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Preparing a Winning Job Application

 Preparing Your Application Materials

Generally, the materials you submit to an organization or business will give potential employers their first impression of you. Each piece should be typed and free of spelling and grammatical errors. Although it may seem obvious, proofreading and spell checking are extremely important, as they indicate your attention to detail and may determine whether or not you are called for an interview.

Any materials you submit should arrive before the deadlines. If the deadline has passed, you may want to call to see if they are still accepting applications. To mail the materials, it is best to use a large envelope to ensure they arrive in pristine condition. If you would like to deliver your information to the organization in person, call and verify that the contact person (or someone else) will be available. A visit to the office presents an opportunity to ask for a complete description of the job and see the work environment. However, a practical drawback to visiting the office (especially unannounced) is that the timing may be inconvenient, meaning that no one can meet with you.

The following list identifies the most commonly requested materials. A more detailed description of each element is provided on the following pages.

Cover Letters — introduce you to the organization and should always be included.

Résumés — summarize your academic and professional experience.

Applications — are specific forms some places ask you to fill out.

Writing Samples — give insight into your abilities.

Transcripts — are either informal or official copies of your coursework that may be requested.

References and Recommendations — can be provided by people who will endorse and verify your relevant abilities.

Writing a Cover Letter

Your cover letter will give potential employers an idea of why you want to work for them. Each cover letter should be written specifically for the organization and position sought. It should serve as an introduction of who you are and indicate why you are interested in the organization and in the specific job for which you are applying. Your cover letter and resume should complement each other, with the letter expanding upon the experiences and skills highlighted in the resume.

The tone of the cover letter has a significant impact on its reader. Although the cover letter is a marketing tool, it is important not to come on too strong with the hard-sell approach. A well-crafted cover letter that highlights your most valuable skills and displays an understated confidence will often encourage the employer to pay more attention to your resume. On the other hand, a poorly written or sloppily presented letter can dissuade a potential employer from seriously considering you.

Here are some basic points to remember in writing a strong cover letter:

• Proofread, spell-check, and proofread again. Few things make a worse impression than cover letter typos. Set the letter aside for a day before doing the final read or pass it on to a friend, colleague, or advisor who will give you constructive feedback.

• Get the organization’s contact information right. Call before sending your materials to verify the contact person’s name and the organization’s address. Always use a gender-neutral salutation if you do not have the contact person’s name.

• Keep the letter brief. Three or four concise paragraphs should be plenty. Too much information all at once is not necessarily a good thing.

• Explain who you are and why you want to work with the organization. Focus on the skills or experiences that pertain to the position, including academic, professional, or volunteer activities. It is also acceptable to include your enthusiasm for the organization, the job, and the opportunity for personal and professional growth. A career counselor can help you outline pertinent experiences or skills.

• Focus on your three most impressive relevant skills and experiences. Show them how your experience and creative ideas can benefit their organization.

• Indicate your general period of availability. This is helpful for jobs that are of unspecified duration.

• If you are not local and plan to visit the organization’s area, tell them. You may be able to arrange an interview.

• Mention that you will call the organization by a specific date. And then call.

• Always provide your correct address and telephone number. Do not make a potential employer track you down. Indicate when and where you can be reached.

• Don’t forget to sign the letter. It happens and always looks bad.

The Résumé

Your resume summarizes relevant skills and experiences and provides a foundation for comparison with other job candidates. Both the content and visual appearance of your resume; communicate important messages to the reader, so strive to make your resume as informative and well-organized as possible.

Your resume should be typed, never handwritten. Resumes should be as reader-friendly as possible. To facilitate its reading, selective use of highlighting, italics, fonts, and other easy-to-read markers can be helpful, but be careful not to go overboard. Professionalism is important. Sloppiness or typographical errors may result in your resume being relegated to the bottom of the pile.

There are many styles of resumes. Some people strongly adhere to the single page rule while others prefer an enhanced description of your experiences, such as a curriculum vitae (CV). It may be helpful to look at sample resumes in order to get an idea of the best way to present yourself, or to work with a career counselor to develop your resume.

Here are some suggestions about developing an effective resume:

• Proofread, spell-check, and proofread again. You have heard it before, but it’s important. As with your cover letter, have someone proofread your resume for clarity and grammar.

• Make sure that your address and telephone number are correct.

• If you use an "Objective" statement (optional), tailor it specifically to each position. Objective statements should only be used for specific jobs and generic objectives should be avoided. "Job objectives" indicate your goals to potential employers. A "summary" tells what you can do for them. A note of caution: an employer’s objectives or goals may be slightly different than yours.

• If your GPA is above 3.0, include it. If it is below 3.0, do not include it.

• List academic and professional experiences in chronological order. The key is to make the resume flow. After college, omit high school-related experiences unless they are very compelling.

• List relevant volunteer or extracurricular experiences. This is useful to show a well-rounded quality and may bring out abilities that are not apparent from your academic or professional experiences.

• Omit personal information. Family details and hobbies are not considered professionally relevant.

• Keep description of experiences brief. Since job titles are not universal, describe your experiences and try to make them sound as germane as possible. On a resume, five lines per position is an acceptable maximum length; on a CV, descriptions should be less than ten lines per position.

• Use action words. You want to convey confidence, growth, and experience. But be careful, don’t oversell yourself–remember, you have to live up to your resume if you get the job!

Often-Requested Information

Applications: While application forms vary from organization to organization, use the opportunity to emphasize the ways in which your skills and experiences can meet the needs of the organization. Think about why they are asking each question and what kind of information they are looking for.

Writing Samples: Many organizations request writing samples to evaluate your writing style, editing capabilities, or researching skills. The specific content is generally less important than the quality of work. Most organizations prefer short essays, academic papers, published articles, or professional analyses that deal with issues relevant to their specific programs and issues. One to four pages is usually sufficient.

Transcripts: Some organizations require that you provide either informal or official transcripts from all post-secondary schools. In general, this is to confirm a level of academic competence in the area of the job’s focus. For example, a student may have a GPA of 3.5 overall, but only 2.8 in a specific field of study related to the job.

References and Recommendations: Many organizations request the names of individuals who can evaluate your professional or academic performance. Naturally, you will want to provide the names of people who will comment favorably on your abilities. Before you list people as references, be sure to inform them so that they will not be surprised if prospective employers call. Call your references in advance and provide them with a general description of the organization and the specific details concerning the position for which you are applying. Make them aware of any skills or experiences that you would like them to emphasize. They can then provide a strong, supportive recommendation, commenting on your knowledge of relevant issues, your abilities as a student or worker, and your willingness to learn and assume responsibility. As with your own contact information, it is important to provide accurate phone numbers and addresses for each reference, and if possible, the best times to reach them.

Some organizations prefer to review written recommendations instead of calling references. If this is the case, contact your references and ask them to write letters of recommendation on your behalf. As above, provide references with information about the organization, position, and points to highlight. Supply your references with a stamped, addressed envelope and stress to them the importance of meeting the organization’s deadline for recommendations. You should also provide the organization with the name and address of each person submitting a letter of reference on your behalf. It is sometimes helpful to have a general letter of recommendation to submit with your resume and cover letter, but this is not essential.