Work Hacks Wednesdays: The Art and Science of Resume Writing

I did lots of resume review back in university. I learnt how to do it thanks to a whole bunch of seminars I was lucky to conduct and attend. And I had lots of opportunities to hone this skill thanks to all the hiring we did as a start-up. It’s one of those things where I know I can add value. That’s why I had offered resume review in my “offer of help” post and, unsurprisingly, one of the requests was indeed to review a resume.

First, the resume is a great document. Yes, there is talk that the resume is going extinct and all that thanks to project portfolios. While that is true for many a job, I think the resume is here to stay. It’s the simplest way to perform a first round evaluation of any candidate in the non-creative fields.

There’s both art and science to a resume. I will begin with the easy part, the science, and outline 8 principles that help improve any resume.

1. Figure out your one line pitch. What are you trying to demonstrate? An example of a 1 line pitch is – “I am a business student who is excellent at analytics”. This sounds really cruel, but I would make sure this pitch easily pops out. You can be something very specific, anything, but not everything. Don’t try to be superman. Focus on 2-3 spikes and make sure they get highlighted.

Why be so easy to categorize? Read this Seth post for inspiration,

2. Stick to standard format. I think some things are standard for a reason. Stick, as far as possible, to the standard buckets – Education, Work Experience etc. I would not venture beyond Arial (personally) as a font and size 10 or 11 both work well.

If you are a student – put your Education section on top and if you are working, your work experience section. Let’s not debate these things.

Many try to differentiate themselves by tinkering around with the basics. Don’t. Fit in first. And then stand out. Fit in with your format. Stand out with your achievements.

3. Find a role model resume and build yours using tables on Microsoft Word. I refer people to this resume. I don’t necessarily like everything about it but I am a fan of the overall layout and structure.

4. Achievements and action verbs.  The resume is about highlighting achievements. That’s why every verb in a resume is an “-ed” verb. Unless you want to fill up space, don’t go on about what you did – focus it on what you accomplished!

Being 1st is an accomplishment. Participating is generally not. Focus hard on the impact and the achievement.

5. Quantify your impact – make sure there are lots of numbers. Now that we have established it’s all about achievements, attempt to quantify everything. If you created a new cool program to optimise something, that’s great. Tell us what you saved.

State the impact of what you did VERY clearly. Similarly, you won a prestigious competition. Sure, but how many participated? How difficult was it to get in? Quantify everything.

6. Target your resume. If you are applying to different industries, target your resume. Make it specific. Make it relevant. Make it easy for your recruiter to understand.

7. 1 Lead Board of Director and 14 versions. Most good results are the result of a great process. Make sure you find a team of dedicated reviewers (3-4) who will look at your resume properly. I made this mistake a couple of years ago when doing my own resume. I thought I could edit my own. But, I just couldn’t. The mistakes didn’t seem to stand out as easily!

Find a small team that will look at it from different points of view, but make sure there is one person (i.e. your lead of board of director) leading it in terms of overall structure and direction. Else, you generally end up confused.

Finally, if you have less than 14 versions of your first resume, beware.

8. Interests matter. Make sure you have one line in your resume about your interests. The resume is so much about those hard skills that it is often easy to forget that there is a human on the other end of it. Remind people that you are a normal person and hopefully, have something fun written in there that your recruiter would like to discuss in an interview.

Key Note: At the end of the day, the resume is only a document highlighting your accomplishments. The team of reviewers will only be useful if there actually are accomplishments to highlight. And there’s no way to say this nicely – but if there are big gaps in your resume, focus more on filling them rather than “air brushing.”

That is the easy part – the science. The art of writing a great resume is difficult to detail. The principles involved here are simple – a great resume looks fantastic (yes, aesthetics and design) and answers the critical question – “why you?”.

The art is the difference between a very good resume and a great resume. I know for a fact that I haven’t mastered this art yet. I can add value with the science but I tend to stumble on to the art every once a while. Maybe this will become clear to me after 10,000 hours? :-)

Finally, I was given a great tip by someone close to me to review my resume every year, whether or not I am applying for jobs. It helps to think about what you really did in a year, what impact you made at your work place. This is because, very often, it’s too late to do anything by the time you approach submitting your resume. Great tip.

I hope this post helps you if you are working on your resume. Look forward to questions in the comments. This is a much longer morning post than usual. Please excuse all typos!