How to write a resume isn’t overly complicated. It’s not advanced quantum physics or even rocket science.
It does, however, require a great deal of thought and preparation.
In this guide, you’ll find step-by-step instructions on writing a resume that’s right for you.
Here’s a breakdown of what this guide covers:
- The 3 Formats to Choose From
- Headers — From The Top
- Quick Writing Tips Before You Begin
- How Long Should Your Resume Be?
- Handling Employment Gaps
- Out With Objective Statements
- The Words That Should Be Dominating Your Document
- Intro To The SAR Writing Style
- Presenting The Education Section
We have a lot to cover, so let’s get started.
1. THE RESUME FORMATS — WHICH IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
Despite the various names, there really are only 3 resume formats:
The chronological resume format (sometimes called a reverse chronological) is the MOST popular.
So, let’s cover 2 primary scenarios to consider.
The first scenario for using a chronological resume format would be when your most recent job roles are the most relevant to your current job target.
Let’s say you’re an outside sales rep and you’re seeking another outside sales job.
This means your most recent job title(s) is relevant to your next career move.
The second scenario for using a chronological format would be when your career is collectively your most valuable asset.
Let’s put this into context.
For example, let’s say you want a Project Manager job.
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And although you haven’t held a management title in the past, you’ve been a supervisor.
Supervisory roles are great stepping stones to management.
So, a chronological format would be the best option for you as well.
Here’s an example chronological resume that can help.
[Related Article: Here’s another before/after resume example.]
There will be times when your career won’t be straightforward — and this is when a combination resume format will be the better option.
There are numerous scenarios for using a combination format — though we’ll only cover 2 primary scenarios for their use here.
So, the first scenario for using a combination presents itself when you’re a career changer. Maybe you wish to reenter a career field that you haven’t been in for many years.
This means her MOST RECENT job titles don’t align with your CURRENT job focus.
A combination format makes BETTER sense in this case because you’re given some creative freedoms.
The second scenario for using a combination is when you’ve held a number of similar, or identical, job roles.
Job role redundancy can be an actual problem you’ll need to deal with.
And using a combination format can help you consolidate your job roles and present that information into a more compact presentation.
Here’s an example combination resume.
Now, let’s talk briefly about the functional format.
A functional resume is a very heavy skills-based, which briefly mentions (or excludes) job titles, employers, employment dates, and so on.
This format is used most often by those who have sizable career blemishes they are trying to hide.
Studies have shown that recruiters and HR managers DISLIKE this format, so avoid the functional format whenever possible.
Here’s an example functional resume.
2. RESUME HEADERS — FROM THE TOP
At this point, let’s talk about the top of your document.
This may be a rather basic place to start for some of you reading this.
But, I want to make sure you’re aware of what’s acceptable to include.
Also, I’ll answer questions about specific challenges that arise in resume headers.
For example, what to do when you have more than one phone number and how to write a nickname, and so on.
So, let’s get started.
At the top, you’ll write the obvious:
- Your Name
- Mailing address
- Preferred phone#
- LinkedIn URL
Thankfully there’s nothing tricky about writing top section. You’ll find this section to be the easiest and most straightforward to complete.
You might be wondering what’s more appropriate: use your nickname or legal name?
It’s perfectly fine to use a nickname.
For example, someone that goes by Joe instead of Joseph is something we oftentimes see.
This type of name variation is very common, so using the shortened name is perfectly fine.
For individuals whose nicknames aren’t as obvious; for example, maybe your name is Joseph, but he goes by “Sonny.”
What should you do then?
You can still use your nickname, but make the nickname obvious.
This is done by putting the nickname in quotes … as you see in the below example.
Another question I’m oftentimes asked is how to write a name when someone uses their middle name as their primary name.
Take my sales rep client, Michael John Black, as an example. He prefers and uses John, as he’s never really cared for the name of Michael.
For the resume header, you could use something like this:
- M. John Black
Presenting the name this way tells readers that you aren’t using your first name, but the second name for primary communications.
While we’re on the subject of how to write a resume header, I want to answer this primary question that I get often.
And that’s about phone numbers.
What happens when you have both a home and cell?
Which is better?
The number you list should be the one you’re most likely to answer during normal business hours.
You can list two numbers (home and cell), however, one is enough.
Is it acceptable to exclude your mailing address from the resume?
Excluding your mailing address is now acceptable.
Though, this is where a challenge can sometimes arise …
Let’s say you’ve moved from Florida a few years ago and kept your Florida phone number. You’re living and working in New York, yet use the FL phone number on your resume.
