Five Ways to Make Your GIS Cover Letter and Resume Stand Out

November 3, 2011

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A few weeks ago Caitlin Dempsey wrote a valuable piece at GIS Lounge about how to tilt the odds in your favor when looking for a geospatial/GIS job. One of her six points is “Make sure your resume sells you.” That’s very important since it’s that electronic document, along with a cover letter, that gets you on or off the list of those who make the first cut. I learned from speaking to attendees at a recent New England GIS event that one hiring manager received 117 resumes for one position. Two were GISPs, but even that didn’t help in narrowing the choices. I heard another hiring manager note that all the resumes she received suggested the individuals were capable, but none showed that “something extra” for which she was looking. I’ll go so far to suggest that all or nearly all of the candidates for these two positions have what Muki Hacklay at University College London refers to as an ARC/INFO driver’s license. That is, they can run GIS software. What, then, can make a single GIS resume and cover letter stand out?

I’m going to offer some suggestions, but bear in mind I’ve not been in a hiring manager position for some years (at least 10). I have, however, been on the receiving end of some resumes (I wrote about that in 2009) and I’ve read many, many applications for a graduate GIS program.

If you can say any of the following five things about yourself (whether you are currently employed or not!) and can detail how, they are worth weaving into your application documents.

I’m Keeping Up in the [Job Responsibility] Area

Let’s say you are looking for a programming job. Make sure you explain what you are doing to keep your skills sharp in Ruby on Rails or Python, for example. Explain what you are doing to keep an eye out for the next big “geo” language/technology platform/etc.

If you are in marketing, detail how you keep up on trends including what blogs or publications you read, what podcasts you follow, etc. You might even note in the cover letter a “hot topic” you are researching. Just be sure, if you are selected for an interview, you can, in fact speak intelligently on the topic!

Employers want to hire people who can help keep the company competitive.

I’ve taken my Geographic Skills to My Areas of interest

If you have a GIS driver’s license and some experience with, for example, parcel mapping, you are one of many who might be looking for a job in local government. However, if you have taken your GIS expertise (and used the same or new technology) in other areas, the group is far smaller. Did you map the little league fields in town and put the map up on the league website? Did you provide maps for the church bulletin? Did you help a non-profit organization map the illegal dumping sites in town? Offer your potential employer a link or a sample to show off your contribution.

Employers want to hire people who take initiative on things that matter to them.

I’ve Taken New Tools for a Spin

Most resumes include a list of software packages the applicant learned in school or used on the job. Few explain the time they spent evaluating and exploring the latest tools. At the New England event I attended, only seven of the 100 people in attendance had even played with Google Fusion tables. (I wonder how many have yet to try ArcGIS Online?) And, don’t feel limited to free tools; many vendors provide 30-day or 60-day or longer evaluations of their commercial tools. If you are clever you can probably leverage an even longer evaluation, if you offer the vendor something in return (a constructive critique, an article for a magazine, etc.).

Those in marketing can test out new social media tools; most are free. More importantly these days is to investigate social media measurement tools, which are less likely to be free, but as with technical software, have free trials. As I suggested before, if you do get the interview, be sure to be able to speak about your experiences with the tools.

Employers want to hire people who are looking to improve themselves.

I Write Well

The other day Amy Gahran retweeted this: @Annaleen: For the 1st time, but probably not the last, job applicant told me if I wanted writing samples I should just "read Facebook." If you are applying for a job to write other people’s Facebook updates, that might be fine, but for a GIS position, that probably will not do.

Do you have a blog where you write about what interests you in geospatial technology? Have you written for a technical publication? A GIS one? Have you been interviewed? Did you make a video (even an informal one) to explain to colleagues how to complete a challenging task? Any of those illustrate your communications skill beyond the basics of a grammatically correct, spell-checked cover letter and resume. In case there is any possible confusion: both technical and marketing people need to have solid communications skills.

Employers want to hire people who communicate well.

I’m Interested and Interesting

A number of years ago, I recall Jack Dangermond addressing some of us at Esri. It might have been one of those pre-user conference meetings. He made a point about how we as people should be both interested (in others, in the work of others) and interesting (be passionate about our work and be open to sharing it). Let’s face it, that’s the type of person everyone wants to meet at a party or work alongside each day. You want to convey both of those things, subtly, in your cover letter and resume. I think most people are both, even if they need to work harder on one side or the other.

Employers want to hire people who are good companions.


I do not mean to suggest that you inappropriately include these capabilities and achievements in your application package. If you can make these statements, I think they will help you stand out. It’s your job to tweak your cover letter and resume in order to get these key ideas across.


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