bragging about yourself is a difficult tightrope to walk! Nevertheless, a cover letter that stands out does have an element that makes books or movies stand out: a good story. The cover letter is where my students can share a specific experience (or, if I want to link it back to essay writing, a specific example) of them excelling in the workplace. Nothing long! Just a short, punchy story told in a couple of sentences. Something that shows how they thought outside of the box or how they are adept at collaboration. These are important skills that are better shown in a cover letter than just told in a resume (show don’t tell is a classic writing rule for a reason).

When I add that the length of a cover letter is much less than the length of our essays, they breathe a sigh of relief. I, on the flip side, have to pull my hand away from the keyboard to not write a 1000-word cover letter. But that’s the curse of being a writing instructor.

Writing a Cover Letter is a Form of Creative Writing

To my surprise, students take to cover letter writing. I think they find writing a cover letter that stands out is like writing creatively. Yes, cover letters can’t go on forever, but they should be well written and with a little sense of personality; students embrace this as it’s freer than an argumentative essay or a literary analysis. Plus, they feel like they are doing something that will concretely affect their future. When students see a link between class work and their careers, they pay close attention.

Over the years, students have asked me to take a look at their cover letters. Usually, my comments are pretty consistent: less listing what you do and more showing; try to create a narrative; don’t go longer than a page. Then, they go and revise. I always make sure to ask them why they don’t put as much effort into revising their essays. Haven’t gotten a good answer to that one yet.

The Big Takeaways

I enjoy teaching my students about writing for employment for their first job out of college. Resumes and cover letters are as key as a degree, and I am glad I can combine all three for a class (or two). There are two important takeaways, though. 

  1. Those part-time jobs that give you no experience and skills? They actually give you a ton of skills. You just have to present them right.
  2. Students are leaving high school with very little knowledge on how to apply for jobs.

Cover letters are a mystery to many of them. Resumes just seem like a simple list they must make with no sense of spark, thought, or organization. The students’ lack of knowledge is not because of laziness. No, they gobble this knowledge up when I teach it.

The takeaway, then, is this: high schools should equip students with a better understanding of the job application process. And, hey, in my experience, it means the students will pay a lot of attention that day, too.

Written by Donald McCarthy, a College English Composition Professor.

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