Mar 31, 2008

Tips on Writing Résumés (aka resumes)

This is part of a continuing series of posts on improving your writing and on getting published.

My thoughts this morning turned to the subject of writing résumés for a few different reasons. One of my employers sent out a call for adjunct faculty members to submit an updated curriculum vitae last week, and then sent out a pointed reminder that educational résumés ought to focus on one's experience in education, and not on marketing or sales.

Ya think?

I also spent the first part of the morning reading articles about the subprime mortgage debacle, including this CNN article on the rapid decline in careers in the subprime industry. I thus thought that a post on ways to improve the quality of one's résumé might make a timely and practical addition to my earlier posts on improving writing.

I bring to the discussion of résumé writing what I believe to be a unique blend of life experiences that lend themselves well to this post. As a former business owner, the regular perusal of the incoming résumés was a necessary element of finding and hiring talented managers. In addition, I have worked in a wide variety of fields, ranging from large corporations to journalism to academia, and I have prepared dozens of different CVs and résumés for my own benefit. Finally, as a writing tutor I have helped countless people improve their résumés, and I know what works.

Heck, after re-reading the last paragraph, I thought to myself that I should be writing a book on the topic and making some money on this. Note to self: send out a query letter.

Anyways, read on, and feel free to post in the comments section any additional thoughts you have on résumé writing, along with humorous examples of poorly-written résumés you have encountered or stellar résumés you have read.

1. Know your résumé's audience. As referenced above, make sure that your résumé highlights the strengths you possess for the specific job to which you are applying. For example, avoid telling the sales manager of a car dealership about your extensive experience as a daycare owner when you want to sell cars.

2. Proofread, proofread, proofread. I have personally scoffed when someone submitted to me a résumé loaded with grammatical errors, and you can bet that those résumés found their way into the circular file can. Get at least two extra sets of eyes to look over your résumé before you send it off, and choose proofreaders who have some basic grasp of language skills. Try to also include as a proofreader someone who is knowledgeable about the industry, and who can help you fine-tune your résumé to that field.

3. Avoid gimmickry the creation of your résumé. Do not clutter your professional résumé with images, word art, or fancy graphics. Use a standard font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, and avoid the temptation to use one of those old-fashioned fonts like English Gothic or Anglican. Keep boldface to a minimum, such as in subsection headers. Use an eye-catching design, but fight the urge to turn résumés into an art project. That being said, I pefer to use a high-quality paper, and use a color like antique white to make my résumés stand out from the pack.

4. Never lie, never overstate your qualifications, and avoid creating impressive-sounding titles for entry-level jobs. If you lie on a résumé, chances are that you will get caught in the future. The same is true for claiming experience or competence in an area in which you are unskilled. Finally, no one falls for the ruse of "sanitation engineer" when all you did was clean toilets in a bar. Be honest - you would be surprised how refreshing that can be to an interviewer who has to sort through résumé fraud.

5. Avoid listing jobs in which your performance was poor. True, one might argue that this is lying by omission, but there is no law that requires you to disclose on a résumé every job you ever worked. If you must list an employer in which you left on less-than-favorable terms, avoid listing those references who would be most likely to torpedo you in a background check. However, if you really screwed up at a previous job, and there is no way around disclosing this, you can acknowledge your past failures and discuss during the interview the fact that you have grown and improved as a person. The interviewer might not buy it, but you will have a clean conscience.

6. Keep it simple. I have received résumés in my corporate experiences that were 15-page novellas, and most business professionals do not have the time to waste on overloaded résumés. Academia is the only field in which a résumé is typically a bulky document (which might be why we ivory tower wonks prefer the elitist term curriculum vitae), and I recommend that résumés for the corporate world stay in the 1-2 page range. Save the minutiae for the interview, should you be graced with one.

7. Get your résumé in the hands of the decision makers. True, some companies require that all résumés get forwarded to a human resource department, but that does not mean you cannot send unsolicited résumés to key people in an organization. CEOs of major corporations are usually far too busy to deal with your résumé, but you can target regional managers and division vice-presidents for individualized delivery. And - most important - properly spell the names of your recipients, unless you think that offending a potential employer is a desirable strategy. I cannot tell you the number of times that job applicants misspelled a simple name like "Michael Brooks," which is a sure way to get me to crumple your résumé.


historymike said...

