August 2, 2019

The Perfect Resume

When applying for any dream job, there are invariably three main things you need:

  1. Previous experience
  2. A resume
  3. Interview skills

While a resume is not something that alone guarantees any job, it’s definitely a big part of any recruiting process, and many people have spent countless hours trying to best present themselves on a piece of paper for that chance to interview.

Their effort is usually worth it. A good resume gets good results — it will increase your chance to interview in noticeable ways.

While the entire hiring process depends on factors like industry, stage of the company, current market demand, and difficulty of the position, defining factors of a good resume” largely overlap regardless of what you are applying for. I’ve seen this first-hand over the past few years; my last few years have encompassed everything from reviewing thousands of resumes for technical events, to working on an EdTech startup who sold a resume collection and analysis platform, to helping junior and senior job seekers personally revamp their resume. I’ve easily looked at 10,000 resumes in the past 4 years. At this point it becomes easy to notice the large overlap between good, well performing resumes that yield interviews, as well as similarities between poorly put together resumes that get screened out.

Because most good resumes share so many common elements, I’m going to spend the time trying to break down what makes a successful resume, discuss how to avoid having a bad resume, and outline frameworks for making a solid resume for yourself.

The first question - Where are you using this resume?

In general, there are probably two places you will use a resume:

  1. In person events (career fairs, hiring events, competitions, etc)
  2. Online applications

The process for these two pipelines is a bit different, and can potentially change how you might want to approach your resume.

Understanding online Applicant Tracking Systems”

The first thing to understand about applying online is that most medium to large companies use Applicant Tracking Systems, also abbreviated to ATS. These systems receive all of the data you type into the job application, and oftentimes filter candidates immediately after applying. If you pass the automated screens that may be in place, the ATS will have a person look over your profile and contact you if they see a potential fit.

Because many companies use ATS, this means that your resume needs to be parseable. That is, when an ATS scans through your resume, what does it see?

The first level of this is making sure that the text does not become garbled during the process. Although most resumes don’t have this issue, some with unique characters, multiple columns, unusual indentation, or images can translate into odd results.

An easy check is to use a pdf to txt” converter. If this simple website that scans PDF documents outputs a text file that doesn’t read correctly (words are jumbled, strange symbols appear, etc.) then you might want to remake your resume. If you don’t want to use the one I linked, make sure you don’t choose a highly sophisticated option. Most ATS don’t use OCR or trained models for their categorization, so you shouldn’t expect things will work well. (If you don’t know what that means, just stick to my link and ignore.)

Another possible check is to look at a company that uses a platform like Lever to auto-populate your application form when you upload your resume. If things aren’t filled in correctly, you might want to try debugging the issue.

I know some people have a problem with text parsing because they make their resumes in Photoshop, which is not a tool meant for making PDF documents. If you want something very artsy, use InDesign. It isn’t hard to pick up how to use it if you already know Photoshop.

Side note — notice how I’m only using PDF as the example for your resume file. That’s because PDF is the only format you should share your resume in. Not .doc, not .docx, not .odt, not a Google Doc link… only PDF.

Find just the right words

Once you know a machine can scan your resume properly, you should start thinking about word choice. The best place for this is the job application itself. A lot of people don’t read through the full job request, but chances are it has a lot of specific technical words or previous experience required. Many companies do a first check for these things by simply seeing if the phrase is present somewhere in the resume’s text.

Even if this isn’t done by a machine at every company, many companies unfortunately have recruiters or hiring agencies source candidates with skillsets they don’t remotely understand. I’ve seen people be told by recruiters they aren’t fit for a job because they used a synonym for the skill the company is looking for. Think on the level of: We are looking for someone who can build homes, not houses.” It’s a cruel world we live in, but if you want the job, just make sure your language matches the job requirement. Whether it be machine or human, if there isn’t a sufficient understanding of the field, you need to make sure you speak the same language as who/what-ever is looking at your resume.

The Skills Section

A natural solution to this situation is to have a Skills” section on your resume. Put all the buzzwords in one place and get it over with. That works sometimes, but other times can come across as naive depending on what you list. If you say you have 40 skills, no one will actually read them all, and the assumption will be that you are exaggerating. Have a solid list if it makes sense (programming languages, core software tools, industry certifications) but don’t be too liberal about what you list.

