You only get one chance at a first impression—it pays to get it right
We’re often told that a good resumé is the key to landing a job interview. But if you haven’t been through the process lately, be aware that the rules of job hunting have changed over the past few years, and if you don’t get up to speed, your key may not fit the lock.
If you want to work at Cupie’s Drive-in, your uncle’s coffee shop, a food truck, or the corner store, you might not need a resumé at all. But if you’re applying at one of the hotel resorts or any other large company that relies on an HR department or a recruiter to screen applicants, pay attention because the rules are different now. Gone are the days when you could just add the latest job you’ve held to the top of the resumé you started 20 years ago.
Most recruiters—and any company that requires you to apply online—are most likely going to scan your resumé into an AI-driven Applicant Tracking System (ATS) which reads it electronically, searching for keywords that match those in the job description. According to Forbes, 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies—and 75 percent of employers overall—now use an ATS to filter applicants. If you don’t seamlessly incorporate those specific words into the body text of your resumé, the algorithm will reject and discard your application before any human being even sets eyes on it.
On the other hand, awkwardly pepper your resumé with those keywords out of context and you may get past the ATS, but the first human who reads it will toss it in the shredder. So, you’re writing for two audiences now, one AI reader, and one of our species. And they both have to approve. (More on keywords later.)
Because of this, the way you organize and format your resumé is more critical than ever. Let’s start with the basics. Unless you are a medical or legal professional, a senior executive with decades of experience, or you’re applying for a position in academia, keep your resumé to one page. The initial review of it will last seconds, even if a human being is sorting through them. Don’t fill it with flowery rhetoric. Stick to the facts. And if you’re a software engineer, don’t be cute and describe yourself as a “code ninja.” The algorithm doesn’t get it.
Data suggests that the ideal length is 475-600 words. Analysis of more than 125,000 resumés by CultivateCulture.com’s Austin Belcak of indicated that those outside this range got half the interviews of those within, and accounted for more than three quarters of those analyzed. Watch the length and improve your odds.
The most common resumé format is reverse chronological order, in which your work history is listed with the most recent job first. This format is the most familiar to employers and easily scanned by ATS software. (A functional or skills-based format is acceptable for students, inexperienced workers, or those changing careers, but isn’t as common or as easily scanned.)
Include your name and contact information at the top (first and last name, phone number, and email address—snail mail address optional, but do include city and state), followed by the job title you’re applying for (as if you’ve already been hired) and a brief objective or statement.
In the past, the objective was where you talked about what position you were applying for and how much you wanted to work for company X. But today, it’s assumed that you want the job that you’re applying for, so it’s better to write a brief statement that tells how your experience and skill set makes you the ideal candidate for said position. Do not include a photo because in the U.S. employers aren’t allowed to ask an applicant’s age, and including a photo could expose the company that’s hiring to charges of discrimination.
Under the heading “Work Experience,” begin listing past jobs that are relevant to the one you’re applying for. It’s okay to skip over jobs that don’t relate to the one you want, unless it leaves a glaring, unexplained gap in employment. Limit your work history to the past ten or 15 years, or a maximum of 4-5 job entries. List promotions as separate positions at the same company.
Under the job title, location, and dates held, use bullet points to list six to eight skills or achievements that you accrued, leaving out personal pronouns (ie., “Surpassed sales goal by five percent” rather than “I surpassed my sales goal by five percent”). Focus on accomplishments over responsibilities, and be specific. Google recommends applicants use the X,Y, Z format; “Accomplished X, as measured by Y, by doing Z.” Measurable achievements matter, so include metrics if you can (X number of people trained, increased sales by X percent, $X under budget). If a bullet point spills onto a second line, shorten it to fit on one.
Focus on specific abilities that set you apart, rather than “soft skills,” such as “leadership ability,” “problem solving”, or “communication skills.” Too many overused generic terms can make the reader flip to the next applicant. Include active words, like “spearheaded,” “established,” “improved,” “accelerated,” “raised,” and “initiated.”
Under the heading “Education,” list your college degree(s) and year earned, if you have any. List your high school’s name and graduation date (or GED) if you don’t have a degree. (Leave high school off if you do.) If it’s relevant to your goal, you may also want to include your major, your GPA (if over 3.5), plus any academic honors, related coursework, research, or graduate studies. If you graduated decades ago, it’s OK to leave off the year, so it won’t reveal your age.
This is also where you can include any certificates, licenses, awards, professional organizations, specialized training, software mastery, or language skills (specifying competency level). And don’t claim you’re fluent if you’re barely conversational. The interviewer may test you. Personal interests and hobbies can be included here, too, but stick to activities relevant to the position.
If you’re applying online, you may also want to include links to your LinkedIn profile (GitHub or StackOverflow for software developers) and your own website or blog, if you have one. According to research by ResumeGo.net, including a LinkedIn profile link can give you a 71 percent higher chance of getting an interview. Leave off social media, unless you’re an influencer in the field you’re applying to.
Now, back to those keywords—and this is critical—they’re very easy to find. Just read the job description for the position you want to apply for. That’s where the ATS gets its keyword search orders from, so they’re all there! Just print out a copy of the job description and highlight the job title and all the skills required for the position. Better yet, use a free online word-cloud generator to find them for you. There should be 40-45 fairly obvious keywords. Then go back over your resumé and find places where you can insert or substitute those specific words so they are naturally integrated into your document. If the job description calls for “management skills,” don’t say “leadership ability.” That’s not the phrase the computer is looking for. Say, “management skills.” Avoid abbreviations, and tailor your resumé this way to each job you apply for.
Likewise, use standard headings, like “Work Experience,” rather than “Skills and Accomplishments,” and leave out charts, graphs, or formatting that might confuse the ATS. For this reason, you may want to avoid using the many fill-in-the-blank resumé-builder websites, as tempting as they may seem.
If there are glaring gaps in employment history—not uncommon for re-entry students, serial travelers, or homemakers returning to the workforce—it might be smart to include a brief explanation (ie., “Took year-long leave to care for ailing mother.”).
Most applications are received online, so you’ll want to save your resumé as a PDF (.pdf) or Word document (.doc or .docx) so that it can be attached to an email and easily read by the recipient. Give it a respectable file name, ideally your first and last name, dash, resumé. Some companies, however, require you to post your resumé to a job board, or prefer that the resumé text be contained in the body of the email, rather than as an attachment, for security reasons.
In that case, you’ll want to convert it to plain text (.txt). To do that, take the following steps: change your headings to all caps to distinguish them from the other text once it’s all the same size and font. Replace bullet points with asterisks or dashes and replace any lines with a series of dashes or equals signs. Change any smart (directional) quotation marks to the straight kind and reset any tabs using the spacebar. Widen the edit screen to see what it looks like without text wrap and check for improper line breaks or jumbled text. Then save it as plain text.
To include that .txt file in the body of an email, open it up in MS Word, select all the text and change the font to 12 point Courier (a fixed-width font). Open the “page layout” menu, click on “margins” and choose “custom margins.” When the “page setup” dialog box opens, change the left margin to one inch and the right margin to 1.75 inches. Save the document again as “plain text.”
If you want to test how your resumé scores in terms of keyword relevancy, sites like JobScan.co and ResyMatch.io will compare it with the job description and give you a relevancy score. Submit your application via DocSend.com and receive an instant notification if anyone opens your resumé.
If you miss the old days of picking out fancy resumé paper and seeing it in print, don’t worry. It’s always a good idea to bring a copy or two to the interview. Here’s your chance to get a little bit creative. But before you start selecting paper stock and fancy fonts, you might want to spruce up your LinkedIn profile a bit, making sure that it’s current and relates to the job opening. And while you’re at it, you should probably delete that awful comment you made on social media last week and those drunken party pics you posted on Instagram. It’s also a good idea to have a current, professional-sounding email address, rather than email@example.com.
A Word About Cover Letters
If the resumé is the ticket to a job interview, the cover letter may be the ticket to getting your resumé read. Keep it short, to the point, and focused on your objective. While this is a chance to reveal a bit of personality and share something about yourself aside from your skill set, you’re not writing an autobiography. Use the same format and font (preferably not Comic Sans) that you used on your resumé, for consistency. But if you’re delivering hard copies, don’t fold them or staple them together. A large manila envelope is likely to get more attention than a standard-size one with a resumé folded up inside.
Again, your contact information goes up top. Then the date, followed by the hiring manager’s (or company) name and address, and a salutation (ie., “Dear Ms. Finch,” “Human Resources Dept.,” or “To Whom it May Concern”). The first paragraph is a brief opening, introducing yourself, your career, a few key achievements, and your objective—the job. In the second paragraph, tell how your experience has prepared you for the position and what valuable skills and expertise you bring with you—perhaps even some that weren’t included on your resumé.
Lastly, summarize your skills and reiterate your objective, ending on a positive note with a call to action (ie., “Please call me to discuss this opportunity,” or “If you’re interested in meeting with me, I’d love to chat.”). It’s not a bad idea to let them know your availability and the best time to reach you, as well.