How to Write an Effective Resume

Updated on February 11, 2018
Michael-Duncan profile image

Michael has been employed in various local and international business organizations and governments.

Introduction

A resume is a summary of an individual's career objectives, professional experience, educational history, skills and accomplishments. The key to a successful application is to include a resume which is as special and original as possible so as to catch the eye of the prospective employer and cause him/her to focus on your credentials in a way no other applicant can. This is personal marketing at its core and it should have the very best form of expression. In this sense, your resume is actually your sales pitch through which you introduce the ultimate product, you!

If your resume is going to make a resounding impact, it will have to do so within the first few seconds of being picked up by the employer or else it never will. Therefore the need to incorporate strong phrases and captivating statements without overselling yourself. While there is no single set of 'formulas' on guaranteeing immediate job offers, as each employer happens to be different in terms of outlook and mentality, the following tips can be used as a guide toward creating a powerful and winning resume.

Originality

If you place yourself in the shoes of the prospective employer, perusing hundreds or even thousands of applications for a single vacancy, you will begin to appreciate the importance of having a resume that sticks out creatively and effectively. A blue-collar worker may land a good job because of an impressive resume, whereas a white-collar worker with a wealth of education and experience in his belt may miss the boat completely because of a poor one. It is not difficult to see why this is so. The resume practically represents the applicant personally to the prospective employer and his organization.

As far as resumes are concerned, it is quality that counts over quantity. Employers are especially time-bound individuals and will not have the opportunity to go through all the details of the resumes they receive. So how much time does the average recruiter or hiring manager spend on each resume? Studies show that they spend 20 seconds!

How then can you get your foot through the door, given the odds? By using words, phrases and statements that are charged with energy, creativity and initiative. This inspires the reader and retains their interest in the content of the application, making it stand out from all the others. It does not have to be wordy at all.

Avoid creating a generic resume since this will put off employers. Instead have a different one tailored specifically for each job you are applying for. Customizing your resume to fit a specific job position makes you come across as a aspiring candidate who is willing to go the extra mile. You can either do this yourself, employ the services of a professional, or use an online resume builder that is most suited for your requirements.

Relevance

When putting your resume together, ensure that the statements you use relate to the job you are applying for. These include your hobbies if you have to include them as well. Is it ideal to state that you enjoy drumming and composing music when you are applying for a position as a medical assistant? Not really. Moreover, I honestly don’t see how including what you do in your free time enhances the resume unless your activities are directly relevant to the job you are applying for.

Recruiters or employers will search databases and online sites for resumes which contain keywords that are relevant to the position at hand. So it is not just necessary to personalize the resume, it should also bear the right keywords which will enable it to be picked up during the search. For a complete list of useful power words that you can use in your resume, you can check my other article on the ideal cover letter. A lot of big corporations use software programs like Resumix to automatically scan through candidates' applications and store them in a database while eliminating those which do not contain the correct keywords. This makes it easier for the employer or recruiter who then searches the database and arranges applications according to those who are most qualified.

You could also leverage the relationships you have with your friends, relatives or family members. They can pose as a potential employer and review your resume to confirm that all the bases have been covered and if not, highlight any inconsistencies in the content of the document. Receiving feedback from different people on the formatting, presentation, grammar and other aspects of the resume will help you prepare and polish it even further before the application lands on the desk of the employer. Details can be overlooked by a single individual even in the process of proofreading, which is why it is wise to bring additional sets of eyes into the picture. As noted earlier, you may opt to use a professional resume writer, but first check out their background and let them provide samples of their previous work plus any references you can contact to confirm their claims and the quality of their work. There are actually organizations that certify resume writers and these well-acclaimed certifications include Certified Master Resume Writer (CMRW), National Certified Resume Writer (NCRW) and Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW).

