Job Search Communications

Preparing Job Application Materials

The following sections present a series of steps to guide you toward focused, personalized, and correct job application documents. Résumés and application (or cover) letters are common job documents, but our focus here is broader—we will ask you to consider the communication situation as a whole, from analyzing job postings to creating the documents as a dynamic process.

Your job materials are not forms to fill out, but strategic and persuasive communications that will need to be customized for each potential employer and at every phase in your career.

 

Starting the Job Search

The job search is more than finding a job posting for which you fulfill the requirements. This planning phase allows you to gather the information and language that you need to make yourself a strong applicant.

Know Yourself

As you begin the process of finding and applying for employment in your chosen field, it is important to take stock of your education, technical skills, and the experiences and characteristics that make you an ideal employee and co-worker.  This self-assessment is the foundation for building strong job materials.

Beyond evaluating your skill set, this is also an opportunity to take stock of the types of environments you will thrive in:

Do you work better independently or in groups?

Have you always imagined working for a large company, with the structure and perks that offers? Or do you see yourself working on a smaller team, perhaps taking risks for a project you believe in personally?

Do you like developing new ideas and planning? Do you like seeing through a complex project to the finish?

Use this information as you search for potential jobs and internships and evaluate employers. Seeking out a work environment and job that suits your strengths and preferences will give you an advantage in the job search and in your career.

Know Your Field

Use the resources available to you (career services, job websites, networking events) to find positions.  Go to career fairs and make connections.  Even before you are truly “on the market” career fairs and networking events are great ways to build your confidence and become comfortable in professional environments.

You will find Job Search Tools/Resources from OSU’s Engineering Career Services here. Students in other colleges and disciplines will be able to find similar career services information online as well.

Keep yourself informed and up-to-date on the projects and initiatives happening within your chosen field and especially of those employers that most interest you. This is not something you only do the night before a career fair or an interview – expose yourself to these ideas and discussions over a long period of time. These types of resources are a great place to get started:

  • Organizations and conferences. Connecting with and simply being aware of the national organizations will expose you to current ideas and developments in the field. Most host conferences on a regular basis and even just reading the Call for Presentations or the titles and abstracts from a recent conference will introduce you to new terms and concepts, laying groundwork for future learning or research.
  • Company blogs or white papers. Most companies “talk to” the public or the industry in some way to manage public perception, promote accomplishments, and (often) recruit employees. These might be highly technical or more casual or promotional in tone, depending on the company culture, industry, and their goals – any of these provide valuable insights.
  • Social media. Following both companies and individual professionals will introduce you to their work, concerns, and developments in the industry. It also might make it easy for you to get exposed to these ideas as part of your regular online habits.
  • Local networking or meetup groups. Professionals often hold events at a local level to meet each other and learn about what other companies in the area are doing. These might be purely social or they might include learning opportunities in the form of talks and presentations. On campus, you will also find a variety of discipline-specific groups and students organizations that can also expose you to new ideas and resources, not to mention great professional connections.

Build a vocabulary! Part of what you are doing as you prepare yourself for your career is learning a language – you are developing vocabulary and learning the language of your profession in addition to developing the required technical technical skills.

In the process of completing the self-assessment, you probably discovered that you have lots of skills and strengths seemingly unrelated to your field. It’s important to remember that even unrelated experiences have taught you “transferable skills” – skills that may not be technically related, but are considered important to any field.

These “soft” skills are consistently ranked high on employer lists of desired attributes and include organizational skills, leadership abilities, teamwork experience, communication skills, problem solving, meeting deadlines, and so on. In the job search process, it is important to be able to describe your previous experiences in language that employers recognize as valuable.

