How to Write a Resume

A resume is neither a really long business card, nor a really short autobiography. It’s an advertisement for yourself. A good resume is never a single static document. It should change all the time, depending on whom you are advertising TO and what parts of your background will be most relevant to that person.

The effective resume has one purpose: to get the reader to request a face-to-face meeting in which you can convey your full value.

Entire books, websites, library sections are devoted to the craft of resumes. For English/CW majors who are trying to put together their first resume — either to apply for a job or to have it handy in case a job comes up — we offer three “recipes” that range from easy-but-not-necessarily effective (“the resume kludge”) to hard-but-more-likely-to-advance-you-towards-your-goals (“the resume design”).

Have you been reluctant to develop your resume because you don’t yet have relevant work experience? You can find some advice to get you started here, here, and here.

Recipe 1: The resume kludge.

Find some resume samples online, pick one that seems to line up with your profile, and slot in your own information. You can find resume samples at MonsterResume Genius, Job Hero, Livecareer, etc. A Google search will bring you many more. Some of these sites have a “resume builder” function that can be fun to play with, but steer clear of sites that ask you to pay.

Recipe 2: The resume hack.

Open up a Word document and write your own, based on the following basic points about standard resume format.

The resume should be no more than a page but a FULL page. Name prominently at the top, followed by contact information (phone and email, address optional).

The bulk of the resume should contain (not necessarily in this order):

  • your education (including your major and anticipated graduation date)
  • your experience (which can include both paid and unpaid jobs, volunteer work, internships, leadership positions in student organizations).
  • any other potentially relevant information (specific skills, study abroad experiences, research, or projects).

A few points to keep in mind:

  • Academic achievement looms large when you are in school, but it matters far less to many employers. Note your GPA if it’s high enough to be a selling point (or if the employer has asked for it), but avoid long lists of awards, scholarships, honors.
  • Some employers want to see a summary statement, a header, a list of your skills. Some don’t.
  • Many employers expect to see a list of bullet points under each item of your “experience,” detailing what you accomplished in that particular position. The prevailing convention at the moment is to begin each bullet point with a strong verb (in the past tense if it’s no longer a role you have, present tense if you’re still doing it).
  • Most resumes are glanced at, not read in detail, so make it easy for the reader to hone in on the features of your experience that are most relevant for the job you want to fill.
  • Do NOT include your references unless they’ve been specifically asked for.
  • Opinions vary WIDELY about including things like summary statements, “references available upon request,” objectives, skills sections, hobbies, and the like. There’s no “right” way to do it — only strategies. The only reason to include any of these things is because they will present you to advantage. If they don’t (if your honest “objective” is too vague to be interesting, if your hobbies are to lead to an illuminating conversation, etc.) then save the space instead for things that will promote your strengths.

Recipe 3: The resume design.

Designing an effective resume is easiest when you’re responding to a specific job ad. In that situation, you know WHAT you’re advertising (your fit for the position) and whom you’re advertising to (the organization that is seeking to fill the position). We all contain multitudes and the version of yourself that will most immediately appeal to one employer (for example, your excellent people skills, honed in a series of fast-food jobs and serving as recruitment chair for your sorority) may repel another (who is more interested in evidence–like your honors thesis and your editing internship–that you can spend long solitary hours focused on the details of web content). An effective resume will emphasize that parts of yourself that are most relevant to a particular employer, and therefore every job should require a different version of your resume.

There are times, though, when you need a resume without a specific job to tailor it to. You might want to have one ready that you can adapt quickly when a job opportunity does arise, or a networking contact may have asked for it, or you might want to upload your resume to a job bank in anticipation of future positions.

How to Design Your Resume

1. Create a Resume Masterfile. This is everything that you MIGHT find yourself putting on a resume, a huge list stored in cyberspace that you can add to as you do new things. Make it as long and detailed as you like. Go back to high school if you want (but keeping things in reverse chronological order will make it easier to focus–as you should–on your most recent achievements). Things to include:

  • Potentially relevant courses that you’ve taken.
  • Jobs you’ve held, including fast food, retail, service.
  • Volunteer involvements.
  • Activities, both school-related and not.
  • Projects you’ve worked on (research, creative endeavors, collaborations–anything that feels substantial to you but you find yourself not sure where it would go on a resume).

As you compile your list, be sure to emphasize (so you can find them later).

  • specific titles you held
  • roles you played
  • achievements and events that you were a part of.

Quantify anything that can be quantified. How many articles/month did you write? How long was the final report for that group project? How many more followers did you get when you ran your club’s Twitter account? How many new members did you recruit? How large was the budget for the event you organized? Specific numbers will make your experience more vivid and authentic.

If you can embed relevant links (to things you wrote, newspaper articles about things you’ve done, websites that you were a part of, etc.) do so.

