if you’re not getting interviews, here’s how to fix your resume and cover letter

I did a version of this post in 2012, and it’s become one of the posts that I link people to most frequently, so I figured it was time to update it.

I talk to a lot of people who aren’t getting interviews and who can’t figure out what the problem is. They tell me that they know their resume and cover letter are fine. They often mention that they’ve had people look over their materials and that those people agree that their resume and cover letter aren’t the problem. So they can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong.

I’ll often ask to see their resume and cover letter anyway — despite their confidence that those aren’t the problem. And you know what? Nearly always, those are the problem. The people who told them that they were fine were wrong — they didn’t have the experience or the insight to know what would make a really great resume or letter. And as a result, these job-seekers have been continuing to apply with mediocre materials and continuing to not get interviews, and are frustrated because they can’t figure out why.

This is highly likely to be true for you if (1) your resume mainly lists your job duties rather than talking about the outcomes you achieved at each job, and/or (2) your cover letter basically summarizes the information in your resume (in which case it’s not adding anything at all to your application).

If this sounds like it might be the case for you, stop listening to the people telling you that your materials are fine! Instead, read these:

Resumes
the #1 question your resume should answer
how to rewrite your resume to focus on accomplishments, not just job duties
how to list accomplishments on your resume when your job doesn’t have easy measures
how can my resume demonstrate initiative, problem-solving, work ethic, and other qualities?
10 mistakes you’re making on your resume
stop claiming subjective traits on your resume
those big paragraphs of text on your resume are putting people to sleep
this is a resume and cover letter that work
how to create a resume from scratch
how long can your resume be?
the whole “resumes” section of my archives (There are 106 posts in there; read them.)

Cover letters
how to write a cover letter that will get you an interview
where’s the line between necessary self-promotion and overconfidence in cover letters?
how do I write a compelling cover letter when I don’t have much work experience?
here’s a real-life example of a great cover letter (with before and after versions!)
here’s another example of a great cover letter
the whole “cover letters” section of my archives (There are 56 posts in there; read them.)

And yes, that’s a lot and it will take time. But the alternative is to continue not getting interviews, and that’s not a good alternative. Seriously — follow the advice in these posts, and you should have a dramatically better resume and cover letter … and if my reader mail is any guide, you should start getting calls for interviews once you do.

{ 147 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Adam

    Always appreciate these. Also, if you have a field, know what the norms and expectations are. I’m trying to move into Technical Writing, and am taking courses to help with that. My teacher’s, who are professionals who have worked in the field for years and hire people, say that they have a preference for applicants who fit their resumes on one page, regardless of how much experience you have.

    That might have been the single most valuable bit of information I learned in the course series as my typical resume has been like a page and two-thirds for years.

    Reply
    1. DecorativeCacti

      What kind of course are you taking for that? I’ve been thinking about trying to move in that direction. I currently revise all of my company’s SOPs and training materials but each person writes their own (so I basically just format and proof read) and it’s… fine. I think that if I were to have some technical writing experience, I could help everyone get on the same page and make everything really shine.

      Reply
      1. Adam

        I’m taking a certification series through my alma mater (University of Washington). It’s a three quarter series through their evening education program. At some schools you can get a Masters in the subject, but that’s not for me. One of my teacher’s, who has worked for Microsoft in this area for around two decades, says that most of the people working in the field didn’t have any formal training in it. By taking the certification series we’d already have more dedicated education than most.

        When admitted to the program they assume that you already know how to actually write. What you’re mainly learning is how to organize information, how to determine and write for your intended audience, presentation, and working in various formats such as web vs. print vs. video, etc.

        Much of this last quarter has been hands-on learning of various forms of media creation tools (of which there are WAY more than I ever imagined). Things like Publisher, Adobe, InDesign, etc.

        Reply
        1. MBA

          Awww that was my undergrad program! I went there back when the program was Technical Communication and was just changing over to Human Centered Design and Engineering.

          Reply
        2. Elizabeth West

          This is where I’m running into problems. I can’t access Adobe subscription services with no money and a tutorial followed by not using it for anything for a while is useless.

          But I just applied for something that’s pretty science-y, but they’re not asking for a ton of stuff outside of an English degree and I have quite a few transferable skills. So we’ll see.

          Reply
          1. Adam

            A suggestion:
            I assume you’ve heard of Lynda.com? If not it’s a website that hosts tons of courses about a wide variety of subjects. There’s all sort of subjects ranging from specific programming languages to intros to MS Word and Excel, so there’s bound to be material on the programs you want to learn.

            Now it is a subscription service month to month. Basic plan is $20 a month. Might be worth it to sign up for one month and really commit to it, and there’s a 10 day free trial.

            ALSO, I recently learned that my local public library has a deal worked out with Lynda.com, where if you have an active library card you can access the site through the library for free! So check out your local library and see if they have something like that.

            Good luck!

            Reply
          2. DecorativeCacti

            I’m not sure if you’re an arty person, but I learned most of what I know of the Adobe suite through something called Pattern Camp. It’s an online class that teaches you how to make repeating patterns for things like fabric, wallpaper, or gift wrap. It’s a good introduction to the creative suite and I love playing around with it. It satisfies that art itch and keeps me fresh on Illustrator and Photoshop.

            Reply
        3. DecorativeCacti

          Thanks! That sounds like exactly what I’m looking for. And I’m even in the UW area! I already use things like the Adobe suite and Publisher/Visio/etc in my day to day so at least I’m not going in blind to that stuff.

          Reply
          1. Adam

            I personally have enjoyed it so far. I think learning the various tools has been very helpful for me as well as getting me thinking about document design. The series is three courses that begins in fall and continues through winter and spring.

            I’d recommend contacting the continuing education administration office with questions. They’ve been very helpful in my experience.

            Good luck!

            Reply
        4. turquoisecow

          I’m also taking a certification program for Technical Communication! I’m about halfway through with it. It’s only four courses, and I’m almost done with the second, which is Instructional Design. It’s pretty interesting how much is involved in it that I never would have thought of.

          Reply
    2. Jennifer Thneed

      But are your teachers all in the same geographic area and/or teaching at the same school? They may share preferences but that doesn’t mean that every hiring manager will share the same ones.

