Recently I took a job as an Administrative Assistant at a small government contracting firm located in the DC/Metro Area. None of the duties this job requires are explicitly related to my PhD in History (in-progress), however, I was able to massage my resume so that my skill set spoke to the position my company ultimately hired me to fill. I’ve learned even more about resumes and job hunting in my role as an applicant screener for my company. This position entails searching online resume databases such as Monster.com or Indeed.com to find applicants whose resumes match the job descriptions for our open positions.
Almost all companies searching for and accepting applicants employ some sort of job screening to evaluate resumes before they are passed on to the hiring manager. Many companies have cut the human element out of the process and use computer programs to sift through resumes. My job does not differ much from the content of these programs, as I am scanning for the same keywords and basic qualifications necessary to pass on resumes to my hiring manager, who will then decide if we reach out to the applicant. Because of these cursory examinations, it is crucial that your resume communicates the best possible picture of you while quickly informing computer or human readers of your qualifications. Your resume is most often the very first impression a company has of you, and as such it must work as a powerful advertisement of your competence in many skills, including your ability to create an attractive and informative resume.
What follows is advice on what makes a good resume as seen from my role as a screener. If your resume can get past me or my automated counterparts, your chances of getting an interview increase, while an unattractive and untailored resume will consistently leave you in the trash pile. The advice I offer here does not pertain to landing a job in academia; however, it does include hints on how to shape your academic resume to fit an academic job. You can find more detailed information about that process in my more detailed post on the subject.
- Appearances Matter. Just as in person, a screener’s first impression of you is captured through how your resume appears. Fonts, colors, and layouts all matter. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend whether plain or colorful resumes are better – this is often a personal preference depending on the screener – but I can tell you that no matter what your level of proficiency with Word, your resume must be both visually appealing and easy to read at first glance. This means staying away from ornate and obfuscating design schemes that you may think show-case your design abilities when they’re really just getting in the way of communicating very important information. Plain black and white resumes carefully arranged with tactful use of formatting and web fonts go a long way. Have someone else look briefly at your resume. If they can’t find the most basic information necessary (qualifications, experience, education) in that first glance, you need to re-design.
- Qualifications. When I’m looking at a resume the first things I’m looking for are the base qualifications as related to the job descriptions (if you can’t meet those, I can’t hire you). Know these qualifications and make sure they are easy to find when giving a cursory glance over your resume. You can do this through a combination of resume design and intelligent use of keywords reiterated throughout your resume.
- Security Clearance. This is a note that is especially important to DC job seekers, where so many jobs are with the federal government or reliant upon it. If you have a security clearance, always make it easy to locate on your resume with minimal searching involved. When I’m screening resumes, if someone doesn’t list a clearance, the resume goes in the trash pile 9 times out of 10. This may sound harsh, but in the positions we staff for, you need an active security clearance or the customer (i.e. the government) will not accept you, no matter how wonderful your qualifications are. If you have a security clearance, do not risk having your resume passed on because you hid it or failed to mention it on your resume. It should be at the top of your resume and easy to find. Otherwise you may be missing out on some great opportunities.
- Tailor Your Resume. Sometimes I screen over 100 resumes a day, and who knows how many more a computer program can race through. When I’m screening I’m not giving your resume a thorough read. Instead, I’m looking for keywords and qualifications that demonstrate you may be a fit for the position. Therefore, however annoying it may seem, you must tailor your resume to the position you’re applying for. Make sure the qualifications of the position are listed clearly in your resume, and make sure you relate your experience to the job description through the use of keywords. Tailoring your resume in this way exponentially increases your chances of being passed to the hiring manager. For example, if the job description calls for POA&M and you have that experience, list that in your resume, by name. For those of you who are simply submitting your resume to a resume database, like Monster.com, know the keywords for your field when writing your job experience, and include a short goals section at the top of your resume detailing the kind of position you wish to achieve, using keywords describing both your experience and the type of job you’re looking for.
- Write Just Enough. While we’re on the subject of resume design and writing experience, nothing looks worse, both visually and contextually, than a thin resume. Every bullet point on your resume describing prior positions should be a full sentence. And if you don’t have at least 5 bullet points for each position, you have not written enough to give a job seeker an adequate idea of your experience. Bullet points with one word or phrase do nothing to demonstrate your understanding of your position, whereas a full sentence will explain to the job seeker how your duties related to your position and, if written well, will reveal how those duties will relate to the position you’re applying for. From the position of a job screener, thin resumes never get passed on to the hiring manager. And I can see a thin resume at a glance. They are very easy to discard.
- In regards to length, there’s also the old stand-by that two pages is your maximum limit, but my experience suggests that, unless a job description specifically states a page limit, more is better. But, older positions that don’t relate to the one you’re applying for can probably be dropped. For example, I started working in 2003 but my resume starts in 2008. This is because, prior to 2008, I worked exclusively in retail. That kind of experience no longer applies. I did, however, leave it on my resume for many years because it demonstrated my customer service skills, something many jobs in varying fields value. You can always add or subtract experience as you like. Just make sure you can spin everything to relate to the current position you’re applying for and be careful to account for gaps in your employment.
- Hobbies and Interests. When I read a resume, I always think it’s fun to see people include a brief line on their hobbies and interests. It makes their resume stand out. At the same time, many of them are either disappointingly general and/or have nothing to do with the position they’re applying for. If you’re going to include a hobby or volunteer service, make sure it links to the position you’re applying for. For example, I include my time as volunteer at the Point Reyes National Seashore Historic Morgan Horse Ranch on my resume because it reflects both my customer service and public history skills, and I can explain this to an employer in an interview. It demonstrates that my interest in those fields continues outside of work. If you have a hobby or interest that you can use to make connections between your work and personal life, wonderful. If not, it may be fun to know you can ski, but at best it won’t affect if I pass your resume, and at worst it will get you thrown in the trash (as some screeners thing these things are frivolous turn-offs).
- Spell Check. I know this one seems self-evident, but bad spelling and grammar really will prevent me from passing you on to my hiring manager. You’d think people would know this rule by now but I’ve seen people misspell their own names. If your resume is a company’s first impression of you, then bad spelling and grammar are the equivalent of showing up to the interview wearing sweat pants and a dirty t-shirt. It undermines your competency – no one is going to take you seriously looking like that/if your resume looks like that – and it also demonstrates that you did not care enough to put your time and effort into producing an attractive, legible document. If you care so little about your resume, why would I think you’d care any more about the job you want me to hire you for?
- Cover Letter. If you are required to write a cover letter, not only should it be spell checked and grammar checked, it should be tailored to the position you’re applying for, just like your resume should be. Remember, you want screeners like me and my digital counterparts to be able to hone in on your qualifications immediately, and a cover letter is a great way to put them up front on the first page. Always write a cover letter if you have the opportunity. If you’re posting your resume to a database, a generic cover letter highlighting the skills you think are most marketable or important to the field you’re interested in is completely appropriate and even encouraged. Writing a cover letter demonstrates that you care about the position you’re applying for and how you think you’ll fit into the company (another hint: research the company before applying). It also shows you care about making a good first impression, and that goes a long way.
The biggest take away here is that you want your resume to be both visually appealing and easy to read, with qualifications and experience highlighted through the use of keywords. The more you can describe your experience the better. And always make sure you tailor everything included on your resume and in your cover letter to the job description. Making it past a screener like me is one of the biggest hurdles you’re going to face. If you can make it past me, then you are that much closer to getting the job that you want.
I will add, for my part as a human screener, we are cheering for you to pass my test because we want to hire good people. Nothing disappoints more than a perfect resume without a security clearance or one so poorly formatted that I can’t find any of the information I need. Do me a favor and make your resume as strong as possible. I love passing candidates to my boss – it’s exciting for us and for you. I hope these tips will help you beat the system so we can get you that job you know you want.