Welcome to Part 9 of our #SocialImpactCareerGuide! In this step, we’re focusing on something that every job-seeker with prior experience needs: a polished resume. Your resume is what helps hiring managers understand how your unique skills and experiences will fit the needs of their organization, and ideally, gets them interested enough to invite you in for the next step of the interview process.
Having a clear, compelling resume matters – according to this eye tracking study, recruiters look at your resume for an average of just 7 seconds. That’s not a lot of time to make a good first impression, so it’s crucial that you only include the most high-impact and relevant information. As The Interview Guys explain, “[your resume] is not your autobiography; [your resume] is meant to give a hiring manager just enough information about you that they feel compelled to call you in and meet you face to face.”
To help you get your resume in order and up to the task, we’ve broken this guide into three main categories:
- Resume Best Practices and the Role of AI
- How to Format your Resume
- How to Organize your Resume, with Section-by-Section Guidance
I. Resume Best Practices & the Role of AI
Before diving into the specifics, let’s go through some general best practices to keep in mind as you work through the rest of this guide:
Customize your resume for each job: This is the most tiresome and thankless part of the job search. It can be tempting to fire off the same resume to every job, but recruiters can tell a generic resume from one tailored to the specific job, and making that extra effort is essential. You want to make sure that your resume is telling a story, not just about who you are, but why you are the right candidate for the job. As you tell this story, select only the most specific accomplishments from your previous work in a way that will help the hiring manager see why you are the best candidate. Provide details about your work experience and achievements, most recent first, in a way that tells a story about your career so that the reader can immediately understand why you are applying to this role. So pour yourself some strong coffee, drink a cup of relaxing tea, and/or top of your wine glass and do the extra work.
Include the right keywords: Using the right keywords matters because of the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the hiring process. In a nutshell, AI is a branch of computer science that involves building software that can be programmed to ‘think’ and ‘learn’ over time in a way that is similar to humans.
Chances are, you already interact with AI in your daily life – whether that’s through your smart TV or asking Siri to set a timer while you’re cooking. AI is designed to make the user’s job easier, and when it comes to hiring and recruiting, many organizations use AI to make the job of finding the right candidate easier as well.
As Forbes explains, “The most common AI in this realm is called applicant tracking software (ATS). Using algorithms and proprietary code, ATS scans a giant stack of virtual resumes to identify candidates meeting specific criteria. Once the AI finds potential candidates matching those presets, the program whittles down that huge stack to a smaller, more manageable pile. Then only these applications get passed along to hiring managers.” This is true for over 98% of Fortune 500, according to a report from JobScan.
Why does this matter for you, as the job seeker? Because in order to get your resume into the hands of a real person, you most likely need to get through the ATS first. And in order to do that, you need to speak the ‘language’ of what the ATS is looking for by using keywords that mirror the job description of the position you’re applying for.
Here’s an example of what that looks like from Indeed: “If you’re applying for a job as a medical billing coder, an employer might list keywords like “coding,” “claims submission,” “compliance” or “AR management” in the job description. Pay particular attention to anything listed in the sections labeled “Requirements” or “Qualifications.” If you have the skills that employers are looking for, you can add these same terms to your resume in the experience or skills sections.”
Proofread, then proofread again: After putting in all of the hard work to polish and customize your resume, it’s worth double and even triple checking for typos to ensure that one slip-up on the keyboard doesn’t distract the hiring manager from the great candidate that you are.
II. How to Format your Resume
Length: As a general rule, your resume should fit on one single-sided page. Remember, with only 7 seconds to hook the reader, only the most important information should be included. As tempting as it might be to squeeze as much information onto that one page as possible using a tiny font, a resume that is overcrowded, confusing, and hard to follow isn’t going to get you the job.
Font: Stick to Sans Serifs fonts (like Arial, Verdana, or Helvetica) in at least size 10.5 to keep it professional, easy to read, and scanner-friendly. Most resume experts also suggest maintaining a 1 inch margin on all sides. Readability is key, so keep things simple by using clear section headers that stand out (either by bolding, increasing the font size, or underlining) and making sure that there’s still plenty of white space to avoid overcrowding.
Graphics: As both The Muse and The Interview Guys point out, this isn’t the time for gimmicks or fancy graphics. They don’t work well with scanning software, take up valuable real estate on your single page, and can be distracting. Don’t add a photo to your resume, either – it’s unnecessary, and as the Robert Half blog explains, “Whether it’s deliberate or not, a photo on your resume could result in discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender or other factors. Your resume is a tool to help you secure a job interview – don’t give a potential employer any reason to ignore your skills and experience by focusing on your appearance.” In Section III of this post, we share more guidance on formatting, including templates.
III. How to Organize your Resume
With the above best practices and formatting tips in mind, now it’s time to focus on the content that you are going to include. In general, your resume should include the following sections, in order:
The header sits at the top of your resume, and should include your full legal name, phone number, email address, and the link to your LinkedIn profile. Because you only have limited space on a resume, including your LinkedIn profile is a great way to provide supplemental information without worrying about word limits. (Editor’s note: check out Part 8 of this guide for tips related to optimizing your LinkedIn profile). To separate each element, you can use a special character like a vertical line. Here’s an example of what that could look like:
Jane P. Jobseeker
(000) 123-4567 | email@example.com
I know it seems simple, but no matter how wonderful your resume is, if you forget to include key contact details, the hiring manager has no way to reach out to you to follow up. Don’t let an accidental omission stand between you and the job you want!
The Summary Statement
Below the header, you should include a 1-4 sentence summary statement. On some resumes, you’ll see an ‘Objective’ instead of a ‘Summary’, but there are key differences that make the summary statement a better option: As The Muse explains, “A resume objective tells the recruiter what you want. A summary statement, on the other hand, explains what value you can bring to them.” So ditch the objective, and share a short summary instead.
Your summary statement is essentially the ‘elevator pitch’ of your resume. It should answer the question: why are you the ideal candidate for the job? As The Ladders explains, “In the professional summary, you make your most effective, most concise, most powerful pitch for the job you want. Using short words and brief phrases, this section stands out from the rest in a dramatic and compelling way…While it represents only 10% of the space on your resume, the professional summary should be where you spend a third or more of your resume writing time.” And remember, include keywords from the job description where you can!
The Balance Careers suggests including the following elements in your summary statement:
- Core strengths and skill sets most relevant to the role
- Past relevant experience with key functions
- Notable accomplishments that you intend to repeat in the next role
Here are a few examples from the Balance Careers of summary statements for different roles:
Below your summary statement, include key skills that you have that map to the organization’s needs as described in the job description. This is a great place to get those keywords included – if there’s a requirement or responsibility listed in the job description that you’ve performed in the past, it should definitely be included here.
Employers are looking to hire candidates who have the right mix of two different types of skills: soft skills and hard skills. Hard skills tend to be more technical and industry-specific, while so-called soft skills are abilities that can be applied to any job. Indeed shares a great list of hard and soft skills here. (Editor’s note: Not sure what your top skills and strengths are? This Audit Your Strengths activity from Step 1 of our #SocialImpactCareerGuide will help.)
Professional / Work Experience
Next up is the largest section of any resume: work experience. This is your chance to detail your successes and achievements in a way that supports the summary statement and key skills you included above, and most importantly, helps the hiring manager understand why you are uniquely qualified for the job.
It’s standard practice to list your experience in reverse chronological order – meaning that your most recent work experience comes first. The example below from the Ladders shows what that looks like:
As you can see, for each new entry on the list, you’ll want to include the following information:
- Company name and location: If the company is not well-known, you can add an optional line below it with a short description of what the company does or industry it operates in. As for location, there’s no need to take up valuable space listing the entire mailing address – city and state (or city and country) are sufficient.
- Your title: Be as accurate as possible here. You want to make sure that your titles are consistent with the records your previous company has, and with the titles you have listed on your LinkedIn profile if you included it.
- The time frame you were working there: Don’t worry about exact dates, month and year is sufficient.
- A list of key accomplishments and responsibilities following the STAR format (explained below). The Muse recommends using easy-to-skim bullets rather than paragraphs, which look denser and are harder to read.
The last part – list of key accomplishments and responsibilities – is by far the most important. Even if two people held the same role at the same company, their list of key accomplishments would look different, and this is your time to really stand out. As The Interview Guys explain, “Focus on what you did for past employers, not just the job you held. Anyone can push a button. Why were you the best button pusher there was? What set you apart from every other button pusher who came before you and will come after you? Don’t just outline the job description. What were your accomplishments while doing that job?” The goal is to communicate your value by prioritizing your biggest wins, and thinking about them in terms of the problem the employer had and how you were able to solve it.
