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Write resumes right: A brief guide to what matters most

by May 8, 2020Presenting in Writing

Why do you need to write resumes right? First, you want the interview or the offer. Second, the competition is intense – you want to stand out. Third, those making screening decisions are short on time and patience.

You want the interview or offer

When you write your resume right, you prepare yourself to be successful not just in getting an interview, but also in successfully presenting yourself during the interview. You get clear on your strengths, weaknesses and accomplishments. This focuses you so you spend more time applying to jobs or programs you really want. Instead of being a slave to the process, you become the master.

The competition is intense

Whether your application is for a job or a competitive education program, you are one of many highly or specially qualified applicants. Only a chosen few make it through the tunnel of a first screening process that allows in only a select few from tens to hundreds to thousands of applicants.

Decision makers are short on time and patience

From my own and other’s experience, it’s true what they say. On a first pass of a resume, a reader might spend 6 to 20 seconds to determine whether you are worth a second look. From that brief glance, your reader will place your resume into one of three piles:

A = Strong fit – Interview. Five to seven resumes will land here, though a second pass of these can reduce this number.
B = Some aspects of fit – Maybe interview. Six to twenty resumes might make it here for a second, more thorough review. A few of these will move up to the A pile.
C = Not a fit – Definitely do not interview. The remaining resumes end up here and are unlikely to get a second look.

Granted, some readers might have four piles. Maybe five. They might have more resumes in the piles than I suggest. Some readers might not make piles at all, just select the first three resumes they like. But all of them, if they are in a decision-making role, will have a system that helps them narrow down potentially hundreds of options to get quickly to the main event of selection – the interview or the offer.

Now most of you have also heard how import “fit” is. However, you might find it frustrating to put into practice this gem of wisdom as you build your resume case for consideration.

So how do you write resumes right?

If you want decision makers to put you in the A pile, learn to:

1. Strategically focus your resumes

2. Ground your resumes with substance

3. Format your resumes with style.

I’ll tackle each of these in turn, providing samples and examples to help you focus your resume-writing tasks.

Ready? Let’s go.

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1. Write resumes that are strategically focused.

A strategically focused resume carefully positions your background in relation to your reader’s needs, building a solid case for a future together.

In other words, a strategically focused resume makes it easy, if not obvious, for the reader to find the goodness of fit between a candidate and a job. Therefore, you improve your chances of success when you write resumes that pay serious attention to your reader’s needs and target your content accordingly to “fit” the spec.

Use a t-analysis to strategically focus your resume

To simplify your task of focusing your resume strategically, consider a brainstorming tool commonly called the t-analysis. My own version provides prompts and white space for you to reflect on your fit before you begin the task of writing. It outlines three simple steps:

1) Research the opportunity.

2) Ask yourself: Do I want this job? Yes or No? Why?

3) Get clear on the stated qualifications and your “FIT” with them.

Good writing comes from reflective thinking. Therefore, before you begin to write resumes, spend time researching your reader’s needs and reflecting deeply on the goodness of fit with your own background, skills, interests and goals.

2. Write resumes that are grounded in substance.

A resume of substance is rich with relevant skills and accomplishments, that tell an interesting, detailed story of your career to date.

A resume of substance tells a compelling and credible career story that unfolds on no more than one or two pages. It invites your reader into your story by situating your relevant experiences in the context of time, place and people. Going beyond the obvious and banal, it uses rich, descriptive detail. Packed with accomplishments and loaded with learning, it portrays a strong and credible candidate.

And because it draws upon a thoughtful strategy, it is selective about the skills and accomplishments it highlights. Therefore it is relevant and interesting to your readers.

What does a resume of substance avoid? Obvious exaggeration, empty generalization, vague job descriptions and routine statements that appear on the majority of resumes.

Consequently, if you want to increase your chances of making it to the A pile, write resumes that are honest, provide helpful context and rich detail, and most importantly, emphasize relevant accomplishments.

