A guide to preparing resumes and cover letters


There are many tips on how to put together the best resume and cover letter to get noticed by potential employers. Iowa State Career Services offers advice to students when creating these essential things.

Jill Even

Resume and cover letter strategies are crucial for students during the application process for jobs, internships and co-ops.


A resume is a professional document used as a synopsis of a person’s professional goals, educational history, skills and work experience. Resumes are given to employers upon application to a job and give employers a general idea of a person’s abilities and achievements.

One of the best things a student can do for their resume, which is parallel across all colleges, is to customize it to the position. Often, students’ resumes don’t even get looked over by a human before they are rejected, according to Liberal Arts and Sciences Career Services at Iowa State.

Employers are now using applicant tracking systems, an algorithm that looks for keywords in a resume that are also used in the job posting. The algorithm then picks out the resumes with those keywords to send to the employers. This means when a student applies for a job they must customize their resume to each job they are applying for to receive better results.

Career Services highly recommends the reverse chronological resume format, which lists the most recent, however relevant, experience and skills at the top of the resume. They also emphasize never using contractions in your resume writing.

Kathryn Wieland, program coordinator for the Ivy College of Business, recommends students actively update their resumes so no detail goes undocumented.

“Resumes are living, breathing documents that you want to have in progress really throughout your whole time here at Iowa State,” Wieland said. “This is your tool to gain interviews.”

Wieland does not advocate for template usage when it comes to resumes. She said templates have a distinct look that does not utilize page space well, making it difficult to work with from a consumer standpoint. Custom-made resumes are preferred, typically created in Microsoft Word. She said resumes for students should be no longer than a page.

As for looks, the preference consistently seen throughout the university leans towards a traditional, black and white resume — even for creative majors.

Keely Branstad is an Iowa State graduate student in education and career services intern for Human Sciences Student Services. Her job is to advise human sciences students on their resumes. She said she often sees creative majors use Canva templates because they can be aesthetically pleasing, but employers find that to be a distraction.

A resume without colors, graphics or photographs may seem like it doesn’t stand out among the others, however an emphasis on skills is more beneficial than risking professionalism.

“If [students] continue to [revise their resume] maybe once every year, it is a lot less effort rather than waiting for your last year and trying to think back on everything you’ve done within the last four years,” Branstad said. “The sooner I always say the better.”

Branstad said as for content, she often sees students in their freshman year of college include high school information, which is acceptable until sophomore year. Her job is to help students fill in the gaps and give guidance on what they can do to gain more experience, whether that is through jobs, clubs, leadership or volunteering.

Another thing Branstad said students struggle with is trying to sell themselves.

“They really struggle with self-identifying as a leader,” Branstad said. “So trying to convince them that just because maybe they didn’t have a title that explicitly says leader or an exec position that says president, you still do develop leadership skills within your workplace, within what you’re doing.”

She tries to get students to self-claim leadership to boost their confidence, especially when applying to a job they don’t feel qualified for. Branstad emphasizes using language advantageously to show not only tasks a person does, but skills a person gains through those tasks.

Angela Wagner, program coordinator for Liberal Arts and Sciences Student Academic Services, refers to resumes as a marketing document for students. She said a student can make a resume with no paid experience, and can substitute paid experience for class projects that have relevance to their major.

Wagner encourages students to have family members or close friends look over their resume, because they know the student’s qualities best. She also said researching resumes on the internet can be problematic because students can find information on resume styles for different countries that shouldn’t be used in the United States.

“Every country has a different style for resumes,” Wagner said. “If you’re applying for a job in Europe, they’re going to ask for a photo; we don’t do that in the United States, it’s not appropriate […] Career Services at Iowa State knows what works here in America to find an internship or job, and we have tools to help students find positions internationally as well.”


A cover letter is a personalized document, written in letter format, given to an employer to state a person’s interest in the position, and how they will benefit the organization through their employment. This convinces employers to read resumes sent to them.

According to Career Services, a cover letter should be one page and include the student’s name, address, telephone number and email at the top of the document. This will be followed by the date, employer’s name and title, the company name and address. The letter should be addressed to the recruiter.

Double check the gender and doctoral status of the recruiter, and make sure to use the correct pronouns and titles when addressing them.

The first paragraph should start with what position is being applied to, and how the position was found, which is a great opportunity to name-drop connections to someone within the company. The end of the paragraph should include a strong explanation of experiences and skills related to the position.

The second paragraph should include specific examples when skills have been applied. Address each skill listed in the resume with new information, as employers don’t want to read the same thing twice. At the end of the paragraph, demonstrate knowledge of the company and interests.

The last paragraph will refer the reader to your resume. Include phone number and email for further contact, and end the paragraph with a thankful statement.

Branstad recommends always writing a cover letter, regardless if it’s required for the position or not. She said to make sure to use relevant keywords from the job position in the cover letter as well.

“In your cover letter, you’re able to dive deeper into your experiences and exact skills within what you’re doing,” Branstad said. “[Employers are looking for] who’s going that extra step, even if [the cover letter] is optional, especially in more competitive job fields. That’s something that can make you stand out, and make it known that you’re really wanting that position.”