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Building A Winning Resume – Definitive Guide

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Today’s resumes aren’t the same as they were a decade ago, and if you haven’t been in the job market for a while, that may come as a surprise to you. Today, a stellar resume is a work of art, optimized with keywords, expertly crafted to get through the Applicant Tracking System filters, and specifically tailored and customized for each job you’re applying for. It sounds complicated, but we’ve got you covered. It’s about getting the basics right, avoiding common pitfalls, digging in to optimization, and putting your best foot forward. You want to stand out from the crowd and convince that hiring manager you’re the top star he or she wants to recruit.

Here are some resume best practices to follow:

Resume basics

Format wisely. Make the hiring manager’s job easy by creating an easy-to-read resume. Use a logical format with wide margins, a standard font and clearly defined headings. The proper use of space is important. It actually sends a strong message about your critical thinking. Selectively use bold and italic to help guide a reader’s eye. Bullet points are best for calling attention to important points, like listing your accomplishments at former jobs.

List accomplishments, not just job descriptions. While you’re listing your experiences, focus on your successes and problem-solving abilities. Companies are looking for someone who can solve their problems, so stating how you handled similar situations will help you stand out. Use specifics like percentages, dollars, and numbers to quantify your achievements and assure the hiring manager that you are the right person for the job.

Position yourself for the job you want. This is especially important if you’re feeling pigeon-holed or stuck in a job that you have plenty of experience in, but want to make a change. Positioning yourself means stating your skills and qualities in a way that makes it easy for prospective employers to see you filling an open position. The first two words on your resume should position you for the job you want next, like “Accounting Manager” or “Communications Director.” The second line should separate you from all the other accounting managers and communications directors. For example, “Specializing in the publishing industry.” Keep in mind who you are pitching. Tell the hiring manager the most important facts about you and how those facts will be an asset once you’re hired. Here’s how:

  • Determine the skills and qualities your prospective employer wants. Their stated job description and desired qualifications tell the story here.
  • Search your background to see where you demonstrated those skills and qualities.
  • Write a summary at the top of your resume to position yourself. It should sell your ability, experience and personality while bringing together your accomplishments. The rest of your resume should support and expand on your summary. It gives you the control to tell your story in a way that pertains to the job you hope to get.
  • Added bonus: You can use the same summary to sell yourself in an interview.

Customize your resume for each position. It doesn’t mean doctoring your resume with false information. It means crafting your real skills, experience, and knowledge in a way that will convince hiring managers you’re the best person for the job. Keep the job description in mind while crafting your resume. Change your objective, summary, or opening statement with each application. For example, you can use the exact position title: “Seeking the position of Marketing Manager in the healthcare industry.”

Don’t exaggerate. Exaggerations and even outright lies on resumes are much more common than you’d think. It’s never worth it, people. Recruiters are hip to resume padding, and they’ve started ratcheting up on background checks in an effort to weed out the fakers. An exaggeration can come back to bite you when you become disqualified for a position you had the skills and experience to win honestly.

Don’t lie about your degree. If you attended college but didn’t graduate, simply list the years you attended under the name of the school and your area of study. Especially now, when the future of work is more about skills and experience and less about the diploma, lying about your degree just isn’t worth it.

Get feedback. One of the best ways to get your resume in top shape is to leverage the power of a career coach. GetFive’s career coaches can review your resume and help you objectively assess your work and experience. They can also help you organize your information in a positive way that emphasizes exactly what you have to offer.

Optimizing your resume

Thank you, Applicant Tracking Systems. Resume writing just got more complicated. The chilling fact is, no matter how perfectly you’re matched for any given position, your resume might get weeded out by an ATS if it’s not optimized.

You want your resume to be found online, for it to move past an ATS and land in front of the decision-makers who will hire you for your dream job. To do so, it’s critical to fine-tune your copy and make use of important keywords. This will optimize your resume for search engines and other systems so it stands out among the competition.

We get it. We can hear your groans right now. As if job hunting isn’t hard enough, right? But don’t worry. Optimizing your resume sounds difficult, but it’s really not. These will help you create alluring copy that can’t be ignored.

Use job description language. Look at the words and phrases in the job description and use those exact words in your resume. Recruiters and the ATS are searching for industry terminology and professional verbiage.

Detail your skills section. Your skills section is a perfect place to integrate keyword language. Add things like certifications, computer program proficiency by name (Python, Adobe Salesforce), strengths, and other important skills related to your industry.

Spell check multiple ways. If you misspell a keyword, it won’t be searchable. It’s a common mistake, but it is detrimental. To avoid spelling errors, spell check multiple ways: Use the computer’s spell check, read your resume aloud, and have someone else proofread it.

Use your location as a keyword. Recruiters and systems are often looking for candidates in certain locations. Make sure to list where you live or where you’d like to relocate. Consider writing the full location and using the postal code.