Honesty matters.

I recently heard a youthful Senior Manager share a personal anecdote about the process he went through to be hired. He had to provide 12 references. That’s right – 12!!!! Why? In short, his hiring committee found it hard to believe that someone his age could have accomplished so much in such a short career! It’s a good thing he was telling the truth and can laugh about the ordeal in hindsight!

Your resume is like an official document providing verifiable details of your history. The details you provide in a resume – employer names, titles, dates, skills and accomplishments – are examined carefully in an interview. They then become the focus of formal reference check questions before you receive an offer to confirm.

Despite rumours that the truth is ok to stretch on a resume because everyone does it, I am here to implore you: tell the truth.

Consequences of fibbing can be severe. You can be declined a job, even fired from a job you currently hold, if your prospective or current employer uncovers misrepresentation or fabrication. Above all, you’ll feel better about yourself if you tell the truth!

Context matters.

Write resumes that incorporate context. Dates, company description, industry sector, size of organization where you gained your experiences and relationships you cultivated are all important context details. They provide insight to your professional development, to the complexity of challenges you might have encountered and to the caliber of people who worked by your side. Context also helps readers understand how recent or distant, how short or long these developmental experiences were in relation to each role and each employer organization.

What are some ways you can write resumes that include “context”?

Make your dates clearly visible

Don’t bury your dates in the middle of a line. Align them right or left of the page so the reader can easily scan them. This speeds the task for your reader to quickly understand your developmental  timeline – or, as one of my bosses in headhunting called it, your “track record.”

Use reverse chronological order

By some surveys, 70 percent of employers prefer the reverse chronological resume. Why? Because your experience is showcased in a context of time and place. Moving from current to past experiences is standard in resumes because your most recent experience is one that holds your freshest, most-up-to-date accomplishments and typically (though not always) your more advanced and relevant skills. The further back you go, your experience becomes “dated”. Although you might still list these experiences on your resume, you can safely provide few if any context or accomplishment details.

Use sub-dates to show progression

If you’ve been in many positions within the same organization, you want to illustrate this clearly. Moving through different positions often signals to your reader or viewer that your contributions were valued and you were rewarded with a promotion. It also means you’ve had a greater variety of experiences.

Briefly provide organization or industry details

You can’t always assume your reader knows anything about the contexts in which you’ve done your earning and learning. So give them a way in. You can do this in two ways: 1) by setting relevant details out consistently for each section – e.g., put relevant details (20-person wholesaler of office supplies) in brackets consistently after each employer organization or at the end of the line or underneath the organization name; 2) by incorporating such details into your descriptive statements – e.g., Reported to President of 20-person wholesaler of office supplies;

Situate your position in the context of relationships

Find opportunities within your statements to introduce key reporting relationships as well as relationships with important internal and external colleagues, customers and suppliers. For example, instead of “senior management”, share specific titles that indicate level and function, such as “Chief Executive Officer, Controller and Vice President Sales.”

Detail matters.

Many resume writers follow well-meaning advice that suggests they keep their summary statements brief and focus them on soft skills. As a result, I regularly see brief and cliched statements like:

  • Event planning skills
  • Organization skills
  • Communication skills

These statements simply do not differentiate you. They lack the detail (=substance) to make you stand out from others. They fail to ignite the reader’s curiosity enough to bring you in for an interview and get to know you better.

Details help you “show” your reader what you’ve done

“Show don’t tell” is a rule of writing and following it will improve every resume.

What would show don’t tell look like in a summary statement that bragged about the above three skillsets? How about statements that SHOW what you mean by your kind of event planning, organization and communication:

  • Event planning skills from managing logistics of 10 two-day conferences attended by over 1,000 participants per event
  • Organization skills demonstrated by streamlining three manual filing systems, eliminating duplication of records and reducing space requirements from 5 to 3 filing units.
  • Recipient of company’s customer communication award for achieving 5-star rating from customers over a 3-month period

These statements add important details that bring your reader into the experience. Quantifying your experiences helps the reader understand scope and results.