      Reply
      1. Jesmlet

        I would say a majority of hiring managers prefer one-page resumes unless they’re hiring top level employees. From my understanding, this is a pretty universal opinion.

        Reply
        1. Adam

          I think this is true. A two-page resume is probably not a faux pas in most cases. I’ve certainly been hired with one, but I think the reality is that unless you immediately stand out to the hiring manager reviewing your resume the vast majority of second pages never get read anyways. I’ve been involved in a few hiring panels at my current organization and I’ve seen a few department directors hired with one-page resumes (that were rather plain looking to boot).

          In regards to Technical Writing, the rationale made sense to me. A big part of the field is presentation and organization and often times making the most of limited space, so making the most of only one page makes sense to me.

          Reply
          1. Jesmlet

            I don’t think there’s anything wrong with 2 pagers, but I strongly prefer receiving 1 page resumes. If I get something 2-3 pages long, I don’t typically read the second page with the same amount of attention as I do the first. It’s not like it goes in the trash, but the first page should be enough to justify a phone interview IMO, second is just additional info. And this isn’t prohibitive but 1 page and 2 page are both better than 1.5 pages for me.

            Reply
            1. Ramona Flowers

              I’m not against two-pages, but I’ve never actually seen one that couldn’t obviously have been pruned back to one.

              Reply
              1. Jesmlet

                Right, exactly. Like for the entry level to middle management I hire for, if it’s two pages I’m not going to disregard it but it never needs to have that second page. The second page tells me more about their communication style and editing abilities than anything directly job related.

                Reply
        2. YesYesYes

          That’s funny. I’m in Corporate Finance and I assume a one-page resume is entry-level work. If I’m hiring you for a senior level role, I expect a resume that bleeds onto a second page. (Although 3 pages is too much.)

          Reply
  2. Kheldarson

    Your posts on cover letters have been my go-tos as I do my current job applications. I think they’ve been a help in getting me interviews!

    Reply
    1. Midge

      Same here! The cover letter I wrote following Alison’s advice was the reason I got an interview for my last job. (The person who sorted through the resumes later told me that I was the only one in a large stack of resumes who gave specifics about why I wanted to work in their department!) So I’ve definitely been revisiting these posts now that I’m starting to actively job search.

      Reply
  3. NPO Queen

    This is a great resource, thanks Alison! I tell people about your blog all the time, so having this information in one place makes it a bit easier. It seems like all of my friends are looking right now, so they’ll be getting this link from me soon.

    Reply
  4. Jaguar

    Thanks, Alison. I’ve been putting off a job search for, depending on what factors you decide to measure by, either four months or a year and a half. I guess I should use this to sit down and get my act together.

    Reply
  5. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!! for posting this. I’ve recently re-written my resume so that it’s more “achievement focused”. I’ve been sending out the updated version so hopefully that will get more responses.

    Reply
  6. Dang

    I love seeing these all together as a resource!

    Allison, are you going to do resume reviews at any point, or has that become too time consuming?

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      No current plans to offer them this year (this year my schedule has been a real clusterfudge), but it’s possible that they could come around again in the future!

      Reply
      1. Sabine the Very Mean

        Pleeeease do! I SWEAR mine is the greatest of all time but I know that can’t be true!

        Reply
      2. JM

        Do you have any suggestions for other resume review resources I could try instead? I’d love to have you help with my resume, but if that’s not possible perhaps you know of someone else who is reliable?

        Thanks!

        Reply
  7. hayling

    This is a great resource! I used the “real life example of a great cover letter” as inspiration recently when I was writing cover letters. The language and flow really helped me get started.

    Reply
  8. introvert

    timely, thank you Alison! (I’m the one who emailed you about resume review last week!)
    My issue is that I know my resume is full of good stuff – well written, comprehensive, impressive skills/results. But it’s WAY too long (It’s on 2 pages but so densely packed, which I’m embarrassed about but don’t know how to fix.) 13 years into my professional career, I want my experience to speak for itself and not have a epic novel-length resume. Challenging especially since I’ve done my role across several industries and have had distinctly different roles at my current company and they all bring unique skills and accomplishments I want to highlight. It just feels jam-packed and I want it to be equally as impressive with about 35% fewer words.

    Readers: Alison isn’t doing resume reviews in the near future, and she’d be my first choice. Do any of you have recommendations for resume review services? There are so many out there and I’m trying to weed through my options. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Jennifer Thneed

      Is there any way we can communicate with each other? I’d be happy to cruise thru your resume and see if I can make suggestions. They may not be great but might still be helpful. (I’ve just put my email address in the commenting form. Maybe that will make my name be a live link?)

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        So, I generally don’t promote that because of exactly the problem I described in this post: lots of people telling people their materials are fine when they’re not, or otherwise not giving great advice. I am sure none of YOU lovely people would be guilty of that, but potentially OTHER hypothetical readers might.

        Reply
        1. introvert

          that makes total sense. Alison, how do you feel about asking some specific questions about areas that I’m getting hung up on? Better suited for a Friday open forum, or is it on-topic here on this post?

          Example: prior to editing my resume, I had a personal statement at the top that said (paraphrasing since I edited it out and don’t remember exactly), “[Adjective] professional with 13 years experience in [x, y, and z]

          I opted to remove it and it currently says [Adjective] professional with experience in [x, y, and z] but now i’m thinking I want to remove the adjective altogether in my effort to be less wordy. It’s kind of an obvious thing, if I work in this field I’m OBVIOUSLY this adjective or i wouldn’t have survived.

          Now I’m struggling with reformatting the personal statement without the adjective or years of experience. Should it just be, “Experienced in X, Y, and Z” and leave it at that?

          Thanks in advance to anyone who wants to weigh in on an answer. And Alison, feel free to tell me to go sit on it until the Friday open thread if you’d prefer it there. :)

          Reply
          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Sure, go for it. I don’t think this post is going to be one that gets hundreds of comments, so it’s easier to allow some drift.

