Four Key Ingredients for Resume Success (and how to screw up the recipe)
Grandmom always brought the apple pie to family events. She “taught” all of the grandkids to make it and even gave us the recipe, but none of us have ever been able to duplicate the taste the texture of the flaky crust. It’s not that the recipe is that difficult to follow, but Gran had a sixth sense about baking and she perfected her signature dessert over many years.
No, resumes aren’t really like apple pie, but there is a similarity to the process that Gran used when she baked. Creating a winning resume (or a great apple pie) requires a combination of art and science. For resume building tips, there is a formula that’s determined largely by employers and the methods they use to select qualified candidates. There’s also an art to combining the ingredients in a way that clearly and quickly conveys the candidate’s capabilities and why he or she should be at the top of the stack for interview selection.
At CareerPro Global, we’ve helped a few people with their resumes over the years. We’ve tracked their experiences and gained a sense of the best combination of ingredients for resumes that get interviews and land jobs. As much as we’d like to keep remembering Gran’s wonderful pie, today’s post is about the key ingredients for a writing a successful resume, plus a little advice on how to avoid screwing up the recipe.
Ingredient #1: Focus
You have about 10 seconds to make your point. That’s the average amount of time that a recruiter will spend on the first scan of a resume. If your message isn’t focused and targeted, your resume will end up in the round file. Your goal is to get the interview. To do that, you must quickly and clearly demonstrate why you are uniquely qualified – the best fit for the position.
In the past, you might have included this kind of specific information in a cover letter, accompanied with a generic resume. Unfortunately, if you submit a cover letter today, it’s increasingly unlikely that it will be read. In most large companies, the first selection screen will probably be automated and most HR professionals won’t spend time with an introductory letter.
If you have the opportunity to submit your resume directly to a hiring manager via email, they may take the time to read a paragraph or two. In this case, it makes sense to include a short and direct statement of qualification in the body of the email. Emphasize short.
What this means is that every resume should be customized. Each resume you send should be edited and focused on that particular opportunity. Customization goes beyond boilerplate where you fill in the blank with a company name. You’ll want to tailor your professional summary to directly address the position requirements and also include relevant accomplishments as you document your career experience.
How to screw up the recipe:
Seeking a challenging position that offers professional growth
Of course you are! Isn’t everyone? Fuzzy, vague resume language is probably the easiest way to encourage a decision maker to put your resume in the discard pile. Forget the odd objective statements and avoid the contrived expressions. Use clear, tight language to express what you achieved, created, managed or improved and why it qualifies you for the position you are seeking.
Ingredient #2: Keywords
You must get past the robots before you reach the humans in HR. Unless you’re applying exclusively for positions with small businesses, it’s likely that your resume will be processed by an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). The federal government and larger businesses use ATS platforms to manage applications and to sort them to prequalify potential candidates. While newer systems claim to include contextual analysis, most of the data used for sorting comes from a keyword scan of the applications and resume submissions.
Recruiters input the keywords for the position they’re seeking to fill. The ATS robots shuffle the resumes and select the ones that score highest for the selected keywords. If you can predict the keywords that will be searched for a specific position, it follows logically that you can improve your chances of ranking in the sort.
You can get some great clues from the job posting. Read the descriptions carefully to see which words and phrases are repeated and emphasized. If you’re interested in what the robots will see, you can even create your own keyword visualization using tagcrowd.com. Input the job description and tagcrowd will generate a word cloud that identifies keywords and frequencies. Incorporate the same keywords in the headings and text of your resume. You may want to consider front-loading the keywords in the professional summary or under a Skills or Areas of Proficiency heading above your career history.
How to screw up the recipe:
There are a couple of good ways to screw up this part of the recipe. The first has to do with formatting. Many of the older ATS platforms have difficulties scanning .pdf files. Other platforms look for specific sequence orders – Employer Name, Job Title, Dates. They may not index previous employers if the sequence is different. For best results, stick with simple formatting and submit a Microsoft Word file.
It’s also possible to sabotage your own resume with too many keywords. The practice of “keyword stuffing” overloads the resume with the keywords you think the ATS will search for. The objective is to come out at the top of the machine sort, but the consequence can be a resume that is difficult for humans to read.
Ingredient #3: Clear Writing
Remember, it’s still the humans who make the final decisions. You’ll want to use language that is clear, demonstrative, and includes keywords in context. Use natural language that is direct and in active voice. When writing a successful resume, avoid too much specialized jargon. If you get through the machines, the HR folks who get the next look at your resume are likely to be generalists. They may not instantly relate to acronyms, even if they are standard in your discipline or industry.
