Building a resume is a skill. A learned skill, one that no one in the history of the world has ever been born with. It is okay if you feel like you suck at making them because everyone sucks at making them. They defy logic in some ways, as we want to make ourselves stand out while making something that is instantly recognizable as a professional-looking document. The good news is that they are fairly easy to make great once you spend some time writing one. The bad news is you have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to write one.
In Part Two and Part Three of the Occupational Misadventure series I discussed applications. A lot of that information is relevant to resumes, but applications are a different beast entirely. Today I want to cover how to start with a blank screen and transform it into a resume that will help get you the job of your dreams*.
*Or the job of your “I Need a Paycheck”
Time to Write This is sort of self-explanatory, but don’t try to make a resume in a few minutes just so you can send it off as quickly as possible. The first day (or two) of your job hunt doesn’t have to involve actually applying for any jobs. Get your resume together. Start researching the jobs you want. Think about what your salary requirements are. Decide if you are willing to move. I know it sucks to hear if you are in need of a new job right away, but it takes time to find a job usually. Even if you just want to go door-to-door in town looking for work having a resume on hand will be helpful. You can use it as reference for filling out applications or drop off a copy of it to a manager while you take the application home to work on it there. It is tempting just to rush out and start looking, but it won’t do much good to go to a potential employer completely unprepared. So make a pot of coffee, order some pizza, and tell everyone to leave you alone while you work because you need at least a day to do this right.
Make it a Single Page: I’m a writer at heart, and I love to write long, rambly narratives on many topics. So telling me to condense the last 15 years of my life into a single page always seemed like an insurmountable challenge. When I actually did it, though, it wasn’t that hard to do. Boil it down to the essentials and keep it simple. If you, like me, love to write, write as much as you think you may want to include and then edit the crap out of it. One page and one word on a second page is too long. HR people usually just glance at resumes, no on really reads them until they are in the process of interviewing you, so keep it short, keep it simple, and don’t worry about the fact that you are leaving stuff off of it.
Narrate Efficiently: Your resume should be a list of jobs and experiences and education. Beneath each list item you’ll want to give a brief description. Those descriptions are a great place to slip in some Action Verbs! that potential employers may be looking for.
Take some time to look at job descriptions of jobs similar to ones you’ve had and make a note of key words they use to describe it. Job descriptions are deceptively complex, they get edited and worked on for months sometimes before being posted. Their word choice is precise and so your word choices should be precise as well. Find out what other people are looking for and use those same words (obviously don’t plagiarize, but look for keywords). Then look at the way jobs you are applying for are described and make sure to use the vocabulary and jargon they use in your resume as much as possible.
Boil it Down: This goes back to keeping it simple, but remember that you are trying to impress people with your experience, not just throw a lot of stuff out there and hope some of it sticks. I worked at a pizza place, a coffee shop, a different pizza place, a mall, a chinese restaurant, a casino, another casino, and yet another pizza place. When I got a Masters in Public Administration I realized that, although I could make an argument as to how those experiences helped me get on a career path, they weren’t actually relevant to anything I was going to be doing. So they vanished from my resume. I was able to do that because I was running a home-based business (really just freelancing) throughout a lot of the time I was working in those places, so my resume reflects the business and not the part-time jobs I took to make ends meet when the business wasn’t going well. Unlike an application a resume doesn’t have to reflect the objective reality of every summer job or part-time employment you took on over your life. Granted, most people won’t have the luxury of just leaving stuff off like that otherwise you’d have weird gaps in your employment, but just keep the narrative elements about those parts short. If you delivered pizza you can just say you delivered pizza and leave space to explain job duties and responsibilities in more detail at other positions.
Mission/Objective Statement: This is just a brief (two-three sentence) elevator pitch for yourself. Why are you looking for a job (just got out of school, career change, moving, etc.) and what sort of qualities you bring with you (hard working, organized, responsible, etc.). If you use it make sure it is at the top of your resume right below your name and contact info (and ‘Three-Words’ (more on these later) if you have those).
This is tricky because these statements seem to constantly go in and out of fashion. My rule of thumb, and I’m sure there is plenty of debate about this, is that if you are going to be selling something primarily you can skip the objective statement. The assumption is that you want to work there to make some money, and they want people who will make them money to work there. If you do still think it could work to help sell yourself, though, just think of it as a very, very short bio, a couple of sentences like “I have graduated at the top of my class and have excellent people skills, etc.” for example, would be appropriate. We all want to believe that jobs are about more than just making money, so don’t feel like you need to trick someone into thinking that selling cars or clothes or whatever is your life’s ambition (unless it really is, in which case go for it).
For other professions you might want to focus on why you want the job you want. Nonprofits want passion and commitment to a cause, governments want civic minded public servants, hospitals and medical professions want a commitment to people and health and community. Chances are you already know a lot of what people are looking for in a given career path, so use your instincts to craft a mission statement. So if, for example, you want to work at a nonprofit that helps the mentally ill and homeless something like “I am focused on helping other people overcome mental health issues and getting people back to work and believe in the dignity of all people.” It’s okay to sound a bit like a politician or an activist. In fact reading some speeches and websites about the issues you care about and crafting your message to sound like others that are already out there is a great place to start. You are selling your beliefs more than yourself, as odd as that might sound, so talk less about your career goals and more about how you want to help others.
