How to Write a Great Resume

The resume is the core of your application materials and is by far the most difficult to construct. That’s why no one likes writing them. Doing it well is hard and time consuming, and there are a million resources for resume guidance on the market, many of them offering contradictory advice. And yet, once you’re done with the resume, it’s pretty smooth sailing. Figuring out the resume – how you’re going to position yourself, how you’re going to spin your story – will inform the rest of your job search and will be a reference point throughout the process. With that said, let’s talk about how to write a great resume.

This is a standard resume. And by standard, I mean “bad.” There’s not much here. No headline, no statement of value, no real sense of narrative. A resume has to be a story just like any other.

This, on the other hand, is a great resume (courtesy of my friend and exceptionally gifted resume writer Donald Burns). Look at the headline. It says, in a very few words, who this job seeker is and what he does. The reader knows immediately if they’re interested enough to read on. This is one part you have to customize for each application! Each resume you send out should have a customized headline. Applying for an Editorial Director role? Label yourself as an “Experienced Editorial Director.” Looking to be VP of Product, but your current title is Director of Product? Call yourself an “Experienced Product Executive.” You wouldn’t pick up a box at the grocery store if it wasn’t labeled, would you? It’s really that simple.

The Profile Statement
Note that the job seeker quickly and succinctly states his value in about 4-5 sentences in his professional summary. This isn’t your life story. This is a quick statement of the value you can bring to a prospective employer. Think of three or four things that you’d most like to tell an employer about you. Now take those items and craft them into compelling but brief paragraph.

NOTE: This is not an objective statement. You should never use an objective statement. Aside from being hopelessly outdated, an objective statement does the opposite of what you want to do – it tells the hiring manager what you’re looking for, rather than what you can offer them.

Look at the next section. You can call this “Areas of Expertise,” “Core Competencies,” or just “Skills.” This is a place to show off hard, demonstrable skills and a great way to pack your resume full of searchable keywords for online use. These can be anything from “Wordpress” to “AJAX” to “Channel Sales.” If you’re unsure if a skill is too “soft” (think “Strong Communicator” or “Team Player”), try this exercise: if an interviewer asked you to tell them about some successes you’ve had using that skill, can you point to something concrete? If so, add it! If not, take it out.

Another thing to remember is that this is a great place to load your resume with keywords that can help make you searchable online. Think SEO. Think of the keywords you want recruiters and hiring managers to associate with you, and then add those in.

Professional Experience
Next, look at how the professional experience is laid out. You see the company name, the dates of employment, the job seeker’s title, and, ideally, a brief description of the company itself. This isn’t entirely necessary for large companies like Coca-Cola or Apple. But small to mid-size companies should be given a quick blurb describing their size, revenue, product/service, and market position. This will help a recruiter or hiring manager know what kind of working environment you’re coming from.

Also note how the job seeker puts all their daily duties in a short paragraph. Don’t go overboard here – keep the duties short. Give the reader an idea of the scope of your responsibilities, but don’t bore them with mundane stuff. Get to the good part: your accomplishments

Call your best work out with bullet points, especially items with numbers attached. Anything you can quantify is great. Did you drive traffic? Increase sales? Reduce waste? Improve efficiency? Anything you can measure, measure and bullet. This is what will make your resume sizzle.

The last section I want to point out to you is the Education section. This is pretty straightforward. Degree earned, name of institution, and location of institution. That’s it. Including extra-curriculars and GPAs on your resume is for recent grads only. And just like the rest of the resume, go in reverse chronological order. Got an MBA? List it first.

General Tips
Now for some resume tips that I would encourage you all to take to heart, no matter where you are in your career.

1. Avoid personal information like political or religious affiliations, or volunteer info unless it directly correlates to the job for which you’re applying.

2. The same goes for photos. Never, ever put a photo, unless your career is directly tied to your appearance, like acting or broadcast journalism. Even if you’re stunning, it’s a bad move. It’s also illegal in the US for an employer to request a photo.

3. Don’t limit yourself. A one page resume is fine for someone fairly young, but two pages is the norm these days.

4. That said, if a piece of information can be cut without harming your professional narrative, cut it. Two pages is fine as long as it’s two pages of useful info. Don’t digress and don’t waste the reader’s time.

5. Be mindful of your email address. If you don’t have a professional-sounding email address at the moment, go get one. They’re free. First.Last@gmail is always a safe bet.

6. Tailor your resume for each job you apply for. Let me repeat that: you have to tailor your resume for each job you apply for. This is usually as simple as altering your headline and reordering some of your bullet points. This is key and I cannot stress this enough.

7. And lastly, don’t be cute. If someone has ever given you the advice that “your personality should shine on your resume,” they’re wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. The resume is no place for your personality. Save that for the interview. Instead, keep the resume to solid facts. Your resume should be constructed with the screening process in mind, and no one will be screening you based on how funny you are.

The Takeaway
You’ve got very little time to snag a reader’s attention, so play to your core value. Lead your resume with a short but compelling narrative and make that narrative run throughout your resume. Go light on duties and heavy on accomplishments. Avoid fluff. Keep it to two pages, and don’t hesitate to utilize white space to make it digestible and less daunting.

Have resume questions? Drop a comment on our Facebook page or tweet using the hashtag #NewJob28Days.

Next up: How to Be An All-Star: Rocking Your LinkedIn Profile

In case you missed it: Preparing Your Job Search Toolkit

28 Days to a New Job is a month-long Hired Guns event designed to help you maximize your competitiveness in the current job market. For more info on how 28 Days to a New Job works, check out our introductory post here.

About this Gun

Ryan Galloway

Ryan Galloway

is the Senior Managing Editor for Contently and the former Editor at The Hired Guns. He's also an experienced freelance writer who covers a range of topics, but his real wheelhouse is jobs and employment trends. Previously, Ryan managed Content Development for TheLadders' Career Services division. Follow @ryan_e_galloway.