One of the hardest things about writing a résumé that stands out in today’s job market is game theory. You’re improving your résumé, but the people you’re competing with are also upgrading theirs, and it has become common to hire a professional writer. What seems like an outstanding résumé is thus often merely average. So here are some guidelines for résumé writing in an especially competitive market.
Always write a résumé with hiring managers’ and recruiters’ needs in mind. They’re swamped and they often find reading résumés tedious. They’ll appreciate you for making their jobs a little easier, and you’ll begin the relationship by demonstrating that you can help them. In order to get their attention within a few seconds, you can:
- Follow what I call “The 5-15-45 Rule.” Give your résumé three main sections. The numbers pertain to the seconds it takes to read them. The first section is a headline that grabs attention. Like a good lead at the beginning of a newspaper story, it should pull the reader in. Don’t just write “Résumé” or a generic job title like people did back in the 1990s. Instead, come up with a brand statement—one or two sentences that say why you’re uniquely qualified for the job you’re applying for.
- Put a summary section under the headline, with a bulleted list of three to five of your accomplishments that best fit the requirements in the job description. This is the 15-second section. Include facts about things you did for your past employers that are similar to what the hiring company is looking for. But please remember that summaries have been common in résumés for more than ten years, so they require extra thought in order to stand out from the competition. One way to give yours extra impact is to make it resonate with your brand statement. For example, you can take the two or three qualifications in your headline (which are tailored to the job you want—perhaps business development or product marketing) and expand each one into a separate item in the summary, stating your biggest accomplishment that pertains to it. The headline is thus an overarching framework for the summary, and the statements in the summary add details to it. Both reinforce each other in the employer’s mind.
- Obey the pope. The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope warned about damning with faint praise. Technically it’s a compliment if an attorney says that his client never hit his parents, but it actually devalues him because it implies that an attribute any average person should have is his main virtue. It’s easy to stumble into this in today’s market in which many top performers are competing against each other. Saying that you increased sales 20% within one year, or that you created a budget surplus of 5%, might sound impressive on the surface, but not if it’s the norm in your industry. Make sure that the accomplishments you list really are outstanding (you can find out by speaking with a good headhunter). If your competitors have done similar things, you can consider all of your relevant selling points and craft a list so that the combination of strengths shows that you’ll bring extra value to the company.
- Question every word. A résumé writer in a discussion group I recently attended said that she had a client who was applying for a job that required a lot of international travel, so she wanted his summary to state that he had worked overseas and that he enjoyed learning about other cultures. She asked us what we thought about saying that he had “cultural awareness.” Considering today’s globalized world, that’s such faint praise that it’s like saying, “He eats shredded wheat for breakfast.” When I asked her about his travel she said that he had worked in the Middle East. Did he learn any Arabic? Modern Standard Arabic is a very difficult language with many complex rules. Multiple syllables of words are modified in different types of sentences much more frequently than they are in Spanish, French, and Italian (they usually only modify the last syllable). Arabic also has the dual case in addition to the more common singular (I go) and plural (We go) cases, so a person has to remember special modifications of words in sentences about two people. So if her client became proficient in Arabic within one year, he demonstrated the ability to learn a complex system in a short time, which is a skill that can be transferred to learning new technologies. Did he not learn any languages? Other aspects of cultures are complicated too. The maqam (the modal system in classical Arabic music) has many intricate rules, and some are correlated with aspects of the universe that Arabic philosophers detailed more than 1,000 years ago. Her client might have done impressive things besides learning difficult subjects. Did he organize any cultural events? Did he help a local organization raise funds? Did he volunteer anywhere? Did he give lessons in a local school? Did he conduct any group tours? Did he give seminars about local cultures to American, European, and Asian coworkers? Did he help local craftspeople develop a business? There are lots of angles here to get the summary beyond clichés so that each item in its bulleted list shows that the accomplishments and skills are special. Look at everything you include in as many ways as you can and craft the strongest possible concise statement about it.
- Put a few words in bold. See how that sentence stands out? Highlight terms and accomplishments in the summary’s list that fit the job description. This helps managers who are inundated with résumés. Your résumé will distinguish itself by taking them by the hand and leading them through your main selling points.
- Build for comfort as well as for speed. I’ve recently heard recruiters say that an attractive design makes a big difference. They get so many résumés that reading them is often tiring. So you can score points by making your résumé more inviting. There are many ways to do this, but here are three of the most effective:
- Use white space effectively. Wall-to-wall text burdens readers. White space also makes résumés easier for applicant-tracking software systems to read. Use it to make your résumé symmetrical, and pay close attention to the top so that your name, contact info, headline, and summary comprise an attractive design. Those ancient Greeks knew what they were doing when they developed their temple architecture. The handsome capitals and roof pediments made their sacred buildings statelier.