            I don’t think you’re talking about an objective (thank god) or even a personal statement. You’re talking about a short profile, which is fine. But if you’re going to include it, you want it to be something that’s more differentiating. A bunch of applicants could probably have a similar statement on their resumes, so you want something that’s more specifically about what makes you in particular great.

            Reply
                1. Ask a Manager Post author

                  I think you can do a quote if it’s really, really strong. Like really glowing strong. It becomes a negative if it’s more tempered than that — like if it’s “Jane always took care with the details of our events,” that’s nice but it’s not glowing enough for a quote on a resume. It needs to be more like “Jane was the savior of our events time and time again — always unflappable, always creating calm out of chaos, and always leaving our staff and guests thrilled by her warmth and attentiveness.”

            1. Dan

              I know when I was laid off from my last job, my boss looked at my resume and said, “add a summary at the top. Include this. When I have to go to the VP for hiring approval, this is what I send.” My summary is somewhat technical, talking about the very real industry things that I know and do.

              Reply
              1. introvert

                I ditched the objective about 10 years ago and my personal statement has evolved into something that resembles a very short profile – a 1-2 line summary of what I’m bringing to the table. i’ve done account management, project management, direct report/team management, vendor management, workflow/process improvement and training, and have worked on both the vendor side and the client side (which is fairly unique in my situation). I think that sets me apart (and gets it out of the way so it doesn’t clutter up the experience section) but I’m getting hung up on how to write it in a concise way. I’ll keep mulling it over! :)

                Reply
              2. not really a lurker anymore

                My husband recently tweaked his resume to include a specific thing. He swears adding that topic is what is getting him interviews right now.

                He did get a job offer but that’s based on him rocking the interviews.

                Reply
        2. Louisa

          There are several members of my alumni networking group who are in management/hiring roles who review resumes for other members of the group (usually younger members just starting out). This is a separate entity from the university’s career center – this is a group organized by and for alumni of our program. I had them review my resume before my first job hunt (when I graduated), and it was very helpful. I mean, my resume still wasn’t perfect after it was reviewed, but it was helpful to hear some suggestions about what worked and what didn’t work from folks who are deeply involved in the hiring process. I realize this may not be something that all readers have access to, but for those that do belong to an alumni or professional networking group (or who have the option of joining one), it could be a good way to get resume feedback that’s specific to your field or geographic area.

          Reply
    2. Annie

      I feel better when I have a “master” version of my resume that includes everything I want to highlight. Then, for specific jobs, I customize by cutting mercilessly: entire bullets disappear, or a bullet is shortened to just the relevant facts – and sometimes an entire role will disappear as well. But knowing that I have a version with everything I may want to include helps me feel that I won’t forget to mention something critical.

      Reply
      1. k

        I do this as well! I have a big list that includes just about every task and accomplishment from each job, and different variations of wordings for each. When applying I just cut an paste the bullets that are most appropriate.

        Reply
    3. BRR

      For each of your positions, are all of the listed accomplishments things that will make you a more attractive candidate for each position your applying for? I’ve seen a a fair number of resumes that list what a certainly accomplishments but don’t always relate to the job description.

      Reply
    4. hayling

      I’ve had good experience with Resume to Interviews. It’s a slow, iterative process, and it’s not cheap, but they really help you draw out your experience and focus on what’s most important.

      I also have several versions of my resume…I cut some things and move things around depending on what the job is. My summary is a little different on each version, too. Would that help you cut some content?

      Reply
  9. Jennifer Thneed

    Alison, thank you. I had “going thru the 2012 posting” as one of today’s to-do’s. Now I can close that tab and keep this one open.

    Reply
  10. EA in CA

    I used Alison’s cover letter and resume writing advice to land my current job, which was a step up in my career in title, responsibility and salary. I’ve also read to her posts about interviews, follow ups, etc. throughout the hiring process. I now use that same advice when I am hiring, except from the other side.

    Reply
    1. starsaphire

      Came here to say the same thing. I am positive that I would not have the job I am in right now without Alison’s advice on cover letters, resumes, and interviewing.

      Reply
  11. Amber Rose

    I have read some of them but will read again. It’s been two years since I last updated my resume and it’s time again.

    If it’s not too off topic, is there any advice for finding jobs that you could do/want to do? I’m not qualified for most jobs in my field and generically searching “safety” doesn’t turn up much.

    Reply
  12. SL #2

    For anyone in doubt that Alison’s advice has real impact– consider that I got multiple interviews and 2 full-time offers, one of them long-distance, after following some of the tips in these posts. At the time, I was nearly a year out of college, with a couple of internships and 1 fellowship under my belt, but I’d never had a part-time job. Alison knows what she’s talking about, people.

    Reply
    1. Ramona Flowers

      I found AAM while attempting to switch field. And then got interviews for a third of the jobs I applied for, which seemed pretty good to me!

      Reply
      1. beanie beans

        A friend pointed me to AAM recently after applying for jobs for months and only getting one phone interview. Made some major changes to my cover letter and next application I submitted I got an interview (which was last Friday, and went pretty well thanks to Alison’s interview guide!). I was also seriously considering quitting my job without another one lined up, but thanks to some good posts here I’m sticking it out, with some help of my new AAM addiction.

        So thank you!

        Reply
    2. Windchime

      I agree; I also can credit Alison’s advice for helping me to get my current job. Once I started just relaxing and being my honest self (the *professional* version of my honest self!), I started getting more phone interviews and calls for in-person interviews. Instead of letting nerves take over, I reminded myself that the prospective employer wants to find someone. They’re talking to me because they are hoping that I am their person! And I’m talking to them to find out if they are my new employer. That made it so much easier; we are just a bunch of people talking, trying to find out if we are a good fit for each other. So I made sure that my resume was sleek and junk-free, and my cover letters reflected my personality while also selling my skills. It worked!

      Reply
  13. YesYesYes

    Has there ever been a post on resume tips once you start to manage people, or even manage managers? I’ve hired lots of individual contributors, but have no idea what a good manager resume would look like, as I’ve only hired a handful of good managers. And I assume there’s some point where going through an executive recruiter makes sense – how do you know when you’ve gotten to that point? When you’re managing managers? When you’ve got more layers than that?

