Resumes and CVs. You can love them, you can hate them, but you can’t deny that they are an essential tool in any job seeker’s arsenal. While simply having a resume or CV might not be enough to bag you that job or opportunity, having a stellar resume could just do the trick and help you improve your odds of getting an interview, and ultimately, a job. At the very minimum, these tips will help save your resume from the dreaded “no” pile. So, how can you build or improve your resume to stand out? Here are some pointers.
Research & Personalise
As explained in Part 1 of this series, a resume is a fit to purpose career tool aimed at convincing a recruiter or reviewer that you’re the best candidate for a job. By fit to purpose, I mean, targeted to a job or company, and in order to target a resume, you need to know or understand your intended recipient and the job requirements at hand. Ergo, do your research. Doing your research could include desk research and spending some time on the company website, speaking to current employees, or requesting an informational interview from a team member (not directly involved in the hiring process).
Once you have a good sense of what the recruiter is looking for, the next step of the targeting process is to ensure that all the experience, skills, education and information highlighted is relevant to the job or recruiter in question. Relevance, my friends, is the name of the game, and the more relevant the information, the more visible it should be. Hence, place your most relevant accomplishments, skills and information at the top. Still a student? Place details about your education (institution, degree, GPA, graduation date) and relevant coursework at the top. A few years out of school? Prioritise relevant experience. Transitioning into a new industry or sector? A resume objective or summary could come in handy – make sure you highlight skillsets of relevance.
Show, Don’t Tell
With most hiring processes done over the web, it’s important to remember that your audience may not just be a recruiter, but also the search engine embedded in an applicant tracking system (ATS). Weave in as many keywords indicated on a job description that apply to you. That said, don’t make the mistake of simply regurgitating whatever is on a job description. Doing so would mean missing an opportunity to focus on information a recruiter wouldn’t otherwise have: your accomplishments. As much as possible, your resume should focus on what you have accomplished in the various roles you are highlighting, and not simply what you were tasked with. It’s a fine balance, I know, so here is an example:
Wrote articles for online publication (Telling)
Composed a seven-article story package on humanitarian assistance through interviews with 20 field professionals (Showing)
The first is what you would find on a job description. It’s general, defines a role and doesn’t include much detail or context. The second is specific and highlights an accomplishment – which in turn demonstrates the candidate’s communication, writing, research and interview capabilities. LinkedIn influencer Laszlo Bock’s formula for highlighting one’s accomplishments on a resume is a good guide to follow: Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]
Think ‘Active’ Words
One way you can demonstrate or show, instead of simply tell is by using action verbs which communicate immediately and bring images to mind. To achieve this, your sentence should follow a subject-verb-object structure, for instance, “[I was] promoted after a year to team lead” instead of “A promotion to team lead was awarded to me after a year.” The first statement in the active voice gets to the point and is punchier, while the second in the passive voice sounds a bit long-winded. To stand out even further, consider staying away from words and phrases like “responsible for” or “handled”, which most job applicants tend to use.
Switch it up with other verbs that not only communicate the same thing but give more texture and context. For instead, instead of “led” you could opt for “chaired. Instead of “changed” you could use “customised” or even “refined”; instead of “researched” you could use “evaluated” or even “assessed”. Words like “authored”, “composed”, and “documented” also make for more interesting alternatives to “wrote”. Check here for more active verbs and synonyms.
Bring Out Those Hidden Figures
There seems to be an unspoken rule about numbers not being resume-y: most people tend to stay away from numbers. And yet, numbers, when used well, not only help your resume stand out, but also make it easier for a recruiter to quantify or measure your value addition to a team, previous role or job. Numbers (and percentages) can be used in a variety of ways, but ultimately do the same thing: they provide a frame of reference to quantify your impact, influence, effectiveness without need for all the details. Let’s take a look at the example below – which statement makes you feel like your events would be in better hands?
Event planning experience
Organised 5 regional workshops in Tunisia and Zimbabwe with over 300 participants from across Africa.
