A (Crazy Long) Post About Resume Writing

Employers spend 20-30 seconds deciding if a resume makes it worth meeting the applicant. This sounds like zero time, but it’s really more than enough because they know what they’re looking for. It’s really easy for an experienced reviewer to tell who is qualified and who is not by seeing what the applicant chose to highlight in their resume… and even how they chose to organize it! Many job seekers have no idea how to crack to resume code, but this post will help! We’ll go over the ins and outs of this critical document, and you’ll leave with the knowledge necessary to create on that will get you hired.

This is a crazy long post, but it’s also crazy informative. Bookmark it… or download the workbook and go at your own pace… or enroll in the course! So. Many. Options. Choose your own adventure!

The What

A resume is a strategic marketing document meant to briefly outline your key professional accomplishments in relation to a particular position or (at the very least) industry. It is not the place for you to explain your entire professional life or write out your professional goals and aspirations. (Save these details for LinkedIn!) Instead, a resume is a brief – typically 1 page – document that is meant to give the reader an idea of what you have done and how you could contribute to their organization.

Now that we’re working with the same definition, let’s get to work!

Research and Prewrite

Depending on your industry, your resume might be the only thing you use to apply for a job. If this is the case, and it’s the only thing that represents you before an interview, it has to be amazing. It has to effectively communicate what you’ve done and how these accomplishments relate to the job the employer wants you to do. Most importantly, you have to show that you’re qualified to do the job you’re applying for. The easiest way to signal to employers that you’re not qualified is to break their rules.

Every industry has rules about what resumes should look like, and it’s up to you – the applicant – to figure out what they are for the industry that you want to enter. Sections, acceptable fonts and formatting, etc. can vary so it’s best to do some research. How do you do this?

  • Ask people in that field for tips (bonus if they’re recruiters or hiring managers).
  • Look at samples online – You can often find industry-specific examples via a simple Google search, and sometimes you can see job-specific examples (rare, but still there).

There are also education and career-level considerations. In addition to the industry-specific standards, you have to keep your own career level in mind and create a resume that matches this. For example, if you’re a fresh college grad, your resume should be one page – academia/research are really the only exceptions to this rule. (And high school should not be on it because it looks like you’ve peaked. Not a good look!) If you’re an experienced professional with 5+ years of post-grad (any level of grad) experience, your education shouldn’t lead your resume because your work experience is more relevant, especially in tech and business.

Organization of a (Typical) Resume

Heading:

  • The first thing on your resume, always
  • Your name and contact information
  • Must include: name, email, phone number
  • Should include: LinkedIn profile URL/links to any online portfolios that are useful
  • Can include: home address (very useful if your education and experiences are in a totally different location than the job you’re applying for so that employers know that you’re local and thus more serious about the job)

Education:

  • Unless you are an experienced professional (5+ years in the same industry), this part comes second
  • Always Include
    • All institutions attended in reverse chronological order (most recent first)
    • Graduation dates
    • Undergrad GPAs if above a 3.0 (not grad GPA because the degree is enough)
  • Can also include
    • Study abroad experiences
    • Academic honors, awards, and industry-related certifications
    • Relevant coursework (relevant to the job, not implied by your degree)

Relevant Work Experiences:

  • Should take up the bulk of your resume
  • Entries in reverse chronological order, and must include: Company, job title, location (city and state), and dates of employment (month and year are enough)
  • You don’t need to include every single thing you’ve ever done – hence the name “relevant work experience”
  • Quick notes on bullet points (as we’ll go deeper into making these bullets as effective as possible in a later section)
    • Don’t need to be the same number for each entry
    • Shouldn’t be more than 2 lines
    • Don’t need to be full, grammatically correct sentences (avoid punctuation)
    • Never start with “I”, as it is implied that you are describing your own experiences

Skills:

  • Hard skills only because they are able to be assessed
  • Qualify your levels (expert, beginner, working knowledge, etc.)

Interests:

  • Very last part – adds personality and humanity to your resume
  • Should include professionally-appropriate things that you do outside of work

Other sections you could have”

  • Objective/Summary Statement – really only necessary if you’re a career-changer
  • Activities – good for students and people without a ton of work experience (or gaps in their experiences)
  • Publications – always a good thing to add if you have them (and have the space for them)
  • Other Work Experiences – if your relevant experiences make it look like you haven’t been consistently employed, add these right below your main experiences section
  • Projects – another good one for students, but is also useful for freelancers or the self-employed who are looking to (re)enter the traditional workforce

Writing Effective Statements (AKA: Making your bullet points work!)

Every time I talk about resumes, I tell people to focus on results and accomplishments rather than tasks and responsibilities. Why? Because employers want to see what you’ve actually done, not just hear what you were supposed to do. For example, if you were hired to manage social media for a start up, and ended up growing their Twitter following by 10,000 people and making the company $400,000 a month, you don’t want to say “Managed social media” because what you accomplished was so much more valuable than that.

