Resume reviewResumes are like interviews in the sense that everyone and every web site has 25 tips on how to be great.   I’m going to take the same approach with resumes as I did with interviews by getting you to think on a higher level about what’s going on.  Only at 30,000 feet can we see the elements that are common to all resumes.  Below that level you are dealing with variables that change situation to situation.  Truthfully, those are for you to understand and manage.  But, if you structure your thinking the way I do, you’ll be prepared to adjust as needed.

So, no, I’m not going to descend into the “put this here and move that to there” tactical world of resume composition.   Using my perspective and those of some genius colleagues from my work history, I’ll share the following key truths about resumes to help you effectively build yours:

Employers look for different things….yet the same things.

What I mean is that recruiters prioritize different criteria, but they tend to pull from the same master list:

  • Suitability of experience / background (can you help me today with both hard and soft skills? How well-rounded are you?)
  • Accomplishments (Do you get results?)
  • Career progression (Are you successful and do you stand out?)
  • Companies (reputable) that you have worked for (Have you already passed through tough filters?  Can also apply to your education for the employers that care)
  • Extra-curriculars (Are you generally ambitious and high energy?)
  • Communication and presentation skills (Do you present yourself well and do you take the time to format and spell check?)

Make sure your resume makes all of this easy to extract.  (Basic, yeah, I know but…)

You’re only as good as the product.

And, yes, you ARE the product.  This is our life lesson, tough love, after-school-special moment.

True, the packaging of your resume can influence interest in you, but it’s not the main driver.  The content of your resume – your experiences, accomplishments and interests – is what the reader is trying to understand. And, if you don’t have much to say there, then…well…I will be managing your expectations if you ask me to help optimize your resume.

Your attention please: the next paragraph is a little marketing lesson.  A slight, related diversion.  Feel free to skip if you’re skimming this post.

As a marketer you learn about high-involvement and low-involvement purchases.  High- involvement purchases involve research into the product and weigh the benefits among competitive choices. Cars, mortgages, medicine tend to fall into these and are often more expensive items.  Low-involvement purchases are often done on impulse with less regard to actual product benefits.  Clothing and beer often are low-involvement buys.  You are a high involvement purchase.  You’re expensive and can have impact on organizational performance, so companies will want to quickly get to know what you have to offer before they ‘buy’ you!  No point in hiding from a lack of content…or worse…embellishing to compensate for the lack of it.  You’ll only frustrate the reader who aims to get to the facts.  It is what it is.

The best way to make your resume look better is to (like) DO something.  Accomplish something unexpected in your boring job, assume leadership volunteer roles, take up a hobby.  Hiring managers can quickly figure out if you’re the type that finds ways to excel…or spends their downtime watching TV or playing video games and that’s not terribly sexy to them.   Movies, music and eating out only really count as hobbies if you are engaged and invested in some unique pursuits in these areas.  Take the time to assess what you bring to the table as your core assets.  And, keep in mind, it’s all about what you’ve done, not what you think you’re capable of.  These days, it’s real hard to cash in on potential.

:::::jumping off my soap box:::::::

Play to your strengths.

Then, once you’ve completed this little personal audit, construct your resume to showcase your strengths as you consider what a prospective employer might be looking for.  For this reason I can’t say that one resume design or flow fits all.  If you graduated from a top school but have little work experience start with your education.  If you have leadership experience via hobbies or volunteer work, don’t leave this to the end.  Entertain the thought of moving this up to a section entitled “Leadership experience”.  Feel free to fiddle with the flow to make it work for you, so long as it doesn’t confuse the reader or de-prioritize stated qualifications of the job.

My resume is littered with experience working on name brands and known companies.  As a result I played to my strength by inserting corporate logos next to my work experience.  Now, when you look at my resume, the first thing that jumps out is the brand associations in my career.  I routinely get positive comments on this resume tactic.

Present yourself well.

I don’t want to completely discount aesthetics, because they do matter.  A little spritz of  presentation and attention to detail is rarely a bad thing.  Brands that are conscious of appearance (entertainment, fashion…) would likely value a little flair.

(On that note, why haven’t video resumes caught on?  If you present yourself well this could be a powerful tool. I’m not saying much else, but I’m basically unveiling a new business idea).

Included in aesthetics are spelling, punctuation and grammar.  At the very least get the first two right.  Have someone proofread your resume for this.  Middle-aged dudes like me may run a resume through the shredder if there is a typo or especially a spelling mistake.  (…and then supplement with a little rant that serves no purpose other than to make me sound like my parents.)

The essential objectives of the presentation of your resume are clarity and efficiency.  You want the reader to get what they need easily. To do this, consider the following:

  1. Limit your resume to two pages
  2. Prioritize accomplishments over something that just reads like a job description
  3. Stats work; include where you can, especially in place of descriptors
  4. Be concise; hit the highlights.  Your resume doesn’t have to be your life’s story; it’s simply a vehicle to gain an interview, during which you can provide context
  5. Keep your font choice clean and large enough to read.  I’d aim for 11 point font and not much less.  Some of us who read your resumes are getting up there and can’t see all that well anymore
  6. Don’t cram the pages so there aren’t even any margins left; recruiters need room for notes
  7. Use graphics judiciously, and if they serve a purpose.  For example, my work experience and education are littered with recognizable and respected brands.  So, I play to my strengths with my resume by posting company logos next to my work experience.  Makes for a quick study of powerbrand associations in my background that signal I have swam with the big fish
  8. Be specific, clear and simple in your wording.  Overcooked action verbs are so 1998.   Stop it


Let me summarize by saying this:

Before you sit down to type, take a hard look at yourself — who you are, what you bring to the table, what proof you have for why people should want to work with you.  Get real intimate with those points and build your resume around your core assets.  I often think of it this way:  ‘what great things happened because of you?’

When I finally applied that process to myself, I discovered gems.  I realized I had no clue how to package the story of my first real job as a Caribbean bank manager supervising nearly 100 people.  I was an ethnic minority leader, with lots of authority but no real power, if you get what I’m saying (that set up alone took me a few years to get right….but when I did…wow!).  Despite unparalleled leadership challenges such as hurricanes, robberies and deaths, I stabilized turnover in the five-branch network while supporting triple digit growth.  Results.  Unique leadership experience.   Took me years to learn how to present this great story on paper and in person.

So, all this to say: discover the awesomeness that is you…and your resume will flow.

UPDATE October 27:  While this post relates more to senior level resumes, here is an opinion posted on Mashable that supports much of what I’m saying.  I’m seeing more interest in personality, social media presence and other personal projects.  Clearly, employers are trying to find ways to get to know their candidates better.

UPDATE February 2, 2015:  Here’s a great article from Forbes that speaks to keeping your resume language clear.

UPDATE February 1, 2017: One of the better posts with actual tips on how to construct your resume if you want step by step instructions