The 6 Most Important Tips for Writing a Winning Resume

Whether you’re new to the job market or a seasoned professional, chances are there will come a time when you’ll feel the urge to change direction. Today’s job search environment is highly competitive and, depending on how refined your search parameters and requirements are, it can take weeks or even months to find the right job. That’s why your resume is the ultimate resource, and your best shot at being considered among the hundreds of incoming applications for your desired position. 

Be Your Own Advocate

Your resume is essentially a virtual sales sheet, and it needs to be perfected because this is the biggest sale you’ll ever make – yourself. A winning resume will land you an interview (we’ll talk about interviewing in a future post) by highlighting your marketable qualities to catch the eye of the right recruiter, hiring manager or executive and. Stepping out into the frenzied waters of the job search world without a properly formatted and well-written resume would be like shooting at a moving target with no aim or training. Don’t leave your future to chance and don’t rely on luck, just hoping to land something. Being deliberate and prepared will greatly increase your chances of success. 

Think Like a Hiring Manager

Try putting yourself in the shoes of the people considering dozens of candidates. Sometimes books are judged by their cover – and you would know. When you get advertisements in the mail, or when you’re comparing spec sheets for an important purchase like a cell phone or a car, you’re going to look more closely at well-worded, eye-catching material that underscores the things you want to see – features, benefits, distinguishing factors, etc. If one ad said “cool phone, can do typical phone stuff,” and the other ad said “this is the best phone in the world and it can do everything your computer can do, plus it has an extended battery life,” which do you think you’d be more interested in? The uninformative ad would probably get thrown in the trash with the rest of the junk mail and, I hate to tell you this, but many resumes get discarded just as quickly – not necessarily because the applicants weren’t viable candidates, but because their resume didn’t represent them well enough.

Should You Hire a Professional? 

The good news about resumes is that you can learn to format a great resume yourself. Is it worth it to have it written for you or at least reviewed by a professional? Absolutely. But if you’re low on funds and decent with computers, follow our basic tips and, at the very least, have a friend or family member look over your finished resume for you. A perspective different from your own will bring things to your attention that you might not have thought of. 

The First Cardinal Rule of Resume Writing

Maybe you’re an experienced job seeker or maybe you’re looking for your first job. Alternatively, you could be trying to break back into the job market after a long break. Whichever situation applies to you, know that employers question gaps in employment. The first cardinal rule of formatting an effective resume is to make it cohesive, linear, and as complete as possible. Let’s say you were employed from 2008 to 2012 and then went on maternity leave. When you returned, you were laid off. You have been looking for jobs while enjoying time at home with your baby, but it’s been months and your unemployment is about to run out. The longer the gap, the less determined you’ll look. It’s time to get serious about your search. 

You were a fabulous employee at your last job. You were only laid off because of company issues that were beyond your control. However, this “employment gap” will be questioned by prospective employers. Since you had a baby and were then involuntarily let go, your explanation should be easy. But what if your situation is a little different? What if you have large gaps between most of your jobs? What if you only spent a year or less at each company? What if you don’t have much relevant experience to list because you’ve never worked, or because you’ve been mainly self-employed? Questionable personal history (the likes of which might show up on a background check), lack of references, and not knowing what you’re qualified to do are also factors that could impede your progress.

These are all tricky scenarios that would make it more worthwhile to enlist the help of a professional who specializes in making applicants look marketable. Resume services typically have an understanding of the job market and what hiring managers are looking for. But if you’re determined to do it alone, then keep reading for more of our tips and pointers. 

Rule # 2 - Short and Sweet

Aside from knowing what you’re looking for and being able to articulate your skills in writing, you’ll need to know the preferred formats, content, and layouts for resumes and the things that hiring managers look for.

The second rule of writing an effective resume is to keep it short, sweet, and to-the-point. You only need to list your most recent, relevant experiences – depending on the length of employment and key responsibilities, there might only be room for two. The most common mistake job seekers make when writing their own resumes is including every job they’ve ever had since they were old enough to work. No employer is going to read a four-page resume. These are busy people and they will appreciate your succinctness for simplifying their task. And who knows? In one day, if an employer receives ten long, poorly formatted resumes and then yours, it may be such a breath of fresh air that they’ll call you right away.

Remember, this process is exhaustive for prospective employers too – it may seem tiring and challenging to you, but you only have to write one resume. They have to read dozens, if not hundreds. The ideal resume is only one page in length, one-sided (going on to the second page/side is acceptable only for super relevant job experience and skills). Try to only include necessary facts and avoid using too much filler. Omit jobs held for less than one full year, and don’t even bother listing your job at Friendly’s when you were 16 years old (unless, of course, you’re a college student applying for your first job. Then, by all means, give it all you’ve got). They don’t want to read everything you’ve ever done, they want to read why you’re an eligible candidate for one position – so save some things for the interview. 

