Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr
Source: Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr

Resume writing sucks, am I right? The internet is full of conflicting advice and terrible templates, and as a career coach that makes me pretty snarly. I see a lot of resumes, good and bad, so I know which ones are landing people interviews. That’s its job. So let’s talk about how we can get our resume to do its job so you can get on with doing yours.

Resume Golden Rule: Understand the true function of a resume. It’s not an autobiography. It’s not a chronology of duties you perform every day. And, brace yourself, it’s kinda’ not about you! Zing! Pow! Mike drop! Check please!

When you read and write your resume it appears to be all about you. Duh. But when a hiring manager reads your resume, it’s all about them. They're tasked with the responsibility of finding the right person. If they make a poor choice, the company suffers and it's on their shoulders. Since they’re the one you have to impress—not you—write it for them. Make their job of hiring you a no-brainer.

Transform yourself into a hiring manager for a moment. What would set a resume apart from all the others? That you’re punctual? You have good communication skills? You’re proficient in Microsoft Word? You love dogs? WHO CARES! [I’m Caps lock-ing with you, not at you.] Now that we’ve deleted the fluff we have more space on the page to wow them with your brilliance.

Side Note: If it seems like I’m being too harsh, let’s get one thing straight: I’ve made all the mistakes. Just like you, I hate revamping my resume. But we’ll get through this.

Okay, so what does the boss actually want to see on your resume? She wants to see that you’re the best candidate to solve her problems. She also wants to see that you’re an authentic human—whom she has to work with day in and day out—and not the invention of some resume machine. That’s not asking too much is it? To be real, to be nice, and to be competent?

Wait, rewind a few sentences. We blew right past the big revelation: she needs you to solve her problems. Before you tailor your resume and cover letter for this job [Yes, you have to tailor your resume and cover letter for each job and don’t you dare let me catch you sending out generic templates!] you MUST learn about the company and understand their problem.

And they do have a problem. That’s why they’re hiring. It might be a good problem or a bad problem and it’s on you to figure that out. If they’re a large enough company to have public information, check out their website to understand their corporate philosophy, know their product, their consumer, their position in the market, and how they’re showing up in the news cycle. Are they hiring because they’re growing or because they’re flailing? Through your detective work, can you determine if you’re filling the vacancy of a departure or stepping into a newly established position? Will you be managing tremendous growth or patching a sinking ship? Your resume will be phrased with these insights in mind.

Pour another pinot my friends, we’re just getting started…

Time to discuss formatting and writing. This is the point where I present the obligatory top 10 list. [Hey, if you can write a top 10 list in this day and age you’re golden.] Keep in mind, any piece of resume advice you read, including mine, is an opinion. There is not some national standard. Every expert you ask will give you different advice, as evidenced by tip #1:

Tip #1:  To “B” or not to “B”?

And by “B” I mean Bullets. In this excellent Harvard Business Review article by Amy Gallo, she gives examples of successful resumes that use bullet points effectively. In this equally excellent Undercover Recruiter article by Mark Jaffe, he minces no words about his disdain for bullets. Here’s his fantastic sans-bullets resume sample as apparently written by the esteemed C. Montgomery Burns. I guess we could call this version the “nuclear option”. See what I did there?

There you have it. Conflicting advice. And, in my opinion, they’re both right.

Tip #2:  Your resume is working when it’s working and you’re working.

If the current iteration of your resume is getting you screenings or interviews, eventually landing you jobs, then it’s obviously working. If you’re not getting invites, tweak your resume. And keep on tweaking until it’s working for you to the point of not needing it anymore. I highly encourage you to refrain from submitting your resume until someone else has had the chance to read it. Practically every resume I review has a grammatical error or a stray bullet. Hiring managers hate being hit by them.

On the other hand, if your resume is landing you interviews but your interviews aren’t landing you jobs, read my article Landing Interviews But Not Job Offers? 20 Possible Problems.

Tip #3:  Excuse me, do I sense a tone in your voice?

Oooh sassy. So I’m about to give you a major career coaching strategy. This is the kind of stuff Tony Robbins would charge a million bucks for. Except, I won’t make you walk on hot coals afterward to prove that you were listening to me.

