Resume Do's & Don'ts

The recruiters at Delta Staffing have assembled some proven tips to help you in your employment search. Our experience in submitting candidate resumes to hiring managers has helped us combine some useful tips during the resume/application phase. During this phase, we will assist you with cover letter tips, resume rules and guidelines for references. You can also print each section off as a PDF since our suggestions are lengthy.


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Covering Cover Letters

"Do I really need a cover letter?" We're asked this question a few times every month. We get the impression that people are hoping we'll say, "No! You don't need a cover letter. Your résumé's great, it can stand on its own." After putting so much time and effort into their résumé, it's easy to understand why people might think the cover letter is nothing more than a "dust jacket" for the real article. Just one more piece of wasted paper that delays getting to the good stuff. What do most cover letters say, after all, but, "You've got a job, I've got a resume. Hope to hear from you soon."

But the cover letter is more than a way to dress up your résumé. It has a beneficial purpose. If written well (focusing on how and why your particular skills, experience, achievements and personality can benefit a specific position and company), your cover letter can encourage your reader to turn to your résumé with genuine interest.
While your cover letter acts as an introduction, it can also take your résumé's information one step further by showing your reader how your history and past achievements can be applied to meet the needs, concerns, missions, and goals of the company you're targeting. In this way, your cover letter not only confirms your qualifications for the position, but also indicates that you are the right person for this company.

In order to present your qualifications in a meaningful way to your specific reader, you need to do some homework on the company you're targeting. Learning all that you can about a company, knowing what they're trying to achieve, what their products or services are, who comprises their customers or clientele, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what their concerns are, who their competitors are, and how well they're achieving their goals, will not only help you identify ways in which your skills can be directly applied for the company's benefit, but can also help you determine if this is a company where you want to work.

In doing your company homework, you may discover an area where your skills or background can make a substantial, positive difference for the company you're targeting. Nothing will advance your opportunities faster than finding a couple of flaws or deficits in the way a company manages its operations and showing how your particular area of expertise can solve this problem in a cost-effective manner ~ just be careful how you present these flaws. No one wants to hear that they're not doing a terrific job, but everyone likes to hear, "I have some ideas that could really make this particular effort fly, and I'd like to talk to you about them."

Knowing that you have something valuable to offer is a great incentive for a recruiter to want to meet you in person to learn more (the interview).

Getting information on companies of interest has never been easier. The Internet has opened the doors to information access, from the comfort of your own home (please, don't do this research on your current employer's computer). Since most companies have Web sites these days (and, by the way, many of these company sites also post job opportunities), the opportunity to learn what a company is doing, who their leadership is, who their clientele is, what their products or services are, and what they're hoping to achieve in the future is just few mouse clicks away. And resource sites such as Hoover's ( allow you to gain additional information, regardless of whether or not a company has its own Web site.

Your local library is also a great resource. Tell the Librarian what you're trying to achieve and you may be surprised by the number of resources available. A few resource guides worth mentioning are: Corporate Jobs Outlook, Corporate Technology Directory, Directory of Corporate Affiliations, Directory of Leading Private Companies, and The Almanac of American Employers. Doing a search on the library computer may turn up additional articles, press releases, or annual reports, all great indicators of what a company is trying to achieve and how well they're doing.

Once you have a solid understanding of your target, you need to identify how your skills, experiences, education, achievements, and personal characteristics will meet the needs of the particular company. One easy way of determining this is by considering what it is about the company that (after having learned all you can about them) makes you want to work for them. What do you envision yourself doing for them, for their benefit? How do you see yourself making a difference?

The simple truth is, at this stage of the game your reader doesn't care about what you want or what you're hoping to gain from being employed at their company. Right now your reader only cares about what you can do for them.

