Resume & Cover Letter Workshop: SIS Graduate Students

Resume & Cover Letter Workshop: SIS Graduate Students

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Hello everyone, I’m Elise Goss-Alexander,
graduate career in the SIS Office of Career Development. Thanks for joining me today to talk about resumes and cover letters: how to
plan them, how to write them, how to get interviews out of them. So first of all, I
want to clarify what these documents are for. It may seem straightforward, but
whether you’re starting from a blank slate or updating a much-edited document,
you need to have a strong sense of purpose to get a good product. And there
are definitely some misunderstandings out there about resumes and cover
letters! For example, the purpose is not to provide a summary of every experience
you’ve had or every duty you were assigned during that experience. It’s
also not to provide the same picture of you to every potential employer. And
unless you are applying for a position relating to graphic design or other
creative skills, it’s not to show off your beautiful, edgy design choices.
Instead, resumes and cover letters are meant to give the best picture of you
through a specific hiring manager’s lens. And ideally, they’re designed to get you
an interview. With that in mind, it becomes clear that writing your
application materials doesn’t start with writing. It starts with dissecting a
specific job description: breaking it down into its component parts and then
planning out your resume and cover letter to meet those specific criteria.
So how do you start? You start with the qualification. Every job listing will
include some sort of qualifications or requirements section. Your first step is
breaking out individual skills or qualifications into bullet points if
they’re not already in that format. This forms a checklist. Then think of your
best example for each skill on the checklist. Don’t worry yet about how to write it, just figure out a time when you’ve
done a great job using that skill. So, in this example, the job description asks
for the ability to manage and execute multiple concurrent tasks with minimal
supervision. If you managed a line in a previous job where you answered
lots of calls and resolved the callers’ issues independently, that would be a
great example! Next, go through a similar process for
the responsibilities in the job description. Break them out into bullet
points if they’re not already, forming a checklist of job tasks that looks
something like this. Then– and here’s the trick– change each task to the skill
required to fulfill it. So in this example, the applicant would be required
to help organize and lead presentations and trainings. What skills might that
require? Oral communication and presentation. Then you’re back on
familiar territory: for each of the skills you got from the tasks, identify
your great example. In this case, being an intern who gave monthly briefings to a
senior staff member is a great choice! And there you go. You’ve essentially done all the background work for your resume
and cover letter. All those good examples you identified? Those are the things that
will be bullet points under each previous job. And those are the things
that you may want to expand upon in your cover letter. Job listing: dissected! Now,
on to resumes. We know what they’re for, we know what to put in them, now we’ll
talk about how. There are two resume formats that SIS students most
frequently need to write. First, there’s the standard resume format. It works for
most nonprofits, private companies, and multilateral organizations. It’s usually
one to one-and-a-half pages long. You’ll need to manage the formatting on your
own through a word processing software of choice. And it’s essentially a
highlights reel of your best examples of using the skills required as identified
earlier. The other major format is a federal resume. It’s required for many
federal positions, although you should always double-check requirements for
specific agencies. It tends to be a lot longer than a standard resume, often five
pages or more. It’s best constructed through the USAJOBS resume builder tool.
And part of the reason it’s so much longer is that it should be all your
best examples for the skills required, not just the highlights. Those are the
two most common formats but there are some others you should be aware of.
Business consulting resumes are similar to the standard format but should only
ever be one page maximum. CIA application materials are different again and have
very specific requirements. And CVs are tricky because in the U.S. context,
they are a longer, highly academic document and in the non-U.S. context,
they’re like a standard resume but differently formatted. Today, though, we’ll
be focusing primarily on the standard resume format. You have access to the
template I’m referencing today through the online SIS Career Resource Library.
And my final slide includes the URL for that, so don’t worry about scribbling
frantic notes or screenshotting. The overall formatting theme we’re going for
in a standard resume is simplicity and ease of reading. So we begin at the top
with your name and some contact information. Traditionally, this section
included your mailing address but that’s less necessary these days. Then we’ll
move on to the education section, which looks something like this.
You want to give full information about your degrees, completed and ongoing, in
reverse chronological order. If the job description included a skill or
experience you’ve had in the classroom but not on the job, you can include
relevant coursework here. But please, don’t just list course names. Give a
short description like you would for a job about how you used a specific skill
to complete an assignment. Did you conduct a statistical analysis of voter
turnout patterns in France to produce a three-page policy paper? Great, this is
the place for it! Next, let’s talk about what should be the bulk of your resume:
professional experience, which can include both internships and jobs. For
each position that you include in your resume, you should also include several
concise, specific bullet points about the skills you use there. And these bullet
points should be the great examples you identified before using the job
description. You don’t need to touch on everything you did in the position, just
the things that make an argument that you’re qualified. You can also have a
