How to Build Your Résumé: Expert Tips

Marianne Hayes
·10 mins read

From sticking to a format that works to including personal details that catch the attention of employers, there’s a lot to consider when thinking about how to build your résumé.

Standing out from the pack has never been more important, especially since most recruiters spend an average of only 7.4 seconds initially scanning a candidate’s résumé, according to career site Ladders, Inc. That isn’t much time to make a great first impression.

Need some résumé help? We spoke with experts to break down what it takes to supercharge your résumé in today’s crowded job market. Here are some tips on creating your résumé, along with where to find résumé templates and what to do once you’re done.

Stick with a conventional format Pay close attention to the top third of your résumé Ditch the objective statement Break down your work experience and core competencies Include keywords to outsmart applicant tracking systems Know where to spotlight your education Don’t forget to highlight any volunteer experience Really ask yourself if your personal interests deserve space on your résumé Don’t discount life experience that could make you an attractive candidate

Plus:

Some stellar résumé templates to consider What’s next now that your résumé is built? Stick with a conventional format

When it comes to edging out the competition, it’s tempting to overhaul your résumé with a completely unique format — anything to stop a hiring manager in their tracks and make them curious about you. Insiders say to resist the urge.

“The larger the company, the more likely they are to incorporate applicant tracking systems in their hiring process,” Peter Yang, CEO of ResumeGo, told Student Loan Hero. “The fancier the résumé design you use, the more likely you are to end up with a résumé that these applicant tracking systems can’t read properly, so it’s usually better in cases like these to use more basic résumé designs.”

According to research from résumé optimization site Jobscan, about 99% of Fortune 500 companies use this type of software to automatically sift through résumés. This is why Amanda Augustine, career expert at TopResume, told Student Loan Hero that less is more.

“If you’re in a creative role, save that creativity for your personal website or online portfolio,” she said. “You need to keep your résumé in a format and design that has a visual balance to it and that’s easy for an individual to quickly glance at and pull out the most important pieces of information.”

Pay close attention to the top third of your résumé

When thinking about how to build your résumé, Augustine noted that the most important piece is the space that takes up the top third of the page. Look at it as a snapshot of who you are as a candidate.

“It whets the appetite, sets the stage and gets them interested in learning more about you,” she said.

Before unpacking your skills and work experience, make sure your basic identifying information is on point. Overlooking this step could eliminate your résumé right off the bat. Be sure to include:

Your name and phone number (don’t worry about including a street address). A professional email address. If you’re still using your college email, it’s time to make a switch. A customized URL to your LinkedIn profile. Augustine said that most professions expect you to have a fleshed-out profile that tells the same story you see on your résumé. LinkedIn is also the place to include a photo and more in-depth information about what you’ve done at each role you’ve held. Ditch the objective statement

The old-fashioned objective statement is now considered antiquated in today’s modern job market. Objective statements are very self-centered by design. They call out what you want in a job, instead of addressing the employer’s needs. This is why Augustine suggested getting with the times and replacing it with a three- to five-sentence professional summary instead.

“When you think about it, the résumé is a marketing document, and you’re positioning it toward your target audience,” she added. “Who’s that? The recruiter or hiring manager.”

Your professional summary should be a catchy blurb that spotlights the things they care about most, like why you’re the best fit for the role they’re trying to fill. It’s also an ideal space for spotlighting soft skills that could make you stand out as a candidate. Keep it to a few sentences — think of it as the appetizer for your cover letter.

Break down your work experience and core competencies

Now for the meat and potatoes — what to put on a résumé. Naturally, your skills and work experience are far and away the most crucial part.

“You should never submit a résumé without including your most recent work experience, which arguably is the most important section and what hiring managers will home in on the most,” said Yang.

Now isn’t the time to be modest. Instead of using vague, general language to describe your industry experience and job responsibilities, really dig into the value you’ve brought to your current and previous roles. What concrete ways did you help contribute to the company’s revenue goals?

Beyond that, this part of your résumé is where you want to call out your core competencies: Think tech abilities and relevant proficiencies. You’ll also want to throw in your soft skills, like public speaking, visual communication, listening and more.

Include keywords to outsmart applicant tracking systems

Again, a good chunk of companies use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to scan résumés for relevant keywords and specific pieces of information. This helps them weed out duds so that only the best résumés find their way to hiring managers.

“To give your résumé the best shot at getting past ATS, you’ll want to predict what these keywords are and include them on your résumé,” said Yang. “A common strategy used is to include on your résumé the same skills and keywords mentioned in the original job description.”

