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If you’re like most people, your résumé is … not great. That’s not because your work history is bad or your accomplishments aren’t impressive (you are undoubtedly Very Impressive). It’s because you suck at writing a résumé. Most of us do. It’s hard to be good at something you probably only do once every few years at most – and which requires you to sell yourself in a weird, unnatural-feeling way. But I’ve read thousands of résumés, and I’m going to walk you through how to write yours with a bare minimum amount of angst. I won’t promise no angst – I’m not a magical creature – but you’ll end up with a résumé that will represent you well and hopefully helps you get hired.
1. Start by listing all the jobs you’ve held — or at least the ones that make you a stronger candidate.
Write out the basics of your work history, starting with your current or most recent job and working backward. Include the name of the employer, your title, and the dates you worked there. This is going to be the framework for your Experience section, which we’ll flesh out in a minute.
As you do this, know that you do not need to include every job you’ve ever had. Your résumé is a marketing document, not an exhaustive account of everything you’ve ever done in life. You’re allowed to pick and choose what to include, based on what will and won’t strengthen your candidacy. That means you don’t need to include a job where you worked for only two months, four years ago, or a part-time job outside your industry that you picked up for extra cash, or a job from which you were fired and would rather not field questions about. (You might still choose to include some of those positions, so you don’t have long gaps in your work history, but know that there’s no rule requiring you to do so.)
2. Now, create a bullet-point list of what you achieved at each job — focusing on achievements, not responsibilities.
This is where the real action is on any résumé, and it’s the part that separates great résumés from mediocre ones: What did you actually accomplish at each job you listed? This is important: You should not just regurgitate your job description here. We’re looking for what results you achieved.
Most people’s résumés don’t do this. Most people list things like “managed a website” or “coordinated events,” or other activities they were assigned to do. But that tells the person reading your résumé very little. It tells them you held a job with a job description, yes, but it doesn’t say anything about how good you were at that job, when the latter is the thing they want to know (and the thing that will make you seem better than your competition and help you get job interviews). Instead, your résumé should focus on what you achieved in doing your work. For example:
• Revamped help desk ticket system, reducing average response time by 25 percent
• In first three months, cleared out previous nine-month backlog of cases
If your job doesn’t have easy quantifiable measures like that, that’s okay! Your accomplishments can be qualitative as well. Here are some examples:
• Acted as a gatekeeper for a busy 15-person department, ensuring all callers felt warmly welcomed and received prompt, accurate answers to queries
• Became go-to staff member for relaying complicated technical information to high-profile clients, earning regular compliments for making complex transactions easy to understand
Those things say more than just what your job description was. They give the reader a sense that you’re good at that job.
If you’re having trouble thinking of your job in terms of accomplishments, imagine a really terrible temp filling in for you — or even imagine if you were checked out at work and not trying to do well. What would go differently? What would fall to pieces? The gap between that scenario and your (hopefully excellent) performance is what you want to capture on your résumé.
3. Add a section for your education.
For most people, the Education section will be just a line or two, listing where you went to school and what you degree you obtained. If you’re a recent graduate, include your graduation year; otherwise, it’s fine to leave it off (it’s very common for people to exclude it in order to avoid age discrimination).
Generally your Education section should come after your Work section, since for most people, employers will be most interested in your work experience. (You might be an exception to this if your education is your strongest qualification and you have little relevant work experience.)
4. Consider adding a Profile section at the top.
Profile sections are a totally optional trend in modern résumé writing (and have replaced the awful, old-school Objective that everyone used to have). It’s just a short list at the top of your résumé — like two to three sentences or bullet points — summing up who you are as a candidate and what differentiates you from other people with similar professional backgrounds. The idea is to provide an overall framing for your candidacy.
A good trick to writing one: Try thinking about what you’d want a contact to say if they had 20 seconds to sum you up to someone who was hiring for the work you do.
Again, though, this is optional. You can skip it if you want — and you should skip it if everything you come up with sounds generic. But if you can come up with something that captures how, say, a former boss who adored you might describe your work, without giving yourself over to the utterly subjective, it’s worth including.
5. You probably don’t need a Skills section — but maybe you do.
In most fields, you don’t need a Skills section; your skills should be obvious from the accomplishments you list in your Experience section. That said, some fields are an exception to this, like I.T. or other highly technical fields.
If you do include a Skills section, limit it to hard skills, like software programs and foreign languages you’re fluent in. Don’t list subjective self-assessments like “strong written communication skills” or “visionary leader” or “works well independently and in groups.” People’s self-assessments are so often wildly inaccurate that these won’t carry any weight with employers and just take up space that would be better spent on something more compelling.
6. Other things you may or may not need.
If you’ve done impressive or relevant volunteer work, list it in a Volunteer Work section. But it’s fine to skip that section if you don’t have anything particularly notable to share.
Some people like to include a Hobbies section. Some hiring managers find those interesting, and others don’t care. I don’t recommend taking up space on your résumé with them, but some people swear they’ve gotten interviews because the interviewer shared their love of scuba diving or bookbinding.
And if you’re a recent grad, it’s fine to include information about extracurricular activities, but they should come off after a few years, when you’ll hopefully have more work-related accomplishments to include.
7. Limit yourself to a page or two.
Most hiring managers spend about 20 seconds scanning your résumé initially — if that — which means you need to be concise. The longer your résumé is, the less likely their eyes are to fall on the parts you most want them to see.
The general rule for résumé length is that you’re limited to one page when you’re in school or a recent grad, but you can go up to two pages after you’ve been out of school for a while. You go over two pages at your own peril — many hiring managers roll their eyes at long résumés (and you’ll come across as someone who can’t distill information down to what’s most important).
8. With design, less is more.
If you’re tempted to get creative with your résumé design — perhaps thinking that it’ll help you stand out from the crowd — resist the impulse. Hiring managers want to get the info they’re looking for on your résumé as quickly as possible, which means a concise, easily skimmed list of what you’ve accomplished, organized reverse-chronologically … in other words, the traditional résumé format.
Stand out from the crowd based on your content — compelling descriptions that show you’re great at what you do — not your majestic purple header or other design innovations.
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Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.