Career Psychology is copyright © Dan Joseph Cavicchio. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be republished, reproduced, or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the author. The material in this book is provided solely for informational and educational purposes. It does not substitute for professional counseling or therapy. Information in this book does not represent clinical advice for treatment of psychological disorders.
Resumes, Cover Letters, and Applications:
A Deeper Look
As a reminder, your resume is simply designed to open a door. Its primary function is to show the matches between your background and the job you're interested in. For best results, you can keep your resume simple, clear, and in a standard format.
I recommend that you customize the summary and first few bullets of your resume for each job application. I also recommend that you include a brief cover letter. If your resume and cover letter clearly show why you're a fit for the job, you make it very easy for a recruiter to move you along in the process.
Let me now share some questions I've received about writing resumes and cover letters, and sending in job applications.
Q: I am over 50 and I'm concerned about age discrimination. Is there anything I can do to protect myself from that?
A: Certainly. Even though employment discrimination against protected classes (age, race, and many other categories) is illegal, it is nonetheless common. Particularly age discrimination.
Let me share a few things you can do to reduce the chance of this impacting you.
First, you don't need to include the year of your college degree if you have one. In the past, everyone was expected to list a degree date on their resume. Now, many people leave that out.
If you look back to Jane Adams's sample resume from the last chapter, you'll see that she listed her college degree without a year. You might not have even noticed that at the time, as it appears quite normal.
You're also not required to include the early parts of your work experience. Many people only list their past 15 to 20 years of work. They might add, "Earlier Experience:" at the bottom, along with a summary of early-career roles. Or they might simply cap the list at 15 or 20 years.
Let's return for a moment to the resume of Jane Adams. Her work experience on her resume started in the year 2014. She didn't list a date of graduation from college.
Did Jane graduate in 2014, and this was her first job? Or is she a 2004 graduate who has ten years of experience that are not on the resume? Or did she graduate in 1984, and begin her career thirty years after college?
No one will know. Everyone will probably assume that she's a 2014 graduate, but no one can know for sure. And most people in human resources won't even try to hint around with questions about graduation dates, knowing the potential for age discrimination.
If you do omit a graduation date or your early work experience, it's best to double-check that your LinkedIn and Facebook profiles also omit those as well. Otherwise, a company can check dates by simply looking at your online profiles.
Now, let me share a couple of caveats. First, some Applicant Tracking Systems will force you to enter your year of graduation and your full work history. You should not lie if asked for required information.
If you are given a job offer, your information from the ATS may be submitted for verification during a background check. If any deception is discovered, your offer may be withdrawn. It's best to be honest about information you're required to give.
As another caveat, I have talked to a few executives over the years who considered it evasive when candidates didn't list their entire work history. The norms are shifting, and these executives might not yet be up with the times. But some hiring managers do expect a full work history on a resume.
In order to protect yourself, you can consider including that "Earlier experience:" line along with a general summary. In most cases, that will probably be sufficient to cover any bases.
Your primary goal can be to get past any age-related bias in the initial resume screening, and move toward a conversation between you and the company. Once you are talking to people, you can impress them with your enthusiasm, experience, wisdom, and other gifts.
Q: I've had several periods in my life where I was out of work for a while. Is there anything I can do about these "gaps" on my resume?
A: Yes indeed. One of the simplest techniques is to only use years on your resume—not months and years. Most recruiters don't care about months anyway. By using years, you can reduce any gaps.
As an example, let's say that you were employed from January 2016 to February 2019. Then you were out of work for a year and a half. Then you started a new position in September 2020.
If you list only the years, your resume will say:
First Company 2016-2019
Second Company 2020-present
That looks pretty good to me! Most recruiters won't blink an eye over that. You successfully closed an 18 month work gap by removing months.
The other common technique is to state that you were a "consultant," "contractor," "freelancer" or some other term during non-employed times in your career. Don't lie about this, of course. It will backfire if you're inventing things.
