Monday, February 9, 2009

How to Write an Effective Resume

In the summer of 2008 I noticed a question on LinkedIn where a job seeker had asked, “What is the best way to create a successful resume?” I decided to respond because as a recruiting and staffing professional with over a decade of experience, I’ve searched for, reviewed, and worked with well over one hundred thousand resumes. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with hiring managers at 100’s of companies, gaining significant insight into what they respond to, so I felt I could offer valuable resume writing advice to job seekers.

You can read the original question and answer(s) here on LinkedIn: “What is the best way to create a successful resume?”

The employment market has changed drastically in the 9 months since I answered that question on Linkedin, and with an historic number of people who are now finding themselves looking for jobs, I feel it is especially important to get this effective resume writing advice to as many people as possible.


First I want to want to point out that I find that most HR, recruiting and staffing professionals, as well as hiring managers, often fail to recognize the simple fact that job seekers are not professional resume writers. Yet they want them to be. How realistic of an expectation is this?

Should an accountant, software engineer, project manager, etc., with 10 years of experience really be expected to produce a fantastic resume? I’m not so sure - they have 10 years of experience performing accounting functions, developing software, managing projects…they don’t have 10 years of experience writing resumes.

If a job seeker has had 2 jobs in 10 years - take a guess at how many times they have likely written their resume. Does writing 2, or even 10 resumes make you especially proficient at writing resumes? If you played golf a total of 10 times in your life, how good of a golfer would you be?

If you are a job seeker - be aware that recruiters and managers have very high expectations of you when it comes to resume writing. It is critical to prepare a resume that is a strong and effective representation of you, your skills, your experience, and your accomplishments. It can literally mean the difference between getting or not getting the chance to interview for the job(s) you want.


As I was preparing to respond to the job seeker’s question on LinkedIn, it dawned on me that while HR, recruiting and staffing professionals get to see and evaluate resumes all day long - job seekers rarely have the opportunity to see resumes of other people with experience similar to theirs.

Sure, there are tons of resume writing books on the market, and perhaps even more resume writing sites on the Internet, but I don’t find many of the samples I’ve seen to be particularly impressive, and there aren’t samples for EVERY job or role in the world. Most are ”canned” samples of common roles - and I wouldn’t say they are a fair representation of “real” or effective resumes in most cases (sorry undisclosed authors!).

Plus, job seekers need to realize resume writing books and websites exist to make money for the people who created them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they all offer good or bad advice - it just means they are trying to sell something and you should be conscious of the fact. Everyone knows that writing an effective resume is very challenging - so there is no shortage of people trying to capitalize on this need by selling advice.


Now I am going to share with you a modified version of my full response to the job seeker on Linkedin - he was interested in RF Engineering Manager positions - I am going to attempt to make my advice universal for any job seeker of any profession.


You can and should search the Internet for real resumes of other professionals who are in your industry and have similar experience to you. This will enable you to effectively perform a comparative and competitive analysis, and you will likely get many excellent content and format ideas on how to best represent your experience (and certainly some ideas on how NOT to!). It can be especially helpful to see real examples of the types of resumes your resume may be compared to, and it can provide you with a competitive advantage over other candidates. Knowledge is power.

There are many ways of finding resumes on the Internet – here is an example of a generic search string you can enter into Google, filling in appropriate titles and skills.

(intitle:resume OR inurl:resume) (”Job Title1″ OR “Job Title2″) Skill1 Skill2 -job -jobs -sample

If you are a software engineer, here is what your search string could look like:

(intitle:resume OR inurl:resume) (”developer” OR “engineer” OR “architect”) Java Oracle Weblogic -job -jobs -example -sample

Click here to see the results

If you are a tax accountant, here is what your search string could look like:

(intitle:resume OR inurl:resume) accountant tax -~job -~jobs -example -sample

Click here to see the results

After you run your search - spend some time reviewing the resumes to compare your resume to others of people who have similar experience to yours and to get ideas.


