Back to Basics: The 15 Most Important Resume Tips for Young Professionals

I’m excited to announce (again!) that my book, Getting from College to Career: Your Essential Guide to Succeeding in the Real World, will be published in a brand new, fully revised second edition on January 31st!

In honor of the launch, this month I’m writing series of “back to basics” blog posts on the essentials of getting from college to career. Today I’m sharing my absolute favorite, most impactful resume tips:

1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Particularly at the beginning of your career, it’s really hard to start your resume with a blank sheet of paper. So don’t. Check out examples of strong entry-level resumes online or at your university career center and borrow the best ideas for formatting, headings, wording and more.

2. Include key words. Employers’ eyes are naturally drawn to the words they’re looking for — the brand names, skills, and experience they need — so make sure you include these terms on your resume. And, be as specific as possible. For instance, “Experience with Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign through the production of 12 issues of on-campus magazine” is much stronger than “Design Experience.

The best way to find the right words to use is to look at online job listings for the kinds of positions you’re interested in and the LinkedIn profiles of people who have the positions you want. Then use some of the prominent words and phrases in those job listings and profiles throughout your resume.

3. Tailor your resume to each opportunity. Employers can tell when they’re seeing a generic resume that is being blasted out to anyone and everyone. It’s fine to have such a resume as a template, but then you need to customize it with different accomplishments and keywords that fit with the individual companies where you’d like to work. (One warning: if you’re sending your resume to a large corporation or posting on the recruiting website of such an organization, you will have to choose just one version.)

4. Quantify everything that’s quantifiable. “Managed a team of camp counselors” is less impressive than “Managed a staff of 12 camp counselors and 5 counselors-in-training.” Quantifying can also give life to administrative tasks: “Receptionist at a 4-doctor medical practice handling over 100 clients per day.” If your work helped to raise money or profits, then numbers are even more important: “Improved sporting equipment sales in my department by 50% in six months” or “Raised $2,000 through solicitation of alumni donations.” Quantifying shows your unique contribution to an organization and also demonstrates that you’re a person who understands the importance of measuring results.

5. Prioritize. When you list bullet points under each job on your resume (and you should always list bullet points under each job), be sure to list the most important task, accomplishment or responsibility first. It’s highly unlikely that a potential employer is going to read every bullet point under every item on your resume, but most people will read the first or second bullet point on each list. You don’t have to list accomplishments chronologically; list the most impressive first. Also note that more challenging jobs (which ideally should be your more recent jobs) should have more bullet points than less challenging work experiences.

6. Don’t forget to list internships, volunteer work and unpaid summer jobs. Just because you didn’t get paid for something doesn’t mean it doesn’t count as real experience. When including unpaid experience on your resume, emphasize the professional skills you’ve developed. Use terms such as “leadership,” “fundraising,” “public relations,” “people management,” and “budgeting” to describe your activities.

7. Note any notables. Be sure to mention anything about you that is unique and uncommon. Some examples include, “Founding president of first-ever entrepreneurial club at XYZ University,” “Winner of the Anita Lawrence Scholarship for Excellence in Social Studies, awarded to the top junior history student” (remember to explain an award if it’s not nationally known) or “Youngest person ever promoted to assistant manager at local high-end jewelry store.”

8. Don’t highlight something that you despised doing. As you can see, there are many ways to draw a reader’s eye to what you want that person to see on your resume, so avoid these strategies when you don’t want to promote something. In fact, if you’ve had a task or responsibility that you hated and never want to do again (like selling vacuums door-to-door or cleaning animal cages), then don’t include it on your resume. You can even leave off an entire job if it’s not relevant to your current job search.

9. Don’t ever lie or stretch the truth. This happens way too often, and it’s never a good idea. There are so many reasons not to lie on a resume. First of all, if your lie or truth stretching gets discovered, you’ll lose a job opportunity with that company forever. Second, if you exaggerate your skills, such as being fluent in Spanish when you really just studied it in high school, your lie will become extremely obvious the day you start your job and you lack the skills you said you had.

10. Keep it to one page. I’ve seen senior executives with one-page resumes, so I don’t see any reason why a college student or recent grad’s resume needs more than that. Remember that your resume is a marketing tool and not a transcript or a laundry list of everything you’ve ever done. By keeping your resume short and sweet, you’re demonstrating that you can edit yourself and sell yourself clearly and concisely, which are both important skills in the professional world.

11. Curb your creativity. In the vast majority of circumstances, it’s inappropriate to present your resume in any other format than a simple black font (Times New Roman, Arial, etc.) on a white background. On hard copy resumes, it is not okay to use colored paper, scented paper, colorful or creative fonts or any other bells and whistles. Recruiters, especially those in the corporate world, laugh at these attempts to stand out and immediately throw such resumes away. It’s also smart to PDF your resume to make sure your formatting looks the same on all computers (and to ensure you haven’t left any Track Changes markings — seriously, I’ve seen that happen).

12. Don’t title your resume document “resume.” This tip comes from Software Advice CEO Don Fornes writing on the Job Bound blog. “About a third of applicants name their resume document, ‘resume.doc.’” Don writes. “’Resume’ may make sense on your computer, where you know it’s your resume. However, on my computer, it’s one of many, many resumes with the same name…. By using such a generic file name, the applicant misses a great opportunity to brand themselves.”

13. Get professional input. As I recommended in last week’s post on the 7 essentials of a successful job search, if you can afford a professional resume writer, hire one. If you’re still in college, get a free resume critique from your college career center. If you can’t do either of these things, then ask your smartest, most successful friend or family member (ideally someone who works or has worked in your industry) for help.

14. Leave out unnecessary information. Here is what you should not include on your resume: references (an employer will request these if desired), the phrase “References upon request” (they know this), a GPA under 3.0 (click here to read my tips on how to get a job if you have a low GPA) or obvious skills (there is no longer a need to say that you know how to use Microsoft Word or Internet Explorer). You should also remove high school activities once you’re out of college.

15. Quadruple-check for any typos. Typos happen to the best of us, so be meticulous about spelling, grammar, formatting and consistency on your resume. Be especially careful with details like whether or not you end each bullet point with a punctuation mark or whether you’ve capitalized all of your job titles. Even a small typo can blow an opportunity, especially if you’ve included “excellent attention to detail” as one of your skills!

And one more bonus tip…

Make sure your resume gets read. A recruiter once told me he always has two stacks of resumes on his desk: one super tall stack of resumes that are submitted online and one very small stack of resumes sent or handed to him by a trusted friend or colleague. Of course you want to be in that smaller, more elite stack. So, always look for an “in” at a company — a friend-of-a-friend, an alum of your university, a LinkedIn connection — who believes in you and will recommend you to his or her employer. You can have the best resume in the world, but if a recruiter never sees it you’ll never get the job you want.

So, what do you think? Are there any other resume tips I should have included here? Please add your additional tips and suggestions in the Comments!

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3 Comments

    Comment: Posted by Lindsey Pollak on July 27, 2012 at 10:32 am

    @Keila – The best title for the document is specific, e.g., “Jane Doe Resume,” not simply “Resume.” Good luck!

    Comment: Posted by Dental Daren on July 26, 2012 at 1:15 am

    For me, the most important thing was to be just different enough to get noticed. Everyone is trying to maximize their resume, so they end up all looking similar. Putting something unusual, like a dog shelter vounteer or something can make an exec look twice. My $.02

    Comment: Posted by Keila on July 22, 2012 at 10:35 am

    If its recommended that we not title our resume document “Resume”, what are other alternatives?

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