The perfect resume is a lot like the abominable snowman.
It doesn’t exist.
Yet, so many people strive for perfection when writing resumes. They aim to add as many persuasive and captivating adjectives as possible, include every single prior work experience since setting up their first lemonade stand, and list out all the extra-curriculars they participated in since their freshman year of high school.
Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit, but the here’s the point I’m trying to make:
When it comes to resume-writing, people need to shift their focus.
The question shouldn’t be, “How can I sound more impressive?” it should be, “What can I do to show I’m the right candidate for the job I’m applying for?”
And that applies just as much for recent college grads as it does for experienced employees looking for better opportunities.
There are a number factors to consider when building a resume that resonates. Everything from the overall structure, down to the actual writing style needs to be on point—and tailored specifically to the job you’re hoping to land. And for every aspect that goes into writing a great resume, there are a million plus articles, e-books, and How-To pieces pointing you in different directions.
I took it upon myself to study a bunch of those pieces, pull the best insights, and organize everything you need to know into one place.
Here’s the ultimate 9-step guide to resume-writing, for everyone:
1. The Basics
When looking to build a resume that sticks out, college grads and those established in their careers tend to focus on selling themselves—so much so, they often leave out some of the basic yet essential information every resume should provide.
People often care more about how elegant their resume looks or how impressive it sounds, but forget to include some of the most basic pieces of information. They forget to add their phone number, email, LinkedIn profile, and other crucial information any potential employer might need. (And then wonder why they never hear back from their dream job…)
When it comes to resume building, the little things matter.
Here’s a list of everything you should include on your resume—whether you’re switching jobs or applying out of college:
- Your full name.
- Current address.
- Phone number.
- Online profiles like LinkedIn or other social media if applicable to the job you’re applying for (i.e. if you’re a photographer, link to your online portfolio or Instagram).
- General Overview
- Work Experience
- Skills and Abilities
- Volunteer Work
- Interests, Hobbies, and relevant Side Hustles
All of these are an absolute must for college grads and experienced career-persons alike. Of course, the majority of this information seems obvious, and most people already know what to include on a resume, yet people are generally hyper-focused on sounding impressive that they run the risk of skipping the vital information a prospective employer needs in order to make a decision.
Remember, it’s the little mistakes that make all the difference.
2. Important Information To Include
If everything listed above seems like a lot, you’re absolutely right—it is a lot.
And since a resume is customarily limited to one page, you must be sure to include the most important information in each section, all the while respecting the one page limit.
- Overview – Often referred to as your “Personal Statement,” this section is a short three to five sentence summary, offering a brief overview of—ultimately—what the rest of your resume is going to explain in detail. Talk about who you are, what you’re currently doing, what you’re looking to do (cater to the specific job you’re applying for—will discuss in-depth later!), your goals, your values, and the type of person you are.
- Work Experience – List out your most relevant work experiences. When I say most relevant, I mean two things: prior experiences that matter to the employer of the job in question, and experiences that best highlight what type of employee you are. Be sure to include the company name, address, the position you held, start and end dates, and a brief one to three sentence explanation of the position—including bullet points of skills utilized and acquired at each job.
- Tip: If you’re a recent college grad, you may not have as much to work with here as someone switching careers or looking to get a promotion—and that’s OK. Just be sure to highlight internships, summer jobs, and on-campus jobs that show your potential value as an employee.
- Education – Employers want to know where and what you studied. Include the university name, the address, your degree—and if you minored in something, include that too. Just like your work experience, include your start and end date (i.e. August 2014 – May 2018)
- Tip: The layout of the education sections is likely going to be different from the Work Experience section, in the sense that it is not conducive to summarizing anything in sentence form. Be sure to make a neatly bulleted list of your major, minor, and other areas of study, as well as extra-curricular involvements like athletics or clubs. Including your GPA isn’t necessary, but can be included.
- Skills and Abilities – This section may seem straightforward, yet, it’s more malleable than you think. Yes, you want to highlight your most what you’re best at, but only if it meets certain criteria and showcases skills you actually know how to execute (i.e., don’t say “Excel Expert” just because you know how to make a pie chart). These need to be skills that actually mean something and are useful for the job you’re applying to, and so on.
- Tip: The format of this section should again be an organized, concise bulleted list, and should err on the side of brevity—this shouldn’t be any more detailed or longer than your Work Experience Section or Education Section
- Volunteer Work – Every resume should include a volunteer section. Here’s where you can illustrate the type of person you are, showing employers that, on top of education and work, you still prioritize being an active community member and participate in making the world a better place. List out the names of the volunteer programs or organizations you were involved in, a one or two-sentence description of how you added value and what those experiences taught you overall. Also be sure to list start and end dates, or if you’re still an active participant at the program or in the organization.
