Resume writing can be a truly daunting task for many job seekers. It can be challenging enough to identify your skills and strengths but then to present yourself "on paper" in a way that both passes through employer software and attracts the attention of HR professionals is a common struggle.
With both recruiting trends and the job market constantly changing, it's important to keep up on best practices and resume writing trends as well. We have provided our most effective resume writing tips for 2015 and 2016, which you may notice have only changed slightly over the years. For the upcoming year, we are giving away our best resume writing secrets and an infographic checklist.
When designing your resume...
1. Don't Use Templates
Due to the increasing number of applicants per job opening (often as high as 250 applicants), the majority of mid-sized to large corporations have signed up for Applicant Tracking software. I'm sure you've heard of ATS before, but I can't stress enough the importance of designing your resume to pass employer software before designing it to "stand out."
Graphic resume templates and even standard templates may be keeping your resume from even reaching a decision-maker. There are several formatting and design flaws with resume templates that make them the #1 Don't in the job search. Just don't do it.
2. Format It For Applicant Tracking Software
So then how should you design your resume for Applicant Tracking software? Here are four simple steps to create and format your resume for ATS:
- Create and save a new Word document. ATS need to be able to scan and "parse" your resume content. They can't strip PDF documents, and Microsoft Word is still the business standard (not Pages... Microsoft Word.)
- Set your margins to no less than .5" and no more than 1". Any less than a half inch will make your resume look incredibly crowded and more than 1" looks like you are trying to hide a lack of work history.
- Add your name and contact information but NOT in a header. Applicant Tracking software can't read headers or footers, so make sure your important contact information is not hiding in one. The exception is a second or third page. You can add your name, a page number, and "Continued" in the header or footer since these are not essential details for ATS.
- Write your resume in a one-column layout. Applicant Tracking software can't read columns or tables, so don't bother. There are other ways to add white-space balance or spread out your information.
3. Use Standard Fonts
Your resume doesn't need to be in default Times New Roman or Calibri fonts. Depending on the look you are going for, you can select a great font that's easy to read and that will pass Applicant Tracking software. Our personal favorites are:
- Book Antiqua
- Century Gothic
These are standard fonts that typically exist in other databases such as (that's right...) an Applicant Tracking software. Many Google fonts or unique fonts such as Permanent Marker or Lucinda Handwriting will not get your resume very far in the application process.
4. Organize It For Quick Scanning
How you organize your resume is just as important as how you write your resume. Applicant Tracking software is programmed to look for and organize information in a certain way. For example, your name should be the very first detail listed on your resume. Your contact information should follow with your qualifications next.
Your resume sections should be labeled with standard headings:
- Skills, Key Skills, Areas of Expertise - Not "What I Do Best"
- Experience, Professional Experience, Work Experience - Not "My Background"
- Education, Educational Background, Education & Training - Not "Where I Learned It All"
Another easy way to make your resume easy to scan is to alternate between paragraph summaries and bullet lists to draw attention to accomplishments, major contributions, or related skills in action. Two common non-professional resume writing mistakes are designing your resume to look content-heavy or designing your resume to look like one long bullet list.
5. Add Some Conservative Color
A great way to stand out once your resume gets through Applicant Tracking software is to add conservative color to your name and section headings. The ATS may strip the color within the database; but once the resume makes it in front of a recruiter or HR professional, a clean presentation with pops of color will certainly stand out from the black and white copies with outdated designs that also made it through.
Conservative color can be darker shades of red, orange, and green. For more traditional resumes, using blues or neutral shades (darker grays) may be more appropriate. Personal branding has become an equally important job search best practice, so choose a conservative color that reflects your personal brand (personal business cards, personal website, LinkedIn profile photo, etc.)
When writing your resume...
6. Target It For The Specific Job
Gone are the days of one broad resume. Applicant Tracking software is programmed to know exactly what the employer is looking for in terms of qualifications, so your resume needs to declare, "I solve your problem!"
There are several areas on your resume that you can adjust quickly to target your resume for a specific job:
- Your Resume Title: Your resume title should be either the job title you are applying for or a descriptive title. For an IT professional applying for a Software Developer opening, the resume title should be "Software Developer."
- Your Branding Statement or Career Summary: If you are applying for similar job titles, then you can often reuse the same Branding Statement or Career Summary with little adjustment. I highly recommend identifying the specific problem that that role will need to solve and adjusting the section to speak directly to solving that problem.
- Your Experience: Remember how we suggested alternating between paragraph summaries and bullet lists? You should adjust your highlighted statements (most commonly found in the bullet lists) to address specific skills and results that are the most relevant to the role.
For example, a management professional may want to focus more on staff supervision and performance management skills for a General Manager opening and focus more on budgeting and cost control skills and experiences for a Project Manager opening.
7. Integrate Keywords From The Job Posting
As an extension of the previous point, you should identify and integrate keywords found in the specific job posting. Here's where you need to be detail-oriented. If your resume describes your budget management skills but the job posting lists "controlling costs" rather than "managing budgets," you should adjust the phrasing in your resume to match the job posting.
This may seem tedious, but your goal is to pass Applicant Tracking software and make it to a decision-maker who is scheduling interviews. The key to integrating keywords effectively is to do so naturally. If it looks like you are just listing a bunch of keywords but the content doesn't make sense or flow, you won't be getting the interview.
