Public Service Resumes and Cover Letters
By Kimberly Carpenter Emery, Assistant Dean for Public Service
The first step in contacting public service employers, who are not interviewing on-grounds, is to end them a copy of your resume. Your resume and cover letter constitute your first contact with the employer and possibly your only chance to convince them to grant you an interview. In addition to their marketing function, resumes and cover letters are regarded as writing samples.
Public sector employers have a different interests and goals than private sector employers, and your resume will need to acknowledge these differences. The following suggestions will help you effectively target public service employers (for general advice about producing a legal resume and a resume that will most easily upload to CASE, consult the resume handout provided by the Career Services Office). The section on public service resumes in the 2000-2001 Public Interest Job Search Guide (Harvard), which is available in the Public Service Resource Room, also provides useful advice about developing a public service resume. After you complete a draft of your resume, bring it to the Public Service Center for review.
The function of your resume is to market you to employers, therefore, do not underestimate the importance of the initial impression your resume will make. The average employer will scan a resume for no more than 20-30 seconds. Your resume should be able to "sell" you at a glance. Look over your resume...does it look uncluttered?, is the information regarding your educational and work experiences presented clearly?, have you included specific examples of community service and volunteer activities?
Unless you have significant work experience, your resume will be only one page. Your resume should contain a section for education, work experience and volunteer experience or personal items likely to be of interest to the employer such as language skills. The education section of your resume should be listed first (until you have been out of law school for at least five years), followed by work experience and then, space permitting, community service activities and/or personal interests. The education section should include a list of honors and activities under each school entry and both the education and work experience sections should be listed in reverse chronological order. Do not use the work experience section to list every job you ever had--be selective and carefully describe those experiences the employer will be most interested in.
Tips for Creating a Successful Resume
- Keep it Short and Succinct: Use a one page resume unless you have significant work experience (i.e. ten or more years). This means you must decide what is really important to include. It does not mean use a tiny font and try to cram every bit of information about yourself into one page. Elaborate on the details in your cover letter or during your interview;
- Your name goes at the top: Include your address, e-mail and phone number. Use your cover letter rather than your resume to let the employer know what type of position you are seeking (i.e. don’t include a career objective at the top of your resume);
- Make it look good: Your resume needs to be visually pleasing and easy to read--leave adequate margins, be consistent with formatting, avoid excessive underlining, use italics and leave plenty of white space;
- Tell them what you did: Use action verbs and specifically describe your prior work experiences to let a potential employer know what skills you have developed (i.e. drafted a motion to dismiss, deposed two witnesses) and don't use acronyms when listing your activities (i.e. P-CAP);
- Let them know how much you care: Include any community service and volunteer activities to demonstrate your commitment to public service;
- Tell them something about you: If you have extra space, use it to list some of your special interests, hobbies or skills. This section can provide the interviewer with a source of "soft" questions to ask you during the initial stages of an interview;
- Don’t forget to blue book: Publications should be a separate entry after work experience on your resume. All legal publications should be cited in the correct blue book format.
- Don’t make them ask: Do not include the redundant "References available upon request" at the bottom of your resume. Create a separate typed list of references to bring with you to the interview;
- Keep it current: Do not include information about your pre-college experiences, except to highlight geographical ties to a particular area;
- Keep it simple: Produce your resume on quality bond paper. Acceptable colors are white, ivory or light grey. Your cover letter and resume should be on matching paper.
A brief three to four paragraph cover letter should accompany your resume when it is sent to prospective employers. The function of the cover letter is to introduce you to the employer, explain why you are sending them a resume, to highlight your relevant skills and experience, and to request an interview. The cover letter should also discuss activities which demonstrate public service commitment. Make it clear that you know something about the employer and that you are not mass mailing your resume. Do not address a cover letter to Sir, Madam, Who it May Concern, Hiring Partner or Recruitment Coordinator. It may be necessary to call the organization to ask for the name of the person in charge of hiring. If you have a reference from someone who knows the employer, be sure to indicate that in your cover letter (e.g. Joe Smith from the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund suggested that I contact you).
Use the first paragraph of your cover letter to introduce yourself to the employer (i.e. I am a second year law student at the University of Virginia School of Law). You also want to let the employer know why you are writing (e.g. I am interested in your current opening for a legal aid staff attorney or Joe Smith suggested that I contact you). In the second paragraph, describe your interest in the employer and the position. Use the third paragraph to tell the employer why they should hire you and to let them know that you have taken the time and initiative to research their needs. Highlight important information about yourself, but do not repeat information contained in your resume. The final paragraph should include a request for an interview. Let the employer know that if you do not hear from them in a reasonable amount of time that you will follow-up with a phone call.
The attached sample resumes and cover letters vary in style, but each was used recently as part of a successful public sector job search by a UVA law student. Use these as general examples, but do not copy them exactly. Your resume should be sufficiently personalized to allow potential employers to know who you are and what skills and experiences you can bring to their organization.
Sample resumes used (successfully) by other students in public service job searches. To print or view the samples, you will need Acrobat reader 3.0 to download it if you do not already have it: