Your challenge: distinguish yourself from hundreds of other applicants using just your resume and cover letter. Your resume and cover letter usually provide the first impression of you to a potential employer. As such an important marketing tool, you must demonstrate the link between your skills and experience and the needs of the employer you want to work for. Even though you may spend hours writing and adjusting your resume and cover letter, chances are that an employer will spend less than a minute reviewing it. How do you get your message across in these circumstances and a) land an interview, and b) land the job?
- Learn the keys to preparing a resume that gets noticed.
- A well written cover letter may give you the edge you need.
- Got an interview? Preparation is critical.
- Information about handling questions about salary expectations.
Read on to learn more about each of these topics.
Your resume and cover letter usually provide the first impression of you to a potential employer. As such an important marketing tool, you must demonstrate the link between your skills and experience and the needs of the employer you want to work for. Even though you may spend hours writing and adjusting your resume and cover letter, chances are that an employer will spend less than a minute reviewing it. How do you get your message across in these circumstances?
You must know the product you are “selling” … yourself.
You must also know the needs of your audience … the employer.
Knowing how your skills and experiences will benefit the needs of an employer is essential before writing your cover letter and resume and cover letter.
Your resume is your own personal marketing brochure. It should stand out from the crowd so that the employer will want to invite you to an interview. But most of us are not marketing geniuses. So here’s the deal. Before preparing or updating your resume, it is important to: (#1) know what you have to offer; (#2) understand the needs of the employer; and (3) link point #1 and #2 – that is, relate your skills and experience with the needs of the employer.
(1) What do you have to offer? List your skills, interests, abilities and experiences. Where did you develop and use these? Include paid work experience, volunteer experience, extracurricular activities, education, etc. Think about your skills in the following areas: computers, research, written and oral communication, creativity, analytical, project management, problem solving, etc.
(2) What needs does the employer have? Research trends in the industry, who their competitors are, their corporate culture/philosophy, what challenges they are facing, what tasks are normally part of the position being sought, etc. Don’t just create a form letter — address the employer’s needs!
(3) Link your skills and experiences with the needs of the employer. Which items on the list you made of your skills match the needs of the employer? Demonstrate to the employer that you have these matching skills and abilities by giving specific examples of when you developed and used them. Make note of any specific accomplishments.
Resume Formats: Resumes usually contain most of the following information (not necessarily in this order): contact information, career objective (optional), education, skills, employment experience (sometimes also a section called related experience), activities, awards and scholarships and a statement about references.
There are many formats you can choose for your resume. The three formats which are most commonly used are:
- Chronological format. These are the most common format. It often works well for those with a long and consistent work record, and you want your work experience to be front and centre. Jobs should be listed in reverse chronological order (most recent first). Many employers prefer this format.
- Functional resumes. These are useful for those with little work experience, many short contract jobs, and for those changing careers. This type of resume focuses on your skills and accomplishments, not your work history. Also called skills-based resumes.
- Combination resumes combines these two formats. It combines your marketable skills with with your work experience and education, so that you can highlight related past experiences.
A resume should be targeted, professional, and easy to read.
Tips and common mistakes:
- Ensure your resume is free of spelling and grammatical mistakes. Repeat… this is essential.
- Use action words to describe your accomplishments. Show what you have accomplished – do not devalue your achievements. Point form often works best for this.
- Make sure that the most important and relevant information is listed near the top and clearly highlighted.
- Make sure your resume looks professional. It represents YOU to an employer. Print on a laser printer and use good quality white or off-white paper.
- Do not include irrelevant information, such as birth date, number of children, marital status, SIN, etc.
- In general, resumes should be no more than two pages in length. Be concise.
- Use white space liberally. Your resume should be easy to read and uncluttered.
- Use headings consistently, ie. same font, same size, etc. Don’t overuse design elements such as bold, fancy fonts, etc – it will make your resume hard to read. Choose a standard font (ie. Arial or Times Roman).
- Your resume should be individualized for each company/position you are applying for. Resumes that are too generic and are without a clear career objective are likely to be tossed out. Keep the needs of the employer in mind! What can you contribute?
- Always follow up a faxed resume by mailing an original; the quality of faxed copies may vary.
