Writing a resume isn't complicated, but it can sure feel that way sometimes. If you have a limited work history, creating a flawless, custom resume can be stressful and intimidating. But not to worry, we are here to help you learn how to make your resume stand out.
The trick to writing an engaging resume is to think big, then get specific. Start with everything you've accomplished, then pare down until all that's left is the information that's most relevant to the job you want.
Think of it like this, suggests Austin Belcak, founder of the career consulting firm Cultivated Culture. "If I went to a bar and used the same pick-up line on everyone, would I get a bite? Maybe. But I'd get rejected a lot." You're playing the same game by creating a one-size-fits-all resume and sending identical copies to every position you want to apply for.
"If I take time to notice that I like a person's sweater and pay them a compliment, or find I have something in common with another, am I doing better?" Belcak asks. "Probably. If I tailor my approach, I increase my chances."
Step 1: Tailor your resume to the position
Before you get down to fine-tuning your resume, you'll need to build a master document. This "master resume" is where you'll keep the details and dates of every achievement, educational accomplishment, and piece of work-relevant experience. With this document, you won't have to reinvent the wheel for every job. You'll only have to cut unrelated information, highlight or expand on experience that's relevant to the job, and make a few tweaks.
And don't stop at listing your paid positions. Detail challenges you faced, the actions you took to address them, and how the results of those actions benefited your company, student organization, team project or sports team. Share openly if your accomplishments saved money, defined a new system or process, or increased sales. Be specific about the value you bring to a potential employer.
"If you're just graduating, include not only an education overview but also the specifics," says Laura DeCarlo, president of Career Directors International and author of the book Resumes For Dummies. "Write down courses you took, what you learned and projects you did."
Step 2: Beat the ATS
The first hurdle your resume will need to clear is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), which hiring managers and organizations use to weed out unqualified applicants and those who don't include enough resume phrases or keywords.
"Human eyes won't even see your resume if you don't get past the robots," says Ashley Fogarty, account manager for recruiting firm Avenica. "Big companies use them because they get such a high volume of resumes. Smaller companies use them because the person hiring usually has a job to do in addition to hiring." No one has time to read all the resumes, so the ATS culls the list.
Getting past this machine is about using the right keywords. They're not a secret, though; you can find most of them in the job description. Here's a quick way to see if your resume can beat an ATS:
- Print out the job description and highlight the words you think are keywords (these can include qualifications, skills and degrees).
- Compare it to the important skills on your resume. How many can you find?
Make sure your resume is in a text format so the machine can read it. If you create a flattened PDF or put relevant information in a graphic element, the bot won't see it. First and foremost, you should submit your resume in the preferred file format that's mentioned in the application instructions.
Step 3: Organize your experiences
If you made it past the bots, the next likely hurdle is a person, but it may not be the hiring manager. This person's job is to reduce a too-large pile of resumes down to five or ten that will go to the hiring manager. They're scanning and sorting as quickly as possible, so to make it into the "short stack," you must make it easy for them: make the keywords jump off the page.
"This person will look at the things that are top line and bold," says Samantha Spica, partnerships and communications manager at job site Fairygodboss. Formatting goes a long way here. Put important skills and experiences in bold at the top of the page.
If your resume looks amazing, that will help. "There's a reason we don't all drive gray cars and wear all gray," says DeCarlo. "When everything looks the same, we get bored." Punching up the look could be as simple as:
- Varying font sizes
- Bolding section headers
- Using text boxes to highlight highly relevant information
Do you have a glowing testimonial from a boss who always praised your work? Put that in a text box. Of course, don't let your resume become a mess of colors, boxes, and styles. Maintain a clean and streamlined look but add some interesting visual elements that will draw the eye.
DeCarlo recommends having a keyword section, right at the top of your resume, for this stage in the process. "Call it your 'Areas of Expertise' and make it a three-column, bulleted list of keywords," she says. "A person scanning will have only a few seconds … Having the right keywords at the top can assure your place in the 'maybe' pile."
Step 4: Show that you're interesting and make a connection
If you made it through the gauntlet of bots and gatekeepers, congratulations! Now a person familiar with the job will sit down and read your resume. For this phase, your resume needs to convince the hiring manager that you will add value to their organization. You want your personality and the difference that you'll make in the role to shine through. If you can make a connection with this hiring manager, rather than just listing everything you've done, you stand a better chance of getting a call.
"My favorite thing to do is add a quirky interest section," says Belcak. "It won't get you past the bots, but it helps with the humans." Instead of saying you like to read, travel, and cook, be specific.
- Name a book you're reading
- Describe a perfect travel adventure
- Share a recent cooking success
"Let's say that I said my favorite travel adventure was eating ramen at Jiro's, the place made famous by the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi," explains Belcak. "Maybe the person reading this has eaten at Jiro's or wants to. Now I have a leg up on the other people in the pile."
It is imperative that you write a customized resume and cover letter for each job you apply to. While creating a unique resume for each job takes more time than just sending out the same document to every prospective job, it's time well spent. After all, getting one call from a hiring manager who wants to learn more about you (and your favorite book) is a lot more fun than getting 100 machine-generated rejections. You can use LiveCareer's Resume Builder to start crafting your unique resume in just three simple steps.