You want your reader to act (hopefully by calling you to discuss the position and establish an interview date ~ or at least to be willing to accept a call you've indicated you'll be making). Later, during the interview phase, you'll have an opportunity to address how the position fits your needs, but at this point every effort you make needs to be focused on the needs of the reader, the position, and the company in question.
First of all, the layout of your cover letter is as important as the layout of your résumé. Keep in mind that the first thing your reader will see is your cover letter (okay, it's actually the second thing they'll see, following your envelope ~ we recommend using a 9x12 white envelope). Your cover letter should complement your résumé in style, layout, letterhead, print and paper quality. It shouldn't look like it was simply added to the submission at the last moment, but that it's an integral part of the presentation.

Cover letters normally follow this general outline:

  • Your contact information (letterhead): Make certain this is easy to read. When all is said and done, your contact information is the most important information in the letter.
  • Date: It's important to give your reader a submission date, indicating the information's date and relevant value.
  • Name of contact and their title: Get the exact name and correct spelling whenever you can ~ it will always have a greater impact than an anonymous recipient greeting. Follow this with the name of company, street address, city, state, and zip code.
  • Job title or reference number: Re: ________.
  • Dear: Use either exact contact name, Mr./Ms. _____, or Director of Human Resources for Name of Company. Never use "Dear Sir or Madam," or, worse, "To Whom It May Concern."
  • Opening paragraph: Although you may be tempted to come up with an interesting opening sentence, there's value for your reader in identifying for them the ad or position to which you're applying at the onset of your letter. Your reader may be screening résumés for several positions, and including a reference to the position title and location puts the reader on the right track. Keep this introductory sentence to the point and brief.
  • The second line in your cover letter should be attention grabbing, but avoid gimmicks. Although you're trying to "sell" your qualifications for the position, you don't want to come across as an advertisement. This is a professional correspondence. So, instead, consider the second line a summary of what the letter's purpose is: "My background in _____, _____, and _______ appears to be a solid fit for the position of _________. It is with genuine interest that I enclose my résumé for your review and offer a brief summary of how my skills may benefit {Name of Company}'s _______ efforts."
  • The second paragraph highlights not only those qualifications listed in your résumé, but also the extended skills and characteristics you possess that will be of additional value to your reader and the position and company you're targeting. This second paragraph also addresses the particular needs, concerns, missions and goals of the company (as you know them) and how your potential contribution will benefit and promote these goals (from the company's point of view). This is where you establish what sets you apart from all other candidates with similar skills sets ~ why you are the right person for this job at this company. Ultimately, you want your reader to be able to envision you working for their company and producing valuable results.
  • Closing paragraph is the only place in the cover letter where you indicate what you're hoping to gain from this submission: a call and an interview. Avoid using gimmicks or threats. We've seen cover letters that sound desperate and nearly threatening, "If I don't hear from you by {date} I'm going to call you." This kind of statement, even from the most worthy of candidates, can make your reader jump to the secretarial desk and request that "If Joe Smith calls, take a message and throw it away." When you call a potential employer, without a stated date, time, or invitation, you may simply end up irritating them by disrupting their work. Instead, you want to make your reader feel comfortable in contacting you by your indication that you're interested and available for contact, at the reader's convenience. It's perfectly fine to indicate that, with your reader's permission, you'd like to call them on such-and-such a date at a such-and-such a time to discuss the position, with the added note that if this time is inconvenient they may leave a message with the receptionist indicating a time that would be preferable. Make this easy for your reader.

By the way, if you can't be at your phone waiting for every call (you may wait a long time), consider purchasing an answering machine, if you don't already have one, or contacting your phone company for voice mail service on a temporary basis. If you're unreachable, you cannot be interviewed. Record your message and have a friend call and critique it for you. You want your message to sound professional, be clear in tone (with no background noise), offer the appropriate identifying information, and be brief. Something along the lines of the following seems to work very well: "You have reached Joe Smith at 234-5678. I'm sorry I'm unable to take your call at the moment, but your call is very important to me. Please leave your name and number and a brief message and I will return your call as soon as possible. Thank you for calling"
Until you interview for a position, chances are you'll have only a limited understanding of the details and accountabilities of the position. Until you understand the full dimensions and responsibilities of a position, you can't address appropriate compensation. This lack of information, on both sides, makes salary negotiation ineffective and premature at this stage of the game.

