A Senior’s Guide to Getting Your Sh*t Together: Resumes, Cover Letters, & Job Applications

Whether you want to think about it or not, the fall semester is quickly coming to an end. It’s time to say goodbye to the first-semester excitement, football, and flip flops (sorry, I’m in Florida and it’s still 90 degrees), and time to say hello to resumes, cover letters and jobs. 

Pursuing a career after graduation is one of the most thrilling yet terrifying moments of college and whether you’ve known your major from the moment you finished preschool or you decided at the deadline last year, we’re all on the same job hunt together. But in a world of applicant tracking systems and online job markets, where do we even start? Let’s break it down.

When to start

The first step is figuring out when you should start applying to jobs. Unfortunately, there isn’t one uniform time when every employer out there posts their open positions. It’s a process, and creating a timeline for yourself simplifies all the steps while holding you accountable. It’s easy to let applying for jobs slip to the back of your mind when you're dealing with a full load of classes, extracurriculars, jobs/internships, and even just enjoying your last year of college; however, using this article as a guideline can help you remember what you need to do. 

Note: Some majors and career paths may have different timelines. 

Fall Semester 

  • October and November: Start Studying
    • Begin looking for companies you’re interested in applying to
    • Follow their social media accounts for a further look inside the company
    • Pro Tip: Companies often post tips and tricks for scoring a job there on their YouTube page. 
  • December: Start Prepping 
    • Use your downtime over Winter Break to work on your resume and cover letter
    • Reach out to recruiters on LinkedIn and introduce yourself 
    • Pro Tip: Try and shadow! Winter Break is the perfect time to shadow employees at companies you’re interested in.

Spring Semester

  • January and February: Start Applying
    • It’s time! Start exploring LinkedIn and Handshake for openings for upcoming grads 
    • Follow up with any connections you have after you’ve applied
  • March and April: Start Interviewing 
    • Brush up on your interview skills 
    • Use your campus career center or other on-campus resources to do interview prep
    • Pro Tip: Have a go-to ‘interview’ outfit that makes you feel confident and saves you from worrying about it the night before. 
  • May and June: Start Celebrating 
    • Pop the champagne and pour yourself a drink, you deserve it.

With this timeline in place, it’s easier to hold yourself accountable and make sure you begin applying in time to have an offer before the next school year but it’s important to remember that everyone is on their own path. If you miss one of these deadlines, you’re still going to be okay in the end. You may have not have an offer until September while your best friend gets one in April, and that’s okay. It might be months before you find a good fit. Don’t rush to begin your adult life just because you feel like you have to. Just take it one step at a time and do your best.  

Resumes

This is probably the most overwhelming part of the whole process because there are just so many options. If you’re starting from scratch, Microsoft Word and Google Docs both have access to simple, well-organized resumes. If you’re looking for something a little more creative, Canva has resume templates designed by actual graphic designers. But no matter what format you decide, there are some non-negotiables you need to include.  

  • Contact Information
    • Your full name, address, phone number, professional email address, and the link to your website if the job requires some sort of portfolio submission
    • Pro Tip: Make sure your contact information is towards the top and easy to read! Make it as simple as possible for a hiring manager to contact you. 
  • Objective or Summary Statement
    • A simple sentence or two describing what you hope to do, why this job is the right fit for that, and what you’ll bring to the job 
  • Education Section
    • Where you go to school, your major, your minor, your GPA (if it’s above a 3.0), relevant coursework, and honors/organizations
  • Work Experience
    • Relevant jobs or internships go first followed by any extracurricular involvement, whether you were an IM lacrosse captain or a sorority chapter president, this section is by far the most important
    • Include all relevant experiences even if you have to make room by cutting your objective statement.  
  • Relevant Skills
    • Add any technical skills you have like programming languages or marketing analytics and soft skills like communication and leadership 
Related: How to Get IRL Experience for Your Post-Grad Career, Before You're Even a College Senior

If all of this sounds like a little too much, try using an online resume builder like Resume Genius or Zety to get the basics down. Once you have most of the information ready, you can bring it into your university’s career resources center where a career expert should be able to look over it and tell you if anything should be edited. 

After all the content has been edited, you’ll want to check to see if it is Applicant Tracking System (ATS) approved. Basically, some companies get a crazy amount of applications for every job and there are not enough hiring managers to sort through them all so ATS software sorts the applications by comparing them to the job description that companies have posted. The software looks to see if your resume and the job description have enough matching keywords to make it to the next round.

While this sounds super scary that a robot is basically deciding whether or not you make it to the next round, there’s resources out there to help. Jobscan lets you compare your resume to any job description and gives you an idea of how likely you are to make it through the system. 

Cover letters

I’ll just say it: cover letters are kind of weird. While they make sense in theory, as an introduction to your future employer, it can be difficult to figure out how personal your personal introduction needs to be because there’s no standard format for cover letters. But I think it’s really important your cover letter has these three main things:

  • Introduction
    • Include important information like your background and why you’re interested in this position
  • Body 
    • Talk about examples of work you’ve done and how it will translate to this job
  • Conclusion 

    • ​Keep it concise but make sure to include a call to action 

As long as you have these basic aspects, you have the freedom to be creative and express your personality. Cover letters are what future employers use to get to know you beyond the accomplishments on your resume. Think about the “jeans and a cute top” combination we all live by: the jeans are a standard, but necessary, part of the outfit just like a resume in a job application while the cute top, your cover letter, is where you add your flair and your personality to the outfit. 

If you’re lost on what to include right now, I get it. The first time I wrote a cover letter, I felt like I had done everything wrong but it gets easier over time. For example, in my current cover letter, I have my set introduction where I introduce myself, explain that I’m a college senior, explain how I got involved in my major, and what my career aspirations are. Then I use the body paragraphs to translate how my past experiences and skills will allow me to thrive in this position and reach my career goals. This is the perfect spot to talk about your last internship project or your involvement with Relay for Life. Just make sure to relate these experiences to the job by talking about your transferable skills: leadership, communication, sales, time management, etc. After this, in my conclusion, I reiterate why I would be a good fit for this role and leave it open with a call to action. This is where you say something along the lines of “I’m excited about the prospect of this position and joining your team. I cannot wait to learn more about the company and share how I can contribute to the team.” This last paragraph is about what you will bring to the company not just your achievements.  

Job applications

The easiest part of the job process is finding the actual jobs. With job networking resources like LinkedIn and Handshake and actual job search engines like Indeed and Monster, it seems like there’s a constant supply of companies hiring recent college graduates (yay for all the hours we’ve spent dying in the library for that A!). For many of these applications, all you need is your newly perfected resume and cover letter, but some will require more technical information, such as writing samples, transcripts, and recommendation letters. 

While it may be a relief to get that application in, that doesn’t mean all your work is done. One of the most important parts of job applications is not letting them sit and never be looked at again. Once you apply for a job, see if there’s a university recruiter at the company and express your interest and follow up on your application. This isn’t the time for deep stalking their Instagram, but there are professional ways to slide into someone’s DMs. Email their work email address if available or message their LinkedIn profile if you can’t find their email. From there, introduce yourself and ask for more information, but most importantly, be respectful of their time and the relationship dynamic (this could be your future boss you’re talking to). Since this can be scary the first couple times, check out some sample emails from the career experts at WayUp before sending one. 

Now that you have a beautiful new resume, a personalized cover letter, and know how to apply for jobs, it’s time to start your journey into the real world. I know this time is scary (trust me, I’m going through it right now too), but we all have to remember our worth during times like these. 

We’re going to apply and we’re going to get interviews but we’re also going to get rejection emails. The best thing I have to say to this is something I was told as a Rho Gamma: “It’s not rejection, it’s redirection.” If you get rejected from a job, it’s redirection to look into a different direction for a different position. You’re still going to get through it and you will still get a job. We’re all going to be fine in the end.