How to Write a Resume That Stands Out
The resume: there are so many conflicting recommendations out there. Should you keep it to one page? Do you put a summary up top? Do you include personal interests and volunteer gigs? This may be your best chance to make a good first impression, so you’ve got to get it right.
What the Experts Say
“There’s nothing quick or easy about crafting an effective resume,” says Jane Heifetz, a resume expert and founder of Right Resumes. Don’t think you’re going to sit down and hammer it out in an hour. “You have to think carefully about what to say and how to say it so the hiring manager thinks, ‘This person can do what I need done,’” she says. After all, it’s more than a resume; “it’s a marketing document,” says John Lees, a UK-based career strategist and author of Knockout CV. Heifetz agrees: “The hiring manager is the buyer, you’re the product, and you need to give him a reason to buy.” Here’s how to write a resume that will be sure to win attention.
The first 15-20 words of your resume are critically important “because that’s how long you usually have a hiring manager’s attention,” says Lees. Start with a brief summary of your expertise. You’ll have the opportunity to expand on your experience further down in your resume and in your cover letter. For now, keep it short. “It’s a very rich, very brief elevator pitch,” says Heifetz. “You need to make it exquisitely clear in the summary that you have what it takes to get the job done.” It should consist of a descriptor or job title like, “Information security specialist who…” “It doesn’t matter if this is a job title you have or ever did,” says Lees. It should match what they’re looking for. Here are two examples:
Healthcare executive with over 25 years of experience leading providers of superior patient care.
Strategy and business development executive with substantial experience designing, leading, and implementing a broad range of corporate growth and realignment initiatives.
And be sure to avoid clichés. Using platitudes in your summary or anywhere else in the document is “basically like saying, ‘I’m not more valuable than anyone else,’” explains Lees. They are meaningless, obvious, and boring to read.
Get the order right
If you’re switching industries, don’t launch into job experience that the hiring manager may not think is relevant. Heifetz suggests adding an accomplishments section right after your opener that makes the bridge between your experience and the job requirements. “These are main points you want to get across, the powerful stories you want to tell,” she says. “It makes the reader sit up straight and say ‘Holy cow, I want to talk to her. Not because of who she is but because of what’s she’s done.’” Here’s a sample mid-career resume that does this well (source: John Lees, Knockout CV).
After the accomplishments section (if you add it), list your employment history and related experience. See below for exactly what to include. Then add any relevant education. Some people want to put their education up top. That might be appropriate in academia but for a business resume, you should highlight your work experience first and save your degrees and certifications for the end.
And that ever-popular “skills” section? Heifetz recommends skipping it all together. “If you haven’t convinced me that you have those skills by the end of the resume, I’m not going to believe it now,” she explains. If you have expertise with a specific type of software, for example, include it in the experience section. And if it’s a drop-dead requirement for the job, also include it in the summary at the very top.
It’s tempting to list every job, accomplishment, volunteer assignment, skill, and degree you’ve ever had. But don’t. “A resume is a very selective body of content. It’s not meant to be comprehensive. If it doesn’t contribute to convincing the hiring manager to talk to you, then take it out,” says Heifetz. This applies to volunteer work as well. Only include it as part of your experience — right along with your paid jobs — if it’s relevant.
So what about the fact that you raise angora rabbits and are an avid Civil War re-enactor? “Readers are quite tolerant of non-job related stuff but you have to watch your tone,” says Lees. If you’re applying for a job at a more informal company that emphasizes the importance of work-life balance, you might include a line about your hobbies and interests. For a more formal, buttoned-up place, you’ll probably want to take out anything personal.
Share accomplishments, not responsibilities
“My rule of thumb is that 95% of what you talk about should be framed as accomplishments,” suggests Heifetz. “I managed a team of 10” doesn’t say much. You need to dig a level deeper. Did everyone on your team earn promotions? Did they exceed their targets? “Give people a sense of your management style,” says Heifetz. Lees agrees: “Give tangible, concrete examples. If you’re able to attach percentages or dollar signs, people will pay even more attention.” Here’s a sample senior executive resume that does this well (source: Jane Heifetz, Right Resumes). Of course, you can’t and shouldn’t quantify everything; you don’t want your resume to read like an accounting report.
Make it readable
Stop fiddling with the margins. Lees says the days of a one-page resume are over: “It used to be that you used a tiny font size and crammed in the information to make it fit.” Nowadays, two or three pages is fine, but that’s the limit: “Any more than three and it shows that you can’t edit.” Heifetz agrees: “I’ve never met a resume that fit on one page, even for a recent graduate. If you’re going to tell a compelling story, you need more space.” You can supplement what’s on the page with links to your work but you have to “motivate the hiring manager to take the extra step required. Don’t just include the URL. Tell them in a brief, one-line phrase what’s so important about the work you’re providing,” says Heifetz.