Organization Management & Leadership Research & Planning Communication Interpersonal Other
Initiating new ideas

Coordinating tasks

Being detail‐oriented

Managing or directing teams or groups

Coaching

Selling ideas or products

Decision‐making

Managing conflicts or problems

Managing budgets

Forecasting

Coming up with ideas

Identifying problems

Developing solutions

Solving problems

Imagining alternatives

Gathering information

Analyzing and evaluating information

Setting goals

Defining needs and requirements

Speaking effectively

Writing concisely

Listening attentively

Facilitating group discussion

Providing appropriate feedback

Being tactful

Negotiating

Persuading

Interviewing

Editing

Being sensitive to feelings and moods of others  

Listening

Developing rapport

Providing support

Motivating

Negotiating

Sharing credit

Teaching/training

Delegating

Cooperating; working with a team

Managing time effectively

Setting and meeting goals

Being a self‐starter; self‐motivated

Working independently

Enlisting help when needed

Meeting deadlines

Being diligent; tenacity to get the job done; follow‐through  

Being responsible and reliable

Think & Write: After reviewing the transferable skills outlined above, spend some time thinking about any experiences (academic, extracurricular, job-related, etc.) you have had in which you demonstrated, practiced, or developed one or more of these skills. Select one, and, in a paragraph, describe what the specific experience was, explaining which skills you demonstrated and developed.

 

Designing an Effective Résumé

A résumé, from the French word for “summary,” is a concise, standardized document that introduces you as a professional, most often for the purposes of seeking employment. It is also useful in other situations, such as applying for awards or seeking a promotion.

It is likely a document you are already somewhat familiar with and you might even already have a résumé of your own, but learning how to strategically and confidently build a résumé for a particular audience and purpose is a vital professional communication skill. The résumé is more than a list of jobs – it is a prioritized, condensed introduction to you, the job applicant, and it demands close attention.

Note: The practices outlined here are focused on business culture and norms in the United States, so keep in mind that you will need to research and follow the appropriate standards if you’re applying for positions internationally.

To understand everything else that follows in this section, it is important to first consider the rhetorical situation for this particular type of communication. What is the intended effect? What are you trying to accomplish? Who is your audience? How will they be accessing and reading your document?

AUDIENCE PURPOSE
Employer or representative of an employer

Seeking potential employees

Evaluating a pool of applicants to see if they are qualified, looking for a reason to say yes or no

Likely reviewing a set of résumés

Demonstrate that you possess the qualifications for the position (or award or promotion)

Document your qualifications, experience, and work history

Fulfill obligation to produce a standard employment document

Each decision you make about what to include in your résumé and how it should look should be made with these factors in mind, plus more, based on your knowledge of the specific employer or position.

 

Key Takeaways

Here are four basic rules regarding how to approach writing your résumé:

  1. Create multiple versions. A résumé should be customized to the specific job you are applying for and adapted based on your knowledge of the employer. You should also consider how you will be submitting the document to determine the best formatting (See more about designed résumés vs. ATS résumés).
  2. Learn the conventions of your discipline. Not every professional context is the same – it is invaluable for you to have someone in the field or even the specific company to which you are applying review your résumé. An engineer’s résumé will likely look very different from a designer’s résumé simply based on the audience’s expectations.
  3. Update on a regular basis. Even if you expect to stay in a job in the long term, take notes and gather information for your résumé every couple of months or after you finish a major project. It’s difficult to remember the details of a complex project after the fact, so having that information documented is a huge asset.
  4. Eliminate errors from the document. Because the résumé is condensed (a single page for undergraduate students) and since it is used to evaluate you as a potential employee, there is little tolerance for typos or errors. Check grammar, spelling, design consistency, punctuation, and language. Then check it again and ask a friend to review it. And then again.

What to Include in Your Résumé

The content in your résumé should be carefully selected to present the best, most applicable qualifications for a particular employer (the company and position for which you are applying) or purpose (attending a career fair).

Here are the basic types of information that you will select from as you build your résumé:

 

Strong action verbs are words that you should use to describe your activities throughout the résumé, typically beginning each bullet point in the experience descriptions. These words should be varied (avoid repetition), vivid (be specific, descriptive), and honest (don’t overstate your activities or experience).

