Writing an effective resume is a skill that most professionals struggle with. Like interviewing, you (hopefully) don’t get a lot of practice—and the practice you do get is spread out over the course of many years. If you’ve been working in your current role for awhile, it’s likely been years since you’ve had to craft a compelling resume or ace a first round interview.
I spend a lot of time coaching job seekers to improve their resumes. A lot of these folks are passive candidates—they’re pretty happy in their current positions, but are interested in exploring the right opportunity—which means they don’t have a polished resume handy.
Here is the resume writing advice I find myself giving most often:
- Understand your audience — The Mindset for Effective Resume Writing
- Formatting Matters — Keep it clean and simple
- Content is King — Common Mistakes to Avoid
- From Top to Bottom — Tips for a Better Resume
Understand Your Audience — The Mindset for Effective Resume Writing
The sole purpose of your resume is to compel a very busy reader to sort you into a short pile of candidates to contact for a phone screen or first interview. That’s it. Once you end up in the “to call” pile, your resume has served its purpose. To write an effective resume that serves this purpose, you have to understand the audience you’re writing to. They are likely an extremely busy professional—which means they’re scanning your resume.
The reader of your resume will generally fit one of three profiles: the CEO/Founder of a startup, the C-level executive who owns the function you’re applying to, or a recruiter (could be internal or third party). Each of these audiences have competing interests and mandates—so you likely only have a few minutes (maximum) to get their attention. Fortunately, writing a great resume will make you stand out from the crowd, as most applicants make some common (and avoidable) mistakes.
You also can’t assume that the person reading your resume fully understands the function you’re applying for, so it’s imperative that you make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand what you do, and how you’ve achieved success in your role, in order to get sorted into the “call this person immediately” pile.
You’ll increase your chances of success if you write your resume with the following in mind:
- Your resume will be scanned, not read—rely on bullet points, not paragraphs, to get your experience across.
- Write for your audience—very busy professionals who may or may not fully understand the function you’re applying for.
- You need to maximize your limited space and time—each word needs to contribute to the goal of highlighting your accomplishments and experience.
- The number one mistake that people make is to regurgitate their job descriptions. Focus on accomplishment oriented language to set yourself apart from all the other candidates who are making this mistake.
- Your only objective with your resume is to get sorted into the “to-call” pile. That’s it. You’re not writing out your life story. You’re not repeating the bullet points from your job description. You’re not listing every single task you’ve ever completed. You want your reader to stop what they’re doing and pick up the phone to call you.
Formatting Matters — Keep it Clean and Simple
You might believe that if your content is excellent, then the formatting doesn’t matter—but you would be wrong. Resumes are scanned—so your design needs to be clean and simple, take advantage of the places our eyes naturally fall, and highlight the most important accomplishments from your career.
Here are my rules for formatting a resume appropriately:
Avoid Unnecessary Design Elements
I’ve noticed a trend in the way candidates format resumes. Candidates who are insecure in their accomplishments try to overcorrect with unnecessary design elements. They use lots of different fonts, add in graphics, toss around bold and italics with little rhyme or reason, or add in big margins so that white space takes up the bulk of the page. On the other hand, candidates who are confident and experienced often keep it clean and simple.
Your resume is not the place to try to reinvent the wheel. Use one font throughout. Make sure that your spacing is consistent. Use the default margins on your document. Use bullet points (not paragraphs) to describe your accomplishments—and let your accomplishments speak for themselves.
Keep it Short, and Use your Real Estate
As a general rule of thumb, a resume should be 2 pages. If you’ve been in business for 20-30 years, you may be able to get away with 3 pages. And if you’re a fresh graduate, 1 page might do it. You want to make sure that you’re using each page in its entirety—not using wide margins to push content down the page. But be careful that you don’t swing too far the other way—if you’re using a tiny font with no space between lines, your resume will look overstuffed (not to mention that it will make your resume hard to scan—have I mentioned already that your resume will be scanned? Seriously, if you take one thing away from this post, that should be it).