However, let's say that you helped your friend's side business from time to time when you were unemployed. Would your friend be OK with you stating that you assisted him as a consultant during that time? If so, you can add that to your resume in order to fill in a gap.
If you did side projects for other businesses—even if you didn't get paid much—you can consider putting a summary of those activities on a resume. We HR folks know that if someone was laid-off from a job and has been working as a "consultant" for several months, she has probably been primarily job searching. But it does fill in gaps, and we see it all the time.
Please note that there may be some hiring managers who consider these techniques to be borderline deceptive. You will have to use your own wisdom about whether or not to use them. However, I have seen thousands of resumes that were filling in gaps using these methods.
If you have a long gap (say, more than a year or two), it's not unusual to give a brief explanation. I have seen resumes that stated, "Took a sabbatical to care for a family member," or "Pursued educational opportunities during this time," or similar types of explanations. I personally don't ask people about these. However, other recruiters might delve in a bit, so be prepared to discuss.
As I mentioned earlier, please make sure that your LinkedIn profile dates match the resume. (You can delete months from LinkedIn, and only use years.)
When recruiters see discrepancies on dates between resumes and LinkedIn, it raises concerns.
Q: I'm thinking about hiring a professional resume writer to create my resume. Do you think that's a good idea?
A: Sure, that's fine. However, please add your own personal touch to the resume once the writer gets done with it.
I can't tell you how many professionally written resumes I've seen that look exactly the same. I mean exactly the same, down to the design flairs and all. They're often easy to spot. When I see a resume written by a third party, I do sometimes wonder if the person is comfortable creating his own written work.
In my career counseling practice, I don't write resumes for people; I help my clients to write their resumes themselves. In this way, they end up using their own phrasing and language—not mine. In the same way, you might want to consider giving your professionally written resume a slight re-write so that it sounds like it's coming from you.
I do want to share one strange thing that I see on many professionally written resumes. It is this:
For some reason, many of these resumes include a bunch of job titles at the top of the first page, often accompanied by a list of keywords. I am not sure who came up with this format. It can be very confusing.
For example, let's say that I'm working on a search for an Accounting Manager, and I receive a resume from a candidate.
If the resume has a banner at the top that says:
CFO • VP Finance • Controller • Accounting Manager
…then I'm not sure what to think of all these titles.
Is this person actually wanting a Chief Financial Officer role? (A CFO is a much higher role than the opening I have.) Will this person be looking for a CFO role, even if she joins my company as an Accounting Manager?
If the goal is to indicate that the candidate is open to various roles, that doesn't really help her. She is applying for this one specific position. I want to know that she's excited about my job!
My guess is that this style harkens back to an old time where you had to custom-print a single resume, and then use that one resume for a wide variety of job applications. Back when you couldn't easily customize a resume, perhaps it made sense to list a bunch of titles. But today, that list is a distraction.
Along the same lines, some professionally written resumes have a "skills" section at the top of the first page that is just a big list of words in multiple columns. This isn't a good use of crucial space. If you include a skills list, it should be near the end of the resume.
If you do hire a professional resume writer, you might want to hire someone who has worked in recruiting and human resources. Most people in the HR world will give you the same advice: Keep your resume simple and clear, highlight relevant matches, and use a standard format.
Q: I'm helping my daughter put together a resume for the first time. She just graduated from college, and has only worked in child care. Do you have any suggestions for someone in this situation?
A: I wouldn't worry too much about the specific resume content if your daughter is right out of school. Very few people in her situation will have significant work experience. The resume will be more of a demonstration of her organizational and writing skills.
Having said that, she may want to list her education first (rather than last) on the resume. She can boost the education section by listing coursework, lab work, special projects, and so forth. If she has a great GPA, she can list it. She can also include trainings and certifications like CPR.
Even though her only experience is in child care, she may be able to come up with some colorful bullets for that work.
Did she do outreach to families in your community about her child care services? If so, she can describe that. Her outreach skills might be quite impressive to a company.
Did she create educational opportunities for the kids she was caring for—perhaps visits to museums or other field trips? If so, that's great to include.
