Step-by-step guide to writing a resume
I am often asked for resume writing advice. I put together some high-level thoughts here. And a video version here (yes the production value needs to be elevated). And even so, I get resume questions. So, to me that either means people don’t pay attention or I’m not making it easy and explicit enough. I’m assuming you do pay attention, and decided to write down a step-by-step guide to write a resume from scratch. Here we go!
Find a job posting
This is the most important part of the process. My opinion is that a resume should not exist without a job posting. And if there is no job posting then there should be a job in mind. Find your favourite job board. Career center job portal. Professional platform. Government website. Whatever. And get a job posting.
Got it? Now read it. There aren’t universal standards for job postings, however most will have information about the company and all will have information about the role. The information might be under requirements, or qualifications or something else. They might be in bullets or not.
As you read the job description, make sure you match at least 80% of the qualifications: yes, you don’t have to match the job description 100%. And if you’re not at least 80%, then you probably won’t be competitive enough for the role. Think about school. It’s usually the A-students that get picked. Plus if you don’t meet the criteria, you probably won’t be able to appropriately do the job. But if you really, really, really want the job, then you’ll want to go the networking route (for another post). If you don’t meet all the qualifications, you ideally have other qualities in excess that help account for any missing gaps. Not necessary, but would definitely make you more competitive in the selection process.
Find a template
Go find a template online. Google “resume template”. Pick one that you like. It doesn’t really matter which one. Just one that’s clean. Try not to get too fancy. Many applicant tracking systems strip away all the formatting to process them anyways and sometimes the fanciness can work against you. Yes, I could give you a sample, but I said I was going to make it easy, not spoon feed you.
Here are a few points to consider when picking a format:
- Sans-serif font: what is this? Sans-serif means “without serifs”. What’s a serif? Those little extra strokes at the beginning or end of a letter that make it look nicer. Fonts like Times New Roman and Courier are common serif fonts (note the little tails, feet and embellishments). Fonts like Arial, Tahoma, and Calibri are sans-serif fonts. WHY? Cleanliness. The serifs add more “clutter” to the font so the same sized font will look cleaner and more spacious with a sans-serif font. Not convinced? Try it. Take two copies of your resume, and change only one thing, the font. Flip back and forth like at the eye doctor. One or two. One or two. The sans-serif one will seem nicer.
- Balance: if you were to divide your resume in quarters, having a similar amount of content in each makes it seem more balanced. Balanced things seem nicer.
Set up your resume
Put your name, email, phone and LinkedIn profile in the contact section. If the template has space for an address you can put it. Many resumes nowadays don’t have addresses. Where does it matter to your employer where you choose to live? Plus just because you live there now, doesn’t mean you won’t move after you get the job.
Put your experience administrative elements. Company. Title. Dates.
Make sure that dates include months. WHY? Let me illustrate. How long is 2017–2018?
- Two years? Yes, it if was Jan 1, 2017 to Dec 31, 2018.
- BUT what if it was Dec 2017 to Jan 2018? That’s two months.
- BUT what if it was Dec 31, 2017 to Jan 1, 2018? That’s 2 days.
Without months it could be 2 days or 2 years. Unfortunately for the job seeker, because of the over whelming number of applications received, the job of a recruiter is often to say no. So if I, as a recruiter, can’t tell whether it’s 2 days or 2 years. I’m going to assume that you’ve specifically left out the details to give yourself more credit, so I’ll take a look at someone else.
Use the 3 letter months. WHY? if you’re going along the right margin and you see a bit of in and out accordion. Look at the following.
January is much longer than May, which is much shorter than September, which is longer than June. If you use the 3 letter months then it’s
And seems a little more consistent.
Fill in all the various administrative sections first for your past jobs and volunteer experience. DON’T fill in any bullets or anything underneath them yet.
Fill in your experience by “reverse engineering” the job posting
This is the most important part of the resume writing process (I thought you said the job posting was the most important part? yes at that point it was. At this point it’s “reverse engineering” and I promise, that this IS the most important part).
Go down the job description requirements. For each bullet or sentence, ask yourself: which experience have I had that best demonstrates that requirement?
For example: if the requirement is:
- “Able to address and resolve issues and conflict with diplomacy”: where did you best demonstrate that? Perhaps at your current workplace? last workplace? Perhaps you “Managed, addressed and resolved customer issues and conflicts using diplomatic techniques”.