If you are senior enough, a skills section may not make sense. It uses up space that has much more potential. I’d rather get a sense of the past 15 years of work you’ve done, not waste space with the entire Microsoft Office suite listed on your resume. We’ll get into this a lot more in a bit, but if possible, understanding skills in relation to experience is much more helpful.

A word for the stressed out resume writer

Wording is one of those things that can be tricky. If you aren’t having a lot of luck but you believe you truly have the skillset for the job, maybe consider spending extra time here. Or, if it is your absolute dream job that you only have one shot for, then spend the extra time. Otherwise I would say exact wording isn’t incredibly important. Don’t drain yourself obsessing over wording.

Start thinking about your resume as an advertisement.

If you are applying for a job in person, or if the company’s online pipeline has a person thoroughly examine your resume before moving to an interview, you need to worry about what it looks like.

Some people might get to this section and start rolling their eyes. I’m a scientist/engineer/insert-technical-job-here! I don’t need to worry about graphic design!”

Well first of all, a good looking resume is not full of pictures or graphics. It is, however, incredibly readable.

For the interested, this concept is “information hierarchy”, a subtopic of “information architecture.”For the interested, this concept is “information hierarchy”, a subtopic of “information architecture.”

For the interested, this concept is information hierarchy”, a subtopic of information architecture.”I’ve heard statistics saying a single resume is looked at anywhere from 6 seconds to 30 seconds at most. If you do not inform the reader of why you are a good candidate in a very short period of time, you will get overlooked. For a lot of jobs that you want, hundreds if not thousands of other people are competing for the same spot.

One of my favorite examples of how cleaning up a resume can make a difference comes from Practical Typography’s resume chapter. The author made his textbook available for completely free online, but I encourage you to donate (especially if his pointers help you get a job!)

Example resumes sourced from Practical Typography for educational purposes.Example resumes sourced from Practical Typography for educational purposes.

In his free textbook’s example, Matthew Butterick succinctly explains what is wrong with the left resume, and how to think about structure so you get something more like what is on the right. Go check out the link, because I don’t detail anything here.

The essential value of a clean resume is that:

  1. It is memorable
  2. Intriguing and impressive skills are immediately read (depth of candidate)
  3. Structure makes skimming possible (breadth of candidate)
  4. By association, you seem to care about quality

When in person, especially somewhere crowded like a career fair or major recruiting event, this is key. How will your sheet of paper and jumble of words make it into the good pile, when 85% of the resumes are going instantly into the reject” pile?

You don’t need to get fancy. This stuff is very possible in Google Docs or Microsoft Word. For the inspired, try making a resume in InDesign, Latex, or with HTML/CSS (just remember to export as a PDF.)

If you have to, google a template. There are dozens of them. But if you can, be original. It’s weird when I have two unique” resumes of the same template right next to each other (but still better than a dense, messy resume.)

Tips for those who want a clean looking resume

A few things to remember if you want to upgrade the design of your resume:

  • Whitespace is important. The whole page does not need to be crammed full. Let it breathe a bit. However, don’t make it more pages instead.
  • Font and font size are important. Don’t strain my eyes.
  • An easy font hack for the novice: serif for the body, sans serif for titles.
  • Giving titles some color is an easy way to establish a visual hierarchy. If you are really good, you can do this with fonts and sizing alone, but color or boldness is an option for those looking for more of a hotfix.
  • That said, how colors look on the screen may not be how it looks on paper. Don’t wait to print until the last minute. Remember people can have bad eyesight, so avoid certain colors, especially in bad lighting.
  • If you are going to use color, note that a company might still print the resume in black and white. Make sure the colors still work.
  • Don’t randomly bold words in the document because you think they are buzzwords. It’s tacky.
  • Don’t use funky bullet points. I’m talking to you, ◈.
  • Some people put their pictures on their resume. This is a hot topic. While it may help put a name to a face,” many companies black it out for legal reasons (don’t want a discrimination lawsuit.) Pictures can also waste space. I’ve seen it work, but I don’t advise it. Use with discretion.
  • I’ve seen people who try adding progress bars” to their skills section to try to make it pretty. But what does 50% Public Speaking” even mean? The same goes for doing things like 8/10” or giving your skills star/dot ratings. Don’t do things that decrease clarity even a little bit to try to have aesthetic.

