by Randy Guthrie – Microsoft Academic Developer Evangelist
Over the past few months I visited nine college campuses, attended three conferences and conducted a hand-full of job interviews, and in the process I’ve seen scores of resumes. One thing I’ve been impressed with is how awful most of them are. I realize that I am probably jaded by my experience as a career coach and service at a community career center, but still I find it amazing that something that is so critical for getting a job is so poorly understood; particularly by those who need jobs the most ie: students seeking internships and new college graduates. The good news is that if you do even a moderately good job of writing your resume you have a pretty good chance of standing out from your competitors. I’ve put off writing this post because it is a daunting task trying to write general guidance that will be useful to most readers, and I’ve struggled how to do this briefly, but I’ve given up and apologize in advance for the length of this post and hope most will find something useful in the next few thousand or so words. Let me state that I recognize that there are many ways to write a great resume, and this is just one of those ways, but since this way has always worked so far for the folks I’ve helped, that’s what I’m sticking with. I also recognize that a resume is very personal, and you need to be comfortable with how it looks, so deviation from this guidance is fine (and necessary) since everyone is different and some situations will need to be handled differently than shown below. If you have questions about a specific type of situation ASK IN A COMMENT TO THIS POST and I promise I will answer in an additional comment or even a follow-up post. Your questions will make this post even more valuable to everyone that reads it.
First, some useful links:
- Resume Workshop Video : This is an animated PowerPoint presentation with my audio commentary that covers the content of this post and more
- Interviewing Workshop Video: This is an animated PowerPoint presentation with audio commentary on how to prepare for a behavioral interview
- MIS Laboratory Student Page: lots of useful career links
Now let’s dig in.
GENERAL FORMATTING & PAGE LENGTH
One Page Please! Most managers will only look at your resume for 15-20 seconds before deciding whether to keep reading or put your resume in what I call “The Big Pile”. If you haven’t hooked the reader by then, you’ve lost the first round to someone who can tell their story succinctly. Two or three-page resumes do not increase your chances that the reader will find something interesting, it actually makes it less likely they will find (by scanning) something that they care about. So try to keep it to a page. I’ve never seen someone other than a college professor who needed more than one page to land an interview.
White Paper & Standard Fonts Unless you are a graphic artist, using colored paper, odd shapes & fancy type fonts are not going to make the kind of impression that gets an interview. Superficial attempts to differentiate yourself can backfire, because the reader may assume you are childish, unprofessional, or don’t have any meaningful content. Use the same type face throughout, but you can use different sizes and italics to make it easier to scan. Don’t go smaller than 11 pt font or larger than13 pt font for the main text. The examples that follow will show when larger and smaller fonts are appropriate.
NAME & CONTACT INFO
There are two approaches that I like to use. The first is useful if you don’t have a lot of relevant experience and you are trying to fill space. While one of the examples show the hyperlink in blue, do not use colored ink when printing a paper copy of your resume. Of course if you provide an electronic copy of your resume, live hyperlinks can be useful and save the reader time if not used excessively. Your name and contact information should be grouped together. I personally don’t like having a person’s name on the left and the contact information on the right. In the example my name is 28pt and contact info is 11pt. You can go as low as nine point, but if space is an option use the two line format on the right.
Two additional pieces of advice: (1) use only one phone number, and make sure it is one where you can get a message (change the recorded greeting if necessary so as to project a professional image) and (2) avoid cryptic or childish e-mail addresses, and use only one of those as well.
Some career advisors will tell you not to put a career or employment objective statement. My advice is to use one. My reason is simple: I debriefed a recruiter from a major aerospace company after a job fair and he told me that he put any resume he received without a [clear] objective statement in the trash, because his HR department would not know where to route it. So my advice is to use one and make it count. Here’s how:
One Line Long
Your objective statement should say in under ten words the kind of job you are looking for. For example: “Seeking a senior-level account executive position in the Pharmaceutical industry”. Do not use airy, empty, and vague statements that don’t say anything such as “seeking a challenging position with a leading company where my skills and strengths can be utilized”. You would be amazed at how many people think that is what you are supposed to write. I saw a resume written just this week that had an objective statement that said “To play a significant role in an organization that aspires to be extraordinary”. These kinds of statements don’t help and can actually delay the reader from learning anything of value about you.
But What If I’m Qualified for More Than One Kind of Job?
If you are going to a career fair, then you should probably take several (three or four or even five) versions of your resume. Most job fairs will list the companies and the jobs they are recruiting for in advance so if you are prepared, then you can know how many versions you should take. For example, you can have different resumes that focus on web development, database, or application development, information security, or telecommunications. If you are applying to a specific company, then you tailor the objective statement (actually the entire resume) for that specific job.
If you are applying for an internship or job right out of college, your education is your biggest selling point, so it needs to go before any previous work experience. Since most recruiters will know what school they are recruiting from, and name of the school is less important and the college major / minor and date of completion. Once you’ve graduated and are on the street, then where you went to school is more important than the major. Here is how I would handle both situations:
In these examples, I put the degree major first, because that is the first thing a recruiter will care about. I also put my my recent (and most impressive!) degree first. Notice I don’t put GPA. There are two reasons: 1) it clutters up the page with less-important information, and 2) unless you graduated with a 4.0, most people won’t think there is much difference between a 3.5 and a 3.8. If your GPA is less than a 3.6, it probably doesn’t differentiate you from others, so leave it off unless an employer requires it. If your GPA is under 3.0, then I don’t have to explain why you would leave it off. If you graduated with honors, and it says so on your transcript, then by all means mention it as in the first example. If you college doesn’t award honors, do not make it up, even if your 3.9 GPA would have gotten you honors at a college that awards them. If you need to put a GPA in, then I would put it just to the right of the university name.