COVER LETTER GUIDE
You should always include a cover letter along with your resume. The cover letter is often the first impression that an employer has of you – and often a first impression is a lasting impression! Don’t spend so much time on your resume that you do a rush job on your cover letter. Prepare your cover letter with as much care and detail as you do your resume! We recognize that not all recruiters take the time to read cover letters, but many do (some even consider it more important than your resume) so why take a chance by leaving it out?
Cover letters should answer the all-important question: Why should we hire you? You must do some research before writing the cover letter to be able to customize your letter to meet the needs of the prospective employer. Show that you understand their organization and industry … don’t send form letters. Of course it is possible that some employers will skip the cover letter and head straight to the resume first, but don’t take that chance and risk blowing your chance by cutting corners!
Cover letters should usually be no more than one page in length. The introductory paragraph states why you are writing and how you heard about the position. The middle paragraphs (may be 1-3 paragraphs) must relate your skills and experiences to the employer’s needs. Choose the most important skills/abilities needed for the position and be sure to show where you demonstrated these. Show how you would be able to contribute to the organization, not how the position will help you! Try to demonstrate that you have an interest in and understanding of the organization. The final paragraph is used to re-state your interest in the position, thank the employer for their consideration and request an interview.
CanadianCareers.com has compiled a list of top 10 tips for cover letters:
- don’t address your letter “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern”; find out who will be receiving the applications, usually a Human Resources Manager/Advisor, and address the letter to him/her
- check your spelling and grammar and proofread it over and over again; use a word-processing package with built-in spell-checking and ask a friend to check it too … if you don’t take the time and effort at this point, what should the employer expect from you after you have been hired!
- never write the cover letter by hand; word-process it and get it laser printed (or print on the best mode possible using an ink-jet printer)
- use an active voice and take ownership for your accomplishments; don’t start every sentence with “I”
- send a customized cover letter for every position you are applying for, not a form letter. Form letters will not impress the hiring manager. You must research the company and determine the traits and qualities they are looking for.
- be specific … saying you are efficient, a team player, or have excellent communication skills is fine, but back it up with specifics from your experiences
- don’t just repeat what is on your resume. Take the opportunity to tell the employer what you can do for the company- that is, why you should be hired for this particular position at that particular company.
- keep it brief … cover letters should be kept to one page, and in general, paragraphs should be kept to four to six lines or so. Full-block format is typically used.
- use special effects (bold, different fonts, colour) sparingly or not at all; keep it professional. A standard font (Arial or Times Roman, 11 or 12 point size) is usually a good idea.
- your cover letter is one of your key marketing documents – make it count!
Make the employer want to meet with you by showing how your skills and experience meet the needs of the employer. It takes time to create effective targeted cover letters, but it is definitely worth the time and effort.
For most people, the job interview is the single most intimidating part of the job search. What can you do to help ease the jitters and boost your confidence? Prepare, prepare, and prepare. Anticipate questions that may be asked, research the company and industry, and go through mock interviews with a friend or professional career coach. Remember that interviews are a two-way street. Ask questions – take the opportunity to make sure the position is a good fit for you too!
Research is critical before attending a job interview. I know… you don’t have time for research. But if you don’t take the time and effort to learn about the organization before your interview, employers will wonder if you really want to work for them after all. Research the industry in general, get a feel for the company’s history and recent activities, find out what products/services they provide, who their competitors are. Also try to determine what the corporate culture is like and read their mission statement.
Visit the company web site. It will usually give you a good feel for the company and what they do. The more you know about the company, the better off you’ll be in an interview. Read newspapers to find out what is happening in the industry you are in. The American Journalism Online has a comprehensive list of Canadian newspapers, searchable by province. The Globe and Mail is also a good source for current news in Canada. Also do a Google search for press releases to help you customize your cover letter and prepare for an interview.
Visit the web site for a professional association in your field. Industry associations can provide you with valuable insight into how your industry operates, who they key players are and what the current trends are, and may provide networking opportunities. If you need the address of a web site of an association for your industry, Explore Careers page and/or do a Google search.
Research the position. If you don’t have one, see if you can get a copy of the detailed job description for the position ahead of time. Understanding the responsibilities of the position will help you match your skills and experience to the skills and abilities required for the position. Also try to research salary ranges for this and comparable positions (see below for more on this). If you don’t already know, find out who you will be meeting with and their position title(s). Figure out where the interview location is and how you’ll get there.
