Is your resume acceptable or exceptional? Is it outstanding or just okay? As long as your resume is up to date, how much difference does it really make in conveying your worthiness as a job contender anyway? Actually, quite a lot.
Fair or not, the resume’s importance as a career-building tool is not quite that simple. The story it tells about your professional growth must enable potential employers to envision their own success in the next unwritten chapter of their firm.
Here’s what we’ll cover in this step-by-step guide to making a potentially pivotal resume that could rock your career forward:
Tips on tailoring your resume to the job at hand
Choosing the best resume format
Hitting the mark in each resume section: header, summary, employment history, education, and skills
Looking good: professional tips for resume layout, design, and formatting
Final touches and getting ready to send it
Corporate job openings attract 250 resumes on average. Only four to six of these applicants will be called for an interview and only one will be offered the job.
Keep a journal
A journal of on-the-job success can be your secret weapon for an achievements-based resume pitch to employers. Experts recommend making note of confidence boosters as they happen — tasks well done and accolades won, with details about measurable outcomes.
4 Tips for making your resume “tailor-fit”
Every version of your resume as a whole, and each individual section, should be tweaked to fit the employer’s explicit requirements and expectations. Customizing your resume tells hiring managers two things: you’ve done your homework and you’re serious about the job.
A few general guidelines are worth revisiting every time you make a new version of your resume for a different job application.
Despite the importance of adapting your resume to fit each job application, hiring managers, in a recent survey, reported a “failure to tailor” rate of 54%.
1. Speak the employer’s language
Whether anyone’s resume earns a spot on the interview shortlist can have more to do with communication skills than professional qualifications and experience. To rank higher than others on an impressiveness scale, your resume must speak the employer’s language, prompting this kind of reaction: “Here’s an applicant who really gets what we’re looking for! Let’s set up an interview.”
Customize to fit the space, as well as the job application. These tips should help you contain your resume to a single page:
Concise writing requires precise language that means what it says, free of fluff and clichés.
Once is enough; avoid repeating the same words and information.
Review, revise, and edit what you’ve written several times. This is for the sake of streamlining, not just correcting errors. Each revision should be tighter and neater than the previous draft.
Be scrupulously selective about what you do and don’t include. That means sticking to what is directly relevant to the job application.
3. Scrutinize and analyze
Scrutinize and analyze the advertised job posting. Review the list of required abilities and experience — more than once — making note of the specific wording. Pay attention to certain keywords that stand out, and try to match them in your resume wording (see no. 3 below).
Additional research can provide clues about the workplace setting and corporate culture, as well as products, services, customers, suppliers, and stakeholders relevant to the employer.
Optimize with the right keywords to avoid rejection by the applicant tracking systems (ATS). Most larger organizations use ATS software to screen online submissions by scanning for keywords and ranking them against all others. Those scoring poorly end up in the digital trash bin without ever being seen by a human.
As many as three out of every four resumes submitted electronically fail to pass through the ATS digital filters. That means they never reach the desk of any recruiter or hiring manager. Insufficient keywords are a common reason, as well as document formatting glitches that prevent the scanner from “reading” some text or graphic components.
Choosing the best resume format
Anyone whose work history follows a linear path— primarily in employee positions — can and should use the chronological resume format. As the most common and familiar way to showcase your professional experience, it’s suitable for about 90% of job seekers in any field and is also preferred by recruiters. Relevant highlights of past and present work contributions are listed in bullet points under employer headings, dated in reverse order from current or most recent to earliest positions.
If your job background is less straightforward, or if you lack relevant work experience, the functional resume format may be a good choice. It allows you to put more emphasis on transferable skills or types of experience, rather than employee positions. Functional resumes are sometimes suitable for students or recent graduates, career changers, or independent contractors.
A hybrid (combination) resume format is even more adaptable, combining chronological and functional elements.
Hitting the mark in each resume section
Virtually all resumes have a universally applied framework. Looking at it by section can make it seem less daunting to build the right resume for any job search situation.
Here are the five essential resume components:
Resume header: vital information displayed with style
First things first — strike an instant impression of being professional, conscientious, and accessible before anyone reads a word of your resume. This can be accomplished off the top in a visually appealing header, displaying your personal details and contact information.
