May 14, 2016
Hi! Thanks for reading Part 2 in my 3-part series on how to write a stunningly good resumé. Part 2 here is all about the writing—actually putting words on a page. If you haven’t checked it out yet, Part 1 is here, and it has some really important ideas, like what a resumé is for and the kinds of things you should know about yourself (these are not as obvious as you might think).
Part 2 Overview
You have your coffee, and you’ve sequestered yourself in a comfy chair, or at a coffee shop, or at your desk—wherever it is you work best. It’s time to start writing, so let’s go. Here is the general outline of what you will need to do to write the first draft of your actual resumé.
- Write these things, in this order:
- Other stuff—awards, volunteer activities, hobbies, and the other things that make you an interesting human being
- Start building your list of references
- Review the stuff from step 1 with a friend or colleague
- Rewrite based on that feedback
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 as necessary
Sound good? Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.
STEP 1.1: WRITING THE SUMMARY
The summary is where you describe your professional character (the one we talked about in Part 1, remember?). This is the core—the vital, beating heart of your resumé. Every single thing you include on your resumé must support this one paragraph, because this is the exposition of who you are as a professional. Spend most of your time here. The summary is simple in concept, but it is not easy to write.
If I listed a bunch of rules for how to do this, I would be making them up; every awesome summary will look different, because every awesome summary describes a different awesome person. Instead, here’s some advice:
- Make it as short as possible, but no shorter.
- Be authentic: write like you talk.
- Keep your goals in mind (see below).
Your goals are as follows:
- Clearly communicate the strengths you identified in Part 1 (after all, this is why you did that).
- Ensure your passion comes through. You have to care in order to get someone else to care.
- Make a clear value statement about yourself.
Here’s a challenge for you: You want to come across as authentic, as I said, but of course you also want to describe yourself as you want people to see you. If you lack self-confidence, for example, an authentic summary would communicate that (which to be clear, yes, would be bad). The best way to write a confident summary, though, isn’t to fake it; instead, start working on your self-confidence. Nobody’s perfect, but everybody is capable of working towards who they want to be. Successful people aren’t those with a lot of money or power or fame. Nope, they’re people just like you, who made the decision to work towards who they wanted to be. You can do it, too. And then the person you’re becoming can come across in your summary.
Here is an example of a lackluster summary:
Senior engineer with over fourteen years of experience in application design and development with various Java and .NET frameworks. Experience in database design, software engineering and development. Can jump into new projects and learn new technologies quickly.
And for contrast, here is an example of a strong summary
I have architected software for seven different companies over the last 20 years. During that time I worked with many different software architects and learned that the best of them shared three common strengths: they were organized thinkers, they were adaptable to changing requirements, and they were highly technically proficient. Over these last 20 years, I have developed these strengths to the utmost, and use them to do what I love: design software that solves people’s problems. My experience, strengths, and passion mean I will be able to solve your customers’ problems, making me an ideal software architect for your company.
The first summary is simply a list of experiences and qualities, while the second is a description of personal observations, strengths, and passions, which as an added bonus, hints at overcoming past adversity. The first summary is dull and dry, while the second establishes skills, passion, and value.
Guess what—both of these descriptions were written by the same person! It’s true; a client of mine with long years of software development experience wanted to make a transition into a role as a software architect. (For those of you who are nontechnical, this is an orthogonal move—not insignificant, but not drastic.) And yet his early summary, since it was rooted only in his self-image and prominent past experience, had no chance of landing him the architecting jobs he really wanted. But when we wrote a summary that described him as the software architect he wanted to be (and which, of course, he had the skills for), his summary became clearer, stronger, and more authentic. And it reshaped the rest of his resumé, as well. Which brings us to the next section, your experience.
STEP 1.2: LISTING YOUR EXPERIENCE
The lion’s share of physical space on your resumé will be dedicated to a list of your relevant past work experience (the one exception being if you are a recent graduate, in which case it will be expected that your resumé is a little shorter). The basic format of this section is a list the companies you worked for from most to least recent, with dates and your job title.
Traditionally, for each company and position on the list you would include your main responsibilities and activities. That sort of resumé is exactly what we’re NOT going for. Instead of listing what you spent the majority of your time doing, it is much more important to list your activities and accomplishments that—and this is REALLY important—directly support the summary you just wrote, whether or not they were your main duties. If you have done a good job of developing your summary, it will be much easier to find and describe these kinds of experiences.
Here are a few examples from the same resumé as above.
- Bad example
- Filled a variety of development roles, both in leadership and non-leadership positions.
- Bad example
- Responsible for the implementation of web applications including: utilization of Java and J2EE technologies to create and deploy both small and large scale Internet/intranet applications; administration, maintenance, and performance tuning of J2EE server environments and related applications; maintenance of legacy CGI scripts and PL/SQL applications.
- Good example
- Architected in-house applications to meet the following needs:
- Rapid deployment for all our Internet and intranet applications
- Maintenance and performance tuning of our J2EE server environments
- Automated maintenance of legacy scripts and applications
- Architected in-house applications to meet the following needs:
The first example is bad because it isn’t specific. It shouldn’t take 13 words to say this little. Space is precious!
The second example is bad because it doesn’t support the summary. The work described there is not the work of a software architect. That’s not to say it isn’t valuable; this applicant would just want to find a way to communicate how the skills he gained doing this work now contribute to his expertise as a software architect.
...which is exactly what the third example does. The individual projects were broken out for clarity and so that the main point could be communicated first: “I architect solutions to problems,” is the entire point of this resumé.
One piece of information that would have made the third example even more effective would have been the inclusion of a quantitative improvement that these applications made at the company. For example, if, after the company started using the rapid deployment application deployment times decreased by an average of 30 minutes, that is powerful testimony to this person’s effectiveness. Know your numbers and list them.
Another story: One of my clients was a hardware testing engineer. He loved the troubleshooting process, finding errors in areas no one else had thought to test. He excelled at using his problem-solving skills to identify fixes for those issues, and worked with design and manufacturing teams to improve the products his company made. As he was looking for a new job, one of the items listed on his resumé under a previous position as a technical support engineer was the fact that he served as a mentor for some of his more junior colleagues. While mentoring may have been an important part of his role then, it was not what he enjoyed doing, nor did it support the story he was telling of himself as a Technical Problem Solver. On the other hand, his years as an emergency paramedic provided many valid experiences, even though they were in an unrelated field. “Identification of proper stabilizing medical procedures in a fast-paced, high-stress environment,” probably doesn’t capture the chaos of dealing with life-and-death ambulance rides, but it definitely demonstrates his experience with troubleshooting and solving problems.
STEP 1.3: WRITING YOUR OBJECTIVE
Even though it will probably be the first thing on your resumé (but more on that in the formatting section of Part 3), I recommend you write your objective third, because until you know where you’re coming from—which you just described in your summary and experience sections—you can’t know where you’re going.
Your objective should be one short sentence about what you genuinely want to accomplish. And when I say genuinely, I mean it. This should not be spun for a certain audience, nor is it for placating crotchety hiring managers or anyone else. Your objective should be the one thing you most authentically want to accomplish in the context of whichever company you’re applying to.
Let’s look at a few examples. Remember, our most important criterion is authenticity.
Sally: “To obtain a position as copy editor at the Huffington Post.”
If Sally has been working for years to obtain copy editing experience and training, and finally has an opportunity to apply to a publication she respects and admires, this is an authentic (if somewhat dull) objective statement. On the other hand, if Sally simply saw the job opening one day and sent over a hastily written resumé, the statement is still true, though not particularly authentic. And, interestingly, this is why this objective is bad if coming from the Sally who really wants to work for the Huffington Post; it’s indistinguishable from the statement of the Sally who just wants a job, any job. A good objective statement would make it perfectly clear how passionate Sally #1 was about about being an editor for HuffPo. Something like, say, “To bring my years of journalism and editing experience to bear for a powerful and influential online news publication.”
Aretha: “To make the world a better place by solving people’s problems one by one.”
Aretha’s objective looks pretty idealistic at first glance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as it’s authentic (are you seeing a pattern yet?); the bigger problem is that it’s rather vague. For a life coach, for example, it could be an authentic expression of how they see their role in relation to their clients. For an individual app developer, it might actually be a pretty good description of what they do. But for someone applying for a job whose top requirement was, “strong problem solving skills,” it’s simply saying what someone else wants to hear. And that never ranks high on the authenticity scale. A better statement would be more specific: “To help my coaching clients overcome each obstacle on their journey to create fulfilling lives for themselves and their families.”
Sam: “To land a job that will pay the bills.”
Our third example seems to have been written by a kid, and kind of a lazy one. “To get a job.” Really? I suppose they could have written, “To have a resumé,” or even, “To write an objective statement with no grammar or punctuation errors.” But despite its excessive brevity, even this statement could be effective if it is truly (you guessed it) authentic. If I’m a teenager looking for a job and am not particularly self-aware, this might be the most honest statement I could make. And if, as an honest person, I’m hoping to catch the attention of hiring managers at fast food restaurants who value my kind of authenticity, this statement would give me the best chance of getting a job that I would actually enjoy and can be successful at.
The point of the objective statement is not that you think it would sound good to someone else. The point is that it’s a statement that you will defend 100%, no matter what challenges it receives. That is how you know your objective is authentic.
STEP 1.4: LISTING YOUR EDUCATION
I won’t talk too much about this; it’s fairly basic and self-explanatory. List your education in the same format as your work experience—newest to oldest, sorted by institution, with years and degrees listed. (If you graduated with honors, I think it’s worth mentioning.) You want to paint a picture of where, when, and what you studied. If you have room and desire to include bullet points, do the same as with the experience section; make them support your summary, even if they initially seem unrelated. See my resumé at the bottom of this post for examples. My original education was for teaching music, but I drew out some relevant experiences to my current writing career.
STEP 1.5: LISTING THE OTHER STUFF
This includes, but isn’t limited to: awards, activities, accomplishments, hobbies, volunteer projects, memberships to personal or professional organizations. Anything that is a part of your life that justifies inclusion by supporting your summary statement should be added, and you can even add things that you are particularly proud of that don’t support your summary statement. For example, if you’re an amateur cook who won the barbecue sauce competition at the state fair three years running, that’s unique and cool, so say something about it! Keep your categories as few as possible, but make them descriptive. I think Awards and Activities is a catchy section heading, as is Organizations and Memberships. Those two groupings capture just about everything that you might want to list, and I include a Hobbies section on my resumé as well.
STEP 2: REFERENCES
In brief: Make a BIG list of pertinent references.
While you’re writing the things above, start working on your references section. Hiring is a human process, and human beings are social creatures. We are seen as greater or lesser by the number of people who esteem us. Your past professional relationships are important; not only are they a part of who you are today, but they are a reflection upon your personal and professional character. So, include references. Lots of them. Every one you can think of, in fact.
This might go without saying, but if you put someone on your list, make sure to let them know. You don’t need to ask permission, just shoot them an email or text that says you added them, and include a compliment or two (which shouldn’t be hard; they’re on your list because you liked or respected them, right?). If they don’t want to be listed, let them be the one to say so.
Never submit your references directly with your resumé, especially if you have a list of, say, 100 people. If they are requested, you will have them ready ahead of time. When a company asks for your references, send them along, formatted nicely in the same style as your resume (this point is to not make your reference list an afterthought). Here’s my list of references (with contact information obfuscated), for example.
So don’t make your list merely the 3 colleagues you would most want a potential employer to call. List anyone and everyone from your professional and educational past who you think would speak positively about you, and about whom you would speak positively if someone were to call you about them. But make sure everyone on your list is a professional reference, not a personal one.
STEP 3, 4, AND 5: REVIEW AND REVISE
This is such an important part of the process that I broke it into three different steps even though it’s conceptually probably the simplest thing on the list.
By now you have your resumé filled with content, and you feel like it’s a pretty good draft description of your professional character. Nice work! BUT! Don’t take it for granted; get another set of eyes on it. Step 3 is to find a friend or colleague that you trust and who is a good communicator. Give them your draft and ask for feedback (though not on format, obviously, since you haven’t done that yet). Don't explain your vision (you won't get to explain it to a hiring manager), just hand it over and let them read it. Then, ask them to explain to you what they just read. See if their explanation matches the idea in your head about what you were trying to communicate. Listen to their feedback and write it down (very important). At this point, you are only allowed to do two things: one, ask clarifying questions, so you understand their point of view; and two, say thank you. Do NOT defend or explain anything; the point of this exercise is to get feedback on what you’ve written, not to communicate what you were going for. Depending on your personality, this might be excruciating, but it is critical. Step 3 is to listen and understand only.
Step 4 is to humbly consider (later, on your own) whether or not your friend’s points are valid. Maybe they asked a question that showed they didn’t understand something you thought you made clear. Maybe they pointed out some grammatical errors. Maybe they didn’t like the tone you wrote your summary in. You may agree with some of their points and disagree with others, so you don’t have to make every change they suggested. Only make the ones you think are valid. Be deliberate, not reactionary, but keep your ego out of it; your resumé won’t be perfect, so make changes where necessary.
Finally, you’re nearing the end. Step 5 is to repeat steps 3 and 4. You might only need to do it once, but you may need to do it several times. You can use the same person as you did the first time, or a new person. It all depends on how many people you know and how much time you want to spend polishing up your resumé. The more important it is to you, the more times you should cycle. The ideal end result is that the reader of your resumé should be able to describe to you exactly the professional character you wanted them to get out of your resumé. Once you hear your own thoughts coming back to you from someone else’s mouth, you know you’ve written an outstanding resumé.
Come back soon, for Part 3: Formatting, optional sections, and alternative viewpoints. Thanks for reading!