by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., and Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
This article seeks to be the complete compendium on the questions that job-seekers most often asked about resumes. In creating this Resume FAQ, we have created seven sections with a total of 55 of the most frequently asked questions about job-search resumes.
Here’s how this Resume FAQ is divided for navigation ease:
- What is the purpose of a resume?
- What are the absolute, unbreakable rules of resume writing?
- What about “breakable rules” of resume writing?
- Do I need more than one version of my resume?
- If I’ve never created a resume before, how do I get started?
- What are the most important aspects of a resume, and how can I remember them?
- What should be included on a resume?
- There’s nothing tricky about listing my name, is there?
- What if my name is hard to pronounce or it fails to clarify my gender?
- How should I list my address?
- What other contact information do I need?
- Why does a resume need to be sharply focused?
- How can you sharpen the focus of your resume?
- Should I include my career objective on my resume?
- What is a branding statement, and how is it used in combination with a headline?
- What about a Profile, Skills Profile, Qualifications, or Strengths section?
- What are keywords and how should I use them in my resume?
- What is the Resume Ingredients Rule?
- What kinds of Licenses or Certifications should I list?
- What goes first — education or experience?
- What should I always list under the Education section?
- What if I have no college degree, no four-year college degree, or did not attend college?
- Should my other major heading be “Employment” or “Experience?”
- Should the Experience section be further broken down into subsections?
- How should my jobs be listed under the Experience section?
- Should I list company names first or job titles first?
- How should I list what I did in each job?
- How do I handle multiple jobs with the same employer?
- How far back should I go in my job history to avoid age discrimination?
- What if a former employer no longer exists or has changed its name?
- What are transferable skills, and what is their significance on a resume?
- How do I handle employment gaps?
- How can I avoid appearing to be a job-hopper?
- What if I have no paid experience?
- Which transferable skills are most in demand by employers?
- Why and how should accomplishments and achievements be incorporated in the Experience section?
- What are Situation -> Action -> Results statements?
- What is the significance of quantifying on a resume?
- What is parallelism, and what is its significance on a resume?
- What other sections could my resume include?
- Should I list Hobbies and Interests?
- Should I list References on my resume?
- How should I handle references?
- Should I use the line: “References available upon Request?”
- How can I position myself for a career or industry change?
- How do I handle relocation?
- As an entrepreneur transitioning back to the workplace, how can I make the most of my resume?
- How can I ensure my resume will be kept confidential?
- How many pages should my resume be?
- What are the most important design elements for a resume?
- What kind of paper should I use?
- How should I duplicate my resume?
- How should I mail my resume?
- How can I make sure I’ve covered all the bases with my resume?
- Should I hire a professional resume writer?
See also our special supplemental Frequently Asked Resume Questions for College Students and New Graduates.
I. Job-Seeker Resume Basics
What is the purpose of a resume?
- To get a job interview.
- To structure the interview process.
- To remind the interviewer of you after you’re gone.
- To serve as the basis for justifying the hiring decision to others.
What are the absolute, unbreakable rules of resume writing?
We believe there are only two absolute rules in resume writing:
These rules, however, are absolutes:
- No typos or misspellings.
- Do not lie.
Almost every rule you have ever heard can be broken if you have a compelling reason.
What about “breakable rules” of resume writing?
Many of the breakable rules of resume relate to the length a resume should be; all breakable rules are covered in other parts of this FAQ.
Do I need more than one version of my resume?
Most likely, yes.
- You may need more than one organizational format for your resume. See table below for the most common organizational formats.
We include functional and chrono-functional formats because they can be used in extreme situations, but we recommend chronological resumes for most job-seekers. Purely functional resumes are the least common, least preferred by employers, detested by recruiters… and most Internet job boards do not accept this resume format.
While the chrono-functional/hybrid/combination resume is slightly more acceptable to employers than the purely functional format, most employers are unaccustomed to functional formats of any kind, finding them confusing, annoying, and a red flag that something is wrong in your background. At the very least, they will probably scrutinize a chrono-functional resume more closely to check for details and find the flaws that inspired the candidate to use this format. Some employers insist on knowing exactly what you did in each job.
Recruiters/headhunters particularly disdain functional formats, so this approach should never be used if you are primarily targeting recruiters with your job search. Employers in conservative fields are not fans of functional formats, nor are international employers. Functional formats, even chrono-functional, also are not acceptable on many online job boards. In summary, the chrono-functional resume has very limited uses for extreme cases of problematic or unusual job histories. If you feel you have no other choice than a chrono-functional resume, we recommend you enlist a professional resume writer to craft the resume into a viable marketing tool.
See our article What Resume Format is Best for You?.
- You may need more than one delivery format for your resume. See table below for the most common delivery formats.