Likewise, when you qualify your descriptions with process (how you got there) or result details (what was the prize), you can be more informative and convincing.

Details educate your reader about your experience

Check your resume for vague statements. Look for opportunities to educate your reader by brainstorming as many rich details as you can, answering questions like:

  • How many people did I manage?
  • How much revenue did I generate?
  • With what frequency did I perform key outcomes?
  • How large were the classes I taught or the events I organized? Who and how many attended?
  • What was the result?
  • What were the steps in a process or cycle of events that got me to an end result?

Then put together one crisp detailed statement that pops like the examples in the next section on accomplishment statements.

Putting it all together – accomplishment matters.

Write resumes that are accomplishment focused. An accomplishment focus in your resume is the most important feature that makes your resume one of SUBSTANCE. However, writing great accomplishment statements is probably the most challenging and time-consuming aspect of crafting a stellar resume. Fortunately, great accomplishment statements are made of the same substance outlined above – honesty, context and detail. In addition, they tell mini stories, enlivened with action, process and results.

First a note on what NOT to do

Let’s distinguish first between a job duty and an accomplishment.

A job duty is: “Filed documents.”

You can turn this into a related accomplishment by thinking about the bigger picture of your time in the position: “Created a new filing system that saved time, money and frustration”.

Far too many resume writers load their resumes with job duties, often pulling them right out of the job description. Literally! I know because when I ask resume writers if they used their job description to write their resume, they say:

“Yeah, cut and pasted.”

The reader learns that Sally was a Waitress, and in this role, she waited on tables and served customers. As a cashier, John operated a cash register. Mary typed, filed and answered phones. Guess what her title was? Mohammed analysed financial statements. He was a Financial Analyst. The Computer Programmer programmed. And guess what the Manager did? He managed.

The goal of a job description is to describe EVERYTHING THAT ALL INCUMBENTS do in a job. The goal of a resume is to bring attention to the MOST RELEVANT (to your reader) ASPECTS OF YOUR CAREER to date.

Therefore, don’t write resumes that regurgitate job duties from your job description. Instead, make sure you emphasize your best, most challenging and most relevant accomplishments.

What you need to do instead

Ok, so we’ve established that your unique accomplishments matter to the reader much more than the job duties which they can roughly assume from your title and the organization. Instead of filling your resume with the obvious, aim to build a library of accomplishment statements that you can tailor easily depending on your reader and their requirement.

Above all, an accomplishment statement highlights a particular experience that both fully developed your skills and knowledge AND made a difference. From your t-analysis, select your top relevant accomplishments and expand on their context and details. Questions you need to think about before crafting your accomplishment statements include:

  • What were the most complex or challenging problems or projects I worked on that developed relevant skills or insights to relevant problems?
  • In what ways did I build my understanding of relevant industry or organizational challenges or changes (even if I didn’t play a lead role)?
  • What important relationships did I build with peers, managers or clients and how did they value my contributions?

Again, the adage “show don’t tell” is how you make YOU and YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS stand out, rather than merely expanding on the job.

Below are a few examples that are starting points to help you begin your own brainstorming of impactful experiences.

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Organized various events in the community.

Improved statement: Organized three 2-day events celebrating cultural diversity attended by over 3,000 community members and supported by 100 volunteers. 

Created marketing flyers and brochures.

Improved statement: Spearheaded the production of 10-page visitor’s guide, negotiating with printing firm a contract that reduced costs by 20 percent.

Interacted with various members of the management team.

Improved statement: Reported to Vice President, Finance and presented weekly to a 4-person Executive team comprised of R&D, Operations, Marketing and Sales Divisions.

3. Write resumes that are formatted with style.

A resume that has style style has an unmistakable air of quality, character and uniqueness. Style is your personal “brand”. It’s the immediate impression you make when someone first lays eyes on your document.

