How often do you look beyond the first page when you’re searching for something on Google? Probably not very often, as you usually expect your search engine to show you the most relevant information within the top three results. But how does the engine know?
There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than one might imagine. Website builders have been using techniques such as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) to make their site look sexy to search engines, and psychological know-how on the design side to make their content pleasing to the eyes of the reader. Combining these tools helps keeping readers interested.
The most common tricks a designer can use, other than creating outstanding content, include using the right keywords, bold text, links to other relevant sites and plenty of white space to make it attractive. These tricks, however, can be dangerous: combine bad content with too much SEO or design and your website will get a bad rep, sending you straight back down the rankings where nobody will ever see you.
Good CVs and cover letters need to stand out exactly like those top three results on Google. Job searches and applications are becoming increasingly digital, and we are no longer limited to the flatness of paper and ink. We can now use these digital tools that are available to us: links, text formatting like bold or italic type settings, layout formatting (align left, right, spaces between paragraphs, etc. can all help you make your CV and cover letter stand out.
So how do you make sure you are the one they will choose? How do you get to the top of their pile where you can be sure to land that interview? As in the case of the best websites, there are some simple tricks you can apply to your cover letter or CV which can help you stay at the top.
Content is King
We’ve all been there: you type something in Google or Yahoo!, pick the first item on the list, have a glance and dismiss it immediately, realising it wasn’t what you were looking for. Employers do exactly the same. They have to go through hundreds of cover letters, and don’t have time to read all the details of everyone’s professional history. If they can’t pick out the details they need quickly, then your letter will go straight to the bin. All they want to know is if you are good for the job.
Read through the job description carefully, learn about the employer, and make your content relevant to them. Pick three or four key things they are looking for in the job description and then briefly explain how you fit the bill.
Get your skills noticed
When you land on a web page, what do your eyes fall on first? With just a text-based page, more often than not, bold or italicised text it’s the content that stands out from the rest. When employers are doing their first skim through the cover letters and CVs, make sure they are glancing at exactly what you want them to see. Read through the job descriptions, and then in your cover letter, emphasise relevant skills you have or projects that you’ve done so that eyes are drawn to those before anything else. This will draw the reader’s eyes to the content you want them to notice – the content that they are specifically looking for.
When you’re reading an article online you’ll often find links to relevant content that is outside the article. This technique can be used in your cover letter too. Use links to information such as your research lab website, or your online portfolio and research papers. You can even link to specific papers that have been highly cited or extra-curricular projects you’ve been a part of. Let the employer know that there is so much more to you that what appears on that flat piece of paper!
How about those websites with small fonts, cramped paragraphs and far too much text on them? The immediate reaction? Overwhelmed and claustrophobic. Readers want some breathing room when they land on a page. The same goes for readers of a cover letter or CV: make sure that both have plenty of white space, an easy to navigate layout and, most importantly, keep the number of words down.
Long essays don’t instil good feelings amongst employers; they just don’t have time for it. Have no more that 4 or 5 well-spaced out paragraphs with only 3 or 4 sentences each. This will show that you can write clearly and effectively, whilst making the reading easy on your future employer’s eyes.
Your CV should have a clean, simple layout with plenty of white space. Keep your experiences relevant and to the point. If you are applying for a postdoc position in neuroscience, chances are they might not need to know about your summer in Florida as a beach life guard!
Check, re-check and check again!
A website is a showcase. Small mistakes or sloppy wording give a bad impression and drive visitors away. Your cover letter and CV are opportunities to showcase what you can do. The CV is your chance to highlight your skills, and the cover letter an opportunity to display your written ability and attention to details. A mistake in a cover letter will end your part in the play immediately… Don’t give the employers a reason to stop reading your stuff: check, re-check and check again to make sure there are no grammatical errors, typos or other silly mistakes like getting the name of the company wrong.
Using some of these simple tools can keep your cover letter and CV in the hands of the employer, rather than in the bin. Ultimately, a job can’t be landed solely relying on a CV and cover letter, but it does help a great deal to get noticed!