Writing an Effective Résumé

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The Savvy Student's Guide to College Education—Chapter Ten

The Big Picture

The key to writing an effective résumé is to understand that the résumé needs to tell the reader—your potential employer—everything they want to know about you. That may not be the same as everything you want to tell them about yourself, so it's important to focus on your audience as you put your résumé together. This is also true when deciding which of the three résumé types to use, depending partially on the job, but depending more on your work experience. The plusses and minuses of digital résumés are discussed, and the major sections of the résumé are reviewed to make sure the applicant is presenting themselves with the right mix of professionalism and creativity, designed to make them stand out from the other applicants in just the right way. This same balance of professionalism and creativity is important to achieve in choosing the type face and formatting of the résumé, as well as the cover letter, where the applicant can go into more detail of their experience and interest in the position, all with the goal in mind of securing an interview for the position.

Once you've found the career you want to pursue or the college you'd like to apply to, it's time to take the steps to get that job or receive that acceptance letter—and that usually involves a résumé. To many people, putting a résumé together can be pretty intimidating; how can you summarize your life in one page in a way that convinces the person reading it that they want you above all the other applicants? By using a few tried-and-true guidelines and mixing them with a little bit of creativity, you'll see how easy it is to put together a statement that will leave the reader wanting to know more—and that's what will lead to an interview.

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Purpose of a Résumé

One of the reasons people have such a hard time writing a résumé is that they don't understand what a résumé is for. That's no small thing, since a résumé can only be effective if you know how to use it. It's like if you tried to use your music app to order a pizza online; you'd only end up frustrated and no closer to your goal than when you started.

The reason for this confusion is that too many people who have told you what a résumé is for are wrong. The purpose of a résumé is to give someone the information they want to know about you. It isn't designed to tell the reader everything about your life, or your personal life, or your school life, or your professional life—it's only supposed to tell them just what they want to know.

This means the first step towards writing an effective résumé is understanding what the reader wants to know, and how to best communicate that to them. In some cases, this is pretty easy to figure out, since they will be nice enough to tell you in the job posting or the application.

Please submit a résumé with your educational experience, job experience, and any skills related to your work in social media.

These instructions are pretty clear, so you know exactly what to include. The last line may be a little confusing—do they just want to know what social media sites you use, or do they want to know the ones you're familiar with, or do they want to know you know how to post a picture to Facebook? The job description can help clear this up, but it's likely that if you tell them you use Facebook, they'll know you know how to use most of its major functions.

Please submit a résumé with any additional experiences you were not able to include on the application.

At first, these instructions may seem a little less specific, but they offer a clue in what to include by sending you to the application you also have to submit. A quick look at that form gives you some idea of what to do with your résumé. If you've run out of space on the application to list your job experiences, education, hobbies, or whatever else they've asked you to include, the résumé is the place to continue those lists and descriptions.

Please include a cover letter and résumé.

OK—this isn't too much help. Now you're on your own, so it will be helpful to know what kind of résumé to use, keeping in mind that your goal is to tell them everything they want to know about you, and nothing more.

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Employment Résumés

It helps to think of the résumé as a tool, and just like there are different kinds of tools for different kinds of jobs, there are different kinds of résumés for different kinds of jobs. Minnesota State provides a nice summary of the three traditional kinds of résumés. Each one includes basic information like your contact information, education, hobbies, and references, but they vary in the way your work experience is presented.

Chronological résumé

The chronological résumé is the kind most people think of when putting a résumé together. It lists each job you've had, starting with the most recent job, and going backwards in time, or in reverse chronological order. With each job, you include a brief description of what you did on that job. You usually don't include why you left that position; if that is of interest to the employer, they'll either ask you that on a related job application, or discuss it with you in an interview.

Functional résumé

The functional résumé doesn't list the jobs that you've had. Instead, you list and describe the skills and projects you've worked on, in order to give the employer an idea of the talents you have, the kinds of work experiences you've had, and the results of the work you've done.

As ISeek.com points out, using this kind of résumé comes with some degree of risk. Most people use a functional résumé when they don't have a great deal of job experience, or if they haven't held any one job for a long period of time. Since a functional résumé doesn't list the dates of your employment, or even your employers, it's one way to focus on what you can bring to the job as a result of your life experiences, including volunteer work.

On the other hand, without some sense of where you've worked and how long you stayed there, employers often read the functional résumé with the understanding that you either have very little work experience, or that you didn't stay at any one job for very long. That might not matter to an employer who is looking for someone to work on a project for a short period of time, or for a company looking to hire you for a few months during a busy period. But a company looking for a longer-term commitment is likely to prefer a chronological résumé.

