How to Build a Great Resume
Step #1: Brainstorm
Start your resume my making a list of all your previous jobs and accomplishments—educational, professional, and personal—on scratch paper. Think about all your honors and awards. If you already have an academic CV, go through it and highlight the accomplishments that you think are most important and that you think potential employers would find relevant for the kinds of jobs you’re exploring. Think broadly and list everything that comes to mind—the more you have written down, the more you can draw from when building your resume.
Step #2: Think about the message you want to communicate
Step back, and think about your message. Remember, resumes are argumentative essays in non-prose form, not lists of your prior work experience. Each resume you create should communicate a specific message about you to potential employers, a message that aligns with employers’ needs as outlined in their job announcements. A resume without a message is a worthless piece of paper, as is a resume in which the argument and the evidence don’t match up.
Step #3: Select a resume style that fits your needs
Once you identify your message and a list of professional and academic experiences that support that message, select a resume style that will best help you communicate this information to prospective employers. The best resume styles:
- Are visually appealing
- Are straightforward, without any complicated formatting or fonts
- Emphasize the most important information, such as company/school names and job titles
- Are easily skim-able
Keep in mind that while you can find many resume templates online and in word processing software, few accomplish all of the above. Only choose a style that meets all of these goals.
Step #4: Fill in the details
Readers will always want to know:
- The start and end dates of your past employment and educational experiences
- The location where each experience took place
- Your job titles or a description of the role you played
For each entry in the experience section, you should also provide a 1- or 2-sentence description of the experience, job, or project that includes your general responsibilities and how you fit in. This information will give the reader context, which is particularly important if you previously worked at smaller organizations that are less well known.
Details you don’t need to include:
- Your previous employers’ or schools’ contact information
- Your wage or salary information (unless specifically requested to do so)
- Your GPAs or standardized test scores (unless specifically requested to do so)
Step #5: Focus on how you added value
Use bullets to describe the ways in which you added value—rather than to describe your responsibilities—for each of your prior professional or academic experiences. Employers want employees who will work hard to improve the company, solve its problems, or increase business, not employees who simply maintain the status quo.
Your resume should show the ways in which you were a change-maker in your previous professional roles. Did you improve efficiency in any way? Did you implement better ways of doing things? Did you innovate? Did you expand operations? Did you help maximize others’ impact? If possible, quantify the amount, scale, or rate of the value you added so that potential employers can get the clearest picture possible of how you made a difference. Also, pay attention to the kinds of value added that would appeal most to the particular employers you want to impress.
Step #6: Use action verbs
Look back over your bullet points and make sure that each bullet begins with an action verb, which will help suggest to your readers that you are a person of action. Use the past tense form of verbs to describe completed actions for prior experiences. Use the present tense to describe ongoing actions for professional experiences that are still taking place. Without overcomplicating your resume, try not to use the same verb more than once in the document, and especially avoid using the same verb to begin adjacent bullet points.
Step #7: Add skills
Save a few lines at the bottom to talk about your linguistic and technical skills that are relevant to the jobs you want. Be particularly sure to include any skills requested in the employer’s job description. Common skills include:
- Foreign languages (briefly mention your degree of fluency)
- Programming languages
- Operating platforms
- Software packages
- Social media platforms
- Unusual mathematical or statistical capabilities (if not mentioned elsewhere)
- International experience (not a “skill” per se, but sometimes important to highlight)
Step #8: Add contact information
Be sure to include your current contact information at the top of your resume where the reader can easily find it. Ideally, you should arrange this info so that it takes up as little space as possible—ideally packed into a single line directly under your name. Always include your current street address (no P.O. boxes); your phone number; and an active, professional-looking email address.
Include your Twitter username and/or the URL of your personal website only if you use these primarily for professional purposes—and keep in mind that employers will check these out.
Step #9: Space permitting, add interests
If you have extra space, an interests line—and it should only be a single line at the bottom of your resume–can personalize the resume. Aside from adding personality, interests can also make great conversation starters during interviews. The key to maximizing the effectiveness of the interests line is to list highly specific interests that communicate your individuality. Three major tips:
- Avoid listing generic interests such as dogs, reading, traveling, sports, and food. Instead, list more descriptive entries like Dalmatians, magical realism fiction, curling, and homemade whiskey-flavored ice cream.
- Mention specific projects and hobbies, too: working my way through the AFI Top 100 list, blogging about cheeses, perfecting apple pie recipes, hiking the major peaks of New England
- Include a few major personal achievements, too, which, if used sparingly and in conjunction with interests and hobbies, can help convey your work ethic without making you seem like a braggart: trained with a gold-medal figure skater, successfully completed 3 marathons, 2nd-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do
Of course, list only genuine interests and accomplishments, and do be prepared to talk about them in interviews.
Step #10: Tweak for each job application
No two jobs are exactly the same, so neither should any of your resumes. As much as possible, you should customize each resume to each individual job to which you apply. Even if you list the same professional experiences on resumes for two different job applications, the ways in which you describe your accomplishments for those experiences will likely vary.
Rather than simply listing all of your professional experience under a single “Professional Experience” header, break them up into more descriptive headers, such as “Teaching,” “Project Management,” “Administrative Management,” Student Advising,” “Research,” etc. Headers help you communicate customized messages to different employers, even if the way you describe your professional experiences remains the same from resume to resume.
Step #11: Proofread
Because little errors are the biggest mistakes you can make.
Step #12: Seek input from trusted contacts in the field
When you have drafted your resume, show it to trusted contacts in the fields you’re exploring. These contacts can be your personal friends or family members who already work in these industries or people whom you’ve met while networking. Ask them about their first impressions of your resume, what you do well, and how you can improve the resume. Also ask them if any industry-specific words and terms are missing.
Having experienced professionals review your resume is crucial if you want your resume to speak to potential employers in those fields. Skip this step and it will be harder (if not impossible) for you to accurately figure out how you can make your resume more effective at exciting readers and landing you interviews.