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How to Write a Winning Resume

How to Write a Winning Resume

resume_gift Someone asked me how to write a winning resume, and the question took me by surprise. Usually people ask specific questions, like “How can I avoid looking like a job-hopper?” and “I’m concerned about age discrimination — should I drop my degree date?” (Or the always popular, “Can you review my resume…for free?”)

So after the question was asked, I saw 13 years of resume writing experience flash before my eyes, along with every resume tip I ever offered — it was like a near-death experience.Where to start? Winning resume strategies vary dramatically depending on the job seeker’s background, career level, goals, even geographic location. It would be impossible to give the recipe for a winning resume and wrap it in a pretty bow. But I like a challenge, so I decided to break it up into a list of do’s and don’ts. So here goes…

Do’s

  • Do state your career goal. Your objective should be clear from the very beginning of your resume. You can incorporate your goal into a bold headline, or weave it into your Qualifications Summary. Thinking about using a “one-size-fits-all-jobs” resume? You could be in for a long job search.
  • Do include a Qualifications Summary. If you’re diving right in to your work history without a brief introduction, you’re missing the opportunity to spoon-feed your strongest credentials or “value proposition” to the resume reviewer — right at the top of your resume.
  • Do include your important skills. Hiring managers are looking for specific skills when filling a job opening. So create a bulleted list of your industry-related skills. Relevant job-related skills (such as “vendor negotiations”) hold more weight than general skills (like “communication skills,” which everyone claims to have).
  • Do include accomplishments. Most resumes are heavily focused on job duties, but employers want to see how well you’ve done your job. Include specific examples of the main ways you contributed to your employers, and hiring managers will see the value that you bring to the table. Use quantifiable accomplishments whenever possible.
  • Do pick the right length. If you’re a new grad with minimal experience, chances are you need one page. If you are an experienced professional with lots of experience, two pages should do the trick. If you’re a top-level executive with an extensive track record or a techie with many relevant projects, you might need three pages. Professionals who require a longer resume are in academia and need a CV, not a resume. A resume is a brief “snapshot” of your qualifications — you want to have something to discuss in an interview.
  • Do create an attractive design. Your resume needs to stand out from the pack of resumes, and a distinctive (yet conservative) design can help your resume get noticed. Make use of your word processing program’s formatting features, like font size, bold, italics, etc. But don’t overdo it –- it’s a careful balancing act to make sure your resume looks nice, and not like a three-ring circus!
  • Do give kudos to team accomplishments. Did your department generate $2.5 million last year? Then give credit to the team instead of claiming the accomplishment as your own, unless you want to look like a braggart who likes to steal the limelight.
  • Do use a readable font size. I’ve been seeing more and more resumes with teeny tiny fonts — apparently people are trying to squeeze in as much information on a page to avoid starting a new page. Not good. Your font should be easily readable on-screen. It’s better to go to a new page or edit some of the content and use a font that doesn’t make your reader squint (or just delete your resume to avoid a migraine headache). Along the same lines, make sure you have plenty of white space to make your resume reader-friendly.
  • Do include related hobbies. The emphasis is on related. If your hobby shows some aspect of your personality that would be desirable or an interesting talking point with the interviewer, include it. Avoid including anything that is kind of “out there” or would reveal something about you that you wouldn’t want your next employer to know.
  • Do proofread. Your resume should be error-free. Sending a resume with typos is the equivalent of showing up to a job interview with food stains on your shirt.
  • Do keep your resume updated. A resume that’s frequently updated and revised is more effective than one that is out-of-date and neglected. Make a point to update your resume when you have a new accomplishment, and take a good look at the document at least every few months.

Don’ts

  • Don’t use a functional format. It’s almost never the right answer, and only raises red flags and doubts about your work history. Plus, if you’re trying to hide dates, a functional resume may do the opposite and draw attention to dates. A “combination” resume (a reverse chronological resume that leads with a Qualifications Summary) works for almost all professionals.
  • Don’t be a copycat. Don’t use a resume template (unless you want to blend in with the crowd) and don’t copy your friend’s resume. You can use resume samples to inspire you, but don’t copy!
  • Don’t lose sight of your career goal. When writing your work descriptions, always keep your career goal in mind. Highlight the accomplishments that are related to your next career move, and downplay unrelated career information. Remember, you can’t include everything you’ve ever done, so you might as well include the skills and accomplishments that will grab your reader’s attention.
  • Don’t overuse bullets. Professional resume writers refer to this type of resume as a “polka-dot resume.” If you bullet everything, no one point stands out and you dilute the impact of the bullets. Instead, strategically use bullets to draw attention to the key points that you want to emphasize.
  • Don’t go way back. If your work history spans more than fifteen years, keep in mind that employers are most interested in what you did recently. So dedicate the most space to your recent experience. You can include earlier work history if you want, but consider summing up the highlights in an “Early Career” section.
  • Don’t use a funky font. Most resumes are being emailed and opened on computers, so it’s important that your font selection translates properly on the receiver’s end. If not, the receiver’s system will convert to a different font, and there goes all of your perfect formatting.
  • Don’t write “References Available Upon Request.” This is not the 80s, folks!
  • Don’t include personal information. Marital status, date of birth, salary data, and other personal information shouldn’t be included on most resumes. There are a few exceptions, like resumes going to foreign countries and entertainer resumes in which personal information is relevant to the job. Federal applications also require personal information such as salary history. Other than that, omit personal information.
  • Don’t use personal pronouns (“I,” “me,” or “my”). The reader knows you are writing about you. Use an “implied” first-person voice, like “Developed reports…” instead of “I developed reports.”
  • Don’t use bad resume lingo. If you’re a “results-proven leader with excellent communication skills looking for a growth-oriented position with a forward-thinking company,” please delete the bad resume lingo right now! This post has more detail on offensive, over-used cliches that should be eliminated from your resume.
  • Don’t lie. Whatever you are trying to cover up isn’t as bad as you think it is, and a dishonest approach can get you into all kinds of trouble (even long after you’re hired). And yes, omitting significant jobs is lying. “Honesty is the best policy” — didn’t we learn this lesson in kindergarten?

To your success!

Kim Isaacs

  • Great list. It hits to the bottom line of what a resume is for – make the person stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, many people do the things in your “don’ts” list to standout with an unusual resume design, and fail to do the things in the “do’s” list to separate themselves from everyone else. Qualifications, skills and accomplishments are what will get someone and interview and then a job.

  • Thank you, Gary – your advice about focusing on qualifications, skills, and accomplishments is excellent!

  • Kim,Your response to “how to write a winning resume” was – forgive me – write on. Thanks for making your suggestions so clear & sensible.I would like to add a few points about the “Don’t go way back” paragraph. How many jobs to list on a resume can be a judgment call, but here’s a situation when the resume should ALWAYS list more than 10 years of work history: When job tenure in the candidate’s chosen field has been spotty during the past several years but stable previous to that. Ancient history is also worth mentioning when it shows consistent career growth, numerous & consistent accomplishments throughout the career, brand name employers, or previous industry or functional experience that is relevant to the candidate’s current job search but missing from more recent employment.By the way, you’re so right that functional resumes are so wrong, despite what many professional resume-writers advise. When I see a functional format, I grimace & assume the candidate is trying to camouflage a problematic work history. A good recruiter will ferret out the problems anyway, so just include that functional info under each chronologically-listed job.Mary Storms, Tech SALES Recruiter, STORMS Associates