Resume Primer

Resumes and cover letters are important self-marketing tools.  Both are key to deciding whether or not you will be invited to interview and excellent interviews, of course, will be key to gaining a job offer. As with each component of the career development/job search process, producing a successful resume and cover letter requires time and effort but the investment of care and energy will pay off. When you have completed a self assessment; described your ideal job; articulated your career goal; networked and gathered information concerning required experience, education and professional competencies; you are prepared to respond to potential employers by sending/delivering a cover letter and resume.

Resume Tips:

The goal of an effective resume is to present your competencies and credentials in an inviting way to prospective employers. Resumes that attract the attention of employers introduced an interesting candidate who appears to have “what it takes” (in the employer’s mind) to step into a job immediately.

“What it takes” will vary from employer to employer. Often nurses seeking a position and those hiring for it have different ideas about the competencies required to do the job well. Or, nurses and employers may share the same beliefs about preparedness but talk about the required skills differently. Since mind-reading is not a common skill, your ability to anticipate the qualifications that will ensure a perfect fit will be greatly enhanced by time spent in informational interviewing, networking and information gathering. Through these world assessment activities, you will identify the generally required competencies for a particular role. You may also learn about the ways in which nurses describe their knowledge-base and skills in that practice arena. Remember the objective of an effective resume is to present you honestly and understandably to potential employers. Consequently, the more information you can collect about the specifics of a job before you must submit your resume and cover letter, the better. Just as with most career maintenance/job search activities, there isn’t a right or wrong way to write a resume. There are important guidelines, however.

  • Be truthful
  • Tailor your resume to the position/role you are seeking
  • Be concise
  • A resume can be longer than one page, but try not to provide any more information than is relevant.

Many nurses have had moderately lengthy careers. One page would not do justice to the experience you have accumulated nor demonstrate your ability to take advantage of opportunities. On the other hand, listing all of your job responsibilities may not be relevant either. Be selective.

  • Always proof-read and spell-check your resume multiple times to eliminate misspellings, awkward wording, and/or duplication of information.
  • Share your resume with trusted colleagues and mentors who will provide important improving feedback.
  • Choose one font and stick with it. Some employers use optical scanners to review resumes initially. Scanners may be unable to accurately decode multiple types of faces within the same document.

In a competitive job market, nothing will replace a direct match between the competencies you bring and those an employer is seeking. Text (the way you describe your skills and experience) is key. Sometimes, however, the employer fails to recognize that perfect match because she/he is unable to read your resume easily. There are two issues here. First, it is extremely important to present information in a manner that is readily available visually. For example, bullets tend to emphasize a change in thought or a new item versus burring text in paragraph form. If you decide to use paragraphs, be certain to space them well and select a clear type face. Try to limit them to not more than three sentences. Second, in today’s world of computer-generated documents, everything looks professionally done. Your resume must also.

  • Label each page of your resume with your name and the page number. This is typically done at the top of the page.
  • If you are transitioning from one practice arena to another (e.g. acute care to ambulatory care) or are changing roles (e.g. staff nurse to nurse practitioner), you might consider including a section entitled, “Selected Professional Competencies” or “Professional Summary.”

By bulleting ideas or writing a concise paragraph, hi-light all of the relevant experience and accrued competency required for the position you are seeking. For example, if you are a staff nurse who has been working in an acute care setting and you are seeking a first-time position in home care, you might want to emphasize your years of experience with people of all ages and medical conditions, your physical assessment skills, your expertise in providing skilled nursing care, your ability to work both autonomously and collaboratively and your experience as a member of the discharge planning/continuing care team. This section should immediately follow your stated “Career” or “Employment Objective.”

Cover Letters

The purpose of a cover letter is to create a mental image of you as the perfect candidate for the job you are seeking. As with the resume, there is not a right or wrong way to write a cover letter, but there are guidelines.

  • Type/computer generate a separate cover letter for each position

You will be able to use the same well-crafted sentences in many cases, but you will want to personalize them to each employment situation.

  • Appearance counts. Laser print the letter on the same paper stock as you have selected for your resume; preferably standard letter size, white or ivory rag paper.
  • Attempt to identify the name of the nurse recruiter in the Human Resource Department or, if all else fails, the Nurse Manager of the area that you have interest in.
  • Limit your cover letter to one page.
  • Typically, a cover letter takes the following form:
    The first paragraph includes a sentence that identifies the job you are applying for and the precise manner in which you learned about the job. Use the job title that appears in the advertisement or job posting. Sometimes a job number is listed. Be certain to include it. For example, if you learned about a job opening in the newspaper on August, 2002 or from Jane Smith, Staff Nurse on 4 North or by visiting the Human Resource Department and viewing the job postings; or on the Internet – write exactly that. Be certain to get permission to use a colleagues name in your cover letter. If you are invited to apply for a position, certainly indicate that. Request permission to include the name of the person who extended the invitation. The second paragraph is the one in which you must paint a concise, word picture of yourself. Your goal is to create a mental image in the employer’s mind of you in the job that you are seeking.  Use about three or four sentences to do so. Again, this is where your information gathering will pay off. The third and last paragraph should indicate your enthusiasm for the opportunity to interview, your willingness to provide additional information and a date when you will telephone to confirm receipt of your cover letter and enclosed resume. Thank the reader for his/her consideration. If you provide a date on which you will follow-up, do so.  If you cannot commit to following up, don’t indicate that you will.

