Skip to main content

Resumes/Cover Letters

in this section

Resumes and Cover Letters

Your resume should help you land an interview, serve as a reference during the interview, and remind the interviewer of your credentials and personality after the interview is over. Your resume is you—on paper.

A cover letter is a letter that accompanies your resume when applying for a job, whether advertised or not. Cover letters are a very important part of the job search process.

Need help writing a resume or cover letter? Check out Optimal Resume!

Resume Overview

A resume is an organized summary of your qualifications, your goals, your accomplishments, and your interests. It should tell what you have accomplished (as related to what you want to do). A resume should demonstrate preparation and qualifications for a specific position or career field. It should typically be no more than one or (for PhDs) two pages in length.

Below you will find useful information on putting together your resume. The Cornell Career Services Career Guide provides various samples for your reference. You may find our Action Words for Engineering handout to be useful when putting together your experience section for descriptions of your positions. Once you put together your resume, please use our Resume Checklist as a guideline to assist you further and stop by or call our office for a critique.

Employer Perspectives

To develop your resume content and writing style for maximum effectiveness, you must understand that employers use resumes to:

Screen applicants
Employers will scan a resume quickly—in under 30 seconds—for evidence that a candidate will be of value to their organization. Your resume should be results-oriented and tailored to the employer's needs.

Develop interview questions
Statements on your resume often serve as the basis for interviews.

Judge an applicant's communication skills
Because a resume is a written document, it gives the recruiter a taste of your written communication skills.

Remind them of a candidate's qualifications
Employers want to know how your experiences have prepared you for the job. Understanding the specific job or career field requirements will let you highlight your related experience and personal attributes, distinguishing yourself from other candidates.

To make your resume stand out among the hundreds, address an employer's concerns about your ability to do the job. Even if you don't have relevant experience, employers recognize that many personal attributes are transferable to the workplace. For example, a leadership position in a student activity translates into leadership potential in an organization. Specific, concrete information describing your activities and accomplishments will illustrate these qualities:

  • Initiative and self-motivation
  • High energy level
  • Ability to communicate effectively
  • Leadership potential
  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • Critical-thinking and reasoning abilities
  • Ability to multi-task
  • Willingness to assume responsibility
  • Capacity to work as team player
  • Skill in dealing with stress
  • Persistence

Before writing a resume, always consider what employers look for. First, inventory your experiences and compile data about yourself. Include the following categories:

  • Academic background
  • Summer jobs Internships
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Volunteer work

Second, analyze what you accomplished in each experience. Consider skills you developed and your level of involvement. Prioritize information and be selective, highlighting what is most significant and relevant about your background in relation to your career field and the needs of employers.

Third, write accomplishment-oriented statements introduced by action verbs. Convey through direct language that you are active and produce results while matching your achievements and skills to employers' needs.

Resume Elements

Although resumes contain some standard elements, there is no prescribed format that works equally well for everyone. You might want to de-emphasize or even omit sections that do not relate to your objective or field of interest. You can also modify titles of sections to more accurately describe the data you present. You should always include your name, permanent and local addresses, e-mail address, and phone number. If using two addresses, indicate dates you can be reached at both.

Objective
Opinions differ widely among employers and career professionals on the value of including a career objective. In general, an objective on your resume can be helpful if it concisely describes your immediate employment goal, but it is not an essential component of a successful resume. You may prefer to incorporate an objective in a cover letter instead, especially if you want to be considered for a range of positions.

An objective should convey specific information about what you are seeking, but those that are too narrow can limit your options. If you decide to include an objective, specify the type of position you are seeking. If you find it difficult to write a definitive statement of your objective, describe the skills you want to use or the functions you want to perform. If you have more than one career interest, prepare several résumés, tailoring them to different objectives. The following are three examples of effective objectives:

  • A position in financial services using well-developed research, analytical, and quantitative skills
  • A research position in health care, combining interests in policy and medicine
  • A position as a process engineer in the chemical industry

Summary of Qualifications
A second approach is a summary of qualifications describing your skills and experience in relation to your career interest. Qualification summaries are less widely used than objectives, but they offer the opportunity to highlight your most important assets at the top of your resume. If your career interest is in working as a legislative aide, for example, you could summarize your most important accomplishments and skills this way:

  • Researched and wrote detailed reports in city government position
  • Addressed student concerns as elected Student Assembly representative
  • Wrote honors thesis on relationship between state and federal government and trend towards devolution

In addition, you will want to include the following information:

  • List institutions attended and locations, including study abroad experience; degrees and dates received; major and concentration; and honors thesis title, if applicable.
  • Include your GPA if it is at least 3.0; you may want to add your major GPA if it is considerably higher. [Note: Guidelines for science and technical fields may vary]
  • If you attended another college before coming to Cornell, include it only if you refer to it elsewhere in your resume or cover letter.
  • Don't include your high school unless it is nationally recognized or in an area where you want to work.

Honors and Awards
Dean's list, honor societies, and academic awards can be listed in a separate section if you have more than one or two entries; if not, incorporate them in the education section. Include scholarships only if based on merit.

Relevant Courses
List courses that are pertinent to your objective and your employers' needs, particularly if your major does not directly relate to your employment goal. For example, if you are a Chemical Engineering major seeking work as in the business field, relevant courses will be business-related, including math courses.

Experience
This includes diverse experiences, both paid and unpaid:

  • Part-time work
  • Full-time work
  • Summer jobs
  • Co-op experience
  • Internships
  • Volunteer experience
  • Extracurricular activities

Include the position you held, name of the organization, city and state, and month and year of your involvement. Summarize what you accomplished in each experience and prioritize these results-oriented descriptions to support your job objective. Don't include every experience you have had—only those that demonstrate that you can succeed in the position you are pursuing. Use brief phrases beginning with action verbs, incorporating statistics, percentages, and numbers where possible:

  • Reorganized inventory procedures, shortening process from three days to two
  • Designed and implemented marketing strategy that increased sales 25%
  • Trained and coordinated activities of 33 volunteers, whose efforts resulted in raising $5,000 

List computer languages and programs, knowledge of foreign languages, laboratory and research skills, analytical skills, and management skills not mentioned elsewhere.

Activities and Interests
In order of their importance, list student organizations, professional associations, committees, and community involvements, indicating offices held. Include high school activities only if directly relevant to your objective. After activities, list interests such as music, sports, and the arts, especially if they pertain to your career interest. You may want to avoid including religious activities or those representing extreme political views.

References
This section is optional. If included, say "available upon request."

Resume Formats

The two basic resume styles are chronological and functional. Some use features of both and are called combination resumes. Your resume should reflect your goals and unique background, so create a document that works for you, not one that conforms to a particular format.

Chronological Resume
The most widely used and familiar format is the chronological resume. Education and experience are listed in chronological order, starting with your most recent experience. This format emphasizes positions and organizations and describes achievements and responsibilities. The chronological resume demonstrates career growth and continuity and is most effective when the job target is in line with your experience and academic background.

If your most relevant experience for a particular career field was not your most recent, you can feature it by creating two "experience" sections. These can be called "related experience" and "other experience." By separating the information into two categories, you can maintain a chronological format while emphasizing your most pertinent skills.

Functional Resume
The functional resume highlights skills and accomplishments and de-emphasizes specific job titles, organizations, and dates of employment. Rarely used by college students, functional resumes are appropriate if you have held a number of unrelated jobs, the position sought is outside the academic field, or there are significant gaps in your work history. Carefully examine previous duties and activities, without regard to job or setting. Then create specific skill areas such as writing, research, communication, leadership, etc., that target the career objective.

Although employers sometimes find this format confusing because items are not listed in chronological order, the functional resume can be effective for people without relevant experience or whose careers have taken a number of turns.

Combination Resume
This format merges elements of functional and chronological resumes. It accentuates skills and capabilities but also includes positions, employers, and dates within the skill groups. It retains the directness of the chronological format and groups skills into functional categories.

Cover Letters

Letter of application [Sample]
Write this letter to ask for a specific job within an organization that has been advertised or identified through networking.

Letter of inquiry [Sample]
Send a letter of inquiry to explore employment possibilities when you are interested in working for a particular organization but do not know if an opening exists. Target an employer’s needs by calling the organization to obtain information about jobs for which you are qualified. Refer to specific aspects of the organization’s work that interest you.