- “Able to establish and maintain effective working relationships with employees and vendors and deal tactfully with the public”: where did you best demonstrate that? Perhaps while volunteering or at school? Perhaps you “Developed and maintained relationships with sponsors for a student event with 200 international attendees from over 10 countries”.
- Do that for every requirement!
Try to stay as high up the “experience value” hierarchy as possible. The “experience value“ hierarchy is:
- Interest: I have an interest in doing it.
- Learning: I’ve learned how to do it.
- Dabble: I’ve tried it a few times, perhaps volunteering or other.
- Experience: I’ve done it enough times to consider myself good.
- High performer: I’ve demonstrated that I can do this well.
You don’t have to get to level 5, but the higher you go, the more competitive you’ll be in the selection process.
Keep in mind that although you’re looking to demonstrate the requirements, you don’t want to be cutting and pasting the requirements directly. You want to be using similar words and language, but not exact copies. Equate that to getting information for your assignments from sources where you try your best not to plagiarize. I know you know what I’m talking about…
If you’ve gone through all the requirements and any one work experience block is empty, then you’ll want to populate it with at least a bullet. Leverage your transferable skills. Your resume doesn’t have to be balanced with the same number of bullets for each work experience block. Though you want to avoid having one with 7 bullets and the rest with 1.
Keep going through all the requirements. And also go through each qualification. Some qualification won’t be in bullets. Like if they are asking for 3–5 years of experience, that’s built into the administrative sections of your experience. A typical job posting has 10–15 requirements, which should be plenty of space to fit onto a 1 page resume.
A few notes:
- The bullets do not have to be chronologically ordered. It’s easier for the recruiter if they are ordered as they are in the job posting.
- Each bullet should be no more than 2 lines. If you have a 3 line bullet consider splitting them into a 1 line and a 2 line
- Avoid “orphans”: these are single words on a line of their own. Work to wordsmith the bullet. Do you really need every single word in that sentence? For example, if your bullet is “Developed and maintained relationships with sponsors for student event with 200 international attendees from over 10 countries”: is it that important that you developed and maintained or is developed sufficient? Or maintained sufficient? Is it relevant for the company/role that it was a “student event” or is an “event” good enough? Is it relevant for the company/role that there were international attendees? from over 10 countries? It does take longer to write a more concise sentence.
What if I don’t have the experience for that requirement?
Remember at the top where we said you should meet at least 80% of the criteria? So if that’s within the 20% then you’ll either want to think about whether you have transferable skills that could demonstrate a similar experience. Perhaps you didn’t manage a team, but you had to lead a group of students. Perhaps you don’t have the work experience, but you have volunteer experience. Or you could take an online course. Or do your own personal research.
In addition, you’ll want to make sure you add those gaps to your interview preparation (again for another post).
You may have to make a few adjustments based on the length of your resume.
What if I’m over 2 pages?
You want to keep your resume under 2 pages for sure. For Canadian resumes, 2 pages are acceptable. I personally prefer 1 page. WHY? If you don’t have me by the first page, then the stuff on the second page can only hurt you. So keep things “above the fold” and on the first page.
If you do have to have 2 pages because there are lots of requirements and qualifications, then make sure you go to 2 full pages. Don’t have 1.5 pages. Cut it down to 1, or bump it up to 2.
NOTE: some government jobs can have 5 or more pages, as their job descriptions are about that long. So understand the application requirements
What if I still have space?
Take a look at the top few requirements and see if you have another example in a work experience with fewer bullets.
You could also, go back to the job description. Take a look at the section that describes the company or the the group you’ll be joining. See if you have other experience that can demonstrate those qualities. Also go to the company website. Take a look at the company mission and values and see if you can incorporate those words into it.
Upgrade to achievements
At his point, your resume is basically filled. What you’ll want do do is see if you can upgrade. This will get you from level 4: experience to level 5: high performer. Most of the bullets that you would have written down so far are activities. What you did. That’s a level 3 or 4 at best. To get it to an achievement, you want to express “how well you did it”.
For example: “Developed and maintained relationships with sponsors for student event with 200 international attendees from over 10 countries”. That’s an activity. What you did. Did you do it well? The comment could be continued by saying “… of which 100% provided positive reviews and indicated they’d be coming back next year”. OR the comment could also be continued by saying “… of which over 80% left early due to improper organization”.
So how well did you do? Did you even do well in your last job? How do you know? because your manager said so… well is that because your manager is just a nice person, or he wasn’t paying attention to what you were really doing.
Demonstrating that you did a good job is normally against 3 things: Time, cost, quality.
