Before a prospective employer ever meets you, you'll be judged based on your written application materials. It's critical that your application stands on its own without the benefit of spoken commentary or your magnetic personality. In other words, your submission must do all the work of demonstrating, in well-written prose, your enthusiasm and relevant skills and experience for the position. The vast majority of job applications are online and require submitting various documents such as a job application form, resume, cover letter and, if appropriate, supplementary materials.
Almost invariably, employers will require you to complete an online application form. You're probably acquainted with the format: basic information about yourself, education, employment history, salary requirements, references, work authorization, demographic information and so forth. The purpose of this section is to provide a snapshot of who you are so that the employer can decide whether to open up your cover letter, resume and any supporting materials. Your goal in this section is to furnish all factual information accurately; the opportunity for making an argument as to why you should be hired will come later in your application packet.
The cover letter is sometimes optional, but it's an important part of any application. Do take the time to write a thoughtful one-page letter, consisting of three or four paragraphs, that communicates your enthusiasm and qualifications. The goal is for the cover letter to supplement, rather than duplicate, your resume. This is your opportunity to establish your genuine interest in the position by, for example, indicating how it closely ties in with your past work or the personal significance of the employer's mission. The cover letter also affords you the opportunity to reinforce specific experiences and skills from your resume and elaborate further. Finally, try to address your cover letter to a specific individual. If that information is unavailable, you may open with "Dear Recruiter."
The goal of the resume is to effectively communicate your skills and experience to your prospective employer. There's much to be said about formatting to enhance your resume's readability, as recruiters often only take a few seconds to scan it. It's helpful to divided your resume into sections, such as experience, education, skills and other activities. The reverse chronological format is popular because it allows recruiters to naturally trace the evolution of your career and emphasizes your most recent work experience. If you've been in the workforce for some time, avoid listing your education first, as employers will value your work experience more than what you learned in a classroom a decade ago. Finally, customize your resume for each opening. For example, you might switch the projects listed under each of your past employers to best fit with the duties envisioned by your prospective employer.
Occasionally, employers may allow you to provide supplementary information. This is particularly relevant for creative roles, such as jobs in graphic design or journalism where you'll wish to submit a portfolio showcasing your talents. Outside of these situations, you may still wish to provide additional materials. For example, if you're a recent college graduate, you might wish to attach your academic transcript or, if you're an academic, a research paper published in a scholarly journal. For business roles, it's more common to leave this section blank but consider if there might be an initiative or project of which you're particularly proud that you can mention by, for instance, linking media coverage discussing its success.
Paper vs. Electronic Applications
While most job applications are online, you might occasionally run into job openings that require a physical submission. If so, the most logical order in which to present your application is to place your cover letter on top, followed by your resume, supplementary materials and any required forms. Staple the materials together or, better yet, clip them so that the recruiter can easily disassemble them. Ensure that your application packet is clean and readable, as presentation matters even more with physical applications.