How to Write a Resume Recruiters Want to Read

BY ERIN EWART

I love transforming resumes. Other people’s resumes that is – I’m not sure if anyone likes working on their own!

Helping clients revamp their resumes is one of the most tangible aspects of the work we do at Careers for Social Impact. Unlike crafting your story or building your network, which can take a little longer to bear fruit, updating a resume is more straightforward and the results are immediate.

Resumes are also an important place to demystify the job search process. I love seeing the lightbulb moment when a client realizes that what they thought a resume was – a chronological description of their work history and education with a few skills and interests thrown in – is quite different from what it actually is: a carefully curated marketing document highlighting the skills and experience that are relevant to a specific role.

Here are three steps you can take to make your resume something recruiters will want to read.

Step 1: Focus on Format  

As an experienced recruiter, I can verify that the six second resume scan is a real thing. When you’re reviewing hundreds of resumes, you just don’t have the time to dig deep on the first pass.

Your resume needs to grab the reader right away in those first few seconds and convince them that you have enough relevant experience that it’s worth their time to review the details.

Having a strong format is critical to ensure that the reader sees enough in those six seconds to want to keep reading all the great content you’ve worked so hard on.  

1. Keep it simple: you’ll hear all kinds of opinions about resume formats, but our advice is to go traditional and keep it simple. Unless you are applying for a creative role, this not the time to get fancy with graphic design. Keep your resume clean and easy to skim, with plenty of white space on the page and no more than two pages of content. Stay away from infographics and multiple columns and don’t include a photo (that’s what LinkedIn is for!). Here are some good templates to use as a starting point. 

2. Control where the reader’s eye goes: yes, recruiters are going to skim your resume, but you can control what they focus on during that skim. Use bold font for headings and specific key words or phrases you want to reader to focus on. You can do a test of this by asking a few friends to skim your resume and tell you what jumps out to them first. 

3. Showcase your story in the summary section: for most job seekers, and especially if you are making any kind of career transition, we recommend using a hybrid or “combination” resume format. This format includes a summary section at the top with several sentences about your most relevant qualifications and any specific skills and keywords you want to highlight, followed by a more traditional work experience section. Having a strong summary section allows you to tailor and frame your experience in a way that aligns to the job and will help convince a recruiter to spend more time reviewing your accomplishments.

Step 2: Tailor Your Content

Now that you’ve got a strong format in place, turn to your content. The biggest areas for improvement we tend to see here are using more language and keywords from the job description and getting much more specific about accomplishments.

1. Use the job description as your guide: you’ve probably heard about the importance of using keywords in your resume, and while job descriptions are far from perfect, they are your best guide to the specific skills that the organization is looking for. Read through the job description, underline key words and phrases that match your experience and then use that language in your resume. Whether your application is read by an automated Applicant Tracking System or by human eyes, they will all be looking for that same language. Once you’ve made a first round of updates, you can use a tool like Jobscan to verify if you’ve matched enough of the keywords from the job description.

2. Highlight your most relevant experience: remember that your resume is a marketing document, not a biography. Think about which experiences are going to be most compelling for the particular role you’re targeting, focus on those, and cut out experience that’s no longer relevant. And remember that significant volunteer or leadership roles can absolutely be featured in your main experience section, if they are relevant to what you want to do next.

3. Be specific about what you achieved: this is what differentiates great candidates and makes recruiters pay attention. Often resumes can read just like job descriptions – they list what you were responsible for, but not what you actually DID. That’s not very helpful for the hiring team. Instead, differentiate yourself by stating what you accomplished, rather than just what you were responsible for. Each role should have 3-5 bullet points describing your accomplishments and the impact your work had on the organization, with specific outcome metrics. It will probably take some extra work to quantify your results, but it’s well worth it. Here’s a resource to help you get started. 

Step 3: Passing the “Mom Test”

You’ve made all these updates, you’re feeling great, and you’re ready to hit “submit.” But wait! Before throwing that shiny new resume into circulation, make sure you get some other eyes on it. This is both to make sure you don’t have any typos or grammatical errors, and to make sure your content and format will resonate clearly. 

Remember that if a recruiter is reading your resume, they may not be that familiar with the actual role. Instead, they’ll be screening for the things outlined in the job description and to see what you’ve accomplished in your previous roles, so it’s important to explain your accomplishments in language anyone can understand.

So I like to tell clients their resume should pass the “mom test”, meaning that even if your mom doesn’t know that much about what you do every day (hi mom!), she should still be able to read your resume and understand it. Of course, the reader doesn’t have to be your mom – anyone who isn’t closely familiar with your work will do.

And whether it’s the recruiter reading your resume, the hiring manager, or someone else, making sure your resume is readable by anyone ensures that no matter who it gets to, your accomplishments will shine through.

Want more support in making your resume the best it can be? Join one of our upcoming events or check out our individual and group job search coaching programs.

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