- Interests and Hobbies – This is perhaps the least important from a technical value-add standpoint, but most important in the sense of giving the employer a better understanding of who you are as a person. Be sure to list activities that show ambition, like Freelance Writer or Marathon Runner, as some of the attitudes and approaches in those activities can be directly translated into a work environment.
Remember: you have one page to work with. Make it count.
3. Content Matters Most
When building or updating your resume, you need to prioritize what you’re saying—not just how your resume looks, as alluded to earlier.
So many college grads and young professionals are overly focused on finding an elegant resume template and an eye-catching font, not realizing that in doing so, it takes away from the content. Plus, if all efforts are focused on how the resume looks, people tend to spend less time on the quality of the content overall.
Employers are looking to hire the best candidate for the position—not the candidate with an eye for design (unless, of course, you’re applying to be a graphic designer. Then the design of your resume is a huge part of “pitching” yourself and your work.).
But the content will always be the most important part.
Practice typing out your descriptions and responses for each section in a word document. Be accurate and extremely detailed in each section. Highlight the most important aspects in each section after writing, edit and whittle them down to the appropriate length mentioned above in the section descriptions. Refine, refine, refine, and get rid of any rambling or unnecessary words.
Employers are going to appreciate quality content above all else.
4. Aim To Be Memorable
After—and only after—you’ve finished writing every single bit of content for your resume, all the way from those nuanced things-to-include through your Interests and Hobbies sections, can you turn your attention to the visual side of things.
When it comes to how your resume looks, remember the acronym K.I.S.S: Keep It Simple, Stupid!
Even though employers are going to focus on the overall content, an ugly resume can lead people to believe one of two extremes: either you don’t care enough to make your resume looks presentable, or you care more about how your resume looks than anything else. There’s a really fine line between underdressing a resume—making it look bland, desolate and “empty” even if there is a lot of content. Or overdoing it—using posh typography and flashy characters like stars for bullet-points or an unnecessarily obnoxious color scheme.
Start with a simple font. Arial, Calibri, Georgia and Times New Roman are among the most commonly used resume fonts, are easily readable and eye-appealing, among this list of others. From there, pick an organized template that keeps the reader moving down the page. Lastly, upload a word processing software—a software that allows you to update text and templates without messing up the organizational pattern of your resume.
Think of your resume as a friend you’re trying to set up on a date. You wouldn’t recommend they wear sweatpants and a hoodie, but you just as likely wouldn’t recommend they wear their best tux or the dress they wore to prom.
You’d help them look attractive, put together, and clean.
5. Know Your Audience
Although resumes have generally the same “basics,” a lot of people don’t realize there are generally different resume archetypes—three to be exact.
Each of these different types of resumes lend themselves better to different application scenarios. Choosing the right resume format for the position you’re looking to for can make all the difference in how attractive a candidate you are in the employer’s eyes.
Here’s a quick synopsis of each archetype:
- Reverse chronological: This is the most commonly used type of resume, typically highlighting work experience ahead of education, and putting their current or most recent job first—listing the remainder of mention-worthy work experience reverse chronologically from there. This resume is best for recent college grads, and those seeking similar positions to current or prior ones.
- Functional: This is another resume type which puts more of an emphasis on the Skills and Abilities section, listing that before the Work Experience and Education sections. It’s typically best for candidates looking for more “creative” jobs, or positions where skill sets matter more that educational background or previous positions held.
- Combination: This is, simply put, a combination of both of the above mentioned. This type of resume is often used by those who have a wide array of experiences or have worked in multiple industries. This type of resume is typically better for people looking to switch career paths or enter a niche market, as they can highlight transferable skills.
Once you’ve got your basics down, crisp content, and all-star aesthetics, consider the positions you’ve previously held and the skills required for the job you’re looking to fill and choose the format that’ll highlight the most important areas.
6. Masterful Writing
I cannot stress the importance of quality writing on a resume.
And it’s not because I’m a writer— though, I do think everyone should know how to write well.
It’s because resumes don’t lend themselves to quantity. Your descriptions, lists, and statements are going to have to be organized and concise. And sending in a resume with any sort of mistake—be it a typo, misused punctuation, or even an overuse of buzzwords like “hard-working” and “driven”—is essentially a ticket to Joblessville.
Okay, maybe not that extreme—but bad writing sticks out like a sore thumb.
If you really don’t trust yourself, have someone help you. But if you feel like you can get it done on your own, here are a few extra tricks to help you out:
Read what you write out loud. This will help you hear inconsistencies in the flow of your descriptions and help to catch any run-on sentences. Your goal should be to keep the employer moving right through each section on your resume.
Utilize your thesaurus. Search any descriptive adjectives to check and see if you can find a better word to replace the one you’re thinking of using. However, avoid using words that you’d never hear in your day-to-day. For example, “diligent” is a great replacement for “hard-working,” as it works both conversationally and is still formal, while “sedulous” would likely leave your reader confused or, worse, unimpressed at your attempts to sound smart.
Download Grammarly. If you don’t know what Grammarly is, their website offers a clean explanation: “Eliminate grammar errors. Easily improve any text. Services: Advanced Grammar Rules, Contextual Spell Checker, Vocabulary Enhancement, Plagiarism Checker, Corrects Writing Mistakes.” And it’s free.
Have multiple people proofread. The quickest way to become a better writer is through feedback. Send your resume to whomever you feel qualified and honest enough to give you constructive feedback. Don’t ask them to check for typos or misplaced punctuations—that’s a waste of their time and something you and Grammarly can figure out on your own. Ask if your resume is a good representation of you as a person and of you as an employee.
7. Less is more.
Too many people make the mistake of trying to fit everything they’ve ever done onto their resume.
Listen: this is a quick way to get potential employers uninterested.
There’s no point in adding information about the summer you worked as a little league umpire or that you bagged groceries when you were 15. Sure, you can make arguments about the skills or lessons learned in your first handful of jobs, but there’s really no place for them on your resume. You need to highlight on your most important skills, experiences, education and so on.
If you’re having trouble scaling it down, here are a few tips-by-section for a more efficient decision-making process:
- Make sure each sentence serves a purpose—i.e., gives the employer more insight about who you are, what your goals are and why they should be excited to continue reading your resume. Aim for three to four sentences or about 150 words max.
- Work Experience
- List your most recent and most important positions. For example, mine are as follows: my current role at Digital Press, a previous internship at a specialty insurance company, and an internship with NBC Universal. Since I had room, I also briefly mentioned my prior part-time position as a barback, food runner and host at a restaurant. I did not mention my years as a manager of a local ice cream shop and my work as an umpire and basketball referee—they’re not as relevant.
- List your highest degree first and head in descending order form there—i.e., master’s degree, then bachelor’s, associate’s, and so on. If you have a master’s degree or anything beyond a bachelor’s degree, your high school education probably isn’t worth mentioning. And don’t list courses or course work—all you really need is name and address of each institution, dates attended, major and minor or any other notable areas of study. If you can fit it, list interesting projects you worked IF they apply to the job you’re seeking.
- Skills and Abilities
- This should always be a bulleted list. Use powerful adjectives and eliminate any words that are too synonymous. Stay between six and 10 skills and abilities overall, and be sure to include a couple of obsolete but applicable skills other candidates likely wouldn’t possess.
- Volunteer Work
- Here’s a section people tend to overdress in their attempts to describe their experience. Just list the name of the organization and the dates, a sentence about what the organization does, a sentence about what you did within the organization, and a sentence about your key takeaways.
- Interests, Hobbies and Side Hustles
- Be strategic here. As mentioned in step #2, list interests that show you as ambitious, or that complement your skills and abilities. If there is something you’re good at, like photography and video production, and know it might come into use at the job you’re applying for, emphasize that.
8. Speak Directly To The Job You Want
Just as writers should get inside the mind of the reader when writing, you need to get inside the mind of the whoever is going to be reviewing your resume.
What’s more important is what they want to hear, not what you want to include.
Explore the site of every job you’re looking to apply to and incorporate their vernacular into your resume. Study each company and familiarize yourself with different philosophies and cultures. Adjust your resume accordingly to each job before submitting.
Changing the language of your resume to cater to the job you is an easy way to stand out and give the employer exactly what they want to hear. Beyond that, you should absolutely cater your resume from a formatting standpoint, and showcase only your most relevant skills and previous experiences.
For example, a reverse chronological resume might be the best fit for one position, while a functional resume might suffice for another. One position might appreciate obsolete technical skills while another position might be looking for interpersonal or emotional adeptness. Be sure to figure that out before-hand and adjust accordingly.
The employer is looking for the right candidate—not necessarily the ‘most impressive’ or over-qualified.
Keep that top-of-mind.
9. Remember: Your Resume Is A Synopsis—Not A Life Story.
Your resume is a glimpse into who you are and how you’re going to contribute to Company X.
A common mistake people make is the tendency for an information overload, or including particulars that you see fit, but that doesn’t actually matter to the employer. The purpose of a resume is to sell yourself as the best candidate for the position. Your job is to highlight the most important work, education, life and volunteer experiences you’ve been a part of and eliminate any fluff that doesn’t serve any real purpose.
Your resume—quite obviously—should put you in the best position possible for an interview. The interview will then be your opportunity to weave in more personal stories and other life experiences that didn’t make your resume.
All in all, be both descriptive and concise. Keep things simple yet impactful. Question everything you’ve added and ask yourself before adding anything else, “Does this serve a unique purpose?” An effective resume doesn’t need to be story-like and include everything you’ve ever done—that isn’t the purpose it serves.
Follow these instructions and you’ll stand out above the competition.