Naturally sprinkling those words and phrases throughout your résumé gives it a fighting chance when up against a smart ATS software. Augustine suggested tweaking your résumé and replacing things as necessary so that it mirrors the language you see in the job posting.

Know where to spotlight your education

You may assume that your work experience should always come first when tackling how to build your résumé — not always, according to Augustine. If you’ve recently graduated or have only been in the workforce for under five years, it’s actually in your best interest to put your education up top.

“It’s really about flaunting what you have and bragging about the most relevant items,” said Augustine. “When you’re fresh out of school, typically that shiny new degree, along with some internships, are your best selling points.”

This is also where you want to highlight clubs you belonged to in school, student organizations, extracurriculars and any other details about your education that might translate to the job posting and give you an edge over the competition.

Don’t forget to highlight any volunteer experience

To be clear, the motivation behind volunteering should always be helping others and making a positive difference. The thing to remember is that these are two admirable traits that really speak to your character — and they’re worth sharing with prospective employers.

Volunteering also appears to have a positive effect on earnings for folks in professional and managerial roles, according to findings published in Social Science Research. What’s more, it just might give you a leg up in landing a job. One 2013 study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that applicants who had a history of volunteering were 27% more likely to get hired.

Really ask yourself if your personal interests deserve space on your résumé

“Whenever you are on the fence about including something on your résumé, you should ask yourself if it’s something that hiring managers would actually find impressive and relevant to the job,” said Yang. “If the answer is no, don’t bother mentioning it.”

Let’s say you’re into competitive gaming as a hobby. If you’re applying for a job as a game designer, that’s definitely worth mentioning. If you’re a financial advisor, not so much.

Saying on your résumé that you like to travel in your spare time doesn’t do much to differentiate you from other candidates. But if you’re applying for a sales job and you’re part of an improv team in your spare time, that shows you have a knack for thinking on your feet and presenting in front of groups.

Don’t discount life experience that could make you an attractive candidate

Take a minute to think about any past experiences that showcase skills that would translate to the job you’re applying for. Many of us shy away from putting things like part-time retail experience or bartending on our résumés, but it could actually work in your favor.

“Saying you waited tables, for instance, could be considered attractive because you’re not good at being a server unless you’ve got some personality and are good with interacting with customers, so it does lend itself to some of those softer skills that are considered very valuable,” said Augustine. “Don’t discount those other very common roles that people take on while they’re getting through school.”

This is especially true if you don’t have much to spotlight in the way of internships or industry experience.

Some stellar résumé templates to consider

There certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all template for how to build your résumé, but looking at how others have created their résumés may help stoke your inspiration.

If you need some ideas as jumping-off points, use an internet search engine to look for “resume template” or even “great resume.” Many of the formats you’ll find may be free to use.

Or else, try searching for “resume builder.” A large selection of these are also free, and they can walk you through all the various fields that you’ll likely want to include. Some popular word-processing software also include similar tools to build your résumé, such as Microsoft Word and Apple Pages.

What’s next now that your résumé is built?

Keep your résumé fresh. We tend to update our résumés when job hunting, but it’s an easier task if we modify it gradually over time. Be mindful of adding new skills and experiences as you learn them. The same goes for any new trainings you participate in, as well as recognition or rewards you receive. It can be easy to forget these things when time passes. Keep a running list so that it’s easy to add to your résumé when you need it.

Personalize your résumé for each new job listing. “If you’re sending out a generic résumé that hasn’t been tailored to the job, you’re wasting your time and probably theirs,” said Augustine. “You are going through these initial gatekeepers, both electronic and human, and they’re quickly scanning.”

If your résumé isn’t ATS optimized for that position, and you aren’t immediately showing them why you’re a good fit, you’re going to be passed over. Augustine suggested building a foundational résumé that applies to your industry, then taking a few minutes and modifying it for each specific job listing.

Keep track of where you’ve submitted your résumé. If you’re in a situation where you’re blasting out your résumé to a large volume of listings, be sure to keep track of where and when you’ve applied. (A simple spreadsheet will do the trick.) It’s customary to send a follow-up email one to two weeks after applying. Take notes of any correspondence, so a potential job doesn’t fall through the cracks.

There are a lot of moving parts at play when figuring out how to build your résumé. The end game here is showcasing what makes you the best person for the job while optimizing your résumé for applicant tracking systems. Keeping it clean and easy to read is the cherry on top.

Rebecca Safier contributed to this report.

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