Sure, your mother might like you, but that doesn’t mean much in the professional world (sorry, Mom). To land your dream job, or an entry-level job that leads to your dream job, you need to make yourself look good to potential employers, and that starts with a solid résumé. The résumé is often an employer’s first impression of you, and you need to make sure that it isn’t their last.
According to the Chicago Tribune, unemployment and underemployment for college graduates are both on the decline, with only about 33% of college graduates employed in jobs that do not require a degree. So, while the odds favor landing a rewarding career that utilizes your degree, getting steady work still takes steady work. Whether you are still in school and preparing to hit the job market, or you’re a recent graduate looking for work, you need a solid résumé to start climbing the professional ladder. Writing one can be a daunting task, and there are loads of opinions on what makes a résumé stand out from the crowd.
While the best course of action can vary from case-to-case and field-to-field, a few general résumé-writing tips ring true across the board, and we have collected them for you here. If you have the experience, we have the tricks to help you put it all together.
Keep it clean
Whoever reads your résumé will scan it for errors, inconsistencies, and anything that might suggest you don’t pay enough attention to the details. Don’t let grammatical, syntactical, or spelling errors put a wrench in your plans. Make a point of carefully editing and revising, and be sure to do it “manually.” While Microsoft Word and Google Docs offer spelling and grammar-editing tools, and sites like Grammarly.com exist to help you, software makes mistakes, and sometimes worse than humans do. Don’t just run spellcheck and expect your résumé to be perfect; spend time with the document. On top of that, only a human can verify if your writing style and formatting are consistent. If you’re still in college, take your résumé to the campus writing center; if you aren’t, run it by someone you trust, or if you are really concerned, hire an editor. Whoever winds up reading it, a second pair of eyes can make a huge difference. By yourself, you are almost guaranteed to make and miss mistakes.
Keep it brief
The chances are good that your résumé will be just one in a pile of many others. The larger that pile is, the less time the reader will spend reading each one. Sure, some jobs (like a tenure-track professor position) require long CVs, but the odds are really, really good that you aren’t applying for that job (yet). Keep the reader happy by keeping your résumé brief. Your résumé never needs to be longer than one page. If it bleeds over to a second page, you simply need to cut something out until it all fits on a single page. Follow the old writerly advice: Kill your darlings.
Keep it relevant
Regardless of the job you apply for, not all of your experience will be relevant. While it may be tempting to pad your résumé with your comprehensive employment history, the name and amount of every scholarship and award you have ever received, and the endless praise of your family and friends, avoid the temptation. Knowing what to include and exclude is key to writing a standout résumé. For example, plenty of people cut lawns for cash in high school, but that job experience doesn’t mean much in most places. If you apply for a job in an office, think about which of your past experiences reflects your ability to work with others and handle projects. Do you have professional certifications or basic skills that could be useful at the job? Work those in, but make sure they serve your goal.
Express yourself, don’t expose yourself
A résumé should show an employer who you are as a professional. This doesn’t have to be bone dry, but it can’t be too casual, either. Be creative, within limits, in terms of how you talk about yourself, your professional goals, your experience and skills, and in the way you format and present information. Learn to balance personal expression with professional accolades, and let your personality help you stand out from the crowd. You don’t necessarily need to use a traditional letterhead, or stuffy subtitles, if it doesn’t fit your style. Just avoid revealing more than your employer needs to know. Be proud of your first-place trophy from your fraternity’s beer-pong competition, just not on your résumé.
Build yourself up
Look, it’s okay to brag a little. It’s even okay to embellish a bit. That’s par for the course when it comes to résumé writing, and employers expect you to make yourself look as good as possible. Dig in and think about your duties and roles in previous jobs and internships. Learn to use keywords, like “manage,” “direct,” and “supervise” when appropriate. Were you given greater responsibilities as you worked? Mention that! Even if the job wasn’t brain surgery on rocket science, did it require commitment to a demanding schedule? Then show that you navigated it smoothly without getting off course. Whatever the past job, think about your strengths, and highlight what made you stand out, especially as it relates to your prospective job.
Look the part
Similar to the tip of keeping your résumé brief, be sure to keep it attractive too. It might seem superficial, but the value of a good-looking résumé cannot be overstated. The appearance of your résumé reflects the care and attention you put into writing and preparing it for the employer. Just like how you dress for an interview, the résumé should look the part. If you are applying to be a paralegal, for example, your résumé should convey a certain amount of classic, legal formality, with an industry-standard font, like Times New Roman. However, if you are applying for a job such as graphic designer, the same résumé would get thrown out immediately; for such a job, you should convey style and creativity, with a sleek sans serif font and bold formatting choices, such as unconventional subtitles. Whatever you do, make sure it is readable, and avoid using Wingdings.
Follow the submission guidelines
Want to know the quickest way to get your résumé thrown into the (digital or physical) shredder? Ignore the submission guidelines. Every employer has a set of guidelines for the proper way to submit a résumé. Sometimes it’s through a special submission portal; sometimes it’s through a direct email to a specific person in the company; sometimes they want specific file types; sometimes they want it chiseled into a stone tablet and delivered by a trained California condor. Whatever the guidelines, they are there for a reason, and the employer expects you to follow them. Sometimes the reason is simply to weed out applicants who can’t follow instructions, but it doesn’t matter, because if you fail at this simple task, why would an employer trust you with much more complicated (and costly) responsibilities? We cannot stress this enough: follow the guidelines.
OK, so networking isn’t key to writing a résumé, but if you don’t network, you may not have anywhere to send your résumé. While we would all like to believe the professional world is a meritocracy where your level of talent determines your level of success, that simply isn’t the case. Often, the difference between getting your foot in the door and getting the door slammed on your foot is a matter of knowing the right person to open the door for you. Get to know people. Start with your existing contacts and branch out. Join professional groups in your field, attend professional networking events, get a LinkedIn account, and talk to your professors, former professors, and advisers. If you want to succeed, you need to know people, and you need them to know you.
The above tips are tried and true methods of creating a top-notch, standout résumé. Whatever your career aspirations, you need to impress potential employers with a solid résumé before you can enter the field. While you likely won’t land your dream job right out of college, following our tips can help you get started on the right path.
This does, however, assume that you have a decent amount of experience to include on your résumé. If you’re still in school and feel like your résumé is underwhelming, talk to your adviser about pursuing an internship relevant to your desired career. Even if you are in an online program, or considering entering one, this can be a good option; many of the best online colleges, such as those featured in our list of The 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019, offer great internship programs for online students.