Sometimes I wonder exactly how many resumes I have looked at in my life. It has to at least be in the tens of thousands; maybe more. I’ve seen it all: the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s never a good idea to put stickers on your resume. And typos, poor grammar and hard-to-understand content are obviously things that you want to avoid. Most professional people invest some time in putting together a good resume and it shows. Because most resumes I have looked at are pretty good.
When I was recruiting, I always reminded myself that resume writing is not a skill we were hiring for. At the same time, an exceptionally well-crafted resume made it easier for me to do my job and the fact that the information I was looking for was easy to find made it more likely that that resume (assuming the skills aligned to our needs) would end up in the “yes” pile. The less a recruiter has to struggle to find the information they need to say yes the better.
So what I am going to share today is my opinion of what separates a good resume from a great resume. But first, let me be clear about one thing: the resume is not going anywhere as a tool for hiring and getting hired in the professional world, no matter what some industry pundits might say. Unless your name is Oprah or Bill Gates, if you are at all interested in developing your career, you need a resume, no matter how exceptional you feel you are or have been told you are. The resume is the conversation started that leads to discussions about your career. Even for amazing talent.
I’ll focus on two facets of strong resume development in my comments below: style and content.
A good resume
A good resume is visually appealing and uncluttered. Fonts are consistent and chosen judiciously. I recommend Arial or Helvetica if you are in tech, and Georgia if you are in a more traditional field. Folks in design can get away with alternatives. But nobody wins points for a cool resume font. So easy-to-read is of primary importance. I see a lot of people get fancy with design, creating columns and adding images. And while that is all pretty to look at, when your resume gets scanned into a database (which is exactly what happens to it when you apply to a company of some size), nobody sees your format and your content is jumbled (as scanning happens from left to right).
The good resume includes all of the information that a recruiter or hiring authority would expect to see there: your education and work experience, certifications and tech skills, etc. For new grads, education should go at the top. For experienced folks (let’s say 3+ years of experience, where they are hiring you more for your recent work history), it goes near the bottom. Hobbies? Great. You should have some and it’s OK to put them on the resume, especially if they suggest something about your personality, which you take with you into the workplace.
The great resume
A great resume includes all of the dynamics I mentioned above, but from a format standpoint, takes into account how the reader is going to read it; what they are looking for and in what order. Recruiters generally will look at your name and location, your current role/company/dates and one or more previous roles. Depending on the company they are working for, they may next look at the education section. Once they have scanned these areas, if the candidate seems to do work similar to what they are hiring for, the recruiter will focus on their current work to identify specific skills required for the position. If that all looks good, it’s likely that they will review the whole resume in more detail before reaching out to you. So with your format, put everything where the recruiter expects them: name top and center, most recent employer aligned to the left margin and in the top third of the page, education at the bottom.
If you are thinking that a functional (versus chronological) resume is right for you, you can read my opinion on that here. Chronological resumes are preferred by recruiters for most roles, with consulting being one possible exception.
When I coach people on crafting or updating their resume, which happens a lot with friends, I tell them to make sure that a recruiter can read the top third of their resume and the very bottom section of the first page and understand what they do. Make it easy for them by putting key info were their eyes travel. No images or headshots on the resume (unless you are applying for a position in a country where that is common practice; here in the US it is not). No fancy designs or flourishes either. It detracts from your content, which is what the reader cares about.
The content itself is really the big differentiator between a good resume and a great one. And there is one activity that will help you upgrade your content. When you look at your jobs and your (presumably) bullet-point list of responsibilities, add results for each one. Go line by line and ask yourself “so what?”. For example, if you established a new geographical marketplace for your company, so what? What was the result? Well, that might have resulted in a revenue increase, it might have resulted in hiring new delivery teams to support that work, it might have earned you an award or a promotion. Add your results for as much of your work as you can and make it as tangible as possible (using numbers if you have them). If you can also explain the strategic importance of the impact on the company, do that as well. For the above example, your new marketplace development work might have helped the company reach a milestone, identify new underserved customer targets or helped position your company better relative to competitors who were already in that market. So when you are talking about results, don’t forget the big picture.
Sharing your accomplishments in this way also makes your content more memorable. Instead of “Sales Director for XYZ Company” (which is not that memorable), you will be “The woman who created the market for SuperWidgets in the Southwest”. Totally memorable.
I’d also encourage you to think like a marketer. Ask people you know what your personal brand is; what is expected when they spend time with you, specifically at work? Integrate this into your resume. For example, I have gotten feedback before that when people work with me they know that I am going to own the project 100% and will get it done no matter what. So when I updated my resume, I made sure that end-to-end ownership of projects was well represented. You can tap into past co-workers and friends for this information on your personal brand, or even look on your past performance reviews for themes. The reason this is important is because you are likely to tap into a real need that the hiring team has that other people have likely failed to represent on their resume. And it’s also likely to be specific, so it won’t read like a lot of the resume clutter words such as “out of the box thinker” or “self-starter”.
Let me know if you have any questions on resumes, how recruiters read them and what happens to them after you apply for a job. I know for a lot of people, working on a resume can be a little anxiety-inducing. Happy to help with advice if I can.