Four Things You Didn't Know about Your Resume & Didn't Know to Ask


November 11, 2008

Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

There are almost as many myths and misconceptions about resumes as there are resumes. For most of us, our beliefs about resumes are unduly shaped by an article we read, a friend who got a job recently, or feedback from an employer.
It's what you don't know that you don't know that can interfere with creating the best resume for yourself. A resume is your first impression in the marketplace and too many people underestimate its importance. What follows are five tips from a resume and career expert for preparing your best resume.
Fact #1: Quality, not customization, matters.
Do not customize your resume for a particular job. Too many people mistakenly believe that the fastest way to land a job is to write a resume specifically for a particular job opening. Aside from the fact that it is an unreasonably labor-intensive approach (unless you think you only have to apply for one job to land your dream job which is a complete fantasy), it's also not an effective one. Why? Most people don't know how to customize their resumes in a fashion that will make a difference to an employer.
So what do they do? Often they write a job objective that dovetails perfectly with the description of the job opening, but leave the rest of the resume intact. Or maybe they add a ''profile'' section at the start of the resume that describes themselves in adjectives that appear in the job spec. This is obvious pandering to a particular employer (who is not dumb enough to fall for this superficial customization), and it doesn't work.
Instead, use multiple strategies to identify your specific accomplishments. Record the specific accomplishments that you are proudest of on each job. In addition, list your greatest skills and that subset of your greatest skills that you most enjoy using. Then think of a specific accomplishment that depended on the use of one of your greatest and most enjoyable skills.
Finally, and most importantly, put yourself in the shoes of a prospective employer for your target job. Ask what areas the employer would reasonably expect to see accomplishment for a competitive candidate. Record this list of areas, including functional areas, experience with a particular problem or issue, general categories like customer service, and any other areas that belong on this list. Then generate accomplishments for each category. Use the list to ensure that you don't have under- or over-coverage in any area, except in an area that is your specialty where it pays to have more than one accomplishment.
Fact #2: Marketability, not ability, matters.
One of the biggest misconceptions of job-seekers is that if they have the ability to do a job all that is required is to let an employer know of their ability and availability. This is a big mistake! A belief in ''transferable skills'' has led many people down the garden path of joblessness.
A successful job search (and supporting resume) depends on whether an employer will hire you for a job, not simply on whether you have the ability to do it. In other words, it's all about marketability, not ability. Too many job-seekers think that simply listing skills on a resume will compel an employer to hire them. But claims of skills (or traits or any other claims, absent factual evidence) won't compel anyone.
What will compel an employer is your track record which is best represented in the form of measurable accomplishments. Even if you haven't worked in the exact area, but believe you have relevant accomplishments, it is your responsibility to present your accomplishments in form and language that demonstrate value to your target audience of prospective employers.
For example, do not create a resume full of nonprofit fundraising lingo if you are seeking jobs in high tech sales and expect employers to translate your achievements into their own terms. This isn't their job and they are unlikely to have the time to do it. They are more likely to reject you because you have a different background. It's up to you to build your case.
Remember, the basic question is not, can I do this job, but will someone hire me to do this job?
Fact #3: Length matters.
Despite the temptation to do a data dump in your resume and tell prospective employers about every thing you have ever done on the job and every job that you have ever had, it is wise to remember that less is more when it comes to resumes. Your resume should be no more than two pages long, and those two pages should feature plenty of white space, generous one inch margins, and a decent 12 point font size to promote readability.
Many people worry that if they don't include every little thing they have ever done, they will miss mentioning the one particular piece of information that will matter most to an employer. This is a big mistake. The far greater danger to your candidacy is providing too much information which will irritate and overwhelm a prospective employer. If an employer is hiring, you can safely assume they have too much work and not enough people to do it. In this stressed state, the last thing a person wants to do is have to wade through an over-long resume. It's the written equivalent of a windbag, and who wants to hire a windbag?
Instead, make the two pages count. No filler, no over-long accomplishments that go on and on, no memberships in groups that everyone in your field belongs to, no GPA or undergraduate awards (unless you graduated in the past five years). You can even eliminate early jobs that are not relevant to your target, as long as you cover at least the past 10-15 years.
Fact #4: Accomplishments matter most.
The way to build your strongest case in a resume is by focusing on accomplishments specific measurable results you have produced on the job. Did you save money or time? Did you make money for the company? Win an award? Set up a new system that became the company standard? Provide extraordinary service? What sets you apart from the competition are your contributions or results. Your job responsibilities are secondary because the best predictor of future performance is past performance. Quantified results showcase you in the strongest way, so devote your attention, effort, and resume space to a strong set of quantified accomplishments.
Do not fall into the trap of simply reformatting job responsibilities into bullets. A bullet does not make a responsibility into a contribution. And a contribution has far greater impact than a responsibility, since a responsibility cannot show how well you handled that responsibility, only that it was assigned to you.
Here's an example of the difference between responsibility and accomplishment: A technical writer's job description might include a sentence or two such as ''One of 10 technical writers for one of the 10 largest online networking companies in the U.S. Write reports, white papers, and marketing plans for the Marketing department.''
Her accomplishments might include:
Co-authored a report on social networking uses in e-marketing that became the basis for a new $10M company initiative
Developed a white paper template that is now used in all 12 company divisions nationwide
Put the major focus and effort in your resume on accomplishments where your efforts will pay off most.
By following these tips you can prepare the resume that you never dreamed was possible because you never knew how to build your best case. Focusing on accomplishments, avoiding the traps of writing a new resume for each job opening or making claims about skills instead of showing what you can do based on what you've already done, and keeping your resume short and readable, a powerful and effective resume can be yours for the asking.
About the Author
Rachelle J. Canter is President of RJC Associates which provides career, leadership, and team development services to client organizations. Shelley has 20+ years of experience in executive search, assessment, development, and outplacement, including work with industry leaders such as Korn/Ferry International and Drake Beam Morin. She is adjunct faculty and lead coach for the Women's Senior Leadership Program at the Kellogg School of Management. She has written and spoken widely on career and leadership issues and has authored an action-oriented career guide, Make the Right Career Move, published in 2007 by Wiley. Shelley earned her Ph.D. in Social-Personality Psychology (where her dissertation was on achievement in women) from the University of Colorado, and is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University with a B.A. in Psychology. Complete information on her firm, services, clients, and publications is available on the RJC website at