A Google search for “résumé” results in over 178,000,000 hits, whereas “possum” nets only 5,340,000. Thus the documentation of work experience is 33 and 1/3 more popular than arboreal marsupials. But what does this really tell us? Not much, but neither does the average résumé that comes across my desk. Some excerpts:
“Administered resolution of issues and implementation of ideas surfaced by individuals.””Partaking in meetings designed to enhance collaboration, identify and develop strategies to ensure success regarding the accomplishment of goals.”
“Experienced leader with superior interpersonal skills and business acumen talented at building productive relationships across a global organization.”
We all know that there are more jobs being lost than created, and that an opening will get dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants. But in our fear to avoid saying anything that might get our résumé tossed out of the pile, we end up saying nothing at all. As a result, the hiring manager feels like she’s reading tea leaves, not CVs. One feels forced to come up with arbitrary rules to narrow the field. Nobody with an objective statement, no résumés longer than 3 pages, no serif fonts.
I’m not immune. Personally, I look at the width of the dashes. Microsoft Word will helpfully attempt to make a hyphen, n-dash, or m-dash based on the spacing you use when writing. Many people don’t know this, and they don’t notice that their dashes are all different lengths. Does this mean they are more or less qualified to be a project planner? I don’t know, but it’s easy for me to say, “If you don’t know that your own résumé is inconsistent, how can you be expected to supervise a multi-million dollar project?”
Other people have their own peccadilloes. The best you can do is try to achieve the maximum content with minimum peculiarity. Here’s a list of nine things to make your résumé stand a better chance of survival:
1. Get the formatting right. Line up bullet points, dates, headings. Wacky spacing will get you questioned about skills that have nothing to do with what you can do on the job. And please learn to put dates flush against the right margin. The right-aligned tab stop remains a mystery as deep as an ocean for many resume writers.
2. Insert dates for everything. If you’ve got a gap, explain it in your cover letter. But don’t leave the dates off a job or a degree. Maybe you’re worried they’ll think you’re too old or too young — but at best you’ll look sloppy. At worst, sneaky.
3. Fill up on the buzzwords. Yes, buzzwords are typically “bad” for clarity, but you have to get past the HR department first, and they’re screening for matches with the words in the job description. Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), consumer goods industry, certified project manager, SPL, BMN, FLB…whatever it is that matches the requirements, put it in.
4. Choose verbs that mean something. “Assisted,” “Worked on,” “Contributed to” and so on don’t convey much to a prospective employer. Instead, say what you did: “Wrote,” “Designed,” or “Managed.” The more specific, the better.
5. Rewrite your résumé for each job application. If you really want a job, your prospective employer isn’t going to be impressed by your inability to adjust one 3-page document to meet their needs. Highlight the top 3 to 7 things you’ve done that match up with the requirements of the job.
6. State career objectives or outside interests — but be very careful. Do you know that they’re looking for a “motivated team player who wants to excel in international fashion and likes skiing and hot tubbing?” Great, put that in. Otherwise, save the non-job stuff for the cover letter. Or better yet, the interview.
7. The further into your past, the less detail you should have. Don’t have 13 bullets on a job from 10 years ago.
8. Keep it short. A five-page résumé may be justified, but you’ve got to make it clear through headings and organization why you need so much space. If you’ve got a list of publications or industry conferences you’ve spoken at, great, but put it at the end as a separate section. Consider the résumé of a CEO. He doesn’t need to say that he “attended meetings, assigned work” and whatever other tasks. He ran a company. One line.
9. No typos. Your résumé is like the restroom in a restaurant — as Anthony Bourdain says, the one room everyone sees. And if you can’t keep that clean, what’s it like in the kitchen?
What do you think? Are there things you see in résumés that cause you to toss them in the “probably not” pile? Have you ever had your résumé prevent you from getting a job?
David Silverman has had ten careers so far, including entrepreneur, executive, and business writing professor. He is the author of Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars and of the April 2011 HBR article, Synthesis: Constructive Confessions.