Think about where the eye of your reader will naturally fall—the top of your first page is your most valuable real estate. Don’t waste it with a list of the types of software you’re proficient in, or with a list of your “soft skills” (more on that below).
Follow the ABCs — Always Be Consistent
Keep all of your formatting clean and consistent so that you don’t distract the reader. That means consistent capitalization of your titles and employer names, bullet points all end with either a period or not, and your spacing is consistent all the way through. Proofread the whole thing as carefully as possible (or better yet, ask someone else to proofread it for you).
Remember that many readers will print off your resume—so do a test print. Is it legible? Where does your eye fall? Do those spots contain the most pertinent information? Squint a little and scan the full document—is all of your spacing consistent? Inconsistencies won’t make or break your resume on their own—but for time-starved readers, they can be distracting—and you want your reader focused on what you bring to the role.
Use appropriate File Formats and Names
Send either a PDF or Word Document. Do not send a Pages document (sorry, Mac users—not all computers can open them), a Google Document, or any other file format.
Do not presume that your LinkedIn profile or personal website will suffice as a substitute for a resume. Remember that your audience is likely reviewing a stack of resumes at one time—they need to be able to compare documents in the same formats. If you're sending them to an online profile, you'll be interrupting their process.
Name the file to include your full name. Please, on behalf of recruiters everywhere, do not name your file “Resume.doc” or “2019Resume.pdf.” Your resume will get lost in a downloads folder somewhere, never to be seen again.
Content is King — Common Mistakes to Avoid
Now that we’ve covered the basics of aesthetics, formatting, and using space effectively, we can finally turn to the content of your resume. There are a number of mistakes that I see candidates make over and over again. If you recognize your own resume, don’t panic! They are incredibly common mistakes. Simply by reading this article and then revising to avoid them, you’ll increase your chances of landing that first interview.
Don’t Fill up Space with Subjective Statements
Anyone can say that they work well in collaborative cross-functional teams, or that they have exceptional written and verbal communication skills, or that they’re an effective and fair leader. But that’s the problem—anyone can say those things, which means that they don’t actually mean anything. Instead, they just take up valuable space on your resume.
Take a look at your resume and cut anything that can’t be backed up with numbers or achievements. If you successfully launched 7 new features in your product while working with Design and Engineering, then it can be assumed that you function well in collaborative cross-functional teams. If you beat your quota for the past 6 quarters selling complex software to enterprise clients—then I know that you probably have exceptional verbal and written communication skills.
Of course, you’ll see a lot of job descriptions that ask for candidates with “soft skills”—like great communication, a track record of collaboration, or leading with emotional intelligence. Those skills are certainly important in most roles! But don’t waste your most valuable real estate on subjective statements.
Don’t Restate your Job Description
The number one most common mistake that candidates make is to restate their job description, without including any context about the results they’ve achieved.
When you’re reading through your bullet points, ask yourself: “does this statement highlight what makes me the best candidate for the role? Or does this simply describe the tasks that anyone with my title would perform?”
Don’t say: I am responsible for working with cross-functional team.
Instead say: Collaborated with 3 distributed engineering teams (Bangalore, Krakau, and Columbia) to release product in 2 week sprints.
Don’t say: Consistently achieved annual quota.
Instead say: On track to hit 125% of a $6 million quota in 2019. Achieved 135% of a $5 million quota in 2018, President’s Club Winner. Achieved 115% of a $4 million quota in 2017.
Don’t say: accountable for ensuring that assigned clients realize a return on their investment in our product.
Instead say: Functioned as a trusted strategic and tactical advisor on the TD Account, which resulted in a 45% decrease in processing time within 8 weeks.
If you have numbers, use them. If you have client names that you can drop, drop them. The reader of your resume wants to hire someone who cares enough about their work to brag a little. “My company hired me for X, and I delivered X + Z.”
Don’t Assume Your Reader Knows the Context
Unless your resume is made up exclusively of recognizable employers—think Apple, Google, Shopify, etc.—it’s helpful to include some context about what the organization does. Essentially, you want to make sure that the reader doesn’t have to Google every place you’ve worked to get a sense of whether or not your past experience is relevant.