Here are some useful strong action verbs:
Analyzed, assessed, built, calculated, collaborated, coordinated, created, defined, delivered, designed, developed, documented, evaluated, examined, interpreted, managed, monitored, prepared, presented, programmed, provided, reported, researched, resolved, supervised, solved, supported

Strong action verbs to emphasize results:
Achieved, completed, improved, reduced, resolved, succeeded, surpassed

As you are planning what content to include in your résumé, know that information placed at the top of the document typically has the most impact. That’s why education is almost always one of the first sections, since the first requirement in an internship posting is typically your year in school, major, and GPA. As you move down the page, though, lead with the most relevant, interesting sections, and organize the content to feature the experiences and skills that this employer will most value.

You will have many questions about what you should and should not do as you are compiling and revising your résumé. You can try to find answers to these questions online, but once you know the basics, ultimately, you will need to make your own choices about the best way to present your qualifications.

If you are wondering whether or not to include a piece of information, focus on the audience’s needs. Will they find this information valuable in making a decision about you as a candidate? Does it reveal something important about your skills, interests, and qualifications? Does it reveal something new about you that is not already revealed in the document?

If you are wondering how to present a piece of information, know that the options are endless, but, again, you will want to focus on the audience. Is the content presented in a way that is easy to see and understand? Is it logically connected to the information around it?

Be confident as you make these decisions. There are fewer “rules” than you might think—the challenge is to create a document that is not just correct, but that strategically reveals you as a candidate for a job and an individual. You don’t want your résumé to look like a form or to be exactly like everyone else’s. Look for ways to include those things that express your personality and passion—the things that make you unique.

Visual Design Considerations

The content and language in your résumé, as discussed in the previous section, is the first priority, as you figure out how to explain your experiences and show the employer that you meet the requirements for the position. The visual design of your résumé—the way the information is presented on the page—also deserves some careful planning and consideration because it has an impact on the way your audience will be able to read and understand the information.

Recall that your reader (e.g., an HR representative, a campus recruiter) might be reviewing many résumés in a row and perhaps reviewing them quickly. An effective visual design can help ensure that your résumé is accessible and that it makes a good impression, which will make them more likely to consider you a strong candidate!

 

Key Takeaways

Here are some simple things to keep in mind as you are finalizing the design of your résumé (the example résumé above demonstrates many of these attributes for your reference):

  • Clear headings. Content needs to be categorized visually, with main section headings (e.g., Work Experience) and subheadings Font size and type help visually organize the text on the page. All caps and bold are you best options for emphasizing headings and subheadings; italics and underlining are more difficult to read and should be used less often.
  • White space. A résumé that is full of dense blocks of text becomes difficult to read. Our eyes need white space to help us understand how information is connected and how it relates to the content around it. Add space above headings and subheadings. Don’t use unnecessary lines or embellishments—white space is often more effective.
  • Balance. White space may be a helpful organizing principle, but you want to avoid too much white space or empty spaces on the page. Adjust the length of lines or the layout to ensure that each “quadrant” of the document has a roughly equal amount of content. The most common issue is a large “channel” of white space down the right side of the page.
  • Vertical alignment. To keep a document visually organized, similar headings and elements (e.g., a bulleted list) should fall along the same vertical line—if you drew a straight line from the top of the page to the bottom, all the bullets would fall along the line, for instance. This keeps the document clear and organized (compare the example in the previous section with the “needs improvement” résumé below).
  • Coherence and consistency. The same types of information (e.g., company name, dates) should be presented in the same way—same text formatting, positioning in the section. This helps “train” the reader’s eye, making sure they know where and how to find the information.
  • Fonts and typography. To ensure that your résumé displays correctly and is compatible with Applicant Tracking Software (ATS), it’s best to use a common, standard, and professional font (Arial, Times New Roman, Tahoma). However, you can use more than one font—a serif font works well for headings alongside sans-serif fonts for body text.

Reflection & Discussion: Consider how the design of the résumé below affects you as a reader. How does your eye travel down the page? How would it make you feel about the job applicant’s qualifications?

Example resume with poor formatting

Common Questions

 

Writing the Application Letter

Traditionally, the application letter or cover letter is a formal letter that accompanies your résumé when you apply for a position. Its purpose is to support your résumé, providing more specific details, and to explain in writing why you are a strong candidate for the specific position to which you are applying. It should not simply reiterate your résumé; it’s an opportunity for you to make a case for your candidacy in complete sentences and phrases, which gives the reader a better sense of your “voice.”

