How to Make a CV Interviewers Actually Want to Read: Part 2

No offense, but your résumé is probably a mess. It’s not that you aren’t skilled or accomplished, but most people’s résumés are middling at best. It’s understandable — unless you work in HR, you probably haven’t devoted much time to reading or crafting them, and most of us feel weird about trying to sell ourselves.

Fortunately for you, I’ve read thousands of résumés, and I can tell you what makes a small handful of them stand out so that you can use those same strategies yourself. I can’t promise it will be a fun process, but you’ll come out of it with a résumé that will boost your chances of getting interviewed and hired.

Start by listing all the jobs you’ve held — or at least the ones that make you a stronger candidate:

This is the easy part: Get the basic facts down on paper. Write down each job you’ve held, starting with the current or most recent and working backward. Note the name of the employer, the title(s) you held, and the dates you worked there (just the starting and ending years — add months if it was a shorter stint). This will be the framework for your Experience section.

Keep in mind that your résumé is a marketing document, designed to highlight the ways you fit the job you’re applying for. It doesn’t need to be an exhaustive accounting of every role you’ve ever held. So you don’t need to include the job where you only stayed three months, or a part-time gig outside your field, or one you were fired from and would rather not discuss. You might decide that it makes sense to add some of these anyway so you don’t have big gaps in your work history, but you can select what to include based on what strengthens your résumé overall. You’re not required to deliver a comprehensive list of everything you’ve ever done in life.

Now, create a bullet-point list of what you accomplished at each job — focusing on achievements, not responsibilities:

This is where the real action is on any résumé, and it’s what separates great résumés from mediocre ones: What did you actually accomplish at each job you listed? This is important: You should not just regurgitate your job description here. We’re looking for what results you achieved.

Most people’s résumés don’t do this. Most people list things like “managed a website” or “coordinated events” or other activities they were assigned to do. But that tells the person reading your résumé very little. It tells them you held a job with certain responsibilities, yes, but it doesn’t say anything about how good you were at that job, when the latter is the thing they want to know (and the thing that will give you an edge over your competition and help you land an interview). Instead, your résumé should focus on what you achieved in doing your work. For example:

  • Revamped help-desk ticket system, reducing average response time by 25 percent
  • In first three months, cleared out previous nine-month backlog of cases

If your job doesn’t have easily quantifiable measures like that, that’s okay! Your accomplishments can be qualitative as well. Here are some examples:

  • Acted as a gatekeeper for a busy 15-person department, ensuring all callers felt warmly welcomed and received prompt, accurate answers to queries
  • Became go-to staff member for relaying complicated technical information to high-profile clients, earning regular compliments for making complex transactions easy to understand

Those things say more than just what your job description was. They give the reader a sense that you’re good at that job.

If you’re having trouble thinking of your job in terms of accomplishments, imagine a really terrible temp filling in for you — or even imagine if you were checked out at work and not trying to do well. What would go differently? What would fall to pieces? The gap between that scenario and your (hopefully excellent) performance is what you want to capture on your résumé.

Add a section for your education:

For most people, the Education section will be just a line or two, listing where you went to college and what degree you obtained. If you’re a recent graduate, include your graduation year; otherwise, it’s fine to leave it off (it’s very common for people to exclude it in order to avoid age discrimination).

Generally your Education section should come after your Work section, since for most people, employers will be most interested in your work experience. (You might be an exception to this if your education is your strongest qualification and you have little relevant work experience. For example, if you’re applying to jobs in academia after receiving your master’s or Ph.D.)

Consider adding a Profile section at the top:

Profile sections are a totally optional trend in modern résumé writing. It’s just a short blurb at the top of your résumé — two to three sentences or bullet points — summing up who you are as a candidate and what differentiates you from other people with similar professional backgrounds. The idea is to provide an overall framing for your candidacy.

A good trick to writing one: Try thinking about what you’d want a contact to say if they had 20 seconds to sum you up to someone who was hiring for the work you do.

Again, though, this is optional. You can skip it if you want — and you should skip it if everything you come up with sounds generic. But if you can come up with language that captures how, say, a former boss who adored you might describe your work, without giving yourself over to the utterly subjective, it’s worth including.

You probably don’t need a Skills section — but maybe you do:

In most fields, you don’t need a Skills section; your skills should be obvious from the accomplishments you list in your Experience section. That said, highly technical fields like I.T. are an exception.

If you do include a Skills section, limit it to hard skills, like software programs and foreign languages you’re fluent in. Don’t list subjective self-assessments like “strong written communication skills” or “visionary leader” or “works well independently and in groups.” People’s self-assessments are so often inaccurate that these won’t carry any weight with employers and just take up space that would be better spent on more compelling material.

Other things you may or may not need:

You might include a Volunteer Work or Community Involvement section if you’ve done relevant or notable volunteer work. But it’s not necessary to include; if you don’t have anything worth putting there, you can skip it.

Some people include a Hobbies section. Don’t feel obligated to. Certain hiring managers find those interesting and others don’t even read them. I don’t recommend using the limited space on your résumé for them; there’s usually stronger content to feature. But some people insist they’ve gotten interviews because an interviewer was intrigued by their mention of bee-keeping or shared their love of puppetry.

If you’re a recent grad, you could also include any particularly impressive extracurricular campus activities, but you don’t need to — and if you do, they should come off within a few years of graduating, when you’ll hopefully have more work-related achievements to highlight instead.

Limit yourself to a page or two:

Most hiring managers spend about 20 seconds scanning a résumé initially — if that — which means you need to be concise.

The general rule for résumé length is that you’re limited to one page when you’re still a student or a recent grad, but you can go up to two pages after you’ve been out of school for a while. Exceed two pages at your own peril — many hiring managers roll their eyes at long résumés, and you’ll come across as someone who can’t distill information down to what’s most important. Plus, the more you cram in, the less likely a cursory glance is to fall on the items you most want them to see.

With design, less is more:

If you’re tempted to get creative with your résumé design — perhaps thinking that it’ll help you stand out from the crowd — resist the impulse. Hiring managers want to get the info they’re looking for on your résumé as quickly as possible, which means a concise, easily skimmed list of what you’ve accomplished, organized reverse-chronologically … in other words, the traditional résumé format.

Stand out from the crowd based on your content — compelling descriptions that show you’re great at what you do — not your majestic purple header or other design innovations.

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