This resume writing guide will help you create an outstanding resume that lands you interviews with the companies you want to meet.
In it, we offer tips for writing a winning resume regardless of your experience, position, and industry.
We’ll tell you what employers want (and don’t want) to see in a resume, how to get your resume to survive the ATS screening software most employers use and which of the latest resume tricks you should definitely put into your resume.
Why A Well-Written Resume Still Matters - a LOT
In today's world of LinkedIn, job boards and social media you might not think having a well-written resume matters as much as it used to.
But you'd be wrong. A well-written resume remains your most potent tool when selling your skills and your experience to potential employers.
But today, writing a winning resume isn't just about documenting your experience, skills and education into a 1-page resume.
If your resume isn't written correctly for your intended job and doesn't contain the right kind of language and keywords to make it through modern HR screening software, then you'll never get to the first interview. Especially in a larger organization.
To win, your resume must be both technically perfect AND be written to communicate your unique value proposition clearly - and briefly.
‘Briefly’ is an essential part of this equation.
You may have already heard this about recruiters - they look at each resume for a few seconds. Actually they spend 6.25 seconds according to one study.
Within that blink of an eye, a recruiter look for immediate clues as to whether this is a resume worth considering.
A few of these clues – little tidbits and details that you include or omit – will determine which pile your resume lands in.
It’s the information you include in the first bullet points, it’s the way you arrange your details, it’s the font you use, and it’s the keywords you have used to emphasize to explain your value to the company.
DIY or Not?
One other thing: resumes look misleadingly simply to write. I mean, who cannot put together a 1-page summary of their education, skills, and experience. Right?
But recruiters are extremely selective who rely on technology today. So the resume writing game is different.
You need to consider your tone, use of specific words, font, design and myriad other details.
You have to get it right. So don’t be in a hurry to finish your resume.
This guide should tell you everything you need to know to write a winning resume yourself.
But if you are not sure you can do it yourself - or simply don't want to try - then find a good professional resume writer. On this site, you'll find reviews of the top resume writing services online and the best resume writing apps.
Before You Start
A great resume is completed before a single letter is typed.
By the time you start writing your resume, you should already know what your 2-3 key unique value propositions (UPVs) are you want to convey to prospective employers about yourself.
You should, in particular, have a single value proposition that you will rally your other skills and accomplishments around.
That value depends on your skillset and the position you are seeking.
Do you want them to see you as a leader, a problem solver, someone with initiative, a creative or a team builder?
For the best resume, here’s what you should do before you start writing.
The main goal of a resume is to show employers that your skills and experience match their job requirements and general workplace culture. Go beyond the job posting. Read the company’s website, look at their social media pages and read their press releases. Soon you’ll know what kind of employees they want.
You can then craft your resume in a way that best communicates how you fit into the company culture.
You can even study other similar job postings to know what employers look for most for a certain position.For large companies like Google, you can find valuable resume and interview advice on forums such as Reddit.
When you know a company so well, it becomes easier to capture their attention in the few seconds you are given.
Determine Your Goals
Of course, you want to get called for an interview and hopefully get a job. Those are the general objectives. But to achieve those, you need to determine what you want out of your resume. The best way to do that is to ask yourself a few introspective questions.
- What is your main reason for seeking a new job? Are you looking for a step up your career ladder?Do you want a more challenging environment? Do you want to switch to a new industry?
- What image do you want your resume to portray? Is it that of a hardworking and resilient employee? A creative problem solver? A team leader who is adept at team building?
- Which skills and experiences do you value most in your career? Combined with the company research you’ve done, answering this question will help you highlight the most important details at the top of your resume.
You’ve done your research, and you know your audience. You also know what exactly you want to achieve with your recipe. The next step is planning the actual resume.
Have all the details you need close by before you begin. Don’t break off to look for your academic certificates or job appointment letter from years ago. If you have an existing resume that you’ll copy some details from, make sure it’s close.
Planning also involves determining what design, font, and format to use. We’ll cover these areas in more detail shortly.
The Do-or-Die Elements of a Winning Resume
With just 1 page worth of space to sell yourself, there isn’t much room for mistakes.
Your resume lives or dies based on a few essential elements. Fail on any of these and your resume may be doomed.
- Basic Elements
- Your Value
- Brevity, Relevance, and Clarity
- Keyword Optimization
We’ll have a more detailed discussion of the basic elements of a resume in the formatting section below. For now, I just wanted to mention an interesting study that involved several recruiters.
The eye-tracking software was used to monitor recruiters as they perused through resumes for more than two months.
The study showed that recruiters spend just 6.25 seconds scanning a resume during the first pass. 80% of that time is spent looking at six specific elements; Name, current position, and company, previous position, and company start and end dates of current and previous positions and education details.