    Reply
  14. imakethings

    This is great! My last job hunt went very, very poorly. I had relocated for my partner’s job and was so naïve about resumes, cover letters, interviews, etc etc. I’m currently in the middle of another job hunt and, because of Allison’s advice, I’m actually getting interviews! The advice above is invaluable. I’m so grateful to have found it. Thanks Allison and the AAM community!! You guys are the best.

    Reply
  15. Dan

    I’ve learned over the years that among the technical points of what they must contain, your resume/cover letter combo needs to answer one question: “Why will you kick ass at this job?” People with strong answers rise to the top. Without a strong answer, it’s a crap shoot.

    Yes, sometimes interviewers will ask you, “why should I hire *you*?” or “why are you the best candidate?” A good cover letter/resume combo answers that question for them. If it doesn’t, they may pass you over and you may never get the opportunity to explain in person why you’re awesome.

    Along those lines, this is actually another topic that those fresh out of school with no experience have little insight in, and probably why it’s ever more important to get an internship in the field while you’re in college. Because, I firmly believe that not everybody can write a kick ass resume and cover letter if they have no experience. Getting that experience gives you something to build on for the resume, cover letter, and STAR/behavioral questions.

    FWIW, I submit resumes from previous coworkers to my current employer. I have an inside track to both what my boss wants/needs and what my former coworkers have to offer. I kick back resumes and tell them, “add x y and z.” Sometimes they say, “oh, so-and-so said my resume was fine.” Well, so-and-so doesn’t know what my boss wants. How can they know if the resume is good vs great?

    Reply
  16. Hmm

    Any advice for applying to jobs that are tangentially related to previous roles? I’m living a very small job market right now so I’m applying to lots of things that have I have done similar tasks to, but in a different fields and job titles. For example, though I’ve never worked as an administrative assistant, I’ve done lots of admin tasks in support of my managers since we have a small company. I realize that means I’m not an experienced administrative assistant, but I’m applying for jobs closer to entry level.

    I start my cover letter with a few sentences expressing my enthusiasm for wanting this particular position and to work in the field, but I’m not sure if there’s anything else I can do.

    Reply
    1. Hmm

      As a side note, I’m actually getting laid off soon, so I’m very willing to take a step down or over. Should I put this in my cover letter?

      Reply
      1. Undine

        I would not mention layoffs in your cover letter — it doesn’t make you sound more interested in the job, it makes you sound more desperate.

        Do you have a different resume for each field, highlighting your field-related experience and skills? And then in your cover letter, less enthusiasm and more about your “proven” (ugh word, but whatever) track record with those types of tasks.

        Reply
        1. Hmm

          Yeah, I figured mentioning layoffs was a bad idea, but wanted a confirmation. Don’t want to appear desperate!

          I alter a master resume based on the specific requirements of the job I’m applying for, and also put examples of that in my cover letter.

          It’s only a small amount of enthusiasm, I mention that I am excited about the opportunity to work with the company in their field (though obviously in a less generic way). I see it as a tacit acknowledgement that I am indeed aware that I’m signing up for something new. Depending upon the field (say I’m applying to a non-profit) I’ll add some general statement about how I support their mission. I figure since it’s a sentence or two it’s okay, but maybe it comes across wrong.

          After that I do indeed go into my “proven” track record, and that is the majority of the letter. So I got that right, at least!

          Reply
    2. Ramona Flowers

      Here’s my take. When you list accomplishments for each position, don’t list them according to what was important in that job. List the ones that will highlight your transferable skills. That might mean cutting out or de-prioritising some things that were really key performance indicators in that job in order to focus on what you need to highlight now.

      Reply
      1. Laura

        I have a problem with the “listing accomplishments”. I’ve never had a job where I’ve had “accomplishments”. So what do I do instead?

        Reply
        1. Zeborah

          Unless you either stood around and did nothing or ruined everything you touched, I’m 100% sure you had accomplishments in every single job you’ve ever had.

          What were you assigned to do? What was the purpose of those tasks? Did you achieve that purpose? Bam, there are your accomplishments.

          Eg a summer job I had was repacking soft drink cans especially from crates the macho forklift drivers had crashed. Accomplishments: minimised wastage from factory floor accidents; put together combo packs to provide smaller outlets with a variety of products. (Also learnt a great deal about the behaviour of mixed liquid/compressed gas in damaged aluminium cans when tossed into a dumpster with sufficient force and though that was primarily for personal entertainment purposes there might be a job out there it’d be relevant to list it for.)

          Eg my first professional job, at a student loan call centre: provided students with accurate and up-to-date advice on application requirements and status; entered data to a high degree of accuracy; maintained privacy standards in compliance with the Privacy Act 1993 (we would get mothers phoning up to check on their 27-year-old son’s application for him).

          Bonus points: Were there any times when you weren’t specifically assigned a task but you noticed either a risk or an opportunity and took the initiative to suggest action, or even took action yourself?

          Eg at a high school holiday job I was paid commission to sell visitors to an exhibition a booklet on the same topic. I noticed there was limited interest when visitors were just entering the exhibition so I (probably after asking permission, I forget now) went inside and offered the booklet to visitors there where they were getting excited about it. Accomplishment: increased sales by marketing to customers at point of interest.

          Reply
          1. Laura

            Sorry for taking so long to reply. I was the only data entry clerk at the job. If anything was “accomplished”, it wasn’t made apparent to me. My last permanent job wasn’t the type that told you if you were doing a good job.

            Reply
  17. Business Cat

    I shared the heck out of this post on Facebook. All of the advice here helped me land a great job in a non-academic division of our local university–a great achievement in a school notorious for its nepotism. More than that, between reading Ask a Manager and Captain Awkward I am now more equipped to deal with a variety of intra-office situations with grace and professionalism. I hope reading this post gives a lot of people the kick in the pants they need to be more successful, both in getting the job and keeping it!

    Reply
  18. Shadow

    Thanks for posting this. it is shocking how many resumes I’ve seen that look like a collection of job title definitions or that sound like a bunch of fluff.

