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The Power of Words in Your Resume and Cover Letter

published October 30, 2006

By Mary Waldron
( 97 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
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When composing resumes and cover letters, many people underestimate the power of words. Whether it be a resume, cover letter, essay, or email, the entire meaning of a work can be altered by word choice. Evaluating the connotations of words used in your resume and cover letter and making necessary adjustments can both streamline the flow of your documents and allow you to convey your qualifications and experience much more accurately. Because resumes and cover letters only get reviewed by employers for about 30 seconds, it is helpful to think of them as billboards with highlighted target words that must attract employers.
The Power of Words in Your Resume and Cover Letter

Careful word selection for a resume begins with its subject headings. This may seem obvious to most people, but it is imperative that you use clear and accurate terms to avoid confusion and focus in on the background you wish to emphasize. Many resumes begin with "Objective" sections, in which applicants state their career objectives with phrases like "To obtain an in-house position at a private law firm." Deciding whether to use an "Objective" section is up to the individual; many people opt to discard this section because it is considered outdated or unnecessary, since one's objectives can be discussed in the cover letter. However, if a lawyer has substantial experience, it may be appropriate to begin the resume with a "Profile" section, creating a brief snapshot of his or her credentials.

Next, a legal resume should have headings such as "Bar Status" (if applicable), "Education," "Employment," and "Experience" or "Additional Skills." Optional headings include "Volunteer Work," "Accomplishments," and "Publications." Avoid using phrases or words that could possibly confuse the reader or make you sound less sophisticated. For example, "Publications" sounds much more concise than "Works Written," which is wordier and fails to communicate that the works were published. There is no set standard regarding which words you must use as headings for sections covering your employment history, education, and skills, although "Employment," "Education," and "Skills" tend to be the ones everybody uses, with slight variations. Just remember to use words that sound the strongest and most professional. Headings like "Jobs," "Schooling," and "Abilities" come off as a bit basic and weak. If you are ever in doubt as to how to phrase something, refer to resume examples for ideas.

Remember the lesson on euphemisms in English class? A prime example was the euphemism for "garbage man": "sanitation engineer." Though most law students have never been garbage men or women, many can afford to spruce up job titles to make them sound more prestigious, while maintaining complete honesty. Also, if your original job title at a company does not correctly reflect what you ended up doing, listing a more accurate title is acceptable.

The most important section where your words need to shine is in the job descriptions under "Employment." Now, before you start going to town describing all of your "responsibilities," throw out the word "responsible." Too many job seekers write "responsible for" before every single job duty. The key to listing job duties is to keep the verbs active and striking. Do not stress if you are not a walking dictionary. Most resumes can be improved enormously with a little help from a good old thesaurus. Words like "lead," "develop," "motivate," and "coordinate" are some strong examples. Basically, the more active and specific the words are, the better. Research online and, again, in a thesaurus (I am telling you, it is a godsend!) to find the perfect selection of words for your resume. This also goes for explanations of jobs in cover letters. If you limit yourself to the mundane word choices that many others do, how are employers supposed to know that you are the most impressive candidate?

Once you have dealt with word selection, you must also decide which verb tense and aspect to stick with on your resume. Many people advise keeping verbs in the continuous present tense, using "ing" verbs such as "saying," "leading," "developing," "motivating," and "coordinating." Although "ing" verbs may sound more dynamic, other resume professionals argue that it is clearer to imagine an "I" in front of each verb, writing, for instance, "(I) lead," "(I) develop," "(I) motivate," or "(I) coordinate," if the job is current. If the job was held in the past, as most will have been, they suggest putting the verbs in simple past tense, as in "(I) led," "(I) developed," "(I) motivated," or "(I) coordinated." Either way, always remember to keep verb tense consistent throughout your entire resume.

Utilizing a job's description and its industry's jargon on a resume and, in particular, in a cover letter, is a targeted way to deliver exactly what the employer is looking for. When employers post job notices, they usually will list various skills that applicants should possess. Pick out keywords from the job ad and/or similar ads and incorporate them into your resume and cover letter. Be aware of the terminology for the field of work in which you are applying for a position, so that you can freely use it in your resume and cover letter. Having knowledge of the industry, which in your case is most likely law, can only benefit you. If you lack the legal vocabulary, it will show throughout your submission, especially in your cover letter. Specifically addressing what an employer is seeking in your resume and cover letter not only helps you but also makes his or her job of finding employees easier. Do not be afraid to feature and emphasize your positive attributes; doing so is far better than forcing an employer to search and prod for them.

See 6 Things Attorneys and Law Students Need to Remove from Their Resumes ASAP If They Want to Get Jobs with the Most Prestigious Law Firms for more information.

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