Recruiters will scan your resume before they read it in depth. A quick glance at your resume should provide the primary reasons that you should be considered. That means that key information about your qualifications for the position must be conveyed in the summary paragraph and the headings. If you pass the scan, the recruiter may read your career chronology in depth for the specifics.
Don’t use too much of this ingredient. At least for corporate resumes, shorter is probably better. The one page rule doesn’t necessarily apply, but it’s unlikely that HR team will read past the second page unless they’ve asked you to supply specific credentials. Write incisively. Use bullets to illustrate results. Emphasize recent experience that’s relevant to the position you’re seeking.
Finally, don’t forget the contact information. You can include email hyperlinks in Microsoft Word files. It’s a nice feature that saves a step for a hiring manager who wants to get in touch.
How to screw up the recipe:
Poor layout can undermine the best writing. Unless you’re looking for a graphic arts gig, it’s really not a great idea to incorporate fancy design elements into your resume. It will scramble the machines and distract the humans.
One of the worst ideas we’ve seen recently is incorporation of QR codes into a resume document. QRs failed 10 years ago when marketers tried to convince consumers that they provided easy mobile access to content. It’s extremely unlikely that a QR is going to inspire a decision maker to visit your online resume when the one you sent him is in front of his nose.
Ingredient #4: Accomplishments (not duties)
Accentuate the positive. As you detail your career experience, concentrate on accomplishments and avoid the impulse to list the duties of the job. It’s a logical assumption that one of the duties of a Boeing 747 pilot is flying the plane. An accomplishment is safely flying a 747 from California to Florida with the Space Shuttle piggybacked on top.
Federal job applications can require extensive documentation of accomplishments, but the shortened format for private sector resumes makes telling a detailed story difficult. You’ll have to get creative. The same Challenge, Context, Action, Results (CCAR) model that CareerPro Global uses to develop qualifications for federal resumes can be creatively collapsed into a couple of sentences to illustrate an accomplishment on a corporate resume. Here’s an example:
Collaborated with Boeing and NASA to develop protocols and skills required to safely fly the Space Shuttle across country. Completed 7 safe shuttle transfer missions as pilot.
How to screw up the recipe:
“As a child, I always enjoyed building jigsaw puzzles and was always determined to find the missing piece.”
Are you still looking for the missing pieces? The 747 pilot story is much better. Be careful with the illustrations you choose. Your stories be designed to provoke a follow up question at an interview. They need to be solid and factual, and you should also be able to tell the CCAR narrative in a way that demonstrates your unique qualifications.
Baking the Pie
Like Gran’s pies, the ingredients for a winning resume are really no mystery. You can find plenty of advice here on the CareerPro Global website and many other places online. Here’s the problem, though. Even with Gran’s recipe, none of the grandkids have really ever produced the perfect pies that she made.
Gran was an expert baker and she loved cooking for her friends and her family. We all went back to Gran for help when our efforts at baking apple pie fell flat. Our results were so much better when we were in her kitchen.
That same principle applies with your resume. Maybe you’ve read the recipes and made a strong attempt to bake a great resume, but the results are falling flat. If your resume isn’t producing calls and interviews, perhaps you should look for some expert help. That’s what we’re here for at CareerPro Global.
Working with the master resume writers at CareerPro Global can be a very good investment that changes the outcomes you experience. We’ll help you put the ingredients together to create an executive resume or management resume that produces high response rates and helps you take the next step in your career. Ready to get started? We hope you’ll get in touch!
Barbara Adams is the founder and CEO of CareerPro Global, Inc. and has led the company since 1990. She is recognized as one of the pioneers in the career services industry and a titan of the resume writing industry. Barbara has built CPG into one of the largest and fastest-growing premier career services organizations industry-wide. She is committed to CPG’s core factors that include quality product, exceptional customer service, a successful proven process, and taking care of her people. Barbara has Co-Authored numerous books, including:
Roadmap to the Senior Executive Service
Roadmap to Becoming an Administrative Law Judge
Job-Winning Military to Civilian Resumes
Roadmap to Federal Jobs
She also co-authored the certification requirements for the Master Military Resume Writer (MMRW) and the Master Federal Career Advisor and Trainer (MFCA-T) certifications.