by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
As part of the celebration of Quintessential Careers’s 15th anniversary, we’re presenting lists of 15 tips on some of the most essential topics in college, job search, and career.
Yikes! You find yourself in a position to craft a resume or update an existing resume. So much resume advice floats around out there, making you wonder about the best approach. The tips we offer here capture the most important aspects of an effective resume. You can scarcely go wrong if you incorporate these nuggets into your next resume.
Here’s our list of the 15 best tips for job-seekers in crafting a winning resume.
- Don’t let creating a resume become an angst-ridden experience. Many job-seekers agonize over preparing a resume. Avoid the stress by using our free worksheets:
- Accomplishments Worksheet
- College Experience Worksheet for Resume Development
- Resume and Cover Letter Customization Worksheet
- Keywords Worksheet
- Resume Components Worksheet
- Resume Professional Profile/Qualifications Summary Worksheet
- Transferable Skills Worksheet
- Resume Critique Worksheet — (use this Web-based worksheet to evaluate your resume once you developed or improved it.)
- Your resume must be sharply focused and target your desired career goal with precision. Job-seekers tend to forget that employers review resumes extremely quickly — often in just a few seconds. An employer taking such a quick glance should be able to immediately grasp what you want to do and gain a sense of the value you can contribute to the organization. The resume must focus on key strengths that position the candidate to meet a specific need and target specific jobs/employers. In other words, employers don’t consider resumes that aren’t focused on a job’s specific requirements to be competitive. Employers and recruiters expect your resume to be precisely tailored to the position you’re applying for. The reader should be able to tell at a glance exactly what job you’re targeting and what need you will fill. The reader should never have to guess or wade through copious text to determine what job you want and what you’d be good at. An unfocused resume is a time-waster for the employer.
Ways you can sharpen your focus include a headline atop your resume stating the type of job you seek, a branding statement that positions you for a specific job or type of job (headlines and branding statements are often used in combination), a Qualifications Summary or Professional Profile section, a section listing your Core Competencies/Proficiencies/Areas of Expertise, strategic organization of your resume to position you for the job you seek, and bullet points describing your experience in a way that is specifically tailored to the position you seek.
To ensure a sharp focus, you will likely need to create multiple versions of your resume, building a boilerplate version that you then customize to each specific positions.
- Today’s resume must be keyword-rich. The majority of resumes submitted to employers today are handled by Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), which Wikipedia defines as software applications “that enable the electronic handling of corporate recruitment needs.” The systems store “candidate data inside a database to allow effective searching, filtering, and routing of applications.” Because applicant tracking software and keyword-searchable databases dominate today’s hiring process, successful resumes must feature cutting-edge industry jargon in the form of keywords. To read more about using keywords in resumes, see our article Tapping the Power of Keywords to Enhance Your Resume’s Effectiveness.
- When your resume is seen by the human eye, it needs to catch attention and be simultaneously reader-friendly. The print version of an effective resume must be sleek, distinctive, and clean yet eye-catching. Your resume should feature conservative, easy-to-read fonts, plenty of white space, a layout/design that goes beyond ordinary yet is not so far out as to turn employers off, and graphic elements that add interest, such as rule lines, boxes, shaded areas, and tables (for print version only, as these graphic elements will likely not hold up when entered into employers’ Applicant Tracking Systems.) Avoid instantly recognizable Microsoft Word resume templates. Employers have seen a million of them, so they don’t stand out.
- Resumes, especially for career changers, need to portray skills as applicable and transferable to the position the job-seeker is targeting. You need to show the employer that the skills you’ve polished will contribute to the bottom line, even if you seek a job different from what you’ve done in the past. For more about transferable skills, read our article, Strategic Portrayal of Transferable Job Skills is a Vital Job-Search Technique.
- Focus on accomplishments — not duties and responsibilities — that set you apart from other job candidates. In each job, what special things did you do to set yourself apart? How did you do the job better than anyone else or than anyone else could have done? What did you do to make it your own? What special things did you do to impress your boss so that you might be promoted? What were the problems or challenges that you or the organization faced? What did you do to overcome the problems? What were the results of your efforts? How did the organization benefit from your performance? How did you leave your employers better off than before you worked for them? For more about how to identify your accomplishments, see our article For Job-Hunting Success: Track and Leverage Your Accomplishments and our Accomplishments Worksheet to help you brainstorm your accomplishments.
