Prior to my role as a career counselor and therapist, I worked extensively as a human resources consultant. As part of that work, I had the chance to review thousands of resumes.
During this process, I was continually struck by how many resumes and cover letters needed help. Aside from spelling and grammar errors, many folks found it difficult to describe the work that they had done. They would use either vague or overly jargon-y language, focus more on tasks than results, and miss the connection between their skills and the company's needs.
Then, one day, I sat down and updated my own resume. To my surprise, I found myself doing many of the same things! It was then that I realized how helpful it can be to have an "outside observer" who can help to clarify, communicate, and refine your presentation.
In truth, resumes don't matter much beyond the initial connection with an organization. But that first connection is extremely important. If a good resume can "open a door," then it has done its job.
Some resume writing tips
Let me share a few helpful tips that can make most resumes stronger. These aren't "one size fits all" strategies; in fact, different careers will call for different styles of resumes. However, I find that following approaches often help to make a resume more effective:
Focus on results
Many people fill their resumes with descriptions of the various tasks and day-to-day responsibilities that they engaged in during their previous jobs.
While this is a helpful component of a resume, hiring managers are often most interested in results. What did your tasks accomplish? How did they help the company? Not surprisingly, it can be somewhat challenging to "step back" and describe the overall impact that your work might have had.
As an example of this, let's imagine that a client in an engineering role has the following bullet-point on her resume:
- Managed a laser development project for a motion detection system, including optical component design.
Now, that's not a bad bullet point. But what were the results of that work? Was it a successful project? Did anything come of it? After reflecting on the results of her project, this client might choose to recast the point as follows:
- Managed a $250,000 laser development project for a motion detection system, which successfully met technical specifications in 18 months. The system is now used in three of the company's products, adding over $4 million to the company's yearly revenue.
Much, much stronger! There are specific results listed — along with some precise, "quantified" detail.
Now, that's a product engineering example; many folks who work in other roles will find it more challenging to identify job results. However, there are always results. They might just take some time to identify and describe.
Highlighting these results (however modest they may seem) can make the resume much stronger. It is one of the components that I focus on with my clients
Connect the resume to the organization's needs
A second helpful approch is to craft the resume in such a way that it aligns with the organization's needs.
In my psychotherapy work, I often describe a skill called "empathy." In the field of psychology, empathy refers to the ability to see things through someone else's eyes.
Empathy can be a very helpful skill in the resume-writing process. If you can see the hiring process through the hiring manager's eyes, you will be able to highlight the "good fits" between your abilities and the organization's needs. This is a powerful approach!
Along these lines, I encourage my clients to imagine what the hiring manager is feeling, thinking, and hoping for — and then, if possible, form a connection on that level. (This, of course, factors into the interview process as well as the resume writing process).
Let's say, for example, that a client of mine is applying to work at a non-profit organization. Although he is applying for a website development position, he notices that the company is also searching for a freelance writer. Because of this, he decides to include a bullet point that states:
- Wrote and designed a series of web-based advertisements that increased site traffic by 150% for a period of six months.
He may or may not have included that bullet point in his first draft of the resume. However, when he realized that the company was in need of a writer, he decided to bring that skill front and center. Perhaps the hiring manager would love to wrap the two positions together. If not, at least it will be an interesting topic of discussion.
I encourage my clients to research the organization and its needs as best as they can — and then modify the resume (even if slightly) to match the needs. The days of having a single, fixed resume are behind us. Even in subtle ways, a resume can always be shaped to more tightly fit the organization's aims.
Keep it clean and clear
Many of us in the human resources field have to sift through dozens, hundreds — or in some cases, thousands — of resumes at a time. We very easily get that "glossed over" look. It is truly challenging to keep a sharp eye as we move through the process.
Because of this, it is extremely helpful to come across a clear, clean, concise resume. If there is a fit, we want to be able to see it quickly. If we can't see it, we might just move on.
Along those lines, I always encourage my clients to keep their resumes crisp and clean. I suggest that people:
- Use active, concise language.
- Use bullet points if possible.
- Hit the most relevant points for the position and then move on to the next position.
- Try to keep everything to approximately two pages.
Designers and other creative folks can (and should) use alternative resume formats; however, the rest of us should just focus on keeping things simple. Think of the resume as a 30-second pitch. The hiring manager will likely read the beginning closely, skim through the middle, and take a closer look at the end.
The whole time, she or he will be "pattern matching" — looking quickly for relevant matches between your resume and the organization's needs. The clearer and cleaner you can keep things, the easier this "pattern matching" will be.
You might want to imagine that the hiring manager is tired, worried about finding the best person, and hoping that your resume will be the right one. What can you do to help him or her? Clean, clear formats and language can be a great gift.
There are many other qualities of a strong resume. And of course, resumes simply open the door to the next step. However, I do find that a well-written resume can sometimes make a great deal of difference in the job searching process.
Please feel free to contact me if you'd have additional questions that I can answer about resume-writing and career counseling.
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