Resume and cover letter - How good are yours?

Wes Bucey

Quite Involved in Discussions
Thread bump! March 5, 2011 (added in edit)
Here's the deal: when I write in these discussion forums about job hunting, I am writing for a mass market, just like any author. I try to give as much information for people to use and adapt to their personal situations as I possibly can. If you don't understand something I have written, make a comment in the public forum for me to answer it there. Chances are, others also didn't understand or misinterpreted what I wrote and many people can therefore benefit from your question. When people send me a pm or email saying,
"What did you mean by . . .?" I'm not being a jerk by writing back, saying, "Ask that question in the Forum!" I'm trying to be efficient with my time and energy by putting my response in the public arena where it will answer the instant question, but probably forestall dozens of future emails or private messages asking, "What did you mean by . . .?" saving time and energy for everyone.

If you disagree with what I wrote, say so in public and give your reasoning. I rarely take offense at well-reasoned dissent with my views - it is the intent of public forums to provide spirited debate about topics, as long as folks remember we attack ideas, not personalities.

Validity of thread and dead links

As I write this in 2011, nearly seven years after the first post in the thread, I tell you frankly everything in this thread is still valid. I have gone through and removed some dead links (it's the nature of the internet!) and ask that if you come across any dead links in this thread or any other thread, you click on the report post button at the top of each individual message box and report the dead link so a moderator may deal with it.

This thread is a companion piece to the "Gatekeeper" thread: Tips to get past the "gatekeeper" when job hunting

Special note: I use the male pronoun most frequently as a grammar device. Please understand NONE of the usage should be interpreted as gender bias, just an old man's Lean method of avoiding extra keystrokes inserting "he/she" or "him/her."

As always, I freely recommend a visit to the web site of Richard Bolles, the author of "What Color Is Your Parachute?"

Job ads and recruiters say, "Send your resume. Include . . . ."

Over the last 40 years, I have looked at literally thousands of resumes for every level of job from clerk to CEO. I may appear too cynical to many of you and not cynical enough to a few of you. My hope is that as this thread develops, at least some of you will have an EPIPHANY, that moment when you bang yourself on the forehead and shout, "AHA! Of course! Why couldn't I see that before?"

The companion thread discussed getting past the gatekeeper to make your case for employment before the person who could actually make the decision.

The big question is, "What can I say in that cover letter and resume that will COMPEL that person to call me for an interview?"

The big truth here is that no one gets HIRED from a resume, one only gets hired after an interview, even if it's only a phone interview.

The small truth here is that most persons in a position to hire other people are really clueless about the entire process of hiring people, even if they've personally hired hundreds of people. Repetition doesn't make an expert if you do each repetition wrong - ask any golf pro about the poor duffers ingraining bad habit after bad habit as they whack away on the driving range.

These same clueless hirers are often heard to say, "Wow! That guy sure didn't turn out the way I expected when I hired him." as they tell the clerk to prepare the hapless employee's pink slip.

The caution:
As a job candidate, you have to be prepared to deal with BOTH kinds of hirers - the ones who follow a good process and the ones who don't have a clue.

In Quality, the emphasis is on "process." Let's work out a process for a job search and apply things like FMEA (Failure Mode and Effects Analysis), Lean, Mistake Proofing, PDCA, DMAIC, etc. Perhaps one of the graphic arts geniuses like Wallace or Claes will review the thread when it's reached a certain point and create a beautiful graphic for us to clip and save for when the time comes (it does come to all of us sooner or later.)

I have a strong idea of the points we should cover and how to do it within the budget each of us has available, but I'd like some input from our Covers so I can ensure we cover all the bases and don't commit the crime of
At this point in the thread, let's just "brainstorm" some ideas about how we decide the kind of job we want and are suited for and how to identify the places that have or might create openings for someone with the combination of skills and experience we can bring to the table.

More background:
At various times, as I was growing up, I wanted to be like cowboy heroes, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Lash LaRue, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Red Ryder, etc. A little older and I wanted to be Lamont Cranston (the Shadow), Mandrake the Magician, Prince Valiant, Terry and the Pirates.