Combination résumé

If you think the employer wants a chronological résumé, but your work experience is better suited for using the functional résumé format, think about using the combination résumé, which lists both the skills you have and your work history. In many ways, this format is the best of both worlds, since it shows the reader both where you've worked and what skills you have. The only challenge with this format is that it often leads to a two-page résumé, where your work experience ends up on the second page. Since most employers either require or are used to seeing only one-page résumés, this makes using this format a challenge; but if the job requires a unique set of detailed skills, this still might be the best approach, even if the résumé extends to a second page.

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Educational Résumés

If you're applying for admission to college, some colleges will either require a résumé, or give you the option of submitting one to supplement the information you've given them on the application. While this is more common for students who are applying for Masters or Doctoral programs, there are a few colleges that ask for a résumé as part of an undergraduate application to admission.

An educational résumé usually includes the same basic content as a chronological résumé—contact information, education, and employment history, which in this case can include volunteer or community service work. In addition, an educational résumé can include involvement in extracurricular activities, and awards and recognition. An educational résumé usually doesn't include references, since most admission applications also ask for letters of recommendation. Educational résumés can also include a summary of any research the student has completed. Students applying to graduate school are more likely to have research experience, but if a high school student has been fortunate enough to have this opportunity, including it in the résumé can really separate you from the other applicants.

Since most students don't have extensive work experience, the combination format of a job résumé might be the best choice for your educational résumé. This allows you to emphasize the skills you've learned through your volunteer and leadership experiences in school, as well as your work history. A nice example of this can be found here.

The Curriculum Vitae

As you're putting together your educational résumé, you may run across a request to “submit either a résumé or a CV.” CV is an abbreviation for curriculum vitae, which is Latin for “course of life.” The biggest difference between the two is that a résumé is a brief summary of the information you're providing, while a CV offers much more detail about the skills and experiences you've had. Since CVs tend to be asked for with higher executive positions, or with some graduate school applications, we won't go into detail about the CV here—just know that it's a longer alternative to a résumé that you should only use if the choice is offered to you, and if you have extensive work or research experience that just can't fit into one page. (If you're curious, you can see an example of a CV here.)

Digital Résumés

It should come as no surprise that technology had created some alternatives to the traditional one-page, hard copy résumé, and many of these alternatives are, well, cool. One of the big plusses of most digital résumés is that they include charts and other visuals that bring your work and educational histories to life in a way words can't. With the use of graphs and videos, these formats can also be faster to create, since many of them just require you to download the information you already have on a professional social media site, like LinkedIn. Some examples of these digital résumés can be found here.

Of course, one of the considerations you'll need to make before submitting a digital résumé is how it will be received by the reader. You may think your digital résumé is just amazing, but if the reader is unfamiliar with digital résumés, doesn't know how to read one, or thinks this is just a clever way for you to send a two-page résumé when they've asked you to limit your résumé to one page, the goal of having a résumé is defeated, and you'd be better off going old school instead. Advertising firms, tech companies, and art schools may see digital résumés as great ways to get to know you, but the rest of the world may not see it that way. Unless the job posting or application says otherwise, call human resources and ask them if they accept digital résumés. If there's any doubt, stick with the traditional one-page hard copy, and be prepared to wow them with a couple of digital handouts in your interview.

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Content of a Résumé

While we've discussed parts of the résumé when we talked about the kinds of résumé, it's a good idea to do a quick review, including some tips on résumé basics that can make the difference between getting to the next round and being placed in the long file of applicants that may be considered later.

Contact Information

You would think nothing could go wrong with the part of the résumé that includes your name, address, telephone, and email address, right? But as ISeek.com points out, there are three things to consider here that can set you apart from the other applicants in a hurry—but not in a good way.

First, take a look at your email address. If it's the one you've been using since middle school, it might be time to create a new account that's separate from your personal email. This is especially true if your personal email address is crazyskateboarder@dude.com. Advertising agencies and employers that work with creative people might admire a clever email address, but they are also businesses, so they'll be OK with something as simple as your name. Play it safe for now, and try that.

Second, call your own phone number, and listen to your outgoing voice mail message. Can you understand what you're saying? Is the tone professional and welcoming , or did you record this the day you got your phone, and you decided to try and be funny? Again, there will be time for them to get to know your funny side in the interview. Listen to the image you're portraying, and consider re-recording.

