Last week’s post covered basic principles of resume writing, and this week I’m going to share some nitty-gritty details for resume structure and content.
These tips account for your resume being reviewed by a real, live human being (that still happens!), as well as an applicant tracking system (ATS).
The following suggestions will hold true for the majority of North American businesses & non-profits, as well as other countries that have similar business practices. The US federal government and academia are totally different animals, requiring the federal format and CVs, respectively. Feel free to email me if you have questions about those formats.
And now, on with the practical tips!
When an actual person is screening your resume, you have precious little time to make an impact. Usually it’s a handful of seconds. It’s important to make sure you load the top half of the first page with the most powerful content. A strong title as well as a Summary of Qualifications and Key Accomplishments section will help to hook the reader immediately. For many types of positions, I also recommend including a list of core skills near the beginning. If you’re applying for a position as a software engineer, you don’t want to wait until the bottom of the second page to list all the programming languages you know. Hook your reader early!
When you apply to a job online, you’re sending your resume out into the Internet ether. It’s hard to know if it’s going to be screened by software, a recruiter, or a hiring manager. In all cases, it’s critically important to use industry and company specific keywords in your resume. This doesn’t mean going through and peppering the document with wild abandon. Rather, it requires doing a bit of homework, figuring out the most appropriate language choices, and then changing your resume accordingly. If the job ad describes it as a “sales funnel,” but you’ve called it a “sales pipeline,” make that edit to your resume before submitting it.
In the same way that you vary specific keywords from position to position and company to company, you should also customize the overall content. While most of your content won’t vary too much, it’s important to fine-tune your resume as much as possible in order to demonstrate how you truly are the best fit. Sometimes this means rearranging some bullet points to move the more relevant content to the top of a list. Other times it entails rewriting your Summary of Qualifications, or adding in a new line in your professional experience to include a project or accomplishment that’s highly relevant.
Keep in mind, though, that if you are applying for positions in completely different fields, you will need completely separate resumes. You don’t want to try to use the same resume to apply for Project Manager and Software Developer positions. If you do, you’ll come up short for both.
One of the most common questions I hear is, “can my resume be two pages?” The short answer is, “it depends.” The longer answer is that it’s okay to go to two pages if you have enough substantial content to fill up most of that second page. If you only have enough meaningful information to fill 1.25 pages, it’s better to edit it down to one page.
There are also some folks who don’t even consider page limits any more. Their rationale is that since almost everything is done electronically, you can go as long as you like. I’m not personally a big fan of this; resumes are best when they are succinct and focused. As a hiring manager, I didn’t have the time or interest in reading a 6-page detailed bio. And even though your resume will initially be transmitted electronically, it’s almost inevitable that it will eventually be printed out and passed around. Not to mention those extra copies you’ll bring to your interview.
Chronological vs. Functional vs. Hybrid
For those of you who have linear career paths, chronological format is best. It’s simple and straightforward and shows the logical progression of your career over time.
However, an increasing number of working professionals don’t have linear career paths. From Millennials who seek a new and exciting direction every couple years to Boomers who reinvented themselves when they had been planning to retire, the old work paradigm (that supports a chronological resume) has been dissolving at an increasingly rapid clip. If you’ve tried out a few different fields, made some radical shifts, or taken time off from the workforce for a while, a functional format is going to be best. Functional formats are great because they allow you to tell your story on your own terms. You can group your experience by functional area in order to allow your talents to shine through with clarity.
If you do decide to use a functional format, beware that you should probably still have a chronological version to use with companies that require you to upload your resume into an ATS. Functional format will not translate well into those systems. In those cases, you can usually upload your chronological resume initially so that it automatically populates the fields of the application, and then upload your functional resume in all it’s loveliness as a pdf.
Finally, you can blend the best of both worlds with a hybrid format. In a hybrid, you still follow the overall chronological format, but break down your responsibilities within each position by functional area. This allows the reader quickly understand where you’ve been and what you’ve done, in cases when it might not otherwise be obvious.
Fun fact: I once applied for a position with a company using a functional resume. The recruiter absolutely loved it and went out of her way to let me know how much she appreciated the way in which it was organized. The hiring manager didn’t like it at all and complained to me that it was too difficult to figure out my background. Remember, you can’t please everyone – sometimes even within the same company!
Fonts and Margins and Flourishes, Oh My!
Keep it simple! There are no hard and fast rules for font size, margins, borders, or symbols, but the simpler the better. Unless you’re a graphic designer or in some other artistic field; then it’s a great idea to let your talent shine on your resume. But for the rest of us, here are some basic guidelines:
- Fonts can be serif or sans serif, but stick with the basics. Cambria, Times New Roman, Garamond, Arial, Calibri, and Verdana are all safe bets.