Is there anything that distinguishes her offerings from other child care providers? If so, she can describe those elements.
You don't want things to sound puffed-up, of course. But in truth, your daughter has very likely exhibited some impressive skills in her child care work. Don't be shy about highlighting details.
Q: Should I list references on my resume?
A: It's best not to list references on the resume itself. If the company would like references from you, they'll ask.
I've seen some publicly-posted resumes that list names, cell phone numbers, and personal emails of references for everyone to see. My guess is that references don't want to have their contact information broadcasted this way!
You can wait and see if the company even needs references. If so, they might have certain people they'd like to talk to (for example, your past supervisors). You can wait for their guidance on this.
Q: You mentioned that there were some "resume tips" that you disagreed with. Can you give a few examples?
A: Sure. Here are some tips I've read in various articles, along with my responses:
"Use a non-chronological resume format to stand out."
Please no! I recommend using a reverse-chronology format with your most recent job listed first. I don't recommend a "functional resume" or other style unless you're in a very unusual situation (for example, if you haven't worked at all for the past 20 years). If a recruiter can't process your resume quickly, she'll likely move on to the next one.
"Limit your resume to one page."
Only if you are fairly new to the workforce, or if you're in an industry which expects one-page resumes (including some law firms.) If you're mid-career or later, you have far too many interesting accomplishments to squeeze everything onto one page.
"Start your resume with a list of your skills."
This isn't my preference. A list of keywords at the top of the resume wastes the most important section. Instead, create a customized two-sentence summary, and weave in skills that match the job you're applying for.
"Consider including a photo on your resume."
I don't recommend this. First of all, photos on resumes are very unusual—at least in the United States. Second, we in the HR field are working very hard to remain fact-based and unbiased in our hiring decisions. We want to absorb your factual career information—not be influenced by your appearance.
"It's OK to leave out dates on your jobs."
No, employment dates are crucial. It's fine to leave off the date of your college degree, especially if you're concerned about age discrimination. But please make sure to include years for each one of your jobs. If we can't find those, it makes your resume very difficult to follow.
"Consider listing your education first."
If you are coming out of college and have limited work experience, that's fine. Otherwise, we're used to seeing the education at the bottom.
"Include your GPA in your education section."
I only recommend this if it's over 3.5.
"List your social media accounts in your contact section."
This is risky. A LinkedIn URL is fine. However, pointing us to your Facebook, Instagram, and other accounts will probably not help unless you use them strictly for professional activities.
"Include phrases copied directly from the job posting."
Although I've written at length about highlighting matches, it's best to not copy exact phrases from the job description verbatim. When people do that, it comes across as manipulative. It's best to simply describe the matches in ways that accurately reflect your background.
"Start with an objective at the top."
I recommend using a summary instead of an objective. The summary should be slightly customized to the job at hand, and show the matches with your background.
"Use color to make your resume stand out."
One accent color, used judiciously, can add some flair. But it's best not to blast the viewer with multiple colors or brightly colored banners. It distracts us from the actual content of your resume.
"Include charts and other graphical elements on your resume."
I don't recommend this, as it can make the resume hard to follow. Let the bullets listing your accomplishments be the part that stands out.
Those are just some of the suggestions I disagree with.
However, to be fair, I can recall numerous top candidates I've come across who did have colorful resumes, or lists of skills at the top, or had a photo included. None of these are make-or-break things—except for the overall format. It's best in almost all cases to use a standard, reverse-chronology style.
Q: I feel intimidated by job ads that have an "about you" section and say things like, "You are boundlessly creative," "You are a genius at this skill," and "You inspire whatever team you work for." I figure that I'm going to disappoint them if I apply. How do you interpret ads like these?
A: Those ads are usually written by marketing people, or by recruiters who are fairly new and are trying to be creative. Any experienced recruiter knows that a job ad should feel welcoming, encouraging, and down-to-earth—not intimidating. After all, we want as many people as possible to be interested.
