employment

Writing Resumes

If you ask 26 resume experts on how to write the perfect resume, you will get 26 different answers. Why should my answer be any better? I contend that my answer isn't better, but it is just as good.

I have hired nearly 100 people in the last 15 years. I have conducted nearly a thousand interviews, and have reviewed several thousand resumes. During a previous period of unemployment, I volunteered my services to a friend who ran a placement service. I reviewed resumes for her, helped her clients revise them, and conducted mock interviews.

You are an impressive person - your paperwork should reflect this.

TYPES OF RESUMES

There are two basic types of resumes: historical (traditional) and functional. The type you use depends on what kind of position for which you are applying.

The traditional resume is one where your jobs are listed in inverse chronological order. The advantage of this kind of resume is that it is relatively easy to put together, and it is the one that most employers are used to seeing. Also, I have yet to find an internet site that will let you build a resume in any other format.

The functional resume groups your work experience into areas of expertise. The advantage of this type of resume is that you do the "reading between the lines" for the person who has to review the resume. They don't have to pick out your talents which may be scattered across several jobs.

Some people use a hybrid resume that contains elements of both types. I'll concentrate on the traditional resume in this discussion and reserve comment about functional resumes until the end.

FORMAT

Forget half of what they taught you in school about resumes. Your resume does not have to be limited to one page. In fact for someone with decades of experience, and who is applying for a professional position, the resume should have multiple pages. What is important, however, is that no matter how long the resume is, you must make the sale on the first page. Like good novel, the resume has to grab the reader's attention, and make him want to read more.

I have seen resumes as long as 9 pages (not recommended). Most resumes I deal with are two or three pages in length. I guess the rule of thumb is 1 page per decade of experience :-). However, keep in mind that anything beyond the first half of page one is supplemental or supporting material. If you haven't grabbed them by that time, they won't be reading the rest.

I am usually an advocate of substance over form, but not when it comes to original impressions made by the resume. Pick up an 8 ½ x 11 inch document and hold it at arm's length. Chances are your eyes jump to the upper third middle of the page. I call this section "prime real estate." My study of human factors design tells me that this is where a reader's eyes first rest when they pick up a piece of paper. Put your flashiest material there.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Let's work on getting that annoying contact information out of the way. If the company is interested in you, they will be willing to search your resume to find the contact information. Too often this information encroaches on the prime real estate.

One technique I like to use is to push this information up and into the corners like this:

DANIEL J. FLAK
XXXX Street Address
Greensboro, NC 27455
H: (336) 555-1234
C: (336) 555-9999
dflak@danflak.com

For one thing, this organizes your contact information more cleanly.

INTRODUCTION

When selling a product or service, what would you tell someone who came up to you and asked, "My company has a problem. How can you help me fix it?" One thing I learned about marketing in one of my previous jobs is that people don't want to know what your product does; they want to know how they can use your product to solve their problems. Don't start with "How would you like to buy a vacuum cleaner?" Instead start with, "How would you like to cut the time you spend cleaning house in half?"

You don't send them the technical manual or specification immediately. You have a sales brochure to help make the presentation. If it's a first call, you don't drag out the 100-slide power point. You have an opening sales pitch that takes about three to five minutes to deliver.

Your resume is your sales brochure. It's going to be read by very busy people who have hundreds or perhaps even thousands of other sales brochures to read that day.

Your sales pitch is your "elevator speech;" it's what you tell people when they ask, "So, what do you do?" If you have an easy to describe job description, this speech is relatively easy to develop. If your job descriptions are non-descriptive or very general in nature, as mine have been, then you will have to work on it more. My speech is:

I work in IT management. I build and develop technical teams, set up processes, and establish metrics. In short, I like to make order out of chaos and I specialize in making entrepreneurial companies profitable, and in revitalizing departments in older companies.

I save the "Born in a humble log cabin in Brooklyn, New York …" speech for after I get hired.

You have to boil this elevator speech into a drive-by version for your resume. This section is called the objective.

I used to give little attention to the objective portion of the resume. Now I think it's important to have one. However, I disagree with experts who say that you tell them "I want" in this section. I prefer to say, "This is what I do" in this section. This is your opening shot. Remember, this section leads off in "prime real estate." Hit them in their most vital area. "I want" is reactive; "I do" is proactive. Be prepared to change this on each resume you send out. You want your "I do" to be their "I need."

Here is my 15-second sound bite:

Provide senior leadership in IT management based on my 15+ years' experience in strategic planning, technical team building, and product life cycle development.