Aim for an Easy Read
Want to make it into the next application review round? Your goal should be to provide relevant information as painlessly as possible. Make the reading or review process easy for the recruiter and you won’t have to hedge your qualification on whether or not he or she is annoyed after struggling to read through your resume. Most recruiters prefer the chronological (reverse) resume and only skim through resumes for a few minutes to decide whether or not they’re worth a closer look. It’s in your interest to ensure that your resume is legible and easy to read and doesn’t overwhelm with too much unstructured text. Guide the reader through your resume.
How do you achieve this? Formatting. The most obvious formatting option is aligning your text to the left – since we read from left to right. You should also choose your font and font size carefully. Generally speaking, resume font sizes usually run between 10 and 12 points, and sans serif fonts like Arial, Calibri, Verdana and Helvetica are relatively easier to read in comparison to serif fonts like Times New Roman which have extensions on the letters.
Want to stand out from everyone else using a common font? Keep it professional especially if you find yourself in a traditional like banking – some fonts may be considered too “modern”. Also, bear in mind that not all new (read, edgy or creative) fonts are recognized by different computer software or ATS. Word processor tools like bold, italics, and CAPS can also help distinguish details and provide a roadmap of sorts for understanding information presented. By using paragraphs, bullets and section headers you can also break down what would otherwise be large chunks of text in interesting ways. Whatever you decide, make sure your resume is legible and easy to read.
With the increasing introduction of visuals into everyday life, resumes are also changing. Whereas you would probably be met with a raised eyebrow for playing around with colours on a resume, you can now get away with even icons. Of course, it all depends on the industry or work culture of the company you are looking to get into. For more traditional jobs in sectors like banking, it’s better to stay with the safe with the basic formatting tools described above. If you are in the creative industry however, here’s your chance to get creative. How? Beyond going bold and using italics, you can play around with underlines, boxes, colours and visuals. You could even push boundaries by exploring infographic resumes or using templates from applications like Word, Pages or Canva. If you really want to make an impression, consider including a link to your LinkedIn profile (which allows for more media and work samples), a video resume or building an online portfolio.
Proofread: Grammar & Tenses
Beyond the structure and visual appearance of a resume, the actual content can also make reading a blissful experience or excruciatingly painful. Pay special attention to grammar and tenses. The past tense tends to be the most commonly used tense on a resume, but make sure you’re only using that for accomplishments that are actually in the past. If you’re sharing information about a current role or tasks, keep them in present tense. To ensure that whoever is reviewing your resume doesn’t toss it out after reading the first line, proofread, proofread and proofread some more.
Keep It Professional
More and more, job recruiters look out for personality and culture fit alongside technical skills and expertise, but some believe that personal details like hobbies or interests should be excluded from resumes. My general take on the issue is to include personal details, hobbies or extracurricular activities if they are relevant to the job in question. Again, relevance is key. If you’ve gained a skillset or insight which is applicable to a job role, then by all means, put it on there. At the very minimum it will help distinguish you from another candidate with a similar skill set. Beyond that, it’s important to keep your resume professional – your email address should be professional, the hyperlinks you direct recruiters to should be to professional platforms (or platforms you wouldn’t mind a recruiter knowing and asking you about), and for the love of God, don’t say anything disparaging about your former employer(s). Remember, you’ll have to fit your resume to one page, keep it relevant.
Once the content and structure of your resume is finalised, it’s important to ensure that the packaging is on point. Ideally, your resume should be saved as a PDF. This will not only help ensure that the formatting you so diligently did doesn’t get messed by another computer, but also prevent anyone from changing the details included (which is possible with a Word document for instance). How you name your document is also important. Again, you don’t want a recruiter doing more (guess) work than they have to. A format I generally use to name my resumes and cover letters is as follows: My Full Name. Resume. Company Name or Position. Month & Year. This also makes it easy for me to pull up my resume in my email down the line. Keywords, people, keywords. That said, make sure to double check that the company listed in the document name is actually who the resume is meant for. Indicating the wrong company or position is one of the surest ways to land your resume in the ‘no’ pile.
Keep a Master
One of the reasons why resume writing can be so stressful is because we often leave it to the very last minute to craft. Consider keeping a master resume (CV) which captures all your accomplishments and roles – and which you refine or add to periodically. That way, when your dream job shows up, all you have to do is copy and paste, fine-tune to the specific job or company, and send.
Have you applied any of these resume tips in the past? Got any others to share? Leave a comment.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.