- Your E-resume’s File Format Aligns With its Delivery Method
- The Top 10 Things You Need to Know about E-Resumes and Posting Your Resume Online
- In additional to a possible range of organizational and delivery formats, you will probably want to customize each resume you send — at least to some extent — to the job you’re applying for. Use our Cover Letter and Resume Customization Worksheet to help you customize.
One additional delivery format to consider is a Portable Document Format (PDF) resume, which offers the advantages of being completely invulnerable to viruses and totally compatible across computer systems (requires software such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, a free download, to be opened and read). A resume converted to PDF, which carries a .pdf file extension, looks virtually identical to the original document from which it was created, thus preserving the resume’s visual appeal, and it also appears consistently from computer to computer. A few employers specifically request PDF resume files. However, for resumes placed in employers’ Applicant Tracking Systems (which comprises most resumes submitted electronically) PDFs are problematic because “applicant tracking systems lack a standard way to structure PDF documents,” cautions Jon Ciampi, CEO of Preptel, a company that aims to help job-seekers penetrate these systems (as quoted in an article on CIO.com by Meridith Levinson). Read our article, Pros and Cons of PDF Resumes in Job-Search.
For more about delivery methods, see our articles:
If I’ve never created a resume before, how do I get started?
Here are some suggestions for resources to get you started:
- Try the Inexpensive Resume Workbooks from the late Yana Parker.
- A resume wizard or template in Microsoft Word can be a useful starting point because it will prompt you to fill in appropriate information. Once you’ve used a Word template to start your resume, it’s best to customize the layout and design. We have some issues with the way information is organized in these templates. Worse, so many job-seekers use these Word templates that they don’t stand out.
- Use our Fundamentals of a Good Chronological Resume as a basic template.
- Get inspiration from our collection of more than 100 Free Sample Professional Resumes.
- If you’re really stuck, consider hiring a professional resume writer.
What are the most important aspects of a resume, and how can I remember them?
The most important things to remember about writing an effective resume can be encapsulated in a six-letter acronym, FAKTSA, in which the letters stand for:
- Transferrable Skills
Get more details about these elements in our article, FAKTSA: An Easy Acronym for Remembering Key Resume Enhancers.
II. Resume Components
What should be included on a resume?
We offer lists of the items that you absolutely must include in your resume and a list of optional items to consider including:
- Phone numbers*
- Email address
- Objective Statement (currently out of fashion; please click the preceding link to see what replaces the objectives statement)
- Headline and/or Branding Statement (often used instead of an Objective Statement); see more about career branding in our Career Branding Tutorial
- Professional Profile or Qualifications Summary (use this Professional Profile/Qualifications Summary Worksheet)
- Keyword Summary
- Transferable Skills
- Foreign travel
- The notation, “References available on request”
We also offer this list of items that should never be included on a resume:
- Height, weight, age, date of birth, place of birth, marital status, sex, race, health, social security number (except on an International Resume/CV)
- Reasons for leaving previous job(s)
- Name of boss or supervisor
- Street addresses and phone numbers of past employers (city and state is sufficient)
- Picture of yourself
- Salary information
- Specific names of references (more on this issue later)
- The title “Resume”
- Religion, church affiliations, political or other controversial affiliations: Any disclosure on your resume that could get you screened out as a candidate is risky. You may take the stance that you don’t want to work for an employer that would eliminate you because a hiring manager didn’t like your political beliefs or religious affiliation. But given that, for most candidates, religion, politics, and any other controversial affiliations are not relevant to your next job, it’s wise to leave them out.
There’s nothing tricky about listing my name, is there?
Use the name by which you are known professionally. If you go by your middle name, for example, you can list your name one of these ways:
- W. Scott Carson
- William “Scott” Carson
The same goes for nicknames. Keep in mind that some nicknames don’t exactly project professionalism, but if you are universally known by your nickname, you may want to list yourself that way on your resume.
With your name, list also any professional credentials (M.D., CPA, Ph.D.) that are integral to the job you seek.
What if my name is hard to pronounce or it fails to clarify my gender?
This issue isn’t as silly as it seems. Even if you’re well qualified, an employer may hesitate to phone you for an interview if he or she can’t pronounce your name or even doesn’t know whether to expect a male or female. For the difficult-to-pronounce name, include a phonetic pronunciation of your name in small type in the “letterhead” portion of your resume. Example: “Sally Hsieh (pronounced ‘Shay’).” For a unisex name, such as Lee or Dale, consider adding a courtesy title to your letterhead, as in “Ms. Lee Anderson” or “Mr. Dale Burns.” Especially consider adding a courtesy title if your name is almost always thought of as belonging to the opposite gender or if it is a non-English name, and English-speakers would not know whether to expect a man or a woman: “Ms. Michael Crane” “Mr. Jocelyn Smith.” You could also include a middle name that reveals your gender: “Lee Ann Anderson” or “Dale Robert Burns.” Of course, you may consider your ambiguously gendered name an advantage and prefer not to reveal your gender (even though your gender will become obvious if you’re called for an interview).
