Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Resume Rewrites

With the current economy, this article I wrote recently may be of help to you or someone you know. Please send them the link if you think so. ~Bob

Resume Rewrites
Robert A. Hall, MEd, CAE, FSA Scot, FSR

In my 36-year professional career, I’ve always been the hiring authority, both in my first post-college job as a state senator, and for the last 26 years as a non-profit executive. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of resumes. And, since I’ve been with several organizations, I’ve also sent out more than a few. I’ve developed some strong opinions about resumes, but if you know me, you know I’ve developed strong opinions about damn near everything.

I think it’s safe to say now has to be the toughest time for job seekers since I applied to and was accepted by the United States Marines in 1964. If I’d had a resume then it might have said, “Cocky, bright, good work ethic, will go to any hell hole you say and get my hands dirty to get the job done.” It probably still should.

If you’re applying for jobs in today’s economy, especially if you are “between situations” (as I was for half of 2007), you want your resume to be perfect.

Bad news: there is no such thing as perfect. Resumes not only come in many styles and formats, but they are a lot like websites—very subjective. You can spend a barrel of money having an expert design either one, and the next five “experts” who look at it will say it’s terrible, and needs a makeover. (Usually by them for even more money.)

So my first tip is to get the resume you are comfortable with. Don’t let a resume writer fill it with puffed-up clichés, which have little meaning, and don’t sound like you. I’ve interviewed people who I could tell had someone else write their resumes, once I talked to them. I never found out if they’d have been good employees.

While you should remember that free advice is worth the price, here are some other thoughts that might help you make your resume a keeper:

Review colleagues’ resumes: Read every resume you can from colleagues in your field, especially from those who have landed jobs. Skip the guy who’s been looking since the Harding Administration. There are often things you can borrow, phrases you can use, and ways of presenting things that are new.

Objective: I don’t believe in putting an “objective” on a resume. Your objective goes in your well-crafted, one-page cover letter. It is to secure this particular position, for which you are the perfect fit, because of the following highlights from your resume. A resume “objective” is either so broad as to be meaningless, has obviously been tailored to the particular opening, or is limiting. I’ve often received resumes where the objective had nothing to do with the position I was trying to fill. Like finding typos, that made it easy to pop them in the “no” pile.

Profile/Summary of Qualifications/Skills: I’ve never used one. I can see the value to catch the attention of a reviewer who has a large pile of resumes on the desk. But so many of those I’ve read are heavy on the clichés. Aren’t you turned off when a salesperson oversells you? If you do start your resume this way, I think under-stated and straight-forward will make a better impression, e.g., “Manager with successful record in customer development, fiscal management, employee relations and…..”

Clichés and jargon: “Seasoned Professional.” (Garlic? Hot peppers?) “Change Agent.” (So were Hitler and Stalin.) “High Impact.” (When dropped from a plane.) “Hit the Ground Running.” (He’ll never get any better than day one.). I find resumes as full of words that sound good and mean little as a Chicago Politician. And if one more candidate tells me she/he “is a people person,” he/she will make a “High Impact.” You are turned off by clichés; don’t you think the hiring authority is as well?

Jargon is also likely to turn off the reader. I often help transitioning Marines with their resumes. Usually their first draft is terrific—if they were applying to be a senior Marine leader. I help them speak civilian.

Don’t get fancy: Resumes with graphics look childish to me. Resumes with pictures make me wonder why they think that matters. Fancy paper suggests to me it is needed to titivate the content—I’ve done just fine on white copy paper, thank you. (Chances are the headhunter—excuse me, Search Consultant—will put it on copy paper to distribute to the organization anyway.) Skip the color rainbow. And two fonts are the maximum: a nice, common sans serif like Ariel for heads and a serif like Times New Roman for body text. You may be tempted by gimmicks in this economy, but they make you look desperate and unprofessional.

Action Verbs: “Responsible for the budget” is weak. I always want to ask, “Yeah, but did you do any of the things you were responsible for?” Words like managed, implemented, supervised, planned, presented, increased and developed are action verbs. They say that you did something.
Be specific: “Responsible for membership development” versus “Increased membership by 42.3% over three-year period.” Which candidate would you interview? And remember the accountant’s rule for expense reports: $15 for lunch looks made up, while $16.43 looks exact, so don’t round off numbers.

Take appropriate credit: If during your tenure sales, income and production all increased, claim it. They will know it was a team effort, but it was your responsibility on your watch. You’d get the blame if they went the other way! On the other hand, if you were the Director of Sales, taking credit for production increases might be a stretch. The “Incredible Hulk” has a career, the “Incredible Employee” doesn’t.

