I look at dozens of resumés each day. What never ceases to amaze me is how daggum confusing many of them are. I usually think, “How hard is it to put together a logical, lucid summary of your background? This isn’t rocket surgery!”
For those who struggle in this arena, it might be helpful to think of your resumé as a short story about your career history. It should engage the reader; however, unlike an O. Henry short story, it should not leave the reader confused.
Since your resumé is often the first thing a prospective employer sees when evaluating you as a candidate, you could easily be relegated to the digital circular file without further consideration if your resumé baffles the reader.
Here are four ways to ensure your resumé tells a clear, logical story:
- Mind the Gap
If your resumé has a gap in time in which you didn’t work, attend school, or otherwise productively engage yourself, a potential employer is going to wonder about it (and likely assume the worst: that you were sitting around eating take-out and watching The View. The horror!).Don’t think for a minute that using a pretty typeface or jam packing the resumé with other stuff will distract readers into not noticing. They will notice.If you’re lucky, employers will attempt to figure out why there is a gap. If the resumé doesn’t provide that information, they will look to the cover letter. If the answer isn’t there, they might ask you for clarification. But there is a good chance they will just put you in the maybe pile (a.k.a. resumé purgatory) or hit delete.Avoid this fate by addressing gaps in your resumé up front. Did you engage in consulting work? Did you take a year off to travel the world? Did you take time to care for an ailing parent? Were you raising your kids? In most cases, telling the story of what you did is a far better option that not saying anything at all…which brings me to #2!
- Address Personal Subjects
Let’s face it: sometimes our personal lives take precedent over our work lives. Many people take significant time off work at some point during their careers to address a critical personal need (such as being a caregiver to children, parents, spouses, or siblings). In my experience, it is better to briefly describe this in your resumé than to leave the gap unaddressed.Case in point: a client recently reviewed a candidate’s resumé and asked us, “Do you know why her resumé looks a bit jumpy?” It turns out the candidate had taken time off work to be with her young children, but she hadn’t explained that part of her story in her resumé. We were able to clarify that for the client, but I hate to think what might have happened if we weren’t involved. (The client would have assumed the candidate was spending her days watching Joy Behar wax poetic on politics! Yikes!)Another case in point: we recently had a candidate who very clearly addressed on his resumé his time as a “Stay-At-Home-Dad.” He cleverly reminded the reader how challenging childrearing can be. His duties included “implementation of household operational procedures,” “finance management,” and “complaint resolution.” His story was clear (and fun to read!), and the reaction from clients was overwhelmingly positive.
- Include Dates
If your resumé reads like a confusing whodunit (or a whendidhedoit) instead of a logical story, you’re in trouble.The first and most obvious way to prevent this problem is to include dates — for employment, college, military service, etc.I recently had a client call me to discuss one candidate’s particularly confusing resumé (which was lacking many critical dates). We must have gone in circles for 10 minutes trying to figure out the candidate’s career trajectory.Finally, I suggested we put the onus on the candidate to explain (something the candidate should have done from the start!). Unfortunately, by the time the candidate responded, the client had moved on. Again, if the candidate had started by articulating a coherent story, we might have had a happier ending.
Remember: if after including dates on your resumé you still think there is room for confusion about your background, address those areas in your cover letter.
- Skip the Bio and “Functional Resumé”
Occasionally I receive a biography from a candidate instead of a real resumé. Ug. It always feels like I’m reading someone’s Match.com profile.Biographies rarely include dates, and they almost always include fluff. Lots of fluff. For a job in the free-market nonprofit sector, I strongly suggest telling your story through a resumé. Save the bio for dating sites (where fluff is encouraged).And while we’re on that topic, please, for the love of resumés and all that is holy, do NOT use a “functional resumé” format. (A functional resumé focuses on skills and experience rather than on a chronological work history.) This format is not only confusing to readers, it’s also a dead-giveaway that you’re trying to hide something by distracting the reader with a shiny object.
Hopefully these tips will help you craft a coherent story in the form of a resumé that will make everyone proud (except maybe O. Henry and your next Match date).