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College Grads: Make Your Resume and Cover Letter Stand Out

By Taunee Besson, CMF, CareerCast.com Senior Columnist

Q: I will be graduating from college in a couple of months. Although I have excellent grades and lots of extra-curricular activities, I'm having a really hard time finding a job. From what I've experienced, it seems like companies aren't doing much college recruiting this year. What can I do to improve my chances of getting a good job, so I can start my career off right?

A: If you're a college student looking for an internship or your first job, the key to finding success is to distinguish yourself from other entry-level job seekers. Even with minimal experience, it's possible to impress hiring managers – if you take time to research their companies, adapt your resume and cover letter to their requirements and interview effectively. Let's take a look at how to customize your cover letters in a way that will capture a potential employer's attention.

  • Tailor, Tailor, Tailor Your Resume and Cover Letter
  • The biggest mistake people make in writing resumes and cover letters is taking a one-size-fits-all approach. If you want an employer to notice you, your written sales tools must speak directly to the company's needs. And customizing just the cover letter or the resume won't get the job done. Make them both unique, or don't bother doing it at all.

  • Send Your Cover Letter to a Real Person
  • Your cover letter's greeting is your first opportunity to focus on the employer's hiring manager or person responsible for recruitment. Addressing your correspondence to a real person rather than "To Whom It May Concern" is a great way to spark a relationship. If you don't know the recruiter's name, check your college career center's employer files or call the company and ask. When your interviewer sees their name instead of, "Dear HR Person," they'll appreciate your initiative, perseverance and attention to detail.

  • Tell Why the Company Interests You
  • The first paragraph of your cover letter gives you another chance to shine. Instead of the typical, "I saw your listing on CareerCast.com" or "at my school's career center," research the company and mention specific things about it that interest you. If you admire the organization's products, services, innovative direction, culture or training program, say so right after the greeting. This simple acknowledgment will set you apart from the vast majority of applicants who haven't done their homework.

  • Explain Why You're Right for the Job
  • In your second paragraph, highlight the reasons that you're qualified for the job. Since you probably have little paid experience, show how your classes, internships and activities parallel the opening's requirements. If you tailor your accomplishments to the position, you will continue to hold your reader's attention.

  • Follow Up with a Call or Email
  • Conclude with something like, "I will contact you next week to confirm receipt of my resume, answer any immediate questions and schedule an interview." Then follow up as promised. Employers admire decisive candidates who go after what they want.


Senior Columnist Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979 that works with individual and corporate clients in career transition, job search, executive coaching, talent management and small business issues. She is an award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and a best-selling author of the Wall Street Journal's books on resumes and cover letters. Her articles on a variety of career issues have appeared on numerous career/job websites and trade and business journals. Ms. Besson has been quoted numerous times in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money, and a number of other websites and publications.

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