If you eliminate your address, hiring companies could get the impression that you’re out-of-state or a telecommute candidate.
This could potentially deter job interviews, making it something to factor when deciding whether to exclude this information.
Before we close out this part of the guide, let’s talk briefly about PO boxes.
Is putting a PO box in a resume a wise move?
I will tell you that I’ve rarely seen it, though it has occurred.
I suppose there are instances when you may want you to include a PO box, and though using a PO box isn’t commonly seen, it’s not likely to be seen unfavorable.
Just use your judgment. Use a street mailing address whenever possible — and use a PO box only when nothing else will work.
Looking for some neat additions to include in your resume header?
How about including a dot com (.com) or dot me (.me) website?
On its own, a personal website doesn’t usually draw a lot of attention from hiring managers, mainly because that level of attraction requires a search engine search for the webpage to be found.
However, when you present a unique domain — front and center — within your resume, well, that proposition can be hard to resist … and just might attract visits from various HR managers and recruiters.
Displaying online properties, where hiring personnel can take a deeper dive into your skill set, does provide them with the option of prescreening you at greater length.
But, you may have noticed that most professionals these days tend to favor LinkedIn as their go-to for building an online presence and generally stay away from other, less popular tools. So, it’s likely you’ll spend more time listing LinkedIn URLs over anything else.
Let’s talk a little bit about what you could include within the header of a resume?
- Personal .com or .me website, as I mentioned earlier
- LinkedIn URL
- Twitter Page — presuming your tweets are professional and preferably career relevant, of course
- Instant Messaging (IM) Handles
- Skype Numbers
Since Facebook tends to be perceived as more personal, putting a Facebook URL within a resume header just might be the one thing you universally EXCLUDE.
You want to avoid putting “everything.”
You also will want to avoid redundancy.
What I simply mean by this is … for example, consider that your VisualCV and LinkedIn pages will likely contain much of the same information. So opt to list one, not the other.
3. QUICK HOW-TO RESUME WRITING TIPS BEFORE YOU BEGIN
Many people find writing a resume a bit confusing, so here’s some advice:
First, resumes are written using first-person, omitting the subject (“I” / “me” / “my”).
So instead of writing, “I manage a team of 5,” you write, “Manage a team of 5.”
Second, use present verbs for current activities and past verbs for past activities and achievements.
The trickiest part of this is with a person’s most recent role. There tend to be current and past tasks that can get mixed up.
Here’s a basic representation of this:
- Managed a $150K SaaS project using Agile Methodology.
- Direct 8 accounting clerks as well as recruiting, hiring, and onboarding new hires.
- Cut operating costs 13% after renegotiating an outsourced staff contract.
Notice how the verbs at the beginning of each bullet point go from past tense (managed) to present tense (direct) and then back to past tense (cut).
The best resume writing practices would be to catalog the list so the current action verb is listed first and the past tense verbs are listed below.
Third, to further emphasize brevity, you’ll want to remove excess small words (“a” / “an” / “the” / “my”), except when doing so would hurt the readability of the sentence.
Fourth, write in a strong, active style, emphasizing verbs (“direct” / “manage” / “lead” / “conduct”) instead of passive descriptions of activity.
Fifth, something else you’ll commonly see when using numbers — numbers one through nine are spelled out; numbers 10 and above are expressed as numbers.
But, this tactic is becoming LESS common, as resume writers opt for numbers as a way to add visuals elements.
4. HOW LONG SHOULD YOUR RESUME BE ANYWAY?
Now, let’s talk about page length.
Resumes SHOULD NEVER be longer than one page.
True or false?
There are certainly instances where this would be true.
For example, for someone who is fresh out of college with only a few short years of experience, a one-page resume is ideal.
There are certain instances when writing a one-page resume is NOT ideal.
Take your average manager or executive with many years of experience.
A one-page resume just wouldn’t work with this type of professional because the page limitation means content limitations.
A resume can go beyond two pages — though tread cautiously anytime you go beyond two pages.
If you’ve written into a third page, I recommend revisiting your target and reviewing your resume for irrelevant and redundant details.
When writing your resume, always criticize the oldest jobss you’re including. If you are listing jobs that are older than 10-15 years old, ask yourself “why”? And, are these necessary?
5. HANDLING EMPLOYMENT GAPS IN YOUR RESUME
Let’s face it, prospective employers like to see nice, steady work history with nice, steady career advancement, showing you moving seamlessly from company to company.
