Illustration by Avirup Basu
Trying to land an interview in the UX job market? It’s no secret that—as high as the demand remains for UX designers—UX is a competitive field to break into. A well-crafted cover letter and resumé could be the edge that makes you stand out.
A standard application packet for a UX design job is made up of three components: your cover letter, resumé or CV, and portfolio. There are a lot of resources out there with tips for crafting an excellent UX portfolio, but not as many that focus on the cover letter and resumé—yet they’re the very first thing many hiring managers look at!
Here are some tips that will help you craft an outstanding UX cover letter and resumé.
1. Understand the purpose and importance of a cover letter and resumé.
These two documents are the proverbial “handshake” with a potential employer—your opportunity to make a great first impression and get them interested in you as a designer and as a new addition to their team.
Any UX design job you apply for will require some kind of summary of your work experience and skills—and, unless a company is stepping pretty far outside the now, that takes the form of a resumé or CV. And even though some companies or job postings will make a cover letter optional, it plays an important role in helping hiring managers understand your motivation in applying for that particular role.
In fact, according to a 2020 survey conducted by ResumeLab, a cover letter is important in the final hiring decision for 83% of HR professionals and recruiters. And in situations where the cover letter is optional, 77% prefer candidates who submit a cover letter anyway. That said, faced with a poorly written or “cookie cutter” cover letter, many hiring managers will simply move on to the next applicant.
Think of it this way: your cover letter introduces you as an intriguing candidate who is motivated to apply for this particular role at this particular company—and ideally, as a candidate with goals, values, ideas, and experiences that are a good match for the company and the role. Your resumé gives the hiring manager a brief outline of the work and education that’s prepared you for the job. It shows them that you’ve done relevant work and training, and gives some context for your portfolio—which will highlight the processes and results of only some of the work history that you outline in your resumé.
So, even if a cover letter or resumé isn’t required, if you can craft them well, they’ll provide hiring managers with a more complete, dynamic picture of who you are, what you do, and why you’d be a great fit for their team.
2. Do your research
Before you download a template or copy/paste an formulaic cover letter into Google Docs, apply some UX to your application packet: think of the company and the hiring manager as your “user” and do some research to better understand their needs and goals. This will allow you to craft a cover letter and resumé that really connects with your target audience.
Ashley Sigmon, Senior Career Specialist at CareerFoundry, advises aspiring UX designers to “spend time not just looking at the posting, but also reviewing the company, watching their videos, getting a feel for the business and the brand. Try to get a sense of the kinds of problems that the company solves for their clients, and/or that you can solve for the company. Tailor [your] resumé and cover letter to reflect how you [will] solve those problems.”
Learn as much as you can about the company and use that information as you decide what motivations, experiences, and other details to include in your cover letter. Then take that information and go through your resumé; look for ways that you might reorder or re-frame the existing information or include other work or volunteer experiences that you might have left out before, but that you realize are relevant to this particular role.
For example, let’s say you’ve got experience working with a particular tool, or in public speaking or some other “added value” skill that you didn’t include in your resumé. You’ve found a job posting that lists experience working with Sketch or giving presentations, not as a requirement, but as an optional bonus. Be sure to list these in your resumé or mention them in your cover letter!
Beyond the skills and experiences you choose to highlight, do your best to tailor other details to the specific company and role. In your cover letter greeting, do your nest to avoid “Dear Sir or Madam,” “To Whom It May Concern,” and the like.” These options are too general, overly formal, and outdated. If you can, find out the hiring manager’s name and greet them directly in your cover letter. Remember to avoid gendered titles (Mr, Mrs, Ms, etc.) unless their gender or pronouns are clearly stated elsewhere. If you want to include others who might read your cover letter prior to an interview, a “Dear [Company Name] hiring committee” can go a long way.
Resumés often include a brief summary of the applicant at the very top of the page. If you’ve crafted one that effectively and succinctly describes who you are as a designer, great. Just be sure that this description matches up with what you know about the company’s values and goals.
No matter what your timeline is for finding a job in UX, remember that the quality of your applications is far more important than the number of applications you submit over a given period of time. In fact, rushing to click that “submit” button is often what leads to the kinds of errors that will cause hiring managers to give an application an immediate “pass”—such as leaving another company’s name in the cover letter.
Always tailor your cover letter and resumé to the specific job posting you’re responding to—and to the company that’s hiring.
