Writing Resumes and Cover Letters

The information below offers some general guidance for starting your job search and preparing application materials, including tips for writing resumes and cover letters and some samples (both positive and negative). The advice in these sections will apply to most applications that you prepare, but remember that the better you can tailor your job search and your application, the better your results will be. With that in mind, consider meeting with Christina Matta, 3211F Mosse Humanities Building, to discuss your interests, outline and review your cover letters and résumés, and learn about other job-related resources and opportunities.

Preparing the Resume Step-by-Step

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Step 1: Complete a Skills Survey

Complete a “skills survey” to help you identify skills or past experiences that are relevant to the job for which you are applying. Read through the job description and pick out specific tasks, responsibilities, or traits that illustrate what the position will involve and what the employer is looking for in an applicant.

Match examples from your own experience to the information you identified in the job description. If you get stuck, think about what you learned from each job: working retail or food service may have taught you to function in a fast-past environment, while being a lifeguard may have given you experience working as part of a team. A career advisor or academic advisor can help you figure out what “hidden” skills you have that are valuable on a résumé.

Step 2: Outline Resume Structure

The organization and order of your resume may change depending on the job for which you apply and the content you include, but generally a resume will follow this structure:

  • Heading
  • Objective
  • Education
  • Experience
  • Skills
  • Activities
  • References

Step 3: Prepare the Heading

Include your full name, street address, email address, and phone number in the heading of the résumé. Consider including both your campus and your home address so that employers can get in touch with you even if you leave Madison. Use your @wisc email address or a external address that includes your real name, not a nickname or novelty address.

Step 4: Write an Objective

Include a brief, one-line description of the specific type of job you are looking for and the skills you hope to engage in that job.

Negative example: “to find a job that uses my skills as a history major.”

Positive example: “To apply my communication and research skills in print and broadcast media.”

Step 5: Include Your Education

Include your university, degree, major, expected date of graduation, and, if you wish, your GPA. Most students include their GPA, though it is not required unless the job announcement specifically asks for it.

Consider adding specific upper-level courses or major projects that are relevant to the job’s expectations or requirements. Include the course title and a brief description of the course or project.

Step 6: Describe Your Experience

List the jobs you have held in a format that includes your position, the company or organization, and its location.

Begin with the most recent position you have held at the top of the resume, then go in reverse chronological order.

Add bulleted, one-sentence descriptions of the tasks/duties you completed. The descriptions should contain neutral language and begin with an action verb in the same tense (such as completed, provided, recorded, conducted, performed, etc.).

Avoid using descriptive or subjective words such as “excellent” or “very good” to describe your work (that’s for your references to say!).

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Step 7: Tailor Your Experience

If you have specific experiences that are closely related to the duties of the job you’re applying for, consider moving them to the top of your “Experience” section and giving them their own distinct header (such as “Communication Experience,” “Leadership Experience,” or even “Relevant Experience”). A résumé organized by skills or area of accomplishment can sometimes benefit students more than a straight chronological approach.

Remember that unpaid/volunteer work or campus activities can count as experience – not everything in your “Experience” section has to come from a paid job! Being an editor for a campus publication or organizing events for your sorority (for example) can be just as strong a credential as your paid work.

Step 8: Identify Additional Skills

Note any skills or certifications that are relevant such as knowledge of standard and/or specialized computer applications, programming languages, proofreading or editing, and the like. For computer-based skills, provide your level of proficiency (basic, intermediate, advanced).

If you speak more than one language, include them along with your level of proficiency (basic, conversational, proficient, fluent, native speaker).

Step 9: Note Relevant Activities

List recent and relevant activities you have participated in. Include any organizations, clubs, or activities – UW or otherwise – with which you have had meaningful and recent engagement.  Leave off high school activities once you are past your freshman year.

Highlight any leadership positions you have held with these organizations.

Step 10: Consider Providing References

If you have room, include the name and contact information of one or two former employers you have contacted and who are willing to provide references upon request. If you do not have room, that’s fine too – interviewers or recruiters will ask for that information when they need it.