Know your skills and be ready to articulate how they relate to the position you are interviewing for. Review your career goals. Review your resume so you are prepared to answer questions about your experiences. Then practice. Review possible questions (see below for common questions) and think about how you may reply. If possible, practice with a friend or do a mock interview with a career counsellor to get feedback about what you say, how you say it and your body language. Be prepared for the general “tell me a bit about yourself” question; rehearse your key messages.
Behavioural Interviews are very common today. Behavioural interview questions are designed to find out how you would react (or have reacted) in specific situations. The idea is that past behaviour is a good predictor of future behaviour. You must be prepared for some of these questions; they are often quite diffficult to answer well without preparation. Answer these with specific examples of what you would do (or have done) in the situation. For example: “Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult customer”.
Before heading to a behavioural interview, review the job posting carefully looking for key competencies that will be examined such as interpersonal skills, team work or problem solving. Reflect on your past experiences when you have demonstrated these traits. Then prepare to discuss these specific situations in detail outling what role you played, actions you took and the results of your actions.
The Day of the Interview: First impressions count! Dress appropriately. Your appearance should be appropriate for the type of position you applied for (but never arrive for an interview in casual clothing). Be clean and well-groomed. Keep makeup minimal and jewelery simple – you want them to listen to what you have to say, not to be distracted by your eclectic fashion tastes. Bring extra copies of your resume, a list of references, transcripts (if graduating from university or college), your portfolio (optional but nice), a notepad and a pen.
Be on time! We can’t say this enough … be on time! Don’t wait for the day of the interview to find out how to get there. And factor in extra time for traffic delays, etc. – there is no excuse for being late for an interview. Actually, it is a good idea to arrive 10-15 minutes early. Know what the recruiter thinks when you’re late for an interview? (“Gosh, if he/she is late for a job interview, imagine how often they’ll be late for work if we were to hire them!)
During the Interview: First impressions count more than you think! When introduced to your interviewer(s), shake hands firmly and make eye contact. Remember to smile. Body language is important. Be sure to make eye contact; if you don’t, you may be seen to lack confidence. Sit straight in your chair and try not to fidget with your hands too much.
When asked questions, allow yourself a moment to collect your thoughts before answering a question. Don’t answer with yes or no answers – elaborate … sell yourself by giving a specific example. If you don’t understand a question, ask for clarification. This is expected and is preferable to providing an unsuitable answer. Don’t try to cover up past mistakes; show how you learned from your experiences. Answer questions honestly. Be prepared for questions designed to see how you react under pressure – keep calm. Don’t use slang; use proper words (eg. “going to” instead of “gonna”). Don’t interrupt the interviewer / don’t be overbearing. Never speak badly about your past employers – be positive, professional and enthusiastic. Be prepared with questions (see a few samples below).
Sample Questions: There are many books on the market with thousands of sample interview questions and suggested responses. By all means, use these as a starting point, but don’t memorize the answers! Try to relax, be yourself, and relate your own skills and experiences to those required for the position.
- tell us about yourself
- what do you know about our organization?
- what interests you about our company?
- what are your strengths and weaknesses?
- what are your related skills?
- what did you most/least enjoy about your last job?
- why did you leave your last job?
- why did you choose your area of study in university/college?
- what motivates you?
- do you prefer working alone or as part of a team?
- what is the bigest challenge you have faced?
- what do you see yourself doing in 5 years?
- how did you prepare for this interview?
- why should we hire you for this position?
- salary (see below)
Beware of the temptation to simply memorize questions and answers from popular interview preparation books – you must be able to articulate how they relate to the position you are interviewing for.
What about Salary?
Don’t bring up salary if at all possible but make sure you have done your industry research in case the interviewer brings it up. Usually salary is discussed after the employer has decided that they want to hire you. It is to your advantage to discuss salary when you get an offer. By avoiding salary discussions until an offer is made you minimize the risk of eliminating yourself from the running, and now that they have decided they want to hire you, you may have more room for negotiation. For more information, scroll down to see our tips re: salary.
Questions You Can Ask
Interviews are a two-way street. Take the opportunity to ask questions about the company and position to determine if it is a good fit for you and to show the employer that you are interested in the position.
- what are the greatest challenges facing your organization?
- what is a typical day like in this position?
- how would you describe the culture of your organization?