Notice I said 15+ years. This is lesson #1 in combating age discrimination. Few jobs ask for more than 5 years experience, even fewer ask for more than 10! 15+ gives them the impression that you are well seasoned without having to admit to being a geriatric case.

ORGANIZING WORK EXPERIENCE

Your resume has to have good content, you have to present it in an eye-catching fashion, and you have to make it easy for them to get to the details without bogging them down in volumes of detail.

There are no hard and fast rules for resumes. It should be presented in a logical and consistent sequence. The ultimate test of formatting is the hold the paper at arm's length and seeing if it looks right. Personally, I like to see a lot of "white space." Like most people, I read in chunks. Give me chunks I can swallow whole.

Lesson #2 in combating age discrimination: list only the last 15 years' experience. You can mention experience prior to that if it's really relevant. The way I would handle it is put the date down as "pre-1987" or simply list it as "Other Experience" with no date information.

My personal preference is to start out with a one or two line sentence followed by bullets. Pick your best 3-8 bullets and go with them. It's OK to leave some stuff unsaid. You will find yourself pulling bullets and and adding others to customize your resume for particular jobs.

Normally I suggest a format that looks like:

Job Title
Duration
Company
Location

I figure that what you did was more important than who you did it for or when you did it. Both of these items are important, after you impress them with the job description. Your job descriptions look eye-catching enough.

Here is an example of what a typical work experience block would look like:

Marketing Representative
date 1 - date 2
Blue Shield Healthcare
Durham, NC
  • Managed the accounts for over 400 companies ranging in size from 3 employees to 200.
  • Recruited new business.
  • Advised employers on employee benefits.
  • Reviewed contract and calculated comparisons
  • Served on benefit negotiation teams.

You will have to be accurate when you put your job titles on the employment application for whatever company with which you interview. However, on a resume some poetic license is allowed. Use a job title that is descriptive of what you actually did rather than one assigned by the company. "Researcher - Level 2" probably doesn't mean much to people outside XYZ company. "Lead Developer, Database" probably makes more sense to the outside world.

Experiment with various fonts (within reason) and with left and right justified paragraphs. On a traditional resume, I like to put in two lines that indicate what I did, when I did it, and for whom. Then under that, and slightly indented, is the supporting text and bullet points. This technique gives me a lot of white space, and still leaves a lot of space in which to write.

PRESENTATION

Lead with verbs.

If you have to, you can lead with weak verbs such as "possess" and "performed." Try to use "action" verbs such as "reduced," "improved," "developed," "led" or "saved."

Be specific.

You can say that you serviced several markets or you can say that you serviced "30 of the top 50 markets in the United States." You can say you reduced turn around time on a report or you could say "Reduced report production time from 6 weeks to 6 days." In each case, the later statement is stronger.

Use cause and effect.

The most impressive thing you can do with a resume is to present it as cause and effect. In other words, put things in terms of "I did this, and this is the positive result for the company." For example:

(Cause) Revised processes and automated reporting resulting in (effect) increased usage of the in-house product by 600%. (effect) Decreased time for senior management report release from 6 weeks to 6 days.

(Cause) Used metrics to identify problem areas in third level support. (Effect) reduced standing third level defects from an average of 40 to an average of 5. Reduced defect turn around from and average of 15 working days to and average of 5. Reduced level two calls escalated from 50% to 25%.

Notice that I use Arabic numbers. I know that your teachers taught you to spell out numbers less than ten in the third grade. Although good grammar is important in a resume, it isn't a literary piece. Use Arabic numbers; they are easier to read.

Don't just report a job description. Tell them what you did with that job that made a difference to the company.

WRAPPING IT UP

After work experience, list education. Don't limit yourself to just degrees either.

EDUCATION
MS Engineering Management; Western NE College, Springfield, MA
BSEE Manhattan College, NY

Tip number 3 on age discrimination. Don't put the date of your degree. People can do the math.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
  • Leadership is a Choice (Dr. Steven Covey)
  • Service Excellence Training (James Barksdale
  • Principle-Centered Leadership Seminar (Steven Covey Center)
  • Applying Demming's Methods to Service Organizations (George Washington University)
  • Principles of Leadership, Team Building and Hoshin Planning for Organizations Instituting Total Quality Management (George Washington University)
  • Re-engineering the Organization Training Seminar (Dr. Mike Hammer)
  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Training Seminar (Dr. Steven Covey)
  • Communications Skills for Presenters (McCaw Cellular Communications)
  • Facilitator's Training Course

Use a skills summary to put buzz words into your resume.

