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12.2 Writing to Apply for Jobs

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize visual features of a résumé.
  2. Recognize content components of a résumé.
  3. Understand how to target a cover letter.

As part of the process of applying for any job in any profession beyond the entry level, you are likely to have to produce two main written documents: a résumé and a cover letter or letter of application. Writing these documents well is often a key determiner in whether you get the job. To illustrate, we’ll follow a student, Joey Williams, through these two key professional writing challenges. Joey is a recent graduate of a master’s degree program in public relations who is seeking a position at a graphic design firm.

Creating Solid Résumés

Common résumé formats vary with types of jobs and with the times, but regardless of the type of position you are seeking, your résumé should include some key features and some key information.

Key Résumé Features

Effective résumés have the following features:

  • They are meticulously edited (absolutely no errors).
  • The subheadings stand out and are short enough to be read at a glance (one or two words).
  • Ample white space is used.
  • Lists are parallel.
  • Bolding is used sparingly.
  • One easy-to-read font is uniformly used throughout.
  • The font is size 12.
  • The résumé is available both in digital and hard-copy form.
  • Formatting on a digital résumé holds when it is opened in others’ computers. This formatting should be straight type without tabbing, tables, italics, bolding, columns, or indenting. If it’s included as an attachment, it should be in a Microsoft Word file. A second option is to visually create the résumé as desired and then capture it in a PDF file.
  • The résumé is confined to one page unless you are in a profession that requires additional pages or unless you are at a more advanced professional level that requires a more extensive résumé.
  • The most recent information is presented first within each category.
  • Standard résumé paper is used unless the specific profession calls for something different.
  • Accomplishments are presented in nonwordy formats.
  • Action verbs are used to describe accomplishments.
  • Contact information is clearly visible at the top of the résumé.
  • Key words that searchers in your professional field are likely to use are included in résumés that are posted online. (After your contact information, include a “key words” section or weave the keywords into your accomplishments.)

Key Résumé Information

Every résumé should include the following information:

  • professional name
  • address
  • phone number
  • e-mail address
  • work experience (i.e., places of employment)
  • accomplishments at each place of employment
  • education

These résumé components are optional:

  • personal interests
  • references
  • dates of education and work experience
  • address for personal website
  • employment objective (a good strategy if you want to tailor your résumé for a certain job description)
  • fax number
  • awards and honors

To ensure that your résumé is both current and appropriate for the position, you should search online for similar sample résumés. You should also run your résumé past the career placement services at your college and any people you know who are working in your field of interest. Here’s Joey’s generic résumé:

Writing Targeted Cover Letters

Along with sending a résumé when applying for a job, you will almost always want to send a cover letter. This suggestion holds true in both hard-copy and digital situations. A hard-copy cover letter should be formatted as a standard, typed business letter (for a sample, see Chapter 12 "Professional Writing", Section 12.1 "Writing Business Letters"). A digital cover letter should be either typed directly into a given window or copied and pasted into the window. If you copy and paste, check to make sure that the formatting holds.

When the job market is tight, just getting an interview is a major hurdle. Facing dozens and sometimes even hundreds of applicants, employers are looking for reasons to cut down their pool of potential interviewees. Don’t give them a reason not to interview you by writing a vaguely worded, overly general letter of application or résumé, especially when you can easily revise and tailor your approach to each position for which you are applying.

To target a cover letter means to write it specifically for an identified job. You can gather information to target your cover letter by looking carefully at the job description and by studying the company’s website. Let’s look at an example of an online job description that has caught Joey’s attention:

Video Game PR—Assistant Account Executive

About the Job

GolinHarris is a leading international public relations firm and winner of PRWeek’s Large PR Agency of the Year 2010, 2010 Best Places to Work by the Los Angeles Business Journal, and numerous industry awards.

Our western region headquarters, based in Los Angeles, is currently seeking an ambitious and motivated PR professional to join our team as an Assistant Account Executive. The successful candidate will play an integral role and receive valuable hands-on experience by working on our Nintendo account. We are launching exciting programs in the next few weeks and this opportunity will not last long. Avid gamers are encouraged to apply now.

The candidate we seek will perform fundamental PR tasks such as aiding in production of media-related materials, pitching program highlights to the media, monitoring for quality and quantity of media coverage and managing client publications and resources materials.

What Do You Need to Be Considered?