    Reply
  19. fposte

    The other thing is that those people may be right when they say your resume and cover letter are fine. But more than half of the resumes I receive are fine, and we’re not interviewing the top 60% but the top 10 or even 5%. This is the area where it *is* a competition, and you need not just to be fine but to be finer than a substantial majority of the other candidates. If you do want to keep asking friends and family for feedback, try pulling some resumes (you won’t get cover letters, but you can at least find resumes for some people) of people currently holding the kind of job you’re hoping for and asking your readers how you can make your resume beat theirs.

    Reply
    1. Dan

      You know… along those lines, I work in a technical field, and there’s a rather linear progression from BS->MS->Job 1->Job 2, etc. I feel “qualified” to give *good* advice on resumes/cover letters for those types of jobs.

      But when it comes to liberal arts, career switchers, and other types of “windy path” paths, I can’t give advice other than “looks fine.” Why? Because say you’re a history major trying to get a job as an editor somewhere. I have no idea what experience you need to get that job, what experience you are likely to have as a result of your major and current job (if any), and how to relate that in a way that would be useful to the next employer.

      In my field, I look for specific things that you either have or don’t. If I need somebody who can write a little bit of code, and you’re a career switcher with no coding or related academic experience, while your resume may be “fine”, you’d definitely be unqualified and therefore uncompetitive for the job.

      Point being, who you ask for advice matters.

      Reply
    2. BRR

      My husband, an academic, would get very frustrated that his “fine” cover letter and resume were getting rejected for non-academic jobs (and academic jobs but that’s a whole other ball game). He finally understood things when I explained to him that his materials might deserve an A but job hunting is graded on a curve.

      Reply
  20. AnonForThis

    Any advice on how to keep from losing all hope when the interviews you do get lead to rejection, and mostly you don’t get them at all?

    Reply
    1. Dan

      If you’re getting interviews, then your resume is probably good enough. It’s not leading to your rejection. It may help to work on your interviewing skills… which may in turn lead to a strong resume and cover letter.

      Reply
    2. BRR

      I’ve always thought of it as there can easily be more than 100 applicants for one role. You are one of those so your chances can easily start at <1%. Even as a finalist your chances can sometimes only be 20% if there are 5 finalists. Job hunting is just really tough. You're going to be told no a lot (if you get told anything at all).

      As Dan said it's a good thing if you're getting interviews. Most can stand to improve their resumes and cover letters so look through the links above.

      Alison has another post if you're getting interviews but no offers.
      http://www.askamanager.org/2014/03/if-youre-getting-interviews-but-no-job-offers.html

      Reply
  21. Annie

    I’ve been reading the site since just before that 2012 round-up, and I always come back to this idea of listing accomplishments rather than duties (and I’m in one of those fields/roles where achievements aren’t usually quantitative, and the ones I’d most want to highlight certainly aren’t).

    I’m starting to think that one of my barriers to thinking about my resume via accomplishments is exactly one that Alison highlights: I tend to think that I just *am* following the basic duties of the job. To me it seems so obvious that to do the job at all, one has to [insert accomplishments here: balance the needs of various stakeholders; communicate internally and externally; coordinate all the various and interdependent aspects of a major event]. That kind of thinking has made it more difficult for me to concisely address the ways that I do the job *well*. I’m going to revisit some of these posts, and then my resume, through this lens and see if it gets me further.

    Reply
    1. Ramona Flowers

      I think the thing here is that you do actually have to do those things well. You can’t just phone it in. Is it possible for someone to do them badly? Yes! So it’s not a given that you did them well, and it is worth illustrating the fact that you did.

      Reply
  22. Lookingforanswers

    Question for the group: I currently am trying to get back home to the city I was born and raised in. As a former recruiter I know if a position has a lot of candidates apply a recruiter will pair down as much as possible before actually reading a person’s cover letter or resume. Is it okay to use the address of my soon to be home (will be living with family initially) rather than my current home so I can at least make it to speaking with the recruiter? Positions I am applying for do not offer relocation and I am fine with that. During the interview phase should I mention at all that I am in transition? All I will need is to give my two notice and then begin the new job. Thank you all for any suggestions or tips!

    Reply
    1. k

      Yes, use that local address! It’s very common for people to use their temporary address on resumes so that employers know you’ll be local.

      As far as telling them, it will likely come up naturally when you’re trying to schedule interviews since I’m guessing you’ll have to travel. Another option is to explain in your cover letter.

      Reply
    2. Lookingforanswers

      Thank you very much! I live in state only a couple hours drive so it would be fairly easy to interview. :) Thanks again!

      Reply
    1. Windchime

      It really does. You and your future employer are still searching for each other, but you are such an accomplished and kind person that I know you will find the right place soon.

      Reply
    2. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

      I hope you find something soon, friend. You’re an absolute sweetheart and deserve all the good things. I wish we lived in a better world.

      Reply
  23. Pup Seal

    Just wanted to say before reading Ask a Manager I didn’t get any interviews. With the help of all these posts, I have gotten so many interviews (now need to work on being better at in-person interviews). Thank you for all these resources!

    Reply
  24. apparently not the only fashion designer here

    I shared to my facebook friends immediately because as a semi-recent grad (2015) who has a full-time gig in their field, I’m kind of tired of hearing my friends complain about not being able to find a job. It’s competitive, sure, but if they’re applying for entry-level jobs and not getting any calls, I have to think that their resumes are the problem. It’s not surprising, though, because almost everything I learned in college about resumes and cover letters ended up being wrong.

    Reply
    1. k

      I cringe looking at my old resume and cover letter that I used right out of college, which was 100% college career center approved. It’s a wonder anyone ever hired me.

      Reply
      1. Ramona Flowers

        I got my first media job after a week’s work experience which I landed after writing a tongue-in-cheek letter detailing how good I was at making tea and photocopying. I think a less gimmicky letter would have worked equally well but I didn’t know that.

        So I kind of gumptioned my way in. I’ve given talks about breaking into journalism and I NEVER mentioned that letter as I wouldn’t want to be responsible for anyone else doing that!

        Reply
  25. New Bee

    Adding to the “Alison is amazing” chorus! This is definitely my least stressful job search, thanks to the great advice here. I’ve received a great response rate while being pretty picky, just by following the examples Alison provides.