How should I list my address?
- List your permanent address
- Most college students give both a college address and permanent address
*What other contact information do I need?
While job-seekers were once advised to include as much contact information as possible, the emerging trend for contact information on a resume is to include a Website address/URL, city and state only (no street address), a single phone number (no second/third number, no fax number), and a single email address, says Findings of 2011 Global Career Brainstorming Day: Trends for the Now, the New & the Next in Careers, published by the Career Thought Leaders Consortium.
Make sure your email address is professional. You may also want to include links to online profiles, such as on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. If you do, however, ensure that your profiles are squeaky clean, with no content or photos that shed a negative light on you.
If you are in serious job-hunting mode and employers who call your phone are likely to get voicemail, make sure your voicemail greeting is professional.
III. Elements to Sharpen a Resume’s Focus
Why does a resume need to be sharply focused?
The reader needs to be able to tell in a quick glance what you want to do and what you would be good at. A recent study indicates that the reader will spend as few as 6 seconds screening your resume, so you need to focus the reader’s attention quickly.
How can you sharpen the focus of your resume?
- Use a branding statement or headline or both atop your resume.
- Add a profile/qualifications summary with keywords relevant to the job you seek.
- Add a keyword section relevant to the job you seek. See our Resume Keywords Worksheet.
- Beef up portrayal of accomplishments and transferable skills. Be sure to spotlight skills that apply to what you want to do next. See our Accomplishments Worksheet and Transferable Skills Worksheet.
- For college students and new grads: Consider adding class projects in your major (or other classes) that are applicable to what you want to do upon graduation. See our College Experience Worksheet for Resume Development.
Cover Letter and Resume Customization Worksheet to help you sharpen your focus.
Should I include my career objective on my resume?
Objective Statements have fallen out of favor. Many employers and recruiters claim they don’t even read them. That’s because most objective statements are badly written, self-serving, too vague, and not designed to do what they’re supposed to do, which is to sharpen a resume’s focus.
For a very detailed discussion of ways to sharpen your resume, see Your Job-Search Resume Needs a Focal Point: How Job-Seekers Can Add Focus to Resumes
What is a branding statement, and how is it used in combination with a headline?
A “headline” atop your resume usually identifies the position or type of job you seek.
A branding statement is a punchy “ad-like” statement that tells immediately what you can bring to an employer. A branding statement defines who you are, your promise of value, and why you should be sought out. Your branding statement should encapsulate your reputation, showcase what sets you apart from others, and describe the added value you bring to a situation. Think of it as a sales pitch. Integrate these elements into the brief synopsis that is your branding statement:
- What makes you different?
- What qualities or characteristics make you distinctive?
- What have you accomplished?
- What is your most noteworthy personal trait?
- What benefits (problems solved) do you offer?
See a good discussion of branding statements and headlines, with samples, starting in this section of our free e-book, The Quintessential Guide to Words to Get Hired By.
What about a Profile, Skills Profile, Qualifications, or Resume Strengths section?
Whether or not you choose to include an objective statement, branding statement, and/or headline on your resume, you may wish to present a Qualifications Summary or Profile section. In addition to Profile and Qualifications Summary, these resume-topping sections go by numerous names: Career Summary, Summary, Executive Summary, Professional Profile, Qualifications, Strengths, Skills, Key Skills, Skills Summary, Summary of Qualifications, Background Summary, Professional Summary, Highlights of Qualifications. All of these headings are acceptable, but our favorite is Professional Profile.
Twenty-five years ago, a Profile or Summary section was somewhat unusual on a resume. Career experts trace the use of summaries or profiles to include information about candidates’ qualities beyond their credentials to the publication of the late Yana Parker’s The Damn Good Resume Guide in 1983. For the last 20-plus years, resume writers have routinely included these sections; however, the age of electronic submissions has now caused the pendulum to swing the other way.
On one hand, electronic submission means that hiring decision-makers are inundated and overwhelmed with resumes and have less time than ever before to peruse each document. That means that many of them do not read Profile or Summary sections.
On the other hand, the age of electronic submissions has increased the importance of keywords so that candidates can be found in database searches. Even some of the hiring decision-makers who don’t read Profiles and Summaries advise including them as a way to ensure sufficient keywords in the resume.
A vocal contingent of decision-makers, especially among recruiters, strongly advocate for a Summary section — but one that is quite succinct — a short paragraph or single bullet point. They want to see in a nutshell who you are and what you can contribute.