Rule # 3 - Talk Yourself Up, But Do It Quickly

The third piece of advice on resume writing is to be concise. This is another area where it might benefit you to have a professional review your resume. There are certain “buzzwords” that employers look for, and if they’re too busy getting lost in your essay-form sales pitch, they might overlook what you’re trying to communicate. The key is to convey the nature of your role(s) and what you were able to accomplish in such a way that makes you stand out, without being too long-winded. Try to think big – don’t be too shy to use positive adjectives to describe your strengths and achievements. Taking a muted tone can undersell your skills and make you look just like everybody else. Try to think of important functions of your job that no one else performs as well as you, or think of praise you received from your colleagues and superiors. Use those things to your advantage when writing your resume.

Rule # 4 - Get the Formatting Right

Now let’s talk format. Rule number four is to understand the dos and don’ts of resume formatting. There are plenty of examples online that you can look at, and several word processing programs offer resume templates. I would highly recommend modifying these to your own taste, though – standing out means not looking out-of-the-box. 

The key parts of any effective resume should provide a snapshot of your career journey. Your most recent position, other relevant professional experience, accomplishments, responsibilities, skills, education, rewards, and memberships/affiliations/certifications all have their place on a winning resume. 

This may seem like a lot to fit onto one page, and that’s where formatting comes in. If you’re not skilled in some of the more advanced features of word processing software, this is another area where hiring a professional could really pay off and save you a ton of aggravation. I know people who have spent mind-numbing hours messing with margins and headers just because they didn’t know the shortcuts and tricks to resume formatting. 

Your name and contact information should appear predominantly in the document header. Alignment is everything – you have limited space, so it is fully acceptable to have three columns in your header to make it narrower, as long as it doesn’t look muddy. Your full name should be the very first line in the center, in large font. Many people put their address beneath that, in smaller font, and then their LinkedIn or other professional profile on the third line (in even smaller font, and with a hyperlink so that the viewer can click straight to that profile when viewing on the computer). Your phone number can appear in the left margin, area code first, and your email address can appear in the right margin, hyperlinked. The phone number, online profile, and email address should all be the same font size and on the same line. If you’re omitting an internet profile you can certainly put the address and phone number on the same line with a special character separator and then have your email address on the third line. It just depends how much information you want to provide.

*Side note: Be careful - when providing a link to a social profile, it’s necessary to manage your online presence. Don’t offer a link to anything that showcases content you don’t want viewed by a prospective employer. Even if you exclude profile links, I recommend doing some cleanup anyway. Everything you post about yourself online is searchable. You should update your privacy settings so that the very least information possible is publicly visible, remove or set to private any photos which you don’t want seen by an employer, remove any posts containing profane or controversial material which might be deemed unprofessional, and ensure that your profile photo is in good taste. That is the one thing that may still be seen in an internet search of your name, whether or not your profile is set to private. 

Back to formatting. To keep the sections of your resume from looking the same and to make it appealing to the eye, your headings and subheadings should be in different font sizes and formats. For example, let’s say you start with your most recent or current position. Your job title should be in bold, perhaps small caps. Directly underneath that would be the name of the employer and the date range, not in bold or small caps, but in the same font and possibly italicized. It might look something like this: 

Assistant to the Vice President
XYZ Company, Inc. – January 2013 to present

It is perfectly normal to have a paragraph below this headline which touches on your key strengths and accomplishments in this role. Try to avoid complete sentences, contrary to how strange it might feel (you’re not writing an assignment for English class). Something in a neutral voice (as opposed to writing in the first person) is preferable. Here’s an example:

“Experienced IT professional responsible for maintaining and securing corporate infrastructure. Expertise includes security protocol, software development, backup measures, disaster recovery programs, and global monitoring. Accomplishments include…”

Fragment sentences and sounding like a robot will actually benefit you more than trying to write beautiful prose when it comes to your resume. Try to add in distinctive buzzwords where appropriate to break up the monotony, just don’t repeat the same words. Terms like ‘creative,’ ‘strategic,’ ‘collaborative,’ and ‘efficient’ are all examples of corporate recruitment lingo-candy when used strategically and sparingly. 

Believe it or not, numbers also work well on resumes. Hiring managers and executives are often intrigued by hard data, so if your efforts increased company sales by 300% in a 2-year period, they’ll want to know that. If you were responsible for a $200,000 portfolio that you grew to $500,000 in your first six months, you should definitely make that a bullet point. Percentages and dollar figures will support everything that you say (just be sure to use verifiable numbers and don’t fabricate information). 

