Thanks to this Internet thing, job hunters worldwide can now apply to dozens of gigs simultaneously with a few keystrokes. No more typing one resume at a time on 99%-cotton-and-cashmere paper, licking stamps (an actual behavior in the 20th century), and snailmailing: it’s now all search, click, send.
Ironically, by making job applications easier and less expensive than downloading a “Game of Thrones” episode, the Internet also made getting a job harder than ever. Even low-level positions now receive hundreds of applications.
Yet what employer has time to read through mounds of resumes when there are great cat videos to watch? Rather, they assign indentured servants and droids to scan resumes for phrases like “will work for pizza crusts.” Consequently, most resumes warrant a quick glance at best before getting voted off the island.
That’s why the old-fashioned generic resume, with its tedious chronological list of jobs and responsibilities, no longer cuts it.
Your 21st century resume must work like a marketing power tool, highlighting your strengths while distinguishing you from the masses. So as an Atomic Tango public service, I’ve compiled these tips from recruiters, career coaches, and my years as both an employer and employee. So if you’re ready to hype yourself into the job of your dreams — or at least one with dental coverage — read on…
1. Tailor your resume to each job.
Think you can send the same resume to everyone? Think again. And again. And again. No two companies are alike, even in the same industry, so carefully read the job description and research the employer. In so doing, you might discover the key words they’re seeking, like “MBA” and “ability to score NBA playoff tickets.”
Now rewrite your resume to make it more relevant. For example, if you’re applying for a sales job and you currently work as a waiter — ahem — “hospitality service professional,” mention your ability to “provide one-to-one customer service.” Never assume an employer will connect your experience and expertise to their job opening. You’re asking them to think about you when they’re obsessed with saving their own jobs. Be explicit.
2. Kick start with an executive summary.
For executives who find reading stressful (i.e., most of them), begin your resume with a 2-3 line summary that describes your key selling points and objectives. Write this in third person. Example: “Former U.S. President with Harvard MBA now seeks to leverage natural talents in the position of rodeo clown.”
Your executive summary should sound decisive and confident, but also factual and objective. Avoid vague terms like “hard working” and “results oriented”; rather, use specific descriptors like “published,” “award-winning,” “multilingual,” and “prehensile tail.” Just remember to keep it short! You’ve got the rest of your resume to tell the whole story.
3. Describe relevant experiences only.
Like your summary, your professional experience section should be third-person, objective, and concise. A resume isn’t an essay, so make it less wordy than a comic book for 10-year-old boys with ADD.
In the past, employers wanted descriptions of every job you’ve ever had. That was when they had training programs and the courage to mold raw but talented employees. Today, both training programs and courage are endangered species in corporate America. Employers now want resumes that scream “PERFECT FIT,” so unless your past experience is extremely sparse, don’t describe irrelevant jobs.
For example, a summer job as a mime on a cruise ship might help you stand out in the applicant pool, but it just doesn’t fit most lawyer positions. Trying to distort a mime job description for legal work would only sound silly and disrespectful of the employer. And of mimes.
Rather, describe in detail only your most significant and relevant jobs. If you wish, you can tack on a chronological list of all of your jobs without descriptions. Even then, censorship is fine.
Indeed, if you have a lot of experience, consider featuring only major accomplishments. Remember, this is a marketing tool, not a police report. Why confess mediocrity and failure? The official bios of professional athletes, movie stars, and Presidential candidates certainly don’t.
No law says you have to list that crappy job you endured before realizing that your boss had the ethics and hygiene of a naked mole rat. Let’s say you gave two months of your life to the legal department of Enron. Well, feel free to omit that.
The worst piece of resume advice I ever heard came from one skeezy recruiter who said you should include jobs from which you got fired, with an explanation of that firing. IGNORE HIM. COMPLETELY. This tell-all recruiter was just trying to make his job easier: “Ooh, look, this sap got canned for knocking up the boss’s daughter, and he confessed it on his resume! Well, that’s an easy reject…”
4. Forget “responsible for” and remember these 3 words: Challenge + Solution + Results
It’s what you did that matters, not what you were supposed to do, so don’t bother listing what you were responsible for. Rather, focus on accomplishments:
- State the challenges you (or your team or your company) faced. You can express these as assignments or goals.