While it's tempting to include a salary range or expectation ("It will save me from interviewing for jobs that won't pay me what I need"), doing so limits your opportunities. Most companies will establish a position budget, but these budgets can be flexible. If you give a range too high or too low before the interview, however, you've removed your negotiating leverage and possibly the opportunity itself.

For job ads that say "Only those submissions which include salary requirements will be considered," offer a range rather than a set figure. This will give you some room for negotiation. For other ads that simply request "salary requirements" with submission, recognize the question without actually answering it: "Salary is negotiable."

For companies requiring a salary history, create this as a separate document, rather than including the information in your cover letter or résumé. This document should look the same as your cover letter and résumé in layout and style, and will follow your résumé's line of information regarding past employment history.

For example: Titlem ABC Company, City, State Dates of Service Annual Salary

Other options include indicating beginning salary and ending salary (showing growth and advancement), or hourly wage.
It would be wonderful if every résumé and cover letter submission resulted in a telephone call. Unfortunately, we live in the real world and it's very competitive out there. Be proactive in your job search. Be willing to follow up your résumé submissions with a phone call or a note that reiterates your interest and offers to provide further information if necessary. Your reader may receive hundreds of résumés, and hearing from you may move your résumé closer to the top of the pile. A good time frame to follow is that if you've heard nothing in the two weeks following your submission, go ahead and follow up with a phone call or note. Don't do this by e-mail.

Resume Basics

Knowing what you want your resume to convey and writing it so that it conveys what you want can sometimes feel like an insurmountable hurdle. "I know what I want to say, I just don't know *how* to say it!" laments the struggling resume writer. Lament no longer, good friend, this is easier (and more difficult) than you think.

Structure is the easy part, and this article will give you some direction you can really use. The hard part, however, comes before you set even the first word to paper (or screen). You need to know what you want. You need to *really* know what you want. Then, you need to know what *they* want, the hiring managers holding the keys to the positions you're targeting.

Deciding what you want may be more difficult than you first imagine. Not only do you need to decide what you'd like to do, today, but it's in your best interest to decide what you'd like to do five years from now. Why? Because knowing where you'd like your career to take you helps you to make better decisions regarding the jobs you accept today. Being offered a job isn't always the end of the job search, and an immediate "Yes!" isn't always the best response to every offer. Select the positions you accept as carefully as you select any of the commitments in your life.

Knowing what the hiring manager of the minute wants doesn't mean you have to be a mind reader, but it does mean accepting that in that brilliant mind of yours you already have at least half the answers. You already know what it takes to do a job (almost any job) well. Don't believe me? Well, try this; think of any job in the world for which you have little or no experience. Let's say, "Brain Surgeon." I bet you can give me a dozen pieces of key criteria that will determine whether a brain surgeon is successful in his or her career, or not. What personal and professional characteristics would you want a brain surgeon to possess if it was your head they'd be working on? The hiring manager is no different. They have a position to fill, and with that position they have some established criteria they believe a candidate needs to possess in order to do the job well. You already know at least half the criteria. If you're responding to an ad, you'll know a few more.

Your second opportunity to learn the criteria of the position is at the interview. You're not there to simply answer questions. You are not the only one being interviewed. If you fail to interview the hiring manager, take the opportunity to fully learn the position's criteria and accountability, the company's missions and goals, the working environment's structure, etc., you can't make the kind of informed decision that will allow you to give a "Yes!" response with real confidence. Why do so many people end up in jobs they hate? Because they fail to see beyond the smiles and good intentions and ask the questions. While you're asking yourself, "What characteristics, both personally and professionally, do I possess that will allow me to do this job well?" ask yourself, also, "What criteria do I need in my employment situation for me to succeed to my full potential?"

But interviewing comes after the resume, and the resume is what we're heading for here, so. . . let's get to it.