A header design that’s both attractive and functional can help ensure your job application is noticed and remembered for all the right reasons. Reinforce the impact on both counts by making your resume and cover letter match, notably in the header design.
You’ll never regret the extra time and effort you devote to this distinctive branding element. Visually, the header can set you apart from other applicants — especially those showing less regard for such communication nuances. Practically speaking, the header draws the reader’s eyes to the place on the page where your identifying information appears. The white-space separation from black body text contributes to reader-friendliness.
Above all, the header information’s prominence makes it easy for recruiters to revisit your shortlisted resume and arrange an interview.
Resume summary: your value proposition
The summary (aka profile or personal statement) is featured up front in a small, but highly influential, resume space. It’s your now-or-never opportunity to snag the reader’s attention beyond those critical six or seven seconds that are typically spent determining a resume’s fate. Otherwise, hiring managers might not look at anything else.
Every word counts in this tersely telling synopsis of who you are, what you’ve done, and how well you did it. Use descriptively lean language to compose a “why hire me?” elevator pitch in two or three compellingly compact statements.
From the standpoint of solving a problem, form a direct connection with the employer that reflects your understanding of the job requirements, work setting, and corporate culture. Give a sense of the personal attributes and attitudes that would make you a dream hire.
Employment history: getting results
Strategic, selective, and specific are your guideposts for impressing hiring managers with employment history highlights that will resonate. The more extensive your work experience, the more selective you must be in describing beneficial outcomes that you helped achieve for past employers. Your ability to pinpoint what your next bosses are keenly interested in can be a game-changer. Success stories depicting professional growth can help them picture you replicating those outcomes on their winning team.
Dig deep enough to outshine others vying for the same position. Don’t squander this precious resume space with static lists of generic job duties. Instead, create results-oriented descriptions of accomplishments — actions taken, why they were called for, and the difference they made. Draw as many parallels as you can with the position you are targeting.
This is the place for dynamic action verbs in the active voice, simple past or present tense. Banish “responsible for” altogether; simply tell what you did (or do). There’s no need for complete sentences, nor any “I,” “we” or “they” pronouns.
Follow this advice in your resume summary also.
Cite tangible evidence by letting numbers speak louder than words to quantify positive impacts. Mention revenue and sales unit increases, profit boosts, improved quality assurance, new customer/client retention growth, and higher satisfaction scores. In the absence of hard data, give indications of scale and capacity, such as facility size, production volumes, retail store traffic, number of customers served, new employees onboarded or students taught. And if exact numbers are unavailable, it’s fine to give ranges or approximations.
Education: your learning path
The prominence, amount of detail, and emphasis in your resume’s education section will vary depending on the occupation, industry, career stage, and hiring requirements. Generally, the more work experience job seekers acquire over time, the less important this section becomes relative to employment history. For some occupations, formal education is never a make-or-break recruiting factor.
But for those new to the workforce, or in certain professional, academic, and scientific fields, more extensive education details may be necessary or useful, and possibly placed above the employment history section.
In any case, your resume’s education section should also be organized in reverse chronological order, from highest to lowest level. Besides college degrees, be sure to list any relevant technical-vocational programs you’ve completed, as well as management courses.
The same goes for on-the-job training, and any self-initiated courses, workshops, seminars, boot camps, or certification programs focusing on specialized competencies. Association memberships also belong here if they have a professional development component.
When it comes to special honors and awards, or publication listings, they may warrant a special resume section of their own, if not under the education heading.
If licenses are mandatory or preferred, they can be mentioned in the education section or the resume summary.
Skills: show you know what counts most
It always makes sense for the essential hard skills — practical, technical, hands-on competencies — to take precedence on your resume list of key abilities. Again, it’s crucial to revisit the advertised job posting to determine which ones count most for each specific target job. The skills section can also be a bonus opportunity to replicate keywords (as long as you really possess those abilities!) exactly as described in the listed job description. This will not only help ATS-proof your resume but also show you are in touch with employer priorities. Otherwise, be sure not to overlook the soft skills that are universally valued across all occupations — mostly in the realm of interpersonal strengths and critical thinking, as well as habits, attitudes, and leadership traits. Singling out those that seem to fit best could give you an edge over other job candidates who focus on hard skills.
