Job Hunting Summer School: Writing Your Resume

This is the first article of a five-part series. Continue reading and check out our posts on crafting your cover letter, networking, interviewing, and negotiating your salary.

I don’t know many people who love writing resumes. In fact, for most of us, it’s a stressful, high-pressure exercise. Why? Because despite the fact that everyone needs a resume, or LinkedIn profile, or some combination of both, there aren’t many good how-to’s out there. That goes double for the complexities that come with online job hunting.

And even if you have a handle on the basics, it can still be really difficult to channel all your strengths and accomplishments onto one page in a way that perfectly aligns with where you’d like to take your career. It’s a big leap of faith to put yourself out there, too, especially if you don’t feel like your resume measures up.

Here’s a little secret, though: You don’t have to be the most qualified person in the pile in order to get a job interview, but you do need to be one of the best communicators.

In this installment of my “Summer Job Hunting Guide,” I’ll show you how to write a resume that promotes you from hopeful candidate to actual candidate.

First Things First: Why is a Good Resume So Important?

Having a killer resume is important for five reasons, and the first one involves counting to six.

What can you accomplish in six seconds? For most of us the answer is not much, but a heat-mapping study conducted by revealed that six seconds is the average amount of time a recruiter looks at a resume.

That’s less than a blip compared to the countless hours many candidates take to prepare the information, so it’s really important to capture the recruiter’s interest immediately.

The second reason your resume needs to be strong is the growing popularity of applicant tracking software. They work on keyword searches and algorithms that weed out as many as half the resumes sent in for a position before they ever get to a human for their six-second review.

Third, a confused mind always says no. If your resume makes it past the bots but isn’t crystal clear and high-impact immediately, you won’t get the interviews you want—even if you are the most qualified candidate in the pile.

The fourth reason you need to master resume writing is that, on average, job seekers spend 18 weeks on the job hunt. That’s almost five months, which is more than enough time for job-seekers to feel like the process has chewed them up and spit them out.

Some might even end up taking less-than-ideal positions just to have the search phase over with. Having a resume that gets you working sooner rather than later is better for your career, your finances, and your mental health.

The final reason is this: the best jobs don’t always go to the best candidates. They go to the best communicators, both on the resume and in person. This means your actual experience doesn’t matter as much as the way you present it and communicate about it.

So, how do you communicate your experience in a way that stands out? Style, powerful language, and fairy dust.

Rules of Resume Style and Format

The first and most important style “must” is a resume that’s easy on the eyes. Yes, content counts, but a busy resume that doesn’t let the highlights shine will always find its way to the trash can.

This means ditching the creative templates—no artsy-looking resumes or fun graphic designs (unless you’re applying for a job as a graphic designer or some other position that would call for it.) It also means keeping your font size at 11 or larger.

Data suggests that resumes with fonts smaller than that statistically result in fewer job interviews, so don’t try to cram everything onto one page by using a tiny font. That’s not to say you can’t mess with the margins a little bit, but they should always be small budges and not obvious.

Finally, the one-page rule should always be a hard-and-fast one, with the exception of job candidates who have more than 10 years of experience.

The next style “do” is to make sure there’s a space between each job listed on your resume so that the recruiter can find each one easily. Remember that heat-map study that looked at how resumes are viewed? It also found that if there’s no space between each job entry, or if the information just isn’t that easy to locate right away, it gets overlooked.

My next tip might be one that’s difficult to hear, but it’s important to always include both the month and the year for your job start and end dates. If you don’t include a month, or use a seasonal term like “Fall,” recruiters may assume you’re hiding a gap in your resume.

The strongest resumes are in chronological order with the month and year that each job started and ended. (However, it’s okay to use the month number instead of the name for easier skimming.)

Whether you have one job or 20, you should keep your bullets beneath each job title to no more than six. If you think about your resume in terms of real estate, you want to give the most space to the jobs that draw the clearest link between where you’ve been and where you want to go.

A job in the past that you’ve had but isn’t relevant, for example, might have one or two bullets as a quick way to say “I also did this.” But the ones you really want to focus on should be the ones entitled to all six bullets.

As for the resume don’ts, the top of my “Never, ever” list includes a photo (for American job seekers—Europeans are more encouraging of headshots in the top corner); an unprofessional email address like [email protected] (I have one of those too, but not when it comes to job hunting); and a resume attachment that’s titled “resume.doc.”

Even the simple act of saving your resume with your first name, last name and the word resume can give you more credence with recruiters. (Bonus points for saving it as a .pdf.)

What About Education?

Here’s my general rule about how and where to include your education on your resume. If you have at least one official post-college job, then your professional experience should go before your education. If you’re on the hunt for your first professional gig, however, put your education before your work experience.

One exception is if you’re looking to make a big career pivot, either back to the field you studied or to another field altogether. In this case, listing your degree first can help explain why you are making the change—especially if your resume is short on professional qualifications. It can also be a smart move to put education first if you’re taking any classes in order to learn a new skill.

