How to Construct a Killer Resume, From Start to Finish

Last week, I wrote a controversial article about resume tips that got a lot of readers fired up. As a result, I thought it would be worthwhile to go through the entire process of creating a strong resume, step by step.

Step 0: Do NOT fire up Microsoft Word and use a generic resume template.

Absolutely, positively, do NOT do this, no matter what. Microsoft Word is a powerful program, but just firing it up and opening up one of the included resume templates does one thing and one thing alone – make your resume look like everyone else’s. You want your resume to look unique and memorable, but classy – Word’s default templates will not cut the mustard.

Step 1: Open a plain text document and start listing all of the information you might ever include on a resume

List the details of every job, including every possible relevant accomplishment at each one. List every organized activity you’ve ever participated in, and every noteworthy honor you’ve received in your life. List everything.

Tip #1: If you don’t know where to start, include the following in this order:

Work experience (dates, names of employers, location, tasks, accomplishments)
Education (dates, degrees obtained, location)
Specific skills
Honors and awards
Other activities of note (professional organizations, special skills, etc.)

This is essentially your “default resume.” You’re never going to send it to anyone. Instead, you’re going to use it to quickly build the real resumes that you will send to potential employers.

Step 2: Read and research the job you’re interested in applying for

Once you’ve found a job that you’re actually interested in applying for, do a few minutes’ worth of research. Find out as much as you can quickly about the job itself and the employer. If you don’t understand fully what you’re applying for and who your employer is going to be, you’re essentially tossing things at the wall and hoping it will stick.

Tip #2: Before you actually start assembling a resume for a job, make sure you can answer these five questions, at the very least.

What is the likely primary function of the job? What are you being hired to do? This isn’t your job title, but what you will actually be doing.
What is the organization that I’m applying to? Sure, you know the name of the organization, but what is that organization’s function? Do they produce certain products? Do they provide certain services?
What is the reputation of this organization? Applying to Google and to “Joe’s Desperate Search Engine” are two completely different things, even though the jobs may appear very similar on paper. Joe is probably seeking a programmer with very specific skills, while Google is looking for people who exhibit exceptional problem solving skills.
What is my role within this organization? If you accept this job, what will your role be? Will you be working on developing the product directly, or will you be providing services to the public? Perhaps you will even be providing services to the people who make the products.
What skills and attributes point to success with this specific organization in the role I’m going to fill? Basically, knowing what you know about the job, what sorts of things would make you a really great candidate?

Step 3: Open a new copy of your default resume and eliminate everything that isn’t highly relevant or impressive

Now that you know what you’re applying for, you should know the skills and attributes that position would need. Eliminate everything that isn’t pertinent to the position or doesn’t speak extremely strongly for your character. If you’re applying for a job as an administrative assistant, your position as a typist is probably very relevant – but if you’re seeking work as a manager of a department store, it basically just fills out your work history. Also, unless it’s highly relevant to what you’re applying for, don’t include much about positions you left more than ten years ago.

Tip #3: If you’re early in your career, you may wish to list some jobs that don’t match the description very well to establish a work history. That’s fine, but go minimal on describing them.

What you have now is the information you want to put on the resume. Now, let’s polish it up a bit.

Step 4: Make your accomplishments ring with action

Now it’s time to polish up the statements about what you’ve done, focusing on two things: language that indicates that you’ve performed an action, and selection and modification of these statements to appeal to the organization.

First, go through and change all of the descriptions of your work tasks into action sentences. Let’s work through three examples of this.

Bad job attribute: Participated in the development of a data entry program
Better job attribute: Developed a high-throughput data entry program in a team-based environment

Bad job attribute: Chaired three committees
Better job attribute: Led the creation of new company-wide policies

Bad job attribute: Introduced a new filing system and helped set it up
Better job attribute: Implemented a new document organization system

In each case, the move was towards verbs that indicate more decisive action that led to a desired result. Employers want actions that lead to results, not participation.

