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The Complete Guide: How to Write a Good Resume

If you don't know how to put together a good resume, you might spend hours building yours, write broadly about your experience, and still get it all wrong. When a resume becomes too broad, the companies you send it to may view it as spam—a random, irrelevant message.

Your goal is to get a job interview and to achieve this, you must consider your resume as your most important marketing tool – a focused advertisement that sells you, as a professional, to a specific company.

Some would say that the key to a good resume is plenty of experience. This is usually true. However, even if you have plenty of experience, a poorly written resume will never get you the coveted interview. Thanks to the array of technology modern recruiters have at their fingertips, and the vast number of resumes companies receive, your resume must be well-prepared.

How do you accomplish this? How do you tailor your resume? How do you describe your relevant accomplishments, exploit the latest technologies, and most of all, get that job interview without over-exerting yourself? This tutorial explores all these questions. It includes psychological tactics, examples, keywords and additional information to give your resume an edge and land you the job interview of your dreams.

Jump into the question that is most important to you.

On this article:

1. HR and Applicant Tracking Systems

Companies hire new staff to fill specific needs. A hiring manager will search for the most professional candidate whose resume exhibits a profile she deems most relevant to those needs. The problem is, too many people often apply for the same position, many without the required skills or experience. Others may have the skills and experience, but their resumes do not reflect the fact.

Due to the overwhelming number of job applications recruiters receive, companies have started using a type of software to make a hiring process easier - an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). This is how an ATS works:

  1. A resume goes through an automated scanning process, which extracts text from the document.
  2. The program separates text into the most common categories: experience, education, skills and contact information.
  3. The ATS then compares skills and keywords indicated by the employer to the skills and phrases found in your good resume.
  4. It then scores the resume on relevancy.
  5. Only then does a hiring manager begin sifting through the applications.

Most irrelevant resumes are rejected without even a glance from an actual human being. An HR manager examines only those resumes to which the ATS assigns the highest relevancy scores. The Recruiter will spend the first seconds to make a yes/no decision by scanning for essential keywords. If they appear in your good resume, she will give it more attention. If the clues add up to more relevant information, she will consider you as a potential candidate and put your resume in a short-list folder. Later, the resumes in this folder will be examined much more in-depth. Almost all of these chosen candidates – including you - will receive a call.

So all you need to do is make sure your resume stands out from the swirling mass of irrelevant resumes. It should advertise you as a problem-solving candidate that matches the company's business goals. You can achieve this by dropping the right hints and presenting your information in a focused manner. Remember - no one will ever read an irrelevant resume. Make yours relevant. Simple.

2. Format: Resume versus CV

Before examining tactical resume strategies, let's look at the difference between a resume and a curriculum vitae, or CV. Don't confuse them. Although both the resume and the CV aim to land an interview, they present information in a different way. A CV gives a detailed overview of your life's accomplishments. It can run five pages or longer. A good resume, however, is usually a single page document. It's a version of the CV tailored for a specific position. A CV is used mostly in Europe while a resume is more common in the US. While it's good to know which is which, it's more important to know which format is more effective.

Since recruiters average only six seconds per resume (according to Ladders study), will they spend much time on a five-page-long job history? Probably not. Therefore, the resume format makes more sense: put your basic and most relevant information on a single, focused page with your best accomplishments strategically located. (The "Tailoring" section below discusses this in-depth).

TIP: Use your CV as a draft for your resume. Make it descriptive and comprehensive. That will make it easier for you to choose relevant information to tailor your resume for each separate job opportunity.

Employers don't want to know all of your previous duties and responsibilities. A resume is not a comprehensive biography of your career or personal life. It is a solid promise to solve an employer's specific business needs.

3. Writing a Resume: Tailoring

Your relevant accomplishments can give you a competitive advantage over other candidates. The more relevant accomplishments you have on your good resume, the greater chance you have of standing out. But what do you do if a job description doesn't seem to match your accomplishments even though you feel like the position is just made for you?

Tailoring is the word you need to grasp. What is tailoring?

"In short, tailoring means customizing bullet points to feature skills relevant to the role and rearranging sections to bring the most applicable experience to the top."

— Katie Douthwaite Wolf, Marketing writer.

Tailoring your resume is the only way to get an interview without a strong career background. You can be sure that five tailored resumes get a higher response rate than 50 generic ones. A resume without tailoring is worse than nothing – it consumes your time and motivation but gives you zero results.

"Tailoring the resume isn't the most exciting part of applying for a job, but it's definitely one of the most important."

— Stacy Gawronski, Editor and writer.

So how do you start? Follow the simple five rules bellow:

  • Determine the goal of your resume.
  • Read and understand the job description you are applying for.
  • Put your strongest accomplishments towards the top.
  • Tailor all sections in your resume, focusing them to a job description.
  • Use relevant phrases and keywords.

Using these tips should significantly increase the number of calls you receive.

3.1. Setting Your Career's Goal

Before starting your resume, think about your goal for a moment. Is it career advancement? Is it short-term experience building? What are you searching for? And how can this particular company satisfy your goal? A good resume with clear career goal looks much different and more professional than one without it. A clear career goal demonstrates your dedication to an idea. However, don't write it as a single point in a section labeled "Goal." It is not a single sentence – it is an idea, one that should resonate in every section of the resume.

3.2. Tailoring Experience

Setting a clear career goal is important. Equally important, but more specific, is the “Experience” section of your resume. Remember - employers scan for relevant data, and work experience gets the most attention. This section highlights your accomplishments and may include recognizable companies such as Facebook or Airbnb in your history.

If an employer finds no hint of the skills or experience his company needs, you will receive no additional attention. However, don't despair just because you don't have a strong career background, or even if you have no experience at all. Tailor your desires with your skills to the job position. The more closely you can target your personality to the company's needs, the higher impact your resume will have. Scan through the job description. Find what they are searching for.

Let's look at an example taken from an ad placed by Tesla Motors for a Marketing Management position. A fragment of the job description appears below.


Responsibilities:

  • Drive awareness and education strategy by working collaboratively to develop a comprehensive marketing program including channel marketing.
  • Manage content generated by and communicated through outside sales channels Work with the communications teams to create and manage media stories

Requirements:

  • 7+ years' experience in a relevant field of consumer product and channel marketing.
  • Exceptional strategic thinker with analytical skills; ability to address cross-functional and cross-organizational issues independently.

Let's say I've worked as a product manager for 5+ years in a toy factory (my current goal is to work with a world-changing product). How can I present my experience? Let's look at some positive and negative ways.

Negative: 5+ years department management responsibilities in the toy market.

Positive: Developed and implemented strategies in a dynamic consumer product market and produced 170+% annual growth of awareness with the help of five members marketing team.

Negative: Experienced in writing text, strategy development, and internet marketing.

Positive: Created effective content marketing with 100+ media channels, guided by consumer-engaging strategy, and analysis of past results. For more examples check 45 effective experience statements.

These are exactly the kinds of accomplishments a hiring manager wants to see. They tell her that you are focused on results and will exceed expectations.

Again, your resume highlights your best accomplishments and skills that can solve company's problems. Don't just list your job history or former duties.

In order to write an eye-catching experience summary, consider the tactics below:

  • Name the company you worked at and write one short sentence to describe the company. This simple explanation might benefit you if it matches your potential employer's business area.

  • Scan the job description and pick up relevant words and expressions.

  • Do not write about duties and responsibilities. Turn them into accomplishments.

  • Explain how you solved your company's problems in a way that tailors it to the job description.

  • Write 2-5 lines of accomplishments. Start with your greatest achievement. Again, relate it and tailor it to the job description. Use soft keywords (see Section 4).

  • Use numbers to show results. This will have a much higher impact than a ho-hum list of duties.

  • Write results before listing the problem and action. For example, "Increased profit from $200.000 to $240.000 by streamlining the benchmark process".

TIP: don't overdo it by turning your resume into the job description. Don't copy the job description blindly. Use keywords and phrases from the description, not entire sentences.

To effectively describe your prior work accomplishments, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are your unique habits? What sets you apart?
  • How have you done your job better/differently than others?
  • Have you improved processes?
  • What problems/challenges did you face?
  • How did you resolve those problems/challenges?
  • Did you exceed performance expectations?
  • Did you receive any special recognition?
  • Did you attract new customers?
  • Did you increase profitability/productivity?
  • Did you take initiative?
  • Did you save your company money?
  • Did you make your company money?

The “Experience” section is the most important part of your resume. And it doesn't matter if you have a stronger or weaker background than other candidates. What matters is how you present it. If you understand how to tailor your job accomplishments to match the job description, your good resume will get noticed and examined more thoroughly than others.

3.2.a. Tailoring Experience: For Students

If you are a recent graduate or a student, this is a full guide how to tailor a resume.

First of all, experience means more than official work experience. Experience is life-long, not career-long.

Depending on what job you are pursuing, ignore the part of the ad that says “2+ year experience . . .” Companies usually set this requirement simply to increase the likelihood that the candidate will solve their specific issues. However, even if you don't have the required experience in the working world, your experience may still include the problem-solving skills they are looking for—just in different activities. Have you done any volunteering? Worked in high school clubs or on university/personal projects? Type up these accomplishments and tailor them to the job position.

TIP: Most companies value experience much more than education. That's why you always put the experience section above the education section as you organize your resume. Again, it doesn't matter that you don't have any kind of job experience – experience can be personal, not just official.

3.3. Tailoring Education

“Education” always follows “Experience,” even when you are student and education is the resume's centerpiece. Recruiters want job related, not academic, information. However, education is important. It shows your intellectual potential, how well educated you are and what professional subject matters are important for you.

  • It is as important to tailor the education section as anything else in a resume. What are your greatest academic achievements? Do you have a bachelor's degree? Put this at the top of the education section and tailor it to the job description. Prioritize your achievements and list them accordingly.

  • Even if you studied a subject (e.g. Mechanics) unrelated to the job position (e.g. Finance), it doesn't have to be a problem. Use the same tactics mentioned above in the “Experience” section. Tailor top academic achievements to the job position and include soft keywords that seem important to an employer.

  • If you are still in college and do not have any job experience, list your high school in the education section, since it's the only completed education you currently have. If you do have job experience and are studying or have graduated from university/college, remove high school from the resume completely. Include only your university or college.

TIP: If you lack a formal education or degree but have participated in trainings, courses, free seminars or conferences, list these achievements in the education section.

3.4. Tailoring Skills

Employers search for employees who can benefit the company in specific areas. More than anything, employers want employees with solid skill sets and competencies who can help the company beat competitors and drive a higher profit. With that in mind, it is paramount to highlight skills that showcase your best characteristics, as well as those that add value to the company.

There are two types of skills: hard and soft. According to Lei Han, hard skills are based on IQ, while soft skills are based on EQ (Emotional Intelligence). For example, finance accounting is a hard skill, while teamwork is a soft skill.

The ideal number of skills to list on a resume is 10-15. List both hard and soft skills in different proportions, putting the most relevant skills for the job position at the top of the list. Scan through the job description and pick keywords that match your profile.

A hint: strong communication skills and ability to work on a team are the most valuable. The employer wants employees with social skills, even in a technical position.

Consider these top soft skills: communication, leadership, teamwork, negotiation/persuasion, self-motivated, creative, solid organizational skills, works well in high-stress situations, confidence, etc.

As for hard skills, the following link lists the top 25.

Skills reduced to single words do not fully represent you, but they can double the value of your listed work accomplishments overall. If your skills support your defined career goal, and if experience and education are tailored to the job description, you will have an extraordinary resume.

4. Resume Keywords

While employers do look for employees with solid skill sets, the skills section is not the only place you should include valuable keywords. Consider putting keywords in the experience and education sections, too. Here's a list of powerful words you should include in your good resume.

Words that demonstrate action: initiative, dynamic, self-motivated, driven, led, achieved, completed, coordinated, delivered, identified, presented, promoted, reported, resolved.

Strong adjectives: sociable, professional, structured, creative, energetic, enthusiastic, decisive, disciplined, organized, thorough, flexible, determined, efficient, meticulous, loyal, diligent, logical, persistent, methodical, productive, complex, patient, pleasant, strategic.

Since communication skills are the most valuable, use the word social in your resume. Use this keyword in the experience, education and skills sections.

Just as there are beneficial keywords, there are detrimental ones too. Loading your resume with mindless words doesn't help. It only demonstrates a lackluster personality.

  • Words to avoid: Best of breed, team player, highly qualified, results-driven, hardworking, trustworthy, honest, proactive, proficient, ambitious, thinks outside of the box.

