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10 Dos and Don'ts to Make Your Resume Stand Out

Greg de la Cruz works in the tech industry and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.

A person reviews a resume on a clipboard with someone. Making small changes on your resume can help you stand out from the hundreds of applicants you're competing against.

A person reviews a resume on a clipboard with someone. Making small changes on your resume can help you stand out from the hundreds of applicants you're competing against.

Small Tweaks Can Make a Big Difference

You may already be in possession of a resume that sells itself—your experience and accomplishments make it a no-brainer for any recruiter to give you a call. Or, you could be a relatively young job seeker and feel that your CV has too many empty spaces you just can’t fill.

Wherever you fall between these two spectrums, it might be wrong for you to assume that your resume needs no further tinkering. Chances are, you’ve given the job market a shot and fired off your resume to multiple job postings but haven’t felt any progress. Have you landed any interviews?

If you’re struggling to get your resume noticed by recruiters, you’re not alone—only about 2% of sent resumes result in an interview, according to Chris Kolmar of Zippia Research. Kolmar adds that you need to send between 30–50 resumes to get hired, and hiring managers spend an average of only six seconds reading any single resume.

While you shouldn’t fabricate any information you put on your resume, nor should you try to mislead anyone, you can make these ten simple tweaks to make your resume stand out.

1. Disclosing Information

Don’t: Provide too much personal information.

Do: State relevant personal information, especially for the job you’re applying for.

I’ve seen the mistake by applicants of disclosing too much information on their resume—a personal marketing document that’s likely to get passed around many people within an organization or posted publicly in career sites such as LinkedIn or JobStreet. If there’s one thing you must remember at all times when providing personal information on your resume, it’s this: your resume is not a legal document.

Ever wonder why most companies that advertise open positions make you submit your resume as an attachment and make you fill out their online application form? It’s because the CV that you handcrafted is not legally binding. Instead, what you openly provide on their application form are declarations that they can hold you accountable for.

On another note, it also blows my mind that some applicants still subscribe to the old format of the “bio-data” where there’s a field for your height, weight, religion, nationality, etc. While some of these personal data are important and might be relevant to the position you’re applying for, they’re not relevant all of the time—plus, you could always provide them further along the recruitment process.

Don’t make most of your personal information public. Always assume the worst that could happen—identity theft, being listed in a database without your consent, your information being sold to spammers.

There’s relevant personal information that you should list, such as your address (but don’t be too specific), especially when the company’s looking for a local hire, or your contact info so they can get a hold of you. Make sure that the information that you do disclose is of immediate use for the recruiter.

2. Writing the Cover Letter

Don’t: Write a cover letter that duplicates or regurgitates information from your CV.

Do: Draft a short, concise cover letter that highlights what makes you special or unique.

You know what makes a recruiter stop reading your resume, or skip it entirely? A wordy one, or one that contains a cover letter that basically converts the bulleted list in your CV into paragraph form.

Including a cover letter with your resume is generally regarded as optional, so don’t be pressured to write one unless there’s a hint the job that you’re applying for requires it. But if you’re faced with either the motivation or an ultimatum to submit a cover letter, here are a few pointers:

  • Make your case on why you’re the optimal candidate for the job. This is where you can highlight your proudest achievement or even the top three highlights of your career.
  • Borrow key phrases or words from the job posting, as an automated filtering software or the recruiters themselves could pick up on these and shortlist you among viable candidates.
  • Don’t waste the recruiter’s time. Make sure that every word, phrase, and sentence is essential to supporting your case as a hirable candidate.

The key thing in writing the cover letter is to communicate why you’re a great fit for the job. You don’t have to spew out all of the awards and accomplishments that make you the best possible candidate in the entire job pool. Prioritize fit, eradicate fluff.

3. Customizing Experience

Don’t: List experience in the same form and content as you would for all job applications.

Do: Customize, without falsifying information, experience that’s relevant to the job you’re applying for.

It’s understandable if you’re trying to save time by composing one version of your resume and send it out to 10, 20, or even 50 different job postings—knowing that banking on only a few applications will likely get you nowhere. But writing a resume with the same generic content for different types of roles will not help you land a job, let alone get you an interview.

Many career experts and recruiters will tell you this: take the time needed to customize the work experience on your resume. Work experience is often the most important criteria in selecting a shortlisted or viable applicant—so make sure that you hit the right spots in your wording.

For example, if you’re a safety engineer practitioner, but you’re sending an application for a job that has much to do with construction safety, tweak the wording on your work experience so it aligns with construction safety practices, or borrow some of the wording on the job posting’s “requirements” or “qualifications.” And if you’re a software developer with extensive experience in JavaScript or Python but only has a teeny bit of exposure in C#—and yet the job explicitly needs someone with C# experience—emphasize your C# experience while maintaining that you do have experience in other programming languages by adding that on a footnote or appendix.

