Updated: Aug 15, 2019
4 Ways to Make Your Resume Shine
The old adage “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” used to refer to a face-to-face initial introduction. But in today’s digital marketplace, there are countless ways your online footprint and marketing materials speak for you. Yet, despite websites, social media, blogs, and digital portfolios, the old fashioned resume remains. Whether applying for a specific job or featuring your resume on your professional website or portfolio, it is others’ first impression of you.
In the last two years, I’ve had the opportunity to review countless resumes. Unfortunately, what I remember most is just how poorly presented some, or most, of them are.
A resume is your chance to make a powerful first impression. When yours lands on an HR Director’s desk, one of dozens or more, you want it to SHINE. What about your resume will give her pause? How will you ensure that she takes an extra few moments to read just a little more closely?
Keep your resume out of the discard pile with these 4 tips to make yours shine:
Have you ever received a stack of 20+ resumes? I have. And I can honestly say that they usually all look the same, or about 18 will. One might stand out because it looks great and, just as easily, one might stand out because it is shockingly poor. You want yours to be the great one.
At first glance, the only thing that will distinguish one resume from twenty is formatting.
Formatting is like the beautiful display in a shop window. Regardless of what the store is selling, you stop to take a closer look.
Formatting yields a visceral reaction. Immediately, that HR Director will see if the applicant is taking advantage of font size to cover up for lack of content. Name in 36 point font? Someone with lots of quality experience to share won’t give up that kind of real estate.
Too much white space? Also an inexperienced candidate. How about misaligned margins or mismatched bullets or inconsistent font? Lacking attention to detail.
You want to balance text and white space. The eye needs a place to rest, but that HR Director shouldn’t look at the page and say, “Wow, that looks like 3-inch margins.”
Likewise, at first glance, there should not be glaring formatting errors that stand out such as uneven margins. Be sure to review the formatting both on your screen and in print. Step away for a couple of hours and come back to see if anything jumps out at you. Better yet, pass your resume to a couple of colleagues or friends who are known for attention to detail and ask them for just their initial reaction to the format.
Attention to Conventions
The essential function of a resume is to communicate effectively. You do this with accurate spelling, punctuation, grammar, capitalization, and language structure.
Spell check and Grammarly are fantastic tools, but don’t solely rely on a digital editor. If you have an autocorrect feature turned on, make sure it isn’t changing your intended word to something that creates a mistake in the text.
The key when proofing your work is to ensure that you are not reading ahead so quickly that you see what you expect to be there instead of what IS there. If you’re too close to the writing for an extended period of time, it becomes harder for you to find your own mistakes.
As with formatting, ask for assistance from a friend who will carefully look at conventions. This is not the time to be shy about having others look at your writing. The whole point of a resume is for others to read it and make a referral or a hiring decision on your behalf. Better a friendly editor finds errors than the hiring manager who can’t see the quality content for conventions errors jumping off the page.
If you don’t know how to use a word or phrase, this is when the internet is your friend. There are infinite choices, however, I’ve used Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab) for more than a decade. Every conventions question you could ask has an answer there.
When the conventions choice is something more stylistic, as with whether to capitalize listed items, which symbols to use, or whether to insert a period at the end of bulleted items, the important thing is to make your choice and be consistent throughout.
For example, note in this writing that the text is 12-point font. However, with subheadings throughout, I’ve chosen 14-point font in bold face. No one probably cares whether I chose 10/12 or 12/14, but if it were inconsistent and I used four or five different types of fonts the reader might find the layout unsettling to the eye.
Know Your Target
Do you have a sense of who will first read your resume? Are you applying to an entry level or executive job? Is your field cutting edge or traditional? Will a one-pager suffice, or can you get away with three?
These are questions that you should be able to answer easily, but take a moment to reflect on what impact the answer may have on how you present yourself.
For example, my background is international education. When applying internationally, it is quite common to include a photo in the upper right corner of the page. The first section on many international resumes is demographic, including age and birthdate, citizenship, and languages spoken. You would likely not include these items in the US as companies can't ask the age of an applicant.
What about the question of who will read your resume? If sent to a large corporation that uses scanners, some resume formats that include graphics can muddle or overlook content and “confuse” scanners. If you know that an actual human will read your resume, it’s perfectly fine to use more creative templates.
Speaking of which, if you are in a cutting edge or creative industry, like graphic design, you may want to steer clear of traditional resume formats that might read as boring in your field.
Have you heard the saying, There’s not a wrong answer until there is? That applies here. There may not be a WRONG format for a resume, but there might be a non-preferred one for your field or for the particular job you’re seeking.
Reflect on the questions above and consider the answers for you. Make your choices intentional based on what you’re trying to achieve.
Customize, Customize, Customize
Have you ever opened a present and then you or the giver realized that it wasn’t for you? Pretty disappointing, right? (This happens every year at Christmas at our house).
Here’s a funny one: Have you ever read a resume and then realized the applicant wrote it for another job or another company? Or for EVERY job? ANY JOB. . . please, this resume is just for ANY JOB!
I have, and those are not impressive resumes to read. Even if the candidate is qualified, one thinks, “Does she really want to work here?”
And, true story, I actually know someone personally who made the can't-take-it-back mistake of copying over a paragraph he wrote to a US boarding school about being ready to return to the United States after years of international teaching. . . and sent it to three schools in Thailand. Ouch! Needless to say, he is not working in Thailand.
If you made this mistake and you were one of a few qualified candidates, maybe you would still get the interview. However, we’re living in a competitive world and most jobs get dozens, if not hundreds, of applications. One hiring manager recently told me he received 175 applications in three weeks(!), which was months before the closing deadline on the posting.
Customize your resume.
One size does not fit all. Your cover letter will surely be directed to a specific point of contact at the organization. Likewise, your text (in both the cover letter and the resume) should be job specific.
The best way to finesse such detail is with a little research. Do not rush to submit. Use those fine internet tools to do a little information gathering. Read the website and any available marketing materials. Read online reviews but with a grain of salt, using a keen eye to uncovering writer bias. Talk to a person who works there, if possible (LinkedIn is good for this). And read EVERY WORD of the job posting and/or fuller description.
When you’ve done that, print a copy of your draft resume and print a copy of the job description. Highlight the key words of the job description; one color for descriptors such as “self-starter” and a second color for key responsibilities like “responsible for leading quarterly data analysis meetings.”
Once you have a good understanding of the important details that the organization is communicating for this position, look for correlations in your draft resume and highlight those.
If you find low correlation, spend some time reflecting on your work. Brainstorm a list of ways you can demonstrate those features with past examples or in your current responsibilities.
The final draft of your resume will include those highlighted words and phrases. The goal is for the HR Director to find resonance with your skills and experiences. You do not want to employ so much of the organization’s text that she says, “Hmm. . . That sounds familiar. I think I wrote it. I think this applicant plagiarized my job posting.”
And, again, have a friend or colleague review the final version.
This all sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? And it is. However, this is the print version of you, or the professional you. If you want the job and think you deserve it, then you need an effective way to convince of others of that.
Now, go update your resume. . . and make it SHINE!