Finally, take a moment to look at your digital footprint. Putting your contact information for LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social media is a good idea only if the employer will be impressed in a positive way by what they see when they look at your account. If you haven't updated the information, or if it's more personal than anything else, consider leaving that information off the contact portion of your résumé. In addition, think about taking down old social media accounts completely, especially if the content is questionable. Sure, sharing pictures from homecoming seemed like a great idea the day after, but those are now out there for employers and colleges to see—and that might be too much information too soon.

Objective

This is a one sentence statement of what you're looking for. “To share my creative talents in web design and communication with a company committed to improving the quality of online content.” A successful objective statement includes what you have to offer, and where you'd like to offer it, all in one tidy sentence—and since it's just one sentence, that means you may spend a long time making sure this sentence is accurate, thorough, and well written.

Summary

Many people worry that a résumé doesn't offer them the chance to give any details about themselves, or about their life experiences. The summary statement gives you that chance, by trying to answer the question “What have you done in your life that relates to the job you're applying for?” Again, it's important to keep in mind that you aren't telling them everything about yourself; you're just telling them what they want to know so they can decide if you're the right person for the job, or for the college. A nice example of this can be found here.

Educational Experience

Nothing too fancy here—just the degree you earned, the name of the school that gave it to you, the year you received it, and if it came with any academic honors (“Diploma, Washington High School, 2015, cum laude”). Some older applicants may want to leave the year off, and that's OK. Including your GPA is fine on an educational résumé, but not required.

Skill Summary

If you're using the functional résumé or combination résumé format, you then list the skills you want the reader to know about. With a functional résumé, you have a little more space to go into detail about your skills (“Word processing, including work with Word 8.2, NotePad, Ituit, and WordStar”). With a combination résumé, you need to tighten things up a little bit (“Word processing on all widely used formats, spreadsheets, all popular e-mail software”).

It's helpful to include a summary of the “soft skills” you've also used, if space allows, since qualities like teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, and empathic listening can be extras that will make the difference in getting an interview. Your best bet is to complete the résumé without listing these; if it's clear you have space to add them once the other essentials are there, go back and put them in the end of this section.

Work Experience

If you're using the chronological format or combination format, you include the job title you held, the name of the company, the city where you did the work, and the dates of employment. If you have room, include one or two sentences describing your work. Some people will just list these details (“Oversaw an office of eight staff”), while others will use a narrative (“My team of eight and I worked on every aspect of customer service.”) Most employers see the narrative as more engaging, and that can make a difference.

If your work experience is limited, you may include related volunteer work, as long as you make it clear that you were a volunteer. This is especially important is you're using the combination format, since the primary reason you're listing volunteer experiences is to explain where you developed some of the skills you've listed in the skill summary.

Hobbies

No matter what format you use here, the key here is brevity.

See? That one line really got your attention—and that's the key with the hobby section. You only want to list as many hobbies as will fill one line. If you have more than that, pick the ones that you think will be of most interest to the reader. If you're a hunter, and you happen to know the employer is a hunter, list it. If you don't know who will be reading your résumé, list the hobbies that are of greatest interest to you.

Some people wonder if there are some hobbies that are best left off a résumé. This is a tough question, and is kind of up to you. It's certainly true that if you're applying for a traditional business position, listing “bagpipe playing” as a hobby may give you the kind of attention you don't want to get. On the other hand, if your hobbies and interests really mean a great deal to you, would you want to work for someone who doesn't at least respect your interests, even if they don't share them?

The other important part of this section is honesty. To go back to our example, if you know the employer is a hunter, and you aren't a hunter, don't say that you are. Not only do you run the risk of being considered a liar, it also avoids any kind of embarrassment in the interview, where the interviewer could decide to get to know you by talking about hunting. If you don't have any hobbies, or don't want to talk about them, leave this section off the résumé. Most employers consider this section optional, so if it isn't on your résumé, they won't miss it.

References

The growing trend today is to leave references off a résumé completely. There was a time when references were listed, including their contact information; that trend then changed, where this section simply stated “Available upon request.” Now, employers assume you'll be able to give them the names of three references if they ask for them, and if you make it to the interview round—so you really shouldn't have a reference section at all.
If this news disappoints you, it shouldn't. The fact that your résumé won't have someone's contact information on it for all the world to see is probably good news for your references, who really don't need more people to have their email address for no particular reason. In addition, the absence of references on your résumé allows you to custom tailor the references you give each employer or college, depending on the nature of the work, or the college you're applying to. If you're applying to become an office worker, you'd want to include a different set of references than if you're applying to become a supervisor of office workers—and that's a different set of references than if you're applying to become a supervisor of office workers who write computer code. If the idea of not being able to include the name of your famous employer on a résumé is a downer, don't worry—you can dazzle the reader when they ask for references during the interview.

