Resumes: Top 5 Tips for Job Hunters

Jerz > Writing > Professional

Wondering how to write a resume? Here are the top 5 ways my students can usually improve the resumes they submit for class assignments.

  1. Value the Chance to Try Again
  2. Balance Creativity with Function
  3. Details, Details, Details
  4. Presentation Matters
  5. Strike the Right Tone (Don’t Undersell or Overhype Yourself)

09 May 2000 — first posted;
07 Feb 2012 — last modified 
by Dennis G. Jerz

1. Value the Chance to Try Again

Any time you venture into a professional environment, welcome any kind of feedback — even criticism.

Your resume may be the most important professional document you produce. Don’t waste an opportunity to share it. If you ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, if you want to be elected as a club officer, if you want to volunteer at your community, your resume is a valuable opportunity for you to take some control, demonstrating your thoroughness and dedication. For most professional jobs, the employer won’t provide a model “correct answer” to make the process less stressful for the applicants. And if you don’t get the job, most of the time nobody will tell you why.

So if you are fortunate enough to get feedback — any feedback — from a mentor, teacher, or anyone with experience, be grateful for the opportunity to learn, and do better next time

Writing is hard work. There are no shortcuts.

A successful resume is a persuasive document. If you want to write anything well, you must learn to rewrite. And rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite — even a short document like a resume.

2. Balance Creativity with Function

If you claim “creativity” as one of your strengths — and who wouldn’t? — but you choose an out-of-the-box resume template, you are sending a mixed message. Anyone whose job involves looking at resumes will immediately recognize the “creative” template that dozens of other applicants also found in Word or Pages.

Change it up a little before you submit it. It may well be the most important document you ever write. Make it your own.

On the other hand, if you go crazy with multiple typefaces and colors, you’ll look like you’re trying too hard.

Quick tips: don’t use more than two typefaces in your resume — a strong, readable type for the headings, and a narrower type for the details; if you want to be taken seriously, never use Comic Sans;

If the job you are applying for requires graphic design skills, and you’re trained in graphic design, then ignore what I’m about to say. For the rest of us, who are not trained as graphic designers, because it’s very easy to make a rookie design mistake, the traditional format is usually the best format. A simple, unobtrusive design keeps the focus on the content of the resume. Carefully chosen words, well-organized sections, and (of course) relevant experience matter more than the size and shape you choose for the lettering.

Good design won’t cover up weaknesses in your application, but bad design can hide your strengths.

A student of mine once created a resume in the form of a tri-fold brochure. The design was creative, and the content was great. When folded, the cover clearly gave the student’s name. Unfolding the brochure once revealed an employment objective, and then opening it all the way revealed all the details.

When I handed the brochure to my colleagues and observed their behavior, they all skipped the middle section (where the student stated her employment objective) and went straight to the details. One of my colleagues didn’t even put her reading glasses on until she got to the details. As a result, my colleagues found the student’s resume to be unfocused. They didn’t immediately recognize the brochure as a resume, since most resumes don’t come in the form of a brochure.

When I pointed out how the brochure worked, my colleagues looked at again and said, “Oh, now I see. That’s pretty clever!” But they had already made the kind of snap judgement that lands a resume in the trash can.

Design Problems

I haven’t taught the “write a resume” assignment in a class for several years, so I’ll be watching out for the latest design problems. Here’s a problem that used to crop up all the time.

A resume template that used to come with MS-Word was laid out with a two-column format that ate up a lot of space.  Students in my technical writing classes tended to want to write a lot in the right column, which means they often reduced the type size too much in order to cram all their words into the right column. That left a lot of wasted space in the left column.

Too much white space: text squeezed to one side or one corner; lots of blank space to the left or right of bulleted lists. A popular MS-Word resume template uses tables inefficiently. (Note: in order for the following example to work on this web page, I have to present the text in a small, monospace font.  You should probably stick to Times Roman, 12-pt instead.)

Education
University of Wisconsin -- Eau Claire; Eau Claire, Wisc.  
(1999-present)
Major: English (Technical Writing; GPA 3.9)
Minor: Web Design (Minor GPA: 3.7)
Joe Jade High School; Bananaville, Wisc. (1994-1999)
Senior GPA: 3.7
SAT: 1250
Work Experience
Sales. Grandma Rose's Zucchini Shack; Bananaville, Wisc. 
(Summer, 1999)
Sold merchandise, deposited receipts, opened and closed a 
small business. Often worked alone, but also trained and 
supervised part-time employees. Set new sales records 8 
of the 12 weeks I worked there.
Asst. Groundskeeper. Memorial Hospital; Bananaville, Wisc.
(Summers, 1995-1998)
Performed general grounds-keeping chores, including mowing, 
weeding, and pruning on a regular schedule. Started at 
$5.50/hr; steadily received raises to $7.00/hr.