What's the most important information on your resume? Is it the great contribution you made to the production efforts of ABC Company last year? Is it the shiny new MBA you recently achieved, with honors? Is it your exceptional communication skills and winning presentational presence? Nope. It's your contact information. Who you are and how your reader can reach you is, when all is said and done, the most important information in your entire document.

See, this is getting easier. You know who you are, you know where you live, you know your phone number and e-mail address. You already know the most important information in your entire document!

That done, the next piece of information to include (or not include) is your "objective statement." Do you need one? Well, let's take a look at your career history, first. Is your background consistently (and clearly) in line with the position you're currently targeting? Without an objective, will the reader know your career direction and recognize the position for which you're applying? If your background is in operational management, and the three most recent positions you've listed on your resume are "Operational Manager," and the position for which you're submitting a resume is Operational Manager, is there any real need to say you want to be an operational manager?

Objective statements are most useful when:

  • The resume is being submitted for a specific position (To obtain the position of Operations Manager for ABC Company).
  • The candidate is changing career paths (To use my extensive background in sales, marketing, and personnel management for the benefit of ABC Company's operational efforts).
  • The candidate is a recent graduate with little hands-on experience.
  • Any time when the career history alone does not present an easily identifiable "fit" for the position being targeted
  • At all times in writing your resume you have to remember your audience. You want to make this easy on your reader. Don't write an objective that is vague, or tells the reader what *you* want, but rather what you're offering *them.*

A summary is not simply a brief listing of what you've done, but what you can do. It's a package of personal and professional characteristics that you offer a company ~ that which allows you to provide exemplary work.

Example: "Senior Operations Manager offering an impressive background in ____________."

Remember that criteria you already know? Remember what special skills you'd like your brain surgeon to have? Well, what makes a top-notch operations manager? What skills, talents, achievements, and focus would you like this individual to possess if it were your job to hire them? That information goes in the summary. It gives your reader a quick list of criteria that establishes a "fit" for the position, the benefits that can be enjoyed through hiring the individual, and impresses a level of quality of work and background.

Perhaps it's important that a good operations manager understand the particular industry for which the position in question is held. Perhaps they should possess outstanding problem solving skills, with an ability to develop effective solutions that will positively impact: production, efficiencies, and/or costs. Perhaps they should have good communication and interpersonal skills, so that they can develop a cohesive team structure between various departments. The summary is the place to list these skills, and identify them in a manner that will be appreciated *by the reader.* You want your reader to envision you providing these great services for *their* company. So, it's not just what you've *done* that's important, but what you *can* do that counts here.

The biggest error many resume writers make is in telling a "story." I don't mean writing fiction, but writing their history as if it were a conversation, a tale of sorts. With lots of "I" statements and "Responsible for's." Their resume begins reading like a dialogue. If you had to bring your history down to its most basic form it would be: Problem, Solution, Results. Every job is held in order to problem solve, from the receptionist to the company president. Work is generated because there is a problem that needs addressing, the actual work is the solution, and the outcome of that work is the result (positive or negative).

Let me give you an example: The receptionist. The receptionist is hired to solve the problems of: ringing phones, client questions, schedules of meetings and appointments, paperwork management, etc. Those are otherwise known as her "responsibilities." Her solution is to: answer the phones, provide information to clients, organize a logical and workable schedule of appointments and meetings, and coordinate paperwork so that it's easily retrieved on demand. The results of her work (if positive) are: the phones are answered in a timely and efficient manner (clients are happy, bosses are happy), information provided to clients is accurate and helpful, schedules and meetings are workable and productive, paperwork is managed and maintained so that important information is easily accessed and understood.

How might this information be listed on her resume?