Step 11: Proofread Carefully!

Read your resume through closely multiple times to make sure it is free of errors and misspellings. Don’t just run spellcheck – there may be errors in usage or grammar that spellcheck misses.

Step 12: Get Additional Feedback

Make an appointment with Christina Matta, Career Advisor for the History Department, or with an advisor at SuccessWorks to receive professional and constructive feedback.


Positive Example
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Negative Example
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Preparing the Cover Letter

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Before you start writing

Complete a skills survey. Even before you start looking for an internship or job, take the time to make a list of your academic and work experience. A skills survey is different from a résumé (though it will help you compose that, too!) in that it is not tailored for a specific job. Instead, a skills survey uses general categories (like “communication skills” or “leadership experience”) to help you organize your credentials. Often, students who have not held jobs relevant to their major will discover that their experience is still valuable in these broader categories. Food service jobs, for example, can illustrate an ability to work in fast-paced environments or to address customer concerns, whereas working retail may have helped you develop strategies for dealing with difficult customers. In short, no experience is wasted.

Many magazines – Time, Forbes, and Money in particular – publish articles on the kinds of skills employers want, and the National Association of Colleges and Employers conducts a yearly survey to determine what skills are valuable for new hires. Their 2016 survey is online.

Read the entire job listing or ad, not just the application requirements. Applications that are tailored for a specific position will be more successful than a general cover letter. With that in mind, make sure that you read the entire job listing – particularly the “job description” section, which will explain the tasks and responsibilities involved in the position. You will then be able to tailor your letter to show evidence that you are capable of performing those tasks or holding those responsibilities.

Craft an outline. Think about how you want to structure your letter, beyond the basic introduction-body-conclusion formula. Consider what skills you want to highlight and decide in what order you want to list them. Typically job letters will highlight the most important qualification first, but you will still need to decide if you want to organize the letter by position (i.e. each paragraph describes one past job) or by skill (in which you show how two or more jobs have a common theme). Having an outline on paper to refer to can help you write a logical letter with good transitions between paragraphs.

Sample structure for cover letters

In the first paragraph, establish what position you are applying for, describe (in brief) your background and experience, and identify two or three skills that are relevant to the tasks and responsibilities that the position requires. Be specific here; rather than saying, “I believe I am qualified for this position,” use focused language like “my experience as a peer tutor would be valuable in a position that involves training end users” or “my ability to synthesize large amounts of information would lend itself well to compiling and drafting annual reports.” Remember that your task here is to show that you have skills the company or organization wants, not to tell them what you want out of the job.

You may also choose to show that you are familiar with the company or organization’s work by mentioning it by name and identifying specific projects or areas in which your skills might be particularly useful. For example, “I am familiar with basic curatorial procedure, which would be valuable in staging new exhibits at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.” This will indicate that you have tailored your letter for the specific position you want.

Give examples from your past experience that show how you can meet the job’s expectations and contribute to the organization’s projects – don’t just tell the reader that you can. Work through your examples in the same order you listed them in the introduction; readers will look for that pattern, and having a clear outline will strengthen the overall quality of your letter. Again, be as specific as you can; it is better to discuss fewer examples in detail than to mention every experience or skill you have. The résumé will show breadth; use the letter to show depth.

For each example you give, state explicitly its relevance to the job’s responsibilities – this is your chance to show that your experience is in fact valuable, so be sure to connect your skills to the employer’s stated needs. Use the same language to refer to tasks that the job listing uses; if the job will involve “writing and editing a weekly newsletter” (for example), recruiters will be looking for that phrase and may overlook language like “putting together written documents.” Causal statements can be helpful here: “By using Facebook and other social media to promote campus events, I have learned to craft advertising plans for specific audiences.”

Provide one or two sentences summarizing your skills and their relevance, but do not introduce any new ideas or qualifications here (after all, it’s the conclusion!). If you are including a résumé or a list of references, note that so the reader knows to look for additional pages. Express your willingness to provide more information if needed, but do not impose a timeline on the reader or say that you will contact them. Such statements may look presumptuous; the company or organization will contact you if they wish to schedule an interview.

