If you're serious about finding a job, you need to be equally serious about making sure that you present yourself impeccably and appropriately on paper. The first impression of you that a prospective employer gets will most likely come from your resume and cover letter, so they need to be perfect. So let's talk about how you should present yourself on paper -- resumes, cover letters, and thank-you letters.
Every job seeker knows that a great resume is essential. What isn't quite as clear to many people, however, is what a great resume should look like.
Old-style resumes list your previous jobs and describe all the responsibilities you held. You managed something, or filed things, or submitted reports, or kept track of whatever it was. The problem with this is that it tells the prospective employer what you were hired to do. BORING. They really want to know what you accomplished, not all the minutiae that made up your typical workday.
This is especially important in landing a sales position. The interviewer wants to see what you've accomplished...how fabulous you are, how much you increased sales over previous years, how many new accounts you brought in, how much money you made the company. Numbers are key. You need to include the fact that you increased sales by 220% over the previous year, not just that you exceeded quota. Rather than saying that you were responsible for prospecting for new business, say that you brought in 37 new accounts that generated over $4M in new sales.
As for the length of your resume, the old thinking was that no resume should ever be more than one page. This is no longer true. Your resume should be as long as it needs to be and yet as short as you can make it. Not such an easy thing to accomplish. Your resume needs to include all the important information, stated as concisely as possible, without 'extraneous crap' muddling it all up. For a recent college graduate looking for that first career job, a one-page resume is probably all that is needed. For a successful mid-career sales professional, two pages will probably be sufficient to capture the various positions and accomplishments. If you've had numerous employers and a tremendous number of accomplishments, it may even take more than two pages. The key is to pare the information down to its essence, removing the fluff but making sure that the reader can clearly see what you accomplished at each job.
In the past, it was sufficient to have one resume that was used for all situations. These days, the savvy job seeker knows that the resume may need to be tweaked to fit different situations. For example, I have a great deal of experience in both pharmaceuticals and in B2B sales and management. If I'm submitting my resume for a position outside the pharma world, I have a resume that highlights my experience and success in B2B. If I'm submitting my resume for a position in pharma, I have another version of my resume that places more emphasis on my pharma experience and success. I have also done quite a bit of sales training, so I have another version of my resume that plays up that experience. The resumes are not vastly different, but they have subtle changes in emphasis to demonstrate that I have the background and experience to fit each type of position.
Not only do you need to customize the resume to the position you're pursuing, you need your resume in different formats depending upon how the prospective employer prefers to receive resumes. Some job boards and employers' web sites will allow you to simply upload your 'pretty' resume -- the one that's in Word format, with attractive fonts and formatting, bullet points, borders, and page numbers. For a job seeker, that's ideal...just upload your pretty resume and be done with it. However, some sites require that you copy and paste a text version of your resume. You've probably tried pasting in your pretty resume only to discover that your formatting is off, your name is buried in the middle of your address, and all your bullet points are gone, causing all your accomplishments to run into each other. For this reason, you MUST have a plain text version of each pretty resume so that you don't have to keep reformatting every time you upload to a site that doesn't like pretty resumes. With a plain text resume, you can simply copy and paste it into an employer's site and everything will remain in the proper order. It won't look attractive, but the information will all be there. If that's what they want, give it to them. When you go for the interview, however, take a few copies of your pretty resume on good paper.
Yes, you need them. No, they haven't gone out of style (contrary to what someone on MedZilla's medical device forum claims). Professionalism never goes out of style. What HAS changed in recent years is that the cover letter doesn't necessarily have to be on paper (unless, of course, you're mailing or faxing it). With so much of the job search now being conducted online, you're more likely to be e-mailing your resume to a recruiter as an attachment. In that case, the e-mail itself needs to function as your cover letter. I have a basic cover letter template that I use most of the time, customizing it to fit the opportunity and the prospective employer. I can paste it into the body of an e-mail or upload it as a formal cover letter, whatever the situation requires. The key is this...when applying electronically, if there is a way to upload a cover letter or paste the contents of your cover letter into a field, DO IT. Don't ever miss a chance to set yourself apart from the crowd. So many people skip the cover letter, and I can tell you that, as a hiring manager, I have great appreciation for candidates who submit a cover letter along with their resume.
THANK-YOU LETTERS / FOLLOW-UP LETTERS
Again, these are non-negotiable. You MUST thank people for taking the time to consider you for the job they're trying to fill. Not sending a thank-you letter is lazy, disrespectful, unprofessional and uncouth. As a hiring manager, I've been appalled by how few thank-you letters I receive after interviews. What has changed in recent years is that it's now appropriate in most cases to e-mail your thank-you. This is done much like the cover letter...you simply insert the content of your thank-you letter into the body of the e-mail. If I'm really intent on making an impact, I'll e-mail the thank-you immediately and follow up with a hard copy (beautifully formatted on beautiful paper) by FedEx for next morning delivery.
There's a lot of debate about whether thank-you letters should be typed like business correspondence or hand-written on a card. Personally, I believe that a business thank-you should be handled like any other business letter -- typed, formatted appropriately, and formal. Hand-written thank-you cards are more personal, something you'd use when someone in your personal life gives you a gift or does something nice for you. I am in agreement with Emily Post on this one. I do make an exception, however, for occasions when you're interviewing at a hotel and the interviewer will not provide his or her business card so you'll know how to contact them. In that case, I suggest that you carry a blank card with you so that you can write your thank-you and leave it at the hotel's front desk to give to the interviewer. It's not ideal, but it's better than not thanking the interviewer for his or her time and consideration.