I spent several years behind a desk at an employment agency. The first thing we would ask any client was how recently they had updated their resume. The question’s objective wasn’t really about making sure that every applicant had their most recent job down on paper — instead, we wanted a chance to assess just how bad each resume was. Some people had well-crafted documents ready to send out immediately, but a surprising number had more of a rough draft. When we ‘updated’ a resume, we could address the other errors that we found. Most errors are actually easy fixes: just running down the checklist below could whip the average resume into shape in a matter of minutes.
1. Ditch the funky fonts.
Hard-to-read fonts are a fast way to get your resume on the bottom of any HR manager’s stack. Stick to something simple, like Helvetica or even Times New Roman — and while you don’t need to put it in 72 point, don’t drop down below a 10 point typeface either. I know that the designer in you is crying out, but as emailing a resume becomes common practice, it’s crucial to use fonts everyone has.
2. Put your skills up front.
Most employers care more about your skills than anything else. Sure, they’ll want to know where you learned your skills — past employers or schools — but putting your skills right below your name lets you convince a hiring manager right off the bat. As long as you’ve got the appropriate skills and certifications listed for a job, you’ll at least make it past the initial resume review — the one where all the unqualified applicants are filed in the trash can.
3. Proofread past spell check.
Just about everyone runs a spell check on their resume. But I’ve seen so many typos that a computer can’t catch: misused words, misspelled business names — I’ve even seen a resume with the applicant’s name misspelled! You should always read over documents to double check them, and if you can get a friend to read over your resume, go for it.
4. Make everything match.
If you’re sending references and a cover letter along with your resume, make them match. Print them all on the same kind of paper, use the same fonts, and make your writing sound like it’s all from the same source. At the very least, a prospective employer will be able to keep them all together if they look the same. You’ll also present a more professional front. If you’ve got the opportunity, try to make your portfolio, website and other materials look like a cohesive whole with your resume — most employers will be looking far beyond your resume to decide on your application.
5. Minimize your job descriptions.
In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need to describe each position you’ve held. Your title should say it all. But many people wind up with responsibilities above their pay grade: if that’s the case, it’s reasonable to include that information in your resume. But try to limit other descriptions. If your job title was ‘accountant,’ a hiring manager can generally figure out what you did.
6. Put dates at the end.
Most people load the front of their resumes with dates — “2005-2008, McDonald’s, Cashier” — but, to a certain extent, prospective employers don’t actually care about the dates you worked. Move those dates to the end of the sentence, instead, and put the important stuff up front.
7. Don’t leave big gaps in your timeline.
Been out of the workforce for several years? Don’t just leave a big hole in your job history. List your volunteer work, time spent taking care of an elderly relative — anything you did during that time that could be construed as work. Many HR managers assume that there’s always a significant reason for someone to leave the workforce, and they rarely assume anything positive.
8. Keep religious information out of it.
Don’t list anything that could be the basis of discrimination. The issue is not that some HR managers are likely to discriminate against you on the basis of religion or anything else; instead, that sort of information makes a hiring manager cringe because just seeing can open her up to all sorts of accusations. The same goes for including a head shot for any job opportunity that doesn’t actually require it.
9. Align everything.
No matter what you lay out your resume in, you can generally make the alignment pretty simple. It is crucial, though: jagged lines of text look unprofessional and make most resume reviewers more than happy to move on to the next one.
10. Adhere to your industry’s conventions.
Your industry may have a specific style of resume or CV that has become the norm. Try to stick with those conventions. If a prospective employer is looking for an employee in your industry, they’ll be looking for a resume in the conventional style, containing conventional certifications and terminology to prove that you really are familiar with the industry.
Having a polished resume ups your chances of making it through the various levels of the application process. If a hiring manager gets a large number of resumes in response to a job listing — an especially common problem lately — she may use even small problems with a resume as a way to cut the number of prospects down.