- Be classical. Many books about résumé writing include samples with tables and dialog boxes. Their résumés are pretty but these books are outdated because many applicant-tracking systems can’t interpret the keywords when one of these features surrounds them. Keep your formatting simple. Your résumé still has to look better than the others, but use taste and understatement.
- Avoid, or at least limit, graphics. Most corporate cultures are conservative today. This makes sense because more strategic alliances between companies are being formed, departments within companies collaborate more frequently, more people do business internationally, increasingly customizable and scalable products can widen customer bases, and companies rely on social media for business. Employers thus want to hire people who can gain the respect of many people with diverse backgrounds. You usually don’t know who will be reading your résumé, so an arty effect might make the employer wonder if you’re an impulsive or quirky person who will suddenly say something that will raise eyebrows. Unless you’re applying for a job that requires a lot of visual artistry, facts will do more for you than funk.
Here are a few more tips:
- Avoid standardized templates. If you found out that all the other six applicants wore the same off-the-rack suit to the interview would you wear it too? This is how standard designs from online résumé-building tools, and résumé writers who use templates, often appear to managers and recruiters. A customized design that’s a little more attractive, which complements your unique selling points without being flashy, will be appreciated more.
- Résumés are usually first screened by an applicant-tracking software (ATS) systems so that more than 70% of résumés sent for a typical opening aren’t even seen by people. It’s thus crucial to intelligently put keywords in yours. Newer ATS systems are able to process the context around keywords. For example, they can read the dates of employment when you put a keyword under a company in your résumé’s employment section. They can conclude from this that you had that many years’ experience with it. So if you had five years’ experience doing something that the job description lists, include that in your résumé’s employment section—don’t just put it in a separate list of skills.
- Another key point about keywords: You can’t predict the words that a recruiter will use for the search. Customer support, customer care, and technical support often mean the same thing. A recruiter could type any of these terms in the search box. A good bet is to use words that are in the job description, but that’s still only a bet. So use several synonyms in your résumé (newer ATS systems can process synonyms, like lawyer and attorney). Some ATS systems rank résumés by the number of relevant keywords, so use many (but never keyword stuff because ATS systems can detect all the tricks that hide keywords from human eyes–like using white and super-small fonts–and they’ll automatically round-file you).
If you think including a lot of keywords makes it more challenging to use white space effectively, you’re right. You’re dealing with multiple needs when you write a résumé. It has to be attractive and easy for people to read, yet it must convey all the relevant information about you, and it has to have all the appropriate keywords to pass the ATS system’s initial screening. A résumé is one of the hardest documents to write well. Use only enough white space to make your résumé attractive and easy to read.
That 15-second section is crucial, but so is the 45-second part. If the manager is still interested after reading or skimming the former (most skim at first), he or she will look for more details in the latter. So say more about your accomplishments to validate the points in your summary. Both sections thus support each other. The first is an overview and the second backs up its claims. So instead of repeating the summary’s words, add more details that will both flesh out and reinforce its points. Choose words that will add energy to your job descriptions.
Here are a few things that will strengthen your 45-second section:
- Prioritize your accomplishments and state the most important one first. I’ve seen people applying for C-level positions list a VP-level accomplishment first. I worked with a client who was looking for a CEO position, and the first accomplishment he mentioned was about building a department in his company. I told him, “That’s great if you’re applying for a VP position, but you need something bigger here.” I then asked him a lot of questions about CEO-level accomplishments, like what he did to build an entire company, and what impact he had on a whole industry.
- Know your worth. At the other end of the seniority chain, I worked with a person who had just gotten a Ph.D. in chemistry. He worried about not having any experience so I asked him about his university research. Did he manage a lab? Did he manage a budget? Did he complete any projects under budget? Did he finish them ahead of schedule? Did he supervise any lab assistants? Did he schedule tasks? Did he make decisions about purchasing equipment? He answered “Yes” to almost every question, so we crafted a résumé that made it seem that he had two or three years’ experience.
- Think even more about your worth. Do you lack some of the qualifications from the job description? This can sometimes be worked around. I helped a technical writer who was laid off from a computer company that he had been with for 15 years. It had a proprietary operating system, so he never had a chance to work with systems most employers looked for, like UNIX and Windows. But I realized that the system he had learned was as complex as UNIX. So he had many skills that could be applied to other jobs. He learned a complex operating system. He wrote manuals that simplified it for users. He planned entire sets of manuals. He worked closely with engineers while planning the doc sets. He also developed writing and formatting standards for the whole publications department. On the surface, he didn’t seem qualified for any current tech writing jobs, but he actually had 95% of what employers needed.
