7 Rules for Writing a Killer ResumeAdvice From Tapwage Experts

An open portfolio with a notepad that has the reminder to update the persons resume

Your resume is the movie trailer to your professional life. Its the highlights reel that you use to get the interview. And like a great trailer, it doesn’t need to tell the whole story but it must give the reader enough to understand what the movie is about, and want to watch the movie. So make the resume concise, make it about one or two key messages, and make it slick and professional. Here are my 7 rules to writing a great resume.

1. Start with the punchy summary

I like a smart, focused summary at the top of the page that captures the type of job you are looking for and the skills you bring to the table. If this is more than 50 words (or 3 lines), you are doing it wrong. Customize this to the job at hand by emphasizing the unique experiences and skills that are relevant to the job you are applying to.

Example 1:

Skilled accountant with more than 8 years of experience in accounting, control, and tax with detailed understanding of FASB, GAAP and management reporting methodologies

Example 2:

Accomplished retail professional with over 5 years of experience in a range of retail roles and environments including 3 years at a big box-store. Open to working all shifts and customer service roles. Quick learner and great team player with consistently high service standards

A common mistake people make is forgetting to tailor this to the job that they are applying to. A generic-sounding summary or one that doesn’t articulate why you are a good fit for the role, is worse than not having a summary section at all.

2. Emphasize skills and accomplishments in the work experience

Ideally this section demonstrates that your skills and experiences are relevant and shows a progression of more complex roles and a variety of experiences. This is also the section where a lot of candidates trip up by being verbose, boring, or overreaching. Common pitfalls to avoid here include:

  • Avoid monotony. If you worked three very similar jobs (e.g., you were a web developer at three different companies), use different words and phrases to emphasize how the environments were different and the variety of skills you picked up. At your first job, focus on how you developed core web programming skills including maintaining older legacy systems. In your second role, discuss how you lead the daily build process and implemented a complex user-authentication module. At the third role, discuss how you were responsible for choosing the appropriate framework and developing the system architecture.

  • Be factual and don’t overreach. Its easy to check references and employers are adept at uncovering resume exaggerations and falsehoods during the interview process. Don’t overplay your role or your responsibilities but do demonstrate that you understood and mastered the unique challenges of the role.

  • Focus on accomplishments — both formal and occasionally informal. If you consistently met the sales quota, say so. If you were employee of the month, highlight that. If you got promoted earlier than usual for your level, emphasize that. If you were consistently lauded by customers for your exemplary customer service, call that fact out. And remember, everyone has customers or clients. Sometimes you clients are colleagues you work with who rely on your work product. Think back on the things you did well at the job and try and have an accomplishment for each of the prior roles you outline in your resume.

3. The education section need not be dull

So many people think that the education section is just a recitation of where you went to high school, and perhaps college. It isn’t. Your resume deserves better. This is still a place to highlight accomplishments and achievements. Moreover, education isn’t just about the high school diploma and the college degree. It is also for relevant courses, certifications and useful training. Did you go to barista school part-time. Mention it. Are you certified in MS SQL. Call that out.

Moreover, in your education section, just as you did for your work experience, call out achievements. Maybe your GPA isn’t compelling, but did you get A’s in certain useful courses? Did you take on leadership roles? Were you editor of the school paper? Did you volunteer and get recognized for it? So often, we reduce our school years into a simple diploma and a GPA. Don’t make that mistake. Keep that section brief but insightful into the great person that you have become, and the talented employee that you can be.

4. Highlights section optional, and sometimes useful

This section of the resume is often a mystery. Its easy to mistake it as a space-filler to pad your resume to get it up to one page, but thats the worst way to use this valuable real-estate at the top of your resume. In fact, I prefer to use in in the opposite scenario where you have a lot of different experiences to discuss and you want to provide context to it all. Its best when is almost a summary list of the key skills that you bring, which is substantiated by the write ups in your “Work Experience” section. A few tips for the highlights section, if you choose to use it:

  • Use a two-column view to keep it from taking up too much space in the resume

  • Make it action / skill oriented, e.g., “Tested Time management skills” “Expertise in Sarbanes-Oxley reporting requirements”

  • Avoid a long generic list which includes skills that aren’t relevant to the role at hand. One way to handle this is make a separate master list of your skills, achievements and other highlights, and choose the 6–8 highlights that are best suited for the role that you are applying to

5. One page. It doesn’t have to be longer

A resume needs to be concise regardless of the job you are applying to. Keep it to one page. The one exception to this rule is if you have a lot of experience and want to specifically list out your projects or your deals (if you are a banker or a lawyer). In this scenario, have a separate “project sheet” as the second page to your resume. The first page should still reference the most important projects. If someone chose not to read the second page, your resume should still feel complete.

6. Format it cleanly

Start with a sample template that is clean and easy to read. You can find one in Microsoft Word and also by doing a simple google search online for sample resumes. In fact, you can often find sample resumes for various types of jobs that you might be applying to. Thats an excellent way to make sure that your resume is in line both stylistically and in the language used.

7. Proof Read it Several Times

In my old job, we used to have a “wall of shame” for the most hilarious mistakes in a resume. These often included typos (one person even spelled his own name wrong), bad formatting, and odd grammatical mistakes. Don’t stand out in the sloppiness stakes. Follow these tips:

  • Proof it first on the computer, but be sure to also proof read it after printing it out. You’ll be amazed at the number of mistakes you see once away from the distractions of the computer.

  • Proof read it in several passes. First pass — formatting. Are the margins right? Did it print completely? Second pass — read every word and check for typos and errors. Third pass — make sure your name and contact info at the top is correct. Last pass — double check that the summary and highlights have been appropriately tailored for the job at hand

  • Take a break and then read it once again as if you were seeing it for the first time

  • Have at least one other person read through it as well. This could be a spouse or a parent but ideally make sure they are reading it carefully, and are reading it after you have had a chance to review it several times to catch all the mistakes.

Now that you have a great resume, make sure to do it justice when printing and sending it on. Always send it electronically as a pdf and never as a MS Word document so the formatting is preserved. And if you are printing it out and bringing it with you to submit in person, make sure to print it on good paper, and check that it has been printed correctly. Let your resume reflect the accomplished, diligent and detail oriented person that you truly are.

Good luck!

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Advice Annie is a team of Tapwage writers and guest contributors who help answer career and workplace questions