In order to write a great resume, it is important to understand what a resume is supposed to accomplish in the job search (or internship search) process. The resume is simply written communication between the two parties involved - the candidate/applicant and the person doing the hiring or initial screening of candidates. That is why there is no one resume format - an outline that you can follow - because the parties involved are often very different. What is communicated about an applicant for teaching, management, public relations, theatre or music performance, graphic design, and scientific or technical positions varies because employers in those fields are looking for very different kinds of information. That is why you often get conflicting advice about how to write your resume. Evaluate that advice within the context of the two parties involved in your communication. The more you know about the types of positions you are seeking and the required as well as preferred characteristics of candidates for those positions, the more effective you can be in writing your resume.
In spite of these important differences, however, there are some general guidelines common to all resumes:
- Brief and Concise
A one-page resume is preferred by many types of employers, especially those in business and industry. Education candidates, however will often have a two page resume. The resume should not be more than two pages, with post-master's candidates being the exception to this general rule. In trying to communicate as much as possible with as few words as possible, provide specific examples instead of broad, general terms. Edit painstakingly!
- Easy to Read at a Glance
Studies tell us that resumes are often skimmed in as few as 20 or 30 seconds in order to separate the ones that will be looked at more closely from the ones that will not be considered. You want yours to be in the first pile, of course. Try to use some of the following techniques to guide the reader's eye quickly down the page:
- Phrases vs. Sentences
Although our normal style of written communication is to write complete sentences and group them into paragraphs, complete sentences are not used on resumes. When describing your experiences, use phrases beginning with "action words" (past or present tense verbs). See Career Guide R6, Action Verbs.
- Lists vs. Paragraphs
For optimum skimming by the reader, these phrases should be listed one to a line, using a bullet or other visual marker to indicate the beginning of each phrase.
- Priority Order
Because most resume readers skim from top to bottom, it makes sense to organize your information from most important to least important, putting your most important sections first. An experienced candidate, therefore, may put an experience section first; while an entry-level candidate may put an education section first. This is true regardless of resume style, unless you use the chronological style (See Career Guide R4, Resume Styles).
- Use of blank space
The way you use blank space, in your margins, between sections, and within sections, will affect what the reader sees as he/she skims the page. The more blank space that surrounds a word or group of words, the more visible they are. That is why section headings are often placed by themselves along the left margin.
Judicious use of highlighting techniques, such as boldfacing, using all capital letters, underlining and italics can call the attention of the reader to key words or sections.
- Consistent layout patterns
Within each section, place the same type of information consistently in the same position. This establishes a visual pattern that the reader quickly recognizes, and makes it easy to locate certain information. For example, always placing the job title first (or the name of the organization) in an experience section, placing the dates in the same location (after the job title, after the name of the organization, or in the left margin for a chronological style) provides a consistent pattern.
- Visual appeal
The visual message you want your resume to communicate is, "I am a competent professional." That means that it should look attractive on the page (even margins, consistent spacing). We recommend that you use a word processing program rather than a wizard or template to create your document. If you are seeking a position that requires good design skills, make sure your resume demonstrates those skills. Use good quality bond paper with a sharp, clear, easy-to-read font. Print your final copies on a laser or quality ink jet printer. Colored or shaded paper is sometimes acceptable. Consider how conservative the organization/career field is when you select your paper.
Of course you don't want mistakes on your resume. They could communicate that you are not very careful about how you do your work. Carefully proofread your resume drafts. Be sure the resume is representative of your very best work.
For information about resume content and styles, refer to Career Guide R3, Resumes: What to Include and Career Guide R4, Resume Styles.