For a detailed discussion of these sections, including guidelines for crafting them and samples, see Chapter 3 of our free e-book, The Quintessential Guide to Words to Get Hired By: Your Professional Profile: Bullet Points that Describe Your Strengths in a Nutshell.
Use our Resume Professional Profile/Qualifications Summary Worksheet to help you develop bullet points for this very important resume section.
What are keywords and how should I use them in my resume?
Inundated by resumes from job-seekers, employers have increasingly relied on digitizing resumes, placing those resumes in keyword-searchable databases, and using software to search those databases for specific keywords that relate to job vacancies. Most Fortune 1000 companies, in fact, and many smaller companies now use these technologies. In addition, many employers search the databases of third-party job-posting and resume-posting boards on the Internet. It is safe to estimate that well over 90 percent of resumes are searched for job-specific keywords.
The bottom line is that if you apply for a job with a company that searches databases for keywords, and your resume doesn’t have the keywords the company seeks for the person who fills that job, you are pretty much dead in the water.
To some extent, job-seekers have no way of knowing what the words are that employers are looking for when they search resume databases. But job-seekers have information and a number of tools at their disposal that can help them make educated guesses as to which keywords the employer is looking for. See a detailed discussion of resume keywords and how to identify them in our article, Tapping the Power of Keywords to Enhance Your Resume’s Effectiveness and use our Keywords Worksheet to help identify keywords for use in your resume.
What is the Resume Ingredients Rule?
Note: From author Donald Asher.
- Organize the information on your resume in accordance with your desired impact on the reader. This rule should govern which information you present and the order in which you present it.
- That’s why you always list your work experience in REVERSE chronological order — because your most important and applicable jobs are likely to be the most recent.
- You don’t want the first thing that the employer sees to be bagboy at the supermarket or waitress if you’ve had more important and relevant jobs.
What kinds of Licenses or Certifications should I list?
Any that are relevant to the job you seek.
IV. Handling Education and Experience on Resumes
What goes first — education or experience?
- It depends on whether your degree or your experience is your best selling point. Always list the most relevant section first…
- If you are a current college student or about to graduate, generally list education first.
- If you are currently working, generally list experience first. A good cutoff point for moving your Experience section to the forefront of your resume is a year to 18 months after graduation.
What should I always list under the Education section?
- If you have multiple degrees, list the most recent first.
- For each degree, ALWAYS list NAME of your degree FIRST.
- Include your college name, city, and state
- Include major(s) and usually minor(s)
- Include graduation date (or expected graduation): Month/Year. Once you’ve been out of school a year or so, you can omit the month. Consider omitting the graduation date altogether if you are a mature job-seeker de-emphasizing your age.
Special note to college students and new graduates: At this point in the FAQ, you may wish to take a side trip to our special Frequently Asked Resume Questions for College Students and New Graduates.
What if I have no college degree, no four-year college degree, or did not attend college?
If you have at least some college, list it. List an associate’s degree or incomplete studies toward a bachelor’s degree. For the incomplete degree, list the college, major, location, span of dates you attended, and, ideally, number of credit-hours completed. Your listing of an associate’s degree, incomplete bachelor’s degree, or no college at all should be beefed up with any training, professional-development, and certificate programs. In the unlikely event that you have absolutely none of these, leave off the Education section. Some employers (and most recruiters) will screen you out, but if you have succeeded in the past without educational credentials, your professional accomplishments will likely be enough to propel you to an interview.
Should my other major heading be “Employment” or “Experience?”
Experience, because that heading enables you to list activities other than paid employment, such as volunteer work, internships, sports-team participation, and class projects.
Should the Experience section be further broken down into subsections?
While a resume can sometimes include subsections, such as Relevant (or Professional) Experience and Other Experience, we find it confusing when resumes, especially those of college students, list multiple types of experience — internship experience, volunteer experience, extracurricular experience, leadership experience, etc.
How should my jobs be listed under the Experience section?
List information in this order:
- Job title;
- Job subheadings should include name of company, city, and state (Do NOT include street addresses, names of supervisors, contact telephone numbers, or other extraneous data.);
- Dates of employment (include month or seasonal descriptor and year);
- Bulleted list of key accomplishments (more to come on this subject);
- Company description (optional; often sought by recruiters and employers of senior-level job-seekers).
- Reporting relationships — title of person you reported to and titles and departments that reported to you (optional; often sought by recruiters and employers of senior-level job-seekers).
Should I list company names first or job titles first?
Generally, list job title first unless you are trying to call attention to the name of prominent companies for which you’ve worked. (Example: If you plan to enter the tourism industry, and you’ve had internships at Disney World, Sea World, and Universal Studios, you could list company names first).