In a nutshell: You need effective resume statements that show the reader the breadth and depth of your experiences so that 1) they know what you did and 2) they hire you… And nobody is going to hire you if you sell yourself short!
But how do you do that? How do you make sure that you have effective resume statements that communicate the best, most informative parts of your experiences? Let’s look at some examples.
Ineffective resume statements look like this.

    Was responsible for managing databases

    Made phone calls to get new clients

While these are okay starts, they certainly aren’t enough. They’re bones that need flesh on them. When writing resume statements, you need to think about exactly what you did and be as specific as possible. It is your responsibility to paint a picture for the reader. After all, you can’t sit with them and explain your experiences until you’re offered an interview. But with a resume with statements like the ones above, an interview is a highly unlikely scenario.

So let’s fix them!

Was responsible for managing databases

This statement begs questions like…

  • How many databases?
  • What was the process for managing them?
  • What types of databases were they?
  • What technology did you use? (Excel? Access?)
  • Why were you managing the databases?

By answering these questions, you can provide a richer description to your resume statements and paint a more detailed picture of what you did. That tiny statement can turn into something like this:

Managed five databases with sensitive client information using Excel by manually tracking changes and backing them up on the office server on a daily basis

See what I mean? Now let’s do another one!

Made phone calls to get new clients.

What questions come to mind for you? For me, I’m wondering things like…

  • How many phone calls per day/week/shift?
  • What was the success rate?
  • Why were you tasked with getting new clients?
  • Were you part of a team?
  • Were there goals involved?

New statement: Initiated contact with 25+ new clients per week with the goal of signing them up for the cable services; converted 65% of calls, which led the department for 3 months straight

Boom. Effective resume statement.

But what did we actually do there? And, most importantly, how can you do it on your own? It’s a simple four-step process.

  • Step 1: Start with an action verb.
  • Step 2: Describe the action: what was it, who it was for, and (if possible) quantify it.
  • Step 3: Give the result, goal, purpose, or benefit of the action.
  • Step 4: Frequency (optional but recommended)

Now that you have the framework, let’s break down the previous statements with these steps.

Managed five databases with sensitive client information using Excel by manually tracking changes and backing them up on the office server on a daily basis

  • Step 1 (verb): Managed
  • Step 2 (who/what/why/how/how many): five databases with sensitive client information
  • Step 3 (result/goal/purpose/benefit): using Excel by manually tracking changes and backing them up on the office server
  • Step 4 (frequency): on a daily basis

Initiated contact with 25+ new clients per week with the goal of signing them up for the cable services; converted 65% of calls, which led the department for 3 months straight

  • Step 1: Initiated
  • Step 2 & Step 4: contact with 25+ new clients per week
  • Step 3: with the goal of signing them up for cable services; converted 65% of calls which was the best in the department for 3 months straight

This last one proves an important point: the steps don’t always have to come in order! As long as you start with an action verb, feel free to mix around the next three steps to construct a statement that makes the most sense. As long as they’re all there, the resume statement will be effective.

Having a resume with this type of detailed, specific, outcomes-focused content will definitely set you apart from the pack. While it’s certainly easier to write resume statements focused on duties and responsibilities instead of accomplishments and results, it won’t get you the ultimate result you want: a job. To get one, you have to show employers what you did instead of telling them what you were supposed to do.

Formatting

Margins:

  • 0.5 – 0.75 inch margins are standard across the board
  • 1in is too much, and makes your resume look empty
  • All margins should match their opposite (sides should be the same, top and bottom should be the same)
    • Usually there is a ton of space at the top and very little at the bottom… fix this! It looks weird.

Fonts:

  • 10-11 are standard across the board
  • 12 is way too big, and makes it look like you’re compensating for lack of content
  • 9 is too small, and looks like the fine print of a contract…
  • Should be readable and standard across word processing software
    • If you’re using anything outside of this, make sure you send your resume as a .pdf or else it won’t translate and your document will look jacked up
    • Playing with fonts is the easiest way to fix a too long resume

Now that you have a basic resume (woohoo, congrats!), it’s time to 1) make it fit the position and 2) make it look like you. Here’s how to do those things… in that order.

Tailoring

Unlike cover letters, you can usually use the same basic resume across multiple applications. As long as you are applying for similar positions, you don’t have to change much for it to be effective. Buuut you do have to change stuff! Why? Because every job is different, even when they look the same. For example, a marketing position at a nonprofit is different from a marketing position at a startup is different from a marketing position at a financial services firm. You need to tweak your resume to reflect that you understand the nuances of the industry that you’re seeking to enter.
If making changes to your resume sounds like a daunting task, relax! It’s not. Here’s how to quickly tailor it for any position.