I believe it is an excellent idea to review job postings for your target role as some of them are highly detailed, specific, and very well written. Reviewing job postings can help remind you of experience you do actually have but forgot to mention in your resume or perhaps only briefly mentioned and will allow you to expand on it effectively.

When reviewing job postings to get ideas for resume writing, I suggest viewing a larger sample of jobs than you would normally. Go beyond local positions and search for jobs nationally. Why limit yourself to one location when all you are doing is looking for meaty, well-detailed job descriptions? Any of the large job boards (Monster, Careerbuilder, Hotjobs, Dice…) or job search aggregators such as Indeed or SimplyHired can serve as a resource for you.

Searching the entire nation is a good way to see a larger sample of jobs thus increasing the statistical probability of you finding very well written and highly detailed job descriptions that may help you more effectively and accurately represent your experience.


Unlike the past, when people used typewriters to craft their resumes individually for each job opening they were applying for, in today’s day and age a large number of people create only one resume (what I will call a “generic” resume) that is essentially used as a “one size fits all” representation of their experience. If executed properly, a “generic” resume can be effective, however, every position you will be applying for will be with a different company and will be its own unique opportunity. As such, I strongly suggest customizing your resume to specifically expand and highlight any experience you have that is highly relevant to the job opportunity you are applying to.


How much/How large/How many?
It can be critical to mention size, scale, and scope in relation to your experience because it may enable the reader to instantly grasp the level and extent of your experience. For example, if you were responsible for a network deployment, you should mention how many sites you were responsible for. There is a big difference between 5, 500, and 5000 sites - and it may be able to set you apart from other candidates applying to the same position.

Quantify anything relevant to your experience. Other examples: Number of accounts reconciled every month? Number/size of clients serviced? Size of budget? Number of direct reports? Number of vacancies filled? National or global? How many servers? Lines of code? Size of data warehouse? Number of users supported? Number of requirements taken?

Of course, if your experience isn’t that impressive in terms of size (i.e., 5 sites), you may not want to draw attention to it in your resume. However, it will likely come out on an interview anyway, so be prepared to speak about the quality of your experience instead.

What was the environment?
Always be careful to remember to include as much detail about the environments you have worked in, including the type of environment (HQ, field, operations center, etc.) and all software, hardware and other tools and technologies you worked with. This can enable the reader to quickly assess how closely your experience matches with their environment - recruiters and hiring managers unfortunately won’t often give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you have experience with anything. If it’s not explicitly mentioned in the resume, it’s more likely to be assumed you haven’t done it or haven’t used it.

What was it for/What did it do?
It is helpful to explicitly explain the purpose behind what you did in your jobs, if not readily apparent. For example, was it a migration or upgrade? What was the purpose of the migration or upgrade? Who used the product? Was it a redesign project? What was the end result? Who benefitted? Did it help your company or customers? How? This detail can help reviewers assess how applicable your experience is to what their company is trying to accomplish.

What did you do specifically?
It is critical to clearly represent your role and responsibilities beyond your title and to be very specific. Be sure to mention your major responsibilities as well as your level of responsibility in comparison to others on your team or in your group.

For example, if you performed RF network design, where you the only one responsible for it or were you part of a team of others and you shared the responsibility? Were you the go-to person/expert for propagation analysis? It can be a critical point for a potential employer scanning your resume to determine if you are qualified for their position.

Can it be measured?
If you saved your company 5 million dollars, or you completed all of your projects 80% faster than expected, or you reduced the site deployment process from 8 weeks to 3 weeks, you should say so because it is a quantitative way of representing your experience and the impact you had for previous employers. Most resume writing books suggest this – and deservedly so.

Who did you work for/support? The CEO? A 4 star general? The lead architect? Attorneys? Senior Engineers? The Director of Tax? 5000 end users of an application? Who you have specifically worked for and/or who you have supported in your previous roles can be a good representation of what you are capable of doing and and the level of work you have performed.


