There are a million sources on the Internet regarding résumés, yet it still seems that folks struggle mightily with writing a good résumé. Despite all the info, people often come to me for help with them. I did a fair amount of recruiting in my time at ADTRAN, so I know a little bit about that side of résumés. The tips I’m putting here are what I find myself always telling people. Take them with a grain of salt, tho. There are probably countless references which say the opposite of everything I have here. Bear in mind also that all of my experience is in engineering and software development. Some of my advice may not pan out in other fields.
1. Understand the purpose of a résumé
Having the right mindset when approaching your résumé is pivotal for success. I suspect most believe a résumé is supposed to get you a job. While that’s ultimately what you hope comes of it, a job is not the end goal of a résumé. The goal is to get an interview. You aren’t trying to secure the job yet. You just want to jump off the page and convince the recruiter or hiring manager to give you a call.
2. Hit quickly and hit hard
You’re trying to stand out from the crowd. When I’ve been out recruiting, I’ve found that there are enough candidates who grab your attention to throw out the uninteresting ones. The same applies to a stack of résumés. You want yours to stick out from the moment the recruiter points his eyes at it. Be creative in every way possible. However, beware of going all style with no substance. Many résumé submission forms strip all formatting. While a nice layout and unique features are a great idea, it’s even more important to pack it with substantiations of why you’re the person who needs to be called.
3. Lead with the awesome
You always want to put your best material up front. If all you have is some education, then that should be first. However, any experience in your field outside of school needs to come first. After you land the first job in your field, your education becomes a footnote.
By the way, if the best you have is education, you desperately need to find some extracurricular activities to help. In my industry, this means doing open source, building something, writing a blog… Just do something. At ADTRAN, we routinely threw out all applicants with nothing more to offer than a degree, and there were plenty left to choose from. Also always include your GPA if it doesn’t suck. We often assume your GPA is less than desirable if you’ve elected to not highlight it.
4. Keep it to one page
Hitting quickly and hitting hard means you only need one page. This is one of the more controversial topics in résumés. Most of the people I’m helping with résumés are students or coops at best, so this most definitely applies. Perhaps it’s ok if your seasoned in your field. As for me, I’m still at one page. It all goes back to point 2. If you can’t do it in one page, then you’re doing it wrong.
5. Tailor to the job description
While I certainly maintain a general résumé that I’m comfortable handing to any potential employer, I always tweak it to maximize its appeal to the job poster. It’s not that I make stuff up, but I make sure that the most relevant experience is highlighted most prominently. This also serves to help you filter out jobs you don’t actually want. There have been times when I initially thought I was interested, but the deep dive into the description to guide my résumé made me realize I was highlighting stuff I didn’t want to do. This effort will also help you stay to one page.
I’m a big fan of making yourself sound like a human rather than a data point. Many résumés are just a bulleted list of stuff. Those are boring and I’ll spend less time reading it. Besides, every person is an individual and will fulfill the position in his own unique way. So as a recruiter, not only do I want to get the idea that you’re technically sound, I want to know if you’ll fit the culture. As a result, I really appreciate a section like my résumé’s Overview. It allows you to write a few statements to capture your valuable traits that won’t show up in a list of stuff you’ve done. This also gives you an opportunity to show that you have good written communication which seems to be in the description of every job out there.
7. Search criteria
Put the right buzz words somewhere in your résumé. If you’ve written code in some language, be sure that language shows up. If you’re familiar or comfortable with some software package that is prominent in your field, highlight that. Résumé keyword searching is a reality that you have to live with. Often times your résumé will pass though the filter of HR who won’t realize that an “Experienced OO developer” is a good fit for a job that involves either Java or C# for instance. This filtering could happen manually or by software.
8. Own it
Even if you’re still a student, you have invested much hard work into your career. Your résumé is all of that hard work and talent in a nutshell. So take pride in it! Own it. Update it continually. Slapping one together at the last minute will surely reflect poorly on you. Don’t be easily satisfied with the product.
9. Finish strong
Just as you led with the awesome, finish strong. There is a known psychological phenomenon that people tend to best recall the first and last items in a list. Similarly, after leading with a good punch, you want the last thing the recruiter reads to thrust away any hesitation to put your résumé in the “Make contact” pile. Personally I end with a Recreational Highlights section (well, really I end with Key Technologies. However, I expect the reader to just glance over that. The last thing he actually reads is my recreational stuff). I like to finish there because it lets the reader know that I enjoy what I do so much that I do it in my free time.