- Keep font size in the 10-12 point range. Your name, title, and section headers can be a bit bigger.
- Margins should be no smaller than .5” and no bigger than 1.25”
- Go easy on italics, underlining, caps, small caps, etc. It’s okay to use some of those things, but try to keep it to 2-3 varieties overall. If you use multiple formatting options, things start to look cluttered very quickly.
- Borders (section or page) and plain symbols (dots, diamonds, etc.) are okay, but again, keep it simple. The purpose of the formatting is to enhance the written content, not detract from it.
It’s rare to actually print out your resume to send it to a company, but you should always have several extra copies with you when you go to an interview. Heavy, watermarked paper isn’t necessary, but something that’s a step up from basic copy paper is always nice.
Unlike most other forms of business communications, you do not need to write in complete sentences.
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, write in first person. In most cases, write in 3rd person, without using pronouns to refer to yourself. The fact that it’s you that you’re talking about is implied.
Drop all articles. Articles are: a, an, the.
Keep tenses consistent throughout.
Check and recheck spelling and grammar as though your life depends on it. Print out the document. Read it backwards. Have a friend help you. Do not let simple human error cost you the interview!
Sections to Include
There is a lot of variability here, and any of the following may be appropriate for you:
I don’t want to have to read halfway down the page to find out that you’re a Marketing Manager.
Summary of Qualifications
A short paragraph or bulleted list of your most marketable talents. It can be a combination of hard and soft skills.
I don’t generally use objectives, as they tend to focus more on what applicants want as opposed to what they offer. But if you’re a recent grad or a career changes AND you can phrase your objective in a way that still demonstrates your value, go for it.
Your greatest career hits. This can be a separate section toward the top of the document, or you can include 1-2 accomplishments under each of your past positions.
Skills or Areas of Expertise
Exactly what it sounds like. It typically winds up looking like a list of keywords for your field, your technical skills, and other key offerings.
Professional Experience or Work History
In a chronological format, this is the section we all know and love. List your employer, location (City/ST), title, dates of employment (either MM/YY or YYYY), and a description of your role. This section should not read like a job description, but rather succinct statements of the value you added and the results you achieved.
In a functional format, it’s the same content, only arranged differently. First is the experience itself, grouped by functional area (e.g. sales, marketing, project management, etc.), then your work history, with titles, employers, and dates.
Generally, this section should go back no more than 10-15 years, as anything older than that isn’t going to be relevant and may needlessly date you.
Education & Training
Include the degree you earned, the institution, location, and your graduation date (if you’re a relatively recent grad).
This is also the place to include any training or professional development you’ve completed.
If you’re still working on an academic program, include it with your anticipated completion date.
Presentations, Conferences, Publications
Be sure to include these accomplishments. You don’t have to be a visionary leader in your field; anything you’ve done that’s been public-facing is an asset!
List any certifications or licenses you hold, as well as any membership organizations. If your license or certification is highly relevant in your field, this information should appear near the top of the document.
If you are involved in any philanthropic activities, and they’re not overly controversial, they may help your cause. Heck, depending on what you do, the controversial ones may also be helpful! This can include things like fundraising for a 5k for cancer research, teaching after-school classes at your local Boys & Girl’s club, park & beach clean-ups, or volunteering at a homeless shelter with a faith-based group. Including this information may be the sort of thing that distinguishes you from other equally qualified candidates.
This is a pretty old-school thing to do and I generally caution against it. By volunteering information about your age, marital status, and other personal qualities, you are giving a prospective employer data that they would not otherwise be able to legally request. It’s not going to help demonstrate your qualifications and it may possibly be a reason to pass you over.
If you happen to have a personal interest or passion that is well aligned with a company’s mission, find a way to work that information into the content of your cover letter and (if possible) your resume. If you’re an account executive who plays tennis, mention it when you’re applying to be a regional sales manager at a sporting good store. But if you’re applying for a grant-writer position with an arts foundation, your love of demolition derby isn’t really that important.
As above, including your references or the statement “References Available Upon Request” is a pretty old-fashioned thing to do. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it’s out of style. Employers will ask for references when they want them – usually as part of an online application, or when they’re ready to make you an offer.
That’s it folks. The above guidelines aren’t exhaustive, but they’re a solid start for those of you who want to DIY. Please email me with any questions or feel free to post in the comments section. I’m always happy to review resumes and give feedback to anyone who simply wants a little guidance.