I personally don’t feel that a shorter resume is better. If your well written resume is already 1-2 pages, then great. If your well written resume is 3-4 pages long and you feel pressue to try and artificially limit your experience to 1 or 2 pages, this can work against you. If you have to remove valuable information from your resume to shorten it, how can a reader evaluate experience you don’t mention? However, I do recommend avoiding excessively long resumes (over 5 pages). If your resume is over 5 pages, you can probably benefit from being more concise in your writing, no matter how much experience you have (although I have seen resumes over 10 pages that did not prevent the people from getting jobs).


Be aware that at some point, your resume is going to make it into a database – whether you post it on a job board, or it gets parsed into a company’s database because you responded to their job posting, or a potential employer scanned your paper resume into their system. As such, your resume will then be retrieved (or not!) by someone running a Boolean search for keywords related to the opportunity they’re hiring for.

If you have experience with a particular software, skill, or technology and fail to mention it explicitly in your resume, and the person searching through their database is actually searching using that specific term – they won’t find you. In fact, they CAN’T - because they’re looking for a word that doesn’t exist on your resume. What’s especially challenging for most job seekers is that some of the specific things you do and use every day in your job are often the ones you easily forget to mention, simply because they are so familiar to you.


It is critical that you are aware that very few people “read” resumes. The reality is that most recruiters and managers scan resumes – sometimes as quickly as 20 seconds (or less!). When someone has to review a large number of resumes in consideration for an opportunity, they typically scan each resume quickly – focusing (in my experience) mostly on the actual experience and not as much time (if any) on the summary, objective, or skills/technology summary. If they don’t see what they’re looking for in 15-30 seconds, they can pass over you and move on to the next resume. It’s your job to not let them do that.

If you take a moment to think about the way most people process resumes, you will realize that what they are trying to determine quickly is how many years of applicable experience you have and what you have specifically done that is highly relevant to the position they are reviewing you for. That means many people skip immediately to your employment to analyze your years of experience at each employer while trying to quickly gauge exactly how deep your experience is.

There are many acceptable ways of representing experience, but I personally favor bullets as opposed to paragraphs. They enable you to represent experience in easily and quickly absorbed “power statements” that lend themselves to scanning. It is important to note that many people will scan down first to your most recent employer, take note of the time you spent there, and then scan your experience there from the top down – which means that your first 3 to 4 bullets (or sentences) are perhaps the most critical.

If you can convey your experience effectively and concisely in the first 3-4 bullets or sentences, most people will not read the remainder of your experience at that employer and will skip to the next employment and repeat the process. A well written resume can enable the reviewer to accurately assess a candidate in 15-30 seconds (or less!).

An example of a solid “power statement:” Responsible for managing the site survey, design, and deployment of a 315 site EVDO and WiMAX network spanning 6 states involving 37 engineers and completed ahead of schedule in under 14 months. Short and concise - in one sentence it mentions responsibility, what they did and with what, how many, and how fast.


My opinion is that “functional” resumes are of little value – for the simple reason that I cannot tell exactly how much experience (in years) you have with any particular skill, responsibility, or technology, and perhaps even more importantly, I cannot tell how current your experience is with any particular skill, responsibility, or technology. I strongly suggest reverse chronological formatting.


While some people take the time to read cover letters you should know that in my experience, a surprisingly large percentage of people skip them altogether and go straight to the resume, where they (I assume) feel the “real” information is.

However, I do think it would be foolish to not prepare a cover letter which briefly states a high level overview of your experience as well as your specific interest in the company and/or opportunity you are applying to, with a concise explanation of how you are specifically qualified for the position/firm.


I could not possibly cover every single aspect of effective resume writing in a single blog post, however, I’ve tried to cover what I think are the most important points to consider when writing an effective resume.

If you found this resume writing advice helpful - please share this post with others or link to it so that they may benefit from it. With unemployment at a 26 year high, job seekers need all the help they can get in setting themselves apart.

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