    I’d also like to shout out the rest of the site for helping me be strategic about being laid off. As a coworker told me, I come off as “less desperate and not bitter” compared to other folks, which has raised my profile even on my way out (and I work in a small industry, so I’ll definitely be seeing lots of these people again).

    Reply
  26. Shawna

    I’d add that another thing to consider if someone’s materials truly *are* fine (or even excellent!) but (s)he is still not getting interviews, is that perhaps the job search strategy is wrong. Even an amazing application package won’t get someone an interview if she’s a few years out of school and applying for C-level positions. Unrealistic expectations are another major pitfall for job seekers.

    Reply
  27. XYZ

    Do you have advice for people who work in health care? “Prevented x patients from dying per month” doesn’t sound quite right, haha!

    Reply
    1. TL -

      It would depend on what position you have, but for a nurse I would talk about quality of patient care if you get praised and thanks, if you’re the go-to person for a difficult (patient, doctor, procedure), if you’re good at doing something difficult (palliative care, for instance), things like that. For a doctor, I’d be more metrics focused: do you have a good success rate for a difficult procedure, are you good at diagnosing within your field, are you on any papers/trials, are you being referred to a lot?

      Reply
      1. XYZ

        Thanks! Yes, I agree with you, and this is what I currently do, it’s just hard to quantify this stuff! I currently list which procedures/assessments I’m proficient in, but most of what I do isn’t evaluated as success/failure, so it would be hard to give a success rate as the outcomes are more qualitative and multifactorial. I understand this blog is geared more toward the business sector, but thought I’d ask anyway!

        Reply
  28. ms42

    I’m fairly certain I’ve read everything listed twice; from experience, I can state that reading all of the posts is a GREAT way to procrastinate on actually updating one’s resume! :)

    Now that I’m done procrastinating, though, I remain unclear on something. I’m in a job that doesn’t lend itself to a listing of accomplishments (I work in a call center), but I have taken on a couple of duties that others in my department haven’t. How do you make clear that X or Y is an extra duty you’ve assumed rather than part of the job description?

    Reply
    1. Zahra

      You don’t get rated against a call grid? You don’t have any AHT/ATT targets?

      My job in a call centre was the easiest one for which I could give quantifiable achievements!

      Reply
      1. ms42

        Honestly, since I was promoted, not at all. There were a couple before that it had honestly never occurred to me to include on a resume (like making incentive 98% of the time before the standards were lowered so more people could meet them).

        Thank you for mentioning that!

        Reply
    2. First Initial . Last Name @ email . server

      I also had a job that didn’t have quantifiable metrics, and I never got a performance review in the many years I was there (a fraction of why I left). I was in the business of making a ridiculous spectacle and producing private events. My accomplishments are things like, “Nobody died” and “Nothing unintentional caught on fire” or “Wrote a buttload of mentoring emails” and “Prodded people to follow instructions (so they don’t die)”

      Reply
  29. That Would Be a Good Band Name

    Here is where I run into trouble: one of the articles is about removing subjective qualities. However, my job is all qualitative, not quantitative. I do roughly the same tasks. I do have to do them on-time, all the time, but they are the same each week. So how to I remove “strong attention to detail” when it is actually one of my key strengths that allows me to excel at my job? It seems like ALL of my resume is subjective. I’m really fast, and really detailed at what I do. What’s fast and attentive to one, may not be to another, so how do I prove that I am on the resume?

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You talk about the *outcomes* that you achieved because your strong attention to detail — which proves that you have it, rather than you just asserting you have it. So, what happened as a result of your attention to detail? What would have happened if you didn’t have it, and how can you describe the difference in outcomes?

      Reply
  30. Anon Accountant

    I’ve noticed much better responses and higher quality since I’ve started using the advice on this website. Take some time and check it out. Then move onto the interviewing guide.

    Reply
  31. Karyn

    This is awesome. I definitely just switched up my cover letter from the standard “repeating resume” stuff to more personalized, conversational stuff. I may even throw in something about my outside work life, to talk about the importance of a work-life balance.

    Thanks for this, Alison!

    Reply
      1. Karyn

        Wasn’t one of the tips in your column (or one of the articles) to talk about hobbies, etc? Could have SWORN I read that!

        Reply
      2. Karyn

        Ah, wait, I misread the article! Conflated a couple words (I swear sometimes I think I have an actual reading comprehension problem). Although oddly I’ve had some people suggest having a quick “interests” section on a resume which seems like a weird place to put that kind of thing.

        Reply
  32. Sally Sparrow

    At what point do you feel like you should remove old jobs on your resume? I’m two, almost three, years into my first post-college job right now, so obviously I kept my old jobs on my resume before (a fast food of 4/5 years, and a receptionist).

    Would it look odd to keep the fast food job when I decide to move on? It feels weird to completely ignore that work history and I would probably drop it after the next job.

    Reply
    1. Jillociraptor

      I think the key considerations are whether the jobs contribute to your overall profile, including establishing consistent employment. So, if there are specific skills or experiences you want to demonstrate from pre-graduation jobs, go ahead and include them, and if not, you can take them off.

      Reply
    2. apparently not the only fashion designer here

      I believe this is based on what Alison has said before, but don’t quote me if I’m wrong. haha
      – You should keep 15-20 years of experience on your resume.
      – It’s acceptable to have a “relevant work experience” section at the top followed by an “other work experience” section, so the fast food and receptionist jobs could go there.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        You can have much less than the last 15-20 years! 10 years is fine. But there’s no formula — it’s looking at it overall and figuring out what makes you strongest.

        For example, if you held your last job for 10 years, you wouldn’t want to list only it. But if you had three jobs in the last 10 years, you might not need to list the earlier ones.

        If the fast food and receptionist jobs don’t strengthen your resume (and the fast food job one almost definitely doesn’t, with a few exceptions), leave them off.

        Reply
  33. Anxa

    I still struggle with this because mostly because I don’t have major accomplishments. My regular job duties explain much more about what I do at work than my accomplishments. My accomplishments are embarrassingly trivial to mention. Except for the ones that are about 10years old now or not in my field. Nothing really feels like it deserves a bullet point.

