How to Write a Resume That Stands Out

How you approach your resume can be the difference between getting a call and getting passed over. This is my take on what makes a resume stand out from the crowd.

resume-stand-outThere are many good articles and even books dedicated to solid resume writing. This is my take based on my many years evaluating candidate resumes.

As a manager at a Fortune 500 company for a decade and a half, I've been in the role of "hiring manager" many times. I've looked at hundreds of resumes, done dozens of informational interviews, and interviewed dozens of candidates. I've hired many great people (and have had my fair share of hires that didn't work out). I've also learned quite a bit about what to look for in resumes that have helped me land the right people for the jobs I needed to fill.

I'll be the first to acknowledge that the resume is becoming somewhat passé in light of newer technologies like LinkedIn, professional job sites, and the emergence of "performance-based" evaluation methods for determining potential candidates. Also, recruiters have an increasingly larger role to play in evaluating a candidate's viability before a hiring manager ever gets involved. But, at least for the time being, the resume is still king and most hiring managers will use the resume as a first look when determining which candidates he or she will choose to talk to.

Most good guidance on this topic outline basics like using good grammar in your resume, avoiding flashy fonts and garish colors, and keeping your resume to around one page. These are table stakes. But there are other things you can do to make your resume stand out from the dozens or hundreds of resumes a hiring manager may scan when searching for that ideal candidate (this guidance can also be applied to your LinkedIn profile).

  • Be specific yet succinct. Stating a skill or proficiency in general terms is one of the more egregious flaws I see in resumes. Saying, "Proficient with Illustrator" tells the hiring manager almost nothing. Dozens of candidates will say the same thing. I'd rather see something like, "Used Illustrator to create hundreds of graphics for Awesome Web's home page." That stands out and gives a hiring manager something to ask about in an interview.
  • Use examples whenever possible. Similar to number 1, the more examples you can use in your resume, the better. You have to be careful here because examples can get wordy so use them carefully. For big-ticket items that apply directly to the role, a well-placed, well-written example of real-world experience goes a long way and stands out.
  • Do research and write for the position. While you want to write about you not the job, your resume should reflect the fact that you know what you're applying for and you've done the work to match your skills and passions to the role. For example, if you want to work as a programming for a specific role in a game development company, talk about how your skills as a programmer will make you successful at that specific job rather than talking in generalities about your skills as a programmer. This requires a bit of work and may mean you tweak your resume for each job your applying for. But it will pay off.
  • List only skills or tools that apply to the role. Any skills you list or tools you're proficient in should apply to the specific role you're applying for. Long lists of things you're good at but that don't relate to the role you're applying for comes across as fluff and hiring managers will assume you're just padding your resume to look impressive. Don’t do it.
  • Write for humans not computers. This is related to the previous recommendation. While it's true that when you submit a resume to many companies and job sites, that resume will get scanned and keywords from your document will be used to surface candidates to hiring managers. Remember though that your resume eventually will end up in the hands of a human that will read through your document. Write with keywords in mind but focus on readability and on communicating your passion, skills, and who you are to a human reader. I've read too many resumes that were filled with seeming random keywords that clearly were written for a computer and not me.
  • Avoid using big words. While reaching deep into your vocabulary (or Thesaurus) may make you look impressive, in my experience, large, and more importantly, obscure words diminish the overall readability of the document. For example, if you mean to say, "I helped Big Data Corporation clarify their customer reports using my skills as an interpreter" avoid saying, "I served as an interpretive heuristic for Big Data's problem with epistemic opacity in their customer-facing 10-1299s." As the saying goes, "Don't use a big word where a diminutive one will suffice."
  • Think about what the hiring manager needs from you. A lot of resume guidance will tell you to focus your resume on your skills and what you want out of the job. This is good guidance but you should also understand that the job is about providing mutual benefit to the employee and the employer. It goes a long way to acknowledge that part of your goal is to help the hiring manager reach his or her goals and to help the business, non-profit, government office, or whatever to be successful. I know you want a good job that you'll love. Tell me also how you plan on helping me accomplish my goals.
  • Try to let your true self come through. I like reading resumes where a bit of the personality of the individual shows through. Resumes that are overly humorous or that are too clever can be a turn off. But subtle humor, hints of passions outside of work or of things you like, and clues that the you don't take yourself too seriously go a long way. If you're a creative type, let that come through too but don't overdo it. I want to know who you are. I don't want to be manipulated. You want to be professional but accessible too. One memorable resume I received had a subtle and artistic box around the candidates qualifications and experience with an arrow at the bottom of the box. Below the arrow was the name of the candidate. This was a minor creative flourish but made the resume stand out from the rest. Her resume was solid and we brought this person in for an interview. We ended up making her an offer.

One final bit of guidance: have someone (or better, many people) you trust proofread and give you honest feedback and be prepared to respond to that feedback. Its much better to have friends or colleagues find spelling errors or tell you that something doesn't make sense than for a hiring manager to find flaws.

So I can summarize the items above with what I'll call the 5 Bes of a good resume:

  1. Be clear
  2. Be specific
  3. Be concise
  4. Be engaging
  5. Be authentic
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