Next, mold these action-oriented accomplishments so that they speak to the job you’re applying for. Let’s look at that data entry program developer. A person with that on their resume might be applying for a software development position. In that case, one might want to highlight the code-based accomplishment:

Great job attribute: Wrote 22,000 lines of Java for a data-handling class for a high-throughput data-entry tool

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a leadership job, you may want something like this:

Great job attribute: Led a team of seven to develop a high-throughput data entry program

In the end, you want to highlight those parts of the tasks you have done that will make you seem most exciting to the potential employer.

Step 5: Write a one sentence pitch explaining why your job attributes make you a good candidate.

Your resume should not have an objective on it. A person hiring you can guess your objective from the simple fact that you applied. Instead, you should have a statement explaining how your specific skills make you the right person for the job. Here’s a good example.

I have nine years experience developing high-throughput Java-based data entry software and leading teams in the implementation of this software.

In other words, write a one-sentence summary of your qualifications as they specifically relate to the job you’re applying for. This will go right at the top of the resume.

Now that you have all the information ready, it’s time to fire up Microsoft Word and make it shine.

Step 6: Make a polished document out of the material you’ve created

There are several useful tutorials for just this task. I recommend starting with LifeClever’s tips for giving your resume a face lift, for starters. I strongly recommend using Georgia as your font, as it is fairly distinctive while still quite legible in print, and I also recommend making your line spacing 120% (go to Format, choose Paragraph, choose Multiple, and set it to 1.2).

I also recommend putting things in the following order:

Name/address/phone/email
Summary of Qualifications
Work Experience (unless this is your first “real” job)
Professional Organizations (unless these are slim, the eliminate or move to end)
Honors (unless these are slim, then eliminate or move to end)
Education
A note indicating that references are available upon request

Ideally, you want this to be as short as possible. One page, with an additional cover letter, is best. If you feel the need to include more stuff, feel free, but every time you add something more to the resume, you provide more and more cover for your truly excellent attributes to hide in a sea of merely good attributes. One strong approach is to create a short resume and a long resume, and include a short URL (made at TinyURL) to download the longer one if interested. I generally encourage people to include reference contact information in their long resume, but not in the short one.

One last thing…

Remember, always, that you’re trying to sell yourself to the company. Think of yourself as a product on the shelf, next to many competitors. How are you going to grab their attention in a positive way, show off your best attributes, and make them at least consider buying you (i.e., interview you)? Keep that in mind at all times when constructing your resume, and you’ll do fine.

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40 thoughts on “How to Construct a Killer Resume, From Start to Finish

  1. guinness416 says:

    “Chaired three committees” is many times better than “Led the creation of new company-wide policies”, which is so vague it could mean writing a roster for filling the office dishwasher.

    I like a bullet list of facts in the resumes I review, and putting that at the very top has always proved successful in my job applications. Achieved $5million in sales in 2006. Worked on 6 university research facilities. Supervise and mentor 10 junior personnel. Etc. I’m not a fan of using inflated “office language” in place of these facts.

  2. Writers Coin says:

    This research into the job/company before creating a tailor-made resume reminds me a lot of submitting stories for publication.

  3. Writers Coin says:

    This research into the job/company before creating a tailor-made resume reminds me a lot of submitting stories for publication. The more you know…

  4. Rita says:

    You mentioned honors and awards. Is it okay to put in academic ones? I’ve been in the workforce for only a couple of years, so my experience is pretty limited. Also, some of my affiliations/volunteer work are religious in nature. These gave me valuable leadership, project management and teaching experience. Would that be okay to put into my resume?

  5. Rita says:

    You mentioned honors and awards. Is it okay to put in academic ones? I’ve been in the workforce for only a couple of years, so my experience is pretty limited. Also, some of my affiliations/volunteer work are religious in nature. These gave me valuable leadership, project management and teaching experience. Would that be okay to put into my resume? Thanks!