What should I put if I have not graduated yet?
This is one of my favorite resume techniques. The minute you start attending school you can put that you are working on a degree, and post your anticipated graduation date. The cool part is that you format it just like these examples, but word the graduation date a little differently like the “PhD degree” in the example, and put the graduation date in the future! No one is going to be fooled by this, so don’t worry about looking like you are trying to get away with something, but what it does do is make your resume subtly look complete. Plus it does answer the question about what you might be good at.
What about other school accomplishments? Where should they go?
Great question! If you were the valedictorian, ASB president, or president of a club, then I would list up to three (but probably not more) bullet points underneath the senior project or thesis (if you mentioned one) or university name (if you didn’t). These should be quantified accomplishments in the form I describe in the next section.
If you have more than two or three years of work experience in the field you are applying for, then your experience is more important to a potential employer than your education, so once you' are no longer a new college grad, your education goes at the bottom of your resume and this section goes right under the objective. Why? Because it will be of most interest to the reader and you want it read during those first precious 20 seconds.
Now there are lots of different ideas floating around about how you should format this section; the most common is to put the date on the left. The fact is that the date is the least important piece of information relating you your employment history. Far more important is what you did, and then for whom you did it. When you did it is last. The order that I recommend you present the facts about each job is:
- Job Title
- Company Name
- Employment duration
- One sentence job description
- Two - Four Quantified Accomplishments
Most of the resumes I have seen (and written early in my career) were based on an old formula of describing the job in terms of the formal job description. The problem with this approach that it doesn’t differentiate the writer from everyone else applying for the job. Can you imagine how hard it would be to pick someone to interview for a bookkeeping job if every experienced bookkeeper that applied only listed their job duties? Every resume would say almost the exact same thing! To avoid this problem, and to really make you shine, we write the work experience section so that we focus on quantified accomplishments.
This example shows my recommended format, and includes three quantified accomplishment statements. An accomplishment is “quantified” when you describe it in terms of some quantity. I like to try to get two numbers in each accomplishment if possible. Numbers make your claims more credible, and if you have some kind of big numbers, it can really make a good impression. Don’t over sell; let the numbers speak for you. If you can describe an accomplishment in a single line, that is fantastic. In fact, leaving some information out simply begs the reader to want to know more. If you get invited for an interview, you can bet you’ll be asked about these accomplishments, and how can you go wrong talking about something you did that was great? Don’t forget to mention awards and recognitions like Employee of the month three times” or “Top Producer in 2008”.
Notice also that I have my job title in bold and in a larger font. I do that so that it is easier for the reader to visually scan. Notice also that the company name is in italics. That helps set the different facts apart. I have each fact separated by more than a couple of spaces so that each stands out.
Now a bit more about job titles. Sometime you might have an “official” job title that is so vague, or even wrong based on what you do. For example, I had three lateral job changes at an aerospace company that did not change my payroll classification, so my managers never bothered to updated my “requisition” to reflect the changes in my job title. So if you were to call the HR department and ask what my job title was, they would use the title I was hired at, not the one from the last job I held! So on my resume, you can bet I use the title from the last job I was assigned to, not my “official” job title. The moral of the story is that if your “real” job title is too vague, or even deceptive, do not be afraid to put a more accurate, clear job title on the resume. Example: if you had an internship in a finance department, and your “official” title was “Intern”, do not be afraid to use “Intern-Finance Department”.
TOOLS AND SKILLS
I try to avoid this section if possible. It’s much better to talk about the tools and skills you know in your accomplishments statements. But if you learned how to do something in class, but haven’t used it on the job, and the job you are applying for wants candidates who have this skill, you need to use this section. But be careful. Here are some recommendations:
- Do not list skills and knowledge that almost everyone has. The most common offender here is that you know Microsoft Office. As a recent college graduate, we assume you learned the basic programs. Stating it here does not differentiate you.
- Avoid huge long lists using every acronym you can think of ie: ASP.net, C#, C++, PHP, etc. Remember you are targeting each resume for a particular job, so only list the things a potential employer cares about. Huge list casts doubt on which of those you really know. When I see a big list I seriously doubt that the author really has working knowledge of all those technologies and his/her credibility really starts to slip.
- Be accurate in describing your knowledge. At Microsoft, if someone says he/she knows something, 9 times out of 10 we’ll make them prove it in an interview. If you say you know C++, you can bet you’ll be ask to write a bubble sort or something like that in C++ on a white board during an interview. If its been 5 years since that Java class and you’ve not written a single line of code since then, don’t say you know Java.
SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS
Remember, your resume is just supposed to get you invited for an interview, not get you a job offer. That is what the interview is for. Keep your resume simple and focused on a single job. Keep it to a single page. Catch-all, general-purpose resumes DO NOT WORK. You can send out hundreds of these and you will never get a single response (I know â€“ I tried it when I was young and inexperienced). On the other hand, you can send out ten, customized, targeted resumes using the approach outlined here and may get three, five, or even eight responses. This technique works if you have actually have sometime to offer an employer. Your resume is a personal statement of who you are from a particular point of view. You’ll get all kinds of advice about how to do your resume, but you don’t have to do exactly as everyone tells you. If you feel like you know better, then go with your gut feeling. Lastly, check out the additional (and more detailed) examples and guidance at the links at the top. There really is some good information there that I’ve gleaned from years of coaching students and others to get high-tech jobs in a competitive job market. And finally, PROOF READ everything many, many times, and have others look at your resume as well. (career center people are invaluable for this). Good luck and good job hunting!
[Note: an earlier version of this post mysterious lost most of its content, hence this repost]