(Actually, I'd still like to be like Mandrake, but that's a story for a long night with plenty of Scotch.)

The point is, that as I learned about more and more occupations, I tried to fit myself in those molds. Most of us still do that today. It's a good thing if the fit is realistic, frustrating if it's not a realistic fit. There are a lot of euphemisms floating around to describe it, but a lot of folks feel trapped in the wrong job and even more feel discriminated against because they can't get the job of their dreams. The truth is most of them aren't really trapped and even fewer are discriminated against for the same reason they think they are. Sure, there are jerk employers who will discriminate against a candidate because they don't like the candidate's gender, age, skin color, church affiliation, etc. Did you really want to work for a jerk like that?

Most of the discrimination (other than real jerks) is triggered by the hirer's impression (from the cover letter and/or resume) that the candidate won't "fit in" with the organization. In my experience, that is because the candidate presents himself via the cover letter and resume as a stuffy, unimaginative "follower" who only wants his needs satisfied and never once mentions what value he can bring to the organization, backed up by an example of what he did some where else. Why?

I believe the primary reason is that the candidate has neglected the first step in the job search - he hasn't decided the kind of job he wants and is suited for.

I have seen countless resumes begin with
Objective: a management position where I will have a chance to grow and expand my skills
I usually stop reading right there.

How about:
Objective: . . .Open to a wide variety of positions within an organization assisting in . . .
"assisting" is a sure sign of a "follower" and "wide variety" tells me he doesn't know what he wants and is hoping I will figure out what he's good for. We'll never know, because it hits the circular file.

Get my drift?
If you want to convince a hirer you are right for the job, you have to be convinced yourself. Any hint you are not convinced puts your resume in the trash.

So, let's hear some ideas on how to determine what a candidate is really good at and what kind of job he's suited for.

My beginning list (not complete):
  • good in school at what?
  • good experience in an industry
  • bad in school at what?
  • good big company experience
  • bad big company experience
  • really good at solving problems
  • take a personality test
  • take an aptitude test
  • ask my best friend
  • ask my boss
  • can relocate
  • can't relocate
  • have some special skill that is in high demand
  • really good at written and verbal communication
  • patient with fools
  • prone to swear at other drivers while commuting
  • lots of "book knowledge" about a subject
  • lots of "practical experience" about a subject
  • have special certifications
  • no special certifications

When we get a good "brain storm" list, we'll create a grid and determine which ones fit where on the grid and which ones apply to the specific candidate we have in mind (not everyone will have the same personal grid.) Ultimately, we will reach a point where we know the real skills and experience we have as "product" to sell. Next, we will identify the "market" (Industry, geography, and job function) where we'll have the highest success in finding a buyer. Next, we'll craft a "sales pitch" (cover letter and resume) to appeal to each buyer in that market. Once we get face to face with the buyer, we craft the "closing" (interviews) to bind the deal. Once we close, just like good Quality folk, we continually evaluate our status with an eye toward improvement.

Additions to the list of how to determine what the candidate is good at and/or what job function fits those characteristics?
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Jen Kirley

Quality and Auditing Expert
Staff member
Nice, Wes! :applause: :applause: :applause: This thread is a good service to the Cove, thank you.

The job seeking and employment process looks like a giant, slow-motion game of Blind Man's Bluff. Both sides are groping for what they think they want, and feeling their way around until they think they have found it. After grabbing the objective job/new hire, the honeymoon starts. What happens next is fodder for's career forums.

I can see a clear gap between what so many job seekers and career builders believe they should do, and what you say is important they do, when pursuing more than your regular day-to-day job.

First, there is absolutely a deficit in building these skills in the public education system. While I don't expect such young people should have the kind of high level resume and cover letter writing skills that you are recommending, in my view most kids are not leaving school with the ability to write clearly, consicely, objectively, accurately and compellingly about themselves or anything much that they have done or experienced. They just aren't learning the writing techniques that, to be fair, do not come naturally or by osmosis. It takes high quality training, discipline and effort to do it well.

I think resume and cover letter writing can be classified as technical writing, which is exacting work and not stressed nearly enough in our schools. It is a discipline that, IMHO, should be introduced in the early adolescent years or before. From my vantage point, I don't see it happening.

While this has not been a focus of my research, based on my observations and experiences in college I can also sadly say that chances are good that college graduates can also easily lack this important skill. I'm also going to make a guess that paid resume services will often produce what you might call round file resumes.

I agree that this can be a large contributor to a business expense that I have not yet seen tackled as a quality issue--even though the costs can be breathtaking: employee turnover costs, and also absenteeism costs while the employer is enduring certain ramifications of a poor choice of hire.

From my view the best way to correct this problem is to advocate for training on all education levels. The school systems need to be shown demand, proof that it is important. This is going to get harder, not easier, with an increasing focus on standardized testing.

Demand must be loudly articulated by the customers: businesses. Your mentioning that there are many clueless, but very experienced hirers, is illuminating. These are the people who can demand schools include technical writing skills, and job seeking skills such as resume and cover letter writing. If they don't think they have a problem--if they don't know truly good from mediocre and don't think their hiring process needs improvement--, then you and I are shouting in the wind for only the chance listeners to hear.

I can vouch that a middle school science teacher of my acquaintance is doing his small part by demanding his students write their lab reports in a specific format.

I can also say that Maine, like many other states, has developed a set of education guidelines that include career preparation: The Maine Learning Results (MLR), which was written with input from Maine's business leaders. I dug out my copy and found rather abstract, early approaches to the hallowed self-selling skill. MLR lists, among other things, portfolios, excersizes in solving a community problem, analyzing/charting various aspects of work experiences. I have observed a focus on achievement portfolios in Maine's secondary grade tech schools, as well as both middle and secondary academic schools. So, that's a start.

In secondary level under Section B, Education/Career Planning and Management, resume writing and modeling interview skills are listed, as are self-assessment and career analysis as part of a planning process. However, I am not aware that these things are actually being done, with the notable exception of VICA programs that are now lodged in about 10 of the state's secondary vocational/technical schools. Some 4H programs also offer career building skills development. These are both extracurricular programs.

They stress, as does the MLR, entry levels as the focus. Their objective is to get the young people started. Once they leave the school system, people are on their own and don't know good skills from bad from mediocre unless they seek and find their resources--another Blind Man's Bluff game.

That said, I can humbly offer a starting point. One should start with "Who am I exactly, and what do I want to focus myself on for true fulfillment?"

These three products/services appear to be good sources of direction, and can help people to self define and articulate their goals.

For seekers of aptitude and interest direction and redirection, MAPP testing is available at
I have also run across two organizations that offer good facilitated self development planning processes. The Catalyst products are good for making a plan and managing progress. Personal Catalyst is found at and Management Catalyst is found at

I am not affiliated with any of these groups.

I hope this helps!

Wes Bucey

Quite Involved in Discussions
As this thread develops, I intend to show a way to deal with the clueless hirer, in spite of himself. The reason I say it is the companion to the gatekeeper thread is you must ESPECIALLY evade the gatekeepers set out by clueless hirers. Those gatekeepers are the ones who will trash your resume for dumb things like not putting the year of your high school graduation on the page.

In my experience and opinion, most gatekeeper rules do filter out the completely incompetent candidates, but they are not able to pick out a truly stellar candidate either, because his resume won't fit the template they are given to do the filtering. All the more reason a good or a great resume has to leapfrog the gatekeeper system.

Here's something to keep in mind from the gatekeeper system which will be important at EVERY stage in the job hunt process:
Only the very best hirers will be looking for a reason to hire the candidate. The vast majority of hirers, even some of the good ones, will be looking for an excuse to discard the candidate. The candidate, therefore has to eliminate as many "knockout" items from his process as possible.

Certainly, neatness and accurate spelling and grammar should be a given, but there are thousands of resumes floating around that have neither.