This scenario just isn’t plausible for most of us — and certainly challenging to accomplish even in a good economic environment.
So, what’s the best way of explaining a work gap?
Addressing any gap in employment really depends upon resume length.
Shorter timeframes, for example, maybe a few months to a year or so, aren’t absolute necessities to explain.
An employment gap that’s longer, however, maybe several years is trickier and definitely worth some initial words of explanation — though explaining large date gaps are better done within a cover letter, not in the resume.
Sometimes jobseekers feel the need to give some sort of definition, even though it may not be entirely necessary.
Hiring managers understand candidates will have date gaps at times, especially when factoring the number of jobs lost during the last recession.
From time to time, you’ll see resumes from folks who include a short explanation of why they left each employer.
This is simply unnecessary.
There really are only about 5 primary reasons someone leaves a prospective employer, which include:
• Left for better opportunity
• Left for better salary
• Left for personal reasons (e.g. personal conflict with coworker/boss)
• Left for health concerns (self or family member)
• Was fired due to lack of performance or poor attitude/behavior
The most important date gap to address is a recent, long-term break in employment.
For example, let’s say you are currently unemployed — and has been for the past 18 months.
This type of date gap is a larger concern than, say, an 18-month gap that’s older, maybe 3 to 5 years older.
In fact, as a resume writer, I wouldn’t concern myself with an older work gap. I would simply list the employment dates — showing the date gap — and let that be that.
There are two solutions that are somewhat my go-tos when addressing work gaps.
My first solution is this — remember when we talked earlier in this guide about combination resume formats?
A combination just might be the answer for writing a more top-heavy resume, and therefore, somewhat overshadowing the employment gap.
Remember that we talked about how a combination format pushes work history further back in the resume?
It’s not a perfect strategy, but it does help make the date gap a bit less obvious.
My second solution is … once I immediately learn of a gap in a person’s recent work history, I ask about any continuing education, volunteer work, or other professional activities that can be added to help compensate for the gap.
Showing you have been busy with other things can go a long way to offsetting a gap that may otherwise be seen as a negative.
6. OUT WITH OBJECTIVE STATEMENTS
Objective statements have been out of style and obsolete since the 1990s.
In today’s world, HR managers want to see what value you bring to the table.
The reason an objective is no longer being used is that your objective is just that, theirs.
In fact, most of those who hire will skip reading basic objectives during resume reviews BECAUSE they may already know what your objective is.
I mean, why wouldn’t they?
The idea with the top section of any resume you write is to answer the questions that hiring managers have.
For example, HR managers want answers to questions like these:
Is this candidate qualified?
Can this candidate do what we need him/her to do?
Can this candidate produce results for us?
They want to know immediately if you are worth further examination.
Therefore, instead of an objective, write a keyword-rich, value-based resume summary.
Some call it a professional profile, professional summary, or a summary of skills, but it all means the same thing.
You might be wondering, what specifically should a summary include?
Start by including:
• Quick details about target job title & industry
• Your most relevant skills that match ONLY the job being pursued
• Any unique notables; e.g. language or tech skills
• Snapshot of most recent and relevant accomplishments
My best advice to help you with writing summaries is to use online job descriptions.
In fact, one of my favorite things to do is to print these descriptions and take out a highlighter, so I can highlight all the core skills mentioned.
This serves as somewhat of an “answer key” and enables me to match the skills of my client with the skills requirements of the employer.
When writing the resume summary, I focus my content around these highlighted core skills.
7. THE WORDS THAT SHOULD BE DOMINATING YOUR RESUME
Action verbs are a dominant component of any resume.
Remember earlier in the guide when I talked about writing in the first person?
Check out these two examples:
• [I] negotiated an estimated $1.8M in contracts for resale vendors.
• [I] opened new markets throughout Los Angeles, which generated an additional $2.3M in revenue for the company.
In these examples, negotiated and opened are the verbs that kickoff each of these sentences, once we eliminate the pronoun of “I.”
About 95% of the content you write will start with verbs.
The resume summary, lists of accomplishments, and details about your career will all be written and start with the use of verbs.
The use of verbs can get tricky when …
… you’re writing a summary, however.
A summary includes relevant, career-wide details, which means you’ll sometimes shift between what you are currently doing — as well as what has been done in the past.
So, a summary can include a mixture of current and past tense verbs.
The goal, however, is group current tasks together as much as humanly possible. And, group older tasks together as much as humanly possible.