The Interview

Opportunities to interview mark the final hurdle at the end of the job search process. Interviews are extended only to those nurses who appear qualified and of interest to fill an advertised position; therefore, you should celebrate your achievement when you are invited to interview. Prepare well, remember to smile and have a wonderful adventure. No matter the outcome, you will learn a great deal.

Some suggestions:

  • Always Prepare for the interview.
    Review any information you have about the hiring agency and position: the position posting, a lengthier job description, information about the facility or organization. Think about the qualifications you would bring to this position/organization. Practice summarizing these qualifications to a colleague.
  • Visualize yourself interviewing successful.
    Visualization is a technique that is being utilized by more and more successful professionals in business and sports. Imagine yourself meeting your interviewer, feeling comfortable in the setting, and responding with ease to questions asked.
  • Rehearse responding to questions that are often asked in some form.
    For example:
    • Identify your strengths.
    • Identify one of your professional weaknesses. (Remember, identifying a weakness then immediately describe how you have been working to eliminate it or improve your performance).
    • Identify the nursing theory that guides your practice.
    • Describe an example of how you have handled an emergency, stress on the  job, and/or conflict with other employees/head Nurse.
  • Arrive promptly.
  • Dress professionally/conservatively.
  • Bring extra copies of your resume, cover letter, reference list and/or letters of reference.
  • Maintain eye contact that is culturally sensitive of the interviewer.
  • Limit gestures.
  • Listen carefully to each question asked to assure that you answer precisely the question being asked and not one you have anticipated.
  • At the end of the interview, thank your interviewer for his/her time. You may certainly ask about the next step(s) in the process. For example, will there be other interviews? With whom will you be interviewing with? When might you hear about the outcome of the search process?

Within 24 hours of the interview, prepare a computer-generated thank you note to the interviewer. This is a perfect opportunity to emphasize points you made—or perhaps failed to make—during the interview.

A successful job search process is often a lengthy journey. An unknown author once described this process as “No.” “No.” “No.” “No.” “No.” “No.” “No.”… “Yes.” Thoughtfully orchestrated efforts are certain to end “yes” and will, most likely, be expedited by careful preparation.

Opening doors in a competitive job market can be challenging. You have invested heavily in remaining competent. Protect your investment. Let your strengths shine as you write your cover letter or prepare your resume.

Process of Resume Development

SELF ASSESSMENT: The key to successful self-presentation is thorough self assessment.

What might you include?

  1. Consider your values.
    What is of primary importance to you: meaningful work, time with your family, leisure time, and friends/community, a job that will challenge you and yet allow you time to continue your education or develop a vocation like music, acting, power, or money?

    List of some of your values. Prioritize them


  2. What are your interests?
    List your interests. (e.g. Exercise? Travel? History? Reading? Cooking?)

  3. Review your competencies.
    List your skills/competencies.

    Clinical Competencies: (e.g. physical assessment skills, peripheral venipuncture, arrhythmia interpretation, work organization, etc.)

    Communication/Public Relations: (e.g. listening, mediating, presenting ideas, public speaking, writing, computer skills)

    Leadership: (e.g. influencing, persuading, suggesting direction, setting the tone, orchestrating activities, team building)

    Management: (e.g. analyzing, planning, implementing, evaluating, budgeting, coordinating, scheduling)

    Developing People: (e.g. teaching, training, counseling, coaching, motivating, precepting)

  4. List your certifications. Example #1: Title: Advanced Cardiac Life Support                      Credentials:   ACLS Agency:  American Heart Association                     Dates:  1995-Present Example #2 Registered Nurse, Certified Specialist                       RN, CS American Nurses Credentialing Center                     1992 – Present
  5. List the Professional Associations to which you belong or have belonged. (1) List the activities and/or committees in which you have participated and the dates you did so. (2) List the offices you have held and the dates of your term(s).
  6. List awards you have received.
  7. Career Objective:  Write a single, succinct career objective. Begin with an action verb and limit your objective to approximately 20 words. An effective statement will serve as a guidepost directing you to your work choices. Try not to limit your statements to what you believe your work options are but rather focus on what you prefer them to be.


Now that you have completed a thorough self-assessment, begin to review the information you have been gathering through networking, informational interviews, library/Internet explorations and other efforts. The purpose of a world assessment is to better understand the world of work—in the case of nurses: the changing health care delivery system.

