Good grammar probably won’t get you a job, but it could cost you one.
Before you get to the interview stage of a job search, your candidacy will be judged almost entirely on how you present yourself in writing — whether it’s your cover letter, resume, or LinkedIn profile. Recruiters don’t skim these documents looking for the best writer in an applicant pool (save for writing jobs), but too many mistakes can be a red flag. They can suggest a lack of interest in the job, poor attention to detail, or, worse, the absence of basic communication skills.
Editing your written materials to perfection will ensure employers focus on your skills and experience. Below are some grammatical and stylistic suggestions for cover letters, resumes, and LinkedIn, along with general tips.
Structure your ideas. In my experience editing cover letters, many are bogged down by a lack of cohesion. Unrelated ideas are jammed into the same paragraph, claims aren’t directly supported, etc.
When writing a cover letter, use the first paragraph to iterate your interest in the position, then outline the three things that best qualify you for the job. These qualifications will be the basis for each of your three body paragraphs. For body paragraphs, begin by reasserting the specific strength/qualification, then follow with a couple sentences substantiating the claim (i.e., “Through involvement with student groups, I’ve developed particularly strong leadership skills. As a senior, I was an officer for the Informatics Undergraduate Association…”). Last, use the concluding paragraph to bring back all three strengths and say why, together, they make you the best candidate for the job.
This is essentially just the five-paragraph essay template, something taught in middle school. It’s simple, but tells the employer than you can communicate your thoughts clearly.
Avoid run-on sentences. Sometimes the thoughts in your head move faster than the typing on your screen so you end up with sentences like this which is understandable but should be avoided.
Run-on sentences are those where two could-be-complete sentences are joined together without appropriate punctuation. They are a hallmark of hastily drafted documents. Using periods and commas to avoid run-ons not only adheres to grammatical standards, it also better conveys your ideas.
Avoid filler phrasing. A general tenet of writing is that you should only use words that advance your goal (which, in the case of a cover letter, is arguing why you’re the best candidate).
There aren’t hard-and-fast rules for determining if a word is necessary, but certain phrases stand out for how unnecessary they usually are. Ones like “It is often said,” “It goes without saying,” “All things considered,” etc., serve almost no purpose (notice how adding them to the start of a sentence doesn’t change its meaning). While they can be attractive options for their ability to lengthen a cover letter, brevity both reads better and saves you precious space.
Use coherent fragments. Writing a resume means boiling past jobs/internships/projects down to bullet points. By their nature, bullet points aren’t full sentences, they’re fragments. But that is not an excuse to disregard good grammar and punctuation.
When writing resume bullet points, it can help to first write out full sentences and then cut out the pronouns and articles. Imagine you’re summarizing your UX internship at Microsoft.
Full sentence: “I created wireframes and prototypes, and presented the findings to my fellow employees”
Bullet form: “Created wireframes and prototypes; presented findings to fellow employees.”
A few subtracted words later and you’re left with a clear, concise bullet point. This method of “pruning” full sentences will help prevent bullets that are random combinations of words.
Be concise. In both the “Summary” and “Experience” sections on LinkedIn, you have unlimited space to talk about what you’ve done and what you’ll bring to the table. That is not, however, permission to write mini-essays.
The “Summary” section is a bit more appropriate for more fleshed-out writing, but I would still recommend avoiding huge walls of text. Think about the major things you offer as a candidate, then break those down into two- or three-sentence blocks.
I treat the “Experience” section exactly as I do a resume, filling the space only with bullet points. LinkedIn allows you space for more (and more in-depth) bullet points than does a one-page document, but your profile should not be home to personal narratives about your work at past companies.
While overly long writing is not necessarily grammatically incorrect, it is poor writing. Employers will equate concision with strong communication skills.
Capitalize appropriately. Capitalize the first letter of proper nouns — that is, the first letter of specific people, places, and things. This distinction is sometimes tough with job titles. You capitalize them when referring to someone’s official title (John is a Project Manager at Amazon), but not when referring to a job title in general (Amazon hires a lot of project managers).
Know the difference between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. Hyphens (-) are the shortest, en-dashes (–) in the middle, and em-dashes (—) the longest. Hyphens connect related words (five-paragraph essay) and numbers. En-dashes connect things related to each other by distance (May – September). Em-dashes can work similarly to parenthesis (I used to work — a long, long time ago — at Apple) or colons (It’s a good place to work — high pay, fun coworkers, etc.). Knowing the difference between these bits of punctuation is especially helpful for writing resumes, where you’re connecting words to save space, noting dates, and listing what you did in past jobs.
There are, of course, a million rules of grammar. If you ever have a specific question while writing, I recommend the Grammar Girl site. Written by a former UW English major, it has answers to seemingly every possible grammar scenario, and has won countless awards.
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