The analogy is trite, but think of the process as like a first date, when you want to impress your date partner. You clean up, wear appropriate clothes, smile a lot, and engage in the kind of conversation which helps you know the dating partner on a more personal level and for the partner to know you.
HOWEVER, everyone has a horror story of his own or of a close friend who had the "date from he!!" There is never a second date! This thread will help you avoid being the date from he!!, and will help you avoid meeting the boss from he!!.

Where most people fall down in the cover letter and resume process is that they don't develop a meaningful "story" which catches the hirer's interest enough to say, "Gee! I'd like to go on a second date - let's have an interview!"

This advice may not be directly meaningful for a reader who is old and well-established and is not seeking a job, but what about considering this advice when YOU ARE THE HIRER? What about for your children? your spouse? nephews and nieces? friends and coworkers?

I'm trying to tell a story here that will keep each reader's interest enough to ask questions and make comments. The job hunt is not won by a random walk through the woods. Just like a real hunter, you have to arm yourself with the proper tools to capture the prey and hunt where that prey can be found. Most of all, don't waste your ammunition by shooting at shadows.

So, folks, any brain storm ideas to know your own abilities and skills?

Jen Kirley

Quality and Auditing Expert
Staff member
Well said, as always Wes.

I submit that the employment process, both for seekers and hirers, has become much more complex than most people seem willing to recognize. Folks on both ends are failing to recognize the need for effective planning, including the time and resources that are required for it. People do not spring from the egg with these planning skills. The are learned and require practice.

If one doesn't want to use the products/services I referred to in my last post, making a portfolio could be a good start in knowing and defining one's abilities and skills. The portfolio, as a collection of accomplishments, might be virtual (just written out), but the maker should examine every entry as a tangible thing or as something that is very real to the stakeholder, such as money, hours saved, defects reduced, etc.

In some cases, there could be a tangible example. I once made an employee orientation manual for my company's safety program. The little manual is a source of pride, as its format was much more effective than the manual it replaced. To communicate its value among my accomplishments, I should include some measure of its effectiveness, like X fewer mishaps due to increased awareness. This means I must have actually taken both before and after measures of this kind of effectiveness, so we must learn to assume this mind set in every job we are working in--even if the organization not currently apply it.

Pride is a learned, and carefully used trait. Over my lifetime I have been exhorted to be humble on moral grounds, but humility is not particularly helpful when developing a resume or portfolio. One needs to learn to brag, but carefully so by accurately showing how much the accomplishment mattered to the employer.

Over time, we may have developed a widely varied list of accomplishments. The resume should include only those that express why you are right for that particular position.

When one develops a list of such accomplishments and reasons why they are important, one might categorize them in a matrix and assign values according to their impact. One could adapt the QFD function for this purpose.

As Wes has said, a resume's listed abilities are of no interest unless they articulate their benefit to the employer. Further, it is important to show how the job seeker anticipated the employer's needs and/or exceeded the accomplishment's expectations. The portfolio's entries could have value assigned to them on this basis.

Do you, dear Cove readers, think this exersize would help to define one's abilities and skills in a usable manner? What would you do differently, and why?

Wes Bucey

Quite Involved in Discussions
Jennifer Kirley said:
Over time, we may have developed a widely varied list of accomplishments. The resume should include only those that express why you are right for that particular position.

When one develops a list of such accomplishments and reasons why they are important, one might categorize them in a matrix and assign values according to their impact. One could adapt the QFD function for this purpose.

As Wes has said, a resume's listed abilities are of no interest unless they articulate their benefit to the employer. Further, it is important to show how the job seeker anticipated the employer's needs and/or exceeded the accomplishment's expectations. The portfolio's entries could have value assigned to them on this basis.

