Preparing Résumés


Be sure to read our Résumé Formatting guide, as well. It offers more precise layout tips.

The creation of a résumé or curriculum vitae often seems deceptively simple. After all, how difficult can it be to list your education and employment history? But as with any type of writing, you quickly discover that creating a short document can be more challenging than one without any space restrictions. The art behind a résumé is stating as much as possible in as few words as absolutely required by the task.

What a Résumé Does

Somehow, a résumé is expected to accomplish the following:

  • Demonstrate a reliable, appropriate job history in your chosen field
  • Express both general and specific skills the employer might desire
  • Indicate educational achievements, including any awards
  • Sell you as a likely positive addition to an organization!

All of these tasks must be accomplished in one or two pages, unless you are asked to submit a specialized résumé, detailed job history, or curriculum vitae. If you are asked to submit a detailed document, it is still important to use as few words as possible. The truth is, your first page determines if any more will be read — even if you submit a two-page résumé.

What to Include

There are six items a résumé or CV must have, regardless of format:

  • Your name and contact information, including an email address
  • Educational history, usually only post-secondary and specialized training
  • Academic or non-profit organization honors and awards
  • Work history, which might be limited due to space limitations
  • Employer or professional organization honors and awards
  • Publications, especially those related to your field

A longer format allows for several optional sections. These are most common in CV, international, and online formats. Common options include:

  • A statement of purpose or career objective
  • Memberships in professional and non-profit organizations
  • Specialized skills, such as computer applications, foreign languages spoken, and similarly valuable skills
  • Government clearances or similar qualifications for specialized jobs

International résumés might require items not encouraged by United States labor laws and privacy regulations. It is possible that previous salaries, personal data, and even a photograph might be required in some cases. Always contact an employer or someone with expertise before submitting an international résumé.

Sections of a Résumé

To help you consider the sections to include in your résumé, we will describe the major sections and explain when and how to include them. Some sections are situational — they work well for some job applications but not others. Also, your level of experience and specialized talents can dictate what sections benefit your job search.

Objective

We discourage the inclusion of an objective unless you can be both specific and compelling. An objective should describe a specific job title and duties familiar to the company or organization receiving your résumé. If you decide to include an objective, it should be a clear statement that you seek career advancement. Companies want employees who will grow and improve.

Weak Objective: To secure a position that encourages creativity and allows me to use the skills I have learned during my education.

Real Objective: To work as the national marketing manager for a major department store, drawing on my experiences as a regional manager.

The problem with objectives is that they set limits. A good interview question is, “Once you accomplisg this objective, what will be your new objective?”

Education

Education should top most résumés. There are exceptions, when education might follow other sections, but usually by the time your accomplishments are that impressive few employers will ask to see a traditional résumé. Writers and scholars might list publication credits ahead of education. But, most job hunters will list education at the top of a one or tw0-page résumé.

  • Indicate month and year of degree completions, not date ranges.
  • Include grade point average (G.P.A.) only if high for your major.

If you have completed at least a bachelor’s degree, do not include high school information. If you are still enrolled in an undergraduate program, or if you have not attended college, then it is appropriate to indicate high school graduation.

Work History

For most job seekers, their work history is the most important section of a résumé. You do not have to include every job; limit yourself to the most recent posts and those most related to your job search. Remember, a résumé is short and cannot include everything in most cases. When you list a post, use the following guidelines:

  • List the employer, your position, and period of employment.
  • Do not include addresses, phone numbers, or other contact information for supervisors.
  • Begin every bullet point with an action verb (“parallel structure”).
  • Be specific and quantifiable; avoid vague self-praise.
  • Use past tense verbs for past jobs. Include at least the previous five years.

Weak Item: Provided excellent service in a fast-paced call center environment.

Specific: Handled an average of seven customer calls per hour, with a 94 percent solution rate.

You can list several employers under a single job title instead of the traditional “employer-position” model. This approach works well for entry-level posts (ex: work as a server at two restaurants).

Publications (or Exhibits, etc.)

Writers, artists, and academics tend to include publications, art exhibits, productions, or public appearances in their résumés. Usually, only major publications or exhibits are included within a short résumé, while a complete list is included in an academic curriculum vitae.

Professional and Civic Organizations

Because many people “belong to” organizations simply to add them to résumés, only include organizations if you can include specific activities or roles within the organizations. Holding any elected post within a civic or professional organization demonstrates you are engaged in service, not merely padding credentials.