We’ll tell you how to arrange and format these elements optimally further below to make sure recruiters can quickly scan them and glean all the relevant details.
Long ago, resumes were dry and stuffy. They were filled with generic skill statements and meaningless self-praises. Such resumes won’t fly today.
Recruiters are looking for something else other than pretty statements that could apply to pretty much anyone in your field. What they want to know is what you are going to do for them, what value you plan to bring onboard the company if hired.
From the experience of going through sheer numbers of resumes, recruiters can often sense this value from the first 6-second scan. They can also tell when you are just spouting generic nonsense.
And if you manage to get shortlisted, you can be sure they will be taking an even closer and this time longer look at your resume. If you don’t communicate your value, the position is not yours.
How exactly do you communicate your value?
By matching your skills and experience to the job requirements and company culture. This is why it’s important to research.
Let’s say company XYZ is recruiting a Digital Brand Strategist. They are looking for a professional with experience in online marketing, social media branding, and marketing strategy. They want an individual who is creative, results-oriented and collaborates well with others.
Instead of writing general bullet points about being a team player and how passionate you are about marketing, focus on explaining in specifics how you fit that job description.
If you have experience running huge online marketing campaigns, mention it. If you have special certification for skill areas like Google Adwords, mention it. If you created a video that helped a company boost sales through social media, mention it.
One of the worst resume writing habits is using meaningless buzzwords; seemingly loaded words that don’t say anything at all. Words like synergy, go-getter, detail-oriented, results-driven, etc.
These words, especially when used without any actual accomplishments, cloud your message. Stick to what is relevant. Are you a good team player? Then mention how you worked with a team to achieve this or that.Are you a “go-getter”? Mention how certain specific experiences have helped you develop initiative and self-drive.
Most importantly, keep everything you say relevant to the job posting.
Some people say you shouldn’t include experience that’s more than ten years in the past or that you should keep out certain minor skills. But there are no hard and fast rules. If you are sure it is relevant to the resume, add it. If it adds to your value, it’s important.
But of course, don’t add every little thing that has happened in your life. Don’t say you learned piano in high school unless you are good at playing piano right now and it’s relevant to the resume.
Be brief even on the important details. Use bullet points to highlight your skills and experiences quickly. Make it easy for the recruiter to glean all the important points within seconds.
You most likely have heard about ATS or Applicant Tracking System. ATS software scans thousands of applicant resumes, looking for certain keywords associated with the job posting.
If your resume has been optimized for keywords, it will rank higher and stand a better chance of being picked for consideration.
Many companies use ATS software programs, so it is extremely important that you optimize your resume for the right keywords. Find out what keywords are used to describe skill areas and specializations in your field and then use them in your resume.
Note that keyword optimization is not just about stuffing the resume with keywords. The software also considers the context around which the keywords are used. Focus on industry-relevant themes and then include the right keywords naturally.
For instance, if it’s the Digital Brand Strategist opening we mentioned, relevant skills would revolve around areas like social media, analytics, and design. You would then use keywords like Google Analytics, Social Media Marketing, Adobe Illustrator, and Copywriting.
How to Format Your Resume
First things first: don’t add your mailing address or street address to your resume.
Unless specifically requested, these are antiquated additions. Adding your city and zip code is often enough to identify your location.
Also leave out the date you wrote the resume, your sex, marital status, religion and other irrelevant personal details.
Most companies will not accept any resume with a photograph attached as it carries the risk of discrimination.
Don’t mention irrelevant hobbies, a criminal history (if you have one), outdated skills, salary history and unrelated work experience.
Do not add a list of references in your resume and don’t say “references available upon request.” If they need them, they’ll ask for them. You’ll then submit them in a separate document.
There are three types of resume formats: chronological, functional or hybrid - or some combination of these three.
Chronological is the most basic. It uses the traditional format of laying job experiences in a chronological manner. It’s ideal for those who are seeking a job in the same field they have been working in for years.
The functional format focuses on skills more than experience. It's ideal for those with little experience or large gaps in their careers.
The hybrid format borrows from the chronological and functional formats. It highlights skills as well as experience. It is the preferred format in most modern resumes.
Regardless of the type of resume, they all have a roughly similar outline with just a few variations.
The name takes the topmost part of the resume in big bold letters and preferably centered. Just below the name you should include your basic contact information: email address, contact number, city, state and zip code.
In traditional resumes, the first portion of the resume after the header used to contain the ‘Objective.’ Except for a few cases, this is now considered irrelevant and even damaging to your resume. Instead, most resume formats recommend a summary of your skills and qualifications.
Here’s an example summary of the Digital Brand Strategist position.