Quality and Accuracy

Grammatical accuracy, proper spelling and sentence construction communicates much about you and demonstrates a well-educated and polished individual. You could either use available software to review for corrections or have a third party proof-read it for you. When writing the resume, avoid using a font size or type that is too small or difficult for the employer to read. The ideal types of fonts to use include: Times New Roman, Garamond, Arial, Bookman, Georgia or Helvetica. These are common in most computers. Bear in mind that you are formatting the resume to make it professional and both easy and quick to read through, so it is best to avoid fancy fonts.

A squeezed and cluttered resume appears messy to the reader. Make sure that yours is visually well organized, spaced and arranged neatly into sections to make it easy for the reader to find exactly what he or she is looking for. It will be easier for them to simply pick up the next resume if they have to struggle to find key details on yours. Likewise, there needs to be consistency in the format of the resume from the beginning all the way to the end. All paragraphs should be justified exactly the same way and the spaces between the sections should be even all the way through. Wrongly spelled names of educational institutions and places of work communicates poor attention to detail, carelessness and weak communication skills.

Ensure that you use creative ways of expressing yourself, your portfolio and professional experience. The idea is to get as much of your resume as possible digested in a glance, because resumes are not documents that are usually read but rather skimmed through. So a lot depends on your ability to exclude unnecessary words and be as clearly concise as possible. After writing and editing the resume, allow it to sit for some time before a secondary review.

Structure

The following are key sections in the structure of the resume:

Contact Information

Your contact information should include your name, complete address, (house or apartment number, street, city, state, zip and country if applying internationally), home phone number, cell phone or secondary number such as a facsimile number, email address and website. Double-check to make sure that it is information is accurate. If you cannot be reached by the employer, all your efforts will have gone to waste. The same applies to details of the employer and the company.

Objectives

Ideally, this should be upto two sentences long. Ensure that you are specific in defining the particular position you are after. Avoid making vague statements like “I am seeking for a Marketing position” since there may be various marketing positions available in a company. Within the objectives, the employer needs to see how your personal aspirations meet the needs of the company. This is not about how the company may benefit you as a person, but rather the input that you will contribute to the company. Since the section is at the very top of the resume, the words used need to arrest the attention of the employer immediately.

Professional Experience

The details of your work history should be such that they are quality experiences and not just filling in some empty gaps in the resume, as this can be quickly noticeable. Moreover, ensure that you retain a truthful account of the experiences. Your current status determines how you will begin and what you will centre on the most when hired. If you are applying for an internship or have just graduated from college, then your resume should be more focused on your academic background and achievements, as compared to someone who has been on the career path for many years. This section should include the job titles, names of the companies, the duration of employment spent in each, the city, state and country where they are located. It should also include the responsibilities that you had, beginning with and emphasizing those most relevant to the position you are applying for. Avoid the use of continuous prose and instead, use the bulleted format, starting each statement or phrase with an action verb such as Configured, Maintained, Developed, Supervised, Operated, Designed. This keeps the sections from being too long and tedious for someone who simply wants to grasp the key items in a single view, which is the position most employers find themselves in. You can decide the order you will employ for sub-headings, for example:

International Business Machines – Project Manager, or

Project Manager – International Business Machines

Educational Background

Arrange the order of training and education with in reverse chronology. Include information on what is relevant to the job you are applying for and any courses you have undertaken which are related to the job. This section should not just be a list of the academic qualifications you received in high school, college and university, but also include all the professional certifications gained in the course of your career progression as well as courses you have attended. In this section, include the name of the school, dates of attendance and graduation, degrees earned (or programs enrolled), major and minor subjects, honors, awards, Dean’s list commendations and GPAs.

Summary

This contains the reason why you are the most suited candidate for the position. You make it as attractive as possible by pointing out your best abilities, characteristics, and achievements. Make your summary so compelling that the employer continues reviewing the rest of the document to get the full picture. In this section, you could begin with a brief and accurate statement that describes your career. Follow this up with another phrase that explains your specialized experience and additional statements that include your complete skills, how diverse your experience is, an important achievement you have made. Alternatively, include your achievements, personal qualities and a statement that defines your objective professionally. Do not include personal information which details your ethnicity, marital status, religious or sexual orientation, age or other details which are not directly connected with your career. Actually, there are states in the US for example, where inclusion of such details as one’s marital status, age, height and weight is illegal.