Write out acronyms. Particular industries will use acronyms that are considered common knowledge. With search in mind, however, it’s best to play it safe and write out full names. You can then put the acronym in parentheses afterward.

Skip white text. Don’t stuff keywords by using white text to hide extra words. ATS programs are smart and many will pick up on this. Employers consider this deceitful and may not hesitate to reject the application.

Look at company and culture verbiage. Beyond industry keywords, give your resume an edge by including words the company uses to describe their business and culture. Poke around the corporate website to find important searchable terms.

Keep it clean. Make it easy for technology systems to search your resume by focusing on the copy. Remove graphics, cut irrelevant past positions or filler, skip special characters and avoid fancy borders.

Don’t force it. Optimizing a resume with keywords doesn’t mean the copy shouldn’t feel natural. Don’t force keywords in where they don’t make sense, grammatically or otherwise.

Optimize your LinkedIn profile. Keywords play an important role in your LinkedIn profile, too. LinkedIn is one of the best ways to support your resume and make sure your search ranks high for recruiters via various channels.

Use an algorithm. Use a bot to outwit the bots! There are online tools, like jobscan.co and our GetFive Hub designed to help job seekers optimize their resumes and LinkedIn profiles. For resumes, you just plug in your resume and the description of the job you’re going for, and the algorithm will optimize it to help ensure you make it past the ATS filters.

You’ve had a bad job experience. Do you include it or not?

It’s a question many people face. You started a new job excited for your next chapter, but over the next handful of months, that excitement morphs into dread as you realize this job just isn’t a good fit. You may decide to quit or you may get let go — either way, it’s a negative job experience you’re now tasked with explaining to future employers.

Do you include a bad job experience on your resume? In a word, yes. Here’s why:

It can come back and bite you if you don’t. Many people contemplate leaving off these negative experiences altogether. Perhaps you fudge the dates of your past employer so there isn’t as much of a gap, or you try to justify the gap with vague statements like you were freelancing or taking time off to help a family member. But if you’re hired and the truth comes out, it could put you at risk of losing your job. Recruiters verify employment dates and call references. They do their due diligence.

Rather than lie, take the high road and be prepared to explain what happened, and more importantly, what you learned from the experience. You can turn a negative experience into a positive talking point if you stress what you learned, how you would do things differently in the future, and why this experience was meaningful. Avoid bad-talking any past employer as it will make you seem spiteful and not ready to move on.

Beyond addressing the situation honestly and positively, it’s important to take steps to avoid having another negative experience at a future job. This means doing your due diligence and researching all aspects of potential employers before accepting an offer. Many people get swept away in the big-ticket items like salary and benefits. While these certainly are important, never overlook the significance of other aspects of working, such as culture, structure, and the supervisor’s management style. These are perfect conversation points to bring up during an interview to help you learn more about what it will be like to work there.

Common resume mistakes that can cost you the job

Creating a high-quality resume is one part art, one part science, and a whole lot of work when done correctly. But when you’re in full-on job search mode, mistakes can happen. Some errors are so common that hiring managers see them on a daily basis. However, it’s often these common errors that are the most costly. For example, it may not seem like a big deal to you, but even a misspelling can land your resume in the virtual recycling bin.

Avoid these common resume mistakes to ensure you get noticed in a positive light during your next job search.

Typos. An extra “s” or a wrong “there,” “their,” or “they’re” might seem minor, but these mistakes tend to overshadow even your biggest career accomplishments. When you read your resume repeatedly, you can become blind to errors you would normally see. That’s why it’s essential to have someone review and edit your copy at least once. Another idea: Read the copy out loud. Often errors will reveal themselves.

Generic copy. Every resume you send out should include unique words that are plucked from the job description. These important keywords serve two purposes. The first is they help you get past the filters set on the applicant tracking system (ATS) that most companies use these days. Second, when a hiring manager actually sees your resume, it will be clear you know what you want and you paid attention to the job ad.

Lack of specifics. It’s important to highlight your duties and responsibilities at past positions, but too often candidates use such broad phrases that the words are virtually meaningless. For example, “Led the IT team to influence company growth” doesn’t say a whole lot. When you can add concise details about strategies and outcomes, it makes a big impression.

Too long or too short. Resume lengths vary greatly depending on industry, position, and work history. However, a half-page resume is never going to be impressive and a five-page resume will most likely never get read, even if you’re a published academic expert. While the trend of longer resumes is growing, especially since length isn’t a concern for ATS software, you still must keep in mind a human will read it at some point. Try to find the sweet spot, and if you’re not sure, reference the resume structure of your friends or trusted colleagues.

