How to write a resume

I’ve written the same email five times in the last several months giving friends advice on how to write their resume, so I figured it was time for me to package it into a blog post that I could then just link to when needed. Assume this is my response to somebody with a few years of experience who is starting to look for a new job and looking for feedback on their resume.

The first thing to remember is that a resume is a sales brochure – the goal of a resume is to convince the HR person and hiring manager to give you a phone screen. That’s it. Your resume is not your career history or academic C.V. where you list everything you’ve ever done – its only purpose is to convince somebody to give you more time to sell them on the fact that you are the right person for the job.

Even scarier, your resume has only ten seconds to make that initial sale and convince the company person that you are a good enough fit for the position to be worth spending more time on. It may seem unfair for your career to be evaluated in ten seconds, but I’m often reviewing resumes at the end of the day, flipping through a stack and seeing if any catch my eye. I’ll review the ones that catch my eye more closely and spend as much as 30-60 seconds looking at the resume before making a decision on the phone screen. But the resume has to grab my attention in the first ten seconds, or it’s gone. I like Rands’s take on how a hiring manager scans resumes to explain the thought process.

If you only had ten seconds to sell yourself to somebody, would you try to tell them your entire life story? Of course not – you would tell them only a few key points that make you stand out and show that you’d be a great fit for the position. You should take that attitude with your resume – anything in your resume that does not contribute to the immediate goal of selling yourself to the company should be removed.

So what does that mean in practical terms? You need to make it really easy for the resume reviewer to learn what you want them to know about you in that initial ten seconds. You can help with that by only including what you want them to know and using formatting to make particular bits stand out. For instance, on my resume, I put my academic degrees at the top because seeing MIT, Stanford and Columbia generally gets people’s attention. I’ve also gotten to the point in my career where I’ve started dropping jobs that aren’t relevant to my current career track (e.g. my physics internship between undergrad and grad school).

You also need to sell yourself on the resume. This is difficult for many engineers and introverts, as bragging is not something that comes naturally to us. But this is the place to do it. Talk about how great you are, and the amazing things you’ve done. You can not expect the reviewer to spend time reading between the lines to understand your awesomeness – you have to spell it out in neon so they can get it on a quick glance.

Along those lines, list key accomplishments, not responsibilities. Don’t tell me that you were doing X, Y and Z – that doesn’t tell me whether you did X, Y and Z well, even if you say you “successfully” did X. Tell me how you changed things for the better. How was the company different because you were there rather than some other person? If you can quantify your accomplishments, even better – increased sales 20%, reduced downtime by 50%, whatever you can measure. As an aside, this is also useful to consider how you are approaching your current job – what are you accomplishing and can you measure it?

Make the resume specific to the job that you are applying for. Remember, the resume is a sales brochure – you want to target your sales job at your customer, the resume reviewer in this case. That may change which of your accomplishments you want to highlight in a given job, or may change what you want to emphasize with formatting on the resume. You can have a “raw materials” career history with all of your career accomplishments from which to draw, but then edit it down for this specific audience.

Include interesting extracurriculars, especially ones that show achievement. Again, the goal of a resume is to stand out from all the others ones in the stack being reviewed – extracurriculars are one way to do that. We had one candidate last year that included the fact that she had won beauty contests as a teenager – totally irrelevant for a financial analyst position, but it made her resume stand out, and we took a closer look at her actual credentials and brought her in for an interview. In my case, my San Francisco Symphony Chorus experience, which included singing at Carnegie Hall and winning a Grammy, is a nice tidbit to mention.

Keep the resume to one page – this may seem impossible once you have more than a couple jobs, but if you only list one or two key accomplishments from each job, you can do it. Remember, anything that isn’t relevant to making the sale shouldn’t be on the resume anyway. Plus I rarely read beyond the first page of a resume, so if there’s anything on the second page that you wanted me to see, you lost your chance.

I highly recommend converting your resume to a PDF before submitting (I print to a PDF file using CutePDF), just to make sure that formatting is preserved and nobody can edit your resume as it wends its way through the system.

That’s about it. Remember the key points – your resume is a sales document designed to earn you more time to sell yourself on why you’re the right fit for the job. It initially has ten seconds to stand out, and then another 30-60 seconds to convince the resume reviewer to give you a phone screen. Everything on the resume should contribute to closing that sale. If you do that, your chances of getting phone screens will go up.

P.S. I’ve uploaded the resume that got me the interview at Google if you’re interested in what I did last time I was looking for a job. I’d do things differently now, but hopefully it gives some ideas.

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