Sean Johnson

How to make any resume better

Six suggestions for dramatically improving most over-scrutinized piece of personal marketing.

I have a friend who’s been looking for work and has been having a tough time. Last week they sent me their resume. They weren’t helping their cause.

While I personally believe you should burn your resume, there are many people who aren’t in a position to do that and are forced to go the traditional job hunting route. I’ve helped probably a few dozen people refine their resumes over the past 4 years, and feel like I’ve learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t. I gave my friend the following suggestions.

Each Resume is Unique, Because Each Company is Unique

Most people create one resume and begin to shoot it out to anyone they think will see it. Cast a wide net and you’re bound to find someone who will bite. But I would submit that 10 resumes sent with laser focus on the needs of the position will get better results than 100 form resumes sent out to any and everybody.

Customizing your resume means going through the job description and looking for the specific skills and traits they’re looking for. It means taking that list and going through your experience, awards, education, etc. to find the things that are directly relevant to what they’re trying to find. If I get 100 resumes full of every job and award people have received, and I get one that is focused exclusively on my needs, who am I going to call?

Ditch the objective

Objectives are great in theory – the idea of summarizing your career goals and giving potential employers a nice ‘executive summary’ view of yourself is tempting. But objectives fail for a number of reasons:

  1. 99% of the time the objective doesn’t really say anything. It’s packed full of useless phraseology, and it rarely stands out or makes an impression.
  2. Objectives rarely even convey what a person’s real goals are – if I were truly specific about my objective I’d risk turning off a potential employer who doesn’t understand where I’m coming from and doesn’t think that my goals jive with theirs.
  3. Because of number 2, most objectives usually just say that the candidate is looking for a job in the industry of the company they’re applying to. Not exactly helpful information.
  4. The only objective that your potential employer is going to even care about is making them money. They don’t particularly care if you’re looking to be challenged or are hoping to work in a collaborative environment. They want you to want what they want, and usually that is to make the company successful.

For those reasons, I say ditch the objective. You don’t need it.

Make your resume fit on one page

A lot of people disagree with me on this. They say that they’ve accumulated so much experience that they can’t possibly fit everything on one page. I say rubbish, especially for anyone who’s been in the job market for less than 10 years. If you’re 25 and have a sprawling resume, it shows a lack of focus and an inability to prioritize (as well as a little too much ego.)

Instead, think of your resume as having a certain number of ‘slots.’ A one page resume has room for education, your last three jobs (with 2-5 bullet points for each) and a couple extras (organizations, awards, interests, etc.) If you say that no matter what you’re going to keep things to this one page, you’re forced to only include your best stuff.

In this way, a one page resume becomes a great career tool. Your goal becomes to pursue work and opportunities are “resume worthy” – stuff that you’d be proud to include on your one-pager, that is amazing enough to warrant a spot, bumping one of your past, less amazing experiences off. Over a period of years, your resume becomes a single sheet of amazing work – no fluff, no padding. Just 12-15 really amazing things that you’ve done – a great summary of why you’re a fantastic candidate.

Over time, you might accumulate more truly amazing work than can realistically fit on one page. But if you follow rule number one and focus on the skills and experience that is directly relevant to the position you’re applying for, condensing your resume to one page should still be easy.

Use hard facts and data – no generalizations

In talking about your accomplishments, the goal should be to try to quantify as much as possible. A company is hiring you to help them make more money, reduce costs, develop products that help them grow. If you think about it, every great thing you did probably had an impact that can be translated into numbers. So what do those numbers look like? I would argue that hard numbers make a case much more effectively than generalizations can – it demonstrates what your potential value can be, shows that you have a mind that is focused on improving the business.

Imagine you had a position where you gained valuable management experience, and you want to include that on your resume. Which approach stands out more?

OR

Hidden in the experiences and accomplishments you’ve racked up are important, striking numbers that can speak volumes about your value. Look for opportunities to include this data everywhere you can.

Include a personal section

I like to encourage people to group awards, organizations, skills, etc. into one section. Again, the goal is to pare it down to 4-6 really remarkable things. Don’t just say you’re a member of the American Marketing Association – what did you do with them? What amazing awards did you win? (employee of the month probably doesn’t count.)

In the personal section, think about one personal thing that would be really interesting. Do you run marathons? That shows an amazing amount of discipline – include it! Coach youth football? That shows a commitment to your community and leadership – include it! Perform stand up comedy? That shows a willingness to speak in public – include it! Volunteer at a zoo? That shows interests beyond work and will almost certainly lead to a discussion during the interview – include it!

Where the objective fails in differentiating, the personal section does a fantastic job. It can show a wide variety of skills and interests, and can often lead to unexpected conversations or connections with potential employers.

Think about design

Just because resumes include standard information doesn’t mean there is no opportunity for design. Find a friend or colleague who knows typesetting or letterpress. Don’t use standard system fonts or unique but silly fonts – pay the money for a professional, beautiful typeface (you can get inspiration from books, which usually list the fonts used in the front or back matter.) Make subtle judicious use of color (emphasis on subtle.) Take the time to make your resume look beautiful.

Resume writing is indeed an art – for every one of my suggestions I’m sure there are dozens of people who would disagree. However, the suggestions above have helped a number of people close to me find positions with great companies, and in their opinion in less time. Having a knockout resume tailored to the company you’re applying to makes you feel more confident in submitting, and makes the interview process more enjoyable as well. Both parties know that you’re passionate about the opportunity, that you have a great attention to detail, strong aesthetic sense and experience directly relevant to what they’re looking for. Not a bad combination.

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