Above all, remember to thank the reader for their time. Recruiters, hiring committees, and human resources representatives are all busy people, and will appreciate that you respect the time and effort they have spent on your application.

General tips for the cover letter

Always use a salutation and, if the information is provided, address the letter to a specific person. If the job ad does not provide that information, a generic salutation such as “Dear Hiring Manager” will suffice. Similarly, use a closing (“Sincerely” or “Thank you” are common) and be sure to thank the reader for their time.

Keep the letter clear and concise. Recruiters and hiring managers read a lot of applications, and they will appreciate a letter that is direct, well structured, and does not ramble or use overly florid language.

Identify your relevant qualifications or skills in the first paragraph to get the reader’s attention and set their expectations for the rest of the letter. Structure the rest of the letter following the same order you listed your skills in the first paragraph so that the pattern is clear.

Tailor your letter to the specific job. General cover letters will not stand out, and may lead the reader to think you are applying for positions indiscriminately. Use language directly from the job ad where possible; readers will look for those keywords, and many employers (especially larger corporations) now use algorithms or text recognition to screen applications. Integrating the language from the ad increases the chances that your letter will make it through initial screening.

Remember that the letter should explain what you have that the employer wants – not what you want from the position. “This job would give me valuable experience to jump-start my career” may be honest, but it suggests that you regard the job as a stepping stone to something better. Similarly, save lengthy discussion of your long-term career goals for the interview (this is a standard interview question) and instead focus on the relevant skills you have now.

Show that you are qualified rather than merely telling the reader. Use specific examples of jobs you have held or courses you have taken, tasks you performed, and lessons you learned as evidence that you can perform the job for which you are applying. Fewer, more detailed examples will be more convincing than multiple examples that lack depth; use the résumé to show breadth and the letter to elaborate on the most important jobs/skills you have.

Avoid setting a timeline or otherwise giving the reader that you are expecting (or demanding!) an interview; employers will see this as arrogant and presumptuous. Job searches can take a long time, and employers will not appreciate feeling like you are rushing them or trying to dictate their timeline. They will contact you if they need additional information or want to interview you; do not state that you will contact them. “I look forward to hearing from you” is an appropriate closing statement that does not establish expectations.

Exception: You may send a brief, respectful email asking about the company’s timeline if you have another offer you are considering or if you think your materials may have been lost. Even so, use language that makes it clear that you are asking for basic information about the search and not trying to rush them or wrangle an interview.

Proofread your letter. Basic errors in spelling or punctuation tell employers that you do not pay attention to detail, so be sure to re-read your letter carefully. If you are using passages from one letter in another (it may happen if you are applying for multiple jobs with similar requirements), make sure that you do not accidentally refer to the first employer in the letter to the second empolyer. Finally, ask someone else to read your letter for you to find any errors you may have missed. (Finding errors in one’s own writing can be difficult.)

Above all, be respectful in your tone and language. Job letters are, in essence, a request that an employer consider you for a position. With that in mind, keep your tone professional and work hard to establish confidence without straying into arrogance.

Sample cover letters for history internships

The sample cover letters below are based on an actual internship at a state history museum that expressed an interest in hiring a history major. They are clearly marked as positive or negative, and the differences in quality between the two should be clear. The annotated files offer additional explanation of their strengths and weaknesses, respectively. Even so, think critically about the samples as you read: why is the negative sample so problematic? What do you find compelling about the positive example? Asking yourself these questions will help you identify strategies for your own job letters.

Resume structure

Sample Structure
The exact structure of your resume will depend both on the position for which you are applying and on the content you include, but the sections described below are standard to nearly all formats. (Note that an academic Curriculum Vita is not the same thing as a resume and will be organized differently.)

Include your full name, street address, email address, and phone number in the heading of the resume. Consider including both your campus and your home address so that employers can get in touch with you even if you leave Madison. Use your @wisc email address or a external address that includes your real name, not a nickname or novelty address.