  • Look at the job description and focus on the responsibilities and qualifications sections. Then, compare the contents of these sections to your resume. Make note of where your experiences match what they’re looking for. (If the application requires you to write a cover letter, these points of consistency are great things to highlight in your body paragraphs!)
  • Wherever possible, replace your resume keywords with the ones they use in the job description. Only make one-to-one swaps, don’t just sprinkle them in out of context – your resume still needs to make sense! (Also, it must be true.) For example: You say “put together and sent out a newsletter.” They want someone to “Compile and disseminate a newsletter.” Use their words.
  • Why this works: Doing this unconsciously connects your resume to their job. In many cases, the person reviewing the resumes is the same person who wrote the job description, so by using their words, you make the process and figuring out if you’re qualified as easy as possible.

 

Personalizing (also found here)

While colors, cool design elements, and charts will help you cosmetically personalize your resume, they might not be industry appropriate. (We talked about industry standards before, remember? If not, scroll up!) For creative jobs, you should absolutely have a nontraditional resume. Those employers will appreciate the effort and skill involved in creating your unique document. In such industries it’s expected that applicants will come in with a brand, so it won’t be off-putting to HR. (Unless your brand sucks.) More conservative fields like law, financial services, and accounting would scoff at a resume that was in a nontraditional format. I’ve heard stories of banking recruiters pulling out rulers to ensure that all of the margins are the same width… so yeah, no fancy-shmancy resumes allowed!

Still, people seeking to enter these industries should try to stand out. Your resume shouldn’t be completely devoid of personality, you just need to do it in the content rather than formatting. (And even if you can have cool formatting, this should not exist in lieu of killer content. Don’t ever think a dope font will make up for no experience!)  Many resumes for these industries – especially those of recent college grads – look exactly the same. Same majors, same coursework, same activities. There could be differentiated by school attended, but often that’s it. Most applicants are concerned about getting off the proverbial pile – “How can the recruiter remember me if I look the same as everyone else?” – because that’s how you get hired. The key to doing this is focusing on the ‘human quarter’ of your resume.

The human quarter is the end part of your resume, after your work experience section, where you share your extracurricular involvement, volunteer activities, skills, and interests. I call it the human quarter because it is 1) roughly a quarter of your resume (if it’s a one-pager) and 2) it is where you can show who you are outside of your education and work experiences. Show that you have a life. Show that you have interests and activities outside of the ones required for the job. Show that you’re a human, not an industry robot.

We went over the skills and interests part before, but let’s dig a little deeper into skills (because interests are pretty straightforward). For this section to be effective, you want to be strategic. Make sure…

  1. The skills are either relevant to or a value-add for the job you’re applying for. Reference the job description for the ones they are looking for and if you have them, write them down. Then think about the skills that you have that aren’t referenced but you believe would be attractive for employers. For example, if you’re applying for an editorial assistant job at an online publishing company, adding skills in SEO and Google Analytics would be great. Even if they’re not asking for it, those are valuable skills to have in your industry.
  2. You only include hard skills that you can prove you have. Things like “strong communicator” and “hard worker” are soft skills that should not be in a skills section. Instead, they should be discussed (or at least implied) by the way you describe your experiences.
  3. You’re honest about your skill levels because you never know if you’re going to be tested. When in doubt, downgrade. Write the level just below the one that you think you have. Therefore, if someone questions you, you over-perform rather than under-perform.

The activities part depends on where you are in your life. For this section to be useful, you have to be involved in things. If you’re still in school, this is super easy. Join clubs, go to their meetings, get involved in an activity or two (bonus points if you hold a leadership position) and write it down. Easy-peasy. You’re a human.

When you’re a working professional, it becomes significantly more difficult to make this part meaningful. Depending on the combination of your location and interests, there may not be a lot of opportunities for this. If this is the case, you need to be get creative. Sites like Meetup.com are great for finding productive activities to engage in. Also, local (and virtual) chapters of national organizations could provide a way to connect with groups who are doing things that you care about. Finally, volunteer projects, whether formalized or just you stepping up, is a great way to fill in this section.

In addition to showing employers that you care about things other than your job, the human quarter of your resume also shows that you have concrete ways to switch gears from work. This is really important in demanding industries where employee burnout is a major concern. Contrary to the popular idea that companies want workers to commit their entire existence the company, more and more employers have recognized the value of allowing their employees to lead full lives. They know that you can be great at your 9-5 while having a completely different 5-9. Therefore, you shouldn’t be afraid to show personality and humanity on your resume because any employer worth their salt won’t be offended by it. And if they are, then you should think about whether or not it’s a place that you even want to work.

Having a strong resume that is easily customizable is the first step in any job search. I hope this crazy long post was also (as I predicted) crazy helpful, and that you have a better grasp on how to create an application-ready resume so you can get the job of your dreams.

As I said in the intro: I think this post is super useful, so I made it into a workbook! (Word? Word.) Download the interactive version so you can practice on your own. In addition to activities, there is also a list of 500+ action verbs (for your effective resume statements) and a resume checklist so you can assess your work when you’re finished. How dope is that?

About

Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.