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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.)
- What do you consider yourself good at?
- 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 down your education here. Otherwise, leave the education for later.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
slows down reading. 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.
- 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
- 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 service more than they do the job applicant.
- 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.
- 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 Jun 10, 2017 contact: Garth Wilson, email@example.com