By Douglas Richardson, CareerJournal.com
As a human-resources consultant, I spend a lot of time making judgments about people on the basis of how they present themselves in resumes. In this role, my highest priorities are to cull the few from the many and help my clients avoid pigs in pokes. My job description doesn’t include extending charity to job seekers and resume writers. On the contrary, I find I approach every resume with a certain impatient cynicism.
Far too many resumes reflect a naive belief that each and every word will be read by a Rational Reader. Rational Readers are marked by receptive hearts, detached egos and lots of free time. They are more rare than unicorns. I certainly have never met one.
Of the hundreds of resumes that cross my desk, I read—I mean really read—less than half. An enormous number get a fast scan, a snap judgment and relegation to the “re-read thoroughly, time permitting” pile. Others fare better because they do what an effective resume should: As marketing brochures, they spark my interest in a particular product—you.
The resumes that don’t survive the cut fall into two main categories: those that try my patience and those that tax my credulity. Those that fall into the first category generally aren’t read carefully enough to fall into the second.
Surviving the Scan
It takes between two and five minutes to read thoroughly two single-spaced typewritten pages. Even a quick scan takes about 40 seconds. In that 40 seconds, I—and those like me—must find a “handle” or my hands reach for the next resume in the stack.
Therefore, my first glance at your resume must not bore or dismay me. So avoid using huge, dark blocks of verbiage and quarter-inch margins, like this thinly disguised true-life example:
Including this paragraph, the first page of this resume had seven similarly daunting hunks of words on it. I’ll never know what was in the other six.
Most resume writers realize that self-marketing resumes shouldn’t exceed two pages. Many, however, take this limit as an excuse to load up those two pages like a rush-hour bus. Using the first person, they try to cram in a detailed personal history, replete with pronouns, adjectives and dependent clauses.
Please, don’t do that. Use wide margins, bold headings, indentations or bullets—anything to guide my eye quickly to the points that should grab my attention and force my respect. Unless you’re in the graphics trade or some business that treasures novelty, steer clear of fancy fonts, peculiar paper, flashy formats or other “Look at this!” visual stunts. They detract from content and give me an excuse to stop reading and share a good laugh with my co-workers.
Even the most readable format is no substitute for content that doesn’t deliver. Think in terms of a joust. Your resume is a battleground for a ritual skirmish. I expect you to brag as effectively as you can. You should expect me to try to discount or disprove your every claim. If you stay on your horse through the first scan, you get to the second round—an attentive reading. Survive all this, and you get to go to the castle and meet the princess.
Drawing the Reader a Map
Show me a clear-cut sense of direction. I keep seeing resumes that are little more than buckets into which a lot of data has been dumped in the apparent belief that I will fill in the gaps, synthesize diverse information, connect the dots and tell you what kind of product you are. I have no incentive to do this, given the number of knights eager to enter the lists. It isn’t my job to make sense out of your life.
When stating your objectives, be brief and tell me how your skills can be applied. I know my own needs. Your objectives or aspirations interest me only to the extent they correspond with what I’m looking for. Here, for example, are three objectives I’ve seen lately, together with my gut reaction to each:
People changing careers often complain that it’s hard for them to write a good objective because there are many potential arenas for their skills. They’re right. In such cases, profiles or summaries work better than objectives because they emphasize what you offer, not what you want. Whatever you use, you’ve got to show me that you’ve given the whole career-change thing some thought and aren’t careening around aimlessly or escaping past catastrophes.
If you use a summary, don’t let it be just a list. It must still serve as your mission statement, offering a view of where your past is steering your present. Here’s one where the mission remains undefined:
Since I can’t tell where this person is going, I assume that the writer doesn’t know either. I’ve seen a lot of smart people who can’t put the power to the road, so I think always in terms of how skills will be applied, not simply what skills are possessed.
Deducting Style Points
A clear, concrete objective, summary or profile is a pleasant challenge to me. From it, I can measure the proof you provide of your skills, achievements and ability to handle future responsibility.
At this stage, both words and music become important; I look both at what you claim and how you claim it. Like a judge in diving or gymnastics, I deduct style points for deviations from excellence—be it in content or in presentation. It’s possible, therefore, to lose my respect through some single glaring defect or the accumulation of a series of minor shortcomings. Here’s an example of multiple sins:
Aside from sounding pompous, this is horrible writing—verbose, multi-syllabic and grandiose. I get the feeling this person is trying to make an achievement out of taking minutes at marketing meetings. The folks that earn credibility from me are those that let their voice be silent. They let past achievements, titles and evidence of others’ trust speak for them—unvarnished and unadorned.
As a matter of style, there’s no reason to use the first-person pronoun; we all know whose resume this is. Similarly, forget about third-person narratives, which don’t sound like the praises of an objective outsider. They simply sound affected.
I admire people who don’t overdo qualifying adjectives. Descriptions of “major contributions,” “dynamic programs” and “significant improvements” aren’t objective reality. They’re the writer’s opinion and are discounted as such. I get tired of high-action adverbs: “aggressively,” “proactively,” “progressively.” I want meat, not gravy.
I also knock points off for using “wimpy” verbs. Use verbs to strike a blow for action and achievement: Manage. Execute. Analyze. Create. Organize. Let the other drip be the one who “aided,” “participated in” or “helped bring about.”
Emphasize your past achievements by using titles, numbers and names. I respect titles. They show someone else had enough faith in you to invest you with responsibility. That proves something, and yet many people leave it out.
Numbers serve two functions. First, they show magnitude of achievement. The person who “increased plant output 156% in seven months” is more impressive than the one who merely “increased productivity.” And “managed technical-design staff of 350” is better proof of your skills than “headed engineering group.” Second, numbers offer concrete evidence that’s rarely questioned.
Names carry clout the same way numbers do. IBM isn’t a “major data processing firm.” It’s IBM. Working there isn’t the same as working at Marty’s Software Heaven. Imagine if George Washington’s functional resume simply stated: Played significant role in planning and implementation of major country.
If you can’t trade directly on name credibility, try catching my attention with descriptions like, “Fortune 100 Company” or “world’s largest shoelace maker.” Such references can make an enormous difference in how I perceive you and the quality of your achievements.
Reach Out and Touch Someone
Building credibility is more than just avoiding revealing gaffes, however. It requires doing enough background research to identify your target audience and its vital interests. If I (or the company I represent) am truly your best prospect, try crawling into my head and asking the same questions of your resume that I would ask—in roughly the same order. If you can’t do that, then you don’t know your market yet and should do more research. I find it uniquely gratifying when a piece of information appears before my eyes at the precise moment my mental organizing apparatus signals a need for it. If this happens several times over two pages, I begin to conclude that the writer really has my number. Such compatibility is exactly what I want.
If you recognize that it’s my perception and not your intention that controls the fate of your resume, we’ll get along fine. Show me how I can use you. Sell me only what you’re prepared to deliver. Go ahead, make me an offer I can’t refuse.
Mr. Richardson, a CareerJournal.com columnist, heads the Richardson Group, an executive and career-development consulting firm in Narberth, Pa. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.