The Riley Guide: Resumes & Cover Letters
Crafting an eye-catching resume isn’t as easy as it used to be. These days, it’s not enough to use a professional-looking font and a proper approach to formatting – you’ve got to grab the reader’s attention right from the start, then hold onto it with specific examples of accomplishments that relate directly to the job in question. But with the help of some online guides and resume samples, you’ll be able to transform your old resume into a powerful advertisement for your skills and experience. Read on to find out how.
The Internet is overflowing with resources for professional, creative resume development – including resume theory, text samples, samples of structural formats, and even fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Though you may feel slightly overwhelmed at the sheer amount of detail in some of these guides, it’s worth your while to read at least one of them through to the end, because some of the information they contain is likely to fundamentally change the way you think about your resume. For example, do you currently think of your resume as a sheet of advertising copy adaptable to each prospective employer, complete with individually tailored keywords? Because that’s the level at which some of your competitors are thinking.
One of the classic resources for better resume writing is Joyce Lain Kennedy’s book "Resumes for Dummies." This book includes tips for writing a "core resume," as well as pointers on adapting that core for specific employers, and an extensive list of samples. In terms of online resources, it’s hard to beat Susan Ireland’s Resume Site, which offers hundreds of samples of every part of a resume, as well as articles with tips, step-by-step guides and templates. The Damn Good Resume Guide also provides online tips on many aspects of resume writing, along with lots of resume samples. And the Rockport Institute’s excellent series of articles, "How to Write a Masterpiece of a Resume," will take you through the same resume bootcamp that Rockport’s experts use to coach Fortune 500 CEOs.
Each of these resources covers different aspects of the process, and takes a somewhat different tone. The Rockport Institute’s guide is definitely the most confrontational, but its in-your-face style of writing may motivate you to work harder on your resume. Susan Ireland’s guide, by contrast, is friendly and kind, but a bit on the dry side. "Resumes for Dummies" strikes a fairly even balance between these two styles. So before you fully dive into a particular guide, take a few minutes to skim the beginnings of each one, and find one (or a couple) with a vibe that suits your own approach.
In today’s competitive job market, most resumes are tossed into the trash in seconds – so one of the biggest differences between a modern resume and a traditional one is the opening hook: You’ll need to add a brief summary of your skills and experience right at the top of the page, where it can be seen and digested in the first thirty seconds your resume is reviewed. Keep this section quick and to-the-point – four lines or less, ideally – because it may be your only chance to catch the hiring manager’s eye.
One major mistake you can make when submitting your resume is to include inaccurate spelling or grammar. There’s really no excuse for poor spelling – as this hiring manager says, "Here are three pieces of advice: proofread, proofread, proofread. Every word processor on the planet has spellcheck. Is it that hard to click the little button? You’ve already (I hope) spent an hour or more writing the thing. Would taking another five minutes for a once-over be too much to ask?"
Applying for a job for which you lack the minimum expected experience can be tough, but a little resume finesse can gloss over your shortcomings and call attention to your skills and experience that are relevant to the position. Although some companies will be stricter than others about experience requirements, many will at least call you in for an interview if your resume demonstrates familiarity with the type of work necessary for the position, or can portray your work experience as providing a useful point of view on the field.
So take some time to tailor your resume to the needs of the position. If it’s an accounting job, for example, emphasize your accounting experience and cut any entries that are irrelevant to those skills. Another tip that can significantly boost your chances is to include keywords relevant to the job listing. If the listing says, "Accounts receivable experience a plus," state that you have "experience in accounts receivable" (as long as it’s true, of course). Or, if you don’t have experience in the exact field, describe your duties at previous jobs as relevant – for example, mention that in your work as an administrative assistant, you balanced corporate accounts for a team of ten executives. This may be enough to get your foot in the door for an interview.
Above all, keep your resume short – one page, maximum – and keep it free of the kinds of fluff to which many applicants fall prey. Don’t bother describing yourself as "detail-oriented," "goal-focused," "willing to work overtime" or "motivated to succeed," as the employer will assume you have these qualities if you’re even bothering to apply. Instead, focus on specific qualities and achievements that distinguish you from the competition: Your experience managing a team of 28 individuals, for example; or your track record of completing projects at least 30 percent under budget. Use specific numbers wherever possible. The more precisely you describe your skills, the better chance you stand of catching the hiring manager’s eye.
