Resume Writing Essentials

When someone says “You have a great resume”, they probably aren’t talking about its format and creative design.  If they are in a hiring position, what they mean is simply that your qualifications and track record jump out quickly as right for the position at hand.  After many years of recruiting I can say confidently that it is rare to find a qualified candidate “Upon further review” – you know it in the first 30 seconds.

Writing a great resume is a function of thinking like your audience and giving them what they want to know.  In doing this, remember the purpose of your resume.  That purpose isn’t to get you a job – you’ll have to do that yourself.  Its purpose is to merely get you an interview or contact from an influencer of the selection process that gives you a chance to intervene and make your case for moving to the next step.

Getting an Interview

Every reader of a resume wants to know three things:

  • What have you been doing?
  • How long have you been doing it?
  • How well have you been doing it?

Abstracts and executive summaries have a place, but a skilled hiring professional generally won’t read them for content until they have established the resume as a legitimate candidate of interest.   They may scan them for keywords, but not as a means of initial evaluation.

On the list above, “how long”  is pretty cut and dried, so let’s focus on “what” and “how well”…

As a recruiter, I jump immediately to the work history to find out what I want to know.  The first part of “what” is who are you working for?  This is obvious enough, but it is a very important part of thinking about your resume as you write it.  Whatever your title, your reader needs a frame of reference rather quickly.  If your company is a well-known brand name, then this is much easier and you’ll have less to explain.  People don’t really need to read that Microsoft is a world leader in software technology.  If your company is not so well-known, then a quick frame is in order.  A sentence or two about the vitals of your company, its fit in the industry, and the department you are a part of will help your audience translate the rest of what they want to know.

The balance of “what” is coupled with “how well”.  In your description of each position, don’t regurgitate the job description – your audience has a pretty good idea of what you do already.  Instead, craft 3-5 bulleted and descriptive accomplishment statements.  These will convey the key activities you are involved with along with examples of specific results you have achieved.  Your accomplishment statements closely parallel your preparation for behavioral interviewing in that they are fashioned in the form of situation, action, and result.  Just as when interviewing, remember that specific is credible and memorable while general is not.  Be specific but concise.

Regarding “how long”, your work history should be chronological beginning with your current or most recent position and ending with your first professional position, including dates.  There is some room for discretion here, particularly if you’ve been in executive level positions for 15+ years, where you don’t need or want to go back to the beginning, but generally speaking, most employers will want to know your full progression.  Many companies are sensitive to frequent job movement, but you still need to establish your track record with transparency and accuracy.  The damage created by resume inaccuracy is often unrecoverable.  Give your audience what they need to make an informed decision and you will lay the first brick in building trust.

There is a trend toward functional resumes which break your work experience into duties and accomplishments not tied to specific jobs.  I won’t argue with advocates of this format other than to say it isn’t very useful to me personally.  Even if your functional work history includes well written accomplishment statements, it leaves the reader unable to easily attach them to a frame of reference they are certain of and leaves them wondering about your track record and what you are hiding.  In fact, the origin of the functional resume was to hide a choppy work history and most readers have figured this out.

Spend most of your resume writing time building out your work history by thinking like your audience.  If you effectively answer the big three questions above, you will make it easy for your audience to translate what you’ve done to their environment, and you will greatly increase your chances of getting an interview.  Don’t make the mistake of believing that grandiose, vague and unsubstantiated will leave them wanting more.  The burden is on you to describe what you’ve accomplished in clear terms and let the chips fall where they may.

The Rest of Your Story

Now that you’ve done the hard work to earn your interview, the rest of your resume should flow pretty easily in variations of this theme:

  • Contact information
  • Career objective
  • Executive Summary
  • Work History
  • Education
  • Skills and Professional Training
  • Community Leadership Activities
  • Personal Info/Interests -  Include what you wish but think like a professional

Format and Design is wide open for creative expression – particularly if you are gunning for a creative position.  However, be careful to retain a simplicity that is easy to read.  Leave adequate white space and be consistent in your fonts and design flow. Don’t distract your audience from their mission to discover what you want them to see.