The Rules of the Resume Game

by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®

Photo by Moises Ales

Of course, this title is misleading; there is no finite set of rules for resumes. No such list exists.

But one thing is for sure. As in any human endeavor, there are standards of excellence and best practices. While this list isn’t complete, my clients get hired based on this advice. In other words, right or wrong, it works. I say elsewhere that “everyone is a resume expert, and they’re more than willing to express their myriad opinions.” I just Googled “resume” and got 4,940,000,000 results. Shocking, but not surprising.

No wonder it’s confusing to write one’s resume. Heck, I was confused writing mine.

Some people say resumes aren’t needed and shouldn’t exist. They’re old-school, a nuisance in fact.

Yet the word resume means “summary,” and no matter what your career direction, you’ll always need a summary of your history and work achievements. It might take the form of a video or slideshow, but the contents are similar.

If a two-page document is not enough, we compile other displays to supplement the resume: project lists, patents, publications, speeches, and awards, for example. The entire package could be five pages, but the resume is two.

Resume writing is like tennis in that certain rules apply. The tennis court is a specific size. The net is a standard height. You can remove the net and hit the ball, but then you’re not playing tennis.

Similar conventions apply to resume writing. You can make up your own rules as you go along. For example, you can print your resume on bright red paper—and you’ll have an eye-catcher all right, but you won’t have a decent resume. Here are 14 features of the resume that always produces interviews and job offers:

1. It’s you and you alone. It’s hard to make a mechanical engineer’s resume look like a human resource manager’s, but that’s what people try to do. If you are a petrochemist and try not to look like one, you’ll end up looking generic, like nothing in particular. If you’re making a career pivot, as many mid-career professionals do, you can dig for work accomplishments to support the new direction.

2. It’s accomplishment-oriented. Everything on the page is built around your achievements: your “triples” and “home runs.” They are its only reason for being. In my view, your work accomplishments are 80% of the value of the resume. If you get that right, you’re on target. If not, you’ll have a mediocre resume, one that sucks.

3. It’s organized like the menu in a restaurant. Things aren’t dropped in helter-skelter. Information falls under easily understandable general headings, which makes it easy to find facts.

4. It’s broken down into sub-headings. No long paragraphs.

5. It’s concise, not wordy. It’s written in crisp phrases, not full sentences. In resume language “K” means thousand, “M” means million, and “MM” means hundred million. Thus, $27K means 27 thousand dollars.

Omit words like “a, an, and the” and “I, me and my.” Otherwise, don’t abbreviate. Take out the obvious. If you hit 85 home runs last season, you probably don’t need to mention you also bunted and hit singles 10 years ago.

6. It’s written on one or two full pages, nothing else. Half-page or 1-1/2 page resumes look like you ran out of steam, or didn’t plan well.

It’s normally limited to two pages, except for the occasional senior executive resume, which can go to three. Getting it onto two pages is part of the drill. 

Tip: The first draft is often too long (say 3-4 pages). Keep a long version and then edit to a short 2-page version. Hence, two resumes. This will satisfy your need to “have everything in there” and the real world’s requirement to “keep it to two pages.” Use the short version for general mailings; use the long version only when it’s specifically requested. 

Some writers insist on having lengthy resumes: five or six pages, sometimes more. Yet once they try them in the job market, they come back for a two-page version. Everyone they’ve met has recommended no more than two pages!

“Show me a person who can’t distill a lifetime onto two pages
and I’ll show you a scatterbrain or an egomaniac.”
Jim Kennedy, Editor
The Directory of Executive Recruiters

7. It’s packed with important facts, numbers, and details. Nothing irrelevant. No personal data is included, except when there is an important reason to do so (for example, when industry standards require it).

Let the resume simply show where you’ve been and what you’ve accomplished. That’s its job. Don’t say anything about references, age, marital status, references, sex, race, family, personal interests, political or religious affiliations—unless mentioning these things will help. 

Of course, stellar personal achievements must be included: wining a medal in the Olympics, writing a breakthrough patent, or performing at Carnegie Hall.

I’m seeing Personal Gender Pronouns (PGPs) used more often on LinkedIn, and you might want to include yours.

If you’re a Mormon job-hunter in Salt Lake City, mentioning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints could be a plus. Mentioning that in New York City might be a negative. Unless you’re sure, keep quiet.

Another example: if you belong to a computer programming group and you’re looking for a software engineering job, mention the club. Otherwise, if prospective employers want to learn about outside activities, let them ask you face-to-face.

8. It’s word processed and laser printed on plain white bond paper, or off-white grey or buff. Nothing else. Very clean photocopies onto good bond paper are more than adequate. (Key concept: You don’t make a better resume by using better paper. You make a better resume by using carefully-chosen words.) 

Today, everything is digital; so we have less need for printed resumes. Yet hard copies can be immensely helpful in face-to-face meetings, especially with many attendees. With written documents, everyone can literally be “on the same page.” 

I have hundreds of digital marketing materials and testimonials for CareerLab®. So I believe in digital, I’m not a luddite. But this just happened: One of my corporate clients retired, and her replacement, the new Vice President of Human Resources said, “Send me a brochure or something. I like to hold the printed documents in my hand.”

9. It’s one-of-a-kind, not canned. It’s not done by a resume service. They can’t speak your voice. 

10. It’s conservative, because business is conservative. (Except in creative fields like advertising, design, sales and marketing, and the arts.)

11. It’s flawlessly clean. No typos, no misspellings. No white-out. One Human Resources Manager said he trashes all letters and resumes with even one typo. Perhaps short sighted, but that’s reality. 

I see many resumes with different font sizes scattered throughout. Really? You didn’t check your font? How good is your daily work?

12. It’s interesting, provocative, and enthusiastic. Not boring.

13. It’s weighted to emphasize recent work experience. As a general rule, employers care most about what you’ve done recently, say within the last ten years. They care less about what you did earlier. (Exception: when something 10 or 15 years ago bears directly on their needs today.) 

So if you look at a well-written resume visually, it looks like an inverted pyramid. Your most recent experience receives the most attention (space), and earlier jobs get less attention (space) as you go backwards in time. 

That way, when you get to the very beginning of your career—say 15 to 25 years ago—you may have only enough room on the page to list the names of companies, job titles, and dates. That’s perfectly okay, because chances are, most of your earlier work experience was less sophisticated.

14. It’s the only resume you need. If you do it right, one version works, because it’s truly you at your best. It tells the whole story. 

Chances are, if you write different versions for different jobs, you’ll spend more time rewriting than dialoging with people, which is where the jobs are. 

It’s fine to change the title on your resume from time to time, because that takes 15 seconds. If a company wants a “Commercial Project Manager” and your resume says “Industrial Project Manager, then yes, change it. 

If you find yourself rewriting your resume too many times, that often means a lack of focus. 

Despite the titles of resume books, there is no “perfect resume.” Every resume is a work in progress, a document for discussion. Don’t fret if yours isn’t “perfect.” You’ll refine it in focus groups of friends as we roll out your marketing campaign. Renewing friendships and incorporating their writing and editing ideas is just part of the fun. 

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