Writing Your Resume - an Introduction

Resumes are a critical part of job-hunting, and often one of the most confusing. This guide will help you with the basics of building your resume and give you tips to help you stand out from other applicants.

Resume

First, let's talk about what a resume really is. A resume is a high-level summary of your experience and traits that qualify you for a job. It provides employers with relevant information to help them make a quick decision on whether or not you have the skills necessary for the job you want. It is not a list of everything you have ever done. The resume's main function is to quickly grab the employer's attention, so that he or she wants to bring you in for an interview. For that reason, it should be simple and easy to read.

But where do you start? Deciding what to put on your resume can be overwhelming, so I recommend beginning with a brainstorming exercise. Make a list of all the jobs you've held and the activities, events, and special projects you have worked on. List your best traits. What are you good at? What do people say when they describe you? What have you learned that will be useful in a professional setting?

After you have some good starting information, use our free resume builder or find a template you like online. Formatting can be a headache, so don’t try to create a resume from nothing. Dedicated software and templates make your job much easier, because you can focus on creating the best content, rather than line spacing and margins. Choose a design that looks professional and suits your industry. Many universities offer free templates, Texas A&M, for example, has a great site with downloadable templates.

So, what goes on your resume?

Contact Information

Your name, phone number, email address, and permanent address should be at the top of your resume, no matter what template you choose.

Tips: Make sure to use a professional email address. School email addresses are great, because they usually use your name, but you can also use free personal accounts. Ensure that your voicemail message is professional and states your name, so that employers know they have called the right person.

Work Experience

This will be listed in reverse chronological order, unless you are trying to highlight experience that is tailored to the industry. Include the name of the company, the name of your position, the dates you were employed, and no more than three bullet points about the job. Bullets should be focused on what you achieved, and should use active verbs. This means use “managed” instead of “was in charge of.” These points do not have to be complete sentences and should be specific and easy to understand. Instead of saying “Improved retention rates,” say “Improved retention rates by 5 percent.” Use numbers where applicable to show a measurable difference. It is acceptable to list a few important job duties, especially in highly technical positions employers in other fields may not understand.

Tip: Don't go overboard. The point is to give a few key points about what you contributed during your employment, not to tell them everything about the job. You can explain in more detail once you have the interview. Remember, you are selling yourself, so focus on you.

Education

List your degrees in reverse chronological order, meaning the most recent first. Do not list your high school, unless that is the highest level of education obtained, and you are a recent graduate. You'll want to list the name of the school, the degree obtained and the field of study (Bachelor of Arts in English), the month and year received, and your GPA.

Tips: Don't abbreviate your degree as B.A. or M.B.A. If you have not yet graduated, put the expected graduation date.

Other Information

Chances are that you'll want to include additional sections, but choosing those sections depends on the job, your experience, and what you are looking to highlight. Common additions are objectives, honors, awards, certifications, skills, and activities, particularly if they demonstrate leadership abilities.

Some people like to include objectives in resumes, and this is generally fine, but not required. This can also be useful if you want to take up more space on the page. Be careful that your objective is not so narrow that it pigeonholes you in an employer’s eyes, and make sure your objective aligns with the company's mission.

For honors, awards, and certifications, list the title and date of each award. If it is not a general award that most people understand, like dean's list, provide a brief description of the award. This section can also include membership in honor societies. Certifications should only be included if they are relevant to the job.

Skill sections are used if you want to stress knowledge of something that may not be conveyed in your work experience. Many people use this section for foreign languages and popular computer software in specific industries, such as graphic designers listing proficiency in the Adobe Creative Suite. This could also include leadership, public speaking, or any number of skills that are relevant to you the job.

Tip: Do not say that you are an expert in something if you are not an expert, and don’t say you are fluent in a language if you aren’t. Instead, use words like proficient or skilled. Do not include irrelevant skills.

Activity sections can be used to supplement work experience, especially for recent graduates. If you did not work much in school, but you were captain of the football team, this is where you would put that information in order to show your ability to juggle multiple commitments. Usually, this section will be used for leadership activities, such as Student Council President or Treasurer of the German Club.

Tip: Be careful not to include unrelated activities, but don't undersell yourself. Captain of the football team can apply to that journalism job if you know how to spin it.

General Tips

  • You should save a copy of your general resume, but you should tweak it for each application. Research companies and tailor your resume to each company. One way to do this is to use keywords that you find repeated on their websites or in trade publications. This will automatically make employers see how you fit into their company culture. Just be careful not to go keyword crazy.
  • Resume length is a hotly debated topic. Should you stick to one page or go over if the experience is relevant? A general rule is that your experience justifies your length. Most employers will be accepting of resumes that go over one page if the experience fits the job. Do note that many experts believe that unless you’ve held a job in the industry, you don’t have the experience to have a second page. Make sure if you do go over, that you have at least half a page of quality additional information. If it's less, you may have been wordy on the front page, so rephrase your information to be more concise. You can also adjust font sizes and line spacing, but keep your resume readable.
  • If you are having trouble filling a page because you lack work experience, you can supplement with relevant coursework, especially if you are a new graduate. This may include classes or significant projects.
  • Don't list references on your resume unless you are asked for them, and then print them on a separate page.
  • Don't list hobbies. You can talk about your love of kayaking in the interview.
  • The goal of a resume is to be a quick summary. Don't give too much information. You just want your resume to generate enough interest to get you an interview.
  • Keep your resume up to date by reviewing it every few months or whenever you have something new to add. This makes it much easier to apply to jobs in the future.
  • Proofread. I can’t stress strongly enough the importance of spelling and grammar on your resume. After you read through your resume, ask a friend to review it, too. Don’t let a silly mistake keep you from landing the job.
  • If you have questions, most colleges and universities have career service centers that review resumes. Don't be afraid to ask for help!
Peggy Carouthers

Author: Peggy Carouthers

In a previous life Peggy worked as a human resources and hiring manager for a major national retail chain. Her expertise is in job hunting, hiring, and HR. These days Peggy works as a writer, crafting content for a range of publications.
Peggy Carouthers