- Describe the solutions you (or your team, etc.) developed.
- List the results, citing as many numbers as possible. Numbers pop in a word-heavy document, and they impart credibility (though we all know statistics can be smoke and mirrors).
Don’t hesitate to claim participation in your company’s larger accomplishments. Don’t lie — just give yourself credit for being on a winning team (see professional athletes and movie stars above). For example, let’s say you interviewed some customers. Your assignment description might say, “Researched target market for 12 campaigns totaling $100 million in sales. Identified the 20% of customers who generate 80% of annual revenue.”
And remember, brand equity rubs off: the better you make your company look — particularly if it’s a company few people know — the better you’ll look.
Along the same lines, show names of major corporations and celebrities. For example, “distributed press releases” sounds weak; “distributed press releases to key media targets and influencers, including the L.A. Times and Arianna Huffington” has star power. Those names will catch the eye of your resume scanner and make them think you’re actually connected.
Incidentally, a promotion also counts as a result, such as “promoted to Project Manager after just 6 months.” (And if you’re not a senior executive, and you haven’t received a promotion in your company after two years, start job hunting. Seriously. These days, job switching doesn’t look as bad as staying in the same place and never moving up.)
One final guideline for writing about your experience: use strong verbs like “earned,” “analyzed,” “led,” “directed,” “surpassed,” “managed,” etc. A particularly limp verb is “assisted.” Even if you’re officially an “assistant” who spends eight hours a day fending off coma-inducing tedium, juice up your resume by killing that A-word. So instead of “assisted VP of Marketing in researching target markets,” make “research” the verb: “Researched target markets for VP of Marketing.”
5. Emphasize educational accomplishments, too.
Unless you’re a recent grad or your educational accomplishments outweigh your work experience, education should follow experience on your resume. Now, within that section, list your most impressive degree first, which may not be your most advanced degree. If you received your BA at erkeley and your MA at the Sohcahtoa Correspondence School, put Berkeley first.
Incidentally, if you went to a little known college — and Americans don’t recognize most colleges that don’t have a major football team — describe it in flattering terms, such as “rated Top 10 for Accounting and Dancing Bears.” As with corporations, brand equity rubs off.
Now, if you’re a college grad, don’t list your high school unless you did something extraordinary there, like leading your football team to the Texas championship… and only if you’re applying for a job in Texas.
What deserves hyping: any relevant major college projects, extracurricular activities, and advanced coursework. Again, the key word is “relevant.” if I’m hiring a graphic designer, I don’t really care that they were Assistant Vice Treasurer of the Model U.N. Club.
Finally, as your years in the job market increase, your education section should decrease in size until it’s little more than the name of your school and degree. You can even remove your year of graduation to reduce the possibility of age discrimination, though it doesn’t take a mathematician to guesstimate your age from the year of your first job. (Another reason the chronological resume is evil.)
6. Round yourself out with skills and interests.
The rules of relevance and significance apply here, too. Don’t list “hobbies” — they’re all “interests,” and should include only those with major involvement. For example, just because you saw a play sometime in the past three years, “theatre” is not a solid interest. However, if you sit on the Board of Directors of a theatre, or had produced a play, then list theatre. Likewise, just because you like to take vacations doesn’t make “travel” an interest; writing a regular travel blog gives you clearance to boast.
Do list your charitable activities, since they make you appear trustworthy and interested in more than money. If your work with the charity was significant, even unpaid, list it as professional experience. That’s how recent grads with little work experience can flesh out their resumes: volunteer.
As for skills, foreign languages are always impressive in linguistically challenged America, and if you’re under 30, everyone wants to see “social media” (although every 10-year-old has the same skill). Do NOT list mundane clerical skills, such as your ability to use Microsoft Office — who can’t use Office these days? Definitely avoid listing skills you never not want to perform again, like “answering phones” or “HTML.” Ironically, the lower the skill, the greater the prominence it will have on your resume: your PhD will be undermined if you mention your typing speed.