  • Manage office operations and procedures for leading advertising firm.
  • Schedule and coordinate client meetings and corporate appointments for Senior Advertising Director and Marketing Manager, assuring workable and productive daily schedules and activities are maintained.
  • Manage multiple-line telephone system, providing fast and efficient service to inquiries of both established and potential clients. Position requires a detailed understanding of industry and client needs.
  • Coordinate and maintain database and paperwork management, assuring records and schedules are accurate and consistently maintained. Created and implemented a logical system for quick information access and long-term records management, improving inquiry response time and accuracy of information by 70%.
Isn't this an improvement over: "I am responsible for phones, appointment scheduling, and paperwork"? or, worse yet, "I'm just a secretary"?! Each position is important, each individual who holds that position provides value. Recognizing, fully, what services you provide and appreciating their resulting value will enable your reader to appreciate them, too.

If your education is the most recent accomplishment in your career, or if it holds the greatest proof of your credibility for the position, list it first. If you've held positions in your field of choice, since achieving your education, list your work, first. Your reader is most interested in that information which is most current and that information which most clearly establishes your level of fit for the position. If you feel that your education is a trump card, list it twice; once in your summary, and once again in its own section.

Only list the dates of educational achievements if they are current, within the last 10 years, or so. It matters less *when* you achieved your degree or education as it matters that you achieved it, successfully.

List any associations or professional organizations for which you're a member IF they hold some value to the position for which you're applying.

List hobbies and outside activities ONLY IF they are directly relevant to the position for which you're targeting.

List all volunteer work, that is directly RELEVANT to the position you're targeting, the same as you list any other work on your document. Being paid for your work is not an issue, ~ gaining skills of benefit and value to your next position that your reader can appreciate is the issue, financially compensated, or not.

DO NOT list personal information, such as: marital status, physical health, height, weight, number of dependents, pending lawsuits (never a good idea to make it known that you are suing your previous employer), religious affiliation, race, or what you had for breakfast on this document. It is illegal for an interviewer to determine your employability by these issues ~ for a reason!

DO NOT include a picture of yourself with your resume, unless you're in the entertainment industry, no matter how good Olan Mills made you look.

Regarding References

When you entered this job hunt, you knew you needed a résumé. A cover letter was a very good idea, too, and you got right on it. You may have even considered creating a follow up "Thank you" note for all those interviews (because you are very smart). You may have found yourself sitting at your computer late one night writing the perfect resignation letter (either the most difficult or most fun of compositions), being careful not to burn any bridges. But what about these references? You know you need them. You know that at some point in the interview game, if the hiring manager is on top of things, he or she is going to ask for them. But when? And from whom should these referrals come; past employers, co-workers, colleagues, mentors, professors, friends? Should they be written, or is it better for the hiring manager to speak to the referral (on the phone)? How far back in time can you go with your references before they are considered "too old," or no longer quite as valid or valuable?

Your résumé may proudly state that you have them available, "References available," but the truth is that statement is as far as many job hunters get, before scrambling to put something together at the request of a hiring manager or potential employer at the last minute.

When should you begin gathering references? You should be gathering these throughout your career life, whether you have a current need for them or not. Every time you leave a position, for example, you should be collecting letters, names and contact information from your employer, co-workers and clients who would be willing to express, either in writing or as a future contact, the level of services and work you have provided, even if the next job has been secured without them. When you graduate from college, getting letters of recommendation from professors and mentors should be one of the first things on your "To do" list. It may be a couple of years down the road before you need these references, but when you need them, when the job you are targeting is perfect and you want the best opportunity to beat out the other potential candidates for the position. . . good (no, great) references can make the difference.

Another reason why it is so important to gather these references immediately after graduation or resignation from a position is because at that moment your accomplishments, talents, skills and achievements are as clear to your reference as they may ever be. Think about what this reference or contact person may remember about you five years from now, versus what they know about you today. The achievement that brings such a wide smile of gratitude so soon after it's been accomplished may dim as the years move forward.

Get your references in writing, even if you have to offer to write the reference letter yourself. And try to get them on company letterhead if at all possible. Many people don't have the time or inclination to write a lengthy letter, but will be glad to sign one if the information is accurate and presented well. Written letters of recommendation remain a strong indication of what you have to offer.

