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Ten Easy Ways to Improve Your Resume:
Tips for Job-Seekers
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
In my line of work, I see hundreds of resumes, and I often see the same patterns over and over again. I frequently observe resume tendencies that are not necessarily mistakes, yet the job-seekers behind these resumes could have much nicer, cleaner, more readable resumes if they just tweaked a few things. And none of these tweaks are hard to accomplish. Even if your resume has other problems, you'll see significant improvements if you make these 10 easy fixes.
- Use a bulleted style to make your resume more reader-friendly. Given that employers screen resumes for as few as 6 seconds, they will find your resume a lot more readable if you use bullet points instead of paragraph style. It's just easier to read.
- Follow "The Resume Ingredients Rule." Set forth by Donald Asher,
author of numerous resume books (see our
Q&A with him),
the rule says that information on a resume should be listed in order of importance to the reader.
Therefore, in listing your jobs, what's generally most important is your title/position. So list
in this preferred order: Title/position, name of employer, city/state of employer, dates of
employment. I can't tell you how many resumes I've seen that list dates first. Dates can
be important to some employers, but they're generally not as important as what your
position was and whom you worked for. Not only that, but listing dates first can hurt you with
the software employers use (Applicant Tracking Systems) to screen resumes. Citing Jon Ciampi,
CEO of Preptel, a company that aims to help job-seekers penetrate these systems, Meridith Levinson
wrote on CIO.com: "To ensure applicant tracking systems read and import your work experience properly, ...
never start your work experience with the dates you held certain positions."
- Eliminate "responsibilities" words from your resume vocabulary. Never use expressions like "Duties included," "Responsibilities included," or "Responsible for" on your resume. Why? Because your resume should be accomplishments-driven, not responsibilities-driven. Anyone (well, maybe not anyone...) can perform the duties listed in a job description. Job-description language is not what sells in a resume. Accomplishments-oriented language tells employers how you've gone above and beyond in your jobs, what makes you special, how you've taken initiative and made your jobs your own. Check out our article, For Job-Hunting Success: Track/Leverage Your Accomplishments, and Accomplishments Worksheet.
- Eliminate clutter from your resume. Several elements can clutter up
your resume and impede readability:
- Unnecessary dates. Don't list dates that don't add anything to your resume; for example, dates you spent involved in college extracurricular activities. If you were involved in these activities during college, the reader can pretty much guess your dates of involvement, and listing the dates will just clutter up your document. Same with dates of involvement in professional or civic organizations; ask yourself if those dates will be meaningful to the employer reading your resume.
- Parentheses. Job-seekers have a particular tendency to set off dates of employment with parentheses. It's easier on the reader if you just use commas.
- The line "References: Available upon request." This statement is highly optional because it is a given that you will provide references upon request. If you couldn't, you would have no business looking for a job. The line can serve the purpose of signaling: "This is the end of my resume," but if you are trying to conserve space, leave it off.
- Articles. Those little words "a," "an," and "the." Generally speaking, resumes aren't written in sentence form, but in concise phrases that have become an accepted shorthand that employers understand. Articles tend to clutter up that shorthand; your resume will read in a more streamlined manner without them. Consider these "before" and "after" examples:
BEFORE: AFTER: Recruited to manage the women's division and oversee the opening of the Madison Avenue Store. Recruited to manage women's division and oversee Madison Avenue store opening. Promoted within five months to Vice-President and General Manager of the Beverly Hills store. Promoted within five months to Vice-President and General Manager of Beverly Hills store. Managed and controlled all aspects of the company's presence on the West Coast. Managed and controlled all aspects of company's West Coast presence. Coordinated and supervised all aspects of the opening of the Beverly Hills Store. Coordinated and supervised all aspects of Beverly Hills store opening. Facilitated the development of management and staff to ensure store growth and minimize turnover. Facilitated management and staff development to ensure store growth and minimize turnover. Created a high profile for the store through effective personal relations with the entertainment community, Chamber of Commerce, the City of Beverly Hills and charity organizations. Created high profile for store through effective personal relations with entertainment community, Chamber of Commerce, the City of Beverly Hills and charity organizations.
Aren't the "After" versions a lot more streamlined?
- Use strong, concrete verbs to describe your jobs, and don't mix noun and verb phrases.
Let's look at this example:
- Managed and controlled all aspects of company's West Coast presence. [verb]
- Complete ownership of inventory and financial standards. [noun]
- Full P&L responsibilities. [noun]
- Analyzed market and forecast sales, prepared corporate budgets and monitored results to achieve ROI objectives. [verb]
- Supervised inventory and financial standards.
- Completely oversaw profit and loss aspects of operation.
- Focus on describing past job activities that highlight the skills you most like to use and want to use in your next job. Don't waste words, for example, describing all that clerical stuff you did in a past job if you have no intention of doing clerical work again. Even if you've mastered skills that are in great demand, don't emphasize them if they're not the skills you want to use in the future.
- Don't fret about the one-page resume rule. Sure, it's nice to keep your resume to one page if you can,
but don't go to extraordinary lengths, such as by using tiny type. If you have significant experience, you'll probably
need more than one page. What you should avoid is having one full page with just a little bit of text on your
second page. If you fill a third or less of the second page, consider condensing to one page. Ways to condense:
- Narrow your margins. The margins in Microsoft Word are set very wide by default. You can have margins as narrow as .75" all around and still have a nice-looking document.
- Use a smaller point size, but not too small. A font size of 11-point is good; don't go smaller than 10.5-point.
- Many jobseekers use a two-column format with headings in the left-hand column. To conserve space, narrow or even eliminate the left-hand column and simply stack your headings on top of each section. Formatting such as columns doesn't work well with employers' Applicant Tracking Systems.
- Make sure your resume has a sharp focus. Again, given the microscopic amount of time that employers spend screening resumes, you need a way to show the employer at a glance what you want to do and what you're good at. One way is to add a section called something like "Summary of Qualifications," or "Profile." Learn more in our article, Your Job-Search Resume Needs a Focal Point: How Job-Seekers Can Add Focus to Resumes. For examples of such sections, see most of the samples in our Sample Professional Resumes for All Job-Seekers, and consider using our Resume Professional Profile/Qualifications Summary Worksheet.
- Don't emphasize older experience on your resume. The rule of thumb for someone at the senior level is to spotlight about 15 years worth of jobs. Age discrimination, unfortunately, is a reality. Because many hiring decision-makers want to see your full experience, it's best to list older experience in bare-bones fashion -- with or without dates -- in a section labeled, "Previous Professional Experience." Similarly, don't give the date of your college graduation if it was more than about 10 years ago.
- Be sure the reader will understand all the acronyms and jargon you use in your resume.
Resumes in the high-tech field are notorious for these mysterious terms. We recently received a
resume containing the following acronyms and jargon: MCSE, MCP+I, TCP/IP, CCA, CCNA,
token ring and PCMCIA network interface cards for LAN connectivity, NT Service Packs,
Ethernet cards, Server 4.0, SQL 6.5, 7.0, Red Hat Linux 6.1, Turbo Linux 4.0 and
Caldera 2.3, Cisco 2500 routers and switches. Now, chances are that employers
in this jobseeker's field understand all these terms. Just be sure that's the case.
Spell out any acronyms you think could be questionable, and explain any terms
you think some readers of your resume might not understand.
Read our article, The Scoop on Resume Length: How Many Pages Should Your Resume Be?
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.
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