- Quantify. The amount of information online is increasingly exponentially, so more managers have strong mathematical backgrounds, especially at executive levels. Today many are gear-heads, always calculating on the job and off. So if you quantify what you did, you’re speaking their language. You’re also grounding your statements about your accomplishments in facts. But be precise with numbers—getting caught making a numerical error or a sloppy estimate can immediately disqualify you, and it can be cause for termination if it’s discovered after you’ve been hired. Contact your past employers and clients to verify the numbers if you need to.
- Be musical. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begins with just four notes, but he varied them throughout the work so that they add up to an enthralling drama about the struggles and the ultimate triumph of a life well-lived. Of course we’re not writing symphonies here, but a well-written résumé is in their most classic form. It begins with an opening statement (your brand statement in the headline) and then develops it in several sections so that the reader remembers it long after he/she puts it down. Your résumé’s sections (the headline, the summary, the employment section, and any extra sections, which can include your education, memberships, or personal interests) should comprise a logical sequence and reinforce each other in a way that strengthens the manager’s impression that you’re the best fit. But don’t repeat the same verbiage. Each section should reinforce the main point that you want to make, but in a somewhat different way so that the whole document engages the reader and makes him/her want to keep learning more about you. You can use different keywords in different sections to increase your chance of being noticed by ATS systems, and to avoid boring the reader—music can please both machines and humans!
- Learn to play jazz. Your résumé is never an isolated object now that the job market is digitized. Before interviewing you, the employer will probably evaluate it along with several other documents, including your cover letter, LinkedIn profile (most employers look at profiles on LinkedIn), website, and any portfolio samples you send. All documents must be tuned to each other. The brand statement at the top of the résumé is an excellent base key, and all docs that the hiring manager is likely to see should reinforce it, but each should also say something different so that the reader will learn new things in each writing, and the additional information will keep strengthening the main point you want to make. Of course that point will depend on the job you’re applying for—all your documents thus need to be customized for each position. So we’re getting into jazz and African drumming here—every player in the ensemble has to keep adjusting to new contexts, and to all the other players as they adjust.
- Consider the sequence of documents that the employer will read. A musician would never begin a song on the 13th bar and then randomly insert the first 12 later on (unless he wants to be psychedelic, like Jimi Hendrix producing the song “Are You Experienced?” and including backwards recordings of his guitar—cool back in 1967, but not in résumé writing today!). What will the reader see first? How can each subsequent document strengthen your message so that he/she gets a lasting impression that stands out from your competitors?
- Seal the deal. I often like to include a closing statement at the bottom of a résumé. It reinforces the brand statement in the 5-second section, but it is stated in a different way. It’s sometimes a bit more personal, like a cover letter. It climaxes the document with a call to action, and if it’s written well, it can get a few more of those gears in the manager’s head turning toward inviting you for an interview. A closing statement also gives aesthetical balance to your résumé by complementing your headline. It’s logically related to it, not only by verbally reinforcing it, but also by providing a visual base.
Résumé writing is rapidly becoming more challenging. More people are using the same professional services and distributing their résumés in more places online. Also, the websites that provide online résumé building tools are multiplying, and many of them allow a résumé to be put on several job sites and linked with many databases and social media sites. So it’s increasingly necessary to be noticed among thousands of applicants rather than a few dozen. Please make sure that you constantly improve your résumé, compare it with your competition, and keep up with changes in ATS technology (ATS systems have recently changed so that many formerly effective résumé writing techniques will hurt you now). Never take anything for granted. Résumé writing is more complex than it has ever been. Make sure that any writer you hire can master all the variables, and maintain a long-term relationship with him so that you’ll get quick service whenever you need to apply for another job.
Feel free to call me at 408-245-1212 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be happy to give you a free résumé evaluation and to discuss your career objective. My process from there will be flexible—it will depend on your needs (avoid résumé writers who work with a fixed process or who have fixed pricing because today’s job market requires more personalized service and more creativity than a one-size-fits-all approach).
I also write cover letters, webpages, LinkedIn profiles, and professional and personal bios. In addition, I’ve learned how job seekers can use their new résumés to influence interviews in their favor, and I can provide interview coaching.
We will interact closely to optimize your chances of being noticed and then hired. I’ll email your résumé to you several times as I keep improving it, and I’ll keep working until you’re completely satisfied with it. I never use subcontractors–I will always give you my best effort, and you’ll have full access to me during business hours.
Finally, I hope we’ll both enjoy the process. As a résumé writer and explorer of world cultures, I enjoy discovering people’s strengths and helping them enhance their creativity. I look forward to a stimulating exchange of ideas with you as I help you take the next step in your career.