Creative and data-driven online marketing strategist with ten years experience in various facets of digital branding for large companies. Achieved20% Sales increase on average per year for company Y as a result of improved brand exposure and perception through multi-pronged online campaigns. Experienced in multiple digital branding channels including social media, email, content, video, and design
You can also present your summary in bullet point form for easier scanning by the recruiter.
The summary aims to quickly and immediately communicate your value to the company. Focus on what the employer needs and show them how you are the perfect fit for it. Don’t forget to include important keywords for ATS software.
3. Experience and accomplishments
This is the ‘body’ of the resume. It takes up the most real estate and lists the most important details that the employer needs to see. In most formats, it is titled as the ‘Summary of Qualifications.’
The format varies depending on the type of resume and which industry you work in. In some formats, the accomplishments come first and work experience second. In others, it is the other way around.
In traditional chronological resumes, the experience and qualifications are combined. You list each work experience and your accomplishment during that time.
Here is a sample that uses the combination format.
SUMMARY OF QUALIFICATIONS
- Increasing sales by 40% in the first year working for company Y through aggressive online branding strategies. 30% average sales increases in subsequent years.
- Used analytics to increase online customer conversion by 10% and improve customer retention by 43%.
- Worked with a team to create an online viral video for Company Y’s product launch. Resulted in double the expected sales within a month.
Responsibilities in bullet points
In the accomplishments sections, you can break your achievements into subsections if you have a lot of relevant ones to include. For instance, Social Media Marketing, Data and Analytics and Design and Coding.You can then include specific accomplishments under each.
In the education section, simply list your higher education academic credentials. Include the name of the institution and the degree awarded.
5. Additional skills
At the bottom of the resume, list any additional skills you may have that are relevant to the job. Use short bullet points without much elaboration. E.g.
- Google Adwords
- Adobe Illustrator
Writing a Web-Friendly Resume
Whether you are submitting your resume by mail or to job boards, it should be web-friendly.
That means it should be easy to read by ATS software and on computer screens.
Here are some tips to make your resume web-friendly.
- Get your keywords right. Do not overstuff. Instead, use them around natural industry themes.
- Simple, minimalist design. Forget graphics and fancy fonts. Use an easy-to-read font like Georgia and Arial. Make sure there is enough space between lines and lean more towards bullet points rather than block paragraphs.
- Have multiple document formats. If you are sending the resume by mail, PDF is the preferred format. If you are submitting it to a job board, create an ASCII plain text version. You can easily do so from the Notepad program on your computer.
- Use a common structure. Don’t mix up your sections. Follow an accepted structure such as the one we have laid out above. This makes it easy for humans and software to scan your resume for the most important bits.
Modern Resume Writing Trends
Here are the most important trends in resume writing that you should consider incorporating in your next resume.
Not all of them will be relevant to your resume. Pick the ones that add value and will get your resume noticed.
- Minimalism –modern resumes are getting even more minimalist. There are barely any graphics elements; just black letters on a white background. This focuses attention on the words and the various sections of the resume.
- Personal–recruiters are encouraging job seekers to use a more personal tone in their resumes. That human connection can put you ahead.
- Creative - you can try something different to stand out, though it’s risky. One guy decided to include some of his failures in his resume, and it got more responses than his standard resume. If you can find a creative way to make, your resume connects more with the hiring manager, go for it.
- Hyperlinks –with so little space in the resume, you can add links to more of your work or your full portfolio. But don’t hide any relevant information behind a link when you can include it in the resume. The links are just for recruiters who want to dig deeper.
- Video –depending on which industry you work in, a video can provide a more engaging overview of your skills and experiences. If you include a video, keep it less than 1 minute. 30-45 seconds is ideal.
Warning Flags That Will Get Your Resume Tossed
Recruiters are very perceptive to red flags on resumes.
They will quickly notice dates that don’t align, so don’t try to hide a career gap with some date tricks.
Another thing they quickly notice is an irrelevance. That is, your stated skills and experience don’t match the job requirements.
Just as bad are non-specific accomplishments. If you don’t specify what percentage you increased sales or how many new customers you brought in for the company, then don't tell them you are a great salesperson.
If there is an abnormality in your resumes such as a career gap or an industry change, make sure you explain it in the resume.
Finally, some recruiters will check your social media and LinkedIn profiles. If they don’t match what’s on your resume, it’s a red flag.
If you take one thing from this guide, let it be this:
A resume is all about communicating your unique value to the job, in a clear and brief manner, using the words and metrics that your industry and your job use to describe success.
Nothing else really matters as much.
Let the recruiter know exactly what you are bringing to the company and why you are so sure you are qualified for that job.
If you don’t feel confident writing a resume, the recruiter will doubt you too. Even if you have little experience or you think the job is a bit above you, don’t let them see it. You are applying for that job because you believe you can be of value to the company. Find a way to communicate that value. If you can’t, that’s probably not the job you should be applying for.