  • Don't use "Responsible for ...". This describes duties, not ambition.

  • Don't use "Experienced in ..."., This shows that something happened, but not necessarily that anything was achieved.

A high-impact resume speaks the words an employer wants to hear. There are thousands of great words you can use, but go easy. Too many keywords can distort your resume, and even an ATS is sophisticated enough to see your “keyword scam.”

Check out 395 action word list to start your experience statements better.

5. Photo

The text of the resume is the most relevant part, but there are other important elements as well. The photo is one of these components, and it is the most controversial. There are two camps: one that says you need a photo on the resume and the other, which says you shouldn't use it.

According to the same Ladders study mentioned above, recruiters take an average of 19% of the total time they spend on a resume checking out the profile picture, rather than examining the candidate's other vital information. But that equals only about one second, and the recruiter will still examine the resume's key sections.

Career expert Melissa Cooley wrote a few years ago:

"It's illegal to consider factors like age, race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or disability status in hiring decisions. If you put a photo on your resume, you reveal some of these details. If the employer later interviews you but doesn't hire you, it opens the possibility of a discrimination claim. Some companies will even flat-out reject resumes with photos, just to avoid that potential accusation."

That's one reason ATS systems remove photos from resumes, leaving only the text.

The camp that stands for using the photo on the resume says that experts worry too much. Trying to get acquainted with a person without knowing what he/she looks like goes against nature. For example, on LinkedIn, profiles without photos are exactly the ones evaluated as unprofessional.

If you choose to put a photo on a resume, tailor it just as you do the rest of your resume. Your photo should comply with the company's values and culture. The current recommendation is to have two separate photos to choose from based on the company you're applying to. Use a formal photo if the company is a big corporation with a more official environment. Use an informal photo if your desired company has a more relaxed environment. Your photo background should be clean and uncluttered.

To use or not to use a photo? Both arguments are equally valid, so it's difficult to make a hard and fast rule. Your decision will depend on geographical location, company politics, the HR manager's opinion or the company's size. The standard European Union CV format includes a photo. Resumes in the US usually don't. Think: will including a photo benefit or harm me in this instance?

Putting a photo on the resume is really up to you. Whatever camp you choose, don't spend too much time thinking about it. The text content in a resume is its core.

6. Resume Layout

A resume's content is its core. However, the way you present the content is as important as how you write it. The layout contains many different elements: alignment, style, header and content fonts, font size, margins, spacing and so on. Different combinations of layout elements give many contrasting results. The main goal of the layout is to guide the recruiter to the most essential parts. Beware: a poorly-constructed layout might be so distracting that recruiters lose focus and miss the key points.

"Professionally written resumes have a clear visual hierarchy and present relevant information where recruiters expect it. These documents quickly guide recruiters to a yes/no decision."

— Mark Cenedella, founder of the Ladders.

An easy-to-read resume should:

  • Use the best architectural structure.
  • Have an aesthetically pleasing design - not too pale, not too noisy.
  • Utilize clean formatting. Text should be clear and not overcrowded.
  • Be perfectly optimized for an ATS system.

  1. Best architectural structure – structure a framework using the most important topics. The resume's key topics comprise job title, contact information, experience, education and skills. Every additional topic takes attention from these key sections. Be professional. Don't overcrowd your resume. Consider leaving out topics like Objective, Hobbies or Programs. Leave personal, unrelated topics for the interview.

    Present topics in a logical order. Experience always goes above Education because job related content is more relevant than academic achievements. Consider putting experience at the top of the resume even when you don't have job-related experience and education is your centerpiece.

    Also, the skills section should be completely separate from the experience and education sections because it presents information in single words, not in sentences as in the other two sections. It should instantly be clear which part is which.

  2. Aesthetic design connotes a clean presentation of key sections and content, as well as the layout itself. The design shouldn't be too cluttered or include unrelated background pictures, tables or diagrams. Any additional elements overcrowd the resume and distract from more important points.

    Again, use a one-page resume format to hold the recruiter's attention. To avoid making harmful mistakes, consider downloading a blank single page resume template rather than building your own from scratch.

  3. Clean formatting includes all layout elements. Many people make formatting mistakes in each of the separate elements. Font size shouldn't be too small. Spacing shouldn't be too narrow. Content, header and other elements should be aligned.

    There are so many elements that interact with each other and so many rules that if you choose to format your resume yourself, do so responsibly. The main rule: the result should be clean and easy to read. Again, you can download a clean resume template or use a resume building tool (Resume Builder) to demystify your resume editing experience.

  4. An ATS system is the software that recruiters use to scan resumes. To optimize your resume for ATS systems, format it in such a way that the system can extract content correctly. A resume that doesn't apply to specific formatting rules might confuse the system and simply get rejected.

    Checklist for making your resume more ATS-friendly:

    • Your resume title has to be the same as it is in a job description.
    • Do not use unique resume headings. Use only common headings like Contact Information, Experience, Education and Skills.
    • Do not use graphics in your text content. This could break the scanning process.
    • Do not use special characters.
    • Avoid special, non-standard fonts.

The good resume layout and its overall design operate at a subconscious level. They can bring success or failure in your job search. We highly recommend you use professionally created resume templates or resume building tools.

7. Final Review

Congratulations! You have finally built a high-impact resume. If you've followed the tactics and tailoring rules, the result should look simply great! The last thing you have to do is review it.

Read every line of the position's job description and compare it to your resume. Does the context match? Do you look like a person who can fill the company's defined needs? It is very important to answer "yes". If you see that there are areas in your resume that you can make more relevant to the employer, go back and refine them.

TIP: Ask another person to briefly review your good resume and compare it to the job description. Your friend's opinion about key points might simulate the first impression of the recruiter's review.

8. Beyond the Resume

Contact Recruiter Directly

After you've tailored your resume and carefully reviewed it, it's time to contact potential employers. At this point, we'd like to give you an additional tip – contact the recruiter directly. You can find any employer contact information on the Internet very easily, using websites like LinkedIn. You can find HR managers that have posted job positions, and if you dig deeper, you can find the names of department managers and directors you would work for. Contact them via LinkedIn or email. Simply write that you are very interested in the company and you have already applied for the job position.

When you contact the recruiter directly, you make your first connection with a company more intimate. Even if they don't reply to you (due to busy schedules or whatever), they will already know your name and that you are interested in this particular position. The other great benefit is that you might avoid the ATS system completely.

If you wrote the resume properly and it matches the job description, you will get valuable attention. If you contact the recruiter directly and he already knows your name before reading the resume, you'll get priority consideration and a greater chance of receiving a call.

Bonus Tips

  • Be honest and positive. Show that you will make a great team member.

  • Don't make grammatical errors. This tip might sound stale, but grammatical errors can be fatal. Half of the resumes are thrown out because of grammatical errors. It only takes one. Typos can happen very easily, especially if you send many different resume versions in a single day. Quincy Larson, Free Code Camp teacher gives some good advice: "The best way to definitively catch typos is to read your resume backward."

  • Name your resume descriptively. Do you know how many resume files have a generic, anonymous file name like "resume.pdf?" Lots. Help your prospective employer find you more quickly by giving the resume file a specific name like "John Black - Marketing Manager.pdf."

  • Use LinkedIn daily. Search for influencers, follow companies. LinkedIn is the most professional-oriented website on the Internet, so it's smart to slowly build your professional image there. This is the first place recruiters check up on a candidate after examining her resume.

Conclusion

  1. Your resume is not a comprehensive biography of your life. It should simply show that you can fill a company's needs in a particular job position.
  2. Use your CV as a draft for your good resume.
  3. Set your resume goal.
  4. Read job descriptions to understand what employers are looking for.
  5. Put your strongest accomplishments at the top of each resume section.
  6. Don't include irrelevant information.
  7. Tailor each accomplishment to the job description in the ad.
  8. Use keywords to demonstrate your relevance to the company.
  9. Use numbers to quantify results you have achieved.
  10. Create your resume layout carefully or simply use a resume builder.
  11. Read the job description again and review your resume.
  12. Contact the recruiter directly and inform her of your candidacy.

We live in a noisy world. In an exhausting, competitive job market, we need to stand out. We need to be focused and shine as a clear choice. A resume is a great marketing tool with a great power. Leverage it. Use it to advertise yourself. You are unique, the one and only solution to your prospective employer's problems.

Now turn that good resume into an interview for your dream job. It's yours for the taking.