Resumes & Cover Letters
I'll make this as painless as possible. Resumes and cover letters are more flexible than you think. If you get stressed during the process, hug your pet (if you have one). Never lose sight of your goal to work with animals.
What you include in your descriptions will depend on the job for which you are applying. For example, suppose your current experience includes helping a professor of veterinary medicine with his or her research. Most of the time, you enter data; sometimes you observed animals. You also assisted with library and internet research and occasionally you walked the animals, cleaned cages, and fed them. If you were looking for a job in a veterinary clinic, the work you did with animals is important and would be your first bullet points (walked animals, etc.). If the job was to conduct research, then observing, researching and entering data would be critical and listed first.
Those reading this have different backgrounds.The principles are the same no matter how advanced or entry-level the position. One exception is that veterinarians, professors and other graduate-degree level researchers may need a CV instead of a resume. A CV is a longer document that is organized differently and has fewer descriptions. I will cover CVs separately at a later date.
Below I review the basics of resume and cover letter writing and add references at the end for those needing more assistance.
Keys to Standing Out on a Resume
Prove that you can do the job. You do this by showing that you have the skills and/or experience needed (I cover career changing lower down). That experience can be from jobs, classes, volunteer work, taking care of a pet, etc.
Differentiate yourself from other candidates (for example, by listing special, but needed, skills and such as speaking a second language, writing well, etc.).
Be accomplishments-oriented. Resumes should not read like a job description. Instead, show how you made a difference in school, at other jobs, where you volunteer, etc. Suppose you, for example, figured out a way to save your employer money. You can write that in a resume and cover letter.
Adapt your resumes and cover letters as needed for different jobs. One size does not fit all.
The test: Someone should be able to tell what you want to do just by reading your resume without a cover letter or job description.
You should like your own resume. Aim for "that's really me."
Always be honest.
Don't feel that you need to pay someone (and I'm a Certified Professional Resume Writer.) There are ample free resources. Most colleges offer free resume critiques to students and alumni.
Basics: A Quick Resume Review
1-2 pages depending on the amount of your experience. The guideline is two pages after ten years of experience, but that is not a hard-and-fast rule. Don't pad your resume.
What's an Easy, Professional Layout?
This isn't the only way to do it, but it is easy, clean and fast.
Name/Contact info: Center. Put your name in bold. It can be in all capital letters or upper and lower case.
Font size: 10-12. Headings (Education, Experience, etc.) can be size 12 and your name can be 12 or 14 (headings in 10 look small).
Headings may be centered or kept on the left.
Don't indent: Align text on the left side ("left justify").
Use bullet points: Bullets are more effective than writing paragraphs under specific jobs. You do not need bullets in your Summary and in Education. A Summary, Profile Qualifications or similar can be written as a list or paragraph.
You can include a Summary or Profile section at the top, but Objectives" are outdated and almost never used.
Heading titles are flexible."Experience," "Education" and "Additional" are (not necessarily in that order). "Key Words" can be an effective section for some people.
Education: If you are a student or recent graduate, Education is usually the first section (after a Summary, Profile or Qualifications section, if you use one). After two years of work experience, Education goes at or near the end.
Reverse chronological order: List most recent items in the Education and Experience sections.
Avoid using a Functional resume (see below). Instead use a reverse chronological resume.
Styles of resumes. The most commonly accepted is the reverse chronological resume where jobs and education are organized with the most recent first. You may hear about functional resumes, the second most commonly used format. Employers do not like functional resumes. It is harder for them to find key information. Functional resumes were originally created to help those returning to work after huge gaps of time, for example, a parent taking time off to raise a child. In a functional resume, employers, job titles and dates of employment are listed separately from the descriptions of the work. You have less credibility with this type of resume.
I picked an entry-level job for the example, but I could have selected a job requiring graduate training or one in-between the two. The concepts are similar. You want to show you are qualified and that you will be a good employee, ie, not an ax murderer.
For our example, let's take part of an actual job description at a private veterinary practice. For a customer service position, they sought:
Veterinary animal experience: 1 year
Customer service: 1 year
Veterinary receptionist: 1 year
Let's break this down: What do those criteria mean? A good bet would be:
Veterinary animal experience: Hold animals, assist vets and vet techs, clean cages and messes, get meds. What animals? Cats, dogs, exotics; perhaps it is a large animal practice with horses and cattle. (Research the practice to learn about it.)
Customer service: Answer the phones, follow up to ensure patient needs are met, get answers from vets and others, stay calm, go the extra mile...schedule appointments, do ten things at once, work well under pressure.
Veterinary receptionist: Greet patients and their parents/handlers. Always be calm and pleasant and make people feel welcome. Have at least basic computer skills. Hold pets, order supplies, handle billing and answer questions about the practice. Work as part of a team.
How does your experience match up? Do you have those skills? Are they evident from your resume? It's fine if you acquired them from having volunteered or having your own pets. Experience does not mean you had to get paid to do it. Never lie, but you can mix paid and unpaid experiences in a section called "Experience."