3. Keep it short, relevant, and specific
Take the perspective of the hiring manager, sitting at their desk, clicking through one application after another. More than likely, this person has A) a lot of applications to get through, and B) many other tasks to complete that day. So they’re probably going to do a fair amount of skimming or at least rapid reading, and your application has about 10 seconds (or less) to make it through an initial screening.
What this means for you is that you need to make both documents as succinct as possible—without coming off as too “run of the mill,” uninterested, or unimaginative.
A cover letter that’s up to a page long is acceptable, but only if it’s extremely scannable—short paragraphs with plenty of whitespace, bullet points, and mindful selection of fonts and formatting. If you reach the bottom of that first page (or near it), though, consider asking a friend for some objective feedback on what you can change or cut out of the letter to make it even more concise. Challenge yourself to write 250 words or less.
Ideally, your resumé is also no longer than one page. You’ll want plenty of detail on your work history and accomplishments, your skills, and any other competencies you need to highlight and you’ll likely need at least a full page if you’ve got even just a couple of years of work experience. Avoid the temptation to just make the font smaller.
Instead, sift through your work experience and the requirements listed in the job posting and feature only the most important ones. You can always take a moment in your cover letter to explain any gaps this leaves in your employment history.
It’s also important to include specific, quantifiable data when it’s possible. When you’re describing your work at a particular company, don’t just say that your work resulted in “improved conversions,” for example—give a specific number or percentage. This kind of detail gives hiring managers a clearer idea of A) the kind of impact your work has, and B) your own attention to these details (and thus an awareness of business needs and goals).
4. Make the most important information the most visible
Information architecture applies to cover letters and resumés! Don’t make hiring managers go hunting for the information that’s most relevant to the job. Many templates build in some of this prioritization, but certainly not all of them.
For your cover letters, the structure and tone might change based the sense you have of the company’s brand and values. But generally speaking, this is a good outline to follow:
- Customized greeting
- The job you’re applying for
- Why you’re applying for this particular job at this particular company
- The unique value you’d bring to the role
- Invitation to reach out to you
Resumé structure is a little more complex, because it could vary depending on the skills, values, and qualifications the company is looking for. Many resumé templates include some degree of information architecture, but don’t fully rely on that!
Ryan Yang’s resumé is a great example of prioritizing information. Here, you’ll see his name and personal brand, along with his contact information, highest on the page. His work experience, though, is given priority in the body of the resumé:
After he details his relevant work experience, he gives potential employers a look at his educational experience, along with his UX skills and the tools he’s most familiar with:
In general a UX designer’s resumé will focus first on work experience and training, then skills and tools. But this could be different depending on the company, the role, and your background.
Pay attention to how the job posting is written. These postings are rarely written without a great deal of intention. What skills and experiences do they list as “must haves”? What company values do they highlight? Even the structure of the posting can be indicative (what do they say first, versus last)? Write down what you notice and what seems most important to them. Then use your observations to determine which of your skills, qualifications, and experiences to include and in what order. This can also help you decide what to give a heading, an image, or a separate section to make it more eye-catching.
How you structure your resumé could also depend on your background. For example, if you’re looking to break into UX from a seemingly unrelated background, you’ll want to highlight your transferable skills in addition to any you’ve gained through a UX design course or bootcamp. You’ve got work experience that, on first glance, might seem unrelated. Consider featuring your skills first (including transferable skills), followed by your recent education and volunteer roles, and save other work experiences for last—using any description of your work to highlight the UX-related skills you developed there.
5. Take time to polish the visual design
Don’t underestimate the power of visual design in getting your application noticed. Now, this doesn’t mean everything (or anything) in your application packet should be flashy, obnoxious, or in any way “over the top.” It simply means that you should be mindful and intentional with the fonts, color palette, layout, and any visual assets you include.
Make sure that the design of these two documents is clean, clear, extremely scannable, and visually striking—even if it’s strikingly simple. Let the design of these documents be, to some extent, a reflection of who you are as a designer. Make it more than a simple document file; add just a little more design flare.
Don’t forget to take your portfolio design into account here as well. Your application packet needs visual coherence—markers of your personal brand, if you will. This will help to make you more memorable and provide a cohesive experience to the “users” of your application packet.
It really is true that writing the perfect UX cover letter and resumé comes right back down to doing what you already do best: developing a deep understanding of who your audience is, what they need in a UX designer, and what their goals are for their team.
Do your research and take the time to craft a unique cover letter and resumé for every application you complete. You’ll have hiring managers smiling over their morning coffee, rather than slogging through a stack of near-identical applications. And even better: you’ll be far more likely to apply to fewer jobs and still land that dream job in UX.