As a manager, I have received hundreds of resumes to review to fill a variety of positions. Some resumes are great: I get an immediate sense of who the candidate is, the resume is well-written and precise, and I don’t hesitate to move them into the next step in the process. Other resumes, well… they need a little work. Unfortunately, a bad resume can easily disqualify a great candidate.
Generally, I give tips to managers: how to motivate employees, what type of employee to hire, how to build a development team, how to fix culture, how to build a team… However, that isn’t enough. I want to help with anyone who is in the world of work. So today, let’s talk about what it takes to write a good resume. I’m going to tell you what I look for, why, and then give specific recommendations to help you make a good resume.
Things that make me smile
There are three things that immediately come to mind when I think of all the great resumes that have landed on my desk over the years:
- They were of reasonable length.
- Spelling was perfect (of close to!), good grammar, and correct capitalization
- Limited/no fluff and crisp sentences
That’s it. Let me explain why those were things that made me smile.
As a manager, I am a busy person. I wish I could give all the time in the world to recruitment and hiring because I like that part of the job, but it simply is not possible. Therefore, when someone with less than 5 years of experience gives me a 3+ page resume, I can be a bit put off. Or, if someone fails to do even the most basic of spell checks or violates obvious rules of grammar, I am a little annoyed that I now need to spend extra time deciphering what they are attempting to say. Or, if there is a lot of fluff, I wonder what they are trying to hide from me (believe it or not, you need not be the perfect candidate – I don’t hire from a resume, I just need 65%).
Does that make sense? Okay, so moving on: things that turn that smile upside down.
Things that make me frown
Here are the top three things that make me flip a resume over and move on:
- An essay when a paragraph would do
- An incoherent story, whether that comes in the summary, the structure, or the template
- A resume that has been optimized for machines and not people, AKA, keyword bingo
Remember above when I said that as a manager, I’m busy? A resume is not a thesis; it is not an opportunity to expound in exhausting detail. Also, while few of us have exact paths from A to Z, if you take the effort to tie it all together into a coherent story, I’m more likely to want to travel that path with you; don’t just throw the kitchen sink at me and hope I catch every plate, soup spoon, and peeler in it. Lastly, we are all people hiring people; similar kitchen-sink mentality on certifications, buzzwords, SEO for resumes, et al., it makes me thing you’re trying for a catch-all job and not specifically this position.
So, what to do about this then? What are some concrete tips I can give you in the actual making of a resume? Keep reading!
Step-by-step, how to make a good resume
This is going to split into 4 sections: general format and structure tips, and then a content section for each stage of your career (early, mid, and mid+).
General tips: format, structure, editing
- Find or create a clean, neat template (if you need a sample, please e-mail me and I’m happy to share)
- Use a lot of white-space, reasonable margins, readable text (at least 10pt font), no funky colors, icons, or pictures
- Be stylistically consistent: date format, bullet-point usage, space/sizing, etc.
- Limit random usage of bold and italics for highlights; be reasonable
- Quantify where possible (# of people managed, $ saved / budgeted / growth, # of projects, % efficiency / growth, etc.) – metrics are your friend
- Always have someone else read your resume and listen to their feedback carefully
- Walk away after you’ve completed it, leave it alone for 2 days, and then look again with fresh eyes
Early Career (limited-to-no experience, i.e. college students, talking to you!)
- Don’t fluff. I know you’re tempted to turn the campus bookstore retail job into “superhero protecting the university from fraud”, but don’t do it.
- But then you ask, “how do I stand out?” By a simple, clean format, directness on the classes you’ve taken, projects you’ve done, and if you’ve had an internship, honesty about what you did
- I would expect these sections on an early career resume: Name + Header (you should have a LinkedIn there too), Education (w/ GPA, honors, relevant classes, maybe even relevant clubs) Projects (school projects matter), Experience (and this could include volunteer activities), and Skills (languages, software, etc.),
- Now you ask “is that enough? doesn’t that matter?” It does matter, but you can also do more in a well-written cover letter; I’ll post about that another day soon.
- One page, one page! Really, just one.
Mid-Career (some experience, maybe first job change?)
- Don’t fluff. Same advice; it’s not worth it.
- Study the “STAR method” – you need not write ever bullet/mini-paragraph in that method, but run all of your functions/projects through that process and see what comes out. Write that down and be able to succintly describe your work that way: it will come up in interviews and it’s a great way to respond. This will help you write crisper sentences.
- Talking about crisp sentences, no essays. Use industry-specific language if it’s reasonable and not jargon-y, but don’t get acronym or abbreviation crazy, especially to save space. Edit, refine, again and again, to get a strong+punchy sentence.
- I would expect these sections on a mid-career resume: Name + Header (you better have a LinkedIn!), Summary (if you think it’s necessary) Education (w/o GPA, awards, classes, etc.), Experience, Volunteering (if you do this, but separate from your professional), and Skills / Certifications
- You can fit it onto one page. If I can fit 10 years on one, you can do less than 5 on one page too.
Mid+ Career (perhaps even pretty senior?)
- Still, no fluff. You don’t need it.
- If you have 10+ years of experience, you may actually want to complete two resumes:
- Functional/Project: Highlight specific, relevant projects, utilize the STAR-method more explicitly in describing projects (talk about key results), utilize functional titles versus corporate titles — target one page, no more than two
- Detailed Chronological: Get into the nitty-gritty, expect at least two pages, but no more than three
- Sections I would expect to see: Name + Header (LinkedIn, absolutely), Summary (perhaps with some areas of expertise), Education (don’t even need to see the year), Experience (just highlights), Volunteering (if you think it’s relavant), Skills / Certifications (but not a lot of emphasis on this)
- Crisp sentences, targeted and punchy, emphasis on numbers, metrics, and impact
You may have a question now, why did I not talk about senior/executive resumes? Simple: if you are looking for a senior role and opportunity, it is going to be so much more than just your resume that moves that needle. It’s going to be your industry reputation, your network, and your broader profile – a resume can be done, but that’s the least of your concerns. That’s an entirely separate discussion.
Now, to summarize, the dos and the don’ts:
Pay attention to format and structure, don’t try to over-sell, focus on being crisp and clear, and think about your audience.
Now, go make a good resume!
[And if you have more questions, don’t hesitate to ask!]
Attributions: Icons by Madebyoliver. Featured image by Death by Stock.