And stick to the most common fonts. “It’s not how fancy it is. It’s how clear, clean, and elegant it is in its simplicity,” says Heifetz. Vary the line length and avoid crammed text or paragraphs that look identical. The goal is to include enough white space so that a hiring manager wants to keep reading. For example, the opening summary could be three or four lines of text or two or three bullet points. “It doesn’t matter as long as it’s easy to read,” says Heifetz.
It can be hard to be objective about your own experience and accomplishments. Many people overstate — or understate — their achievements or struggle to find the right words. Consider working with a resume writer, mentor, or a friend who can help you steer away from questions like, “Am I good enough for this position?” and focus on “Am I the right person for the job?” At a minimum, have someone else check your resume for logic, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Tweak it for each opportunity
Don’t think you can get away with having just one resume. “You can have a foundational resume that compellingly articulates the most important information,” says Heifetz, but you have to alter it for each opportunity. Of course, you may need to write the first version in a vacuum but for each subsequent one, you need context. “Research the organization. Talk to someone — or ideally two or three people — who’ve worked there before, work there now, or otherwise know the organization. Then tweak it for the position, the industry, etc.,” says Lees. Heifetz says to ask yourself: What words or experiences do I need to highlight? What can I get rid of because it’s not relevant? “They don’t have to be radically different but they need to do the job for each situation,” she says.
Align your LinkedIn profile
Your LinkedIn profile is just as important as your resume. Don’t have one? Put one up immediately. Don’t cut and paste from your resume, says Lees: “It makes you look lazy.” But do make sure you’re presenting yourself in the same way. “You don’t have to use bullet points; you can be more narrative, and even more casual,” says Heifetz. You also want to tweak the tone. “There’s a greater expectation that you’ll demonstrate personality,” she adds. “For example, the summary section should be written in the first person. It gives you the opportunity to present yourself as a living, breathing human being.” Here’s Jane Heifetz’s LinkedIn profile as an example.
Principles to Remember
- Start with a short summary of who you are and why you’re the right person for the job
- Emphasize accomplishments over responsibilities
- Create a new version of your resume for every opportunity
- Use clichés — explain what makes you a good candidate in concrete, specific words
- Cram text in or use a small font size — it has to be readable
- Cut and paste your resume into your LinkedIn profile
Case study #1: Tailor your resume to each job
When Glover Lawrence was searching for his next job in the fall of 2013, he started by dreaming up the ideal position. “I asked myself what attributes, roles, and responsibilities I wanted,” he explains. He even crafted a job description for that made-up role using snippets of actual postings he’d seen, then drafted a resume to fit it.
As a senior executive, he doubted he’d find work through help-wanted ads or job boards. “It was going to happen through my network,” he says. So he also created a one-page version of his resume to use in networking meetings and to send to contacts who had offered to help him. It included a one-line summary, five notable accomplishments, a list of the companies where he’d worked for and the titles he held at each, one line about his education, and then a brief “Career Focus” section that described the types of jobs he was seeking.
He also developed a longer, more traditional resume to use when he formally applied for a position. “I tailored it to the company based on where I was in the process, what I knew about the people there, and the company culture,” he says. “Having the right resume for each specific opportunity, as tedious as it was, was important to me.” For his LinkedIn profile, he created yet another version, presenting the same information but in a more conversational tone. Over his months-long search, Glover sent out over 50 resumes and met with over 100 people. In early 2014, he landed a job very similar to the one he’d dreamed about.
Case study #2: Get an outside perspective
Several months into her previous job, Claire Smith* realized that she needed a change. “The job, the industry, and the institution were not the right fit for me. It just wasn’t where I wanted to be in my career,” she explains. She started to look at job descriptions, honed in on positions or organizations that were interesting to her, then decided to work with a professional resume writer. “I tried to do a little changing and reshaping on my own at first but it didn’t feel all that different from where I began,” she says. Working with someone else helped her see that the resume was not about explaining what she’d done in her career but why she was the best person for a particular job.
Claire started with one resume and then tailored it to each position. “You have the same raw materials — the accomplishments, the skills, the results you achieved over time — but you have to pick and choose to shape those things into a different narrative,” Claire says. The summary, which on her resume consisted of three bullet points, was the element she tweaked the most. For example, when she applied to be an editor, the first bullet point read:
Versatile writer and editor committed to speaking directly to readers’ needs.
But when she applied for a marketing position, she tweaked it to emphasize her ability to recruit customers and be a brand champion:
Innovative brand champion and customer recruiter in marketing, product development, and communications
Then, before launching into a chronological list of her jobs, she highlighted “selected accomplishments” related to each point in her summary. For example, under “writer and editor,” she included three achievements, including this one:
Based on customer data and email performance metrics, wrote new email series to provide prospective students with more targeted information about Simmons and to convert more of them to applicants. Improved performance over past emails producing average open rates of more than 20%.
Claire equates collaborating with a resume professional to working with a personal trainer. She felt challenged to keep rewriting and improving. And the hard work paid off. She recently landed a full-time job, which she starts next month.