Appearance

It may seem strange, but the appearance of your résumé is just as important as the content and the format. It's easy to think that hundreds of one-page summaries of the lives of applicants would all look the same after a while, and you're right—too often, they do. This means the presentation of your information—the typeface you choose, the colors you print it in, the formatting of the information, and even the quality of the paper it's printed on—can make the difference in getting to the next step of the selection process.

There are two key components to consider as you put the format of your résumé together. First, it's usually a good idea not to use the format that automatically comes with any résumé website or information program you're using. To begin with, many of these formats are just unattractive; many of them use fonts that are too small, or too big, and many others don't use underlining, bold face, or section headers in ways that are attractive. In addition, if all you're doing is using the automatic format, what do you think the thousands of other users of that program are doing—and as a result, how much will your résumé stand out from theirs? It may take some extra time and expense, but putting together a uniquely formatted résumé can make a big difference.

The second component to consider is the creativity component of a résumé. If the “traditional” résumé is one page, are there times when it's OK for yours to be two pages—or can you do something creative like print on two sides of one page, or use both sides of the page by folding the résumé into a booklet?

The current thought regarding résumés is to proceed with caution. To begin with, many employers and colleges are requesting online résumés, or submissions of résumés as attachments to e-mails. This rules out doing anything creative with folding the paper. In addition, many other employers are simply asking you to submit your résumé information through an online résumé program, where (sadly) everyone's information has the same format. Finally, since you usually don't know who is going to read your résumé, doing something widely creative runs the risk of offending someone who takes a traditional approach to résumés, who will take one look at your “unusual” format, and decide not to interview you on that basis alone.

This isn't to say that some creativity is out of the question, especially if you're applying for a job in a field where creativity is seen as a must in any employee, or to a college where creativity is part of what you're going to study. Still, there needs to be a balance between creativity and professionalism. Take a look at the formatting samples by looking at the images of a Web search for résumé formats, and consider the right balance of personal expression and the format that will most likely get you an interview.

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Cover letters

The other opportunity to add to the brevity of your résumé is in your cover letter. While it also has to be brief—a cover letter is never more than one page—the cover letter has traditionally been seen as the place where the applicant can show a little more of their personality, provide more detail about their life and work experiences, and talk more about why this position is of interest to them. Since a résumé for a college application is already accompanied by other information, a cover letter isn't used when submitting information to a college.

There's a traditional format to a cover letter, and it's wise to follow it if you're applying for a position in a large company, since the first paragraph typically indicates what position you're applying for. It's important to make this clear to a large organization, since you want to make sure you'll be considered for the right position, and more than one might be available in a bigger company. The second paragraph offers some insights into why you're interested in the position, and what you might have to offer the company, and the third paragraph invites them to contact you if you can provide more information to support your application for the job, and gently urges them to give you an interview. A typical cover letter can be found here.

Just as there are ways to create résumé formats with the goal of setting yourself apart from others, there are also ways to put together a cover letter to achieve the same goal. One of the most widely used, and often successful, techniques is to jump right in and talk about your interest in the position, and use the introductory language later. “Acme Incorporated is known throughout the world as a leader in technology development, and the need for leadership in cybersecurity has never been greater” is a strong opening sentence that gets the attention of the reader, and makes known the reason for your interest in the job right away. Following that up with a brief summary of the challenges facing the cybersecurity industry, you can then follow that up in a second paragraph with something like “The experiences and skills I've had in cybersecurity line up perfectly with this need, and can help Acme reach its goals in this crucial area.” After following this up with a brief summary of your skills, you conclude with “I look forward to discussing my qualifications with you for the position of Vice President of Security Development. A copy of my résumé is enclosed. Please let me know if I can provide any additional information.”

To be sure, this approach isn't for everyone, especially if your experience and skill set for the available position is relatively small as someone just starting out in the world of employment. But the tone of this approach suggests this applicant has insights into the profession and a good amount of self-assurance that doesn't border on thinking they are the greatest person in the world. That kind of quiet confidence can make the right kind of difference in getting the attention of the employer, and move you towards the next important step—the interview.

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More Resources

Three kinds of résumés

Education résumé

An example of a Curriculum Vitae

Examples of digital résumés

Example of a summary statement

Example of a cover letter

Want to see how graphic artists design their own résumés?

How to Write a Job-Winning Résumé

7 of the Worst Résumés Ever

The Résumé of the Future

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