Include a brief yet specific line about the kind of job you are looking for. “To find a job that uses my skills as a history major” is not specific and focused enough to be useful (and could suggest that you are desperate for any job); “to apply my communication skills in print and broadcast media” is more precise about what you want to do and where you want to do it. Keep the objective neutral as well; “To gain valuable experience at a world-famous company with excellent benefits” says more about your expectations than your career goals. The objective should be no more than two lines at the absolute most.

Note: Many online job guides will include a summary rather than an objective. Summaries are generally only relevant for managers or executives who already have considerable experience in the workforce and who can describe specific accomplishments without resorting to using jingoistic, qualitative claims like “proven self-starter with good work ethic.” In nearly all cases, undergraduates should use an objective rather than a summary.

In this section, list your university (University of Wisconsin-Madison), your degree, your major, and your expected date of graduation. Including your GPA is standard, but it is technically optional unless the job ad states a minimum requirement – in that case, you must include it. Consider using your major GPA if it is higher than your overall GPA; this is common and will not raise concerns with employers.

If you attended another school prior to UW (for example, if you transferred from another institution or if you took some time off before coming back to college), include that below UW and note any Associate’s Degrees or certifications. If you did not complete a degree, note instead the dates you attended and the area in which you did most of your coursework.

If you have taken upper-level courses in your major and/or completed a lengthy research project, you may wish to include that under your degree information. Do not list general education or introductory level courses, and be sure to use the course titles (The Making of the American Landscape) rather than the numbers (History 469) so employers can see the relevance of the course.

In this section, list the jobs you have held and the tasks/duties you completed. Include your employer’s name and address, the dates you were employed, and a bulleted list that highlights individual tasks you completed. Keep your lists parallel and your language neutral; that is, make sure each item in the list starts with an action verb in the same tense. Keep the bullets succinct and save detailed descriptions of your work for the letter, where you can draw more explicit connections to the job for which you are applying. Avoid subjective language about your performance (e.g. “provided excellent service”); your references will offer praise on your behalf if they see fit.

Typically the “Experience” section is ordered reverse chronologically, with the most recent position at the top. If you have held a position that is very similar to the one you are applying for but is not your most recent job, you may highlight that in its own section titled “Relevant Experience” (or a title that matches – “Museum Experience,” “Writing Experience”…). Title the remaining section “Other Experience” and order it reverse chronologically as usual.

In this section, note any basic skills or certifications you have that are relevant to the job’s responsibilities: working knowledge of computer applications, statistical software, and the like. If you speak a second language, include that as well, but note your level of proficiency – basic, conversational, proficient, fluent, or native speaker – rather than the number of semesters you studied it in college.

Listing your outside activities can help employers see that you are engaged in the college experience beyond your coursework. Include a selection of your UW and community organizations here, especially any in which you have held leadership positions or that can demonstrate social awareness. Your activities should not outweigh the other sections of your resume, however; be sure you do not accidentally suggest that you spend all your time on clubs! List only those activities in which you are currently participating; by the time you are a junior in college, you should not have to look back to high school organizations to round out your accomplishments.

Sources differ on whether either references themselves or “references available upon request” is necessary on a resume, but if you have room on your resume or can put them on the back of the same page, including references can save an employer the time of contacting you, waiting for your response, and then contacting the reference. At the same time, omitting references means that the employer must contact you, which will give you an hint that you are under consideration for the position. Whichever you choose, be absolutely sure that you ask before giving someone’s name as a reference; this is common courtesy and it ensures that your supervisor or professor is prepared to give an honest assessment on your behalf.

Sample resumes

As with the sample job letters, the resumes below are labelled as positive and negative examples. As you read, keep in mind some basic questions: is the text skimmable (that is, can the reader glean the most important information at a quick glance)? Has the applicant kept all lists parallel and remained neutral in tone? Finally, are the duties and responsibilities listed specific, yet not awash in detail? Remember that the purpose of the résumé is to provide a one-page overview the applicant’s experience; if the answers to more than one of these questions is “no,” think about how you can avoid the problem in your own resume.