section for campus and community service, including any volunteer positions you’ve
held or organization leadership you’ve completed. Again– and hopefully you’re
sensing a theme here– your information should show a skill you identified from
the job description and how you used it. And finally, you should have an
additional skills section to make explicit any hard skills you have that
would be relevant. It’s pretty standard for this section to include at least
computer and language skills. Oof, well that was a whirlwind. Obviously, it’s
going to take you a little time to sort through each of these sections and what
information to include. Just make sure you keep coming back to your initial
checklist of skills and great examples. Now, let’s move on to cover letters, which
are not quite so regimented. The central idea of cover letter formatting, like
resumes, is to be brief, clear, and compelling. Your cover letter should
begin pretty similarly to your resume. In fact, if you use the same header with
your contact information it helps to visually tie together your materials.
Regardless, you want to make sure your key elements are up top: your contact
info, the company’s contact info, and the date. Make it like a formal letter. Now
for the controversial bit: lots of people worry about who to address their cover
letter to. If you can, use a real person’s name. Is the hiring manager’s name listed
on the job description? Can you look at the organization’s website to see who
you would be reporting to? Do you have a company contact you can ask? If not, you
can address your letter to the team itself: “Dear Office of Career Development
team.” You can address the letter to the company hiring manager as such: “Dear
School of International Service hiring manager.” But please stay away from
greetings like “dear hiring manager”, “dear sir or madam”, and “to whom it may concern.” Those lines don’t show that you’ve done your homework and tailored your
materials. Did you ever have to write five paragraph essays in school? The
really, really boring ones with an intro, a conclusion, and some supporting points
in the middle? Well, that training may come in handy with cover letters, because
get ready for the return of intro, conclusion, and stuff in the middle! For
your introduction, the main thing you want to do is express your interest in
this particular position at this particular company and explain very
briefly why you’re a great fit. Refer again back to your skills and examples
document. What are a few of those skills that you are definitely going to bring
from day one? Your final paragraph will be kind of similar.
Again, you’ll express your specific interest in this position, maybe say you
look forward to learning more, discussing your qualifications, and/or following up,
and then thank them for their consideration. Short and sweet. For your
middle section, you have a few choices. Again, the Internet is teeming with
foolproof, exclusive, one-of-a-kind templates for cover letters that will
definitely get you hired right away– but overall there are two formats you can
consider. One: backward chronological order, which is more traditional and
plays to the strengths of people who have some work experience. Two: skills
based format, which plays best of the strengths of people without as much work
experience or who are making a significant shift in their careers. If
you decide to use backward chronological order, you dedicate paragraph two in your
cover letter to what you’re doing now and how you’re using the skills you
mentioned in the introductory paragraph. Then paragraph three (and maybe four if
you need it) is about your previous experience and how you used those skills.
If you decide to use skills based formatting, it’s pretty straightforward
as well. Paragraph two is about a skill you identified and how you are or have
used it, paragraph three is about a different skill, and paragraph four is
about a third skill. And there’s your cover letter! Your final step for both of
these should always be quality control. You spent so much time looking at and
thinking about these documents, you may not even be able to read them anymore.
But accuracy, quality, spelling, and grammar are very important! First, make sure you
use the STAR method for writing about your skills and experience. STAR stands
for situation, task, action, and result. And you want to incorporate each of these
elements into all your great examples in your resume and cover letter. So, in this example someone writing about
their experience as a policy intern in a senator’s office incorporates the
situation (the number of media outlets, their languages, how often they wrote
briefs), the task (media monitoring), the action (reading, tracking developments, and writing briefs), and the result (informing public policy stances). Double check that
all of these elements are covered in order to create strong, precise bullet
points that highlight specific skills. Then double check spelling and grammar
and ideally have someone else check for you as well. Finally, if this is a resume
or cover letter you’re adapting from another application, double-check that
all references are to the correct position and company. it is very
embarrassing to send an application to Freedom House about how much you want to work for Human Rights Watch. And if you go through each of these steps, you
should end up with strong, persuasive application materials that give a clear
picture of you as a great candidate for this position. And hopefully, as hiring
managers go through all the many applications, they’ll identify you to
bring in for an interview. I know this was a lot of information very fast, so
please feel free to reach out with any questions. And how can you do that? You
can join me for our weekly drop-in hours in the SIS atrium. You can set up a
one-on-one appointment with a career advisor through our website and the
Handshake portal. You can also find the resume template I referenced today in
our Career Resource Library, along with additional resources spanning the gamut
from career exploration to salary negotiation. And finally you can reach
our office by phone or email or follow us on social media to keep up on events
and job openings. Now that you know where to find us in three dimensions, you’ve
got all the tools you need. Go and write some resumes and I look forward to
seeing you soon!

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