Over the last month, I’ve helped three different readers polish their resumes as they look to make a major career shift. In each case, I noticed several problems crop up over and over again. These problems weren’t ones that would sink the person, but they did prevent that person from standing out from the crowd, and adding the problems together ended with a forgettable resume.
Here are ten things I would always do when writing a resume, regardless of the conventional wisdom about resumes.
1. One page only, period.
This often bothers some people. “I have tons of good things to write about,” they think, so they fill up their resume with six pages of good stuff with just a sprinkling of great stuff in there. Hot tip: it’s not the “good” stuff that will get you the job. The only stuff you want on your resume is the cream of the crop, and that cream will fit on one page. If it doesn’t, you’re not cutting out enough merely “good” stuff.
2. Write everything with active verbs.
Every bullet point on your resume should sound like you took some sort of decisive action, and the more action-oriented, the better. Employers want people who get things done, not people who “participate.” Don’t write that you were involved with a project that produced $5 million in sales, state that you wrote 20,000 lines of code for a project that produced $5 million in sales. Don’t say that you “helped with the development of a new system” – write that you developed that system in a team environment.
3. List everything positive that you can think of about past positions, and use the best.
Was there positive growth at the organization while you were there, even if you weren’t directly involved? Mention it. Were you involved, even in a cursory fashion, with a hugely successful project? Mention it. Only mention the things that were clearly and strongly successful on your resume.
4. Be concrete.
Don’t state that you were involved with a hugely successful Project X, state precisely (in an action-oriented form) what your role was with that project, followed by a statement of exactly how successful it was in a quantitative fashion. Don’t state that you were involved with writing a new HR manual – instead, state that you contributed 24 proofread pages to a documentation system used by 25,000 employees. Don’t state that you did some coding for the public interface – state that you wrote 41% of the code for a website used by 2,000,000 visitors a month. If you’ve done the job of trimming things down to only the big successes, these numbers should be impressive ones.
5. Assert your abilities strongly right at the top, but be sure they’re backed up by the concrete achievements that follow.
What is the big picture that all of these selected “best” accomplishments paints about you? Try to summarize that as briefly as you can (two or three sentences, preferably), and put that right at the top of the resume. That’s likely the one piece that a reviewer will read, so make it hum and also make sure that everything below backs it up. For example, “I am a computer programmer looking for employment in the insurance industry” is not a good way to start. Try “My passion is developing intuitive web-based interfaces for data entry, something I did with great success at ABC Corp, where I developed a data entry application used by 25,000 people.” That’s going to get an employer interested, especially when it’s backed up in the information below.
6. Lead off with home runs.
When ordering the items on your resume, always put the best items at the top. If you’ve cut your list of accomplishments at your last job down to four great ones, pick the best one and list it first. Do this with every element of your resume – if you have some stellar things to say about involvement in a professional or civic organization that speaks to your leadership skills better than anything, lead with them. If you’re president of a professional organization, that’s going to likely be a job cincher, so put that right up at the top so it is noticed quickly.
7. Leave accurate and professional contact info.
Do not, I repeat, do not leave a phone number for contact that has an immature voice mail message. Do not give an email address with the number 69 on it, and also preferably is based on your own name in a sensible fashion (make a new Gmail one if you need to). Make sure that whatever contact method you use, the entire experience of using it reflects very professionally on you.
8. Write a one-page cover letter, always.
Keep it brief and simple, just a few paragraphs, but always include it. It should never run to multiple pages, no matter what. What should it say? It should just reiterate that you’re interested in the position (being quite specific about the position), and it should state in your own words how exactly the highest points of your resume really match what the needs of the position are.
One of the first things people will do when they’re interested in a candidate is to see if there’s any information about them on Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on. Make sure that what they find is professional in nature and that it reflects well upon you. It doesn’t have to be buttoned-down, but it does need to represent you in such a fashion as to show that you won’t be a detriment to the company (at the very least) and ideally shows you as a big positive to the organization. I often recommend that people start a very simple professional website for themselves, perhaps with a simple blog updated weekly or so discussing issues of professional interest. Remember, your internet presence is an extension of your resume, so if there are inane things out there with your name on them, it’s not much different than stapling them to your resume.
10. Don’t be flashy in the design of the resume.
Whatever you do, don’t do something overly splashy with your submission. Don’t include a huge photograph of yourself on the resume. Don’t use some sort of “designer” paper that makes the text hard to read, and avoid flashy fonts. Do something simple and just let your achievements do the talking. I’ve seen at least two interviews where the “flashy” resumes were immediately trashed – just don’t bother.
In a nutshell, the goal of any resume is to get an interview, and the best way to get there is to show off your best accomplishments in a professional fashion and make sure that the trails they follow indicate professionalism as well.