While experience in a similar setting is best, it is important to show that you have the experience even though it may not have been paid or with animals. For example, bartending includes many of the same skills. (It may be tempting to write about working with drunken "animals" at the bar, but don't do it.) Having a sense of humor is always good, but it's risky on a resume--make sure it is funny and not discriminatory in any way. If you are tempted to attempt humor, make sure you sleep on it first and show it to someone you trust before sending.
What related skills might set you apart and be helpful to an employer? Here's a few: Foreign languages, writing, skillful with social media (to help them market the practice). Also, the ability to multi-task and hit the ground running.
How Do You Put it Together on a Resume?
The order of your sections (or headings) depends on your level of experience. For example, if you have all the qualifications, start off with an Experience section (after your contact information and Summary/Profile if you use one). Then use bullet points to elaborate on your qualifications under each employer. Employers are listed in reverse chronological order.
List the bullets in the order of their relevance for the job to which you are applying--not in terms of how much time you spent on each task with one exception. Put the least relevant bullets in the middle (so you start and end strong).
What to put in a bullet? Think of your accomplishments: A resume is not a job description. Think of particular events that you are proud of and put them in. In short, if you have experience, you could write that you, for example, greeted pets and their families and scheduled appointments. Many applicants might write something similar, so how do you stand out? On busy days, did you see a lot of animals? Did you have to keep them apart? Was it a busy veterinary practice? Did you develop a quicker method of scheduling appointments? What else have you done? You could write, for example, "Effortlessly greeted pets and their families, calmed animals on the verge of fighting, and soothed distraught pet parents. At the same time, handled 5 phone lines, scheduling appointments, following-up and answering questions." Did you develop a new process that saved time? For example, "developed intake form estimated to save five minutes for new patients."
No Experience: Are You Changing Careers?
In this case, consider a Profile or Summary section after your contact information especially if you have relevant experience, but it may not be with animals. You can list that you have experience in customer service and animal care, eg, if you have pets. For example, "Strong customer service orientation"; More than 10 years of experience working with pets, including walking, bathing and feeding."
Think about an objective only if you have absolutely no relevant experience or transferable skills. If you are unsure whether to include an objective, omit it. It is estimated that people read resumes for less than a minute. Objectives are passé.
In future posts, we'll include specific ways of writing your resume and CV, how to use headings to your advantage and adding a LinkedIn profile.
Let's use the same job in the example above, but this approach can be easily applied to jobs in any field. You can plug in examples from your own background.
There are different ways to write cover letters and I'm going to start with one technique. Cover letters can seem scary but they are not.
Cover letters are basically 3-4 paragraphs in length and on one page (letters for academic research positions can be longer).
Paragraph 1: Overview of what you bring to the job (mention the specific job you are applying for).
Section 2: Elaborate on your qualifications (can be divided into two paragraphs).
Last paragraph: Thank the reader, "in advance for your consideration" and welcome the opportunity to join the team. You can be more assertive if you like. For example, "I will follow up with you in two weeks." Some books say you must do this. In my experience, it will not matter. Be honest and write what is comfortable for you.
Start by looking at the job description, then decide how your experience matches.
Here's the description:
Veterinary experience (1 year): Did your take care of your own animals, volunteer, work in a clinic, etc.?
Customer service (1 year): Was it in- or outside an animal setting? While working with animals is ideal, the key is whether you can deal with the public--that is, stay calm, provide information, answer phones; work under pressure, etc.
Veterinary receptionist (1 year): When people and/or their pets arrive, did you greet them warmly, schedule appointments, bill them? Can you answer phones and calmly and enthusiastically handle lots of people in the waiting room. Can you calmly handle emergencies? Did you often stay late or fill in when needed?
Other: Research the employer. What might be important to them? For example, the practice might only work with cats. They might have a mission statement hinting as to the qualities they seek in candidates.
A Cover Letter Example
Addresses are at the top--yours first and then that of the employer with a space between. It is also fine to include your LinkedIn address or just your email address.
Dear Hiring Manager, (use the contact name listed if there is one; you could also send it to the head of the practice),
First paragraph: Opening with a one line summary of your qualifications works well UNLESS you know someone who works at that employer and they or someone they know recommended you. If so, open with it, eg, Maria Smith suggested that I apply for the position of customer service representative. I don't recommend opening that you love pets. Why? Most people will do that and you want to stand out. In my experience, you can say it in the letter, just don't open with it.
Second paragraph (which can be divided into two paragraphs): There are several ways to do this. A common way is to think about two or three examples of what you want to tell an employer. For example, you could write (if accurate) that you have excellent customer service skills. Next, you could give an example--"For example, "..." and briefly relay something you are proud of. At the end of this section, you can also add the other criteria that set you apart. "In addition, I am fluent in Spanish," for example. Suppose you have worked long hours at other jobs or can be available on quick notice to sub--you can put that in. Suppose you created a special manual or implemented a new policy at an old job--you can put that in. You could also have started that section with, "I have the credentials you seek."
Third (or fourth if you divided the second into two paragraphs): If you didn't summarize your background in the first paragraph, you can do so in the last. For example,"In summary, I offer you excellent customer service, veterinary assistance, computer and team skills. I welcome the opportunity to interview for the position."
End it with "Sincerely," and your name.