  6. Philby says:

    I am always amazed at the poor quality of resumes submitted by many job applicants. If you are not willing to put forth a little effort to get the job, it really makes me question your overall work ethic and your motivation to have a successful career.

  7. I think people should stop including their “objective” in their resumes. Obviously the objective is to get a job in a related field. Frequently, applicants include nothing useful as their objective with things like “To find a position in the customer service sector that will utilize my people skills etc etc…

    This type of information is better left in your cover letter.

    -Raymond

  8. Sods says:

    One thing you didn’t mention is personal interests. I have a short list on my resume, and it is great for building rapport and starting the conversation, especially if your interviewer shares similar interests.

  9. J.D. says:

    For the most part, this advice is great. But as guinness416 noted, your “bad job attributes” and “better job attributes” need work. “Chaired three committees” is awesome to me as an employer. It conveys specific information. “Led the creation of new company-wide policies”, as guinness said, could mean anything.

    Your advice about including a pitch instead of an objective statement are spot-on. Objective statements are a waste of space. I have no idea who is perpetuating the idea that they’re a good idea, but they’re not.

  10. Kelly says:

    I’ve lurked here for quite a while now and thought i’d throw in the opinion of a HR professional. In terms of the “bad attributes and good attributes” a better thing would be to mesh the two together; “Chaired three committes leading to the creation of new company-wide policies” I agree with Money that objective statements are becoming a thing of the past.

    @Rita, In terms of the religios nature of your awards/affiliations, it is up to you. However, you should be ready to have comments made about this (of course it would depend on the industry you are in)

  11. Minimum Wage says:

    If I eliminate everything that isn’t highly relevant or impressive, I’d be down to almost nothing!

    I have had two low-wage dead-end jobs over the last 25 years. What’s impressive about that?

    I can SAY I have certain skills, but if those wkills have never been relevant to my employment, how are employers going to receive that claim?

    There are non-employment attributes I could include (e.g. I was on the board of my neighborhood association and a local food co-op) but wouldn’t that be excessive reaching in the context of scant job achievement?

  12. Minimum Wage says:

    (Yes, “excessive reaching” itself is excessive reaching. Irony intended.)

  13. amanda says:

    Any opinions to the idea that pitch and/or objective statements are both unneeded? The pitch is how you should begin your cover letter. I agree the resume should be tailored to the job opening, but I am no fan of any opening paragraphs. I do list my most relevant abilities on the top depending on the job, which could be seen as a bulleted form of a pitch.

  14. John says:

    Good stuff, Trent. Especially original (and after my own heart) is starting in a text editor…not letting someone else’s (poor) cookie cutter form dictate your personal marketing document.

    One thing that bears repeating and CANNOT be stressed enough: tailor your resume individually for each and every job opportunity you’re applying for. Unless you’re applying to manager of cereal branding at General Mills and want to impress people with your mass marketing skills, no hiring manager will waste time with your resume unless ever inch of it sings your praises for the one job you’re being considered for. If you really want the job, take the time to figure out which of your strengths are appropriate for THAT job, and move them to the very top of your resume and eliminate everything that’s not relevant or interesting to the hiring manager.

    Despite my firm belief in the philosophy of the Purple Cow, my instinct is to save the personal interests for the interview. Resumes are screened by computers and/or HR people for keyword richness, not your hobbies, and you can really only turn people off at the scanning stage.

    “Trent juggles? Oh no, the hiring manager’s mom was killed by a juggler. Pass.”

    Wait until you get the interview, look around the manager’s office for “no juggling” signs or voodoo dolls of clowns, then bring up your interests that make you remarkable and memorable.

  15. Amy says:

    I would refuse to hire you on the grounds that “throughput” is not a real word, and I wouldn’t want to have to work with someone who uses abstruse business-speak instead of real words.

  16. SJean says:

    Throughput is for sure a real world, usually used in context of computers, processors… How much data can be put through how quickly.

  17. Funny you should bring this up. I came across an interesting resume format the other night.

    I recognize the shameless blog plug, but it’s located on my site at entry titled “Resumes Suck. (Until Now)”.