Rules of Resume Content

Moving from a one-size-fits-all resume that you blast out to one that’s tailor-made for every job is a mindset shift to be sure, but in the 21st-century world of online job hunting, it’s not optional. It can be tedious, but here are a few ways to help make it a little less painless.

The Secret Ingredient: Fairy Dust

One way to make a hiring manager look twice at your resume is to sprinkle it with “fairy dust,” a mix of phrases, industry buzzwords and keywords that show an insider’s understanding of the position and its requirements.

Fairy dust can be found in the job description and in LinkedIn profiles of people who already hold the exact job you want, and both are a powerful way to not only learn the language, but also to see how people describe the work in the real world.

Look for common buzz words or concepts, bullets that list responsibilities, qualifications, and accomplishments that others brag about. Then, compare those with your own past experiences to create a thread that connects your past to where you want to go in the future. Where possible, use their exact words and phrases to describe your experience.

For example, if you have the phrase “created” in one of your resume bullet points, but find out that current industry executives like the trendy buzzword “architected,” it’s a simple change out. You may also find that one industry uses the word “clients” while another uses “customers” or “partners” to describe those with whom they do business.

These types of tweaks can be game-changers for getting your resume noticed—as long as what you’re presenting remains true. The No. 1 rule of all No. 1 rules in resume writing is DON’T LIE, especially in the age when a simple search of Google or social media could out your professional story as fiction.

Accentuate the Positive

While you should always tell the truth on your resume, there can come a danger with being too brutally honest. Another mindset shift that will help you write a more powerful resume is to treat it as more of a marketing document than a job description.

Remember that you have a max of six bullet points to use for any one job title, so use them wisely. Highlight the accomplishments you have relative to the job you’re applying for, and avoid oversharing the other stuff.

Here’s a real-world example: How do you apply for a job that involves a significant amount of responsibility when your current job is 85% filing? You focus on the 15% of your job that requires more from you.

Find those accomplishments and highlight them in relation to the next job you want: those times you helped your boss brainstorm, managed bigger projects or served as an advisor. Only mention the filing in passing as “administrative duties” in one bullet point at the end of the list.

This isn’t a matter of lying by omission or puffing up your accomplishments. Rather it’s understanding that you have six seconds to tell someone about the times you really stood out in your job. Oversharing on the stuff that doesn’t deserve the attention can actually cause you to undersell yourself.

If I had to sum it up for a motivational poster, it would be this: Highlight the things related to the power you want to hold and the job you want to have.

The Right Words Can Make All the Difference

In addition to the industry jargon “fairy dust,” every other word on your resume can hold power, too.

This especially applies to the verbs you use to start each bullet point, and the golden rule here is to stay away from low-level, helper words like “help,” “support,” and “assist” unless you’re vying for some sort of actual helper function, such as an administrative assistant.

Instead of saying “Supported my boss in writing a document…”, for example, change it up with a leadership-level word like “co-authored” or “co-wrote.” Other good power verbs include managed, oversaw, supervised, and achieved.

Likewise, consider saying “supervised a team” instead of “supervised two interns” or “exceeded sales goal in the first month” even if it was only by a penny—if the amount is less-than-stellar, just leave it out.

How to Get Started

So now that you know the formula to a great resume, how do you make it happen? I often recommend picturing each of your work experiences as a mental file in your memory.

Every time you need to write about that job, open the file and find the strongest moments you had in that job that apply to the resume you’re writing. What were the strongest projects? Where did you make the most impact?

How did you help the company move the needle? Note that your answers may be different depending on the type of job you’re pursuing.

Once you have your talking points, rank them in order of importance. The first bullet, or the power bullet as I call it, is where you highlight your biggest accomplishment, accolade or impact on the company, and if it relates to the next job you want, that’s even better.

Leading strong right out of the gate in this manner is crucial for two reasons: the first is that a recruiter might not read past that first bullet, and the other is that companies want to hire performers.

From there, the second bullet should ideally line up with where you’re headed, which can mean showing how what you’ve done in your past relates to your future potential. (Fairy dust comes in handy in the second bullet.)

As you move through your achievements, it’s important to quantify as much as possible. If you’re sharing an enormous sales quarter, list the dollar amount. If it’s less tangible, illustrate the cause/effect relationship or the before and after. If you won an award for your hard work, shout it out.

The bottom line for writing a resume that will stand out? Get straight to the point of what you’re doing and create a thread to where you’re going.

Even if you’re the lowest-ranked person on the totem pole, you’re likely taking on some sort of leadership role that you can highlight. And finally, keep in mind that your resume is an important part of your personal brand, even if that brand changes slightly from job to job.

If you’re looking for more career advice, make an appointment with a SoFi career coach as a complimentary benefit to our members.

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Ashley Stahl ABOUT Ashley Stahl Ashley Stahl is a career coach, keynote speaker, podcast host (You Turn Podcast), and author.

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