7. That said, DON’T make it personal.
Do NOT include the following personal info on your resume unless they’re absolutely germane to the job (like modeling, sports, or the priesthood): your photo, age, gender, race, sexual orientation, height, weight, or religion. Those could get your resume automatically rejected or invite discrimination. That might sound obvious to Americans, but not so to people in other cultures. I’ve received foreign resumes that listed such personal info.
Here’s something you might not know: since companies no longer physically mail applicants, leave out your home address. This protects your privacy and prevents bigots from discriminating against certain neighborhoods. (I once knew an employer who redlined entire ZIP codes.) Simply list your current city.
The more critical address is your email. Don’t use your current work email address — that shows you’ve got the judgment of a possum crossing a four-lane highway. Also, don’t use a cute or edgy email address, like “deathboy” or “snugglepuss,” unless you’re applying for a job in some insanely creative organization, like an ad agency or the Supreme Court. I also recommend a permanent email address that employers can contact years later. You don’t want to miss out on a belated offer because you dumped your annoying Internet Service Provider. (I know, calling an ISP “annoying” is redundant.)
Of course, your phone number should appear on your resume — just be sure to have a “safe” answering message: keep the Marilyn Manson sampling to a minimum… unless, of course, you’re applying for a job in the music industry, in which case, you need more than resume help.
If you have a relevant website, list its URL along with a one- or two-word description, such as “my business” or “my portfolio.” If you have profiles on LinkedIn, Creative Hotlist, or other professional networking website, list them, too. However, do NOT list your Twitter or Facebook profiles unless you use them strictly for professional reasons. Those racy spring break photos won’t get you anything but an internship with a U.S. Congressman.
Indeed, before applying for jobs, take some virtual Clorox to your social network profiles, blog, YouTube favorites list, and other online proof that you’re a normal human with human interests. Bleach out anything that can be held against you by prospective employers who can’t stand the idea of employees having lives, opinions, or personalities.
You can also save your references for later. Unless Bill Gates, Oprah, or some other internationally revered bad-ass will endorse you at any time to anyone, do not share your references’ contact info unless requested. Sharing them to everyone would violate their privacy. And don’t bother with the antiquated line, “References available upon request.” Employers already know that, and white space is more valuable.
Finally, don’t put your Social Security number on your resume. The odds of an employer stealing your identity are pretty slim; rather, they’ll likely question your judgment for sharing it (see “possum” above).
8. Make your resume presentable.
Some old-school recruiters insist that a resume should have only one page, but a second or even third page is fine — even recommended — if you have more than ten years of significant experience or long lists of accomplishments, such as artistic credits, publications, or awards. Those lists should appear on subsequent pages, like appendix exhibits.
Also, don’t get hung up on design. Simply have an organized resume with lots of white space to make it easy on the eyes. Employers particularly like wide margins for scribbling notes, since Post-It Notes cost money. And unless you’re including art as a sample of your work, ditch the colors.
Likewise, stick to a simple legible font — nothing cute or colorful or cursive, and be kind to us old folks and think minimum 10-point.
Finally, save your resume as an Adobe PDF file to ensure it can be read when emailed or uploaded.
Once you have your resume complete, proofread, proofread, and proofread again. With hundreds of resumes to evaluate, employers look for any reason to reject one. Typos are a popular reason, since they don’t require higher brain functions to analyze. So proofread carefully, then take a 24-hour break. It’s amazing the errors you’ll find, and the changes you’ll want to make, once you’ve had time to clear your mind.
But don’t over edit! Paralysis by analysis strikes individuals as well as companies. Eventually, you’ll just have to take a deep breath, say “that’s good enough,” and let your baby go out on her own.
Parting Shot On Job Applications
A solid resume is a critical part of the job application process — but it’s not the only part. You might not receive a job offer for dozens of reasons, most beyond your control. You might have the perfect resume, but lose out to an applicant who went to the same college as did the CEO. You might have founded the local feline rescue society, only to have the person reading your resume hate cats. Don’t dwell on the reason; just move on to the next job application. After all, would you want to work for someone who uses such insane criteria to select their employees?
Finally, good luck — it’s rough out there, but if a no-talent bacterium like Glenn Beck can keep finding jobs, there’s hope for anyone.
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