As I just alluded to, bullet points are totally acceptable. Underneath your brief paragraph summary, you can use up to three columns of bullet points to emphasize your most significant skills and responsibilities. Keep each bullet point as brief as possible so that it remains on one line. When you're done listing your bullets, highlight them and form them into columns (the more bullet points, the more columns). You can play with the placement so that they align well visually, too. 

Then you’d move onto your next relevant position, mimicking the formatting from above. Keep it consistent so that it has visual flow, and you’ll be steps ahead of the game. 

Other tips include playing with spacing and font size to ensure taking up the least amount of room on the page. Once everything is laid out, if you’re carrying onto the second page by a little bit you can select all and make sure your line spacing is no more than 1.5 lines. You can also make the section body font a point smaller than the section headline font. Many section headlines are in 11 or 12 font with body font at 10 or 11 (I don’t recommend going any smaller than 10). Try to avoid having too much white space between sections, too. You want it to look easy-to-read but not all stuck together. Holding the shift key and pressing enter will give you a one-line break instead of the normal two lines for a new paragraph that you get when just pressing enter alone. Use that to your advantage in your body sections to keep everything cohesive. 

*Heads-up on fonts: Font does matter. Some of the most preferred, resume-friendly fonts are Helvetica, Georgia, Times New Roman, Verdana, Arial, and Tahoma. Avoid at all costs anything that is whimsical, overly casual, or hard to read. Standard is always best so that you look polished and professional. If your computer and word processing program doesn’t have the font that you desire, you can download it easily online. 

Rule # 5 - Go Backwards

Always go in reverse chronological order, starting with your most recently held (relevant) position, and then the one you had before that and so on. Never start your resume by listing a job you had a decade ago. The same goes for your education and achievements. If you have an MBA or grad school degree, list that before listing your bachelor’s degree. List your most recent certifications and licenses and go backwards.

Rule # 6 - Play Up Your Strengths

Most importantly, remember that you are unique: use words that will make you stand out. So what if you don’t have a ton of experience or senior-level skills. Are you a great team player? Natural trainer? Excellent on the phone with customers? Those are all very desirable traits that are not universally possessed. Character and personality elements may be the difference-maker between you and a very similar candidate, so remember not to sell yourself short, especially if your experience and accomplishments aren’t exactly Forbes material.

The Job Wants You as Much as You Want the Job

Part of writing a killer resume is mentally preparing for the subsequent interview. Remember that a company that really wants to work with you will try just as hard to impress you as they expect to be impressed by you. Confidence and faith that you’ll find the right opportunity will come through in the language that you use on your resume. I’m not saying to step too far outside of yourself and take on a whole new persona – when you show up for the interview you should still be the person you presented yourself to be – but desperation and a poor attitude will really hinder your resume-writing efforts.

Great! You've Written Your Resume - So What's Next?

Welcome to the digital world, where submitting your resume is actually much easier than it used to be. Thanks to computers, email, and online job boards, you can format or spruce up a resume in a snap and post it or send it out to dozens of sites in a short period of time. When you hire a professional resume service, they will advise you (and sometimes help you) post your resume and create your profile on the major career sites. They should also give you two copies of your resume – one as a Word document and one as a PDF – so that you can use the site’s preferred version (and PDF is always best when emailing). 

Once you’ve mastered that step, don’t be afraid to be proactive and go online to visit the websites of some local companies you wouldn’t mind working for and seeing if they have job openings. If they do, there’ll likely be a name and email address to where you can send your resume. At this point you’d want to compose a thoughtful email request for consideration and attach your resume file. 

*Another tip: create an email address specifically for the purpose of job hunting. If your personal email address is something like hunting_guy_86@gmail.com, I would recommend setting up a more professional one, like firstname.lastname@outlook.com. 

Some companies may require you to submit samples of your work, portfolios, salary requirements, and cover letters along with your application and resume. If you need help with this, there are plenty of online resources that you can access for free, but a professional resume service would be your best bet in this area. Also, make sure to do your research if you aren’t up-to-speed on the going rate for similar positions in your area – having that background information will make you more prepared and confident. 

At Your Service

If your resume needs a little TLC or if you just haven’t written one since the days of typewriters, feel free to give us a shout. We offer reasonable rates and quick turnaround times, plus a discount for students. We can also help get you set up on all the major job boards with email alerts tailored to your preferences, so that you can start getting notified of the jobs you want from day one. With our track record, we’re sure you’ll love our consultative approach and the way we’ll make you stand out like the star that you are.