As you retool your resume, you may find it useful to compare your own work-in-progress against some complete samples. Luckily, several sites include extensive libraries of sample resumes for a wide variety of positions and industries. While it’s generally a bad idea to copy and paste text directly out of the samples, they can still give you a better idea of how to structure your own, how to phrase certain types of concepts, and just how specific it’s important to be when citing your previous achievements.
The ever-helpful Susan Ireland provides 90 resume samples on her Resume Site – for levels from entry to executive, and for career fields from marketing to finance to science. Monster.com’s Resumes & Letters section also provides downloadable resume templates for many jobs and industries. And 1-2-3-Resumes.com offers a unique twist: Resume samples broken down visually, with captions calling out the reasoning behind each section’s structure and phrasing. And you can easily track down even more samples with a quick Google search for "resume samples" or "sample resumes." By comparing info from a few sites like this, you’ll get a much clearer idea of how to sculpt your own resume to the demands of the job you’re applying for.
Posting your resume online means striking a delicate balance between placement and privacy: On the one hand, you want to make sure it’s seen by the right people – but at the same time, you want to prevent it from being seen by the wrong people (such as, for example, your current employer or a shady recruiter). The good news is that there are a few ways to avoid this kind of trouble, while still making sure your resume gets posted where it’ll be seen.
What, exactly, is the difference between a resume and a CV (Curriculum Vitae)? It mostly depends on geography. In the United States, a CV is "a comprehensive, biographical statement emphasizing your professional qualifications and activities." In other words, it’s not your standard resume, but a variation provided only when specifically requested, usually in pursuit of an academic or research position. In other countries, meanwhile, a CV is a standard resume, although the format and some of the information may differ from customary practice in the U.S.
In the U.S., a CV also involves some information that might not be included on a standard resume: Your areas of research interest, your publications and presentations, your memberships in scholarly organizations, and any grants, honors and awards you’ve received. Unlike with resumes, CVs don’t have to be limited to a single page – in fact, there’s really no standard format for them. Your best bet for CV formatting is to ask other professionals in your field for samples of CVs they’ve used in the past, and adapt those examples to your own work.
Sometimes a standard resume just doesn’t work because it can’t tell the whole story – and that’s where a portfolio comes in. A portfolio helps create a portable package of your personal skills and accomplishments – a package that isn’t limited by the individual job titles you’ve held. It can enable you to sell your skills more effectively during an employer’s initial screening process, and also supplement records of your "hard" (i.e., measurable) skills with examples of less quantifiable things such as your design prowess, your cultural influence or your material craftsmanship.
Martin Kimeldorf’s Portfolio Library provides some of the most comprehensive portfolio resources on the Internet. It includes articles arguing or the power of a portfolio in the hiring process, tips on leveraging a portfolio in your job campaign, and how-to pages and samples to help you create one that showcases your skills most effectively. Kimeldorf has also written a book, "Portfolio Power," which goes over all these topics in even greater detail.
If you’re aiming to gain an edge on the competition, you may want to try one or more variations on the traditional resume-sending process. Two of the most popular new tricks are resume distribution services and video portraits. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages, and neither is really an effective substitute for submitting your resume directly to employers. But if you want to experiment with one or both of these options, there are a few facts you should know about each of them.
Some job seekers think resume distribution services deliver a great bang for your buck – but what’s more likely is that you’re getting a scatter shot for your money. Recruiters have actually rated this method as one of the least effective they’ve used for finding new candidates. And while some of these services give you a means of deciding who’ll receive your resume, others don’t. Some send only to recruiters who’ve signed on to receive resumes, while others just send them out to anyone they can find.
Video portraits, meanwhile, are like taped interviews that an employer can review. Some online services are offering these as supplements to standard online resumes. But many human resources directors are actually nervous about having access to anything that could demonstrate a person’s age, gender, ethnicity – or any other physical characteristic that someone could claim disqualified them from a job (whether that’s true or not). What’s more, you won’t be able to control anyone’s reaction upon viewing your video – including whether they’ll post it online, as happened to this guy. So save your money, and save the performance for a live interview.
Susan Ireland’s Resume Site — Loads of resume-related resources, including ow-to articles and resume samples from a variety of industries.
How to Write a Masterpiece of a Resume — An excellent series of articles on turning your boring resume into an attention-grabbing work of art.
Why I Tossed Your Resume — A hard-hitting article, listing the top reasons why hiring managers throw resumes away.