A resume is the greatest hits album of your professional life. It showcases your most significant accomplishments alongside the diverse experiences and skills you’ve acquired throughout your professional life. The best resumes are focused, precise, engaging, and leave readers feeling that they must meet you in person.
Some points to keep in mind before you write the first draft of your resume:
Resumes are not CVs. The two terms may be synonymous in the UK, but not here in the US. Stateside, a CV is a complete list of every single academic accomplishment: your education, work history, publications, awards, lectures, conference presentations, book chapters, theses advised, etc. A resume, on the other hand, is a curated list of your most important and relevant professional accomplishments. As such, resumes are significantly shorter, and they tend to focus more on work history and skills than honorific bling.
Your resume must be skim-able. You have roughly 5 seconds to impress a potential employer and communicate your main points on paper. Even if you wowed her with an amazing cover letter (and this assumes that she actually read the cover letter first, which is not always the case), your resume is probably one of several hundred that she needs to get through quickly. For this reason, your resume needs to be neatly organized and visually appealing. Major accomplishments, impressive job titles, company names, degrees, and alma maters will need to stand out, as will your particular professional achievements.
Keep it to a single page. In almost all cases, resumes should be a single page in length. Senior professionals and executives who have spent decades in their fields sometimes have two-page resumes, but almost everyone else sticks to a page. There are two reasons for this:
- Most young professionals—especially those coming straight out of college and grad school—do not have enough significant work experience to merit more than 1 page
- Two-page resumes are difficult to read quickly.
Use standard fonts and styles. As in your cover letters, you’ll want to use standard fonts, styles, and margins to make your resume as readable as possible in both online and print formats. Stick with 11- or 12-point Times New Roman and avoid Helvetica and Arial. One-inch margins are preferable as well. Since you’ll often need to submit your letter and resume as a single PDF file, it’s best if the formatting of your resume (font, size, margins) matches the formatting of your cover letter.
Proofread. Potential employers will quickly lose interest in you if your resume has spelling, grammar, or usage errors. While such errors may seem small compared to all of your education and other accomplishments, they will communicate to the employer that you simply didn’t care enough about your application to spend 10-20 extra minutes making sure your application was as polished as possible.
Stay professional. Resumes that include photos, inspirational quotes, digital soundtracks, mini bios, color backgrounds, and other personal touches get thrown in the trash. Why? Besides lacking taste, the authors of these resumes lack a basic understanding of what constitutes appropriate professional behavior and communication. Instead, show your personality through your accomplishments. The subjects you studied, the experiences you’ve had, and the interests you list will tell potential employers plenty about who you are as a person.
Tailor your resume to each application. It’s never one-and-done. Because no two jobs are exactly alike, none of your resumes should be exactly alike either, even when applying to similar jobs within the same industry. Rather, you should take time to tailor your resume to each job by making small changes here and there to match the respective job description. Sometimes this will require replacing a few bullet points or mentioning a particular software package in your skills section. Other times, it will require re-ordering or even re-categorizing your professional experiences. Taking the time to tailor-make these changes will increase the likelihood that employers find what they’re looking for faster.
Resumes make arguments. A great resume does more than communicate your work and educational experiences—it also communicates a message. In academic terms, it makes an argument to the reader that communicates the applicant’s skills and qualifications for the job. The evidence for the argument is made not only in the quantity and quality of the applicant’s skills and experiences, but also in the way the applicant emphasizes certain skills and experiences above others.
Resumes are works of art. Think of your resume as a text-only infographic: it needs to be visually appealing, snappy, and inviting all in a single glance. The more willing your reader is to look at your resume, the more time he’ll spend reviewing it, which increases your chances that he will move it to the top of the pile.