Volunteer Work

As with organizations, only include volunteerism that is demonstrable. If you read one time at a children’s library, that does not make you a library volunteer. If you spend ten hours a month at the resource desk, then you are a library volunteer. Time is the best measure of commitment to organizations and volunteer work.

Safety Concerns

Unfortunately, technology has resulted in an explosion of identity theft. For this reason, many potential references would prefer that you offer only their phone and email contact information. In many cases it is best to offer only work contact information, since home phone numbers and personal email addresses are used by hackers via reverse directories to steal data. Reverse directories were once only in print form and hard to use, but today the data are online.

Also, realize that if you use some email addresses, you are inviting employers to look for you on Facebook, MySpace, and various blogging sites. It is a good idea to use one email address exclusively for professional purposes, never using that address for anything else. The address should be similar to your name, so it will not bias employers.

Traditional Résumés

There are several ways to classify résumé designs. The following sections describe basic classifications based on the organization style of the résumé. You will notice that electronic designs are presented as their own style, primarily because space is less of an issue.

Chronological

The most common résumé format is a reverse chronology of education and work experiences. Most chronological résumés are organized in the following sections:

  • Education
  • Work Experience
  • Specialized Skills
  • Professional Awards

There is no obligation to adhering to this order for your sections. You might place awards ahead of work experience if you have received national awards likely to impress a reader. It is also common to include military service between education and work experience, but some people choose to include the military within the work experience section.

Skills and Knowledge

The skills and knowledge format is used by students and others with limited work experience. In the skills résumé, internships and volunteer work often replace job experience. Also, it is acceptable to include academic organizations. Employers understand that most students will not have three major employers and a Pulitzer Prize before graduation.

  • Education
  • Academic Awards
  • Academic Organizations
  • Specialized Skills
  • Internships and Volunteerism
  • Work Experience

Functional

Use a functional résumé when you need to highlight particular work experience and skills instead of the order in which you held positions. In a functional résumé, headings are job titles or categories. For example, headings might be “Retail Management” or “Software Development” with related posts under those headings. It is also common to compose a short explanation under each heading. Limit the explanation to no more than four lines of text.

Creative

A creative résumé is generally a creative product that includes the items found in more conservative designs. A creative résumé might be illustrated, hand lettered, or even in the form of cross-stitch. The creative résumé is similar to a portfolio — it is meant to demonstrate a skill the employer seeks. You’d never send a comic book to an accounting firm, but you might send one to Marvel Entertainment.

Additional Advice

Some suggestions do not fit well under the previous headings, but are important. These tips are based on errors we have seen, especially within résumés submitted by young students.

General Style Tips

These suggestions ensure a reader understands the content of your résumé. Assumptions are always risky, so reduce the amount of guessing required when reading a business document.

  • Capitalize properly: Occupations and fields of study are not proper nouns unless they are job titles or appear within headings.
  • Avoid regional abbreviations or acronyms for places: Outside Minnesota, the common TC (Twin Cities) and Mpls (Minneapolis) are meaningless.
  • Use “medium” or “long” dates, not numeric dates: International and U.S. standards differ for numeric dates.

People and Places: Correct and Complete

A sure way to sabotage your chances for a job interview is to misspell names of people or products. Double check and triple check all names. If you aren’t sure if a product name is a registered trademark, and therefore a proper noun, check.

  • Include city and state for all schools, organizations, and employers.
  • Verify the names of all people, companies, and products, but you do not need to use special symbols such as ® in documents.

Age Changes Things

Remember that as you age your résumé needs to change. You should remove older items, and less impressive items, as you gain employment experience. Never let your résumé go more than a couple of years without an overhaul, either.

  • Include aspects of high school only if you are under 25 and the accomplishments are outstanding.
  • Include only recent and related positions as you gain experience, seldom more than four positions.
  • Revise your résumé every two years, at least, and keep it updated for emergencies.

Updating your résumé is important if you have to suddenly start a job search. However, it is also useful to update the résumé regularly because we all forget things. If you do something great at work, update the résumé.

Additional Content

These final suggestions emphasize some earlier points. You want to ensure that employers have as few reasons as possible to reject your application. This means you want to omit any information that could work against you. The sad reality is that people have biases. Until you know those biases, why take chances?

  • Sections such as Skills, Qualifications, and Activities can be perceived as “filler” unless you have an outstanding reason to include one or more of these.
  • Skills are important in some fields, such as knowledge of software or the ability to operate machinery.
  • Activities and group memberships can reveal your religion, political beliefs, or other biases an employer or interviewer might not share.

Résumé Formatting

Our guide to Résumé Formatting offers specific layout and design advice.



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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 27-May-2014
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach