The Tao of Resumes – Not How to Write, But Why to Write the Perfect Resume
Alright, can we talk frankly about…your resumes? That’s right, your resumes. As in plural. As in more than one. Because how many jobs are you applying for? More than one? Bingo.
What little hair I have left on my head stands on end when a client tells me they’ve sent out their RESUME to dozens of different places and got no response. Of course they got no response!
Every job posting represents an employer with a problem. That’s what a job is, in essence. It’s a business with a problem looking for a solution. You want to be that solution. The thing is, every problem is different. Maybe they want to expand. Maybe they want to tap new opportunities and need someone to help them do that. Maybe they are replacing someone who retired. Each issue is different with a different set of needs and requirements. Your job is to find out what needs there are. Your resume is a sales brochure that must convince that employer that you are the solution to their problem. But you have to know what the problem is! How can it sell you as a solution if you don’t have a clue why the job is posted and all you have to offer is a one-size-fits-all document?
Imagine for a moment that you are a door to door salesman who sells tools. But you only have one tool in your box- a screwdriver. Sure, you can drive a nail with a screwdriver. And you may be able to convince Mrs. Jenkins at her front door to buy your screwdriver if there is no other tool around for driving her nail. But you are darn sure going to get beat out by the first person who comes to her door with a hammer.
Now you say, “Wait a minute, Carey, I am only one person with one set of experiences. How can…” I know, I know. I’ve heard it thousands of times. And the answer is still the same. You can. You can turn your one set of experiences, education, skills and background into a dozen different, distinctly targeted resumes that focus like a laser on a specific job opportunity. You will be the person at Mrs. Jenkin’s door offering her the exact tool to fix her problem while all the others stand around with a hammer hoping to find a nail.
This article isn’t about how to write a resume. That topic is for another session. This article addresses the “Tao” of resumes. What they are for and why you need to understand that. The material here should be understood before anyone attempts to write a resume.
But first, let’s talk about what resumes are for. And it’s not what you’ve been told.
Eight seconds. That’s all you’ve got. When your resume hits the hands of that overworked, underpaid HR “gatekeeper” whose job is to screen 125 applicants for a position that was just posted yesterday, you have to realize that your resume needs to make a first cut in about 8 seconds. About as long as a failed bull rider stays in the saddle at a rodeo.
I have seen more bad resumes than my doctor has seen bad prostrates. And in truth, some days I wish I was the doctor. Don’t make a resume like those. Here’s how to make that 8 second cut.
1. Feel. Your resume hits the “gatekeeper’s” hands before it hits the eye. It must be on crisp, clean heavy weight RESUME paper. Spend the money. Make sure your paper is off-white or light beige. Easy on the eyes. DO NOT try to “stand out” with some kind of weird color. If your resume can’t stand on its content, the paper won’t make any difference. Oh, and quality paper comes with a “watermark”. Years ago I learned the hard way that paper with a watermark has a front and a back. Don’t print it backwards. If you don’t know what a watermark is, Wikipedia has a good explanation.
2. Balance. Huh? I mean the balance of black and white. Before I even read the content I hold the resume out an arm’s length away and look at the overall balance of text to space. Margins, font size, general readability. Too many times people try to cram a life story onto an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper. If it looks like it’s going to hurt me to read it, I’ll simply pitch it and go on to the next one. Did I possibly pitch the most brilliant candidate ever to grace the door of my company? Maybe. But remember, I’m that overworked, underpaid H.R. gatekeeper and I don’t give a crap. You’re gone.
3. Size. Are there too many pages? Come on. This is an entry level associate job in the engineering department. We’re looking to hire a fresh college grad. NOBODY has a valid reason to give me a 3-page resume. I couldn’t give a squat that you were a sandwich artist while in junior high school. Just tell me the relevant facts why you’re the one to solve my problem!
OK, now after all that, I just might start READING your resume. Think about my motivation. I have a big pile of applicants; 125 to go through this morning for one job. What am I looking for in these resumes? Do you think I’m rooting for each one to be a real winner? Do you think I hope every one I pick up will be THE ONE? No. What I’m looking for is the most piddley little reason to reject you. I WANT to trash your application packet! Why? Because I’m a sadistic, evil little H.R. minion who loves dashing people’s hopes and dreams? Well perhaps, but if not I certainly am a little H.R. minion who’s overworked and underpaid and the best way to find 6 or 8 finalists out of this pile of resumes is to find a reason, any reason, to reject most of them within the first eight seconds. That means you could be Jesus Christ and Mohammad all rolled into one and if you don’t know the difference between there and they’re, the company will forego the pleasure of your service.
In other words your resume must not only feel and smell right, it must read right. There absolutely must be no spelling or grammatical errors. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
The trouble is, most of us can’t write worth a damn.
Two generations of non-education in America’s public schools is a topic Carey Rundel has a lot to say about, but perhaps that’s better left for another time. Meanwhile the sad fact is, the majority of today’s resumes have glaring mistakes in spelling and grammar. And don’t even get me started on cover letters. Oh yeah- we’re going to cover cover letters. Good grief. Where can I sign up to be that proctologist again?
At the very least, PLEASE give someone else your first draft resume to read ALOUD. Listen carefully and you’ll catch lots of mistakes you might miss by just reading. Louis Brandeis once said “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” That’s most certainly the case for resumes and cover letters. This is a process. You should not hand a resume to a prospective employer without it having undergone at least three checks and revisions. But now, on to the content.
Yes, content from the perspective of the applicant this time. We’ve already determined that, from the perspective of the employer, this resume is intended to screen you out. What is your resume intended to do from your perspective? Its sole purpose is to lay out the reasons why you are the candidate to solve the employer’s problem…and get you an interview. How will it do that?