  • 2 years of work experience in PR required, agency and video game background is preferred
  • Applicants with only internship experience will not be considered
  • A passion for communications and consumer issues
  • Stellar AP-style writing abilities
  • A Bachelor’s degree
  • Social media experience
  • Local applicants preferred

About Us

As a member of the Interpublic Group (IPG), GolinHarris partners with a network of the communication industry’s best strategists across a variety of disciplines, including sports marketing, consumer research, branding, special events and advertising. We collaborate with these partners to continually advance our clients’ businesses.

At GolinHarris we recognize that there is much more to life than just work. Our benefits program has been designed to help GolinHarris employees and their families stay healthy, balance personal and career priorities, and build a solid and secure future. We offer a great workplace, culture, competitive salary, health care benefits (medical, dental and vision insurance), 401k and more.

GolinHarris is an Equal Opportunity Employer. EEO/AA.M/F/D/V.

As Joey prepares his cover letter, he’ll need to include, in three or four paragraphs, information about himself and his fitness for the position that complement what his résumé already reveals. Typical contents of the paragraphs of his cover letter might include the following:

First Paragraph

  • The job for which he is applying
  • How he learned of the job
  • A statement clearly and succinctly indicating why he is well suited for the job

Second Paragraph

  • Some current, relevant experiences that show he has a good background for the job. This should be where he places the most significant points he has to offer.

Third Paragraph

  • Other relevant job experiences or education. This is where he puts what might be considered his “second level” of important points.

Fourth Paragraph

  • A statement about wanting to have an opportunity to discuss the job
  • An offer to send references as needed
  • Request to be contacted and a reiteration of his main contact information (most likely a phone number or an e-mail address or both)

Keep in mind that your cover letter is the first chance to present yourself and often the only chance. Besides being sure to include the most pertinent and valuable information you have to offer, be very careful that your letter is grammatically correct with no punctuation or spelling errors. Proofread it carefully yourself, and then, even if you think the letter is perfect, ask a trusted acquaintance to proofread it. Errors in this kind of high-stakes writing situation can be fatal to your chances of achieving your desired goal: getting your foot in the door professionally.

As he is planning his cover letter, Joey decides to apply what he has learned in his academic writing career to this all-important professional challenge. Thus, before writing, he fills out the statement of purpose he used six years before when he was a first-year college student:

Voice I am writing as a young, eager, well-educated, and flexible individual who wants to be a part of the GolinHarris team.
Message I want to convey the message that I will bring extensive gaming, graphic design, and public relations experience and credentials to the position.
Audience I want to write to the human resources department or hiring manager at GolinHarris.
Attitude My attitude toward the subject is positive and confident, but also somewhat deferential, humble, and respectful of authority.
Reception I want my audience to give me an interview because they realize they’ve got a hot local prospect who’s perfect for the job.
Tone My tone toward my readers is professional, but creative, enthusiastic, and cutting-edge.

Armed with his statement of purpose, Joey writes the following cover letter:

Key Takeaways

  • The visual elements of résumés are important, including subheadings, white space, paper choice, font choice, and limited use of font features.
  • Your résumé should be available in both print format and digital format. Digital résumés must have very little formatting. A PDF version can sometimes be used instead of a nonformatted option.
  • All résumés should include your professional name, address, phone number, e-mail address, work experience, and education. You might also choose to include your personal interests, references, website address, objective, fax number, and awards and honors.
  • You should always include a paper or digital cover letter with your résumé. Your cover letter should include three or four paragraphs that include the position for which you are applying, the most relevant experiences you have had that make you a good candidate for the job, a request to discuss the job, and your contact information.
  • Of all the types of writing you do, perhaps none requires more meticulous attention to detail and editing than résumés and cover letters.


  1. Create a résumé that you could use when applying for a specific position. Generate both a paper version and a digital version.
  2. Find a position description for a job that interests you and fits your current or prospective skills. Write a cover letter that you could send with your résumé to apply for that job. Before you write your cover letter, use the job description as a guide for filling out a statement of purpose.
  3. Working with your writing group, search online for a collection of job descriptions. Using an agreed-on selection from your sample, assign each member of your writing group the task of designing a résumé and cover letter to meet the needs of that description (with each group member “applying” under an assumed name). Then compare the submissions and determine which two applicants should be interviewed as finalists. Explain the reason for your choices.