Most resumes suck. At least the ones I’ve seen.
These resumes belong to great people from top universities or great companies. They have strong backgrounds. The resume templates they use look nice. They don’t make rookie mistakes such as spelling or grammatical errors.
But these resumes still suck.
They’re boring to read. They leave no impression on me, the hiring manager. If I show these resumes to other hiring managers, they might say, “Looks fine. I’ll think about it later.” but never “This candidate looks great! When can we talk to him/her?”
Because they don’t tell the right stories.
Think resumes are not stories? Think again.
Resumes are stories about people’s professional lives. And like any storytelling expert would tell you, knowing your audience is key to good storytelling. As a matter of fact, the same story can be great for one audience but terrible for another.
Most of us, however, never think about our audience when writing resumes. We focus on ourselves. We ask, “How should I describe this experience?” rather than “What does the hiring manager want to know?” As a result, our resume content is often boring and irrelevant - a bad story.
Now, most resume tips you’ve heard probably emphasize on the basics like resume templates, formats, or styles. While these can help your audience develop an appetite to read the resume, they alone are not sufficient in making your resume a great read.
That’s why I put together 10 top-shelf resume writing tips focused on developing good resume content so you can turn your resume into a great story. These pros tips are from a decade of professional experience as a job seeker, a recruiter, and a hiring manager.
A resume has one goal, and one goal only: Get you an interview invitation.
This is easier said than done.
Time is the scarcest resource your readers have. Recruiters spend an average of six seconds on a resume. They’re constantly looking for reasons NOT to invite you over for an interview while reading your resume. In other words, they would only send you an interview invitation if they feel strongly about you as a candidate.
How do you make them feel strongly about you? Aim to draw out two emotions from them - Confidence and curiosity.
Let’s take a step back and think about why anyone would want to read a resume.
Because they need to hire someone, duh.
But why do they need to hire someone?
Because they need to solve a problem.
This means your resume has to help the readers answer one question: “Can this person solve my problems?”
Most resumes don’t move past this stage because the readers have lost confidence in the candidates’ abilities in solving their problems. This is where the formats and styles advice stem from - it’s hard to feel confident in you if your resume looks unprofessional (hello cartoon fonts and pink headers!) or is full of errors (yup I’m a great riter).
But to give confidence, you need more than formats and styles. Your content should speak to the readers about the problems they have in mind. We’ll cover how to do this in other pro tips.
It’s not easy to elicit full confidence in your readers with just your resume though. Even if you’re over-qualified for the job, people usually have doubts until they’ve met you. Not to mention many job seekers go for opportunities with space for personal growth, meaning they’re not 100% qualified.
That’s where curiosity comes in.
An interview is basically a series of questions and answers. It’s hard not want to interview you if questions are popping up all over in your readers’ heads after reading your resume.
If you have backgrounds that naturally get people’s interests piqued, like if you’re a former NBA player or Amazon best-seller author at the age of 14, chances are you’ll hear from companies soon after you drop your resume.
For us peasants, we need to be a little more sophisticated on how to evoke curiosity from our readers. For a marketing job, perhaps mention you’ve invented a highly efficient approach to build email lists 3 times faster. For a managerial role, tell the story where you’ve built a 100% remote work environment with no one slacking off. For a developer job, describe how you’ve set up a unique code review process that decreases critical bugs in all your releases by 40%.
In these examples, your readers will immediately have questions. How did you do it? Is it any different from what they’re doing? What can they learn from you?
If your resume can make your readers feel confident and curious, your chance of getting that interview invite shoots up way high. Many of the remaining tips build on this very concept.
We’ve established that you need to always keep your audience in mind when drafting your resumes. How do you know what they are looking for though?
Start with the job descriptions. What are the key skills they’ve highlighted? Are they must-have’s or nice-to-have’s?
Read between the lines. What appears to be the challenges they’re facing? Are there other skills beyond what’s listed that can help them address these challenges?
What other skills do their competitors ask for?
If you don’t have the required skills per se, what are some relevant skills that could be good building blocks and allow you to quickly pick up the required skills? For example, even though you’ve never done growth hacking, do you have any coding or analytical experience?
Once you have a list of skills you know the readers look for, think about which experience has given you the chance to demonstrate these skills. List the skills under each experience so you know exactly what to write about when drafting things up.
You are putting your audience first by going through this exercise. They’ll feel confident in you when they see that you have relevant skills to help them solve their problems. You’re writing about what they want to see rather than what you want to say. As Jeff Bezos said, “obsessive customer focus is the best way to succeed.” In resume writing, your readers are your customers.
If it worked for Amazon, it should work for you too.
Now that you have a list of skills to write about and know which experience they go under, you can start working on the bullet points.
This is where I’d like to draw parallels with the famous Golden Circle by Simon Sinek. In his famous TedTalk, Simon talked about a better marketing approach where companies inspire people by talking about the Why first, then the How, and leave the What at the end. In traditional marketing, people usually start from the outside of the circle and talk about the What first.
It turns out we make the same mistake when marketing ourselves. We usually write about the What in resumes, i.e. the project, the company, the job title, and end up describing very little about the How, i.e. how you’ve completed a task, how you’ve solved an issue, or how you’ve overcome a challenge. (The Why is also important but less relevant in resume writing because, again, your readers want to first know if you can solve their problems by learning your How’s. The Why usually comes across in cover letters or interviews.)
Take a look at the following examples:
Candidate A: “Led email campaign for Girls Are Awesome, a 100-people volunteer group for young girls to build career confidence; grew subscription list by 3X.”
Candidate B: “Led email campaign by building WordPress landing page, setting up email capture with Sumo, and driving organic traffic through blog content upgrade; grew subscription list by 3X.”
Which example provides more How’s? Which one gives you more confidence that the candidate can replicate the success in your company? Candidate B is the clear winner here.
If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. As a hiring manager, do I care about the missions of other companies or the problems other people are facing? Not really. What I do care about is whether you can solve my problems with the skills you’ve acquired in other companies.
As a rule of thumb, always check your resume for words that are not describing you and take them out! The only exception here is when you need to give some context to help set your readers up. For example, if you’re working for a startup that’s not as well-known, then a one-liner about what the company does is not a bad idea.
In Pro Tip 2, you’ve created a list of skills that your reader is looking for. You might have multiple projects that can demonstrate one skill, or you might have a huge project that can exhibit multiple skills at the same time. Regardless of the case, make sure each bullet point talks about one skill only.
The key here is to get over the mindset of writing project-oriented bullet points. Insead, write skill-oriented bullet points. It’s okay if you use more than one bullet point to talk about the same project - as long as you’re using different aspects of the project to showcase different skills.
For example, if you are the project manager of a major organization change project, you can use one bullet point to talk about your leadership skills:
“Led a cross-functional team of eight…”,
A second bullet point on your communication skills:
“Presented change management plan to top executives…”,
And a third bullet point on your analytical skills:
“Analyzed cost saving opportunities…”
Once you’re done writing the first draft of your resume, mark the skills each bullet point focuses on. If you’re having trouble deciding which skill a bullet point is about, you should probably take a deeper look at it and narrow its scope.
Action verbs are verbs that express physical or mental actions. They help describe your skills and qualifications and should appear in the beginning of every bullet point in your resume.
Not all action verbs are created equal though. Consider the following examples:
Candidate A: “Assisted in new product launch…”
Candidate B: “Guided new product launch…”
Which candidate do you have more confidence in? Candidate A sounds like a junior staff who played an insignificant role in the product launch, while Candidate B appears to be an expert who gets consulted on the project.
Action verbs help give readers a sense of the role you play in projects and the level of skills you used. If you’re an experienced professional, avoid weak verbs that might mislead your readers to believe that you’re more junior than you really are. If you are indeed a junior candidate, use action verbs that are specific rather than general (e.g. “negotiated pricing” over “assisted in booking”) as well as proactive rather than passive (e.g. “created documents” over “responded to requests”).
To help you pick the strongest action verbs for your resume, click the link below to download a spreadsheet that gives you 800 action verbs to choose from.
Download 800 Action Verbs for Your Resume for Free
Showing that you have every skill it takes to succeed in a job is great, but it’s usually not enough to win you an interview, especially if you’re going after popular career routes such as management consulting or investment banking.
This is because there are just way more talent supply than job demand for these companies. Once companies weed out those who don’t qualify, they are still left with too many good options.
The secret I picked up from a mentor when I was in management consulting is to “have a spike.”
In Pro Tip 4, we talked about using each bullet point to showcase a single skill. Let’s say there are four skills you need to cover, and you have enough space to write up 12 bullet points. Which of the following three options would you go for?
Option A: 3 bullet points for each of the four skills
Option B: 12 bullet points on a single skill
Option C: 2 bullet points for three skills, and 6 bullet points for the fourth skill
These are obviously extreme cases, but as a general rule of thumb, you want to cover all your bases but shine on a particular skill - like a T-shaped talent. Option C would be what you want to go for here.
The spike helps you make a stronger impression on the hiring manager. You could be known as “the guy with strong creative background” or “the woman with strong analytical skills.” The hiring manager can get excited thinking about all the projects you can help with, which reinforces both their confidence and curiosity in you.
Humans are trained to find patterns. When there’s chaos, our natural instinct is to see the patterns and make sense of it.
Our brains go through the same pattern-recognition process when reading a resume. If it takes too much work to find a pattern, we get agitated and lose interest immediately. This is why you want to structure your resume in a way that’s easy for the readers to pick up important information.
Other than formatting your resume in a way to help readers easily find your contact information, dates, and locations of your past experience, one thing that most people overlook is the sentence structure.
See which of the following examples makes it easier for you to differentiate the tasks and the results:
- Won Best Teammate Award in 2018
- Ran online advertising campaigns, drove 40% traffic increase.
- Managed Facebook ads and Google AdWords
- Successfully launched new product by developing Go-To-Market strategy and collaborating with teams of five to execute it
- Managed online advertising campaigns such as Facebook ads and Google AdWords; drove 40% traffic increase
- Developed Go-To-Market strategy for new product launch; successfully executed strategy
- Collaborated with teams of five to execute strategy; won Best Teammate Award in 2018
These two candidates offer the exact same information, but Candidate A puts them all over the place, while Candidate B presents the information in a structural and consistent way. With Candidate B, you always know where to find the results (after the semicolon), and you can see the causal relationships between the tasks and the results.
This technique will suggest to the readers that you’re well-organized and a good communicator, strengthening their confidence in you.
Another way to create confidence in your reader is to show them your career has advanced. Promotion is obviously good, but career progression doesn’t have to be just promotions.
The reason why recruiters like to see promotion is because they are looking for validation. If your boss likes you enough to promote you, your chance of being a top talent is higher. If your boss promotes you earlier than usual, that chance increases even more.
The same thought process can occur if recruiters see that you’re given more responsibilities, or your work scope has expanded.
This is where contexts might become helpful. In your bullet points, show that your work scope has expanded from regional to global, that you’re managing more product categories, or that you’re taking on multiple roles!
Using words your readers are familiar with seems obvious and trivial, but people often underestimate how big of a difference this makes.
There’s science behind this: Our brains see familiar words as pictures, not individual letters. According to neuroscientists at Georgetown University, there’s a special area in our brains that process words we know well in whole at the speed of light. For words we are not familiar with, we have to look at individual letters and process them at the speed of sound, which is slower. Someone legitimately points out this is probably why tongue twisters are easy to read but difficult to sound out.
Recruiters often have to read resumes in bulk from various backgrounds. If your resume is full of unfamiliar words, the readers’ brains will not be able to process the information quickly. This means if a recruiter is underwhelmed by your resume, sometimes it’s not because you’re not qualified, but rather because your resume just didn’t “click”. This also explains why career switchers have a harder time getting interviews.
So avoiding acronyms is a good start, but it’s not enough. Do your research and use industry terms your readers are familiar with. If you’re switching career tracks, highlight skills that are transferable in their language, not yours. Speak their “industry dialects” so they can spend their brain processing power getting to know you rather than understanding the words.
The final touch you can make to your resume is to turn it three-dimensional. Make your personalities come across so that your readers don’t just see a piece of paper, but an actual person.
There’s a balance to strike here. As interesting as your personal life may be, you’d want to keep your resume professional.
A common way for people to show their personalities on resume is to add in an “Additional” section, in which they can talk about hobbies (e.g. surfing, karaoke), special awards or accomplishments (e.g. Best Dad Award from your children), or volunteer experience. You can also use this section to address any question your readers might have when reading your resume, such as a gap year or a short working experience. You know what people say - the best defense is good offense!
Resume writing is a daunting task. Part of the reasons being it forces us to look at ourselves in the mirror, asking many hard questions: What skills have I accumulated over the past years? Have I advanced and become a better version of myself? Do I have the right skills for the new job I want? Will people want to interview me by looking at my resume?
I hope these Pro Tips help make the resume writing process a tiny bit easier! If you need more help, here’s a list of 800 action verbs at your disposal. To make this resource extra useful, our team categorized them under different situations, and ranked them by their strengths.
Download 800 Action Verbs for Your Resume for Free