Is There a “Right” Way to Write a Resume?

As a Career Coach, I edit lots of resumes and I do lots of talking to recruiters in a variety of industries about what they look for when reviewing resumes. So it stands to reason that I have my own opinions about what is good and what is bad to include in your resume. The “fun” part of putting together a resume, especially for students and recent graduates, is that anyone else you ask also has an opinion. Show your resume to ten different people and you will likely come away with ten different suggestions. And here’s the best part: they are all right (or at least you can’t prove they are wrong).

In keeping up with industry advice, not a day goes by that I don’t find contradictory “rules” about resumes. Include an objective every time. Never include an objective. List your education right at the top of the resume. List your education at the bottom. One page resume. Two page resume. Sorting through all this conflicting advice can be daunting.

Resumes are a subjective thing. What is essential and pleasing to some is worthless and grating to others. The resume conundrum is that, like with most other things in life, you can’t please all the people all the time. Putting a resume together is an art, not a science. There is no one “right” way to check yourself against. There are no silver bullets and no absolute rules.

So, now I’m going to give you some absolute rules.  🙂

Be You and Start From Scratch

Your resume has to be an accurate reflection of you. Since no one else is exactly like you, your resume shouldn’t be exactly like anyone else’s. However, you do have similarities with others (things like level of experience, education, target industry) that can help guide you in general terms. If you recognize this, templates can be a blessing by helping you consolidate and organize your story. If you don’t recognize this, templates are a curse that force you to mold your story to the style provided. Know yourself first. What are the distinct things that you have to offer an employer? How can you best showcase them? Start with a blank sheet of paper and focus on your content. Let the content and your goals drive which eventual style you choose.

Be Specific

One universal truth in the working world is that no one seems to have enough time. This seems especially true of often overworked and overwhelmed hiring managers and recruiters. So, while this may not be the best approach from a pure talent management standpoint, it is nonetheless true that most hiring managers won’t take the time to “figure out” where you fit. You need to make it apparent to them. Quickly. This might happen from how you present your work experience, how you highlight past employers, through a well written summary or profile section, or some combination of these things. While a willingness to do anything is a good trait for an employee, as a job candidate a lack of a specific goal may make you seem unmotivated, or worse, desperate. Desperation is not attractive.

When Advice Comes Your Way: Consider the Source and Know Your Audience

The reason for all this seemingly different advice is that every time someone offers resume advice they offer it from their limited perspective based on their personal experience. Their perspective has to be limited. No one, regardless of their background, can know everything about every industry. And, remember, there is no one “right” way. Just because you have a relative that works in HR who said your resume was good doesn’t mean it will be good for everyone. A resume that is creative and fun in a graphic design firm might get you laughed at around the water cooler in an accounting office. Try to talk to recruiters and hiring managers in your chosen field about what they look for and use that as your guide.

Don’t Just List Skills

Simply listing your skills alone is worthless. Yes, it will help from a keyword search standpoint if recruiters in your industry use electronic applicant tracking systems. But, what happens next? Your resume comes up in a keyword search and then the actual human reading your resume has no evidence you actually have those skills. Think about it. I can list all sorts of skills, but without context and specific examples (and preferably accomplishments) they have no meaning. If I say I have experience with event management does that mean I ran a bake sale for my school club or I planned and executed an industry trade show in Las Vegas with 300 vendors and 10,000 attendees? Illustrate your skills by example, within the context of the job where you developed them and, ideally, demonstrate accomplishment as well. In other words, don’t just list it. Prove it.

Focus On Accomplishment

Hiring someone is a risky thing to do. Evaluating someone’s potential through a resume and a few interviews is not a foolproof process. If the company hires you and then has to get rid of you it is expensive, and hurts productivity. As a result, whatever you can do to prove your likelihood of success in advance can help make you appear to be a less risky hire. Behavioral Interviews have been the norm in most industries for years. Those are the questions that ask “Tell me about a time when…”. The purpose of this type of questioning is to draw out from a candidate how they have reacted in previous situations as a way to predict how they will react in the future. Smart candidates use their answers to these questions as a platform to showcase their accomplishments to help them stand out from the crowd. This is essential in your resume as well. In many cases, recruiters care less about what you did than they do about how well you did it. Your performance over and above the norm is what makes you different from others who did the job before you. It is your added value. Employers are looking for people who can add value to their team. What have you done to improve things, anything, for your previous employers? Did you improve the efficiency of some process? What was the result? Did you save time? Money? How much? The more specifically you can illustrate a skill and quantify a result, the more your experience will stand out versus another candidate. While accomplishment in a job related to the one you are seeking is better, any accomplishment has value. Showing the capacity for success is the key.

Content is King, But Delivery Counts Too

As your content begins to take form, start to consider the format or style that will work best for you. There are thousands of templates out there all suggesting different styles for a resume. What matters most is your content, but you also can’t be casual about how it is delivered. If you make the resume hard to read, or the critical information hard to find, it doesn’t matter how good the content is. The best format is the one that is right for you. The style that is right for you is the one that helps deliver the content in a way that best illustrates your specific skills and accomplishments as they relate to the specific job at hand. The most effective resumes identify the key skills needed in the target job and adjust the delivery of the content to focus on examples of those skills in your past. If that sounds hard to do it is because it often is. Get some help (it’s what we’re here for). Use our Resume Writing Guide to help you through the process!

Once you understand these general concepts, putting together an effective resume is simple. More importantly, these concepts can help you filter and interpret all the advice you receive both now and in the future.


By Rick DelVecchio
Rick DelVecchio Director of Career Development Rick DelVecchio