Those of us who grew up without cell phones learned this in high school and those of us who grew up with cell phones still need to master this business convention: the résumé. The written overview of your experience and qualifications has changed, but the function remains a tried-and-true, necessary first step in the hiring process. If your résumé doesn’t make the cut, then you don’t get the interview.

Before you begin, decide on whether a curriculum vitae (CV) or résumé is appropriate. Often used interchangeably, they’re not the same. A “proper” resume should not exceed two pages. For individuals with a long work or project history, that means highlighting the important parts. A CV best suits academic positions and requires greater detail as well as document length. For the purpose of this article, we assume that you need a résumé.

Before you write

Advance preparation avoids errors. Begin by cataloging your skills and experience. In her article “How to Write a Resume That Will Get You an Interview,” Alison Doyle suggests, “Spend some time matching your qualifications to the job.” Many employers will not hire someone without previous relevant job experience. That, of course, leads to the problem of how to acquire experience if no one will hire. This article assumes you have job experience.

Once you determine the focus of your skills and experience and how they apply to the job you want, understand the industry lingo of that job. Review job descriptions and employment advertisements from different companies for the same type of job and jot down the keywords common among them. You may even wish to tally how often those keywords are used. Then make sure the top keywords appear in your résumé with similar frequency. Use of industry buzzwords helps your résumé pass the first filter.
Filter? Indeed. The online submission process shoots résumés through a gauntlet of algorithms and keyword terms that automatically dismiss those résumés not meeting their arcane formulae for good candidates.

Decide on the résumé format with regard to how you organize the information on the document and the document’s appearance. LiveCareer can guide you on the differences between the organizational formats. Regardless of which format you choose, pick one that emphasizes the best points of your qualifications and minimizes the information that detracts from your application. Be aware that some hiring professionals automatically dismiss candidates with employment gaps; others emphasize skills over continuity of employment.

Format also refers to the layout of that page. Especially if you’re a novice at this sort of thing, find a template that appeals to you and adapt it to your advantage for best visual appeal. Uncluttered, clean, well-organized design appeals the most to busy human resources professionals.

But I’m submitting online, you protest. Never worry, application processes integrate inefficiency and redundancy which require applicants not only to enter their education and work history into an online form, but also require applicants to upload copies of their formatted résumés.

Legibility also entails fonts. Rule of thumb cautions against using any font under 10 points and over 12 points. Look at the fonts and compare how they appear. Although you may wish to use a smaller font to cram as much information as possible onto a page or a larger font to fill the page if the information appears less than adequate, don’t. Choose a font that remains clear and legible at the “proper” size. You may even choose to use two fonts: one for headers and the other for general text. Employ typefaces (bold or italics) sparingly. Use them for emphasis to draw attention to specific points.

Many modern résumé templates incorporate color and photos. The jury’s still out on whether that’s standard or even appropriate for professional résumés. A dash of color adds visual interest and can separate your résumé from a stack of boring, monochromatic documents. Or it can mark you as juvenile and unprofessional. Use your best judgment and consider saving the color and photos for less conservative professions.

Résumé writing basics

Use active verbs. This storytelling tip strengthens the writing. Nothing bores readers more than a series of declarative statements. Avoid spelling and grammar errors. Use a human proofreader to review the content, because spell-checking software doesn’t understand the difference between pair and pare or from and form. As far as the computer’s concerned, they’re all spelled correctly.

Forget what your language arts teacher told you about sentence construction. This is a résumé, not an essay. Be succinct. Use sentence fragments. Above all else, eschew obfuscation. In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say in the clearest terms in the most concise manner possible.

The résumé also serves as a sort of bulletin board to brag about your most significant accomplishments. If you saved a client big bucks on a waste reduction project, crow about it. If you improved production efficiency in a manufacturing process, showcase it. If you tripled the shortlist rate for proposals for an advertising company, then why are you even reading this? You got it.
If page space permits, enhance your work and education credentials with certifications and licenses (if you have them), publications (most recent first), awards and honors (if any), professional affiliations, and technical skills. These details help distinguish you from the vast horde of job applicants. If the job requires a specific licence or certification or if the employer assigns extra credit for such, make absolutely sure you list those credentials if you have them.

Finally, never volunteer your salary history, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, age, or other personal information that has no bearing on whether you are able to perform the work required in the job description. It’s none of their business, anyway.

Additional considerations

Especially for those in “job-hunting mode” who spend hours every day desperately seeking employment, experts recommend setting up a separate email account with a professional email address. Natalie Severt’s article “How to Make a Resume: A Step-by-Step Guide (+30 Examples)” argues against using an unprofessional, cute, funny, or crude email address: “It won’t amuse recruiters to see johnlikesgoats@hotmail.com or sexysara@gmail.com. Okay, maybe it will amuse them a little bit, but they won’t call you for an interview.”

The shift from paper résumés to online résumés to an increased focus on what people do outside of work hours leads to increased scrutiny of after-hours activities and comments recorded on social media. Employers prefer that their employees not embarrass them. While the argument persists as to whether what you do on your time is their business, the reality is your social media presence affects the hiring decision. A Facebook page filled with pictures of drunken revelry and obscene rants won’t impress a potential employer, no matter how qualified you might otherwise be. Therefore, you may wish to consider establishing a separate social media account open to public viewing and on which you take care to post nothing that would offend your great-grandmother. Also, if you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, get one and keep it professional. Including URLs to social media—especially LinkedIn—have become expected and may even be considered de rigueur.

Understand that most job descriptions are wish lists. Let’s be frank: every company wants to hire an 18-year-old Ph.D. with 10 years of relevant experience who’s willing to work for minimum wage. Every company wants a “unicorn” that perfectly matches their wish list of employment criteria. Take it for granted that you’re not a unicorn. If you meet more than half of their selection criteria, then you’re likely a pretty good fit for that job, so take a chance.

Above all, be honest. Presenting yourself in the best light does not require stretching the truth, much less bald-faced lies. Savvy employers can, do, and will contact your previous supervisors, colleagues, and clients to verify your credentials and claims of competence.

If you’re still not confident in your ability to craft an outstanding résumé, a query entered into any online search engine will provide sites offering step-by-step instructions, examples, and additional tips. Once you’ve got a terrific résumé in hand, you can then focus on the next task: the cover letter.