    On the flip side, AAM’s advice has prevented me from wasting my time on a lot of job applications and volunteer positions. If I can’t write a good CL or decent resume I am more likely to backburner that application. And no more volunteering to make the world a better place just to gain more experience and give back until I’m in a position where I have more to give. Yes, I have time and some capabilities, but I need to focus that right now.

    I keep trying to find more accomplishment friendly projects at work, but unfortunately my pay structure doesn’t really allow for that and I can’t just volunteer to do it. So I’m looking at volunteering those services for another institution.

    Reply
    1. Leaf on the wind

      I feel much the same as you do. I struggle to figure out what is considered an accomplishment, partly from not very high self-esteem and partly from too many years working in a toxic environment where I don’t feel as though I ever accomplish much of anything. I don’t have the type of work that has many measurable attributes that I can list as accomplishments, and projects never seem to get completed because it’s not important to the powers that be.

      I am taking some much needed time off soon (assuming that I can take the time off without being called to deal with whatever “crises” come up), and I plan to review all of the great resources AAM has listed and give my resume a much-needed overhaul.

      Reply
      1. DDP

        Leaf on the wind – you say you struggle to figure out what is considered an accomplishment then hope you can take time off without being called to deal with whatever “crises” come up. Sounds to me that right there is an accomplishment. I don’t know how you would word it exactly, but you could mention that you are the one who deals with crises and puts out the fires, that you are skilled in conflict resolution (if that’s the kind of crises you deal with), or you saved the company x number of accounts from being lost, or whatever the outcome of your dealing with the crises is, what you “accomplish” by dealing with the crises.

        Reply
  34. Anxa

    Alison, this is such a great resource!

    Are there any plans for posts addressing how to fill out the applications, though? Or how to best match your resume to the applications. For example, here is a dilemma I run into:

    Should I copy and past my resume bullets/descriptions into the “job duties” section of the app so they don’t have to compare them and see if they are the same? Or will that fall flat as it looks lazy? And am I wasting a chance to fit more info that didn’t fit on one page. And would it look weird putting accomplishments in a job duties section? Do I need to be rewriting this as text blocks instead of bullets? Without the parameters of the one or two pages, is it best to go into as much detail as possible or be as brief as possible? Do employers even look at your resume if you’ve already put all your job details on the application?

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s fine to just copy/paste into the fields. Many hiring managers (most?) aren’t reading what you put in those fields anyway; they’re reading your resume. Definitely no one will think it’s lazy to just copy/paste.

      Reply
  35. Feo Takahari

    A question: the last job at which I worked was largely unrelated to the jobs I’m applying for, and I was laid off due to my mediocre performance on metrics. I excelled at several things that weren’t on the metrics, and I can state excellent numbers on one task that was directly relevant to the jobs I’m applying for, but these weren’t main job duties. How much can I emphasize my successes without misrepresenting what my duties were? Or am I looking at it the wrong way, and should I only be talking about the task that’s actually relevant?

    Reply
    1. Feo Takahari

      To add: the job before last was directly relevant, and I go into much more detail about my accomplishments there.

      Reply
  36. Had Matter's Pea Tarty

    Problem is I’ve only had one job. Ever. I lasted less than a month there. That, a Bachelor’s in Criminology (really useful in retail and waitressing! /s), a Food Hygiene certificate, and three-four months volunteering total is all I can put on there. Achievements? In work, anyway – none at all. So I have to put subjective/soft qualities in otherwise I’d have literally nothing to say.

    Reply
    1. Feo Takahari

      Can you do anything with a “relevant coursework” section? Or maybe just emphasize volunteering successes.

      Reply
      1. Had Matter's Pea Tarty

        I did a dissertation on rare animal smuggling in the Congo Basin and my volunteering was hardly a success. I worked for my grandparents I think they were glad to see me out of the position.

        Reply
  37. The Kurgen

    I just reread this post last week after months of applying without results. I reworked my resume and cover letter from scratch. Fingers crossed!

    Reply
  38. SlightlyAnonTech

    I just wish there were more feedback for job applications – even a simple yes or no. Writing doesn’t come easy for me, so writing a personalized, tailored, enthusiastic cover letter can be wrenching against the overall doom and gloom of the job market. I usually just fall into the trap of describing relevant duties (usually ones explicitly specified in the job posting) and/or impressive accomplishments of past jobs, and just try not to overlap too much with my resume. I’ll try to summarize them to give a broader context and try make my positions sound coherent, tying them all in to the job positing, but even then, it takes several days to complete.

    I’d love to be able to send out a less auto-pilot version of my cover letter, but most of the jobs I’m applying to are just semi-relevant and about having a means of escaping from my unsteady role at my current employer. Usually when I do see something I truly feel passionate about, the posting has long, weirdly-specific list of requirements listed in very absolute terms that unambiguously disqualifies me.

    …In other words, the job market is depressing.

    Reply
    1. that guy

      Are you me?
      I’m stuck in a job I hate because I suck at writing enthusiastic sounding stuff.

      Reply
      1. SlightlyAnonTech

        I used to be able to write enthusiastically about jobs that I really wanted, but not only are those jobs simply not hiring, but after years of trying to work towards my career goals and just … circling around it, or drifting away, I’m finding it hard to show enthusiasm for my work anymore – especially given the abysmal pay I’m seeing for these jobs, and frequently toxic cultures. “Why, I’d be thrilled to move across country for hazardous work, come in nights and weekends, and get yelled at for not working hard enough for 32K a year!”

        I would be enthusiastic if there were actually prospects out there to enthuse me, such as a reasonable salary in a high CoL area, but at the moment even relevant job openings are hard to find.

        Reply
  39. Giovanna

    How far back should job histories go?

    I have just over 5 years experience in my chosen career field, but currently my resume goes back 9 years, the earliest one is retail and not at all connected to my chosen profession. I was there for about two years so dropping it would leave with 7 years of experience. Would it be better to trim at this point?

    Reply
  40. that guy

    I read the “real life example of a cover letter”. The ‘after’ version is longer and contains more information, but I don’t really see why it’s better.

    I’m not trying to an ass, but can someone explain, please?