Skills and Accomplishments

Here is where you get into details concerning what you stated in the summary section. However, it is necessary to avoid any repetition. Use facts and statistics to illustrate how your most notable efforts achieved the best results. Show how the unique qualities and skills you have are connected to the job. Go into more details on the accomplishments that have made you unique in the market. Cover any milestones that have been achieved through your skills. Do not go on into so much detail such that the section turns into a narrative, but only make sure that you hint at all these points, so that the employer can call you into an interview to learn more about you. This section should include what has not been highlighted elsewhere in the resume. Identify the skills you have that are required in the job and then list these in order of importance from the top to bottom. You can also consider including an additional section on “Voluntary Work” or “Voluntary Service”. It is also necessary to include computer skills (the software programs that you are competent in) and language proficiency. Extra-curricular activities, publications, freelance work, hobbies and other interests ought to be included only if they bear relevance or significance to the work experience you have and the position you are applying for.

References

Include references if the employer has required them. If not, then the recommended way is to simply state that these are available upon request in the cover letter. This is so that you will have ample time to inform the persons concerning the fact that they will be contacted, if the employer so wishes to get in touch with them. It may not be convenient to include your current employer as a reference especially if they are unaware that you are actually sourcing for a new job. If you are writing a internship resume, you could ask for recommendation letters from your professors in order to complement your content. These can also be provided in a sealed envelope to ensure that the details are confidential.

Formatting

1. Chronological Format

This is also described as reverse-chronological format. It is the most structural and most commonly used. It always has an Objectives and Summary section. There is no emphasis on the skills or accomplishments at the start of the resume, but the jobs you have done are listed in detail. This is the employment-based resume and is generally used by applicants who are applying for a position within the same company or career bracket. It is particularly often used in legal and academic occupations and is suitable if you want to explain your jobs in details and want also to include your employers’ names. It is not recommended if you want to showcase your experience and best talents, or if you want to change your career. For more in-depth analysis of this format, check out the Uptowork resume expert Michael Tomaszewski’s guide.

Functional Format:

This format starts by showcasing your accomplishments and your most significant skills and there is a summary stating your contribution to the company. This is the skill-based resume and it does not go into details when it comes to titles or descriptions of jobs you have held in the past, or the names of the organizations where you have worked before. The format will also not include employment dates. It is best to use it when changing careers or when returning to the workplace after a considerable break or lapse of time. It is also good for students who are starting out on the job market or those returning from military service. This method is recommended highly by professionals and is effective when going after a new career goal, but would not be ideal for a conservative employer who wants details concerning the jobs you have held before in the past.

Chronological/Functional Combined Format:

This format may contain the job titles you have held in the past as well as details concerning your achievements, or a summary that explains your qualifications and skills in more detail. Alternatively, it could contain a short skills and achievements section and job descriptions. This is recommended when you want to leverage the advantage of both the above types of resumes, or when you want to extract all the positive aspects and exclude the negative aspects of either format as much as possible. It does not make for a short resume.

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Presentation

Just as with the cover letter, avoid printing your resume on cheap or low-quality paper. It is recommended to use crisp 20lb stock paper without any marks, creases or folds. For top quality work, use a laser printer rather than an inkjet printer. Don’t just make the resume as impressive as possible on the screen, ensure that you print drafts of the document to check how it appears in hardcopy form. Make any adjustments required to ensure that it does not look splendid on one and unimpressive on the other. Perform a test print before the final which you will take with you to the interview. Ensure you use 8 1/2 x 11-inch paper for the printing and print on multiple pages instead of the front and back of each page. Include chronological page numbering except for the cover page. Avoid picking up the resume immediately after you have printed it as this may cause it to have ink smudges. Leave it to dry for a short while. Before handing in your resume, check for any possible stains, creases, crumps, or marks which may cause you to be frowned upon as being sloppy and unprofessional. Always ensure you make multiple copies of your resume when going for an interview. Despite the fact that the employer will have already seen the application, the person(s) doing the actual interview may not always have the document at hand.