- Spotlight your best selling points up front. “The Resume Ingredients Rule,” set forth by Donald Asher, author of numerous resume books (see our Q&A with him), notes that information on a resume should be listed in order of importance to the reader. Therefore, in listing your jobs, what’s generally most important is your title/position. So list in this preferred order: Title/position, name of employer, city/state of employer, dates of employment. Also consider whether your education or your experience is your best selling point and which should therefore be listed first. Generally, brand-new graduates list education first, while job-seekers with a few years of experience list experience first.
- Don’t bury relevant skills, such as technical and foreign-language skills, at the bottom of your resume. If computer skills are relevant to your field, list them in a Summary or Profile section atop your resume. That way, they’ll catch the reader’s eye in the first third of the document. Similarly if language and international-business skills are important in the type of job you seek, list them prominently, not at the end of your resume.
- Communicate your personal brand in your resume. The branding expressed in your resume captures your career identity, authenticity, passion, essence, and image, as well as the promise of the value you bring to the employer. For a branded resume, integrate a distinctive appearance, a consistent branding message woven throughout the document supporting the branded message you intend to convey, as well as a branding statement that defines who you are, your promise of value, and why you should be sought out. Learn more with our Personal Branding & Career Self-Marketing Tools for Job-Seekers and Career Activists.
- Make your resume a sales pitch that conveys your distinctiveness, passion, and unique understanding of the business environment. It must answer the employer’s question: Why you over any other candidate? Clearly, uniqueness is closely related to both branding and focus. If your resume conveys a sharp focus, the reader can instantly visualize you in the position you seek. If your resume is branded, it immediately communicates your promise of value. The uniqueness factor takes your resume to the next level by portraying you as not only in the position but the best person for the position, even the only logical choice for the position. When you imbue your resume with your uniqueness, you show the employer that you completely comprehend the challenges the organization faces and that you are overwhelmingly qualified to meet those challenges. If you have adequately sold your uniqueness, the reader reviewing your resume should say, “This person gets it.”
- Eliminate clutter from your resume. Among the elements can clutter up your resume and impede readability are unnecessary dates (such as dates of involvement in professional or civic organizations); parentheses (no need to set off dates of employment with parentheses; just use commas), articles — those little words, “a,” “an,” and “the,” most of which aren’t needed; and the line “References available upon request” (unnecessary because it is a given that you will provide references upon request.)
- Structure your accomplishments as stories — but tell them in reverse order. You’ve probably heard of a story structure commonly suggested for job-interview responses: Situation –> Action –> Result, sometimes expressed as Challenge –> Action –> Result or Problem –> Action –> Result. Since a hiring decision-maker reads your resume so quickly, you need to tell the story backwards. Grab the reader’s attention by giving away the ending first. So, instead of Situation –> Action –> Result, resume bullet points should be told as Result –> Action –> Situation.
- Quantify wherever possible. Employers love to see numbers — metrics that provide tangible evidence of results you’ve achieved. Use metrics such as percentage by which you’ve increased sales or cut costs.
- Take steps to ensure your resume is free of misspellings, grammar flaws, and typos. Proofread it. Set it aside overnight, and then proof it again. Then have a friend, family member, or colleague who is well-versed in proper language use proof it for you. Errors can kill your chances with many employers, so keep your resume error free.
- Keep your resume fresh and updated. Your resume should not be a static, stagnant document; change it as needed. If it’s not working for you, have it critiqued by a professional to see what you can improve. Update it the minute you start a new job. Track your accomplishments so you can add those to the document.
Final Thoughts on Creating a Successful Job-Search Resume
Resume-writing isn’t easy, but it’s not as overwhelming as it may seem. Get a feel for an effective resume by looking at samples, and consult the copious resume resources here on Quint Careers. If you still feel like you can’t do it, there’s no shame in consulting a professional resume writer.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.