How to Tailor Your Resume and Cover Letter for Any Opportunity 

Jun 03, 2021

By Jenny Han Simon

Your resume (or CV in some cases) and cover letter are both monumentally important in your arsenal of application materials for any opportunity. In a nutshell, your resume is a more general overview of your experience and skills, while a cover letter is a letter addressed specifically to a recruiter, job, internship, etc. Even if you’re the right person for a job or opportunity, your application materials can be just as important—if not more—than your actual skillset in terms of getting an offer! Here’s how to write, edit, and rework your resume and cover letter so that they’re optimized for whatever you’re applying for at any given time! 

1. Identify your most relevant experiences 

Actions speak louder than words, right? The same is true for writing (even if the reader can’t actually hear you) and is especially so for resumes and cover letters. Recruiters usually have a ton of application materials to read, meaning that if the first few lines of your resume and cover letter don’t grab their attention, you may be out of the game before you get a chance to play. Avoid this by taking a careful look at the requirements and preferences in the job or application listing, then take a look at your existing resume and think about which experiences most closely match what the recruiter is looking for and move them to the top of each relevant section. 

For example, if the employer is looking for someone to lead a team, like a project manager, think of an experience you’ve had where you were an effective leader. This could be teaching experience, where you were the leader of a classroom; the head of a club, where you led meetings and directed everyone’s efforts; or a member of a fraternity or sorority, where you mentored others. Remember: it’s not always about being the absolute best; it’s about being the best for the specific job you’re applying for! 

2. Create a narrative—beginning, middle, and end (or future)

Just as you might consider an entire set of application materials (personal statement, statement of purpose, references, curriculum vitae, etc.) as an entire story of your academic and professional career, view your resume and cover letters as executive summaries. They should contain a sizable selection of your previous experiences, just enough to hook whoever’s reading so that they want to look deeper. Anything too long—more than one page for a cover letter, and more than two for a resume—will probably not receive the wholehearted attention it deserves. 

Your cover letter, as a succinct and thoughtful written composition, should be engaging and address these three things:

  1. Why are you applying for this job??
  2. How can you help the company or organization meet its goals?
  3. How do you plan to maximize this opportunity?

Your resume, being shorter and easier to scan, should include specific dates and places in addition to sharing insights into your previous experiences. Your resume should draw particular attention to:

  1. The expected duties of your previous experience 
  2. Impressive metrics that make you a standout (your GPA, for example)
  3. Anything that distinguishes you from other applicants. It’s best to know your audience, in this case. 

3. Update your references 

An often overlooked but incredibly important part of the application process is references and recommendations. Not only can knowing the right person sometimes lead you to the perfect opportunity, but having an actual human—ideally, someone who knows you well and is passionate about your work—advocate for you and have the final word can be the make-it-or-break-it factor in the application process. For recruiters and reviewers who have to spend hours, days, weeks, or even longer looking at applications, that third-party input might be just what they need to give yours the go-ahead. 

Ideally, a reference should be someone who knows you well, or at least your work and capabilities. Usually, someone who’s acted as a mentor to you, like a professor or supervisor, is ideal because they have some experience in the field and can compare you to people in similar roles. If they can attest to your work ethic, personality, and passions, that’s even better! 

“Do people even check references anymore, or is that just a formality?” some people might ask. While recruiters and reviewers probably don’t check every applicant’s references, if they’re on the fence, then they definitely will. It would be a shame to miss out on an opportunity because of outdated contact information or anxiety over reaching out to a potential reference. Networking is key to success, so don’t be afraid to utilize yours! 

Jenny Han Simon currently lives in New York City. She was a Fulbright ETA in Mongolia (2019-2020) and a participant of the Critical Language Scholarship (2018). She graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2019 with a BA in English and Linguistics.

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