Simple todo’s regarding structure

There are a few simple things that you can do without editing the design to still improve resume readability and make it easier to skim. Even if you’ve made it clean, content also needs to be where you expect it.

  • Work experience should be listed in reverse chronological order.
  • Every project or work experience needs a time range. It doesn’t need a geographical location.
  • I’ve seen resumes without names. Don’t do that. Names should be clearly up top. Keep your phone number and email near your name.
  • Phone numbers need dashes or dots. 123–456–7890, not 1234567890.
  • Don’t have too many section headers. Education, Experience, and Skills are probably enough. Maybe a Projects section depending on the role, or Selected Coursework if you are still in college or a very recent grad.
  • Rough rule of thumb: 10 years of experience per page. Don’t be lengthy, be concise. One page should do it for most people. If you have multiple pages, make sure to number them so people can’t confuse the order.
  • If you notice you have a lot of content on the left, but the right is very empty, consider a two column resume format. This is a good way to get more on a single page.

All in all, the safest bet is to make something that is easily readable, while still having as much critical information as possible in an organized, parseable file format. If you’ve got that, you’re good.

Now to the main course. Content.

So you’ve got a resume that is parseable, has the right terms, and is easy on the eyes. Now comes the most important part - what skills do you have to offer?

No one cares what you did. They care what you can do for them.

A lot of people make the mistake of detailing their work experience at a high level in terms of what the team was trying to accomplish. Something like:

Worked at Google, implemented a roadmap for a new feature.”

When I read that on a resume, what am I supposed to think? If I ever need a product roadmap that you are the person to call? And besides that, what did that process encompass? And what exactly does implement” imply?

When a company opens a job requisite, it is because they have a problem or a goal. Either shit hit the fan and they need someone to fix it, or someone set an ambitious growth goal and now they need more people. Whichever is the case, there is a clear objective here. If hired, there is a task waiting for you.

So the question is, can you do the task? Prove it to me.

Identified strategic opportunities in onboarding process through analysis of customer drop-off data and 16 user studies. Used results to set product roadmap encompassing 5 new features with projected growth of 100k users/year through retention.”

Wow, what a difference. There’s so much context now. I am getting a glimpse of your process, things you find valuable, the impact you had, and so much more.

Let’s look at another example.

Organized bonding activities for the team.”

Alright, sure. Sounds like you are an office manager or secretary? Were you good at it? Was this job hard?

Organized weekly 20–50 person events, managing a yearly budget of $15k. Increased event attendance by 12% over 6 months through monitoring email campaigns.”

Again, there is so much more context here. I not only know the what, but also a bit of the how. I get an insight in the impact the work had.

A good formula for making it easy to think in this mindset comes from former SVP of People Operations at Google, Laszlo Bock:

Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]

This fill-in-the-blank formula makes it so simple. A potential employer wants to know what you did, the impact it had, and what you did to accomplish this feat. If you can generally write most of your work experience bullets in this style, you are fairly set.

Remember, an employer wants to know what kinds of problems you can solve. If you can make them understand the types of problems you’ve faced, situations you’ve overcome, and successes you’ve had, then it becomes believable that you can transfer these work habits to their company.

This also means that you should really understand the job you are applying for, and make the experience you put on your resume feel transferable to a specific role. Sometimes you can make your resume general to a type of role in a single industry, but it depends how badly you want the job you are applying for. If the jobs are different enough, you should have different resumes for each one. Build the content to tell a story about your experience that matches the requirements, because every employer does not want to solve the same problem.

I’m still lost! How do I measure value or impact?

Here are some questions to get you started.

  • How much of the project did you own?
  • What was your role in the team?
  • How did you justify your decision to do what you did?
  • What goals did your manager set for the project to be considered complete?
  • How much money did it make, or how many people used it?
  • What impact can you quantify? What statistics are there regarding your work?

Warning! Be careful about what you are allowed to say.

Being very explicit with what you have accomplished is the best way to communicate on your resume. However, that isn’t always possible.