As always, it’s helpful to start by first thinking about the audience and purpose for the application letter. What information does your reader need to glean from your letter? At what point in the hiring process will they be reading it?

AUDIENCE PURPOSE
Specific (named) employer for a specific position

Gets a sense of your “voice” and your interest through your writing—you are talking directly to the reader

State your intention to apply for the position

Explain why you are a good candidate by describing your experiences and demonstrating your skills (go beyond the résumé)

Display knowledge of and interest in this specific employer/job

Produce a high quality piece of writing (proving that you have the ability)

As you draft the letter, consider what you would want to say if you were sitting across the desk from your reader. It should be written in a formal, professional tone, but you still want it to flow like natural speech—this will make it easier for your reader to absorb the information quickly.

What to Include in the Application Letter

It can be helpful to think about writing the application letter in sections or “blocks.” This provides a basic structure for the letter; once you have an understanding of this foundation, you can customize, update, and personalize the letter for different applications and employers.

Introductory Paragraph

Open the letter with a concise, functional, and personable introduction to you as a job candidate. This is your chance to establish the essential basics of your qualifications and to set the themes and tone for the rest of the letter.

  • Name the position you’re interested in (by exact name and number, if available), and where you heard about it
  • Clearly state that you are applying for the position—remember that you are requesting (not demanding) that they consider you as a candidate for the position
  • Identify your major, year or graduation date, and school (this should be a brief preview of your educational status/area—you will go into more detail in the Education paragraph)
  • Create a theme (essentially a thesis statement) for the letter, based on the job requirements and your knowledge of the employer (this may not be possible until you write the other paragraphs, so save it for last) → NOTE: Once you have established the thesis (the key reasons for your qualifications), keep in mind that the remaining paragraphs must specifically “prove” or “show” that you possess these qualifications

Optionally, you might also take the opportunity at the beginning of the letter to express your interest in working for this particular company and/or your passion for and interest in the field—I am particularly interested in this position because… This sets a nice tone and shows that you are engaged and enthusiastic. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge about the employer and what they do (developed through your research).

Education & Academics Paragraph(s)

Since you will have already stated your basic educational status (major/year/school) in the introductory paragraph, the purpose of this paragraph is to paint a more detailed picture of you as a student, making progress in your academic program and gaining valuable experiences along the way. Your opportunity in this paragraph is to describe your academic progress in more specific detail, explaining the activities and knowledge you are developing that most matter for this position and employer. Carefully consider what the employer will value most about your educational experiences.

  • Emphasize specific skills and knowledge that you are developing
  • Describe significant coursework or projects—don’t be afraid to focus in on a particularly compelling example or experience

If you have a lot of project experience or several key experiences that you want to highlight, this information may be written in multiple paragraphs.

This content should NOT be a laundry list of course titles. Instead, describe how your academics have shaped your understanding of the field you are entering and significant skills you are developing, but always tie it back to what the employer is looking for—stay focused on the information your audience needs and what they will care about.

Employment Paragraph (if applicable)

It is important for employers to feel that they are hiring responsible, reliable people who know how to hold down a job. If you do have work experience in this field such as a previous internship, this is a perfect time to discuss that.  If you have previous work experience, even if it’s not related to your field, this is your opportunity to describe the value of that experience—the value for you, but, more importantly, to your reader.

  • Describe your previous work experience (show, don’t tell that you’re a good employee)
  • Be specific about the company, the time frame, your responsibilities, actions and the outcomes/results
  • Focus on relevant and transferable skills developed on the job

Activities Paragraph (if applicable)

Activities and involvement in things outside of your coursework and work experiences such as student organizations, clubs, and volunteer work are a great way to show that you are a well-rounded, motivated person with good time management skills. Personal, human connections are an important part of the job application process, and describing some of these activities and interests can help your reader start to feel a more personal connection.

  • Demonstrate personality, values, and transferable skills through sports, volunteer, travel or other professional experiences
  • Describe your specific actions and involvement honestly, while still trying to connect to transferable skills and the keywords in the job posting

If the employer has a strong program for charitable giving and involvement in an area that you share an interesting, that would be another opportunity to build a connection with them and show that you could embrace the company culture and values.