Length: I like the old rule. One page for under ten years experience, two for 10 to 20, and three pages for longer careers. But unless you’re an academic, thus expected to list every conference and publication, never longer than three. This depends on your circumstances, of course, but a three-page resume for a twenty-year-old looks pretty puffed. I do believe in including additional information with my resume and cover letter, usually a list of references (I like to list several), and a list of my published management articles, sometimes with an appropriate writing sample. (But not the poetry, fiction or opinion columns I’ve also published.)

Affiliations and credentials: Again, list what is relevant to the position. I list professional associations, but not the many veterans, Scottish and other organizations I belong to. I put CAE behind my name, but not FSA Scot. (Extra credit if you figure that one out!) Claiming credentials (or experience) you don’t have, or from degree mills, is, of course, unethical and stupid. But I understand it’s widely done. If that’s your style, I can credential you as a fellow FSR* for only fifty bucks.

Personal information: Generally skip revealing that your hobby is knitting or that you love to garden (unless, of course, you are applying to a gardening or knitting organization!). I do include personal information I think is relevant. Last time I was job hunting, I reported “No missed days for illness in five years,” but I’m at an age where age discrimination is a possibility and wanted them to know I show up for work. I’d also list things like “free to travel” and/or “willing to relocate” if true and you think they may be relevant to the employer.

Leaving out information: Always a tough call. I leave out one job, because I was there only long enough to find A. I’d been lied to, B. The reserves didn’t exist, C. The leadership wasn’t committed enough to change and D. A new job. I figure all I learned there was to do better due diligence, it was a while back, and it doesn’t leave an obvious gap. But I reveal it if asked. Once you lie, you’re sunk.

Order: The rule used to be that your education was listed first. I think my experience is more relevant, so I list it ahead of my education. But if neither is impressive, then you have my permission to use graphics, colors, clichés, ten fonts and fancy paper. Who knows—it might work.

Good luck. Remember that persistence counts. Write if you get work.

*Full Service Rogue


  1. Warning re the email that is being sent around with your article "I'm Tired"
    Someone changed the link to your blog so that, while it still read correctly to the eye that it was a link to your blog, clicking on it brought a person immediately to a dangerous My Space page. The My Space page has since been disabled - I don't know what exactly it held. I only know this much because I made the mistake of clicking on it rather than copy and pasting. Fortunately, rather than accessing the rougue site I received a message from My Space, telling me the site I was attempting to access had been disabled because it was "naughty."

    So, just a reminder to all. Don't do as I did and click on any email link, no matter how innocent looking because it's very simple for someone to take an innocent web address and link it to an awful page, completely different from the address you thought you were clicking. Always copy and paste instead.

  2. I just read the piece "I'm Tired". It is nice to know someone in the Senate GETS IT.

  3. I just read the piece "I'm Tired", followed the link to your blog page, bookmarked it, then read "Resume Rewrites". Something tells me I'll be spending some time reading your blog, I love it! Your resume article was a breath of fresh air to me, as I am a "mature" administrative professional who has been "between engagements" since August 2008. Some of your advice contradicts "conventional wisdom" but said conventional wisdom hasn't helped, so I'm open to all reasonable suggestions. I'll let you know if I find work. Thanks for blogging! :)

  4. Hi Mr. Hall,

    Someone forwarded your article "I'm Tired" and I was happy to pass it on to a lot of people on my email list, along with the URL for your blog. As someone who has been in the placement and career services field for over 25 years, including 10+ as a professional resume writer, I have a few comments on your article "Resume Rewrites". I agree with a lot of what you state, although I think 2 pages of resume should more than suffice for anyone, unless you are Lee Iaccoca. I don't recommend objectives - they tend to be too general, or, if specific, too limiting. Better to indicate your objective in a cover letter, thus enabling one to modify it for each type of position being applied for. As to using a summary, unfortunately these days, many resumes are simply scanned into a company's HR database, and then keyword searches are performed to cull out potential resumes that might match the desired skill sets, so a summary can be beneficial. What is really needed to get an employer's attention are achievements and accomplishments. The potential employer probably has a good idea of one's duties and responsibilities from their job title. What they really want to know is how you made a difference at your job, or what distinguishes you from others with the same title and responsibilities.

    Action verbs are quite important to use, however I do take issue with the notion that a resume written by a professional may not match how the applicant communicates. The function of the resume is to help get that person in the door for an interview, where their personality and other factors will play a major role in the selection process. Human resource personnel might well decide not to interview someone due to misspellings, grammar errors, or simply how the resume looks -- but an impressive, well-organized resume can improve the odds of that person being invited to interview. Please keep up the good work.

    Phil Dante

  5. I just read I'm tired, God Bless you for standing up for the normal, everyday man.

  6. To a former Marine...I just read your piece "I'm Tired", way to go shipmate. It is right on...I wish we could get the idiots you write about to read it.
    A retired Master Chief