How to Write a Resume Recruiters Want to Read

I love transforming resumes. Other people’s resumes that is – I’m not sure if anyone likes working on their own!

Helping clients revamp their resumes is one of the most tangible aspects of the work I do. Unlike crafting your story or building your network, which can take a little longer to bear fruit, updating a resume is more straightforward and the results are immediate.

Resumes are also an important place to demystify the job search process, which is what drives me to do what I do. I love seeing the lightbulb moment when one of my clients realizes that what they thought a resume was – a chronological description of their work history and education with a few skills and interests thrown in – is very different from what it actually is: a carefully curated marketing document highlighting the skills and experience that are relevant to a specific role.

When this aha moment happens, it transforms the way people think about their resumes and what they choose to highlight. I’ve had this conversation recently with the participants in my current Job Search Bootcamp program and several of my individual clients, so I thought it was a good time to share some of my thoughts on resumes.

There is so much to say about resumes, I could probably write a book about it (and maybe one day I will!). But since you probably want to get on with making yours great, let’s focus on the three steps you can take to make your resume something recruiters, and anyone else, will want to read.

Step 1: Focus on Format  

As a still-practicing recruiter, I can verify that the six second resume scan is a real thing. When you’re reviewing hundreds of resumes, you just don’t have the time to dig deep on the first pass. Your resume needs to grab the reader right away in those first few seconds and convince them that you have enough relevant experience that it’s worth their time to review the details.

Having a strong format is critical to ensure that the reader sees enough in those six seconds to want to keep reading all the great content you’ve worked so hard on.  

1. Keep it simple: you’ll hear all kinds of opinions about resume formats, but my advice here is to go traditional. Unless you are applying for a creative role, this not the time to get fancy with graphic design. Keep your resume clean and easy to skim, with plenty of white space on the page and at least 11 point font for any text that’s not a heading. Put things in the order the reader expects to see them: a summary section highlighting key skills, then experience, then education, and any additional information at the bottom. Stay away from infographics and multiple columns, use color sparingly or not at all, and don’t include a photo (that’s what LinkedIn is for!). Here’s a template to get you started.  

2. Control where the reader’s eye goes: yes, recruiters are going to skim your resume, but you can control what they focus on during that skim. Use text elements like bolding, all caps, and vertical lines to break up the page and encourage the reader to pause where you want them to. Headings should be several font sizes larger than sub-text and key words or phrases should be bolded. Do a test of this by asking a few friends to skim your resume and tell you what jumps out to them first. As for length, aim for one page if you have less than 10 years of experience and up to two pages after that if needed. If you do go to two pages, make sure the most important content is on page one.  

3. Showcase your story in the summary section: for most job seekers, and especially if you are making any kind of career transition, I recommend using a hybrid or “combination” resume format. This format includes a summary section at the top with several sentences about your most relevant qualifications and any specific skills and keywords you want to highlight, followed by a more traditional work experience section. Having a strong summary section ensures that the most valuable real estate on your resume tells a clear story about why you are qualified for that specific role, and will help convince a recruiter to spend more time reviewing your accomplishments.

Step 2: Tailor Your Content

Now that you’ve got a strong format in place, turn to your content. The biggest areas for improvement I tend to see here are using more language and keywords from the job description (it’s not cheating, I promise), and getting much more specific about accomplishments.

1. Use the job description as your guide: you’ve probably heard about the importance of using keywords in your resume, and while job descriptions are far from perfect, they are your best guide to the specific skills that the organization is looking for. To start, read through the job description, underline key words and phrases that match your experience and then use that exact language in your resume. Whether your application is read by an automated Applicant Tracking System or by human eyes, they will all be looking for that same language. Once you’ve made a first round of updates, I recommend using Jobscan, a great tool that helps you verify if you’ve matched enough of the keywords from the job description (aim for a match score of at least 60%).

2. Highlight your most relevant experience: remember that your resume is a marketing document, not a biography. You do not need to include everything you’ve ever done and in most cases you shouldn’t. Think about what experiences are going to be most compelling for the particular role you’re targeting, and highlight those. If you have a lot of varied experience or a “windy” career path as many of us do, consider using a tailored experience heading (i.e. Marketing Experience or Project Management Experience) to list your most relevant roles at the top, and then an “Additional Experience” section to list other experience with less detail. And remember that significant volunteer or leadership roles can absolutely be featured in your main experience section, if they are relevant to what you want to do next.

3. Be as specific as possible: about what you did and what you achieved for your organization. This is what differentiates great candidates and makes recruiters pay attention. We have no idea what you were doing day to day in your previous roles, so it’s up to you to tell us and paint a picture that we’ll clearly understand. Here’s a way to think about it: each role should ideally have 3-5 bullet points each focusing on a specific skill and one of your accomplishments that best demonstrates that skill and the larger impact your work had on the organization.

The general format is: Did X general thing, including X specific example, resulting in X impact. In practice this would look like: Managed organization’s social media presence, establishing Facebook and Twitter accounts and weekly analytics review; grew following by 60% and impressions by 40% in a six month period.

Think you can’t quantify your results because you haven’t worked with numbers? Think again! Any experience can be quantified if you dig hard enough. Here’s a place to start.

Step 3: Passing the “Mom Test”

You’ve made all these updates, you’re feeling great, and you’re ready to hit “submit.” But wait! Before throwing that shiny new resume into circulation, it’s imperative that you get some other eyes on it. This is both to make sure you don’t have any typos or grammatical errors, and that your format is easy to read and your content makes sense.

I like to tell clients their resume should pass the “mom test”, meaning that even if your mom doesn’t know that much about what you do every day (hi mom!), she should be able to read your resume and understand it. Of course, the reader doesn’t have to be your mom – anyone who isn’t closely familiar with your work will do.

It’s certainly important to get feedback from people who know your target industry or role too, but remember that if a recruiter is reading your resume, they may not be that familiar with the actual role. Instead, they’ll be screening for the things outlined in the job description and to see what you’ve accomplished in your previous roles, so it’s important to explain your accomplishments in language anyone can understand.

And whether it’s the recruiter reading your resume, the hiring manager, or someone else, making sure your resume is readable by anyone ensures that no matter who it gets to, your accomplishments will shine through.

Want more support in making your resume the best it can be? Join one of my upcoming workshops this summer or check out my individual and group job search coaching programs.

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