Concluding Paragraph

As you conclude the letter,  tie everything together, acknowledge the next steps, and end on a positive note.

  • Reference your resume (“You will find additional information on my résumé”)
  • Request (don’t demand) an interview (“I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with to learn more about the position and discuss my application”)
  • Provide contact information in the paragraph (phone number and email address)—don’t put this below your name
  • Reiterate interest in the position, the employer—another opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge about the company

A Note About Topic Sentences

As you reinforce the main idea or purpose of the letter (that you have the necessary skills, qualifications, and temperament for the job), make sure you prioritize what your reader needs to know about you and that all of the experiences you describe are meaningful to them. One good way to do that is to focus on how you construct the topic sentences. The first sentence in each paragraph should clearly explain the purpose of the information contained in that paragraph.

Begin each paragraph with a statement that connects your experience to the employer’s requirements and desired qualifications.

Topic Sentence = My experience + Why it matters

Consider how the following examples were revised to focus more on the value of the experience to the employer rather than simply stating the information about the experience.

EXAMPLE 1:

  • Original: During the past three summers, I worked at Ray’s diner in my hometown.
  • Revised: Working at Ray’s diner in my hometown for the past three summers has taught me a lot about responsibility and reliability.

EXAMPLE 2:

  • Original: During my freshman year, I was part of an Alternative Energy Vehicle project group.
  • Revised: I gained first hand experience with collaborative problem solving and project management while working on an Alternative Energy Vehicle project during my freshman year.

The revised versions explicitly connect the experience (working at the diner, being on a project team) with the value and lessons learned, making it easier for your reader to understand, even while reading quickly, how this supports your qualifications.

Letter Formatting Considerations

Your application letter should use formal letter formatting. You will find detailed information about the required elements of a letter document here and more information about writing cover letters here (both are from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab).

In today’s job market, where many applications are online, the letter might be delivered in a variety of different formats. For example, it might be a PDF file uploaded to an online application system or if might be simply sent in the body of an email. In any case, consider the following as you decide how to format the letter:

  • If you are delivering it as a stand alone file or an attachment, use a formal letter format and save it as a PDF (unless otherwise instructed).
  • If you are sending the application letter content directly in the body of an email, you do NOT typically need to include the sender’s (your) address, the date, or the recipient/inside address. You would begin the email with the greeting.
NOTE: Carefully follow all instructions for any job application process or ask to confirm how the materials should be delivered. It is possible, for instance, that a company would want you to send your application letter via email as an attachment—it just depends on how the company processes applications.

Career Portfolios

The word portfolio, by definition, is “a case or stiff folder for holding papers, prints, drawings, maps, etc.” and “a collection of samples of a person’s work, typically intended to convey the quality and breadth of his or her achievement in a particular field” (OED, n.d.). Though the word can be traced to 16th century Italy, its Latin roots (portare “to carry” + folium “leaf”) date back even further.

A career portfolio–whether a physical or electronic version–is a place for gathering and maintaining documents important to your career. Think of it as a dynamic, expanded version of your résumé where you document and demonstrate your education, experience, and skillset. Where résumés and application letters are limited due to their genre-specific natures, the career portfolio can contain anything you want prospective employers to see. However, this does not mean that it should contain everything. It’s important to be selective and to think rhetorically about the items you choose to include.

As you gather documents, consider your chosen field.  What do employers in the field find valuable? What skills and abilities do employers in the field expect employees to have?  For instance, mechanical engineers might be expected to have design experience, project management experience, and effective communication skills. It might benefit a mechanical engineer, then, to include any schematics they have created, a strong project plan, and a writing sample or slide deck to document communication skills. Keep and maintain artifacts that showcase your strengths.

Portfolios can be either electronic or physical.  A physical portfolio should be kept in an attractive binder, though an electronic version is easier to distribute and can be linked to on your résumé and LinkedIn profile.

License

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Preparing Job Application Materials by Lynn Hall & Leah Wahlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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