- Time: did you do it faster? Perhaps you got final sponsorship 10 days before the event which was 100% earlier than last year.
- Cost: did you increase revenue? or decrease expenses? Perhaps you got 50% more sponsorship than last time. You got 33% more attendees than last time (last year there were 150 attendees).
- Quality: did you receive more accolades? or commit fewer errors? This is where your manager saying you did a good job could be useful. And perhaps there was 98% positive feedback from attendees this year vs 95% last year so you improved attendee engagement by 3% from 95 to 98%. There were 5 complaints this year and 10 complaints last year so you reduced complaints by 50%.
An achievement is often in the form:
- <action verb> <what I achieved> <how I did it>
- For example: “Increased sponsorship by 20% from last year through systematic and increased reach out to potential donors”
- The <how I did it> makes it more believable that you truly did it
If you’re able to transform activities into achievements, then your resume will be levelled up against the competition. WHY? most people would have done the work. Not everyone would have done it well. Think about it in the school setting. Let’s say two people took Management 101. One of them tells you they got a 92% in it. The other one doesn’t tell you. Which one are you more likely to choose? Sure the one that didn’t tell you could have got a 95% but if they’re not telling you, they probably didn’t.
You should also consider expanding out your school and volunteer experience like an experience block. And ideally changing them to achievements where appropriate.
Another awesome side effect about upgrading your activities into achievements is that you’re actually doing interview prep at the same time.
Achievements OR understanding expectations for the future
You don’t have to turn every bullet into an achievement. And you might actually think back and not even know if you did well. So in the future, you’ll want to think about how can you demonstrate you did well. Find the benchmarks and metrics to demonstrate you met and ideally exceeded expectations. In your next job at the widget factory, is creating 60 widgets an hour good? I’m not sure. If the benchmark is 40 per hour then you’re awesome. If the benchmark is 100 per hour then not so much.
Take the time to understand what it takes to meet expectations. And ideally what it takes to exceed expectations.
Proofread and clean up
Read it three times. You’ve been working on it for a long time so get two other people to read it as well. Just for grammar and for spelling.
Make sure bullets, indents and everything is aligned where it needs to be. Humans are pattern matching machines. When things are not in order, you might not consciously notice, but you probably won’t have a good feeling about it. And you don’t want a recruiter to be reviewing your resume with a bad feeling.
These details might seem nominal, but this is supposed to be some of your best work, and the work I should expect to receive from you if you come work here. Spelling, grammar and formatting mistakes might seem inconsequential to you, but to your potential employer, it could mean the difference between closing a sale with their new customer, or not. I might prefer to take my chances with someone that can spell check.
You’re basically done
If you create a resume this way, you’ll notice there is no objective statement or summary of qualifications. WHY? Well why would you need them? You’ve already clearly articulated how you demonstrate the qualifications for the role. Now are you going to summarize them for the reader again in another smaller section?!? And you’re applying to a specific role so will you now tell them that your objective is to get a job in that role?!? Doesn’t quite make sense at this point, does it?
You also wouldn’t have had a skills section as you should be including them within the experience blocks where you obtained them. WHY? so let’s say I do have a skills section and I list Excel, and some other software packages. What does that mean? Does it mean I took a course in it? does it mean I’ve used it twice? does it mean I used it daily for 4 months? I’m not sure. So I’m just going to assume that you know how to spell it any maybe read a bit about it. By putting it in the experience blocks where you obtained them, there is much more helpful context.
That took a long time
Yes it probably did. It might have taken you a whole work day. Say 8 hrs. The beautiful part is that you can use it to start your career document. A career document is a “super resume” with all the different variants for bullets based on the differences in focus for a job description.
So that first resume that you spent 8 hours on, is probably 50% the same as the next one. So this new one takes you only 4 hours to do. You copy the deltas into your career document. Then the next job posting is about 70% the same as the first two combined, so this one takes you about 2 hours to do. The next is 80% similar, then one after is 85%, then 90%. Soon you’re able to pick and choose bullets here, here, here and here and generate a solid resume in a few minutes. Good thing you took the time to create a good starting point.
What not to have on a resume
These are some common things to avoid, especially for international resumes:
- No pictures! Common in some European countries.
- No personal info like date of birth, gender, parents information, or declaration/acknowledgement of accuracy. Common in some Asian countries.
- No “references available on request”. That’s a given
These are high level steps. Presented step-by-step. One day I’ll add more graphical samples, or turn this into a video or something. But I hope this helps!
And if you’re still having trouble, feel free to message me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Take care and best of luck!Follow: