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Writing Resumes That Beg To Be Read

As professional search consultants, we read plenty of resumes, solicited or otherwise.

Admit it.  When was the last time you said to yourself, Oh boy, I can’t wait to read some resumes!  No resume will ever likely be considered New York Times Best Seller material, though one could argue that in some resumes there is more than enough fiction to qualify.

As in all written communications, resumes should be written first and foremost to be read.  Second, to be understood.  And third, to inspire the reader to want to meet you and to learn more about you.  Always write with specific, defined objectives in mind.


Alternative approaches for different types of professionals

There may be as many opinions about what constitutes a good resume as there are, well, resumes.  Two resume formats are popular currently: the traditional chronological resume, and the functional resume.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each, as they each benefit different types of professionals.  Unfortunately, not every professional understands which type is most appropriate for his or her needs.

The Chronological Resume

The chronological resume details every position a person has held, in reverse chronological order.  The individual’s most recent position is highlighted first, usually more extensively than earlier positions, because that position should represent the logical culmination to date of the individual’s career.  All previous positions, all advancements, all new skills and responsibilities, and most importantly all accomplishments should build the case that this individual earned the right to his or her most recent position.  This is the ideal resume format for the career professional whose career has progressed steadily and logically, like a locomotive progressing steadily up the tracks, hitting all the appropriate stations along the way.

On the flip side, chronological resumes can and will raise red flags about candidates who have not managed their career tracks well.  Job gaps.  Frequent changes between employers.  Too many short stints.  Jagged moves from one type of job to others for which the person’s career has not logically prepared them. These are just some of the red flags that make employers and executive recruiters uneasy.

The Functional Resume

The functional resume takes an entirely different tact, organizing one’s career history in relevant areas of capability, such as “program management” or “organizational change,” rather than chronology.  Instead of demonstrating how one has built upon one’s experience over time, the functional resume boldly categorizes one’s accomplishments into categories, so that even less knowledgeable screeners will recognize the functional capabilities that their employers may be asking them to seek.  Professionals who benefit most from the functional resume are consultants and freelance contractors.  Since contractors float from company to company on a frequent basis, their nomadic nature can give chronological resumes an unstable appearance, or one of impermanence.  By ignoring the chronology of their projects (at least in the main section) and focusing on displaying a body of work that spans many clients, functional resumes showcase their best attributes.  In the case of employed consultants who have been at firms like Accenture or Deloitte for several years, their resumes benefit by illustrating their functional expertise within the context of a chronological resume through their project descriptions.  Their resumes enjoy the best of both worlds, showing stability and explicit capability.

The downside of the functional resume, however, is that it raises questions.  Most employers and recruiters, seeking to hire full time employees, get very nervous when presented with a functional resume.  Can this person hold a steady job?  Does this person contract out because of lurking personality issues?  Is this resume hiding employment gaps?  Does this person wish to advance?  Can he or she advance?  Since the resume does not explain how this individual prepared for certain duties, how can one have any confidence she actually was even capable in her last several jobs?  What does her hiring say about the judgment of her employer?  By choosing not to lay out her chronology, is she hiding something she does not wish to have revealed?

Net-net: use the functional resume only if you are pursuing temporary employment as a free agent who will be expected to do a job for a period of time and then leave.  If, on the other hand, you are someone who has been a full-time employee whose motivation for using a functional resume is to mask numerous jobs changes or employment gaps, be prepared to answer some pointed questions.  Otherwise, a traditional chronological resume is the best approach.

Appearances: Keep It Simple

In the age before computerized processing of resumes many job seekers felt the need to make their resumes stand out from the pack by using elaborate letterheads, portraits, colored stationary, bound notebooks, or any number of gimmicks that were all style and, frankly, completely meaningless.  The same holds true today.  If you suffer that inclination, save yourself the trouble.  Today, such tactics will do you more harm than good.  Keep it simple.

Since any resume you submit to a company or a recruiter is certain to be processed by an applicant tracking system for inclusion in an applicant database, your resume needs to be formatted as simply as possible.  Avoid fancy fonts or graphics that may not be recognized, don’t reverse out any text, and use only standard point sizes.  Arial or Times Roman are your safest fonts.  Avoid using tables since they can confuse text readers (and humans, for that matter).

As for including a photo on your resume, unless you are an entertainer or a sales rep, let your interviewers be pleasantly surprised when they meet you.  You may look like Chris Hemsworth or Jennifer Garner, but no computer will give you bonus points for your portrait.  (For that matter, some recruiters will outright dismiss resumes with photos, out of spite.)  Avoid anything that can complicate the system’s ability to read, digest and process your content.

At the top of your resume, list all your contact information in a column format: full name, home address or city, mobile number, and personal email address to protect your privacy at work.  It is important to stack each line of information separately, rather than a string in a single line, so that the computer system will process each element into its proper field.  There is no need to include the words, Resume or CV, anywhere on the page – any person or computer will know what you have sent – but do include the words in the document’s title.

Since your resume ideally will be read by an actual human, there still is reason to make it easy on the eyes.  Use lots of white space and standard 1″ margins.  Don’t cram each page with 8 pt. type just to comply with some arbitrary rule about a maximum number of pages.  It is a myth that your resume must be no more than two pages in length.  No computer on earth failed to process a resume because it exceeded an arbitrary page limit.  The reason that some recruiters fail to read some long resumes is because they are a) uncompelling, b) are padded with extraneous information or c) they’re simply not what the recruiter is looking for.

If your content is impressive, well written and to the point, and if you are what the recruiter is looking for, your content-focused resume will get read, no matter how long it is.

Career Summary vs. Career Objectives

If you are seasoned professional, include a brief paragraph that summarizes your career, directly beneath your contact information.  Unless you are seeking a career change, the summary itself will imply your objective by stating facts and allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusion.  For the younger professional, or someone seeking to make a career change, a paragraph broadly stating a career objective is best.  Whatever approach you chose to take, keep it simple, brief and to the point.

Professional History

In a chronological resume, begin with your most recent position and work backwards in time.  In bold print, list your employer’s name, city, your title, and the month and year of your start and end dates.  If you’ve worked for one employer for many years and had numerous promotions, you may be wise to bundle them under one company listing and highlight your latest position.  To clarify your promotion history, you may lead with a summary statement such as, “Originally hired as a production supervisor, and promoted steadily to project leader, development manager, program director and to current position as…”  Alternatively, under the company heading, you may list each of your titles and the dates when you held them.

If you have had multiple employers through no fault of your own – such as corporate mergers, acquisitions or downsizing – you need to explain in a succinct and accurate way that mitigates any possible concerns over you as a desirable long term employee.  For example, if your employer’s name changed due to a merger or acquisition, list the new company’s name and follow it in parentheses with your original employer’s name and the date of the turnover.  By doing this, you enable yourself to list all of your accomplishments at both companies under a single employer; only the corporate structure has changed.

If you changed employers following an organizational downsizing, state that you were downsized, at the end of your listed accomplishments.  There is no need for you to feel defensive.  The reader wants reassurance that your termination was not the consequence of your personal actions.On the other hand, if you have made frequent job changes between various employers for whatever reason, or if there have been glaring gaps of unemployment, do not try to disguise the facts.  Fudging the truth invites disaster.  In this day and age of litigation and employer liability, HR departments check employment histories of applicants with all previous employers and colleges: job titles, dates, degrees, etc.  Any falsehood is cause for immediate termination from your new employer.  Never go down that road.

Accomplishments Are What Resonate Most

Above all, your accomplishments are what employers care about most, not the details about your responsibilities.  The laziest resumes are those created by cutting and pasting responsibilities from job descriptions.  For any position, include no more than a one or two line description of your responsibilities.  All bullets that follow should be about accomplishments that benefited your employer.

It’s not about your responsibilities.  It’s what you have ACHIEVED with your responsibilities.

Whether you choose to use a chronological or functional resume, begin all sentences with a verb that states what you have done (e.g., “Managed a multi-disciplined team of twelve that developed…”).   Stick to facts and avoid superlatives.  What the reader is looking for is evidence that you have been an active participant, contributor or leader.  Wherever possible, include metrics that offer either a measure of your performance or the size or scope of your endeavor (e.g., “Increased product flow by 17% in 3 months,” or “…with an operational budget of $10.7 million and a project team of 22 full-time professionals and contractors”).  Performance metrics illustrate your capability and a potential measure of your worth.  Details such as budget numbers or resource numbers provide a framework of context – under what circumstances you have proved you can deliver such performance for an employer.  Never oversell yourself, but don’t undersell yourself either.  If you let the facts be known, they will do the selling for you.

Credentials

Some professions rely heavily on one’s education, certification or training.  Others do not.  If your credibility as a potential hire is predicated first upon your educational foundation – such as a doctor, engineer, scientist or accountant – and secondarily upon what you have done professionally, list your educational degrees, certifications and any relevant training programs immediately beneath your career summary.  If your career has proved not to be dependent upon these, or if you are a senior corporate executive who has achieved success in spite of a minimal education, list your credentials at the end of your resume, since they add less value than your actual experience.  Otherwise, list your most advanced degree first, your undergraduate degree second, followed by any certifications, awards, publications, patents or relevant training programs.  If you are an educational junkie addicted to continuous professional education, I have cautionary message: be selective in what you choose to disclose, because some hiring managers may feel threatened or hold a negative view toward your accomplishments.

Outside Activities

Feel free to mention relevant industry memberships, or possibly community or civic groups. They demonstrate a desire to contribute, and they imply character.  On the other hand, avoid mention of religious or political affiliations.  One never knows how others may stand on issues where religion or politics are concerned.  Do nothing that could potentially exclude you from consideration.

Attachments

Whenever you send your resume to a company, send a tailored cover letter as well.  Whereas you will not necessarily tailor the resume itself for every employer – the facts of your career history are, after all, the facts – a tailored cover letter provides you an opportunity to connect the dots as to why you should be a logical hire for a given position.  Consider the employer’s published job requirements and explain why your career experience aligns with that opportunity.  If appropriate, do some research on the company’s current business issues, and demonstrate your knowledge by addressing how you could help the company address those issues from the standpoint of that specific position.  This is particularly important for senior executives, and can be relevant even for staff members, because discussing these issues demonstrates a degree of intellectual capacity and management potential.

If you have been written about in the press, or if you are proud of any of your own published works, restrain yourself.  Do not attach any clippings just yet, or any presentations or photocopied letters of reference.  Provide those only upon request.  Attaching any of these to a resume only makes an individual look needy.  Let the resume speak for itself.

Stating your salary requirements can only exclude you from consideration before a potential employer has an opportunity to get to know you.  Similarly, unless specifically requested, don’t include your salary history.  Earn too much, and you will get excluded.  Earn too little, and you will get excluded.

Remember that your objective is to earn the right to an interview.  Ensure your resume is read and that it is appreciated for all the right reasons.  Inspire the reader to invite you to interview.

Scott Cadwalader, Diligent Partners LLC