  1. List some roles/jobs that interest you.

  2. Identify the key competencies that are required to do these jobs or assume these roles.  Job descriptions and/or discussions with nurses who hold these roles are very useful at this stage.



Having completed a careful self-assessment, written a career objective that embodies what you would like to do professionally, spent some time learning about the changes in the health care environment and the job/roles you would like to pursue, you are ready to position yourself within the workplace as you would prefer. To do so, think about the following in preparation for drafting/refining your resume, preparing cover letters and interviewing.

  • Think about the competencies that you have listed on your self-assessment and those that you currently have. How well do these competencies match those required by the jobs/roles you have explored?
  • Which competencies do you have that the chosen job(s)/role(s) require?
  • Which competencies might you need to develop?

With the competencies that you possess, begin to draft/refine your resume. A working format of a chronological resume is attached. Remember, there isn’t a “right” way. Use the working format only as a guide.



Street Address

City, State, Zip Code

Telephone Number

E-Mail Address


  • _______________________________________________________
  • _______________________________________________________
  • _______________________________________________________


  • _______________________________________________________
  • _______________________________________________________
  • _______________________________________________________


(May be divided into “related experience” and “additional experience” or “selected experience”)

Name of most recent employer, City, State                      Dates

Role – Unit/Division

(Numbers & Nature of population served)

  • Manage complex care for 7 critically ill adults
  • Supervise and delegate care to 2 nursing assistants
  • Precept newly employed/transferred nurses
  • Serve as a member of/Chair the ______________ committee
  • Designed a patient teaching tool for patients which …
  • Other

          Other employers – same form as above


Sample form:

American Heart Association

Basic Life Support (BCLS)                    1998-Present

Institutional Certification/XYZ Hospital

Conscious Sedation



Educational Institutional, Anywhere, MA

Bachelor of Science with a major in Nursing   1995

Associate of Science with a major in Nursing          


Massachusetts Nurses Association                          1999-Present

7 Caring Lane
Anywhere, MA  10101

CAREER OBJECTIVE:  to continue to develop my clinical competence through employment as a critical care staff nurse in a large teaching hospital. Or POSITION OBJECTIVE: Obtain a position in _________________utilizing my extensive experience in ____________________________.


  • provided comprehensive care to patients with complex medical/surgical conditions requiring highly technical interventions, i.e., Epidural Pain Management, Cardio version.
  • preceptor for new staff
  • ACLS certified
  • Peripheral Venipuncture Telemetry Certification


Spencer Hospital, Metropolitan, MA                              1992-Present

Staff Nurse & Rotating Charge – 40 Bed Post

Intensive Care Unit

  • Provided comprehensive care to an average of 7 acutely ill patients of various ages and ethnic backgrounds consequent to medical emergencies, trauma and surgical interventions
  • Supported patients and families in managing emotional issues associated with critical illness
  • Participated in continuing care planning
  • Collaborated in a design of Critical Care Maps for patients with radical neck procedures
  • Chaired the Unit’s JCAHO site visit preparation committee (1996) The Medical Center, Anywhere, MA                              1990-1992 Staff Nurse – Medical West
  • Served as the Primary nurse to 10 patients on a 32 bed unit specializing in the care of people with respiratory-related illness


American Heart Association

Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS)             1992-Present

Basic Cardiac Life Support (BCLS)                   1990-Present


University of Anywhere, Anywhere, MA

Bachelor of Science in Nursing cum laude            1996

The Medical Center, Anywhere, MA

Diploma 1990


Massachusetts Nurses Association

Member: Nurse Practice Committee                     1996-Present

Convention Committee                         1994


Full Name

Street Address

City, State, Zip Code

Telephone Number


(Although this is optional, many people believe that it is important to provide a sentence about the job that you are seeking. Often people develop several different resumes that begin with different objectives and emphasize different knowledge bases, competencies and skills in the body).

Professional Experience:

Spencer Hospital, Metropolis, MA

Staff Nurse and Rotating Charge/Surgical Intensive Care Unit (6/91-Present)

  • Managed care for 5 acutely ill patients immediately following complex surgical procedures
  • Participated in continuing care planning
  • Collaborated in the design of Critical Care Maps for …
  • Chaired the JCAHO site visit committee …

(Continue listing employers in reverse chronological order. If you have not worked at other agencies, but instead have worked on various units and/or in a variety of capacities, you may list those jobs in reverse order. Leave a space between each work experience and identify several (not more than five) unique components of each position. Bullet each of these components. Use an action verb to start each element (e.g. managed, collaborated, and chaired). People believe that you must list only the past ten years of work assignments and can abbreviate other experiences prior to that time. This really depends upon what you choose to emphasize).


University of __________________, City

Master of Science in Nursing – Currently enrolled

University of Massachusetts/Boston

Bachelor of Science in Nursing, 1990

Graduated cum laude

Diploma and/or Associate Degree Program


ACLS Certified

IV Certified

Professional Associations: