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How to Create a Resume That Wins Interviews

By JOHN J. MARCUS

A resume can either open doors or keep them closed. The head of manufacturing for an Ohio-based industrial products maker discovered this firsthand when he sought to make a job change last winter. He updated his resume in January and then contacted recruiters, answered Internet postings and started networking.

By April, his efforts had resulted in only two informal networking meetings. A friend urged him to revise his resume by strengthening his summary and emphasizing his accomplishments. The revised resume began opening doors for him. He was invited to interview at several companies, and three pursued him aggressively with job offers. His top choice was a manufacturer located only six miles from his home, where he’s now manufacturing manager just two months after sending the company his revised resume.

What’s the Problem?

Job hunters often ask what’s wrong with their resumes. They’ve toiled to write a document that seems airtight to them. They’ve fretted and sweated over every detail, ranging from the substantive to the cosmetic:

  • Does my resume grab the reader?
  • Are my accomplishments displayed prominently enough?
  • Could my wording have more impact?
  • Have I adequately presented my skills and abilities?
  • Is there enough white space?

While these are valid concerns, there’s a greater issue. Never assume that people are going to read your resume because the fact is that most resumes get only a passing glance. You must do everything possible to spark immediate interest during that moment.

Says Jerry Gallegos, vice president of marketing at Western Wireless in Bellevue, Wash.: “I give each [resume] five, 10, maybe 15 seconds. What I’m looking for is how good someone is – what they’ve done. The sooner I see this, the more interested I am in giving the resume a thorough read.”

Constructing a resume that earns interviews is remarkably simple. Here are six do’s and don’ts to follow when composing your document.

  1. Begin with a summary.

    Showcase two or three of your most exciting accomplishments. Bullet these items and use numbers to illustrate their extent.

    It isn’t compelling enough to say, “Grew territory revenues,” or even, “Grew territory revenues in excess of corporate goal.” What really hits home is saying, “Grew territory revenues 25% in less than 6 months,” or, even better, “Grew territory revenues 25% in less than 6 months versus goal of 15%.”

    By starting out this way, you’ll be showing people how good you are, not just telling them that you’re good. As a plus, you’ll distinguish yourself from job seekers who begin by listing their functional specialties and a brief discussion of their strengths.

  2. Use a chronological format.

    The next section of your resume relates to your experience. Always list your experience in reverse chronological order, starting with your most recent job. Employers and recruiters dislike resumes that follow a “functional” format, where experience is cited by job function, such as sales, marketing or public relations.

    Organizing your resume functionally is a major gaffe – tantamount to committing job-search suicide. Many employers and recruiters won’t read this type of presentation because they can’t tell when and where an experience has occurred.

    “My clients and I need to know when somebody did something and at which company, especially what they did in the last five years,” says Dave Gillespie, principal of D. Gillespie & Associates, an executive-search firm in Broomall, Pa. “Because this critical information isn’t available in functional resumes, I usually don’t read them.”

  3. Tailor your resume to the job you're seeking.

    More can be done to strengthen your candidacy within the chronological format.

    Because the goal of your resume is to gain interviews for a particular position, always cite your activities in order of their importance to that job. Omit information that’s unrelated. The less you say about your unrelated experience, the more impact the related activities will have.

    If you’re seeking two or three different positions, prepare two or three separate resumes, each tailored to the job you’re after.

  4. Focus on your accomplishments.

    Next, discuss your accomplishments, not your responsibilities. Recruiters and prospective employers are primarily interested in the value you've brought to your past employers. Most important are improvements you made and their benefit to the department or organization, especially in increasing revenues or reducing costs.

    To identify your most important accomplishments, follow the advice offered by Martin John Yate in “Resumes That Knock ’Em Dead” (Adams Media Corp., 2003). Ask yourself, “What did I do that I’m most proud of?” and “What did I do that I want other people to know about?”

    Always look for opportunities to show how you exceeded expectations, outperformed peers, or excelled during adverse conditions, such as during a tough economic period, aggressive campaigns by competitors or unique company setbacks – for instance, the loss of a large customer.

    “I’m not impressed by an accomplishment unless it’s put into perspective by showing how the applicant did something that was truly noteworthy,” says Robert Kaminsky, president of Folex Imaging in Fairfield, N.J. “For example, anyone can sell an exciting new product that’s being supported by a massive national advertising campaign. But to exceed corporate plan or grow business during an industry contraction – that makes me want to meet the person.”

    Don’t save the most exciting thing you did for last. Job hunters who do this – and many do – erroneously believe they are telling a compelling story that leads up to a dramatic climax. Instead, begin the discussion about your experience at an employer with that climactic statement. If you don’t, your story may never get told.

  5. Use descriptive verbs.

    Describe your experiences in phrases that start with a past-tense action word. Bullet each item. Bullets and verbs in the past tense produce statements that are more vivid and illustrative. These verbs are particularly effective:

    • directed, led, managed, supervised;
    • achieved, delivered, drove, generated, grew, increased, initiated, instituted and launched;
    • cut, decreased, reduced, slashed;
    • accelerated, created, developed, established, implemented, instituted, performed, pioneered, planned, produced, re-engineered, restructured, saved and transformed.

  6. Make your resume inviting to read.

    After deciding on what you want to say about yourself, be sure your resume has sufficient white space. The top and bottom margins should be at least a half-inch long, and the left and right margins should measure at least seven-tenths of an inch wide. Insert white space between your section headings, names of employers, job titles and discussions about your experience. Use bold-faced type for section headings, employer names and job titles. If the document lacks eye appeal, few people will review it.

Now, the Don’ts

What you shouldn’t do when writing a resume is nearly as important as what you should do.

  1. Don’t organize your resume by accomplishments.

    Listing a string of accomplishments on the first page of your resume presents the same problems for employers as the functional resume format. If you want to showcase your accomplishments, use the introductory summary.

  2. Don’t use the same words to begin sentences or use the words “I” and “my.”

    Make your writing fresh and exciting by varying the verbs that begin each statement. Omit “I” and “my” because they can make you seem weak and immature.

  3. Avoid clichés.

    Don’t describe yourself as “dynamic,” “people-oriented,” “results-oriented” or “self-motivated,” or state what a great “out-of-the-box thinker,” “hands-on leader” or “visionary” you are. These clichés lack originality and typecast you as a follower instead of a leader.

  4. Don’t use underlining or italics to add emphasis.

    These devices cheapen a resume’s appearance. Additionally, some computer scanners can’t read underlined or italicized copy.

  5. Avoid using a fancy font to gain readers’ attention.

    Fancy fonts aren’t inviting to read, and many people discard resumes that use them. Play it safe by choosing Arial, Garamond, Helvetica, Tahoma or Times Roman.

  6. Don’t state the reasons for your job changes.

    Explaining why you’ve changed jobs seems defensive or indicates that you think you have a troubled work history.

Mr. Marcus is a career consultant and resume writer in Sarasota, Fla., and author of “The Resume Makeover: 50 Common Problems with Resumes and Cover Letters and How To Solve Them” (McGraw-Hill, 2003).

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