Check out this resume summary example to get a better feel for grouping verbs:
Notice how the resume summary shifts from current to past tense verbs and then back to current verbs throughout the paragraph.
Whenever possible, you will want to use job or industry-specific action verbs as well.
When you’re not sure of what verbs are the best fit for your job role, visit a job board and check out a few different job descriptions that match your focus.
So, an example job description that represents a mixture of current and past tense verbs could look like the below. I’ve highlighted the verbs so you can readily identify how I’ve grouped together current and past tense verbs.
Lists of verbs by profession:
- https://www.resumetoreferral.com/action-verbs/ (General)
- https://www.resumetoreferral.com/action-verbs-teachers-academics/ (Academics & Teachers)
- https://www.resumetoreferral.com/keywords-for-accounting-finance-professionals/ (Accounting)
8. HOW TO WRITE A RESUME USING THE SAR WRITING STYLE
This writing style in a resume isn’t exactly new — but, it’s certainly a much-overlooked technique, even though resume writers have been recommending and using this type of writing for many years.
SAR simply stands for situation/action/result.
There have been many different acronyms and names given to this writing technique, including STAR (situation/task/action/result) or CAR (challenge/action/result).
Regardless of the acronym, the concept is the same: write about the situations you faced and pair those with the results that were generated from his/her actions.
Simple as that.
Using a SAR resume writing technique introduces achievements throughout the content of your resume, adding numbers and percentages that show you are a performer, making this one of the primary reasons for its use.
These visual content breaks that result by using SAR — going from straight text to including numbers/percentages, as I mentioned — helps add “skim factor” to any resume as well.
With today’s companies, everyone from the secretary to the sales rep and the janitor to the CEO is expected to contribute to the company’s overall financial health.
You can’t merely be seat warmers.
Hiring managers and recruiters want to see achievements in your resume because each represents action and result taken to improve the overall “health” of each employer.
Fail to take on any active cost-cutting, revenue-producing or retention activities, and you’re doing your career a great disservice. To make yourself increasingly marketable (another words, WANTED AND NEEDED!), those you work with really must focus on becoming someone who benefits each employer’s bottom line, if not already.
How to write resume achievements; what’s the best approach?
Start by identifying situations faced during your tenure, how you responded, and the results from each action.
Don’t overlook successes you’ve had a hand in too.
For example, maybe you helped retain a vital client from going to a competitor. Maybe you identified a major design flaw in a product or identified an issue with a project that would have cost the company a delayed project completion. Or, maybe you performed tasks of another person who was let go.
Would you like to see how writing better resume achievements can transform your resume’s content?
Take this before and after sentence into consideration as an example of how to write additional resume achievements:
Introduced continuous improvement activities and improved efficiencies, while reducing operating costs.
Introduced a new employee training program that cut billing bottlenecks and improved accounting staff efficiencies. Reduced outstanding receivables by 23.3% as well as shaved an additional 3.8% from overall operating costs.
Note that the before example is very basic, while the after example provides EXACT details on the improvements and reductions to operating costs.
To rewrite this sentence to show a specific example of SAR in action, we could expand the after example a bit further to this:
AFTER EXAMPLE USING THE SAR WRITING STYLE:
Responded to a major cash flow problem (situation) by introducing a new employee training program (action) that subsequently cut billing bottlenecks and improved accounting staff performance. Reduced outstanding receivables by 23.3% as well as shaved an additional 3.8% from overall operating costs (results).
9. HOW TO WRITE EDUCATION SECTION OF YOUR RESUME
Education in the U.S. is a very expensive commodity – and you should use it to your advantage, particularly in a resume.
However, few understand how to write properly.
Much actually depends on your level of experience and how long you have been out of school.
A recent graduate may have more to write/list about education and training than someone who has been in the workforce for several years.
In the case of the latter, you need only list your highest and most recent degree.
If you are currently in school, list the program you are in and work backward chronologically.
This rule is also true if you have post-graduate degrees; start with the highest degree that you have most recently earned and list other degrees in reverse chronological order.
Placing The Information
This may depend on what you want to emphasize. For example, if you attended Harvard Law School and graduated in the top 5% of your class, it’s a good bet that if you are applying for a position at a law firm, this is information you’ll want to place at or near the top.
On the other hand, it is possible you have a great deal of real-world experience and skills that are relevant to the job you’re seeking – but you may not have a lot of formal education. In this case, it’s best to start out by listing these experiences and skills.