One of the best ways to think through how to do that is to use the STAR framework: Situation, Task, Action, & Result. As Forbes explains, “These statements help explain what you were up against in your previous role, what you did to address the situation and what happened as a result. In just one sentence, you’ll convey a challenge presented, the action you took and the result.”
To help you do that, we’ve developed a free STAR Brainstorm Template, which you can access here. To get started, list out your top 3 biggest accomplishments at the previous job you’re using the worksheet for. Then, set the scene in the ‘Situation’ column, describe what your responsibility was in that situation in the ‘Task’ column, explain exactly what steps you took to address it in the ‘Action’ column, and share the outcomes of your actions in the ‘Result’ column. Then, combine the S, T, A, and R fragments together into one STAR statement that can go on your resume as a bullet point.
Here’s an example of what that could look like:
Repeat the exercise for each of your previous work experiences, turning your brainstorm ideas into STAR statements to use as the bullet points on your resume. It’s also a good idea to include a strong action verb in each bullet point, like the ones in this chart, and to quantify your bullets with numbers, percentages, or other data wherever possible.
Where to put volunteer experience
In a previous blog post, we shared practical examples and templates for how to add volunteer experience on your resume. As a general rule, if your volunteer work was skills-based, you can include it just as you would any other prior experience in the ‘work experience’ section. If not, you can add a section just below your work experience section specifically for volunteer experience.
If you’ve been in the workforce for several years, your education section should come after your work experience section, at the bottom of the resume. The goal is to keep it short and sweet – no need to include every accolade or award – because your recent work experience is more relevant to hiring managers at that point. As Indeed explains, “Though varying levels of detail are required for different jobs, the education section is often the shortest portion of the resume—try keeping it around 15–30 words.”
For each institution you list, include the following information:
- Name of the school
- Location of the school
- The degree you obtained
- Graduation year (optional)*
- Any relevant honors or awards
- (Optional) Your GPA, if it is 3.0 or higher
* We list graduation year as optional because there is a growing concern of discrimination based on names, age, race, etc. As such, if it does not require it, you do not need to include it. When in doubt, less is more.
Here’s an example of what that could look like:
|University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA |
Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, Cum Laude, 2014
A final note
Resumes are hard to get right. The best way to know if you have a good resume is to test it! Try the simple “ask a friend test”. Here’s how it works:
- Call a friend
- While on the phone, ask them to read your resume
- Interrupt their reading after 30 seconds and ask the following questions:
- If you were sharing my profile with a manager, how would you describe my experience and skills in a nutshell? (Hopefully they will respond with some of the exact keywords and responsibilities that the job you are applying to lists. If not, time to make some edits to your summary statement and skills to make the keywords more prominent.)
- Were you bored or energized reading it? (Hopefully they will say ‘wow, this person is impressive’. If not, ask them how some of the sections could be rephrased to include more energy so that they reflect your strengths and abilities in the most compelling way.)
- What on the resume did not make sense? (If parts of your resume were confusing to them, they will likely also be confusing to a hiring manager. Take note of their response and revisit that section to make it more clear)
Remember that your resume isn’t a static document — it should continue to evolve as you do. As you continue to update and improve it, make sure you don’t overlook any mistakes that could count against you. Specifically, we recommend the following:
- Read your resume out loud, preferably to another human
- Copy the text of your resume into another word processor (for example, Microsoft Word or Google Docs), and run a spell check and grammar check again. Grammarly is another helpful tool for this, which even has an ebook on this topic in partnership with Glassdoor.
- Paste your resume into Hemmingway App to identify opportunities to make it more clear and concise
Building or updating your resume can feel intimidating, but with the tips above, you’ll be on the right track. Remember that your resume isn’t a static document — it should continue to evolve as you do. As we recommend in other sections of our guide, proactively find opportunities to test and iterate – send your updated resume to a mentor, friend, or acquaintance you trust to offer you feedback or suggestions.
For more support navigating the job search and refining your professional story on your resume, cover letters, and LinkedIn, apply to the MovingWorlds Institute.