TECHNICAL SKILLS SUMMARY
  • Programmed in Fortran, Cobol, C, Unix Shell, PERL on various Unix platforms.
  • Expert in the complete suite of Microsoft Office, especially Word, Excel, Visio, and Project.
  • Supervised teams programming in C++, HTML, Java, Java Script, PHP, ASP/JSP, Visual Basic, RPG on Windows 9x, Windows NT/2000, AS/400

The sad fact is that many resumes are scanned by silicon or carbon-based optical devices. They are either scanned into a computer file and rated for how many "hits" they have on key words, or they are handed to a minimum-wage temporary with the instructions, "Look for these words in the resume."

REFERENCES

If they don't ask for them, don't list them. Do have people lined up. Do ask people that you would like to use them as a reference. The purpose behind not providing references, is multiple:

  • You can keep the list current.
  • They will probably need no more than three references. Pick the ones best suited for that particular position.
  • They will have to call you to get the references. The call will key you to the fact that they are very interested.
  • You can contact the references to put them on alert.
  • You can brief the references on the position so they can target their responses.

MISCELANEOUS FORMATTING TIPS

Experiment with fonts, but don't get too carried away with fancy fonts. Some companies scan their resumes to get an electronic copy. Some scanners can only "see" Currier, Times New Roman, and Ariel. Also, if you are emailing the resume to an employer and they do not have that font on their word processor, they will see garbage. Stick with fonts you are reasonably sure are in the MS Office basic set. When in doubt, use Times New Roman. Even then, you are still free to play with font size, bolding, use of italics, small caps and underlining.

Save the resume in a format that is readable by as large an audience as possible. In most cases this is Microsoft Word. Any HR department or recruiter worth its salt will have the latest version. But be prepared to go one version down from the latest release. Use the "Save As" option to save it as Word 97-2000 & 6.0/95 RTF (assuming you are using Word 2000). This will assure that the person reading the resume will be able to open it in Word 97 or whatever they have.

Some companies (and web sites) will not allow you to attach a word document into their forms or emails. They want you to include it in the body of the forms and email. If you cut and paste from word into email, the resume will look funny and require a lot of re-editing. See my essay "Posting Plain Text Resumes" if you need to do this.

Bullets are good, they get right to the point. However, too many consecutive bullets is boring. I also use a short introductory sentence before the bullets.

Make sure your name is on each page of the resume. Have page numbers on the second and succeeding pages.

Daniel J. Flak Page 2

Keep it small and unobtrusive. Note that I reduced the type font to 8 points. I don't want this information competing with anything else on the page, but I do want it there in case somebody drops the stack of papers she is carrying.

Don't "orphan" a job description part. Keep entire blocks together. In other words, don't have the first two bullets of a job description on one page, and the last two on the next. You may have to get creative with editing, and you can play with the margins a little.

The final test is to look at the resume. Hold it out at arm's length and view it on the screen. If it looks funny, rework it. If it looks pleasing, go with it.

For more on formating resumes and a template, click here.

CONCLUSION

After all is said and done, the resume is nothing more than a foot in the door. It's an attention getting device. It is probably 10% - 15% of the job search effort. The best resume in the world is not going to get you a job unless it gets in front of the right person. On the other hand, a poor resume might be overlooked by the right person. I tell you this so you can put resumes into their proper perspective.

Functional vs. Traditional Resumes

I use my functional resume for situations where my leadership and management talents are important - they are too spread out in my historical resume to be picked up quickly. If I want to sell myself as an electrical engineer, I use this resume. I do have experience in this area, but it is old, and it is buried on page two of a traditional resume.

I use the traditional resume when I apply for project management jobs. My most recent experience is in this area, and I want it up front.

Some people use a hybrid resume that has a brief summary of talents up front followed by work history. This type of resume is sometimes effective for jobs in the computer industry. Computer people tend to be very myopic - they are very interested in what languages you speak and what hardware you have worked on.

Both versions of my resume are posted on this site. You can look at them as an example. For the traditional resume, click here. For the functional resume, click here.

A FINAL AHA!

It's very difficult to limit a resume to the preferred two pages. You've done so many good things in your career; you just have to mention them all. Yes, you do a million things well, but your new potential employer only cares about a thousand of them. So how do you deal with this?

There is an old joke:

Q: How do you make a statue of an elephant?
A: Start with a big block of granite and chip away everything that does not look like an elephant.

There is wisdom here for resumes. Write your life history in resume format and don't be concerned with how many pages it takes. Then when a job posting comes along, take this "block of granite" and chip away everything that does not support the job description.

To download a WINZIP Word Version of this document click here.