Do you, dear Cove readers, think this exersize would help to define one's abilities and skills in a usable manner? What would you do differently, and why?
Right! Especially your highlighted items in blue.
Let's first assemble a list of techniques to help us assess our "core values"
Then list our core values as we discover/recognize them
Next, let's put them in a matrix which will help us decide which of those are potentially important to an employer and which should not be disclosed.
Armed with the matrix, we can determine the industries, geographic locations, and specific job function (functions, not titles!) we want to hunt.
Next, we select a target and draw aim (fly fishermen hunt with hook and line, not dynamite!) to hit that specific target without spooking the other prey.
Finally, when we hit the target, we have to bring it home and consume it.

So the progression of this thread will be
  1. learn techniques to "know one's self"
  2. list candidate's real skills and talents
  3. create matrix of skills to be "buyer-centric"
  4. target potential employers which will like your "bait"
  5. aim carefully - right cover letter and resume to right person
  6. Ace the interview
  7. Continual evaluation for improvement when on the job
Important note:
Certainly, folks should consider looking at and evaluating advice available in other places. If you find something which seems inconsistent with what we say here, bring it back to us and let's all examine it. I am always of the opinion the group mind is greater than the sum of the parts.

I'm especially interested in comments or ideas that contradict this entire thread. As much as I think I know, I am always willing to learn more. Alternately, perhaps we can help someone see a "better way."

Wes Bucey

Quite Involved in Discussions
A side note about changing industries

From time to time, I get questions from job hunters which ask, in effect, "How can I survive? My industry where I have experience doesn't have jobs. How can I move to another industry at the same level? Won't they expect me to start again at the bottom?"

My answer has always been some variation of, "What was there about the activity or function you had in one industry that will be applicable in another? Figure that out and emphasize that in your pitch to the new industry."

Mostly, they look at me like I was speaking in some obscure dialect of Martian or Klingon.

Well, over the weekend, I took some time to read about Aylwin Lewis, a 26 year veteran of the fast food industry with no merchandising experience, who was selected to be a first-time CEO of KMart and who will be CEO of the combined KMart/Sears takeover. A perfect example of jumping from one industry to another.

One quote by a former Mentor of Lewis is particularly telling:
Robert Nugent, Chairman and CEO of Jack In The Box Inc. said, "Quick study with good strategic thinking skills and wonderful interpersonal skills."

Further, Nugent said, "If anyone can pull it off, Aylwin can!"

There was sure nothing industry-specific in that praise, was there? Do you have a former boss who would say something similar about you? If yes, that's great! If not, why not?

My whole point is that the thrust of your cover letter must be about YOU and what YOU can do for the employer, based on the skills you have polished over your career.

With the help of your colleagues here in the Cove, you can make a "killer resume and cover letter." Don't allow yourself to wallow in a rut. If you are unemployed or "underemployed," today is not too soon to start working on your transition!
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Wes Bucey

Quite Involved in Discussions
Time to sort the ways

In order to have the best "fit" with a job, we need to identify the critical characteristics of our personality, skill, education, and experience which will mesh best with the mating parts of the "job."

If we followed these opportunities to get a clear picture of our own characteristics:
  • good in school at what?
  • good experience in an industry
  • bad in school at what?
  • good big company experience
  • bad big company experience
  • really good at solving problems
  • take a personality test
  • take an aptitude test
  • ask my best friend
  • ask my boss
  • can relocate
  • can't relocate
  • have some special skill that is in high demand
  • really good at written and verbal communication
  • patient with fools
  • prone to swear at other drivers while commuting
  • lots of "book knowledge" about a subject
  • lots of "practical experience" about a subject
  • have special certifications
  • no special certifications
we come up with a list of our own characteristics. (Remember to have a trusted friend or consultant review the list to confirm the characteristics are accurate.) Our next task is to sort those characteristics into some sort of a grid which will put characteristics into groups we might label
  1. important to me and my family and friends
  2. important to potential employer
  3. makes no difference to anyone else
We might further subdivide those into "good and bad effect"

I envision one type of preliminary grid as a table with
  1. all characteristics I can identify about myself listed in the first column,
  2. second column heading "positive for employer"
  3. third column - "negative for employer"
  4. fourth - "positive for family and friends"
  5. fifth - "negative for family and friends"
  6. sixth - "makes no difference to anyone else"
After making the blank grid, the candidate should go down the list and put checkmarks in the appropriate columns. Next, ask the trusted friend or consultant to mark up a copy of the grid. Discuss and resolve differences in where checkmarks go. (this might be a time to consider eliminating the negatives from the candidate's life.)