In addition to having written letters of recommendation, you want to be able to provide the potential employer or hiring manager with names of those who they may contact who know of your work ethics, talents and achievements. By speaking directly with your references, the hiring manager may have the opportunity to ask questions specific and relevant to the particular position you're targeting. Because of this, it's important that you contact these references immediately following an interview, to bring them up-to-speed regarding the position in question and any particular criteria addressed in the interview. A prepared referral will provide much more enthusiastic and valuable information than one who is caught off-guard.

The information you provide to a potential employer regarding your reference contacts (in writing) should include: the referral's full name, their title (President, Owner, Manager, Producer, Program Director, Project Manager, etc.), the company they work for (ABC Corporation), their relationship to you (supervisor, employer, co-worker, mentor, professor, etc.) and a phone number or e-mail address where they may be reached.

Your references should be either current, individuals who have worked with you recently or have remained in contact with you on a regular basis and are familiar with your current career direction and achievements. Every employer or hiring manager is most interested in information that is the most current. Therefore, a referral who is familiar with your work during the most recent few years will be more valuable, from the potential employer's point of view, than a contact person whose last relevant experience with you was 10 or 15 years ago. This does not mean that you cannot include referrals who are from 10 in years in the past, but you should also include individuals who are familiar with your most recent work efforts and achievements.
What makes a good referral? A good referral addresses the personal and professional characteristics you have demonstrated in past positions or environments (relevant to the positions you are currently targeting), with a focus on the benefits or values of your contributions and efforts.
Simply put, a good referral encourages a potential employer view you as a valuable hire.

References. Everybody wants 'em, but nobody wants to give them.

If you ask most companies what kind of reference they will give on a former employee, they will probably tell you something that sounds like "name, rank and serial number only." They will verify that you worked for their organization, provide the dates that you worked there and perhaps notify how much you were making.

Now, if that same company is looking to fill your former position, you can bet they are going to try to get a lot more information than that when they do a reference check.

Welcome to the game of reference roulette. The very type of information that most companies want and need to make a good hire is the very stuff that they will not give out to someone else. Reference checking is a crap shoot, chancy at best. There are people who don't get hired because companies can't get any references on them. Others don't get hired because of a reference that said too much. Reference checking is a pain in everybody's aspirations, but it's an absolutely essential and necessary part of the process. Here are some of the things a potential employer is trying to find out when they do a reference check:

  • Fit.
    Every company has a culture and a style that is unique to its operations. Facts on a resume, or dates of employment, don't tell anyone much about how you get along with co-workers and bosses. Do you work better solo or in a team? Do you handle pressure well?
  • Legal Protection
    Hiring someone with a criminal record of violent behavior problems can open a company up for trouble with customers and co-workers. Lawsuits are also a possibility that can be avoided if these things are uncovered in the reference check.
  • The Truth, the Whole Truth
    The best estimates from resume experts say that 50 percent of all resumes contain deliberate distortions of schools never attended, degrees never obtained, dates never worked, bosses who don't exist and work that was never done by the person. References can provide a good way to validate what is being said on an employment application or in a resume.
  • Say What?
    Skilled reference checkers and interviewers can read between the lines and get to what is really meant vs. what is being said. Since many reference givers are either prepped and scripted ahead of time, or worse, not prepared at all, they can inadvertently reveal as much about a person by what they do not say, as by what they actually do say. A good reference check will pick up on this information.
Since most companies will not officially divulge this sort of information, where will it come from? Friends, co-workers, former bosses and public agencies are some likely sources. You need to know what these sources are (and are not) willing to say about you if they are in fact contacted for a reference.

Unfortunately, many job seekers do a lousy job at lining up and preparing their references. They hope or assume that the reference will say nice things about them if called by a potential employer. Since they are too embarrassed to ask what kind of things might be said about them, they leave it to chance that there will be things that will help them get the job they want. This is a risky gamble. Here is what actually happens.

The potential reference usually doesn't have a clue what to say about you. They may like you and the work they know you for but that is not enough. In the hands of a good reference checker, they might say all sorts of things that are irrelevant-if not damaging to your chances of getting a job