Professional Learning

How to Make Your Résumé and Cover Letter Stand Out

A principal and district leader explains how teachers can write an effective résumé and cover letter—and then ace the interview.

April 20, 2023
t:SDI Productions / iStock

School districts are always looking for new teachers; the turnover rate is high. Over the past few years, many teachers have retired, decided to stay home for family reasons, or just had it with education. As a principal for 11 years and district leader for the past eight, I have read thousands of résumés and cover letters and conducted hundreds of interviews. 

Being strategic and focused in your job search will help you find relevant opportunities. Start by identifying your preferred teaching location and the grade level that you’re interested in, such as elementary, middle, or high school. Standing out during this time is challenging, so try the following strategies to find, apply, and interview for a teaching job.

The résumé and cover letter work in combination to create the first impression that a prospective principal has of you. Your cover letter tells a potential employer your story, while your résumé gives the details of your story. Both should leave the school leader and/or hiring team wanting to know more. 

Guidelines to Consider When Crafting Your Résumé

While your goal is to capture attention, you can hold interest without going overboard. Keeping your format simple and direct is best.

1. Make it visually appealing. The hiring team looks at your résumé before they read it. Make it neat and easy to read.

2. Ensure that it’s well organized. Don’t force the reader to search for important information like licensure or experience.

3. Have zero tolerance for mistakes. Ensure that there are no grammar/mechanical/formatting errors.

4. Don’t leave gaps in time. These raise red flags for the hiring team.

5. Optimize every word on the page. Use concise, powerful language.

6. Keep it a professional document. Skip cutesy graphics, images, and formats.

7. Stick to what you know. Don’t sprinkle in buzzwords that you don’t understand.

8. Focus on your achievements and results. Lists of duties aren’t impressive.

9. Don’t use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. This makes your résumé much harder to read and isn’t a good practice.

10. Pictures aren’t necessary. Your résumé is not a social media profile.

11. Using several fonts is confusing. Doing this makes your résumé look like a ransom note with all the changes in letters.

12. Including superlatives isn’t helpful. Avoid using phrases such as “Great performance as…” or “Outperformed ...” to emphasize your work.

Write a Straightforward Cover Letter

While you should share clear and engaging information about yourself in your cover letter, it's good to keep the following guidelines in mind to present a polished effect.

1. Use simple specs. Make it no more than one page, have a minimum three-quarter-inch margin, and use a font of at least 11 points.

2. Five paragraphs is long enough. Write an opening statement, include three paragraphs to highlight your fit in the school, and then add a closing statement.

3. Demonstrate your writing ability. Include proper mechanics, topic development, transitions, and good flow.

4. Capture yourself. Ensure that you explain who you are as an educator.

5. Communicate fit. Convey “I am a match for your school” without directly stating, “I am a match for your school.” Include phrasing about reviewing the school/district website, and weave in words and themes from the school’s mission and vision statement to show how your work connects.

6. Customize your letter. Address your letter according to the location. For a teaching job, “Dear Principal _____” is appropriate.

7. Review, review, review. Have at least five people you trust read the letter before you send it out.

Tips for Interview Time

So, you followed the strategies above and got a call to be interviewed. Now what? There are thousands of graduates looking to get into the teaching profession. A thousand more went back to school to be a teacher and are now trying to get their foot in the door to “get my own classroom.” A résumé gets you an interview, and an interview gets you a job. The nine tips below will help prepare you for an interview.

1. Relax. Take a deep breath and relax. The person who is interviewing you knows that almost everyone has some degree of nervousness during an interview. 

2. Be prepared. Nothing can sabotage an interview like being underprepared. Review your résumé, especially if you haven’t read the entire document in a while. Make sure that your contact information and references are up-to-date. Bring paper and a pen to take notes during the interview.

3. Research. Find out about the school district online or by asking other people. Learn what kinds of services they offer, what type of image they have in the community, and what kind of people work there. Many interviewers are impressed when you take the initiative to learn more about their school, which gives you an edge over other applicants.

4. Be honest. It’s not OK to list jobs you didn’t have or describe responsibilities that were never yours. Also, give truthful verbal responses, even if you think the interviewer wants to hear something else.

5. Be professional. Start with your attire. Dress professionally, which is appropriate given the position you are applying for. Casual dress pants, a button-down shirt, a dress, or a blouse and skirt are fine for many positions, while others might require a suit. Ask someone you trust if your clothes are appropriate. Posture is also important. Avoid slouching or leaning back in your chair—this makes you look disinterested, as though you aren’t taking the interview seriously. Keep eye contact with the person you’re meeting with, but don’t stare at them. 

6. Be polite. Say “Hello,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome,” and “Have a great day” in all the appropriate places. Turn off your cell phone—it’s a must.

7. Have references. Sometimes, the best résumé, the smartest cover letter, or even the strongest interview skills aren’t enough to persuade an employer to hire you. You’ll also need strong references from people who can sing your praises and attest to your professionalism. Have names and contact information for your references prepared. 

8. Ask questions. Remember, you’re interviewing the district as much as they’re interviewing you. So be inquisitive (but not pushy) about your potential work environment. Come prepared with a list of questions to ask at the end of their part of the interview; it’s your turn.

9. Practice. Many interviewers ask standard questions. Review them, come up with great answers, and practice them. Stage a mock interview with someone willing to help you—say your answers out loud to hear them before your interview. 

Remember: Prepare, be confident, and relax. Your cover letter and résumé are there to represent you and get you the interview; then it’s your time to shine. Good luck!

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