The content of the above sample resume is excellent; yet the presentation (featuring huge empty blocks beneath “Education” and “Work Experience”) makes the page look awkward.  If this author starts to run out of room on the page, he or she may be tempted to reduce the type size; but because of the big open spaces, this text already looks crammed.  The revised version (below) makes better use of white space.

Education

University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire; Eau Claire, Wisc.   (1999-present)
Major: English (Technical Writing; GPA 3.7).  Minor: Web Design (minor GPA: 3.8)

Joe Jade High School; Bananaville, Wisc. (1994-1999)
Senior GPA: 3.7. SAT: 1250

Work Experience

Sales Attendant. Grandma Rose’s Zucchini Shack; Bananaville, Wisc. (Summer, 1999)
Sold merchandise, deposited receipts, opened and closed a small business. Often worked alone, but also trained and supervised part-time employees. Set new sales records 8 of the 12 weeks I worked there.

Asst. GroundskeeperMemorial Hospital; Bananaville, Wisc. (Summers, 1995-1998)
Performed general grounds-keeping chores, including mowing, weeding, and pruning on a regular schedule. Started at $5.50/hr; steadily received raises to $7.00/hr.

The revised example makes better use of white space.

  • The heading occupies a single line all by itself.
  • The details beneath the heading are indented from the left margin.
  • Each item is a little wider, which means each item takes up less vertical space.

3. Details, Details, Details

“What matters is the consistency!”
In a list of terms, do you always put a comma before the “and”?

Are all your bulleted items short phrases or full sentences?

James E. Breezley, a UWEC alumnus who hires detail-oriented technical writers, explains that he values consistency in job applications:

“I cannot count how many resumes I have seen with inconsistencies… I, personally, don’t really care which way a person leans in “the great serial comma debate” or “the great bulleted list debate.” What matters is the consistency! A lack of consistency gives the impression that the writer lacks attention to detail (remember the job description) and thoroughness. These qualities are near the top of my priority list as I look for a writer!”

Quick… the abbreviation “MI”: does it stand for “Mississippi” or “Missouri”?  (It’s actually Michigan).

Someone from the Midwest would probably guess that “MN” means “Minnesota”, but what about Maine or Montana?

To avoid confusion, you should use the longer abbreviation of the state’s name (you can find it in a dictionary).

What if you live in a state that nobody is likely to confuse? Pennsylvania, for example, is pretty recognizable as either “PA” or “Penn.”

Use the two-letter abbreviation (with no period) if you are giving a full address.

no.gif (225 bytes)“I live in Greensburg, PA.”
yes.gif (203 bytes)“I live in Greensburg, Penn.”
yes.gif (203 bytes)“My address: 1234 Main Street, Greensburg, PA  54720″

I’ll be honest. Plenty of employers probably won’t notice or won’t care about such details; however, if you are applying for a job that deals with the handling of information, the careful analysis of data, or any profession that has strict certification procedures or a complex ethical code — any profession where little mistakes matter — then your resume is better off if you can demonstrate you understand a writing convention that exists for the convenience of the reader.

