Job Seekers: Here’s a Step-by-Step Guide on How to Write a Good Resume
Hiring practices may have changed a bit in the past few years, but one thing has stayed the same: Resumes are a must during a job hunt, and a quality one is a very big deal for job seekers.
These sacred documents represent the whole of your working life. They’re your first introduction to prospective employers and can make or break your chances of getting a job.
If you’re wondering how to write a resume, there are some important details to keep in mind. Use this blueprint to create a great resume that gets you noticed.
Choose Your Format
First off, decide whether you are applying for a job that requires a CV (curriculum vitae) versus a resume. Don’t know the difference? Here’s a quick rundown.
Resume or CV?
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about resumes, but what about CVs — and what’s the difference? In short, quite a bit.
Your Curriculum Vitae
You can throw out many of the do’s, don’ts and tips we’ve mentioned when it comes to crafting a CV. This is a static document — as in you won’t be changing it up across industries as you would with a resume — that should cover your work and educational history in excruciating detail.
“Your CV only changes as your accomplishments grow,” said Loren Margolis, CEO of Training & Leadership Success. “Whereas, your resume should be modified often and tailored for each company and job to which you apply.”
You might associate CVs with academics — not very flashy, but chock-full of information. They can include everything from research and teaching experience, references to book chapters, memberships in professional organizations and conference-speaking engagements.
They can generally be as long as necessary to cover your professional career. And really, if you’re reading this, there’s a 99% chance you’ll write a resume for your job rather than a CV.
Free online resume templates that let you fill in the blanks are an option, but you get what you pay for — which is to say, not much.
Artists, graphic designers and other visually creative professionals may want to use their resume to highlight their creative talents. In that vein, there are services, such as VisualCV, that create a custom template for you to work from — and recruiters won’t find it among Microsoft Word’s.
Otherwise, keep things simple.
Hiring managers are interested in your skills and experience, not fancy fonts or formatting. Use a standard font like Arial or Tahoma, and keep the layout simple with lots of white space and margins no larger than one inch.
In one of the most popular posts of all time on the jobs subreddit, Colin McIntosh, a former recruiter and current CEO at bedding company Sheets & Giggles, provided a simple template that should help you get started.
“I knew people were hungry for good free formats, so I expected it to be maybe the top post of the day, but I never expected this type of reception,” said McIntosh. “A year later, I still get emails and PMs every single day about that post, and it really recreated my favorite feeling from when I was a recruiter — helping other people land dream jobs.”
Create Your Content
Staring at a blank Word document can be daunting. Getting started is sometimes the hardest part, but we’ve got you covered.
Start With a Brainstorming Session
The best way to get those creative juices flowing is by asking yourself a series of questions about your accomplishments, said Jessica Hernandez, founder of Great Resumes Fast.These include:
- What are you most proud of in your professional career?
- How did you add value — efficiency, cost-savings or just happiness — to the companies at which you previously worked?
Take notes on each of these questions for each of those positions you previously held. This will give you a starting point once you’re ready to put pen to paper (er, fingertips to keyboard.)
“If you can answer those questions under each job you’ve held, you’re going to get a lot of meat on your resume,” Hernandez said.
“You can also ask others what they think about you,” she said.
And make sure you can explain in plain English what you actually did at each previous job; clarity is king for recruiters. Try to shy away from wishy-washy, jargon-laden phrases like “added synergy.”
As you’re taking notes, keep each description and accomplishment short, roughly a line. Margolis said recruiters will spend as little as six seconds reading your resume.
Don’t be shy. Make a connection at the company where you plan to apply to get a general idea about what the firm is looking for in that particular job. The best way to do this is through LinkedIn, said Margolis.
This will help you customize your resume as you apply for jobs across industries. Plus, you can get an idea of what keywords to include throughout your resume. (We’ll get to those later.)
Once you have all your notes handy, a nifty template to work from and a 48-ounce cup of coffee, you’re ready to get started.
Your resume should contain several important components. But keep in mind there is disagreement in the HR and recruiting world about what to include and exclude. We’ll give you a rundown of all the components, and you can decide.
One very important thing to remember: You should keep this document to one page, McIntosh said. Remember, recruiters are going to give you less than 10 seconds to make an impression with your resume.
Feature your name and contact information at the top of the page.
Start with your name, followed by your phone number and email address. If you have a LinkedIn profile or professional online portfolio, be sure to include that as well.
But wait! This is an area you can use a little hack to avoid any unconscious bias that recruiters may have. Use you first initial instead of your full first name and it should help overcome any potential gender bias that could come out when a recruiter is scanning your resume.
Still, you’ll want to use your full name when emailing with a human resources manager or applying online.
Also, if this is a position in a new city, you might want to leave off your current address or include a note that you are planning to move to the city in which the job is located. That way, you can avoid being passed over due to an employer worried about covering moving expenses.
We’re going to tell you how to write a resume objective, but know this first: There is some debate in the resume-writing and HR world about whether you need an objective at the top of the document.
McIntosh said to skip it and get right to your accomplishments and job descriptions.
But, if that connection you made over LinkedIn advises you to use an objective, make it short.
Write a paragraph — two or three sentences at most — highlighting the type of work you’re looking for. Be sure to mention skills and talents that make you perfect for the job. This goes at the top of the document, usually separated by a line.
List your current job (if applicable) first, followed by all previous jobs in reverse chronological order.
