Does Resume Matter for Job Seekers?

As a career counselor and career coach, one of the most common questions I hear from clients is how to improve a resume.  While there are plenty of tips and best practices out there, I find that a lot of job seekers get tripped up from hearing too much advice about what to include, how to format things, etc.  Clients often say to me, “Someone told me to do this, but someone else told me to do that – which one should I do?”

It’s a fair question, but it’s one that always raises a red flag for me.  Why?  Because I don’t think job candidates should spend excessive time and effort on their resumes.  And that’s exactly what all this well-meaning advice causes them to do.

I’m not going to say that a resume is meaningless.  You should have a resume, and it may as well be the best one possible (my tips on how to do that are below).  But making a thousand little tweaks or spinning your wheels about conflicting pieces of resume advice is not going to get you the job you want.  In fact, if you’re really doing a job search the right way, the resume should be a formality, not something you want to use as your lead-in.  And here’s why:

Your resume only becomes your commercial in a “cold” hiring process.
For most hiring managers, the process of screening strangers’ resumes is a last resort – after they’ve tapped their trusted networks for potential referrals.  This situation puts job seekers at a disadvantage, because . . .

In a cold hiring process, your resume will only be quickly scanned.
A few years back, a study showed that recruiters spend an average of six seconds reviewing resumes before approving or rejecting potential candidates.  According to eye tracking software, they typically start by looking at current title and company, previous title and company and number of years at each (to rule out “job-hoppers”).  Then they skip to the bottom to make sure you have the required education, and that’s about it.  Which means . . .

Your resume will only make the cut if you’ve done the job before.
Hiring managers want to hire based on skills rather than experience, but if they’ve never met or heard of you before, the only way to know if you’re qualified is to see that you’ve already done the job.  If you haven’t, you’re out.  If you have, then chances are this is not the job you want, because it won’t offer a new challenge or be a step up from what you’ve been doing.

Despite these facts, some job candidates spend an outsized amount of time fixing and fine-tuning and worrying about their resumes.  And it’s easy to understand why – on the rollercoaster ride that is the job-seeking process, a resume is something that you can actually control.  In fact, that’s probably why so many people – hiring managers, peers, family – give so much (conflicting) advice about resumes.  They want to help, and it’s something tangible they can hone in on.  But faced with the facts, you can see why I always encourage my clients to keep the resume-fixating to a minimum.

However, as I said before, you have to have a resume, and it may as well be a good one.  Since we know a resume will be read for only a few seconds, then write it to be read quickly.  When I’m reviewing clients’ resumes, these are the things I look for:

  • Clean.  Obviously typos and grammatical errors are a no-no, but also make sure it’s not too cluttered – it should be pleasing to the eye and easy to read.  I suggest bullet points versus paragraphs, since it’s easier to highlight relevant skills and experience (and easier for the reader to scan and absorb).
  • Chronological.  When you’re trying to switch careers, you might be tempted to use a functional resume, which highlights skills but minimizes past job titles.  Unfortunately, most hiring managers see right through this (remember, in a cold hiring process, they’re usually looking for someone who’s already done the job).
  • Functional area pops.  If you’ve got skills and experience that are relevant to the job you’re applying for, make sure they’re not hidden somewhere in no man’s land on the page.  The top left corner is where managers spend the majority of those six seconds, so put the good stuff front and center.

And that’s it.  If your resume hits all these marks, my view is that you’re done.  You may need to tweak it slightly for different job opportunities, but the majority of your job-seeking efforts should be spent elsewhere – like having conversations and building relationships.  I’ll talk more about that in my next post.


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