- how much travelling is typical for this position?
- what types of career possibilities would this position lead to in your organization?
- how are employees evaluated?
- what orientation and training opportunities are available for employees?
- when should I expect to hear back from you?
After the Interview
Make sure you know how to spell the names of your interviewer(s) and their titles. Send out a thank you letter within 24 hours of your interview in which you thank the interviewer(s) and emphasize your key skills which relate to the position. It is quick and relatively simple to prepare and may differentiate yourself from other applicants who were interviewed. Keep it short and simple and reiterate your interest in the position. Many employers state e-mail thank you letters are acceptable but some still prefer a traditional written letter. Whatever format you choose, be sure to stick to proper business format and keep it professional.
If You Get an Offer
Congratulations! Remember – you do not have to accept or decline an offer on the spot – ask for a couple of days to think about it.
You have managed to get an interview for that great job … the interview has gone well, and you’ve established a good rapport with the hiring managers … just a few more minutes to go … Oh no! They just asked about salary expectations!
This is where you’ll be glad that you did that research ahead of time. If you didn’t, and aren’t sure where to start, here are some tips. Note: see the end of this article for some great Canadian salary links!
If the salary is not stated in the job description, you’ll have to determine what the job is worth. Sometimes you’ll be asked to provide your expectations in your cover letter, other times it will come up in an interview. But the key is to be prepared for this question, as it usually comes up.
There is no one magic figure when trying to determine salary for a particular position. It depends on geographical location, size of the city, market conditions, the company and your own skills and experience as compared with other applicants. So how do you find out what a job is worth? Try to use a combination of methods to get as accurate a range as possible. These may include:
- look for similar advertised positions which do state a salary range
- research salaries on the internet, using career sites, professional association sites and search engines (we’ve provided some starting points at the end of this article) – what is the demand for your skills?
- visit a local Human Resource Centre of Canada office
- talk to people in similar positions
What to do when you’re asked to provide salary expectations in your cover letter?
Many employers ask applicants to provide salary expectations in the cover letter. This is often done to screen out applicants who expect a higher salary than the employer is willing to offer. Try to answer with a neutral statement, emphasizing that the opportunity is the most important consideration in your decision and that you would consider any reasonable offer. If necessary, give a range of what you are willing to accept instead of a fixed dollar amount.
Salary discussions during the interview
Never bring up salary during an interview. Always let the employer bring it up. The same principles apply as above for cover letters. That is, try to postpone salary discussions until after an offer is made. Indicate that you are open for negotiation but prefer to wait until after a hiring decision has been made. Again, if you feel that they are really pushing for a figure, try to give a range, not a specific dollar amount and let them know it depends on the entire package including benefits.
Don’t worry if salary is not discussed during the first interview. It likely will be in the second or at the latest, will when you get an offer! In fact, salary is usually best left for discussion until after the employer has decided that they want to hire you. By doing this, you minimize the risk of taking yourself out of the running.
When an offer is made – negotiating salary
Employers will often provide you with a salary amount when an offer is made. Take some time to consider it; a day or two is usually acceptable. Now that they have decided they want to hire you, you may be able to negotiate a little. But you must decide what you are willing to accept, taking into account the likelihood of receiving other offers, etc. Take all factors into consideration when making your decision, including the type of work, level of responsibility, working conditions, opportunities for further education, salary, etc. Ask about vacation, extended health and dental insurance, education re-imbursement plans, etc.
Consider negotiating in some perks instead if the organization has a rigid salary structure. Depending on the level of the position and current economic conditions, consider asking about a signing bonus, company car, paid professional development, access to a computer for home use and/or stock options. A flexible work schedule and working from home occasionally may also be possible. Note: if the economy is in a downturn, many of these perks will not be available (eg. signing bonuses) so use your judgement and common sense when deciding how much room you have to negotiate.
Most people are apprehensive about negotiating for salary or benefits. Don’t be… it is quite common. But do remember to remain professional about it! No matter what, don’t be rude or arrogant. Think carefully about what makes you worth a higher salary than the one they have offered and be prepared to articulate this to the employer. It is during this time that you’ll be glad you did your research.
Here are a few sites which may help you start your salary research. Note that information can become out-of-date quickly, so do search the web for up-to-date information: Job Futures | Alberta Occupational Profiles