    Reply
  41. always in email jail

    My last round of applications, I tailored my resume to the job announcement. I listed my current/previous positions etc at the top, then I had sections that linked to the minimum requirements (think a section called “Project Management”, a section called “_____ Plan Development” etc., and then listed specific accomplishments in those areas. I’m not sure if that’s frowned upon or not. I got offered both jobs I wanted, but they may have been DESPITE my resume not because of.
    To put this in context, I apply for government jobs, where they have to literally check a box next to each minimum requirement, so I felt it might be easier to demonstrate specific examples for how I meet each one instead of leaving it open to interpretation. I could be way, way off, though.

    Reply
  42. JS

    Alison I just wanted to say “Thanks!” I’ve used your advice for years and attribute that as a big help as to why I almost always got an interview for a position I was qualified for and how I got jobs at big companies today. I think ALL universities (ESPECIALLY in Hummanities/Business/Tech majors) should have a 2 credit career class where they site from your blog because this is valuable information.

    Reply
  43. MacAilbert

    I lot of this is about listing concrete accomplishments, but my job really doesn’t work like that. I did read your letter from a receptionist with a similar problem, but I work retail, and my company specifically discourages individual initiative. They don’t really trust barely trained part timers who quit constantly to make judgement calls, so they give you instruction for everything you do, and expect you do follow it, not modify it. If you asked my boss what makes me great, and he didn’t have some snide comment about how all of his employees are kind of stupid (it’s more that he doesn’t train anybody, then expects them to just magically know how to do everything and gets mad when they don’t), it’s that I show up on time and rarely call out (huge for retail), am flexible enough to work multiple departments, don’t fall apart when I’m the only associate on the sales floor, and don’t try to escape running a cash register (so many people don’t want to help when we need extra people). No idea how to swing that on a resume or in a job interview, because I’m guessing disparaging my coworkers isn’t acceptable job searching conduct.

    Reply
  44. Lucy

    I’m struggling to write a personal statement because I am trying to switch careers into something totally different from what I hold a degree in. I have a biology degree and everyone assumes I would be ditching at any moment to go to medical/pharmacy school. It doesn’t help that I have been trapped in the retail slog because this makes me look more like I am trying to be flexible enough to leave! It started out that way (part-time jobs so I had time to study for the MCATs and fly out to school interviews) but I have decided I absolutely do not want to pursue a career in medicine anymore.

    I’m struggling to break into a field which I deeply enjoy but the aforementioned reason hurts. I bring it up during interviews if the interviewers don’t do it first and I can usually see the visible relief on their faces when they hear I’m not going to leave them the moment a med school accepts me! But I suspect some interviewers/employers don’t fully believe me when I say I am trying to leave healthcare forever due to my ethnic background (Asian) and the perception that healthcare professions are high-paying and prestigious. I don’t know how to combat this and while a lot of the resume and cover letter advice here has helped me land more interviews as of late (THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS), I feel like I always fall short of actually being hired. I think I make it into the top candidate pool but will always get cut. I’m at a loss at how to proceed and the retail mire is starting to make me feel depressed and worthless.

    Reply
  45. NiceOrc

    This is such an awesome resource! I am currently reading applications for a job in my office, and i wish I could send some of them links to this! Some people are obviously applying for anything and copying the same CV (resume) without adjusting it – one even forgot to fill in the job title and company in the cover letter, just left a space! Another stated they were “detail-oriented” but the application was full of mistakes – they even misspelt their own name! And there was one where the cover letter and CV took up one side of one page, and didn’t include any of the information we asked for in the ad. At least it’s making it easier to narrow down the list to 3 or 4 for interviews! Sorry for the rant, but of course I can’t say any of this out loud in the office!

    Reply
  46. TheReflex

    How would you compare a job application via internal referral (a friend, for example) vs via the regular cover letter approach?

    My thoughts on this are non-conclusive. I’d say normally the first would have a bigger chance of getting an interview as a good word will possibly open doors faster. However, often internal referrals don’t include cover letters, which are another kind of door opener.

    Reply
  47. CC

    Over the past few years I’ve re-done my resume and cover letter according to Alison’s advice, and it’s vastly better than it was. I still can’t get an interview. I had a phone screen recently (basically, first response to an actual job posting that I applied to in years! I was excited!) and one of the things they asked was, paraphrased, how low are you willing to go on salary. They haven’t called me back since then but I’m not sure I want to work for them anymore.

    It doesn’t help that I consider it a good month if there’s one job post on the boards that’s in my field and plausible for me to apply to. “15 years plus 5 years of project management experience” isn’t a stretch job for me, it’s so far beyond my experience level that it would be a joke for me to apply.

    It doesn’t help that the longer I’m out of the field, the more skeptical hiring managers will be.

    It doesn’t help that it seems the only time I get interest, I’m the only one applying – my previous engineering jobs were cold applications sent with no job posting, and the companies were looking to hire but hadn’t posted an ad yet. My current, non-engineering job started as a temp gig (and now I’m a supervisor there but still trying to escape). If it’s a job posting, I don’t get called back, which is why that one phone screen I mentioned was so exciting.

    It doesn’t help that in my past engineering work I avoided management type steps, but now I’m seeing job postings for people with my number of years who already have management type experience. I think I shot myself in the foot on that one. Trying to learn those things, but I don’t have project management experience and I won’t be able to until I get an engineering job again.

    FML. And I still have to keep a positive face on things at the current crappy job and in my job hunt.

    Reply
  48. Irma

    Alison, that first Cover Letter link leads to a “Page Not Found”. I am dying to read that post though!

    Reply
  49. Desdemona

    If anyone is still listening on this thread, what would you recommend for someone whose entire team keeps getting assigned to projects that get killed before we get to market? I’ve spent the last several years on a team that has completed three projects, all of which were killed right before we launched. I’ve done a lot of great work, but I don’t bring value to my company. No one on my team brings value to my company. I’m dusting off my resume, but don’t know how to present myself. Is there a way to cover the lack of measurable achievement?

    Reply
  50. James

    I can’t but appreciate your relentless efforts in helping people like me. Writing a cover letter that will land you the job is another big issue outside the normal interview questions.

    Reply

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