What do we mean by style in a resume? Style in a resume relates to how you have formatted your information to tell a cohesive story, drawing the reader’s attention to the critical details needed to form an impression and make a decision. Style relates to how your documentation leaves an unmistakable impression of quality and attention to detail. When you pay attention to matters of style, you pass the “first impressions” test. What if you fail this test by ignoring style matters? C-pile.

There are many style features that can improve the overall impression your resume makes. I talk about only six below: size, header, white space, formatting, spelling and grammar.

Size matters.

I still cringe when I think of my 7-page resume at the age of 22. If hiring managers had to review a 7-page treatise on 200 applicants applying for a job, they would never make it to the interview stage. Hmm, that’s 1400 pages. Compare that to one of my favorite books – A Fine Balance. 624 pages. Or War & Peace – that was a brick. 1440 pages.

Hiring managers have maybe an hour or two to review 200 resumes and make a decision on who to interview. Be kind to your hiring manager – keep it to one or two pages. One or two pages provide ample space to highlight your RELEVANT accomplishments and create your brand. Anything longer can be viewed as a waste of the reader’s time. How does size relate to substance? The shorter the resume, the more you need to prioritize your most SUBSTANTIAL and relevant experiences to showcase.

While most environments and hiring managers prefer a one- or two-page resume, there are exceptions, so when in doubt, ask someone who works in the organization for advice on length.

Header matters.

The very first thing your reader sees on your resume is your header. I highly recommend that you view your header as an element of your visual identity – i.e., you will re-purpose the header for use on your cover letter, reference list, thank you note and other job search correspondence. It therefore sets the stage for all of your formatting. So choose your font styles and layout carefully to make sure they look great on all of your documents.

Most of you are not graphic artists, nor am I. And most resume readers are not looking to be wowed by your graphics, as substance generally trumps style. However, there are some easy changes you can make to your header to make it stand out more, and ensure you have something you would be proud to show at the top all of your documents.

The slide show below starts with an example of the most common header format I have seen in my many years of resume reading. Avoid it. 

Four improved examples follow, each one adding additional elements that show you how small but subtle changes can add style to your header while at the same time, making good use of your white space and improving readability.

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header example 1 - not recommended

 

What are the problems with this Header?  

 Name is same size font as rest of header. It does not stand out as a document title.

X  Centred header is common – not distinctive 

6-line header takes up too much real estate 

 Times Roman font is common – not distinctive

 

 

Header example 2 - improved

 

What works better in this header?

Header reduced from 6 to 3 lines of real estate

Name in larger sans serif font stands out

Content below aligns right and left, creating clean look

 

Header example 3 - improved

 

What works better in this header?

Header fills width of text, creating a border for resume

Name and address clearly distinguished from contact details – could replace address with a tagline like “Experienced Project Manager” or “Proven Sales Manager”

Line adds attractive detail

 

Header example 4 improved

What works better in this header?

Header fills width of text, creating a border for resume and uses only two lines of real estate

Header example 5 improved

 

What works better in this header?

Header adds subtle colour to line and symbols that are not distracting, yet add interest

Name clearly distinguished from all contact details

 

Consult the Google Oracle for many more possibilities or check out the Resume Sample books at Chapters for ideas. Aim for a look that is attractive and clean. Your goal is to achieve a positive first impression, unique to you and fitting for your audience. If for example you are applying to finance positions, go conservative. On the other hand, for creative environments, add a little colour or consider a more graphic style.

Note regarding graphic-rich resumes: There is extensive advice on the Internet from bloggers to the effect “THIS IS WHAT YOUR RESUME SHOULD LOOK LIKE IN 2020”. Templates abound with headshots, 2-column layouts, fancy bar graphs, and snazzy graphics. I’m currently surveying decision-makers on the extent to which these new resumes have become the norm or end up in the C-pile. More on that later, for now, I’m sticking with traditional, time-honnored practices.