Tone matching. Coming at you again in bold caps: TONE MATCHING. Maybe it needs a snappier name like Tonesync.

If you don’t know when you should use bullets or narrative, just look at the company’s job posting and the style of writing they use on their website. Do they tend to be succinct and bullet-y? Then use bullets! Are they descriptive and narrative-y? Do more of that!

If you’re in an interview and the three managers are super casual and small talk-y, but you’re so buttoned up your face is turning blue, do you think you’re going to hit it off? Sync up with the tone of the room.

Tone matching can be used in job interviews, at networking events, on first dates, in bribery situations, hostage negotiations… umm where was I going with this? Oh yeah, if ever you’re wondering if you’re talking too much, too fast, too loud—or if you’re writing too much, too little, too loud—simply take the temperature of the room and subtly match it.

Now don’t go getting your feathers in a ruffle. You’re still you—I’m not asking you to mirror-mime your hiring manager. This is a subtle art that takes practice and should be used sparingly. But in situations where you want to make a good impression and you’re not sure how to fit in, you might just take a cue from your surroundings and sync up!  

Tip #4:  Size matters.

Bad resume advice just won’t die. Like the one that says your resume can only be one page long. If you’re applying to be an Executive Director at a multi-million dollar organization, I’m not convinced the breadth of experience necessary for that position can be conveyed on a single page. If you’re worried that the second page of your resume will get cut off by their ATS (Applicant Tracking System), then follow up with a phone call or email a few days later to ask if they received your complete application. You should be doing that anyway unless the listing expressly tells you not to. If indeed it tells you not to, go ahead and snail mail them a good old-fashioned printed copy on nice linen paper with a friendly note and a finely crafted cover letter. They've probably never seen such a thing!

Tip #5:  So, about that junk in the trunk…

The other junk. The other trunk. We’re talking about all that random junk that has dribbled down your resume and settled to the bottom of the trunk in a sloppy pool of sadness. Other Skills, Irrelevant Hobbies, and “References upon request” should be placed on page 3. Then burn page 3.

Anything important enough to show up on a resume should show up in your top expertise summary or be sprinkled throughout your experience narrative or bullet points or whatever you decided to go with when I covered that topic like an hour ago. If you want to share an interesting tidbit so they’ll remember you, craft a memorable moment in your cover letter or save it for the interview.

Tip #6:  Nobody’s perfect.

I want you to know that you are capable of making a career transition. Whether it’s in the same industry but different role, or a completely different field altogether, those big leaps are possible. So please don’t feel that you’re stuck forever in a job/company/industry that you hate. It will take strategy and it will take time, but you’ll get there.

So, don’t get discouraged when you’re not meeting 100% of a job listing’s requirements. If you meet 65-75% of the requirements and it’s a job you think you’ll like, you should apply. That’s when you get very thoughtful and strategic with your resume and cover letter. That’s when you hustle to find a contact within the company who can help you get a foot in the door. Perhaps you even start shoring up experience gaps by volunteering, taking a course or certification, attending an industry conference, etc.

However, if you don’t particularly care too much about the position you’ve come across—perhaps you don’t meet some of their significant needs but you’re just going to apply for the heck of it and don’t much care if you hear back—why bother? That kind approach and attitude allows more disappointment and exhaustion to creep into your job search process. Focus your time on perfecting your materials and crafting them to each job you truly want to apply for.

Tip #7:  You should be proud you got this far.

I’m talking about your career, not this article. Be proud of the work you put into your career and the work you put into your resume. That pride will show up as confident writing. Confident writing will show up as confident interviewing. Confident interviewing will show up as job offers.

As I said before, I read a lot of resumes and I can instantly recognize when the writer hates their resume or doesn’t feel confident about their skills and expertise; i.e. they’re afraid to toot their own horn. Those resumes feel sparse, cold, restrained, and robotic. They don’t exactly scream, “Now that’s a fella I want to chat with around the water cooler”, you know what I mean? So the goal here is confident, not cocky.