How about using a personal website? Well despite the fact that you may have some items of interest on your website, for example, graphic designs, works of art or writing samples which are related to your career and the job you are applying for, your site may also contain a lot of personal information and other details which are irrelevant to the job and probably inappropriate for the employer. Moreover, it would be a waste of time for an employer to scan through the contents of a website to find what it relevant to the job you are applying for. It may not also be convenient for them to access the history of messages that you and your friends have exchanged over time, including jokes, photos and the chronology of activities you have been involved in in your leisure time. However, you may link to your website if it has been professionally done and contains relevant documents such as the resume, professional photos, valid credentials, recommendation letters and demonstrates some of your skills visually, especially if you are in career choices such as artwork, music or videography.

Additional Tips and Resources

It doesn't matter whether or not you have exceptional qualifications and skills, if your resume is not written in the correct way, you will not be contacted for an interview. It may be likely that the resume may not even arrive at the desk of the prospective employer. A standard resume needs to have the following characteristics:

Descriptors – Employ the use of words that employers seek when filling a vacancy, like experience, profession, abilities, qualifications, skills.

Nouns – When a resume is scanned, the dominant words that are extracted are nouns and not verbs. Therefore, ensure that you make use of descriptive nouns like manager, leader, accountant and the full names of the companies or organizations you have worked for.

Avoid fancy – The resume should not contain fancy fonts, be decorated, or typed on colored paper. Write conservatively and use common typefaces on white, cream, ivory or beige paper without underlining or using italics.

Simplicity Stick to a simple design. Avoid complex features and elements such as tables and graphs.

No Abbreviations Always use complete terms, except in the case of abbreviations that are commonly known like B.Sc. (Bachelor of Science). Avoid the use of such abbreviations like e.g. or i.e. and don't type NYU instead of New York University, or UNEP instead of United Nations Environmental Programme!

Spacing Leave enough space between the different sections of the resume so that it is clear where one section ends and the other begins.

Language Avoid ambiguous and complex terminology. Stick to statements that are easily understood.

Length – The old rule that the resume should only be one-page no longer applies today. Resumes can be upto 4 pages in length and some even longer!

Steer clear of scams out there where you are sold a piece of software that is supposed to somehow auto-generate a resume and cover letter that will win the job. There is plenty of good material available for free on the net for this. The most comprehensive guide on what to include in a resume that I have ever come across has been compiled by the University at Buffalo School of Management.

If you prefer books, there are plenty of resume samples you can study in order to see how this works practically. For example, check out the list of 101 Best Resumes: Endorsed Members of the Professional Association of Resume Writers, by Block and Betrus. This will help you see firsthand the style and format that winning resumes are written, how to customize your resume to match the job description and showcase your qualifications. It also includes how to write a winning cover letter and how to succeed in your interview.

Additionally, the following books are a good source of information on how to prepare a proper resume, set your career objectives, avoid common mistakes. They also discuss resume sentence construction, salary expectations, scanning techniques that employers use, ideal verbs and how to submit your resume. The methods apply for beginners as well as those who have been in the career field for a long time:

  1. The Elements of Resume Style: Essential Rules and Eye-Opening Advice for Writing Resumes and Cover Letters by Scott Bennett.

  2. Knock 'em Dead Resumes: A Killer Resume Gets More Job Interviews! by Martin Yate.
  3. Competency-Based Resumes by Robin Kessler and Linda A. Strasburg.

Successful resume writing!

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