2. Create a Skills Inventory.

People often assume that “skills” means solely specific abilities, like speaking a second language fluently, typing fast, or being able to code in Javascript. Some employers may be looking for some of those things, but EVERY employer is looking for a broader and more vaguely defined set of capacities, according to the following table from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Note the top five in yellow. These are all things that English and Creative Writing majors get good at in the course of their studies. Create a page or a document for each of those, and under each write down ALL the things you’ve done in which you’ve used or developed that particular skill. It’s difficult to function as a human being WITHOUT using these skills in some manner, so be selective in your recollections. One way to hone in on specifically relevant experience is to imagine being asked about that skill in an interview. “Tell us about a time when you had to persuade someone of something.” “Tell us about a time when your ability to plan ahead helped to prevent or solve a problem.” What situations come to mind? What experiences would you end up talking about?

Some jobs or experiences might fit into more than one category. Try to think of some specific situations or accomplishments in each job that will align with different skills. Also, look for patterns. Do you have a lot of things to write about what of these skills but none about others? Are there any recurring features of the kinds of problems you’ve solved or the kinds of teams you’ve been a part of? Make note of anything that sticks out to you–these kinds of insights into your strengths can help you focus your job search and networking..

3. Plan Your Format

There is no one resume format. An infographic-style resume with lots of striking visual features might serve you well in pursuing a marketing job, but someone hiring for an administrative or managerial job might prefer a more bland and straightforward presentation.

The question to ask is not, “how should I structure my resume?” but “what do I want this reader to know about me?” The experience that is most relevant to the position you’re applying for is the information that should be most prominent. Employers don’t care what you were or weren’t paid to do — they just want to know whether you have experience using the skills they need. Your most relevant experience in some cases may be a volunteer position or an unpaid internship. It still goes first, so that the employer can immediately identify it, leaving paid jobs (that are less relevant to your goals) towards the bottom.

Decide on some headings for your resume that will emphasize your relevant background. The all-purpose resume sections that you see in sample resumes and resume guides (“Education,” “Experience,” “Activities,” “Skills”) won’t tell employers as much as headings that you customize to your particular story. An employer who wants someone with excellent communication skills, for example, will learn more from a “Communications Experience” section that includes the Twitter account you ran for your summer job at the hot dog stand AND your editing position on Re:Search than from a resume that buries your social media experience in a list of fast-food jobs and isolates it from the unpaid editing roles you’ve held. You may find it useful to have a “Skills” section with specific hard-won qualifications prominently displayed, or your background in Excel may sound more impressive when it’s presented as part of the work you did managing your club’s fundraising activities. There is no one right way–there’s only the way that makes your fit for the position most visible to the employer.

Looking at resume templates (as in the Resume Kludge) can give you some ideas about different ways to structure your resume. Relying on a template can create other problems, however: (1) employers who read a lot of resumes are familiar with many of the more eye-catching templates and will know it does not reflect your own creativity; and (2) many employers use automated tracking systems (ATS) that have trouble reading templates (see Step 4 below).

Fill in the space under your headers with experiences drawn from your master resume file. Make sure to specify the names of organizations you worked for and the dates. If the organization’s purpose is not self-evident from it’s name or reputation, explain BRIEFLY what it is or does. Then add some bullet points describing your accomplishments in that role. Focus on specific achievements and skills — avoid giving a complete job description.

If you’re responding to a job ad, look carefully at the desired qualification (often a list of bullets at the end of the ad). Draw on your “Skills inventory” to emphasize experiences that align with the employer’s stated needs. If you’re writing a resume without a job ad in mind, think about the kinds of jobs you want to have, and describe your experience in terms of the demands of such positions.

4. If Necessary, Prep Your Resume for an  ATS.

If an employer asks you to upload your resume online, there are a number of additional factors to consider. In such cases, the employer is usually using an applicant tracking system (ATS) — a machine that makes the first cut of resumes submitted for the position. Here are some links to articles about how to craft a resume that will get past the ATS:

5. Get Feedback!

Build in time to show your resume to some other people. The Career Center has regular drop-in hours for resume review, and Kirstin Wilcox in the Department of English is available to look over resumes as well (call 333-4346 to set up an appointment). Don’t limit yourself to these resources, though! Ask friends to look out for typos and formatting glitches, try to get more substantial feedback from networking contacts. You will get conflicting advice, which is why it’s a good idea to collect as many opinions as you can. Listen carefully, and then make your own judgment call based on what you know about the experience of the people advising you and about the field you want to go into. There are also a lot of great online sources for additional advice. The Muse has particularly abundant and up-to-date advice.

6. Be Ready to Do It Again

Your resume is always a work in progress. As you gather new experiences, add them to the resume masterfile you set up in step 1, and regularly add the skills you’re building to the skills inventory you set up in step 2. Review your resume every time you’re asked for it. Make sure it includes any new relevant experience or activities, and adjust it to reflect the needs of the person or organization you’re giving it to. Be prepared to rewrite it entirely if you’re applying for a job in a different field.



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