How do you get a boost of confidence? One way is to complete a self-assessment or hire a wonderful, personable, confident-but-not-cocky career coach who can help you conduct a career assessment. Either way, you’ll sit down with a piece of paper and list all of your strengths, hard skills, soft skills, values, interests, accomplishments and accolades. From there, you’ll be primed to write a more confident resume.

Along these same lines, consider being a collector of great words and phrases. Keep a list of career-related keywords and resume phrases you come across that have a great ring to them. Use more of those and less of the ones that make you feel bad.

Tip #8:  Show your true colors. But also don’t.

Need I say more? Always. Once you’ve come up with your confident but not cocky wording, it’s time to format them. Over the years I’ve seen resumes formatted with all sorts of shapes, colors, doodads, and contrivances. Stop that. I’ve yet to come across a job that requires such trickery. If you’re an artist or graphic designer or doodad developer, the company will see your portfolio. If you’re everybody else, they want a simple document that doesn’t make their eyeballs bleed.

Please, do it for the tired and bleeding: Black text. Sans-serif or at least a very easy to read 11 point font. Plenty of white space with reasonable margins. Name, address, email, phone number, and perhaps LinkedIn URL, with no other shenanigans. Word or PDF. No emojis. And forget all the flashy templates on the web. Most of those things are utter hogwash. Just open up Word and start writing.

While I’m don’t-ing: Don’t attempt humor. Don’t self-deprecate. Don’t bash a former employer. Don’t list every job since 1983...be selective based on relevance. Don’t list GPA unless you’re a recent grad and you have an honors distinction or it’s somehow relevant, like an academic position. Don’t list your typing speed unless it’s an admin position with a typing requirement.

Tip #9:  Your resume is full of duty.

Somehow we’ve all at some point been lead to believe that a resume should contain bullet upon bullet of daily duties we’ve performed at previous jobs. So much so that we fail to focus on the overarching competencies and expertise we developed as professionals over the course of our career. Did you set up a meeting room? Or were you wholly responsible for the successful planning, execution, and budgeting of a major annual conference with 500 international guests? Anybody can set up a meeting room, but because of your track record of successful event planning, the CEO has entrusted you with his budget and his reputation. You solved his problems and you earned his trust. Your future employer needs to know that.

Tip #10:  Kids, it's time for show & tell!

In this article I didn’t explain how to write a killer summary statement or provide verbiage for impactful bullet points. You’ll come across a million articles on the subject, but in truth it’s very difficult to advise a general audience on how to write such specific content. It depends on you and depends on the job. Just remember, show don't tell. Don't merely write, "I'm dependable and organized." The reader will infer that from your inclusion of quantified accomplishments and proven competencies. How did you solve your previous employer's problems? How did that track record of problem solving progress your career from Point A to Point B? With a 30-second scan of your resume, the hiring manager should get that picture.

FotoBart/Flickr
Source: FotoBart/Flickr

If you’re struggling, consult some of the top career sites or get in touch with me or another career counselor/coach. Last year I wrote an article of 10 Best Career Advice Websites. From those sources you’ll find truly helpful videos, articles, and resume samples. In addition to reading the Undercover Recruiter and Harvard Business Review (HBR) articles I mentioned earlier, I highly encourage you to follow HBR on Facebook- they share stellar career articles.

Resume revamp? You got this!

BONUS TIP: Avoid using pre-made resume templates you find online. The best option is to start from scratch in a new Word document, formatting the document yourself to avoid importing any hidden formatting. Some online application systems use electronic resume scanners that get confused by fancy formatting. When PDF upload is an option, use it. And when in doubt, keep your formatting simple, clean, and balanced.

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Brad Waters, MSW specializes in working with non-traditional career seekers, freelancers, creatives, introverts, Millennials, and corporate career changers. He helps people clarify their career direction and take action on life transitions. Request a free consultation call at BradWatersCoaching.com

Join Brad on:  LinkedIn  |  Facebook  |  Twitter

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Copyright, 2016 Brad Waters. This article may not be reproduced or published without written permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not removed embedded links.

About the Author

Brad Waters

Brad Waters, MSW, is a career and personal development expert based in Los Angeles. He is also a freelance writer with a background in social work and holistic health care.

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