Signal the scope of the organization and your role to your reader by including details that help them understand context. Add in words that indicate what kind of clients you worked with, your team size and structure, and the overall stage of the company (early startup, Series B funded, recently acquired, etc.).
You can also include a very brief description of the company before you get into the bullet points that list your accomplishments. Keep it short and sweet: i.e. “B2B SaaS platform providing eCommerce solutions to Enterprise clients.”
From top to bottom—Tips for a better resume
Now that you understand your reader, have a clean and consistent format, and have crafted compelling and context-rich content, take one more pass through your resume from top to bottom. These tips will help you ensure that you’ve covered everything you need, left out all the fluffy extra (i.e. unnecessary) stuff, and are following modern resume writing conventions.
Modern resumes no longer include a mailing address. Your header should include your name, email address, and phone number. Keep it short and simple.
Get to your professional experience as quickly as possible. Between your header and experience section, include a (very) brief objective statement. Cut out the “skills overview” or the long-winded subjective summary of your experience. Write something like: “Seeking the opportunity to drive product innovation for a startup in Toronto in the health-tech space.” And then get to the good stuff.
Use the title “Professional Experience” or “Employment History.” Do not call this section “Work.” We’re in business—this is about your career.
The header for each employer should include the name of the company, your title, and the dates you worked there. You don’t need to include the location if all of your experience is in the same city (if you’re writing “Toronto” under every single employer, that’s wasted space that you can use for something else). Keep all of this information tight to the left margin.
If you’ve worked for companies that aren’t widely recognizable, it can be helpful to include a (very) brief statement about what they do.
Write your bullet points. This is the most important part of the resume, so take your time, and think them through carefully. Use accomplishment oriented language that helps your reader understand the scope of your role. For example, you could write that you achieved 120% of quota in 2018. That’s a good start—but the reader doesn’t know what your quota is, or who you were selling too. You could have had $1000 quota, selling door-to-door. Instead, write something like “Achieved 120% of a $4 million quota selling to Enterprise clients in the healthcare vertical in Ontario.” This shows off your accomplishments and gives the reader context.
List your professional experience in reverse chronological order—current/most recent employer first, then work backwards through your experience. Curate the information you provide carefully—sometimes less is more. Focus on providing details about the most relevant employment experiences. As you go further back in time, if your experience is less relevant, it’s ok to leave some of it out, or include it as just a heading with the employer, your title, and dates. Once you get 10 years or so into your career, the first job you had out of college probably won’t be a compelling reason for a reader to call you.
Include your education and any relevant professional development. The name of the school and the title of your degree is all you need here. If you have acquired additional certifications or professional designations that are relevant to the role, list them here. In general, you can leave the year you graduated off of the resume—unless the position requires an up to date certification, in which case include the last time you renewed it. You can also list volunteer experience here, if it shows responsibility, leadership, or other relevant qualities.
Some people really like to end with a section on hobbies and interests. If you have the space for it, and if you feel strongly about including some personal details, then it won’t hurt (but it’s not likely to help much either). If you include this, it should go at the very end.
Last up, wrap with a statement that says “Outstanding references available upon request.” Do not include your references on the resume itself.
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Writing an effective resume is hard, and plenty of experienced professionals struggle to distill their accomplishments down into a few pages. If you’re lucky, it’s also an exercise you don’t have to do very often. My tips will help you portray your professional experience in a polished, compelling format, which will help you achieve your goal of getting a call for that first interview.
And one last note—one of the best things you can do for yourself and your career is to keep track of your accomplishments and responsibilities on an ongoing basis. Consider this your friendly nudge to set a quarterly reminder to review your accomplishments. Having those metrics handy will serve you well when it’s time for a performance review, when you’re justifying your budget, or when the time comes to polish up your resume. You never know when a recruiter will call you with a dream opportunity, and it’s best to be ready.
Are you tired of sifting through poorly written resumes from unqualified candidates? In addition to proactively reaching out to passive candidates, our team of experienced recruitment professionals will screen and interview all prospects, so that you only speak with the best of the best. Book a consult to discuss your hiring plans today.