Note: don't be a foreign language geek like me, who gets hung up on accent marks in words like résumé.

Feel free to spell the word in American English: RESUME.

Douglas Anders said...

About your #7: I was always skeptical -- it seemed to me that those people were busy and an unsolicited resume would just annoy them. Wrong.

I was laid off six months ago and with a background in real estate services, I've had little luck -- one interview at UT. But a family member saw a high level member of city government in a restaurant that they knew slightly, and they asked if they could fax my resume to him. He said yes, I did, and I have an interview with some in my field who has the power to hire.

So, absolutely, "Get your résumé in the hands of the decision makers".

historymike said...

Hi Douglas:

Yes, squeaky wheels, grease, and all that. Always be willing to be your own best promoter if you have to.

I once snagged an adjunct teaching job not necessarily on my qualifications, but because the decision-maker had my resume in her hand when a last-minute opening occurred. Undoubtedly there were people equally or even more qualified than I to teach the course, but I'll take being in the right place at the right time any day of the week.

kooz said...

I need resume advice. I was in sales/marketing for 10 years. Then completely switched (to radio) for the last four. Now, I am going to get back into sales/marketing. But, when I go on the interviews, I get the impression that they don't like that I switched "careers." The interviewers end up focusing on why I went to radio and now want to come back.

It seems these employers don't think much of one trying new things.

historymike said...

Hi Kooz:

A couple of thoughts come to mind as I read your comment:

1. As far as the shift from sales to radio production and back to sales - we all chase dreams, and sometimes we do not succeed in the pursuit of these dreams. After I chucked my life as a business owner, interviewers at several companies questioned my ability to work with others as a "regular" employee after a decade of being a CEO. I just told them plainly that my ten years owning a business "cured" me of any similar thoughts in the future.

2. As far as your resume, I would highlight your previous sales/marketing experience, and then emphasize the aspects of radio production that related to sales and marketing. After all, everyone in the corporate world is engaged in some form of sales, even if this is only selling yourself to maintain employment in an era of dwindling opportunities.

3. Also, I would emphasize to future employers that your on-air experience brings with it a skill set that other employees will lack. You undoubtedly have a greater gift of gab than most non-radio people, and you also likely have an ability to communicate with other people. Both of these are useful in sales.

4. I am also a fan of people accepting sales positions for products that they believe in. I tried my hand at life insurance sales and advertising sales, both of which I could care less about (with predictably poor results in each endeavor). But when I was in the pizza business, I could sell pizza better than anyone in the world, whether it was group sales, school orders, or just convincing people to patronize my establishment. I lived pizza, breathed pizza, and wholeheartedly believed in my product, and I was extremely successful at selling people on my product (though admittedly less successful at other aspects of my business, like maintaining profitability in an environment of escalating costs and new competition, but that's a whole different discussion).

5. You correctly identify a critical problem in career-switching: employers who are blind to the possibility of hiring a non-traditional candidate and who would rather make a less riskier hiring decision with someone from a closely-related business. You will have to work harder to get them to recognize your unique talents and potential, which might mean that you will have to engage in directing the course and tone of the interview: "I know that my four years in radio might seem to be an unusual background, but there are quite a few parallels between selling your widgets and yakking in a microphone." Something along those lines.

Randy H said...

May I add a tip from my own resume reading days?

Watch the gender! I worked in a woman-owned firm, and our employment ads directed that resumes be sent to "[Initial] [Last Name]." Anything that came to "Mr. [Last Name]" wnet in the trash. It wasn't so much a feminist thing (although that was part of it) as it was looking for attention to a minor but obvious detail.

kooz said...

History Mike,

I really appreciate you taking the time. Excellent tips. I will apply them accordingly.

Anonymous said...

BTW Mike,

How did you do on your recent hoop jumping with the doctoral process. I recall that you were preparing, but I don't think that I read a post on the outcome.

historymike said...

Passed the written, still waiting to have the oral exam. The written component was the one I was most worried about, since it is 16 hours of essay questions.

The oral exam is more reasonable, as it is 2-3 hours of being peppered with questions from the committee. I like this format better, since you can always get clarification and contextual cues from the questioner.