    Rick Turoczy of the More Than a Living blog has an awesome format.

  18. Stephen says:

    Great post. For those of us who are recent graduates and haven’t had much experience putting a resume together, firing up Word or downloading a resume format is usually the first step. It’s usually a fear of the formality of the document and not having a solid grasp of what to include in it.

    I like how the personal interests were actually not mentioned. Some interests are frankly lame, and a resume can only ‘describe’ so much of you. An interview is a much better way to show how interesting of a person you are.

  19. sverrir says:

    I´d further reccomend that people, Trent included, that are interested in this to check out the Manager Tools podcast and website. They have a podcast titled “Your resumé stinks!” and I believe they know it. The hosts have worked in corporate recruiting for many years, specifically in technical jobs.

  20. Debbie M says:

    Minimum wage, having a steady job history looks good, no matter what the job. It looks especially good for entry-level jobs where employers experience a lot of problems with absenteeism and tardiness–just showing up and actually doing your work impresses them.

    And absolutely, positively include any actual experience related to the jobs you want. Just because you didn’t get paid, doesn’t mean it’s not work experience. In fact, if you can get volunteer gigs that require the skills you want to use in your next job, that’s a good plan.

    Did you accomplish anything impressive on these boards? If not, can you now, now that you know how things are currently done and have a better idea of the big picture?

    Another approach is to get an entry-level job in a company that also hires people for the kind of job you want. I’ve even heard of people crossing the invisible barriers–I know an assembly line worker who got a job as an engineer in the same firm just by speaking up at a meeting once (in addition to doing awesome work).

    Another approach is to join the professional associations that people who have the job you want next belong to and do committee work so that you can meet people and get good advice on what to do next.

  21. SavingDiva says:

    Thanks for a great post! Any resume advice is greatly appreciated!

  22. DrBdan says:

    Good tips, though I don’t agree with step #5. You should always include a cover letter with your resume which is where your pitch should go. Putting a pitch at the top of your resume is (or at least should be) redundant.

    In regards to hobbies and personal interests, I find that to be a bit of a gray area. Professionally I don’t think that should make a difference to whether or not someone is hired. Their life outside of the job is their own business. On the flip side you want to hire someone that fits with your team and common interests can be an easy way to have a conversation and find out a bit about someone’s personality.

  23. Mr. Safety says:

    I disagree with you, DrBdan on step #5. Generally speaking, you are right – this should most certainly be shouted out at in your cover letter – thats the blurb that is going to get the potential employer to read your resume, period.

    However, if you can do two different blurbs, having it at the top of your resume will 1 – reinforce the idea, and 2 – show your employer that you didn’t just copy and paste a blurb from the web, because you were able to organize your skills in two different ways. I think its a great idea to replace the mission statement with a pitch.

    Good stuff!

  24. John says:

    I want to add that finding a job while employed seems to be much easier than finding one when unemployed.
    I setup a linkedin.com page and have been using it heavily. Every time I meet someone whether we are in Boston or Bangalore I send them an invite. Slowly but surely my network is growing and people are coming to ME to see if I will work for them rather than the other way around.
    Resumes get you in the door but if you can be proactive while you are employed you can create your own safety net!

  25. Tim says:

    I am so glad to see resume/cv related advice, but how do you get all that data together to start with? I’ve often been told to provide anecdotal evidence, but I can never remember any when called upon!

  26. JimR says:

    Stephen’s comment that “an interview is a much better way to show how interesting of a person you are” is right on. Remember, resumes get you interviews, and interviews get you jobs. Write the best resume you can, but don’t neglect interview prep. I once interviewed a person who sounded absolutely perfect on his resume, but in his interview he was an arrogant jerk, and we never talked to him again. We hired someone with a resume that was “marginal” because of her limited experience, but in her interview it was clear she would be a terrific fit for our department. (And she was.)