Amy Gallo, who wrote the HBR article How to Write a Resume That Stands Out, recommends as a first step to “carefully read the job description and highlight the five or six most important responsibilities, as well as a few keywords that you can then use on your resume.”

Taking the time to tailor-fit your resume can wear you down, but it’s something worth doing if it helps you get noticed.

4. Elaborating Job Titles

Don’t: Write the same exact, generic, abbreviated job title that a current or previous employer gave you.

Do: Slightly modify as needed the name of your role, and write a short description if it still sounds vague.

Companies differ in the way they market a job title. They either write one in a way that aligns across the industry or make the name of the role sound consistent with the hierarchy of the organization. Startups are known for writing fancy job titles such as Chief Happiness Officer or Front-End Development Rockstar while conglomerates are known for abbreviating positions or making them sound generic—CRE (Corporate Real Estate) Analyst or Risk Officer, for example.

The biggest mistake you can make with your job titles is failing to elaborate on them, or not making them sound relevant enough to the job you’re applying for.

On the safe side, so the recruiter will be able to match your declared position name with the one they find after the background check, you may want to retain the same or a very similar job title. If you’re more comfortable doing this, then the suggestion would be to write a very short description—a phrase—to elaborate on your job title.

To use the examples above, for CRE Analyst you might want to add “Facility Supervisor” or “Property Consultant” if these descriptors fit the job. And for Front-End Development Rockstar you may want to add “Lead JavaScript Developer” to be more specific.

What’s key here is not to be confined inside the exact job titles that your employers gave you. Instead, try to hit the right keywords from the name of the position that’s on the job posting—but without misleading or falsifying. Because if you stick to the same job titles that your employers assigned to you, chances are you’re going to miss out on being shortlisted, especially if none of your job titles sound relevant enough to the position they’re hiring for.

5. Measuring Impact

Don’t: State vague descriptors such as “strong ability in—" or “excels in teamwork” without providing numbers to support your claim.

Do: Back your claims with tangible, accurate data of your impact.

David Sweet, Ph.D., a seasoned recruiter with over 20 years in Tokyo and an ICF-certified executive coach, writes in his LinkedIn article 10 resume pet peeves that “if you’re in sales, you should show the % of target or the $$$$ revenue you’ve made. If [he’s] hiring a salesperson, [he doesn’t] care about strong ability to negotiate or excel in teamwork. If you’re doing sales… show [him] the money.”

When you’re writing about your impact inside your resume, make sure that it reflects tangible impact—not vague, flowery descriptions written by CEOs in farewell letters to long-time executives who are about to leave the company.

Instead of saying strong project execution, provide a proper timeline on the projects that you’re proud to boast about—say: completed project x in y number of days resulting in savings worth z dollars. You won’t set yourself apart other candidates if you can’t provide specific measures of the impact you made.

6. Listing Responsibilities

Don’t: Outline your responsibilities in a manner like “Responsible for—", bulleting your list by starting with the same two boring words.

Do: Start with specific verbs, such as: “Managed,” “Trained,” “Maintained,” etc.

The first suggestion you get from Suzanne Lucas’s article 10 Resume Tweaks to Help You Get a Job Now tells you to “remove the word responsible from your resume.” “This tells me nothing,” Lucas adds, and “what you want to write instead,” she says, is something like “Managed the budget. Maintained client relationships.”

When you notice something repetitive or monotonous in any body of text, you tend to scan through it instead of taking your time to read every entry. The phrase ‘responsible for’ also sounds lifeless, not being in the active voice. You get the reader hooked not by using passive voice but by proactively using active voice.

Bring life to every responsibility you have by starting each one with an action—make the reader (the recruiter) visualize you as someone who actually did those things. You’re not just a placeholder. You’re a doer.

7. Optimizing Length

Don’t: Pad your resume by listing all your accomplishments, skills, certifications, etc.

Do: Limit your resume to 2–3 pages.

I’ve seen resumes that have 1–2 additional pages of certifications, accolades, awards, licenses, etc. And while a thick collection of credibility boosters may look impressive, they’re not always helpful to the recruiter who has to scan through hundreds of resumes for multiple positions that need to be filled.

If you can’t avoid listing down all of your achievements and certifications, I suggest to keep them as a separate attachment or as a link to a webpage where the recruiter can access them if needed. It’s not wrong to include certifications that could possibly elevate you above other candidates—just make sure you’re strategic about the ones you include on each submission.

Kim Isaacs, Resume Expert for the career site Monster and Resume Writing Services Director for ResumePower, suggests an optimal length of two pages. “The Goldilocks principle,” Isaacs says, “applies to two-page resumes—it’s just right for most employees.”

She adds: “Consider the resume reviewer’s point of view. They are trying to fill a position and looking for someone with specific credentials. By the time you’ve added a heading at the top and resume sections—from qualifications summary to experience, education, and skills—there’s not a lot of room left over for meaty accomplishments. Two pages gives you extra space to convince the reviewer to select you for an interview.”

