The 6-Second Resume Scan

The 6-Second Resume Scan

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.

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 and 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.

My expensive resume was a fail!

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, who gave me what I needed to 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 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 young people exiting the educational system, uncertain about the future and unschooled in employer ways. Or in the worries of those mid-career professionals who face an uncertain job market after many 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 the Present Yourself – in Writing links and read the foundation 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. I’m here to help. 

30 resources to support the writing process for education and work transitions

30 resources to support the writing process for education and work transitions

Since the advent of the internet and explosion of email in the mid-90s, writing is not just a nicety, but a norm in all education and most work environments. Writing about yourself is typically the first hurdle you need to cross when applying to competitive higher education programs or a new job – be it with a personal essay, a cover letter and resume, or even a brief self introduction email.

Whether searching for work, cultivating relationships for your business, managing relationships in the workplace, or creating a following through social media, you need to master important writing tasks.  

This post encourages you to:

1. Make writing a game – have fun with it.

2. Practice writing in low-risk contexts for high-risk challenges.

3. Draw on internal and external resources to support your writing.

Read on to learn more.

1. Make writing a game – have fun with it.

Writing about yourself for important transitions such as applying for a competitive education program or plum job is not easy. Why is that?

Perhaps you are someone who knows so much about yourself, it’s hard to decide what to say, so you feel overwhelmed. On the other hand, maybe you don’t really know yourself well, so struggle to find something interesting to write about. Then there is the uncertainty of not knowing who our readers are or what they want. We can’t read their minds. So we hesitate and procrastinate on our writing goals. 

These challenges are normal, so don’t beat yourself up. Instead, turn your writing tasks into a game – one that has players, rules, sometimes time constraints, often both prizes (the offer) and penalties (the rejection).  While the game makes you sweat here and there, the more you play, the more you build writing strategies and skills and hopefully, enjoy the game of writing. 

The players in this game of writing for competitive work or education applications are you, your readers (who you want on your side) and your competitors (who you want to beat to the finish line.) Sometimes there are gatekeepers, those you must convince of your worthiness in order to be seen by the readers who have the ultimate power to decide your fate.

The rules of the writing game vary, depending on who is your reader and what is the prize. You must study your reader carefully to figure out what’s important to them before you begin to engage with them through writing.

As a skill-based game, writing is a tool of learning. You have no idea what to say? Great! Write stuff down so that you can start to get a better idea. Keep writing and eventually you’ll find your voice. During career transitions, you’ll be tested on what you know about who you are, what you value and what you yearn to do. When you take the time to learn about yourself through writing, you experience greater confidence in face-to-face situations, like a networking event or the interview (also more fun if you approach like a game!)

Finally, making it a game helps you to put in context “you win some, you lose some.” It’s not personal when you don’t get the offer, but it sure is a terrific reward when you do. Building skills to write about yourself eventually yields results that you want, such as admission to a top school or an offer to a job you covet. Remind yourself that if you approach it as a fun, creative exercise, it can be deliciously satisfying to get to the end of a well thought-out, well written piece that has your personal stamp on it.

2. Practice writing in low-risk contexts as preparation for writing in high-risk contexts

There are two kinds of writing you need to make time for if you are embarking on an education or work transition:

  • Low-risk writing for your eyes, entertainment and education only
  • High-risk writing that appeals to your audience and builds a bridge to your future

Engaging in both types of writing will improve the quality of your writing.


Low-risk writing:

For your eyes & entertainment only!

Low risk writing is the pre-work, the primer for your final audience-focused documents. Writing in a journal, for example, is a terrific low-risk way to learn about yourself. It can help you clarify your working identity, sort through options and mentally try on possible futures.

Brainstorming on a piece of paper or using an electronic app is another great low-risk way to write your way to better understanding. Just try to brainstorm in phrases or sentences rather than single words only!

If you want to expand the audience circle beyond yourself, another low-risk writing context is social media. To maintain anonymity, create a secret identity to practice your writing (and get feedback) in a relatively low-risk context.

Your journalling, brainstorming and social media musings can include wildly ambitious goals and totally random, unrelated and unfinished thoughts. Doodles. Art work. Flights of fancy. Or they can follow thoughtful writing drills and exercises that deepen your craft. You be the judge.


High risk writing:

To land the offer or business deal!

On the other hand, writing resumes, cover letters and business proposals fall into the category of higher risk, higher stakes writing, as you have an audience at the other end. And your audience typically has power to accept you or reject you.

Unlike writing about yourself in a private journal, writing high stakes self-introduction documents serves to develop relationships between you and others. In these documents, you are the subject of your writing, but are only one half of the writing/reading equation. Your documents become the bridge between you and your reader.

Therefore, in addition to writing about yourself, your writing needs first to understand your reader. It then must meet those needs by being focused, relevant, and informative.

Oh, and pretty much error free.

Both low-risk writing and high-risk writing are important during your education and work transitions. Like yin and yang, they complement each other. Your audience-focused documents can become more interesting and real, if you’ve done the pre-work of journalling and other forms of self reflection in preparation.

3. Use internal and external resources to improve your writing process

Whether low-risk or high risk, writing is a creative task. Therefore it’s helpful to think of it as a process of continuous improvement. It’s a ride, with right turns and wrong turns. With lows and highs.

To make the writing ride enjoyable and get to the other end, you need both inner and outer resources. So to wrap up, I’ll also share two categories of resources to support your writing process:

  • Internal resources, like clear thinking and noble character
  • External resources, chocolate and excellent web resources to name just two


Writing Resources: Internal Resources

If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.

Goethe was a German writer born in 1749. He translated the bible into German. So he knows a thing or two about writing. His words of wisdom remind us of two important inner resources for strong writing: clear thoughts and a noble spirit.

Each of these resources are worthy of an entire blog post – later! For now, keep these tips in mind:

  • For clear thoughts. When you sit down to write, remember the importance of getting clear. Meditate for five minutes. Then remind yourself of your reader. Visualize him, her or them. Before you begin serious writing, create an outline to organize your thoughts and key messages. As you write, you don’t need to follow the outline. Just be mindful of it as a useful tool to organize your thoughts.
  • For a noble spirit. If we define “noble” as having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideals, there are many ways to apply this resource to the writing process. For example, aim for the personal quality of authenticity (= be real), the moral principle of honesty and the ideal of reciprocity in your relationship with your reader. Take your writing from all about “me” to more about “we.”


Writing Resources: External Resources

There are many external resources we need to keep us moving forward on our writing ride.

Like our mobile phone to recall our voice memos and notepad musings from earlier in the week. A pad of paper to transfer from our brain through our arm and hand our fleeting thoughts. And pencils to visualize our ideas in living colour. What would we do without our computer to organize and draft our scathingly brilliant ideas? How about some motivational quotes and soothing music to keep us marching towards our goal?

Finally, of course, chocolate. Who doesn’t need chocolate to fuel the writing journey?

The Internet also offers wonderful resources to support our writing tasks. Below are just a few of my favorites.



Curriculum Vitae (CVs)

Personal Statements & Letters of Admission





Business Plans

Business Reports


Style, Format, Grammar & Spelling

In Summary

Writing, like any creative undertaking, is a skill that requires ongoing practice. Learning to write well offers lasting benefits – turning your writing tasks into a game can make it fun. Practice in low-risk and high-risk contexts. Play with writing for your eyes only to develop fluency and confidence. Get serious with your writing in high stakes applications so that you can produce quality materials worthy of a closer look by a recruiter. Take advantage of the many resources out there to support your writing – both internal resources to fuel your motivation and focus, as well as external resources to tailor your writing to its intended audience need. Good luck!

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