The 6-Second Resume Scan

by Jan 2, 2020Presenting in Writing0 comments

I was in my early 20s, a newly minted Honours Bachelor of Arts graduate from Laval University in Quebec City. I didn’t have the first clue how to write a resume. So I paid an expert. I honestly don’t remember the process or how much I paid from my paltry salary. I remember so clearly the result.

My expensive resume was a fail!

With great excitement, I picked up 20 copies of my new “CV” on beautiful ivory paper. The next day, I marched into the regional office of Telebec, the Quebec City subsidiary of Bell Canada.

I entered the office of my boss, the Regional Director, armed with what I thought was ammunition for a promotion. Surely this very professional CV would make a difference. It would demonstrate once and for all that I was worthy of a more responsible position than Receptionist/Mail Room Clerk. After all, I had a university degree, something very few if any of my workmates could claim.

She smiled – no doubt at my naivety that I might move up the ladder of success after only a couple weeks on the job.

Her smile quickly morphed into a look of horror as she scanned page after page of my 7-page treatise.

“My dear, did you write this?” she inquired gently. “Or did you get help?” 

After learning I had paid someone hard cash so I could be taken more seriously, she said:

Go back to this man. Tell him in no uncertain terms that he needs to reduce your document to a 2-page resume or else you expect your money back. Get him to remove all the personal information – a resume should not include your Social Insurance Number, your marital status or your citizenship. And tell him you’re not going to pay him a penny more, or I will take this up personally with him.

I was 22 and traumatized.

Not only was my expensive CV a fail. But I had to brace myself for an awkward conversation. More importantly, I was still a mailroom clerk/receptionist, despite my university degree!

Fast forward a half decade later, when I began working in recruiting and learned how employers evaluate candidates for a job. Over my subsequent years in recruitment, I would callously “toss” the resumes out that didn’t meet my standards:

General statements that gave me zero insight to the strengths of the candidate – toss.

No evidence of relevant training grounds or roles – toss.

Sloppy formatting – toss.

Spelling or grammar errors – toss.

Functional format – toss.

The 6-second resume scan

Could I determine this in 6 seconds? Generally, yes.

That’s not to say I didn’t take another 10 seconds or so to scan for more detail or that I wasn’t respecting all the candidates I was tossing. More so, I needed to give my precious time to those who had carefully prepared an effective cover letter and resume. Their resumes helped me make a positive decision, quickly.

And today’s eye-scanning research on how recruiters screen resumes confirms I was not then, nor am I today alone in this speed-reading practice.

Watch the short video below that suggests 6 seconds is enough, why that is so and what employers look for first.


As a manager for many years, I’ve chaired countless hiring committees. With age I’ve slowed down in my scanning and with experience, have become a little less cavalier. Today, I get my best kicks from helping people who, like my former self, would be fantastic employees, but their resume just isn’t getting them the attention they deserve.

I recognize my former self daily in the hearts and minds of so many people exiting the educational system or navigating their early years in the job market. They may be uncertain about their future or unschooled in employer ways. Or both. Or they may face an uncertain job market after a few  years in stable employment.

In Conclusion

Writing a resume is a little like doing your tax return – a necessary evil once a year (or less often if you delay and default!). The rules of the game are so many and change so often – it’s hard to get it right. And the payoff can be better or worse, depending on how well you know the system.

If you find the process of writing a resume painful, visit 30 Resources to Support the Writing Process for Education & Work Transition and read specific resume tips in my post on substance and style matters in resumes to assess your own resume.

And if you are still looking for resume relief, fill in my contact form or book a half-hour free consult at the bottom of this page. I’m here to help. 


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