As my previous informational article was received well, and since I am regularly asked for help in writing and revising resumes, I decided it would be a good idea to put down some general advice here. Writing a good resume is not as difficult as it might seem, and it can be the key to getting you an interview, or even a job. Here, you will find reliable advice for crafting a resume that distinguishes you from other applicants.
The first thing to consider is what a resume is. Most would think of a resume as a factual record of past work and educational experience. While it can serve that purpose, it is not as effective as it could be when limited to that role. In truth, a good resume is a sales pitch. What’s being sold is you, the (potential) employee. This means you want to emphasize the details that make you the ideal candidate for whatever position you’re seeking. To that end, there are a lot of things you can do:
- Be concise. Limit your resume to 1 or 2 pages. References should be kept separate, and indeed, “References available by request” is not necessary to put on the resume itself. Employers simply assume you have references to give.
- Offer a professional summary. In the past, it was common to have an “objective” statement–a description of what you want. Employers don’t care what you want. They want to know what you bring to the table, and that’s what a professional summary is for. In the space of a few sentences, describe your job history, work style, and major skills and projects. Avoid speaking of yourself in the first person–that is, using “I.” This summary should offer a brief narrative of your career that gives prospective employers a good idea of where you’ve been and where you’re hoping to go.
- For technical or skill-oriented positions, provide a table of skills above your work experience. Up to a third of your first page should consist of a skills grid. List skills, technologies, and other key words that describe your proficiencies. These will mostly be used by automated resume-scraping systems to match your skills to positions, but hiring managers sometimes examine them, as well. If you find you have too many skills to list in the space allotted, cut out the ones that may be less relevant to the position you’re seeking, or that you are less confident in your ability to utilize on the job.
- Create effective accomplishment statements. These are the heart of your resume. For any position you list, provide the name of the company, its location (city and state are enough; country if outside the US), your job title, and the time period you held the position by month and year. Then, write a sentence or two describing your broad job responsibilities. After that, it’s time for the accomplishment statements! These are bullet points that draw attention to something you accomplished in the position. The first word should be an active verb, e.g. implemented, designed, created, produced, initiated, developed, organized, directed. Describe what you achieved and what positive benefits it produced for the company. If possible, provide numbers for the accomplishment: you increased efficiency 20%, eliminated 150 defects, etc. If you don’t have a concrete number, take your best guess. The thing to remember with these statements is that they will be almost impossible to verify. I am not suggesting that you lie or purposely provide false information, but that you cast your accomplishments in the best light possible, rather than downplay your successes. Accomplishment statements should utilize the skills listed in your skills grid, to make it clear to prospective employers exactly how you used the abilities you are advertising. Even if you can’t immediately think of anything you accomplished, take some time to ponder any actions you took that helped the company, or made it better for other employees or customers. In particular, instances in which you took initiative should be highlighted. I cannot stress enough how important these statements are. Most applicants do not make effective use of them, instead relying on rote descriptions of job responsibilities. These do not get the attention of employers, so it is crucial to sell yourself by outlining genuine accomplishments.
- List extracurriculars and special skills. Near the end of your resume, it may be wise to list any extracurricular activities you are involved with, or special skills that you possess which may not seem directly applicable to the position, but which could distinguish you as a candidate. For extracurriculars, consider social clubs, fraternities/sororities, or other organizations of which you are an active member. These make for useful networking signals. Special skills could include foreign languages or various certifications you have obtained. Certifications of particular relevance to the job should be listed in your skills grid or professional summary, though!
- Use simple, clear typefaces and modest styles. Unless you are applying for a design-related position, don’t try to wow hiring managers with elaborate fonts and formatting. Simple serif fonts and consistent use of bold and italic styles to provide a visual flow to your resume are sufficient. Resumes will tend to be read by automated systems much more than human beings, so investing lots of energy in the visual presentation, beyond having a clean, simple look, is a waste of effort. One way to make your resume stand out visually in physical form is to use something other than white paper. Not bizarre, neon colors, but off-white, cream, and other subtle deviations from plain white paper. If you have a personal letterhead, logo, or business card, include them with the paper resume so long as they are professionally appropriate.
- Make sure your email address is appropriate and professional. This may go without saying, but in the course of providing your contact information at the head of your resume, it reflects poorly on you to have “firstname.lastname@example.org” as your listed email address. Typically, using a combination of your first and last name or initials is the way to go. A nickname also works, as long as it’s not embarrassing or unprofessional.
- Tailor your resume to a specific employer. If there is a specific job with a particular company that you are seeking, don’t be afraid to revise your resume in ways that make it look more attractive to that employer. This might mean moving the appropriate skills to the top of your skill grid, to get them more attention, or writing more accomplishment statements that are similar to what the employer is looking for. Again, the purpose is not deception–don’t make things up!–but to advertise yourself as the best person for the job.
I don’t intend to go into any significant detail with regard to cover letters, but many of the same rules apply. A cover letter should summarize your career as well as your future job aspirations (as they pertain to the job you’re seeking now), highlight your skills and accomplishments–again, with an eye toward what the employer wants–and sell you as the superior candidate for the job.
Getting someone’s interest with your resume is only half the work, of course. The other half is successful interviewing, which I hope to cover in a future article.
Good luck out there!
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