I don't think I've ever met anyone who enjoyed writing a resume. And why would they? Resume writing can be a soul-sucking exercise in self-promotion, often setting off an existential crisis leading one to question the meaning of life itself. And I'm not even exaggerating. Putting together your resume is like the career equivalent of going to the dentist. There is no hiding what you have or haven't done for the health of your career. And "keeping your resume updated" as so many people (like myself) admonish you to do is like flossing. No one does it until it's time to go to the dentist (or apply for a new job). So, my best advice is to AVOID RESU-MAYHEM (<<< see what I did there?) and give your resume a touch every six months or so.
Despite a few naysayers, the resume is still something you need to have, and it's not likely going anywhere anytime soon. For as technological as we have all become and as "Linked In" as we may be, the classic one-page resume is still the standard in a vast number of industries. So, what is one to do with resume-related anxiety? And, once you get past the anxiety, how do you ensure that your resume will stand out in the pile? Or even make it past the robots?
I am by no means a professional resume writer, and this is not a complete treatise on all-things-resume, but here are some thoughts and tools for crafting a resume you can feel good about.
1. Mindset. I have a tendency to be pretty hard on myself and feel like I should be much farther along in life than I actually am. I am also still in recovery from a raging case of Impostor Syndrome. But I learned a little trick: sometimes when I'm looking at my own resume, I pretend that it's actually the resume of a friend. Creating some psychological distance helps me view my experience and skills more objectively and honestly. Furthermore, I tend to speak kindly to my friends, which is equally important when I'm feeling vulnerable or inadequate—both of which are emotions that come up for me when I look at my resume.
A resume is a marketing tool. It is a highly curated representation of your experience and unique abilities. If there was ever a time to kick the inner critic to the curb, that time is now. Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of marketing ourselves but would gladly sing the praises of others. So, I have to kind of flip a mental switch: if my friend had XYZ experience, how would I encourage them to talk about it?
Be prepared to advocate for yourself! Jay-Z was right, "closed mouths don't get fed." So, open up your mouth…err computer, and start being your own best friend.
2. Formatting. You guys. I love looking at pretty resumes! In my line of work, I get to look at a lot of resumes and, at first glance, I love the ones with crisp formatting and lots of whitespace and even a sense of (restrained) visual style. There are a bajillion resume formats to choose from: in Word, in Google Docs, and all over the internet. But here is the sad truth. Many of the jobs you are applying for online are being read by Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). Applicant Tracking Systems are programs that companies use to manage and find the best candidates for open positions. Resume formatting has always been important, but with ATS it has become even more important. While technology is always evolving, right now the robots have a hard time "reading" more stylized resume formats thereby sucking even more fun out of a process that had almost zero fun to start with. This handy-but-depressing graph shows how they work.
You see why it's important to have a robot-friendly resume? I have switched my own resume over to an ATS-compatible template and I have to say…I miss my pretty resume! But, there are lots of good reasons to go the ATS-friendly route—namely, that your resume will actually stand a chance of being looked at. One aspect of how it works is that ATS look for keywords that match a particular job description. Chrissy Scivicque from Eat Your Career says,
"Research shows that 80 percent of recruiters search resume databases (both internal and external) for job-specific and industry-specific keywords. So without a keyword-rich resume, you're virtually invisible to 80 percent of recruiters…. A strong resume should have about 25-35 keywords liberally distributed throughout. However, many people also choose to include a straightforward bulleted list of keywords, just to make sure all the bases are covered. While this isn't as suave as skillfully weaving them into the text, it's a generally accepted best practice."
Normally, wordsmith that I am (rubs hands together), I'm into the whole "skillful weaving" thing, but I have also added the bulleted list section into my resume. Keyword selection is kind of tricky and the best advice is to mirror the exact wording in the job description. And don't assume the robots know that (for example) web development is the same as web developer. It's best to use the same. Exact. Word. The simpler the style and formatting and font you use the more likely your resume will be correctly "understood" by the ATS. So DEFINITELY no charts or tables or pictures or Comic Sans font, and it's also supposedly better to stay away from two column templates.
A fun tool to use is at Jobscan—where you can upload your resume and run a side-by-side scan with a job listing (you get a few free scans, but you'll have to pay for a membership if you plan on doing a bunch!). You can upload your resume and copy and paste a job description and it shows you how well you match up. I did this myself and it was more helpful than I anticipated!
IMPORTANT: Because you should be tailoring each resume/cover letter you send out, it's a smart tactic to create one generic resume that you can tweak for different opportunities. And if you work in a field like graphic design it may be a good idea to have one version for the computers and a more stylized one you can hand to people.
3. List the problems you solve—not your job duties. Here is where I think most people miss an opportunity. Revisiting your job description can jog your memory and lead to inspiration, but it's not enough just to write down your responsibilities. Under each position you've held, list not just what you did but why you did it and what difference it made. Most resume experts advise that whenever possible you should follow the "Problem-Action-Result" formula. They don't necessarily need to be written in that exact order, but each element should be present.
Instead of: Responsible for tracking client contacts
Try: Developed a new tracking system for client contacts reducing staff confusion and contributing to a 25% increase in program completion.
The general advice is always to quantify your achievements as much as possible, but sometimes that's hard. Use exact numbers when you can, but estimated numbers are also acceptable if you have a solid explanation to back it up. Even when the result can't be quantified make sure to show some kind of explicit impact, like "enhanced team cohesion."