Incorrect contact info. In creating your resume, it takes a minute to write down your contact info and sometimes days to complete the other sections. Yet you’d be surprised just how many hiring managers have tried to contact a candidate of interest only to have an email bounce back or reach a disconnected phone number. Triple-check your contact information to ensure you never experience this embarrassing mistake.

The pros and cons of ultra-unique resumes

Do you or don’t you snazz up your resume to make it stand out? There are two schools of thought on that. While there are some time-tested best practices for resumes, more people seem to be getting creative with theirs. In fact, unique resume presentation and delivery are making headlines and even going viral on social media. Here are two recent examples:

A resume with a surprise. Lukas Yla, a 25-year-old marketing professional, was seeking work in San Francisco. Instead of risking his resume getting tossed in the trash, he decided to make a statement — putting his resume, introduction and an explanation inside a box of specialty doughnuts. Then he posed as a delivery man and brought them to recruiters and the heads of companies where he most wanted to work.

A hyper-customized online resume. Jeanne Hwang, a Harvard Business School graduate with six years of solid experience, wanted to work for Pinterest. She understood that in order to get noticed she would need to stand out, so she created what is essentially an online resume, but she did so via a Pinterest board. Each pin tells a little about her education, experience, and what makes her unique. Her innovative approach caught the eyes of other companies, too, and, according to Thenextweb.com, earned her a job offer as Vice President of Marketing at Pintics, should Pinterest pass her by.

Everyone can agree that these two examples show passion, enthusiasm, and innovative thinking. They certainly can increase the chances that the right person sees it, which in turn ups the likelihood of an interview. It’s important, however, to be careful when taking a creative approach.

First, the non-traditional path can be risky. Make sure what you’re doing is likely to be appreciated. The last thing you want to do is annoy, or worse, offend anyone. Sending doughnuts to someone who has a life-threatening allergy to one of the ingredients, for example, would not make the intended impression.

Next, it seems like these types of creative approaches generally come from young professionals wanting to get noticed. Make sure your actions are appropriate for whatever company you’re targeting. For instance, a conservative company may not be impressed by creative resumes and interviewing styles.

This also brings up the point of applicant tracking systems. Certain ATS types are used by most businesses and many recruiters. Evaluation is dependent on an electronic resume submission. Make sure that in addition to a creative printed resume, you also submit an electronic version. Otherwise you may just be known as the doughnut dude.

Finally, make sure your efforts aren’t all show and no substance. Your resume must speak for itself, showcasing the important skills and qualities you bring to the table. If you don’t have what it takes to do the job well, it doesn’t matter how fancy the presentation. The better candidate will win.

What if you don’t have much experience to include on your resume?

Many recent college graduates, homemakers or those with little or low work experience sometimes feel as though they have little to offer. As a result, many have a great deal of trouble when it comes to writing a resume. The truth is, however, that everyone has done things that can contribute to a great resume. GetFive has pioneered a number of resume-building techniques that top executives use, and you too can apply them to your job search — no matter how meager you think your experience is. One powerful tool is the Seven Stories Exercise. Here’s what it is:

The Seven Stories Exercise®.

  • List all the industries/jobs in which you think you would like to work.
  • List everything you’ve ever done of note — seriously! Whether it’s a work-related accomplishment or something you achieved in your personal life that you’re proud of, write it down. Be detailed, specific, and inspired. For example, instead of writing “I’m a good cook” or “I love to cook,” try “Single-handedly prepared and served 100 holiday meals for church supper.” Instead of “avid bicyclist,” write “Logged over 1,000 miles.”
  • From your accomplishments list, choose the seven experiences you’re most proud of, and rank them from No. 1 to No. 7. Using a separate piece of paper for each one, describe exactly what you did, again being specific and detailed. Talk about the role you played in each and how it required you to interact with others, the skills you learned, etc.
  • Now look back at your list of desirable jobs and industries. Who are you targeting with your resume? Tailor it to reach that audience. Most people have just one resume and that’s a mistake. You should always adjust your resume as needed to speak directly to the target audience.
  • Drawing on the skills and qualities you covered in your list of accomplishments, begin drafting your resume in chronological order. One caveat — most people make their resumes a historical document. Yours needs to be strategic. It should cherry pick your best accomplishments and highlight those areas, stating them in ways that are engaging and relevant to your target audience.

Using these tips, you can craft the ideal resume to land your dream job.

What a resume writer is for

By the way, you don’t have to do all of this on your own. Hiring a professional resume writer to help you construct your resume or just make it better is often a good idea. Your resume writer can help you objectively assess your work, school, and volunteer experience to identify qualities that appeal to employers. He or she can help you organize all that positive information into a resume that emphasizes all you have to offer, while drawing attention away from any perceived deficiencies.

At the end of the day, the name of the game is putting your best foot forward with a resume that has strong content, is visually appealing and highly readable, and passes technical muster as it relates to algorithmic filters.

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