8. Start With A Branding Statement
Your Branding Statement or Career Summary is your introduction. Recruiters and HR professionals will only spend a few seconds looking at your resume once it gets through ATS. Use your introduction to sell your most valuable skills, describe how you will solve the company's immediate problem, and briefly note what differentiates you from the other candidates.
Remove your outdated, self-serving Objective Statement. Streamline your content-heavy Career Profile. Summarize your qualifications and the value you offer in 4-6 lines to make the greatest impact to employers.
9. Create A Scan-able Skills Section
One quick way to naturally integrate keywords from the job posting is to create an easy to scan Skills section. There are several tactics to do this effectively, and it shows employers that you know what you have to offer.
However, make sure that any skill you list can be backed up by a specific example in your Experience section. Don't lie about skills that you don't possess or you risk potential problems once you get the job.
10. Tell Your Story
Resumes in the 1990's and early 2000's consisted of a list of degrees, company names and job titles, and honors or awards. Now that the job market is so competitive, employers need to know far more than this to choose the best candidate for the job. The best formula for telling your story on your resume is to summarize the role you held and then highlight how you made a difference.
Storytelling on your resume can be achieved in a few different ways. The most common approach is to use S-A-R or C-A-R statements. First, identify the situation or challenge that needed to be addressed. Briefly describe what action you took or what skills you utilized and then state the (positive) results. This tactic shows critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are necessary for all jobs.
11. Highlight Your Accomplishments
Corporate recruiters and HR professionals love measurable or quantifiable accomplishments. If you can add some percentages, dollar signs, or numbers of any sort, you will be an ATS and recruiting dream-come-true.
Not all jobs may provide you with measurable accomplishments to boast. For example, you may work in retail but you may have never been told your sales ratings specifically. Other accomplishments could be indirect recognition by supervisors, direct recognition as an award or incentive, any processes or procedures that you updated or improved, or positive feedback from customers or co-workers.
12. Focus On Your Qualifications, Not Your Age
A pitfall in resume writing is drawing more attention to your age than your qualifications. For example, listing that you have over 25 years of experience or including work history prior to the year 2000 may be more harmful than impressive. Streamline your work history to focus on the most recent 10-15 years of directly relevant experience. This will lower your chances of being discriminated against for your age.
On the flip side, including your high school diploma and listing several short-term jobs may trigger a red flag for employers too. Younger candidates are infamous for "job-hopping." If you are applying for a Marketing Assistant job but you're still in school and haven't held any marketing jobs yet, focus on your relevant coursework, other transferable skills, and most recent work history even if you have only been employed for a few months.
13. Include Only Relevant Education
As stated before, get rid of your high school diploma. If you have more than 3 years of work experience, employers assume you have your high school diploma. In fact, you should only list your most recent degrees. In other words, if you have your bachelor's degree then your associate's degree is no longer relevant.
Listing every degree, every training program, or every certificate won't necessarily accelerate your job search. Only list the qualifications you possess that are required or preferred on the job posting. This will keep your resume relevant, targeted, and easy to scan.
14. Keep Additional Information 100% Relevant
On few resumes is it ever necessary to list hobbies, iInterests, or other additional information. This is where a cover letter can be utilized. If the job posting for an outdoor merchandising company expresses that candidates should be passionate for the outdoors, this can be briefly identified in your Branding Statement and elaborated on in your cover letter. A Hobbies section listing every outdoor activity you've participated in is not directly relevant to the Marketing Assistant job you are targeting.
The most common exception is volunteer experience when you don't have a lot of relevant work history to support your career goals. If you have volunteered with organizations and helped create marketing materials or updated their social media profiles, this would be important to add!
15. Proofread, Edit, and Repeat
This shouldn't even need to be said, yet here it is. Do not send off your resume without proofreading it. Relying on spell check isn't always foolproof when it comes to word usage, typos, and punctuation. A couple things you must review that spell check won't catch include:
- Word Tenses: You are describing yourself as you are now in your Branding Statement and current work experience. You would say, "Manage team..." or, "Managing teams..." unless you are no longer working with that employer.
- Consistency: Do you use periods for your bullet list statements? If so, make sure every statement has a period. Do you use all caps for company names? Make sure every company name is consistently formatted across every page.
When you're still not getting interviews...
16. Get Some Feedback
Another set of eyes and perspective can help you improve your resume. A friend or co-worker may see something you overlooked. You can also get feedback for free from one of our Certified Professional Resume Writers. Our free resume critique starts with an easy upload, requires no commitment from you, and provides detailed recommendations on how to improve your resume.
17. Hire A Professional
Hiring a professional resume writer could make the difference between a new and better job and a long, costly job search (Think of all that increased income you're potentially missing out on!). We caution job seekers to do their homework before hiring a professional resume writer. You should consider:
- Who is writing my resume: a Certified Professional Resume Writer or a gig/freelance writer contracted by the larger corporate name?
- How accessible is my resume writer, and can I find him or her online elsewhere (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.)?
- How much will it cost me if I need revisions or updates down the road?
- How expensive could this get if I need help with several targeted cover letters too?