Thinking about your day-to-day work this way is challenging! Sometimes a good way to get started is just to do a brain dump on a blank document of everything you've ever done at work. Ask yourself some of these questions: What problems do I solve? What do I create or build? How have I increased sales or profits? Did I contribute ideas, plans or strategies that allowed the organization to meet or exceed its goals?
Then, once you have a first draft of a resume, ask a friend or a trusted coworker to take a look—sometimes they will see or remember things you've missed. Read it out loud. Does it make sense to someone outside your current organization? It goes without saying you shouldn't inflate your experience or be dishonest, but remember that again, this is your ADVERTISEMENT. Now is not the time to downplay your accomplishments! In fact, you should feel a sense of pride and achievement when you look over your completed resume.
4. OUT with the objective and IN with branding statements and profiles. In my adult lifetime, we have thankfully, MERCIFULLY, moved on from the outdated "Objective" section that used to be located at the top of every resume. I give this ALLLLLL the praise hand emojis!
What was that? You don't know what I'm talking about???
For the Gen Zers in the back who might read this someday, let me explain. The objective was the portion of the resume where you came up with some kind of nonsensical, flowery statement that basically boiled down to, "I want a job." The problem with this approach was that it mostly focused on what YOU want (a job, duh) and not on what you would contribute to the organization (or your value proposition if you prefer marketing lingo).
There are still some holdouts who are #teamobjective and I'm sure they have their reasons, but seriously people, let it die. Fast forward to 2019 and instead of an objective statement that says "To utilize my strategic, synergistic, out-of-the-box, thinking to obtain and contribute to a position in the BLAH BLAH BLAH field" we can…wait for it…brand ourselves.
OK, so maybe that's not so much fun either. Did you know you're a brand? It kind of took me by surprise too. Basically, any decision you make in life builds your brand: your haircut, your car, your job, your church, the coffee you drink (or is it tea?), whether you travel with your own reusable straw…etc. Do you chafe at the idea of "branding yourself" and turning yourself into a commodity? Guess what? That's ALSO part of your brand (#nonconformist)!!! Seriously. You can't get away from this.
A branding statement in a resume (also called a headline) is something that goes underneath your name and contact information and before your experience. This is a short statement or sentence that explains who you are and the value you would bring to an organization.
Branding Statement/Headline Examples:
Experienced Administrative Assistant with a Passion for Non-Profit Service
Human Resources Professional Specializing in Recruitment, Hiring, and Retention
Innovative Program Manager Prepared to Exceed Goals
Many times, this is used in conjunction with a profile (also called summary, qualifications or summary of qualifications). This is basically a short paragraph (although I've also seen it bulleted) with three to four sentences that allow you to explain your skills and qualifications.
Profile Example (here is one version of mine):
Enthusiastic and self-motivated human resources professional with over 10 years of diverse experience in social service and non-profit agencies. Excellent written and verbal communication skills with proven success in building relationships across all levels of organization. Poised to identify and leverage strengths of others to set and reach goals, motivating them towards personal and professional development and success.
5. A special word to all the perfectionists: as you put together your resume, your perfectionistic tendencies will be a great asset. But I also want to say that there is not just ONE WAY to have an amazing resume. There is not ONE magical template. There is not ONE singular turn of phrase that will connect with every hiring manager whose desk your resume will land on. Resume construction is NOT AN EXACT SCIENCE. Don't get me wrong, there are definitely some ways to really mess this up, but there are also MANY ways to do this "right." I now approach my own resume crafting as an iterative process. Everything is editable!
6. The resume…and the rest. Remember that your resume is ONE part of your broader strategic plan to get a J-O-B. Instead of lingering in anxiety and avoidance, tippy tap your fingers over to the resources I've listed in this article. And for crying out loud, don't just sit at your computer blindly sending out resumes. Develop your network! Get out and talk to people! It's estimated that 70-80 percent of jobs are gotten through your connections anyway.
To put all of this in perspective, don't be tempted to believe the lie that the stuff on your resume is indicative of your inherent worth. I don't care how many achievements you have listed or how skillfully you can weave keywords into your text, when you sit down for an interview the playing field is A LOT more level. I tend to believe that HR folks are generally good people who are drawn to their profession because they want to see others succeed in roles that benefit the individual as well as an organization. The resume is still important but good HR professionals look beyond the slick, keyword-rich, ATS-optimized resume to the person behind the resume. This should both comfort and scare you. The resume is just a tool to get you to the interview.
Here is something sad. People often bypass applying for AMAZING opportunities because they "don't have time" to update their resume (Right. Just like "I didn't have time" to go to the dentist and kept rescheduling my appointment…for three years). And then when they DO get the process rolling, it's in a frantic rush because there's a deadline. So avoid Resu-mayhem. Check your mindset and just do it already (And also? Don't forget to floss).
The internet has resources for daaaaaayyyys about building your resume, but I've curated a few things here that I've found helpful or interesting.
Applicant Tracking Systems
- This Reddit thread is pretty specific about what you're up against.
- Not all ATS are created or used similarly: This article helps explain some of the nuances.
- All of this resume lingo can get confusing, because there can be multiple words to describe the same sections. Here is some more information on how to use branding , headlines, and profiles along with examples of how all of this can look.
Importance of the Cover letter: Yes, you should include one.
Tailoring Your Resume
FREE ATS-friendly resume templates
Tips for identifying and using keywords
Resume Scanning with Jobscan