It is considered good form to avoid abbreviations when referring to either your schools or your degrees. Therefore:
Whatsamatta University at Frostbite Falls, not “Whatsamatta U.” or “WUFF”
Master of Science Degree, not “MS”
How to write a resume that eliminates “paper age”?
Start by deleting the year you received your degrees — this is particularly a good idea for those who received their degrees 10+ years ago. For example, for those who’s education section in their resume looks like this …
M.S. Accounting (Emphasis: Tax), 1998 | Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio
B.S., Business & Accounting, 1995 | University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio
… would then get changed to this …
M.S. Accounting (Emphasis: Tax) | Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio
B.S., Business & Accounting | University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio
Won’t hiring companies want to see the year you received your degrees?
You’d be surprised at how many really don’t care for that information at the beginning of your relationship.
Colleges can easily search for graduates despite having a graduation year; so when hiring companies get to the point of verifying your education, you likely won’t even be asked for the dates.
Also worth noting is that some recruiters purposely delete graduation dates before pitching a candidate to their client (hiring company).
What if I lack the right education?
Education is almost always a requirement in a vacancy announcement.
There’s no escaping it most of the time.
Yet maybe you never finished a college degree, and the employer requires a bachelor’s.
Or perhaps you have a degree in psychology, but the job description says the applicant must have a degree in communications.
It can be frustrating if you have the right professional experience and you know you can do the job, but the education gap is holding you back.
Should you let your lack of the right education keep you from submitting your resume?
Well, there are two answers to that question.
1. Traditional Approach
The first answer is to get creative with your resume.
A strategy for overshadowing a lack of education is with writing a resume in a combination or functional format. Write the content so it highlights the broadness and depth of your knowledge and skillset relevant to the job and company.
Basically, a combination resume allows you to somewhat “hide” career blemishes, such as lack of education.
If you’re lucky, hiring companies will back-burner educational requirements in place of equivalent work experience.
If you take this route, make sure to put a lot of work into writing your Executive Resume Summary (the section that comes first in the resume).
Highlight your three or four strongest skills that match up with the job description.
Include any other accomplishments that will catch a hiring manager’s attention quickly, like awards, high sales volume, size of budget managed, etc. If you have an outstanding experience, you might be able to get by with that alone and nail a job interview.
But here’s the cold water: most employers don’t like alternative resume formats.
They prefer the traditional chronological format because it’s easier for them to quickly read your “story”.
If you want to do more than send in your combination resume, cross your fingers and hope for the best, you can do something else to address that lack of education.
2. Better Approach
If you determine education is really holding you back from getting a better job, do something about it!
Not having the right education has additional side effects too, like lower starting salaries and fewer promotions.
According to the Census Bureau, a person with a bachelor’s degree makes on average over $23,000 per year more than someone with only a high school diploma.
And the average master’s degree-holder makes $23,000 more than a worker with a bachelor’s.
Pretty big differences, right?
So don’t wait to go back to school for more training. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to go about it.
First, look into company-sponsored education, less expensive community colleges (if you’re paying out-of-pocket), and in-state online degree programs, which are often cheaper than on-site programs.
If you are going to continue to work full-time while studying, online programs can be a great option because you can do the coursework at home when you have time, evenings or on weekends.
Plus, you still get to network with classmates via social media. In fact, more students now enroll in online college programs than traditional ones.
To finance a degree, pursue grants, work-study programs, and low-interest student loans. Any college financial aid office will be able to help you explore the best options.
Here’s a viable option you may have not considered as well: Have you heard of open courseware?
For individuals who need to improve their education but wouldn’t dream of going through a formal degree process, open courseware just might be the solution. Many colleges and other educational institutes offer free online classes.
While most don’t lead to a degree, they might be perfect for filling in the gaps.
Even just adding a few courses to the education section might get you noticed by a hiring manager.
Determine which classes will help you learn hard or soft skills that you’ll need for the next step in your career and sign up.
Advanced education and continuous training are a necessity these days, so remedying your lack of education by taking steps to improve your professional development is the way to go.
No doubt, holes in your education can cost you strategic career moves (if they haven’t already) and will likely hurt your salary.
So start learning!
Through this guide, I hope you learned just about everything you need to know about how to write a resume.
From the basics to the more advanced writing strategies, know that your resume will always be a “living document.”
This means it will constantly be expanding and contracting to meet your ever-changing career.
Leveraging the how-to strategies in this guide will go a long way to ensuring your resume stays in tip-top shape.