It will do that because you have done your research. You know the job you want and you have a copy of the job posting. You’ve read all the requirements and qualifications. And you’ve drawn upon your inventory of skills and experience to craft- yes, CRAFT a resume specific to the job and focused on answering the employer’s need. You have a document that proves you’re the solution to her problem.
I use the word “craft” intentionally. Writing is a craft requiring practice and improvement. But again, on to the content.
At the very least a resume is a document outlining:
· Your contact information
· The job you want
· Your educational qualifications for it
· Your work experience for it
· Other supporting voluntary and ancillary experience for it
That’s it. Simple, to the point, slam, bam, thank you ma’am. One page. Targeted. Focused. A laser beam directing the prospective employer to the most vital information showing how you will solve his problem. Let me just touch on some of the bullets above to flesh out the bones. There is a whole book in each of them, but I can try to keep it to a minimum.
Everything is set 12 point Times New Roman. Do not try to impress by standing out. If it looks weird, Minion will trash it.
Top header. Your name, address, phone and email.
· Centered or justified right. Not to the left.
· Professional grade email. “Jconner@gmail.com”, yes. “email@example.com”, no. Oh, and remove that damn hyperlink before you print the resume.
· As far as the phone goes- I can’t tell you how many prospective candidates I’ve tried to call for an interview appointment only to be assaulted by some kind of head banging rap instead of a ring tone. And if someone else is at the number you leave, please make sure that they are sober and awake if they pick up. And then there are the ones whose voice mail box is full and can’t accept any more messages…or the ones whose voice mail message sounds like they recorded it while stoned… I just hang up and go on to the next candidate.
· List your schooling in reverse chronological order. That means most recent to oldest. If you have college classes you do not need to list high school. List any degrees and credentials along with the schooling where you received them.
· If you have not yet graduated it’s OK to list the anticipated date of graduation.
· It’s good to list courses you’ve taken that are relevant to the job. Don’t list course numbers, just list their titles so the reader can get a good idea of the training you’ve had.
This is the biggie. Again it must be listed in reverse chronological order (latest to oldest).You probably don’t need to go back more than 10 years. Remember you control the content of your resume, not your employer. You don’t necessarily need to list everything. Be sure to choose only what’s relevant for the job you’re focusing on.
Now we come to my biggest peeve; resumes that list previous employment and just tick off a list of duties at each job. Sounds like 90% of the resumes out there. And it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Here’s the money point:
If I’m an employer who has a problem and I’m looking for someone to solve it, I don’t give a crap what you did in your previous jobs. I only care what you can bring to THIS job to solve my problem! Do you see the difference? I just want to know what VALUE you are going to bring me in exchange for all those wages and benefits I’m paying you. How will you structure your resume to address that?
Here’s where your homework comes in. You have researched the job. You know why it’s available. You know what the requirements are. You can articulate the problem the employer has and you can explain why you are the solution. Now you can take every past job you’ve done and list them on the resume in reverse chronological order. Then you can list duties you performed on those jobs…but in a way that points out the value you brought to that job and how the skills, knowledge and abilities you used there will transfer to this position! You are making it blatantly obvious that the things you did in your previous employment are exactly the things I need to solve my problems now! You can do this even if you have to list that sandwich artist job in junior high. There is something you did at that job that shows that you are the right candidate for this job. You just have to find it and tell me about it.
Here’s an example:
Suppose the job you want is a 911 dispatcher with the police department. You’ve done the research- they are expanding and hiring a second dispatcher to work the night shift with the current night dispatcher and you meet the minimum qualifications. You have the job posting and you know that they are looking for someone with good communication skills, good listening skills, attention to detail and ability to prioritize. In fact you’ve even called the station, got through to someone on the hiring committee and learned that fluency in Spanish would be a plus. Good for you- that’s the Carey Rundel way!
Old resume job listing:
Janitorial Service, Newman School District, Wichita, KS, 2003- 2005
o Mopped floors
o Cleaned rooms according to instructions
o Worked with other janitors
o Made sure rooms were locked
BORING! And relevant how?
New resume job listing:
Janitorial Service, Newman School District, Wichita, KS, 2003- 2005
o Responsible for cleanliness, sanitation and security of 32 classrooms
o Accurately fulfilled written and verbal instructions from shift supervisors every night
o Communicated effectively with colleagues using both English and Spanish
o Ensured that every room was detailed and ready for the next day’s class in a timely manner
Now you have to admit that being a janitor at a school would normally not be considered a great background for a career change to a 911 dispatcher. But look at that second resume snippet. Doesn’t that speak well of this person’s potential in the new job? See the trigger words that match the job posting? Responsible- Accurate- Communicate- Detail- Spanish- Timely. Compare that to the first listing. Sign her up right now! The first listing may be an honest representation of her duties but it doesn’t sell a damn thing. The second listing is an honest representation of the same duties but it certainly sells the candidate! Unfortunately the first listing is mostly what we get.
So let’s recap.
The Tao of resumes boils down to these few points:
o A resume is a targeted, unique sales instrument focused on getting you past the Minion’s 8 second test.
o You have total control of its content and presentation.
o It is written for one specific job.
o It is a tool you use to get an interview.
o It’s a tool the employer uses to not give you an interview.
o It must be, as Mary Poppins put it, “Practically Perfect in Every Way.”
o No grammar or spelling errors.
o One page. At most two ONLY if you are a seasoned professional.
o Includes only relevant, targeted information that SELLS you for that one job
o Crisp, clean, easy to read
o Feels good in the hand
If you can pull all this together, you might just get past Minion’s 8 second test and onto the “Further Consideration pile. There you go. Good luck.