After 16 years as a career coach, I’ve probably reviewed over 8,000 resumes, read countless articles and books on the topic, and spoken to hundreds of recruiters about what they look for. While hiring managers and recruiters have their own personal tastes and styles, some resume tips are timeless truths that win them over every time. Here are five to keep in mind.
Remember: 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 can accomplish, or were from a long time ago.
How much real estate does something take up in your 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?
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 I completed in 1997! 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 Wordle 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.
Don’t make vague claims
“Excellent interpersonal and communication skills” is a vague claim. 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 organization $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 your organization $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.” The fact is, you have the physical ability to process that many applications.
“Up To.” My favorite resume phrase ever.
Make it readable
Judiciously use white space and select fonts carefully; stay away from curly or weird fonts. It’s OK to be boring here: 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 recruiters can spot it, too. It might be helpful to print out your resume and use a ruler to make sure your margins (including internal margins, indents, etc.) are consistent.
If your resume is two pages, make sure a job description doesn’t flow between them without 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.
Finally, you must proofread, and proofread again
Read your 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. This goes twice as much for your cover letter as it does for your resume.
I’m just touching on a few top, key points here. I’m not getting into whether you should use an objective, or a profile; whether you should list your study abroad experience or not; whether you should list your GPA; whether your education section should go first or last; or even whether you should be listing your hobbies or other personal interests. 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.
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About the Author | Heather Krasna is a career and executive coach with over 16 years of experience, as well as the author of Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service (Jist Publishing, 2010). Heather is an internationally-recognized keynote speaker, and currently Assistant Dean and Director of Career Services at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. You can find out more about Heather and her book at HeatherKrasna.com