Writing a resume is easy — writing a good first resume, however, is something else entirely, especially when it’s your first time putting one together. While anyone can pull up a Word document, slap on the names of the past few companies they’ve worked at, and add a handful of bullet points about what they did while they were there, that alone isn’t enough to capture the attention of recruiters. With recruiters reviewing dozens of resumes at a time (often for only six seconds or fewer) yours needs to clearly stand out from the pack.
But having a resume that stands out isn’t about fancy templates, or an eye-catching design. While those may be icing on the cake, what recruiters really care about is the substance: how well you present the information they care about in a clear and compelling way. Few people know this better than J.T. O’Donnell, Founder & CEO of career advice site Work It Daily, who’s spent the better part of her career advising candidates on how to find and land their dream jobs. She’s pored over thousands of resumes throughout the years — and as a result, she knows what works and what doesn’t.
O’Donnell gave us some insight into the top resume trends and best practices of the moment. With these tips, your resume can go from regrettable to unforgettable — a sure-fire way to start your career off on the right foot.
1. Go From Objective Statement to Skills Summary
Adding an objective statement to your resume is a recommendation given at career centers around the nation, but according to O’Donnell, it’s largely a relic of the past. “Recruiters don’t want to hear what you want” as your next job — instead, it’s much more about convincing them that you’re the right fit. “What we have [job seekers] do is put two columns at the top of key skill sets… whatever the skill sets are that you see these companies are hiring for, [whether it’s] marketing, or they’re looking for Microsoft Office, you just have two columns right at the front and center with your top six to eight skills,” O’Donnell recommends. Make sure to include any relevant degrees or certifications as well, she advises.
“A lot of recruiters are told to consider somebody [with] this degree, this certification, this skill set, so making me hunt all over the resume for that is annoying. If I see that right at the top of the resume, you’ve just inspired me to want to keep reading,” O’Donnell says.
2. Summarize Your Experience, and Quantify It
After your skills summary, it’s time to detail your work history and experience. List each company you’ve worked for (you can also list your involvement with school organizations, like a team sport or campus newspaper) along with your title, the dates you worked there, and several bullet points that describe your key accomplishments and responsibilities. Wherever possible, you should attempt to quantify that experience, O’Donnell says.
“Numbers make a huge difference. If you can quantify what you did in any way, you should. We know that the human eye processes numbers faster than words… [and they] help me as a recruiter give context to the size and scope of the work that you did,” she explains.
Don’t be discouraged even if, as someone who’s relatively new to the workforce, you don’t have a lot of experience directly related to the position you’re applying for. Quantifying your experience works just as well for a summer gig in foodservice or retail as it does at a high-profile internship.
“For example, if I worked in an ice cream parlor for the summer, I would say ‘Served 50-100 customers per day and handled a cash register that totaled over $1,000 a day in sales.’ Those two numbers give me an immediate impression that you probably weren’t at a single ice cream stand by yourself, and it’s probably a big organization.” Not to mention, it sounds a whole lot better than just saying something like, “Scooped ice cream for customers last summer.”
3. Add Some Color
Facts and figures are a must-have, but it’s nice to balance those out with a few personal details as well so recruiters can get a sense of your whole self. O’Donnell suggests including this information in an “additional experience” section at the end of your resume.
“[Additional experience] is a catch-all section in the end where you talk about volunteer experience, awards you’ve won, or maybe there are special things you’ve accomplished — you do Iron Mans or marathons or some kind of thing like that,” she says.
You certainly don’t want this information to be the primary focus of your resume — skills and experience should always be front and center, since they’re ultimately what recruiters care about the most — but leaving the extras out means you might miss an opportunity to showcase some of the qualities you want highlighted, demonstrate culture fit, and bond with recruiters (you never who might have the same hobbies and interests that you do!).
4. Clean It Up
Once you’ve written the bulk of your resume, it’s time to refine it. Go through and check for spelling and grammar as well as formatting. One critical element is making sure that you have enough white space on your resume, O’Donnell says.
“Your resume is going to have a lot of white space and it might look really basic, but it should because recruiters spend six seconds on it. The eye works in a Z-pattern, so remember that and don’t think that you need to fill the page and pretend you’re something that you’re not,” she explains.
A few things to avoid, O’Donnell adds, include “full justification — [it’s a] big no-no, really hard to read. The other big thing is… fancy fonts or curly tail fonts. [They’re] very hard to read, and studies show that the human eye can’t absorb them as fast as clean-line fonts.” Beyond that, O’Donnell says, fonts lower than 11 point have no place on your resume. “10 point or smaller is just too hard to read. And the last piece is margins. You should never have a margin smaller than .7 [inches] on either side… if you held it away, you’d go ‘Oh look, it’s pretty, it’s organized,’ but it actually works against you when the recruiter is reading it [up close].”
5. Keep It Concise
When trying to show why you’d be the best fit for the job, it’s easy to get a little overzealous and list every minute detail you think might be relevant to a recruiter. But keeping your resume to a readable length is a must, or else many recruiters will simply gloss over it. You may have heard in the past that resumes should be kept to no more than one page, but O’Donnell says there’s a little more wiggle room now.
“The reality is that you can go to two pages as long as you create white space. When I see a one-pager but they’ve got half-inch margins, nine-point font, and they’ve tried to stuff everything on the page, it’s awful. So I’d rather see you go to two pages as long as you’ve really created that white space since it’s easier for me to read,” she explains. “The exception to that is usually people in academia or science have a lot of papers and things that they have to cite and that can take up some bulk but aside from that… no more than two.”
A good rule of thumb is keeping your resume long enough to convey all of the important details, but short enough to maintain a recruiter’s interest. If you’re having trouble with length, avoid repetition and flowery language, and make sure that each word and sentence on the page serves a clear purpose. After a round of revisions or two, you should be able to strike the perfect balance.