A case can be made to write a resume that’s three pages or longer, but Isaacs emphasizes that you should only consider doing so if:

  • You’re a senior-level manager or executive with an impressive track record.
  • You’re in an academic or scientific field with a list of publications, engagements, licenses, patents, etc.
  • You’re applying for a government job that requires more information than a civilian application.
  • You have a lengthy technical or project background and need to provide case studies, highlights, a list of technical skills, etc.

Regardless of your background, you can always resort to sending those additional pages separately or provide a link—so in my opinion, two pages is just right, and three pages is the maximum. Bottom line: don’t bore the recruiters, and save them some time.

8. Formatting the CV

Don’t: Make your resume unreadable or distract the reader with ostentatious design.

Do: Make the format clean and straightforward, with easy-to-read font style and size.

If you go back to the beginning of this article, the statistic that, on average, hiring managers only spend six seconds reading a resume finds support when you know that there are resumes out there that are just awful to look at. Just one glance at a resume that’s poorly formatted or contains inconsistent visual design can be enough for any recruiter to skip your submission.

Unless you’re applying for a role that deals with graphic design, marketing, or anything that has to do with visuals—all you need to make sure of is that your resume is neatly formatted and easy to read. There are resume templates available online and some of which are free to use. You can use these as a starting point to compare with your first formatting style and assess which of the two is more readable—or you can take elements from different styles. The goal is to attract attention, and the rule is to not scare readers away.

Spend time on your resume’s formatting, but don’t get too caught up with the style that you forget that it's the actual content that matters more. An attractive resume template will do just that—attract. It may impress at first, but good CV visuals won’t move you along the recruitment process unless you have impressive experience, skills, and credentials.

9. Losing the Fluff

Don’t: Place irrelevant, needless words, sentences, or entries.

Do: Keep re-reading your resume and proactively identify parts to cut out.

There are entries on your resume which you might’ve believed were essential. David Sweet, Ph.D., in 10 resume pet peeves tells us to lose the fluff. “Unless you’re going to write something original,” Sweet says, “just take the summary or objective off… It’s like telling the dog not to eat the dropped bacon off the floor… is the dog listening? So too, most people see summaries and objectives as fluff. If you’re going to write it, lose the fluff.”

Writing expert William Zinsser emphasizes countless times in his classic guide to writing On Writing Well that writing is re-writing. He teaches us that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. You might be led to believe that the second or third revision of your resume is a good enough output, but believe me—it will take more than a few passes to come up with something of quality.

While 10 revisions of your original CV may feel like overkill, this number of revisions is almost guaranteed to help you remove all the unnecessary fluff from your resume. Additionally, you’ll find the following advice in many style guides: prune as many unnecessary words, phrases, or sentences as you can find.

10. Proofreading and Editing

Don’t: Rely on an unedited version of your resume.

Do: Check with people who can spare their extra set of eyes to proofread your resume and critique it.

You might resist the idea of someone other than you taking a look at your resume and giving you feedback. Especially when the person is someone close to you—a friend, a colleague, an old classmate, even your spouse—the awkwardness you might feel is completely normal, and you might even take offense at their suggestions even if you didn’t intend to feel that way.

Asking an expert or specialist to proofread and edit your resume is a viable option, but it costs money—and if you’re unemployed, it’s often a non-option to spend money when you don’t have money coming in. This is why you might be resistant to hire someone to be that extra pair of eyes, someone who doesn’t have your own biases—because you’re not so sure the expense is really worth it.

Whomever you choose to proofread and edit your resume, know that this is a very important thing to do when it comes to producing a presentable resume. Outside feedback, even when it doesn’t directly change something within your resume, can help provide insights you would never have gotten had you opted to revise your resume on your own.

Suzanne Lucas, in 10 Resume Tweaks to Help You Get a Job Now, even suggests having a native speaker proofread your resume. “I’d even recommend,” she says, “that an American applying for a job in London ask a British person to proofread. You don’t have to accept the native speaker’s ideas, but at least you’ll know them.”

Take as Much Time as You Need to Re-Write Your Resume

Applying for jobs isn’t always a race. Sure, those candidates who were able to submit their resumes as soon as the job posting became visible have some advantage—but they won’t always get noticed unless their resume is more compelling than yours.

Take as much time as you need to tinker with your resume. Be open to criticism by having your colleagues past and present take a look at your CV. Also, scour as many job sites as you can to optimize the content of your resume according to what recruiters are looking for. If you see any positions that you might be interested in applying for in the future, start including the key words and phrases from those postings into your resume (if you have the credentials to support).

Spend time tinkering, re-writing, proofreading, receiving feedback—and you might just get that call that leads to another call and ultimately hear the words you’re hired—or something like that.

Further Reading

Thanks to career experts who have made their expertise freely available, you can find more of their helpful advice online:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz