How To Write A Resume: 12 Steps To Your Next Job

By Paul Michael on 1 July 2009 (Updated 7 February 2010) 9 comments

Self-promotion is not easy. Whether you're a high six-figure consultant, or earning $10 an hour in retail, you still have to talk about yourself in the right way. And one of the key ingredients of self-promotion is the resume. Nail it, and you get your foot in the door. Blow it, and you blow your chances at a better job, better career or even a better life.

As a professional advertising copywriter, I've been asked many, many times to help friends and relatives with their resumes. And while I don't claim to be an expert on resumes, I have helped a lot of people get jobs. So, I thought it was long overdue to share some of the things I've learned about writing resumes over the years, especially after writing an article on interview questions.

Now, I'm not promising that this article will guarantee you a new job. Obviously, your own experience and background is, at the end of the day, the deciding factor. But I can give you advice that will at least get you noticed for all the right reasons. Ready? Then let's begin.

1: Use a word processing program
Employ a program like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, MS Works or even a professional design application (e.g. InDesign or Adobe Illustrator) to layout your resume. In the past, it was OK to use a typewriter or, in some cases, write it by hand, but no-one will take you seriously if you can't demonstrate basic computer skills. However, try and avoid a standard resume template. 

Your resume should include:

  • contact information
  • an objective
  • employment history
  • education
  • a summary, including any other pertinent information or affiliations
  • references (it's permissible to say "references available on request")

Lay this out neatly in your own way, and your resume will not look like a carbon copy of everyone else's resume. Remember, you are selling YOU as an individual. Your resume, even the way it looks, is a reflection of who you are. 

2: Use good (but not perfect) grammar
You don't need to go out of your way to make your resume read like an English term paper, but use good judgment. A resume is a professional document and should be treated in that way. Just as you wouldn't start a business letter with "Like hey dude, how's it going?" you shouldn't be as lax with your resume. 

However, these are modern times and you can use a little conversational verbiage, coupled with a few grammatical rule-breakers. It's OK to end a sentence with a preposition, it's even OK to have a one or two word sentence. If you work in a very creative industry, you can break even more rules (I once saw a great resume that was written as a poem...but that was a huge exception to the rule). In general, make it respectful, polite and something you would be happy for your bank manager to read. 

3. Practice the art of concision
Mark Twain once wrote "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." It's not easy to be concise, but a resume is an essential place to practice restraint. In these tough economic times, employers are inundated with hundreds of applicants for every one job opening. They don't have the time or inclination to read your life story over a five or six page resume. ONE PAGE is ideal, but it is acceptable to go to two pages. Any longer than that and you may as well mail your resume to the nearest paper recycling plant. Some of you may say that I could use a lesson in concision myself, but this blog gives me the luxury of limitless writing space and an audience that is looking to read, and be entertained as well as informed. An employer's time is valuable; the information is paramount. 

4. Don't include pointless and obvious information
I have lost track of the number of times I have read about hobbies that include movies, reading, sports, eating out and spending time with family. While you're at it, why not put "breathing, sleeping a minimum of six hours per night, and eating three square meals per day." If you have something stellar as a hobby, and it has some relevance to the job, by all means put it down. But if you have nothing out of the ordinary to say, don't say it. Your collection of antique teapots may mean the world to you, but it won't to your average human resources manager in an accounting firm. 

5. Never, ever lie
Don't ever be tempted to lie, or embellish your resume. The problem with lies is that they will catch up with you sooner or later. You will either be discovered before you are hired, or even worse, get found out when you're doing the job. Be honest and give the right dates, places, numbers and facts about previous employment. Don't make up education you don't have, and don't say you're a whiz on Photoshop when you can hardly even open your email. 

6. Custom-build your resume
Every job is different; therefore, every resume should be different. When I talk about concision, it also applies to the kind of information you include, or don't, on your resume. If you have some great experience in marketing, you obviously push that on a resume for a marketing or advertising job. If you're applying to be a bartender, you may want to put a focus on something else. Tailor your resume to fit the job you're applying for.  

7. Don't be shy about major successes
Be specific about your past and current achievements and accomplishments. Employers love facts that back up your story, so if you increased productivity in your department by 125%, don't by shy about saying so. If you tripled sales, let people know. If you were promoted in record time, make a note of it. This is the perfect time to blow your own trumpet. 

8. Don't make assumptions
Although concision is vitally important, make sure you don't cut so much information that the employer becomes confused. For instance, you may know all too well what "Scrambunkle & Son" did as a company, but your future employer may not know them from Adam. And although you know what an acronym stands for, it may not be as famous as N.A.S.A., so spell it out once. Basically, be brief, but clarify important points. 

9. Big words won't impress most people
I've seen a few resumes come across my desk that looked like a page from a Dickensian thesaurus. Sure, you may feel proud of yourself for using words like floccinaucinihilipilification (which is, for those of you not in the know, the "estimation of something as valueless"); but your average employer will appreciate it if your resume is not like reading War & Peace. There's no need to hide your intelligence, and again you should tailor it to the job, but use common sense. Write well, write clearly, write concisely, and write without trying to prove you're a smartass. 

10. Good spelling is not optional
Speaking of writing well, this one is paramount: please, please double-check the spelling and then ask someone else to double-check it for you (they may catch something you've become blind to). And DO NOT proof it on-screen; print it out, it's much easier to catch errors that way. A typo in your resume is one huge fly in the ointment. It's the equivalent of turning up to an interview wearing a ketchup-stained t-shirt. Your resume is the first impression you will give to your interviewer; what do you think they will do with a resume that has not even been spell-checked? Yep, it's lining the cat's litter box. 

11. Consistency is important
This is another exercise in putting your best foot forward. If you start each heading in 12pt Helvetica Bold Italic, do them all that way. If you italicize a heading, italicize them all. If the first section of your resume is indented, all of them should be. The age of email and instant messenger has made many of us lazy, but a resume is no place to be careless. And choose a readable font too, preferably a classic serif font like Times 11pt. With consistency, you make your resume easier to read. Without it, your potential future employer won't know what to make of the various formatting choices. 

12. Don't be cheap with paper choices
This is one of the rare occasions that I will advise you to splurge. A beautifully formatted, perfectly spelled, amazingly concise resume is not going to look as impressive on crappy paper. Pop down to the local Kinkos and ask them to print out some copies on a good quality paper, perhaps one with a watermark or slight tint to it. Alternatively, buy some good paper and print it out yourself on your home-printer's highest setting. Either way, you will have something that looks and feels like a quality document worthy of consideration. 

Those are my 12 steps to a good resume. I'm sure many professional resume writers can add to the list (and please, use the comments area for additional advice) but I believe this is an excellent list for anyone taking on the task of writing their own resume. 

Next time, I'll give some advice on writing a cover letter. I don't see it as being as important as a resume because it's not always required. But when it is, you need to get that just right as well. Good luck.  

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Guest's picture
Elizabeth

Good tips, but I'd caution people about writing their career objective. I've tossed out resumes where the career objective doesn't match up with the position I was offering. Why would I hire someone who obviously isn't interested in what my company does or who I think will leave the position as soon as something better comes up?

Guest's picture
Guest

I would avoid using tinted, marbled, or heavily textured paper. When copied the tint or texture can interfere with the text or it seem like the original was dirty. A nice bright cotton rag can say a lot.

Guest's picture
Guest

I just got laid off and am consulting with a career planning company (part of the severance package) they disagree with some of the above points. they suggest that references available upon request should not be written on the bottom of your resume. rather bring them with you on a seperate sheet of paper.
Summary of qualifications is also a good idea mirroring some of what they are looking for in their ad if you can truly say you are qualified. Some of this should also be included in your cover letter. They stress that there should be only 2 fonts that you can choose from. Times Roman and ariel narrow. alsways spell out numbers up to ten. then it is okay to use numerals. No more than 2 pages. short, sweet, and to the point. most people who review resumes, and have 100 or more to choose from, do not have time to read a book. things need to stand out as they scan it.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

I would tend to agree with Elizabeth on this...most of the time it's something super cliché or cheesy like "To be challenged and happy" or something.

Let's be honest, if you're applying to be a salesperson, it's because you want to make that your job so you can make money and pay your bills. And because you think you'd be good at it.

Let's not go so far as to say that you want the job because it will "make you happy" or "challenge you."

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Guest's picture

verry good article on resiume writing nice tips keep it up
Lal Kitab Astrology

Guest's picture
Juliann

Hi!
It's a very useful post. Can I translate it in French and use it on my blog (with of course a link to this page)?

Paul Michael's picture

mai-vous traduire mon article (hope that was close enough)

Guest's picture

I like this tip: Never, ever lie. Many people think they can get away with it.

Guest's picture
Guest

I would add one thing and take two away:

-1. Like others, I agree "objective" has no place there unless it's compelling. Most people write bland objectives and everyone knows the objective is to get the job. But if you're a star fund-raiser, you might write, "Objective: Become CEO of a struggling non-profit agency, turn around the organization's finances, jumpstart fund-raising, and establish a long-term capital plan." That would be a compelling objective that would get a board's attention. But most people just use vacant platitudes and waste the space.

-2. It is implied with any professional that references are available. You don't want to include a reference phone number on every resume because that is rude to the reference: he may get a ton of calls from employers that may or may not be interested. It also takes up valuable space.

+1. Technology or computer skills. It is assumed that everyone in a professional setting has basic computer skills. In many professions, it's assumed you have basic familiarity with other programs like Excel. But you could use this space to demonstrate your level proficiency by saying, "Advanced Excel skills to create financial models, pivot tables, and dashboards." You could also run through the basics on some other programs like: "Also proficient in Argus for financial modeling, Tableau for data visualization, and IMPLAN for economic impact." They are great conversation-starters.