By the time you’ve done all the networking you can, hopefully you’ve warmed up some connections for jobs you can apply for. But at some point, no matter how much connecting you do, you’ll need a resume.
After ten years as a career counselor, I’ve probably reviewed over 7,000 resumes, read countless articles and books on the topic, and spoken to hundreds of recruiters about what they look for. A lot of resume tips are really opinion (sometimes stated as absolute truth by well-meaning friends and career advisors), but (in my opinion!) some are timeless truths that work every time. Here are five truths of resume writing which seem to me to be timelessly accurate, yet are so often ignored, it means a candidate who follows these rules is sure to stand out from the pile.
1. You MUST proofread, and proofread again. Then go back and read the resume backwards, word by word, until you’ve read it both ways. Then spell check. Then get a professional career counselor, and five friends, to proofread. Please, no spelling mistakes, no grammar mistakes. This goes twice as much for your cover letter as it does for your resume. I can’t tell you how many resumes get thrown in the trash (or recycling, as we do here in Seattle), because of a typo in the cover letter. And I won’t begin to tell you the type of shocking errors I’ve seen over the years. Suffice it say, I had a student who said she was majoring in “Fiance and Investments.” I think she meant she was majoring in finance and investments, but maybe she wanted a fiance and his investments…
2. The reader’s eye goes from the top down, left to right. Therefore, the more important something is, the closer it must go to the top and the further to the left it should go. When in doubt, scrutinize the job description (if you have one to go on). Actually recycle the words from the job description so your resume sounds as much as possible like the description. Put those accomplishments that illustrate the skills requested by the job posting first, and start cutting things that are not relevant, are at a lower level than you now can accomplish, or were from a long time ago.
3. Make it readable. Judiciously use white space. If you have trouble keeping to one page, get creative– use slightly smaller margins, and use a 5 point font as your blank line between jobs or education sections. Use fonts carefully. Please, please, I beg of you, don’t use curly or weird fonts. No funny stuff, no weird icons or pictures, unless you are going for graphic design jobs and know what you’re doing. Check your font sizes. I’ve read enough resumes by now that I can spot when a bullet point is a font size too big compared to the other bullet points in the resume– and I’ll bet recruiters can spot it too. It looks sloppy. Take out a ruler and make sure your margins (including internal margins, indents, etc.) don’t get wavy. Make sure a job description in your resume doesn’t flow between two different resume pages without your saying something like “XYZ Company, X Position, continued” to warn the reader.
Another tip about formatting: too much white space makes the reader think you have no experience. Don’t pad too much of the resume–recruiters can smell that miles away–but don’t leave so much white space they think you have no experience, either.
4. Prioritize. How much real estate does something take up in the resume? If your old camp counseling job from undergrad is taking up 1/3 of your resume, and your education section takes up a third, to me that means your old camp counseling job is the same, in terms of being able to get you your target job, as your entire education section. Is it really that important? Do you really need to list every school activity you’ve done and everywhere you’ve volunteered? Ask yourself, for EACH WORD on the resume, “What does this add, which is not listed elsewhere in the resume, to my target audience? What skills or accomplishments, which are of value to my target employer, are illustrated by this point?” Yes, I know it’s sad and difficult to delete things from the resume. I only recently deleted my favorite internship which I did in 1997. It was sad. But guess what? I’m too old to have internships on my resume anymore. And that’s kind of a good feeling, as a matter of fact.
One more interesting point: you can figure out how to prioritize certain statements in your resume by pasting the job description into a word cloud generator like www.tocloud.com and seeing which words are repeated the most, then pasting your resume into the same site. Do the most-repeated words match? If not, go back and revise your resume.
5. Don’t make vague claims. “Excellent interpersonal and communication skills” is a vague claim. A totally socially inept and uncommunicative person can claim he or she has excellent interpersonal and communication skills. How about “Proven ability to communicate with individuals of diverse backgrounds, ranging from teenagers to volunteers to elected officials.” or “Three years experience in public speaking, leading teams of up to 50 people; focused memo and report writing which successfully leads to policy change.” Give numbers and give results. Don’t just say “Wrote reports.” Instead, tell me “Conducted quantitative research and produced policy recommendations which led to a 20% improvement in program efficiency, saving the city $1.5 million in three years.”
If you don’t have outcomes to measure, at least tell the outputs. For example, if you can’t prove that your program saved the city $1.5 million in three years, at least tell us how many people you surveyed: “Conducted quantitative research with data sets of over 10,000 individuals, and produced policy report which was presented to the Commissioner.”
Another little quantifying tip: use the phrases “up to” or “over” when listing numbers. You processed applications for scholarships… and the day before the deadline, you received 100 scholarships in a day. Every prior week, you got an average of 20 applications. You can still say “Accurately processed up to 100 scholarship applications per day.” It’s still true, isn’t it? And the fact is, you have the physical ability to process that many applications. It makes you look more hard-working. “Up To.” My favorite resume phrase ever.
I’m just touching on a few top, key points here. There’s a lot more to the resume than just this. I’m not getting into whether you should use an Objective, or a Profile; or whether you should list your study abroad experience or not; whether your should list your GPA; or whether your education section should go first or last; or even whether you should be listing your hobbies or other personal details. Those things are really all a matter of opinion rather than truth, and the answer to those points, like many others about the job search, is “It depends.” I’ll have to get to those in future posts.