It’s a good practice to keep your resume up to date, but it’s especially important for those just starting out in their careers because their experience can’t speak for itself yet. A resume is an easy way to list all of your accomplishments for hiring managers to see—but how you do it can make all the difference in whether your resume goes to the bottom or the top of the pile.
Students often spend hours writing their resumes, expecting readers to analyze every detail. But a 2012 study from TheLadders.com revealed that the average recruiters “spend about 6 seconds before they make the initial ‘fit/no fit’ decision.” In many cases, recruiters don’t even take the first pass at a resume, leaving it up to resume-scanning computer programs to pass your name along or not.
Six seconds isn’t much time to shine, but along with a standout cover letter, a well-crafted resume will make the difference in today’s competitive job market. NerdScholar previously debunked eight resume myths, and now we’ve asked career experts for their best resume advice. They shared the following tips for making your first six seconds really count.
[Want more career advice? Check out our Job Search Guide for Gen Y.]
1. Proofread for grammatical and stylistic errors.
Typos and inaccuracies are a sure bet for landing your resume at the bottom of the stack. Michele Ramsey, an associate professor at Penn State Berks, says that “in a world where getting a job is becoming more and more difficult, and so many more people are applying for the very same jobs, people will look for reasons to minimize their long list of potential employees—and a misspelled word, grammatical or factual error is the easiest way to thin that huge pile.”
It’s very important for students to thoroughly proofread their resumes. Something as small as a misplaced comma or an inaccurate date can be a major red flag for potential employers.
“Your resume communicates more about you than just your qualifications,” Ramsey says. “It communicates something about your literacy, your attention to detail and how serious you’re taking the job.”
2. Be concise.
A resume gives students the opportunity to showcase their background and qualifications, but writing too much and in too much detail can dissuade recruiters. Lori Staggs, assistant director of the career center at Grand Valley State University, advises students to keep resumes concise, direct, and clean.
“Resumes are meant to be scanned quickly for information,” she says. “Don’t make it hard on the recruiter to find the most valuable information about you and your ability.”
Recruiters are probably not interested in a student’s high school coursework or family situation, and adding this unnecessary information would be distracting.
Elaine Boylan, senior associate director of career development at Adelphi University, adds that “details help the reader gain a clear impression of the candidate. However, too many details can weigh down the resume.” A one-page resume with the most recent and relevant information is more than enough to impress a recruiter.
Writing a resume with a succinct yet full account of background and qualifications can be challenging for a student, which is why trained career advisors are extremely helpful. Staggs encourages students to visit their school’s career center, because they “can be helpful in providing valuable feedback on what to keep, and what to get rid of.”
3. Focus on accomplishments rather than responsibilities.
Future employers want to hire a student who will go above and beyond if hired, and resumes should highlight accomplishments rather than responsibilities. Janet Raiffa, a career advisor at Columbia Business School, reminds students that “it’s your resume, and it should focus on what you did rather than what your team or organization did. Don’t lie or inflate your accomplishments when you’re writing your resume, but don’t be modest either.”
A resume that presents a student who can follow instructions but who doesn’t show initiative will not impress a recruiter. A resume that emphasizes awards, special contributions and rave reviews is much more effective.
Kim L. Whiteside, manager of career services at Bellevue University, agrees that “including accomplishments and achievements on your resume are what will make you stand out to potential employers.”
4. Use action verbs and keywords.
Because recruiters are looking for proactive candidates, resumes should use strong action verbs. Melissa Roberts, coordinator for the Center for Calling and Career at Point University, suggests verbs such as “analyzed,” “generated” or “resolved.”
Boylan says that “because these words enable the reader to envision the writer as the doer of the action, they are so much more effective than ‘assisted’ or ‘participated in.’”
“Strong action verbs show leadership and intellectual prowess,” says Raiffa—two qualities recruiters are definitely seeking.
Resumes should also include keywords related to the field a candidate is interested in, according to Ramsey: “Some companies are now using computer programs that search electronically submitted resumes for keywords and ignore those resumes without them.”
For instance, a candidate applying to a sales position should include terms such as “customer service” and “revenue growth” in his or her resume. Keywords reinforce a candidate’s interest in the field and show that candidates are knowledgeable of the field.
5. Avoid vague language.
In addition to using strong verbs, resumes should also steer clear of any vague language. Raiffa says that students “should avoid anything vague, such as beginning with ‘involved in’… as a student it’s fine to use weaker verbs such as ‘assisted’ or ‘supported,’ but you want to show some discretion and growth of responsibility.” Employers understand that students may lack professional experience, but they still want to know how a student has contributed to other endeavors in the past.
Instead of using vague language, students should quantify past experiences in their resumes. Raiffa does not like seeing the term “successful” in a resume; instead, she suggests “showing success in terms of results—percent increase, money earned or saved for example—rather than saying that some effort was successful.”
Other similar terms that should be avoided are “talented” and “hardworking,” according to Roberts, because they don’t provide any real information for recruiters. Rather than saying he is hardworking, a student should show it with hard facts and numbers.
As Staggs says, “using quantifying and qualifying adjectives make statements stronger and more credible.”
6. Stand out for your content instead of your layout.
The best way to make a resume stand out is through content, not layout.
“Originality is important in a resume as long as it can be done without being distracting,” Roberts says. Recruiters don’t generally appreciate fancy fonts and graphics, as these attempts at originality can be overwhelming and unprofessional. Clarity is the most important goal, and a resume should use a simple layout that is consistent and easy to read.
“It doesn’t need to be unique in terms of formatting, or funny, or overly creative,” says Raiffa. “You want to stand out based on academic or professional achievement.”
The best resume will be original because of the concise content that highlights strengths and skills. As Stuart Mease, director of career advancement at Virginia Tech, says: ”Let the results speak for themselves.”
7. Know your audience.
After crafting the best resume, students need to customize versions of it for each particular employer. Even within the same field, different employers will be looking for different qualifications, and “it’s perfectly okay to have several versions of your resume, each designed for a specific field,” Boylan says. Every resume has an audience, and an employer is more likely to respond positively to a targeted resume than a general resume.
As Whiteside says, “Customizing your resume to the description of the job for which you are applying is one of the most important ways to distinguish yourself from the competition.”
Stuart Mease is the Director of Career Advancement and Employer Relations in the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business. He is also the author of “The Perfect Job Seeker.”
Dr. E. Michele Ramsey is an Associate Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences and Women’s Studies at Penn State Berks. She has 22 years of experience teaching and advising at the college level and teaches a course for junior and senior communication majors on marketing themselves after graduation, which teaches them to apply their communication/rhetoric knowledge from their major to their job search.
Lori Staggs is an Assistant Director in the Career Center at Grand Valley State University who mainly works with students from the Seidman College of Business. She has been working in career development for over seven years, and has a Master’s degree in Educational Counseling from California State University.
Elaine Boylan is Senior Associate Director of the Center for Career Development at Adelphi University. She has been guiding Adelphi students in their careers since 2003, helping them focus on their strengths, showing them how to describe what they have to offer, and leading them to resources which will uncover future career possibilities. As coordinator of numerous career events, she aims to not only enhance job and internship opportunities for students, but to give them the moral support and confidence that are so essential to a successful job search.
Melissa Roberts is the Coordinator for the Center for Calling and Career at Point University. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and earned a Master’s in Studies in Human Behavior at Capella University.
Janet Raiffa is a Career Advisor at Columbia Business School, and works with MBA students seeking internships and full-time jobs in a wide range of industries. Prior to joining Columbia she was a recruiter and recruiting manager for investment banking, consulting and law firms. She received her M.A. from Columbia University and her B.A. from Dartmouth College.
Kim L. Whiteside is Manager at the Career Services Center at Bellevue University. She has counseled students for over 25 years and is a seasoned expert in Executive Coaching, Experiential Learning, and Career Counseling.
Resume image courtesy of Shutterstock.