  27. Elizabeth says:

    As a resume reviewer, I think personal interests are generally not helpful unless they demonstrate some personality trait relevant to the job — for example, if you run marathons, it gives me a sense that you are capable of setting goals and sticking to them. Please don’t tell me you do yoga. I do yoga. Most of the people in my office do yoga. It probably makes you a better worker. But it’s not going to start a conversation or get you the job. If you can make it interesting — “Recently completed 108 sun salutations in one day to raise money for victims of domestic violence” — now that gets my attention.

    Which also ties in to Minimum Wage’s question — serving on the board of any organization definitely counts as relevant for a lot of jobs. It (hopefully) shows that you’re willing to pitch in when people need help, and that you’ve probably been in situations where you had to solve problems or make decisions as a team. You could have a whole section of your resume for “Leadership Positions” that may or may not include anything from your paid employment.

  28. Gates VP says:

    Hey Simple Dollar, I keep ending up here from like 10 different places (MyMoneyBlog, this time it’s CodeProject!), good job on the market.

    There’s a line from the Tao Te Ching: “good speaking leaves nothing to pick at”, however, the fact that everyone is picking at the same thing (chaired committees and objective) gives me the impression that what you’ve written is very good. So good that “we” only want to “fix” two things to make it perfect. So congrats! :)

    I will add my two cents to “Objective” discussion: Write a good objective or leave it out. If you don’t think that you can write a good one, leave it out. I like mine, it’s brief, it’s distinct, it says that I’m here and I’m going there. The same things go for personal interests.

    My interests include Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour Competitor. This isn’t small potatoes, this is big money, I got a free flight to Geneva! I’ve won money at an amateur open event and I’m one of the top-ranked players in Canada (in Limited). In a brain field, this is a relevant hobby.

    Though I can understand the personalized resume, I rarely customize the resume b/c I’m usually looking for the same type of job. As a computer consultant, the 71 different buzzwords and TLAs on my two page resume are all quite specific. I usually just spend extra time (1+ hours) to customize the cover letter.

  29. Bobby says:

    Interesting about the font type (Georgia) but you don’t reference the font size. What is considered a readable font size?

  30. antony says:

    Font size = minimum 12
    Objective. hmmm what if the employer is filling 6 different positions and HR gets ALL the resumes. Which resume goes with which job?

    Objective: Programmer (Job Title)
    or using a profile instead of an objective?

    Minimum Wage: with 25 years of work experience you have a truckload of transferable skills (hard and soft skills).

  31. Douglas Karr says:

    The biggest part of making a resume work is publishing it. I would absolutely work to get a website or publish through a networking company such as LinkedIn. I’ve not had to send my resume to anyone in years.

  32. Definitely agree with point # 0 & 2.

    Do not use Microsoft Templates to ensure that your resume stands out from the crowd and be sure to research the job before applying for it and this way you will be able to create a customized resume which is cognizant to the needs of the job and hence ensure at least a interview.

  33. Rhonerlianz says:

    Every time I write a resume, I don’t feel good about it. But when there’s a call for an interview, I think there’s a hope for me. My resume is not too bad. But what is a value of good resume without the skill for an interview??? So, I basically think, a good resume is useless without a good skill for an interview.

  34. tutorcare says:

    Resume constructing tips found here really great. Definitely i will follow some of them.Thanks for sharing useful information for job seekers.

  35. hdmi splitter says:

    Whatever your taste, this is a great story! Bingo!

  36. I love this blog…just bookmarked it. Keep it coming

  37. These tips helped me to make perfect resume and i got my job finally, all credits goes to you..thanks a Lot.

  38. Jerry says:

    Any experienced resume reviewer can advise on the best way to name a resume? Thanks.

  39. Heya i’m for the first time here. I came across this board and I find It really useful & it helped me
    out a lot. I hope to give something back and aid others
    like you helped me.

  40. Good information. Lucky me I ran across your website by accident (stumbleupon).
    I have saved as a favorite for later!

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