Once a candidate goes through this part of the job hunt, he'll be ready to move to the next step, which is to identify the targets for the hunt which will most appreciate the characteristics available to offer. We will take that up after the Thanksgiving holiday.

What I'd like to know before then is whether this approach makes sense to you. If not, why not?

Another question - is this posting method causing frustration because all the information is not ready in one neat package?
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Cari Spears

Super Moderator
Staff member
Super Moderator
Wes Bucey said:
What I'd like to know before then is whether this approach makes sense to you. If not, why not?

Another question - is this posting method causing frustration because all the information is not ready in one neat package?
I like it! I'm sooo busy at work right now, I've barely had time to pop in and catch up on a few threads - but, I'll work on a characteristics list for myself that we can use as an example.

I have an ISO surveillance audit November 30th that I'm actually looking forward to. We are having an AS auditor out for the first time - planning on AS9100 registration in May 2005. I'm going to get a little bit of Pre-Assessing (not consulting ;) ) during our last ISO surveillance audit. So, I'll get back to this thread as soon as I can. I know, I know - you're on the edge of your seat! :)


Know where you're applying

I didn't see it mentioned anywhere in the posts, and not sure if it is appropriate for your Resume and Cover Letter discussion but :topic: I can't believe how many people apply for a job and have no idea what the company does.

Our company has a website. Assuming that you do not have computer access, I still do not think it would be terribly difficult to find out at bare minimum that we are a steel service center.

And if you're serious about interviewing somewhere, wouldn't it be a good idea to see if you know anyone that works there already? I laugh when someone walks in to interview and you hear "Hey! Suzie! Didn't know you worked here - how are you?" and Suzie has worked here for 17 years!!!

So if it applies to your candidate list, I'd add something like "does research about potential company" as a point on your list.

:topic: Using my own experience, my MIL works for a nursing home and she'd love to have me work there too. One small problem - I can't stand the antiseptic smell there. Just to walk in the door makes me shiver so obviously I won't be applying to any nursing homes looking for work in the forseeable future!!! :thanks:

Wes Bucey

Quite Involved in Discussions
One of the first things we covered in the companion thread (Post #3 in the Gatekeeper thread
was "Simply stated: my experience is different. Leadership qualities may be grist for a different mill. The main topic is how to get past gatekeepers to interview with the person who can hire. (A large part of the research is deciding whether the target company is one you really want to work for.)"

In post #40 of Gatekeepers, I wrote,
"I started this thread when I was in one of my "mentoring modes" after going through a spate of folks bemoaning the fact they couldn't seem to get noticed when answering job ads.

It is not my intention to challenge Dick Bolles for "job mentor of the year." He and several others do an excellent job. I know a lot about the process, having been in it as agent, employer, and employee. I like to think I bring an analytical approach to the process (akin to problem solving in the Quality field.) If nothing else, I hope readers of this thread will think about solving hunt in the same way they think about solving a problem in the Quality field - methodically, with a constant eye on budget and return on investment."

Part of the analytical method, it seemed to me then and still does, is to learn as much about the target company as you can - very difficult with a "blind ad."

The nursing home thing drives home the point you have to ALSO assure yourself you'd like to work at a place. (note the difference between making a choice and having to take anything which comes along because you are desperate to earn money for food and shelter.)

However, taking a job because you are desperate does not obligate you to stop looking for the "right fit." I don't buy into "loyalty" as an excuse to stay at a bad fit job. Who are you being loyal to? yourself? your family? even the boss, who might be better off with someone who is not depressed because he's trapped in a bad job? Loyalty should not be confused with "grateful." You can be grateful - that requires "Thank you!" It does not require involuntary servitude (slavery) for the rest of your life!

Thanks for the input, little__cee.
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