Each job should include:
- Name and address of the company where you worked
- Your job title
- Dates of employment
- Your job responsibilities*
- Your accomplishments in the position
See those bullet points above? They should be all over your resume. Use them for your accomplishments, job descriptions and the education and skills sections, described below. They’ll help recruiters scan your resume quickly.
If you have no work experience, don’t leave this section blank or eliminate it. McIntosh suggested listing your position during any downtime as an independent consultant, under which you explain in a bullet point that you needed some flexibility for personal matters.
“No one will ask about the personal matters, and you can just hand wave it away as ‘some family items that needed to be sorted out’ if they do,” he said in a follow-up Reddit post.
Additionally, you can use the section to highlight skills you’ve developed during college or while doing volunteer work.
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the skills you list on your resume need to be the direct result of a previous professional position. As long as you can successfully demonstrate those abilities, go ahead and list them. It really doesn’t matter where you learned them,” recommends The Everygirl’s Kat Boogaard.
In this section, include any community colleges, universities, trade schools or technical colleges you’ve attended. Begin with your most recent school and work backwards.
For each school, be sure to provide:
- The name, city and state of the school
- Any degrees or certifications you received
Recruiters we spoke to highlighted another trend in resume-writing to overcome any age-related bias: Leave off the graduation dates.
“Protect yourself, and do not put graduation dates on your resume,” Hernandez said. “It’s pointless to do so.”
Note: If your degree is in progress, add the expected date of completion to let prospective employers know you’re still working on it.
Honors and Community Experience
This section captures extracurricular activities that don’t fit into the previous sections. For example:
- Academic or work-related awards
- Membership in clubs or organizations like Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, 4-H or debate club
- Volunteer community service
- Greek life leadership
Here’s where to highlight skills and talents that set you apart from other job seekers, including:
- Fluency in more than one language
- Typing speed
- Experience in specific software
- Experience with public speaking
List the programs and skills without any qualifiers, such as “proficient,” “experienced” or “skilled in.”
McIntosh recommends including a section in which you list your personal interests, such as:
- Favorite TV shows or movies
- Favorite books or authors
This will give something with which you can connect with your recruiter, provided they have the same interests.
A Word About Keywords
Now that you have the basic format of the resume down, let’s talk about keywords — or how robots will likely be responsible for your employment future (sort of.)
Many companies ask job candidates to apply online and upload resumes to their website. Resumes are often electronically scanned for particular keywords to quickly weed out unqualified applicants.
“Your resume keywords should include specific job requirements, including your skills, competencies, relevant credentials and previous positions and employers,” says career expert Alison Doyle. “Essentially, keywords should be words that, at a glance, will show the hiring manager that you are a good fit for the job.”
To help you find the keywords relevant to a position you’re pursuing, print out a copy of the job description. Then highlight the words or phrases you see pop up several times throughout the document. Finally, circle the ones you have in common and sprinkle them throughout your resume.
Do’s and Don’ts While Writing Your Resume
As we keep saying, recruiters give you 10 or fewer seconds when scanning your resume and deciding whether to start the interview process. Here are some quick do’s and don’t while writing your resume.
- Keep it to one page. Margolis said that rule is a bit outdated and you can likely get away with 1 1/2 pages, but striving to keep your resume brief will help you tease out your most impressive accomplishments.
- Include hyperlinks to your online resume or portfolio. This used to be a big no-no, but with modern PDFs, you can easily link to other personal information. This will help keep your actual resume short as well.
- Always use PDFs when emailing your resume. It’s universal, and there’s nothing that will get your resume trashed faster than sending a document that’s incompatible with a recruiter’s computer.
- Include as much white space as possible. Make your resume easy on the eyes and simple for HR professionals to quickly scan.
- Use action verbs such as “built” or “launched.”
- Don’t use an inappropriate or outdated email address. Said McIntosh: “Delete your Hotmail with extreme prejudice.”
- Don’t overdo it with keywords. As you sprinkle keywords throughout your resume, be sure they don’t make the content sound stilted or awkward. Look for ways to work them in naturally; don’t force it.
- Don’t use a fancy font. Stick to the basics. McIntosh said he’s on a Garamond kick lately.
- Don’t blast your resume out indiscriminately. Make sure you tweak it based on the position you’re applying for — and remember to reach out over LinkedIn, if possible.
- Don’t use personal pronouns like “I” or “me.” Basically, Margolis said, you need to write like a caveman and leave the pronouns out.
Oh, and remember to check out our 31 awesome tips to make your resume shine.
Once you’ve created your resume, it’s not ready to hand to a hiring manager until you do these three things:
1. Proofread Your Work
It’s not enough to simply run your resume through a spellchecker because they don’t always catch every mistake.
Print a copy of your resume, then read through it slowly several times to make sure it’s error-free. Blow up the font to help catch every problem.
2. Show It to a Friend
Share your resume with someone you trust to get some honest feedback on how it looks. Have the person read it to you out loud to take in the content in a new way.
3. Convert It to a PDF
Write your resume in whatever software application works best for you, but convert it to a PDF file before you send it to a hiring manager. If your word processing software doesn’t include a conversion feature, there are plenty of free online services to choose from.
PDF file formats are almost universally preferred during the hiring process, and they protect your resume’s content from being accidentally altered once it leaves your hands.
Happy job hunting!
Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder. Lisa McGreevy contributed to this post.