  • Consistency. All items in your resume should employ parallel structure. If you start some job descriptions with a verb, you should start all job description with a verb. If you end some lines with a period, you should end all lines with a period.
  • Currency: If you list all the software you have ever used, and you specify “Office 2010″, but you don’t specify “Office 2012,” you will hurt your credibility. (Better simply to say “Microsoft Office” — unless of course the job description requires experience with particular software.)
  • Credibility. If you leave out your GPA, your employer will automatically assume that it was bad. If you neglect to mention what you accomplished during the three years you participated in a particular club, your employer will automatically assume that you showed up for pizza parties just so you could have a line on your resume. Provide details, with measurable results. (“Worked on student newspaper” is vague. Far more convincing is a list of accomplishments: “After one semester as a staff writer, was promoted to assistant news editor; served as features editor for three semesters, and online editor my senior year. Wrote 22 news articles, 12 feature articles, and laid out 11 two-page center-spreads.”)
  • Accuracy: Get your facts right, and get your grammar right. Make sure the names and titles of the people you mention are correct. If you use MLA style, or APA style, or AP style in your coursework, then follow the conventions of that style guide to determine how to present the titles of any articles you’ve published, the names of the periodicals that published you. etc.
  • Legibility and Brevity: Don’t shrink your type size below 10pt or choose “Arial Narrow” to jam more words on the page; likewise, don’t crank up the type size or expand the margins to puff up a resume that’s too short. For an entry level position, keep your resume to a single page.  You can always add a separate sheet that lists special additional information (such as a detailed list of all the debate awards you’ve won; clippings from school newspaper articles you’ve written or a list of computer game reviews you have contributed to a public newsgroup). In the 21st century, every applicant for a professional position should probably have an online portfolio of some kind — maybe a blog, maybe a static web page — but not Facebook. Keep your printed resume short, but include the URL of your full online portfolio, where your reader can find your writing samples, slide shows, videos, etc.
  • Clarity: Explain acronyms and group affiliations. You may know what the “Keyette Club” is supposed to be about; you may know whether the “Toxic Avengers” are a service club or a rock band; you may know that STD stands for “Sigma Tau Delta” (the English honor society).  But your employer may have no idea.
  • Note: Don’t Overcapitalize.
    • Do not capitalize the names of subjects (biology, computer science, journalism, technical writing) unless you are referring to the title of a course. You would write “I am studying for a biology test,” but “My favorite course is ‘Biology 101.'”  The same goes for nursing, politics, medicine, etc.  Exceptions: “English,” “French, “Spanish,” etc. (all of which are derived from proper nouns).
    • Only capitalize titles (doctor, botanist, nurse) when the word is part of a person’s name (Associate Professor of English Dennis G. Jerz, Doctor Anderson, Nurse Jones).  When you are speaking of the title in general, it is lowercased: “I want to be a technical writing professor someday,” “I need a nurse,” “The doctor is in.”

4. Presentation Matters

  • Hierarchy:  Anything with bold, capital letters, or larger type will attract the eye.
    • Emphasize your name above all else. (Not the title of the job you want — all the other resumes in the stack will be applying for the same job. You want your name to stand out.)
    • Emphasize your job titles, even if they were volunteer or self-directed positions. If you worked somewhere famous, you might instead emphasize the names of the employer.
    • But whatever you do, don’t emphasize the dates you worked at a job. I don’t meant that you should hide the dates, I just mean don’t make the dates the most prominent thing on the page. Everyone was doing something during Fall 1012. What you want to emphasize is WHAT you did, not WHEN you were doing it.
  • Pagination: An entry-level resume should fit on one page.  If you must provide a longer resume, put “(page 1 of 2)” or “(over)” at the bottom right of the first page.  Put “(page 2 of 2)” or “(continued)” at the top of the second page.Even if you are submitting the document electronically, or you print the pages back-to-back, a potential employer who is dealing with dozens of different stacks of documents and different databases (that might have been duplicated and re-distributed by an $8/hr temp worker) can sometimes lose a page. Trust me — this happens! (Put your name and email on every page you submit.)
  • Bulleted lists: they save time and space. But don’t create a “list” out of just one item.
    • Every time you have one point, you must follow it with another.
    • If you simply cannot think of a second point, then collapse the heading and the single point into one line.

5. Strike the Right Tone (Avoid Underselling and/or Overselling)

Don’t undersell yourself:  People who are fresh out of school sometimes underestimate the transferable job skills that they have picked up during their part-time or volunteer work.  Even if all you did was cook hamburgers or turned a bolt on an assembly line, you can probably say that you “followed instructions in a high-pressure environment” or “trained new employees” or “regularly received ‘high’ evaluations” or “was named employee of the month three times over two years” or “never missed a day of work.”

Don’t oversell yourself, either:  Instead of saying “I am really great with people,” list specific, relevant accomplishments (“recruited 14 new members and won ‘volunteer of the month’ award at local Red Cross agency; delivered 12 safety speeches at area middle schools, to a total of 600 fourth graders; counseled preteens whose parents have recently divorced”).  If you don’t have any such activities to list, then you should consider what volunteer or extra-curricular activities might give you the kinds of experience you need.  (See Cover Letters — Support Your Claims [But Don’t Oversell])

by Dennis G. Jerz
09 May 2000 — first posted
24 May 2000 — incorporated James E. Breezely’s suggestions
18 Jan 2013 — began revising
06 Feb 2013 — continued revisions


Writing Your Resume
Erin Vanden Wymelenberg and Dennis G. Jerz
Resumes — Content
Employers read resumes in order to find evidence that a particular applicant is well qualified for a particular job.  Experience, education, training, and personal qualities relevant to the job are all important. The resume should describe what has led the applicant to where he or she is now.Erin Vanden Wymelenberg and Dennis G. Jerz
Resumes — Presentation
Many employers look for creativity and imagination when the job calls for it. However, it is best to aim for a professional, neat, and organized look for your resume.  If you are applying for a job that requires radical creativity, you can always include a portfolio of your wildest, most unbusinesslike work!
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