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How to write your résumé

Much of what I got in school about how to write a résumé turned out to be wrong, as I found out in the seven-year period at work from 1985 to 1992 when I read a thousand résumés and hired a lot of technicians and a few engineers.  I quickly wrote up the following years ago after that experience, and I thought it would be fun to go back to a college class as a guest speaker and give a talk on résumé-writing for industry, because what I had been taught obviously didn't come from the people who had to read very many.

Since that time, the internet has changed how we look for a job; but I don't think it has made much change in what makes a good résumé.  The only thing I can think of is that the employer might use software to search for key words so there's less burden on human readers.

  1. Jumping right in, here's the first rule:  Remember, no one wants to read your résumé!

    You might think that's an awful thing to say; but remember that when companies look for new employees, they don't do it for fun.  It's very time-consuming and expensive to go through résumés and interview people, and they mainly go to the effort when they're short-handed and have the least amount of time to spare for it.  Anything you do to make the process easier will work in your favor.

  2. When I read your résumé, the first thing I want to find out is "What have you been doing?".  I want to know, "How effective have you been?" and "Is it what our company needs right now?"  Since these are the main things I want to know, put your experience first, starting (preferably) with the most recent, otherwise with the most relevant.  Don't put your personal stuff first.  Don't even put your education first unless that's all you have to boast about so far.  Chances are, you probably got at least some lab experience or something as part of your education.  (Do put your contact information at the top, so that after I narrow the choices down to a few to interview, I won't get you mixed up with someone else, or have to search for the contact info.)


    1. What kind of job are you looking for?  (This might best be left for a cover letter, since you might use the same résumé for applying for various slightly different jobs.)

    2. What do you consider yourself good at?

    3. What have you done that might convince me that indeed you are good in the areas you say you're good?  Be specific.  Do keep it brief; but if you make it too general then you're only reiterating B above instead of accomplishing C.  If you don't have any experience, put your education here.  Otherwise, leave the education for later.

  3. Don't use a cover letter to tell me you think we have a good match.  I've read many times something like, "Judging by your newspaper ad and my background, I think we have a good match."  Let me decide that.

    The cover letter should also not tell me what you're going to say in your résumé.

    There was an article in our newspaper one time called "Writing that Perfect Cover Letter".  It started out by saying that some people spend even weeks perfecting their résumé but only minutes to slap together a cover letter.  The writer put a lot of emphasis on the cover letter.  I would not disagree with the idea that care must go into the cover letter too (if you use one); but remember that nobody reads résumés for pleasure.  They do it because it's necessary.  The cover letter will usually get only a very quick scan.  Often it will get totally ignored.  Do put some care into the cover letter, but don't place your bets on it.

  4. Show a correct estimation of yourself.  On the one hand, if you imply, "I'm the hottest thing since nylons" instead of just giving the reader the facts so he can decide for himself, he may think you're arrogant and hard to work with.  On the other hand, if what you're saying is something like "I'll sweep, do the dirty work—anything!" meaning that you're mister humble and obedient, you may convey the idea that you're mister incapable and boneless, and it may take more supervision to keep you busy at your humble little jobs than it's worth.  The résumé should (and usually will) give some insight as to your personality anyway; but again, have a correct estimation of yourself.

  5. Put your references in, last.  I've heard advice to just say "references available upon request;" but when the boss says, "Get their references" and I come to a résumé without them, I'm going to put that one aside with the intention of getting back to it later—and guess when "later" comes!  For most, it's never.  Again, it works in your favor to make things easy for the employer.  Don't make your résumé require an extra phone call or other effort to get the references.

  6. I personally like to see "Other interests:" before the references, near the end of the résumé.  This section tells me a little more about the person.  Job descriptions, especially in small companies, tend to change to match the people in the company.  Does the applicant like to travel?  When the employer sees "traveling" in the list of interests, he (or she) may think of a future benefit that the applicant might have to offer for this position.  Is the applicant artistic?  In my own case, artistic talent has helped me make drawings of how things need to be assembled, or communicate possible solutions to manufacturing problems.  If you put "family" in your list of interests, it's sometimes regarded as a code word for "Don't plan on me doing a lot of overtime.  My family is more important to me than making a lot of money."

  7. Don't have spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors!  Even if the job you're applying for doesn't require good English or writing skills, errors distract the reader from what he's trying to do, which is to figure out if what you have to offer might be what he needs.  In many cases, spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors mean you won't pay enough attention to detail in other areas either.  Have others proofread it.

  8. Make it physically readable.  The paper isn't holy for those that have to read it and write comments on it.  It's fine to use nice paper; but if the lettering gets messed up where the paper gets folded by one party or another, that's a problem.  I've seen many résumés on paper with a parchment or woven look where the toner from the photocopier flaked off and was unreadable where the résumé had been folded.

    I've seen others that used some fancy font for a very classy look; but it rendered my speed-reading useless.  They were time-consuming to get through.  I'd rather see the same old fonts I've gotten used to in the magazines and newspapers so it won't be tedious to read.  Also, please use a black font.  The "softened" gray writing so common on web pages today reduces both reading speed and comprehension.  These things may cause the reader to miss a key point or put your résumé aside.

    I am turned off by something that looks professional but has errors or is hard to read.  Making it "pretty" is not as important as making it readable.  Again, you want it to get read, by someone who may have a lot of résumés to read and doesn't have time.  I got a job in 1984 with a résumé I actually wrote by hand.  This was before we all had computers, and I didn't have a typewriter that made the type look nice, so I did a very neat job by hand.

  9. Don't get too wordy!  Can you say the same thing clearly with fewer words?  Is there something you can leave out which although meaningful to you, won't be very meaningful to the reader?  Make the résumé (and cover letter, if any) well organized, clear, and easy to read.  This is more important than having it pretty.

    Write as you would a newspaper article, not a novel.  In a novel, you can take many pages to set up the plot; but there the reader plans to go all the way through the book, for enjoyment, with no schedule.  Newspaper articles on the other hand tell the most important stuff first, and background and less-important stuff later.  This way the reader's interest is captured right away, and regardless of how far he reads, he's gotten the most important material.

    Don't eliminate words to the extent of making it sound choppy or unnatural though.  I've seen where others have said you should cut the use of personal pronouns, and say for example instead of writing, "I did such-and-such," you should write, "Did such-and-such."  I disagree.  It's not natural and it's not really correct, and it will bias me against your résumé, even if I'm not really thinking about why.

  10. Make your résumé original.  If you use a résumé service, you might not accomplish this.  Many times while going through résumés, I got the feeling, "Didn't I already see this one?" and later find the other one or more that were almost exactly the same.  At that point those résumés become almost worthless because I know they represent the résumé-writing service more than they do the job applicant.

  11. The résumé should usually be two pages long.  Just a single page often won't say enough to get me interested in you, or may be too cluttered, or may require that I go to extra effort to get more detailed information about something.  You might say, "Isn't that what the interview is for?"  Well, yes, but I'm not going to interview very many people.  A lack of information might send your résumé to the trash instead of bringing you in for an interview.

    More than two pages often means you haven't thought through well enough what you want to say.  There are exceptions, but remember nobody wants to read your résumé anyway.  Make them glad they did.

  12. Pictures or other prints of your past work may be helpful, depending on what kind of job you're looking for.  Letters of recommendation can be very beneficial too (as long as they're short and to the point).  Still, the résumé itself, not including these extras, should usually be two easy-to-look-at pages.  Samples of your work can be taken with you to the interview.

page last updated Nov 24, 2022               contact: Garth Wilson, wilsonminesBdslextremeBcom (replace the B's with @ and .) (southern California)