Keep a running list of your skills
It’s useful to create a master list of every possible skill you can think of that a role model in your profession should have. You may even want to create separate categories for hard skills and soft skills because both types are vital. Keep adding to this list every time more skills come to mind and keep it handy for reference when customizing each new version of your resume.
Optional resume sections
Use discretion in adding any of these optional resume sections, only if the information is relevant and adds value, or when it’s not possible to incorporate anywhere else.
Hobbies and Interests
Internship Experience (only if you have little or no professional experience)
Certifications and Awards (if not included in the education section
Languages (sometimes listed with skills)
Resume layout and design: looks matter
Looking the part of the perfect hire is all about making the stylistically sound choices involving layout, design and formatting elements. Strive to ensure these elements are consistent and compatible — not only throughout your resume document itself but also with the occupation, hiring organization, and industry you represent. From buttoned-down conservative to casually relaxed to the edgier side of modern, find a style that fits you, the job, and the place.
Funky, frivolous or flashy is never a good look, but flawless always is. And you’ll never go wrong with a clean, simple, and uncluttered resume page because it’s easy on the eyes and inviting to read. But that need not be synonymous with bland and boring. Sparing graphic touches and splashes of color can provide eye appeal without detracting.
Strive to make your resume a sight for the reader’s sore eyes by following these guidelines.
Make sure busy recruiters can easily find what they’re looking for in the document spot they expect. Each resume section should connect logically and smoothly with the next.
For balanced white space to offset black text, and ease of reading, one-inch margins on all sides are recommended. For the same reason, paragraph alignment should always be left, never justified. Adjust line and paragraph spacing so it’s not too tight.
Your choice of resume fonts should always be guided by reader-friendliness. Stay with the same font style and size for all of your resume body text, and no more than one different style and size for section titles. Use the same font style and size for all body text (11 or 12 pt), and no more than one different font for section titles (14-16 pt).
For the best results, while saving untold hours of painstaking effort along the way, use an online resume builder tool, in conjunction with a premade resume layout template. These professionally designed and field-tested tools are a simple, user-friendly way for anyone to create a strikingly attractive and technically functional resume document.
Bonus: The final PDF step is taken care of automatically!
Last but not least
Proofread, revise, correct, and repeat
All that’s left is error-proofing, and the stakes are high! But it’s time to enlist someone else to be the perfectionist. Ask at least one fussy friend to scour for mistakes; two proofreaders are even better. Don’t rely on spell-check and grammar apps to catch everything. Watch for inconsistencies too: capitalization, periods ending bullet points, date formats, and the like.
Revise, correct, and proofread again … as many times as “perfect” takes!
Save to send as a PDF
Unless the job application instructions explicitly request otherwise (to attach or upload as a Word file, for instance), always save the final version of your resume to submit electronically as a PDF file. It’s the only way to ensure all the formatting is preserved so recipients will view your resume document, on any device, exactly the same way it looked to you, the maker.
A cover letter is a must
Do I really need a cover letter? Many job candidates wonder about the need for writing a cover letter — the all-important resume companion document.
Career experts are virtually unanimous about the one and only reason not to submit a cover letter with your resume: only when the employer explicitly stipulates that you shouldn’t. Otherwise, regardless of whether a cover letter is requested or deemed optional, the default recommendation is to always provide one. There is abundant evidence that it’s worthwhile.
Survey data indicates that just over half of employers do not think a resume alone is enough for job applicants to get noticed. Almost the same number of HR managers regard cover letters as the second-best way to call attention to your resume, behind customizing your resume for each job.
An outstanding resume may be your best — if not only — shot at landing a job interview. The make-or-break impact on career advancement should never be underestimated.
Gaining an edge over other well-qualified candidates may come down to the obvious extent that your resume is customized to what the employer needs and values.
Careful scrutiny and analysis of the posted job requirements will help you determine what to emphasize in each resume section, along with keywords to avoid ATS rejection.
Keeping your resume “raw material” up to date and readily at hand — perhaps a log of notable accomplishments and a master skills list — is useful for reference when selectively adapting the content for a specific job application.