What Makes a Great Resume?

There are two kinds of resume audiences everyone needs to consider.

The first is the big business resume. That resume gets scanned by computers looking for keywords before a human in HR ever gets to it. I don’t deal with these, but there are tons of internet resources to tell you how to write this resume. The basics are about nor cluttering it with design elements like headers or illustrations, using the right keywords and using them in long form as well as in acronym form. You never know how the system is going to be looking, and it may not be a perfectly designed search. Use factual language, strip out tricky sentences, lean towards using bullets rather than sentences. Use simple fonts and consider submitting in a plain text format—avoiding software issues created even by the ubiquitous Word and PDF formats. While this is an older post, Lifehacker does a good job of covering this subject. And these resumes are ranked, so having some of the skills is enough to make it worth applying—you don’t have to have a perfect score on the requirements.

The second kind of resume, the one read by a person, is the one I see. Here’s what I think works and doesn’t work, based on about 30 years of screening resumes. First of all, the first, and most easily avoidable, mistake I see over and over again is people emailing me the wrong resume, the one for another job. Another fatal error is sending out a resume via a mass emailing to all the design firms in San Diego—that tells us all that you don’t care enough about doing a job right to send out 20 different custom emails, a tip-off to your shortcut-taking approach to life that isn’t what anyone is looking to hire. Sometimes I get the right resume but it’s named “Heather Smith-Marketing Resume” or “Heather Smith-LYON resume” as the file name. The problem with that is that it immediately says there’s another resume for Sales or Design or for another firm, which means no matter what you say to me about marketing being your true passion or LYON being your dream employer , I suspect that’s not entirely true. (Accurately name your file folders on your computer, maybe the InDesign, Word, or Google Doc files, but not the PDFs you send out.) Your resume (and cover letter/email) should be your absolute best effort so any weirdnesses in margins, typos, spelling errors, and formatting inconsistencies all work against you in a big way. You should send PDFs for the human-oriented resumes, too, to avoid software formatting issues (or the horror of leaving Microsoft Word edit tracing on in the document.). An overly long resume also works against you. They should be one page long coming out of school and in most of your twenties. Show that you can prioritize and order your thoughts in your actual resume, which is much more convincing that you telling us in the cover letter while presenting a two-page resume at age 22. And while I hate to advocate for the unnecessary use of paper, it’s a great idea to show up for every interview with several spare paper copies of the resume, since you never know who or how many people you will talk to and some will not have been given your resume or had time to read it or print it out in advance.

Why does all of this harsh judgement come into play? Here’s the scenario on our end when we’re hiring. I’ve got 50–100 people applying for the job and I have no choice but to cut the list down to a manageable set I can review to come up with the 4–10 candidates we’ll want to interview on the phone, to get a short list of 4–6 we can meet in person. We want the right person, but like a lot of smaller firms (and departments within a Fortune 500 company), hiring isn’t a full-time job for anyone on staff. Now we’re not only shorthanded due to growth or someone leaving, covering that increased workload, and we have this whole other special project of finding you to fill the spot.  We understand you want a job, maybe even any job, but we’re primarily interested in alleviating our pain, and postponing any possibility that we’ll have to go through this effort again in the near future. We want to hire someone who will be happy, productive, and have some longevity in the position. Don’t start by creating doubt in my mind about your level of interest. If this is your best effort and it’s subpar, why on earth would we want to find out what your work product looks like under the stress of deadlines on a day-to-day basis? In the end humans are always hiring to make their lives easier. This is why people spend money to hire babysitters, buy meals at restaurants, or add a new producer or film editor to our staff. It’s why our clients hire us. Everything about your resume, the cover letter, and ultimately the interviews, should make us feel like it’s going to be really easy to integrate you into our team and that the money spent will actually make our lives a little easier.

No idea what to leave or cut? This is where your personal network and a little bit of luck come in. When people review your resume, they all have their own biases—the conscious ones and the unconscious ones. The things I love to see in recent graduate resumes are jobs in college. The fact that you worked your way through doing anything at all is a big plus—it means you already know how to work hard, show up on time, and make customers happy. I also love people who were RAs in their dorms. That tells me you are really responsible and you were able to impress a lot of adults well enough to be hired to take on a  potentially tough job involving difficult conversations with your peers. I like students who come from families where someone owned a small business—I know those dinner table conversations were really instructive. I like student leaders, particularly leadership across a wide, diverse population. I like student council leadership a lot more than purely greek system or athletic team leadership. If you’re a big leader in your sorority or fraternity, I’d like to also see time on the inter-fraternity/panhellinic council, too. I have little interest in trade-specific or pre-professional majors, I just want to know you’ve got the software skills we need. I have some preference for majors or minors in the Humanities and Social Sciences, so I know you have strong writing skills, although a bad cover letter can disabuse me of that bias pretty quickly. Everyone is going to have their own feelings on this, but the more you talk to adults in the field, the more of a feel you’ll have on what to emphasize.

Informational interviews are a huge help to finding the things you can rightly emphasize (and filling any gaps you have)—and they should start as soon as you begin college. You should be asking professors what their spouses do for a living and friends what their parents and older siblings do. Even if people do things you KNOW you have no interest in, you can ask them how they found their fields, what classes they wished they’d taken in college, the best job they ever had and the worst. My worst might be perfect for you, and I might know someone else who still does that. It’s much easier to have conversations with people and start a dialogue, maybe even a relationship, when they know you want nothing. (Imagine if every time you talked to a potential romantic partner they had to announce how many kids they wanted and when—it would be too much pressure at that stage.) Every March the emails start coming in with requests for internships to which the simple answer is “no, we don’t take interns” and even information interview requests are suspect in that timeframe. The same goes double for senior year requests. But when we start talking much earlier then I’m thinking about you when openings come up or someone asks me if I know anyone. If you think back to the hiring scenario I described earlier, you’ll understand why most jobs do go to people who have a personal connection, who get hired through a friend or a colleague.

In any internship or job hunt, you’ll need both kinds of resumes ready to go. And it’s likely you’ll have more than one version of each, depending on what you want to emphasize for any given application. Make sure your LinkedIn profile matches up to the resume, too. Not line by line, but at least in its basics. It’s a big undertaking to go looking for a job, and I know I’ve said this before in other posts, but it’s much easier to stay in touch with everyone you meet on the current search to simplify the hunt for your next job. Ideally, you’ll never go looking for it, someone will just call you up or email you and say “I’ve got the perfect job for you.” one random day. Because no matter how perfect the job is that you find and no matter how much you rock it, you’ll eventually need to move to grow your skills or even your salary.

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