Q: In this day and age, are we still required to use cover letters when replying to online job postings, especially sites that have one-click “easy application” features that let you attach a résumé and apply without going through multiple screens of questions? The basics I would include in a cover letter are already at the top of my résumé.
A: Imagine you’re a man going to a job interview at a workplace where you’ve been told the dress code is “business casual.” Do you throw a blazer over a button-down shirt and call it a day, or go the extra inch and pop on a necktie? It probably depends on the impression you want to make and how you want to brand yourself. And odds are, in all but the most aggressively casual workplaces, you won’t be penalized for wearing one. So why not?
Granted, trying to draft an original cover letter for every application is overkill and a waste of time. Not every interview calls for a necktie of bespoke Italian silk, tastefully patterned and precisely knotted, with a complementary pocket square. Just as you probably have multiple ready-to-share résumés tailored to a variety of jobs, you should also have a selection of prewritten, neutral-tone standard introductory statements to pair with them. It may well be overlooked by most applicant-tracking systems or hiring managers—but it’s a simple finishing touch, and an opportunity to make a statement about yourself.
Q: I am trying to reenter the workforce after spending some years off with my children and recently went back to school to earn a master’s degree and update my skills. A friend who works in HR tells me that because of my master’s degree, I’m overqualified for entry-level positions. But when the gap in my résumé is compared to someone who has been working for the past five years, employers deem the other candidate more reliable. What advice do you have?
A: Claiming a degree you didn’t earn is a known sin in résumé writing—but when you’re trying to get that first foot in the door, what about not claiming a degree you did earn?
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“Some people interpret this as ‘dumbing down’ the résumé, but I disagree,” says Lauren Milligan, founder and chief executive of ResuMAYDAY. “A candidate is entitled to leave off information that may dissuade an employer from considering that candidate.”
However, she cautions, you should assume employers will research you online before contacting you for an interview: “If you leave your degree off your résumé, but it’s on your LinkedIn profile, that raises a red flag.”
So if you’re sure your advanced degree is a hindrance rather than an asset with the jobs you’re applying to, leave it off your résumé—just make sure you’re consistent about omitting it everywhere.
Or, Milligan suggests, “make sure that the rest of the résumé is written so specifically to the position that everything on the résumé [including your degree] becomes an asset.” And, says Milligan, you should be trying to “use any available space to explain the gap” in your work history and how your degree compensates for it. Space such as the summary on your LinkedIn profile, or—ta-da!—a cover letter.