Three Words: This is something I tried out this time around. Interviewers used to always ask (and still sometimes ask) ‘what are three words you would use to describe yourself?’ It is hard to come up with something on the spot, but when making the resume you have time to research around and find some good options. I put them at the top of my objective statement. Think of it as the elevator pitch for your elevator pitch. Choose something that is easy to remember on the spot and easy to elaborate on if asked. For example you could say: “Passion — Organized — Leader.” It paints a quick picture in the mind of the hiring body, and helps set them up to be impressed with you later. Plus, as they won’t read your whole resume anyway, having three words helps control what words stick out in their mind when they are deciding who to invite for an interview. You don’t have to do this, and it does sound a little corny, but I don’t think it ever hurts to do and it often will help.
Education: If your goal is to work in an academic field, like a University or College, you’ll want your education up front as one of the first things people will see. Of course, you will also want to stop reading this article and instead look at tips for writing a Curriculum Vitae (CV).
Everyone else should drop the education at the end of the page. If you have a Bachelor's degree or higher leave high school off and only list your college education. If you have an Associates or a Trade School degree/certificate then go ahead and list your high school as well. The reason for this is that jobs that require a Bachelor’s or higher aren’t really going to care where you went to high school because they will assume the University or College vetted your high school record before you enrolled. A lot of other jobs, though, just want to make sure you really did get a high school diploma (or GED) before starting in a trade school or community college. If you are still in school list it as “In Progress” and say your expected graduation year. If you don’t have any formal education or never got a high school diploma or GED don’t try to get clever about it and say you learned everything you needed somewhere else, just leave it off the resume. If they ask during an interview you can use that time to explain your educational history in more detail and with some context.
Formating: For the type of work I was looking for I needed a simple and relatively basic design. There are other ways to go with it, but I would recommend building as simple and straightforward design as possible. You can then always go back and figure out ways to make it stand out, especially if you are going into a creative or design oriented field. Think of the simple, one-pager as a foundation resume. Something you can build on and modify but that is good enough to stand up to scrutiny on it’s own. Here are some templates you can use for inspiration for that first one-pager.
Use Times New Roman, Use 10–12 point fonts. Keep bolding and italics to a minimum. Never, ever use Papyrus font (or any of the wacky fonts). If you are sending/handing the resume invest in a little thick card stock you can print it on. If you are submitting it electronically use a program to convert it into a PDF (you can do it for free by uploading the document to a Google Drive and then click “Save As” and select PDF, but there are many ways to do it in other programs). PDFs protect the formatting and just make it seem more professional, plus they are easy to read and print.
To Customize or not to Customize: I am a believer in a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to resume writing for two reasons: 1) it is easier to make sure you don’t have typos or other mistakes if you take the time to only make one resume and 2) a good resume is good for most jobs. There is a lot of advice out there saying you should customize your resume for each job you apply for. I can’t really say that is a bad idea, but I can say it is time consuming and forces you to make more assumptions about what they are looking for. Those assumptions might be right, but if you take something out/add something in that they don’t like then you’ve potentially just taken extra time to make sure you didn’t get an interview you might have otherwise gotten. My technique is to use the same resume and then to customize the cover letter (I’ll write about cover letters in a latter part of this series). I have zero evidence if my approach is better or worse or if it matters at all, and from what I can find no one else knows, either. So in the absence of any real evidence I say save yourself the time and trouble and just build a single resume that can be used for all the jobs you want to apply for.
Proofread: This is self-explanatory but people still don’t always do it. After you feel you are done walk away for a while and come back and read it all over again. Let others read it and see if they spot any mistakes. Double-check and triple-check and don’t get down on yourself if you’ve made a few errors, just be willing to fix them. If you are confused on where to put a comma or if you should use a semicolon do some research. Grammar is not everyone’s favorite thing to think about, but I’ve seen perfectly qualified candidates get their resumes tossed for not adhering to archaic grammar guidelines. If you really aren’t sure and don’t have anyone to check, just read it out loud and see if it sounds right the way you wrote it. Or read it backwards (from last sentence to first, not literally backwards) and that will help you know if each sentence makes sense on its own.
Common Sense and good judgement will help you more than anything else. Researching and looking at examples of other resumes will help a lot, too. If you are having a long job search going make sure you are updating it and making adjustments as you go along. Be willing to learn from your mistakes and take feedback not as criticism but as help and you’ll get it perfect in no time.
A question some may ask is if they should hire a resume writing service or pay someone for help. I believe there is more than enough good information for free out in the world wide web for people to craft their own resume. But if you have money to spend to hire some help, I only recommend making sure that they are legit and know what they are talking about and have some sort of track record of success you can look at. For people who cannot afford to hire someone, I recommend tapping into your social network (friends, family, etc.) for help first, then searching for free professional services in your area. For younger people and students you can try Job Corps. For others you can try calling 2–1–1 and asking for free job and career building services. Programs differ from town to town and state to state so you might have to research a bit to figure it out. Really it just comes down to not being afraid to ask for help and knowing that everyone struggles with writing a resume. Ultimately I believe everyone can do it, it seems overwhelming but it is just one of those things you sometimes have to do. Everyone has to learn how at some point, so ask questions and get help and just keep going and you’ll do fine.
This is Part Four of the Occupational Misadventure Series.