White space matters.

Write resumes with white space to enhance the experience of calm, cool, collected and clean.

A 1-inch or 2.5 centimeter margin (top, bottom, right and left) is but one example of providing white space, though there are many more. Increasing the space between each section and decreasing the space between the heading of the section and the start of the text is another. Both facilitate speed reading and create a comfortable reading experience.

What happens when we have too much to say and are not sure what to cut? We cut the white space. Before you know it, your imperial margins move to .8, then .5, then .25, almost obliterating your white space. Headings and text run into each other, making it hard to see where one section ends and the next one begins. Your readers experience a feeling of panic, bloat and overwhelm. They escape by moving on to the next resume.

So if your resume is feeling busy and crowded and lacking white space as a result, first, decide what content you can remove. Second, go back to your strategy and remind yourself of what is relevant. Third, re-read your resume in search of duplication you can remove. Eliminate unnecessary words.

Formatting matters.

Someone can have substantial and highly related experience, yet present it in a way that makes it frustrating to read, or challenging to navigate to the critical pieces of information.

Too bad, because if this is you, chances are your resume will end up in the C-pile.

What are examples of formatting problems?

  • How about font styles that change on a whim. I know how it happened – you cut and pasted from three different versions of your resume. Reader thinks: It’s sloppy, ergo so are you. C-pile.
  • Then there is totally inconsistent placement of key elements – sometimes the title is first, the organization second, sometimes reversed. I know how it happened. You were in a hurry and didn’t care about the details. Reader thinks: This person is not detail oriented. C-pile.

Burying your dates slap dab in the middle of a long string of text rather than right or left of the page. I get it. You didn’t think it mattered. And you didn’t realize that it makes it challenging for readers to assess your development. Reader thinks: I give up – can’t find what I need quickly enough. C-pile.

  • Sometimes, the font is so small, my bifocals are not good enough, I need my magnifying glass. And where did I last see my magnifying glass? Reader’s response is automatic: C-pile.

‘Nuf said. Formatting matters.

Spelling matters.

I once talked to an employer who didn’t want to meet one of my students because her resume and cover letter were FILLED with spelling errors.

“Can you be more specific? I asked her. She said: “There were AT LEAST THREE ERRORS!”

If you can’t spell, find some who won their high school spelling bee and ask them to review your documents! Use spell check judiciously as opposed to religiously. Spell check can still get it wrong, so think before you accept from the options!

Grammar matters.

Do you commonly write run-on sentences, split your infinitives, dangle your participles, and misplace your modifiers and/or have no idea what I’m talking about? Chances are you are grammar challenged.

Claim all you want in your skills section that you have strong written communication skills. Your resume is hard evidence and therefore more convincing than a claim. And in this day and age of email, writing skills are, in so many workplaces, de rigueur. That’s French for REQUIRED!

Your resume is a reflection of your writing skills. With more than three grammar and spelling errors, you’ve just made it to the C pile. Therefore, read your resume out loud from top to bottom to spot awkward wording and catch obvious grammar issues. And if you’re challenged, get some editorial support from a grammar guru.

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Resources

Resume-writing resources are plentiful. Unfortunately, they are often conflicting and confusing. Here are a few of my favourites taken from a fuller list of writing links on my 30 resources to support the writing process blogpost:

In Conclusion

In today’s gig economy, you frequently need to write resumes quickly. If you’ve been in the job market for a while, you’ve likely written and rewritten your resume hundreds of times. But are you getting a comparable number of interview invitations?

Improving your application to interview success ratio is as easy as 1-2-3.  This post offers tips to write resumes that stand-out: they are strategically focused, grounded in substance and formatted with style. The 4-page downloadable worksheet helps you focus your strategy and critique your final result.

If you have a story to share, a concern to raise or a question to ask, please comment or fill in my contact form.

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