When I worked at a financial recruiting firm, I read through piles of resumes every day. I decided which candidates to call based on these simple sheets of paper; as I observed the people my colleagues and I called on, I learned a great deal about what makes a strong resume. Professional resume writers tend to produce fluffy resumes that are very different from the functional, utilitarian ones we worked with. Personally, I feel strongly that they are often much weaker than strong, simple, functional resumes.
The following is one school of thought, based on the observations of one humble former employee of a recruiting firm. My conclusion: The best resumes are the most organized, simplest and easiest to skim.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
Don’t try to be creative with your formatting: No images, no colors, no clip art. Your background and experience will make you stand out from the crowd. When employers look at a resume, they scan for basic information. Quirky resumes may be more acceptable in theater and in the arts, but on the whole, weird formatting isn’t unique—it’s frustrating.
Reconsider Your “Objectives” Section
I don’t like “Objectives” on resumes, and none of the recruiters I worked with ever read such sections carefully, if at all. In my experience, “Objectives” are full of fluff. No matter how long and substantive you have made yours, I start out with this bias—so I usually won’t read your “Objectives” in the first place.
Construct Your Narrative
Regardless of everything you’ve ever heard, a resume is not a list of achievements. Your resume is a story. When someone reads it, they are looking to find out how you got from point A to point B, what you learned along the way, where you want to be, and how that applies to the current job opening. Don’t list a whole slew of irrelevant internships and experiences unless you’ve gained valuable skills from them that translate to the position you’re applying for. More is NOT always better, so be aware that too many irrelevant positions may make you appear like a job-jumper or like you have no idea what you want to do with your life.
Don’t Lose Track of Time
People debate whether you should arrange your resume chronologically or thematically. In my experience, chronology is always best. Even if you’re trying to change fields, remember that you’re building a narrative of your life and path. If you start jumping around in time, I’m going to wonder what you’re trying to hide.
"But My Experience Isn’t Totally Related—I’m Changing Paths"
Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re changing skill sets. I once worked with a candidate who studied early childhood education, considered joining the clergy but didn’t, worked at a nonprofit and then decided to do event planning in the finance industry. Her biggest obstacle was proving that her resume wasn’t an extraneous hodgepodge. We retooled the resume so that each experience appeared to be leading up to the next—regardless of whether they were directly related, she gained skills from each that led to the next. We didn’t do this through a wordy objective, but rather through detailing experience substantively.
Know When to Shut Up
No matter how fabulous you are, people are going to skim your resume and you need to accept this. Limit bullet points to one line unless you truly can’t help it (at which point, don’t go above two lines). Full sentences are not necessary—just spit out the few bits of information that you really want to stick out in your reader’s mind. No paragraphs, no essays, no long explanations. Aim for clear and concise, with an easy layout that guides your reader’s eye across the page.
Limit Yourself to One Sheet!
You might think that you have a lot of experience so it’s okay to have a multi-page resume, but that’s not going to fly unless you’ve been in the industry for a long time. When I say “long time,” I am not talking to people in their late twenties, but rather to people who have been in the same industry for close to 20 years. If your resume won’t fit, even after you’ve cut the “Objectives” section, play with the margins. Mess with the font size. Don’t say “references upon request” because I know that already.
Sure, action words are great. But in the end, the most important thing is to create a concise, cohesive portrait of your work experience with a clear narrative path.