My suggestion is to apply for anything that interests you, as long as it's in the ballpark. Then move on to your next application without another thought. Don't read too much into the language or tone of the job ad. It's unlikely that the ads you referenced were written by the hiring manager who you'll be working for.
If you end up talking to someone in the company, you can be as honest as you like. You can give an authentic portrayal of your skills and personality. If they truly want a boundlessly creative genius who inspires every team they work for—well, good luck!
I myself would not want to work for a company that has an attitude of "only the best of the best work here." However, once you actually talk to people at the company, you might find that they are very humble, warm, and welcoming—even if the language of the job ad indicated otherwise. I encourage you to go ahead and apply.
Q: Usually when I apply for a job and don't hear back, I feel like I've failed. It makes me not want to try again. Is there anything I can do about those feelings of failure?
A: This is a very common experience. You are certainly not alone. I have felt those feelings myself, and almost everyone I know has as well.
Let me introduce a concept from psychology called "locus of control." I will return to this idea later in this book as well.
Imagine a circle that surrounds you. Things that are inside that circle are under your control. Things outside the circle are outside your control.
For example, your choice about what to eat for lunch is inside the circle. It is under your control. Whether or not it will rain today is outside of your circle. It is outside your control.
The interesting thing is that everyone draws a different sized circle. Some people believe they are in control of almost everything in their lives—and thus responsible for those things. This creates a sense of empowerment, but also generates a great deal of pressure.
Other people are the opposite. They have a very small circle of things that seem to be within their control. This removes pressure, but leads to feelings of powerlessness.
You may want to examine your own locus of control circle as it relates to your job applications.
If you believe that you're largely in control of "getting an interview"—and that doesn't happen—you will probably feel a sense of failure. You may feel shame and pressure to figure out what you did wrong. This can create a painful emotional storm.
On the other hand, if you believe that you have no ability to tip the scales toward getting an interview, you might believe that it's pointless to try. You might feel as though you are invisible and ignored—that you're just a leaf being blown by the wind of life. This can also be emotionally distressing.
The ideal is to draw a circle that is empowering but not pressuring. You might want to adjust your locus of control circle accordingly.
Can you make a strong pitch on a job application by highlighting matches between your background and the job opening? Yes indeed! That's certainly in your control.
Can you force a company to respond to your application? No. That's outside your control.
Can you express your enthusiasm about this job opening? Yes, definitely.
Can you control how people will react to your enthusiasm? No, you can't.
Can you move on peacefully to a new application once you've sent this one in? Yes, you sure can.
Can you force things to "click" with this company and "get a job"? No, that's not in your control.
By redrawing your locus of control circles (which are nothing but beliefs in the mind), you can increase your sense of empowerment, and also reduce feelings of pressure and failure.
I encourage you to experiment with this and see what you find. I'll build on this idea further in chapter twelve, where I discuss increasing your happiness at work.
Let me wrap-up by summarizing the main points I covered on this topic.
Your resume and cover letter are written for one primary purpose: to highlight matches between your background and the job at hand. It's important for your resume and cover letter to be easily readable. We want the job/skill matches to pop out quickly.
Standard formats are best. We recruiters are reading through resumes at a breakneck pace, and anything that slows us down is unhelpful. I encourage you to use a normal, reverse-chronology format for your resume with your most recent job listed first. Keep adequate margins and use a standard font that is not too small.
Take time to customize the first several bullets for each job application. Also customize the summary section at the top of your resume. Use these sections to highlight the most relevant matches between your accomplishments and the job you're applying for.
A good format for bullets is "verb—description—results (if possible)." You don't have to include results in every bullet, but try to include some in the first few. Quantified results with numbers are ideal. However, even general results like, "resulting in increased sales" are helpful.
For the cover letter, you can follow my three-paragraph format. The first paragraph introduces you and names the job you're interested in. The second paragraph highlights matches. The third paragraph wraps up, and is just a formality.
Recruiters will likely spend between six and thirty seconds on your resume and cover letter. Showing us the matches right up front ensures that you'll get a deeper look.
Let's now move on to the big step: the interview.