Many employers have you sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or other forms of paperwork preventing you from going into detail about what you did. Be respectful of what you’ve signed and what you are allowed to say. Make sure to either contact your old employer (HR or your manager) and to get an understanding of what is allowed. If you left on rocky terms, get something in writing (email is fine) from an authority on the topic (HR or Legal.) It’s a good habit to ask about this before your leave a job if there is any uncertainty.

Consider the example:

Closed 18 out of 24 enterprise software sales in 2 months worth $300k, attributing to 6% growth in sales from last quarter.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s informative. But it is also very revealing. It is important to give enough numbers to show impact, but not enough so someone could calculate sensitive information.

Don’t push the line. Even if you allude to confidential information, it could be dangerous. If you aren’t scared of legal repercussions, realize that your future employer might pick up on how much information you are leaking. No one hires people who leak info.

I’ve added so much, now I don’t have space!

This is a common problem. In order to dive into what you’ve done it will take some space. There are some things that you can do to address that.

You probably should not be listing every single job you’ve ever had. Especially not that job bussing tables you had in college for some extra cash. Only put what you need to prove your value.

You probably don’t need your address. What are they going to mail you?

Same goes for date of birth. Remove it. I’m not sending you a cake.

Don’t include links to portfolios or websites unless you really want them to go look.

Nearly every resume objective I have read is filler content where the person basically says the objective is to get a job. No kidding, you want the job you just applied for? Don’t waste the space.

Email, phone number, etc. doesn’t need to be multiple single lines. Put them on the same line or condense them into a two column format.

I haven’t done anything worth putting on my resume yet!

Don’t sweat it. Everyone has been there before. Consider looking for internships to help you out. If you are in a competitive field where even internships are hard to get, start a personal project. In the same way you should discuss context, impact, and decision making for real work experience, you can talk about personal (or class) projects.

People don’t realize how easy it is to start something new. It seems hard while you are doing it, but retrospectively you will realize there aren’t many barriers to start your own project. Technology is the great equalizer. You can freelance” in anything you are good at, and you can get good at most things by at least starting to read about them online.

I digress. If you have nothing, self-starter projects are at least something.

Specific tips for students

  • Don’t use your name@school.edu email unless it lasts forever. Many universities take them away at some point after graduation
  • Listing classes can be a good way to demonstrate skill, but don’t put CSE 101” because no one know what that sequence number means. Sometimes don’t even put the full title. A class like Introduction to Algorithms” could simply be listed as Algorithms.”
  • If your GPA is low, leave it off. And by low I mean below 3.0 (except you medical students, sorry!) Many places won’t ask if your experience looks promising. If they care and you don’t make the cut, remember that the number won’t matter the moment you get your first real job.”
  • Include when you are graduating (month & year.) Unlike GPA, I literally can’t hire you if you are doing something else with your time.
  • By the time you are in your sophomore year, there’s a 95% chance you should have absolutely nothing from high school left on your resume. The 5% is for child prodigies. You are not a child prodigy.
  • The right class projects can demonstrate experience in lieu of work in industry. Don’t be afraid to talk about an extensive assignment or research under a professor if you don’t have much experience. Even if it isn’t the most unique work, it can still help demonstrate your understanding of a topic.

##In conclusion…

Hopefully at this point you have all of your resume questions answered. Sometimes talking about yourself on paper (or even aloud) feels difficult and out of your comfort zone, but follow the steps and suggestions here and you’ll be in decent shape.

To sum it all up, you should have a resume that is:

  • Parseable by an ATS
  • Includes key skills, either in its own section or embedded in experience
  • Skimmable by a human in 6 seconds
  • Clean and easy to read
  • Well structured, without unneeded sections
  • Rich in context for your past experience, and describe the value of what you did

Remember that while a good resume can be very important, it will only get your foot in the door. You need to spend more time on preparing for the interview process, and make sure your past experiences give you the necessary skills to perform your job. Also be ready to chat at length about anything you wrote on your resume, so considering practicing aloud if you need to; this is a common piece of many interview screens.

Focus a lot of energy on your resume once. Brainstorm out the content, organize it into a readable layout, send it to friends to proofread, and then let it be. Update it as needed if you apply elsewhere, but have your template ready to save you the time and energy. It’ll make a world of difference.

Best of luck hunting for your dream job!


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