Resumes -- Top 5 Problems

I regularly ask my techncial writing students to submit resumes early in the semester.  Here are the top 5 problems that typically cause stress for my students (and me) on this assignment:

  1. underestimating the value of revision
  2. lopsided layout
  3. details, details, details
  4. presentation
  5. underselling and/or overselling

1. Underestimating the Value of Revision

When I make suggestions for revisions, students sometimes complain: "If you had told us to do it that way, I would have done it right the first time."  These students are missing the point of a writing class. As a writing student, your job is not to read your professor's mind.  Further, your learning process does not end when you hand in your first draft. Even if the resume you submit was good enough to get you your last job, I require all students to revise and improve their work.

Were I to spend hours and hours lecturing on exactly what I do or don't want, or were I to assign hundreds of pages of textbook reading, human beings are capable of absorbing only a handful of suggestions and/or warnings at a time. Unless I see your writing, it is impossible for me to help you figure out which lessons are the most important for you. If you want to learn how to write, you must learn how to rewrite.. and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. Writing is hard work. There are no shortcuts.

Note: An increasing number of employers are using computers to help them identify the promising candidates in a huge stack of resumes. The content and phrasing of a computer-readable resume will be very different from one that you write for human beings to read.  (See: Scannable Resumes; UWEC Career Services)

2. Lopsided Layout

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

no.gif (225 bytes)"I live in Altoona, WI."
yes.gif (203 bytes)"I live in Altoona, Wisc."
yes.gif (203 bytes)"My address: 1234 Main Street, Altoona, WI  54720"

  • 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 "FrontPage 2000", but you don't specify "FrontPage 2002," you will hurt your credibility. (Better simply to say "FrontPage".) 
  • 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.
  • Accuracy: Get your facts right, and get your grammar right. Make sure the names and titles of the people you mention are correct.   Underline or italicize the title of publications such as school newspapers or literary magazines (The Spectator; NOTA).
  • Legibility: MS-Word defaults to 10 pt; use 12 pt. instead. 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).
  • 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, technical writing) unless you are referring to the title of a course. You would write "I am studying for a biology test," but "I took 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 (Assistant 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

  • Hierarchy:  Emphasize your name above all else.  Anything with bold, capital letters, or larger type will attract the eye.  Do you really need to draw people's attention to the dates that you worked at a particular job?  Emphasize the job title instead.
  • 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 print the pages back-to-back, a potential employer who is dealing with dozens of different stacks of paper (that might have been duplicated and re-distributed by a $5/hr temp worker) can sometimes lose a page.  Trust me -- this happens!

    Note: To staple or not to staple:   Some offices make copies of applications as soon as they arrive.  That means that somebody has to rip out your staples before anyone even reads your document.   Likewise, if you print back-to-back, you create extra work for your potential employer, who will have to remember to turn over each page to check what's on the other side.

  • 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. Underselling and/or Overselling

Don't undersell yourself:  People who are fresh out of high school sometimes underestimate the transferable job skills that they have picked up during their part-time employment.  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])