Rules for writing your first resume

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Hey, all you college kids! It’s time to get off your butts and start applying for jobs. Do not delude yourself into thinking you can wait until May. Spring is the time to be buying clothes for the job you already have. Top internships, management training programs, entry-level investment banking jobs and the other good jobs get filled early. After all, employers are not stupid. What are you going to do between now and June that will enhance your workplace value? For 99% of you, the answer is nothing. That’s why the juiciest companies beat the rush and hire the best candidates before anyone else can get to them.

Based on my experience, I’d say a good rule of thumb is that you’ll get one interview for every 50 resumes you send. That’s if you’re great. If you’re not great, double that resume number.

And God help you if you do not have a decent resume. Even if you’re great, with a lame resume, your greatness will not show. Here are the three most important rules to ensure your resume measures up:

One page. That’s it. I don’t care if you are the smartest person on earth or if you have founded six companies and sold each of them for a million dollars. Think of it this way. A resume gets only about 10 seconds to impress whoever’s looking at it. So every line must say that you are amazing because you don’t know where the person’s eye will go first (though you can be sure the person won’t read every line).

People with resumes that exceed one page say, “I couldn’t get it down to a page.” But here’s what a two-page resume says about you: “No ability to see the big picture.” You are so mired in the details of your career that you don’t know how to summarize it. This does not bode well for future career success. Cut your resume to one page.

Every line must quantify success. A resume is not about what you did. A resume is about what you accomplished. Don’t say: “Managed two people and created a tracking system for marketing.” Say: “Managed the team that build a tracking system to decrease marketing costs 10%.” Any college graduate can do what an employer tells them to. Not everyone will do it well. Show that you’re a person who does things well.

Think of it as the difference between writing, “Went to my classes and took tests” vs. “Have a 3.5 GPA.”

I know what you’re going to say next: “I can’t quantify my success. I didn’t have those kind of jobs.” You are wrong. Everyone has successes they can quantify. Let’s say you had a babysitting job, which I hope not very many of you will have to put on your resume. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you took care of two kids. You could write: “Managed household in parents’ absence and helped kids to raise their grades one letter.” Stupid, yes, but you need to make even stupid jobs sound marginally stupid.

No paragraphs. I shouldn’t have to list this last rule because no one should still be using paragraphs on their resumes. But recent grads do it all the time. In fact, my friend who edits my web site, and who is definitely very smart, showed me her resume and I nearly died: All paragraphs.

No hiring manager reads paragraphs. With a stack of 500 resumes in front of her, she’s scanning – looking for something that stands out enough to warrant an interview. Nothing stands out in a paragraph. So by using them, you take yourself out of the running unless the hiring manager is your dad’s best friend and he has to read your entire resume.

Most of you will say, “No paragraphs? Everyone knows that rule.” Good for you: a confidence booster. You will need it because it’s a tough job market out there. Now start sending out resumes. Think of each one you send as a lottery ticket. The more you have, the luckier you’ll feel.

8 replies
  1. jay
    jay says:

    My job is writing resumes. New grads come in and say that their resume is going to easy because they have little or no experience. I grit my teeth and get prepared to put in more effort than I do with experienced, accomplished candidates. Trying to make something out of very little is hard work.

  2. Richard West
    Richard West says:

    To your readers: Don’t be fooled by people telling you they can write you the “PERFECT RESUME” for $$$! All people look at them differently, so there is no such thing as a perfect one. I am in no way saying not to pay someone to write a resume for you. I am saying that you should be careful to not fall for someone who is going to give you a preprinted generic resume with your name inserted into it.

  3. John P.
    John P. says:

    There are a handful of sites out there that will tell you how to write a resume, and as Richard said above every employer looks at them different. The best way is to do it yourself, the more that you write the better you will get at it :)

  4. matchmaker
    matchmaker says:

    Thanks for the information! I've been using parchment for the past year, and have been tempted many times to use a sheet again, but I thought that was a "no no." This will save me some $$ and trips to the grocery story.

    I have a silpat liner too, but I just don't like it. My cookies seem to spread differently, and washing it every time is a pain. Plus it never seems to get clean. The butter/shortening stays on the liner even after washing.

  5. Donnita
    Donnita says:

    ok, please don’t think me stupid. I’m not a college kid. I’m 61 years old and I want a new job. Should I be ready to retire? Yes! However I’m one of those that didn’t plan well for it so I’m looking for a new job. I have a job but I want a new job and I’ve been with this job for 21 years, yes 21 years and no retirement…So maybe I am stupid. Anyway, can you help me?

  6. Ceren Kardelen
    Ceren Kardelen says:

    Great tips, thanks! I recently just graduated from university but have been struggling with finding work in the sector that I want to build a career in.
Unfortunately competition is very high out there so basic ‘soft skills’ or a
degree is nothing special and a finding a position right for you takes time and
a unique CV.
    I just wanted to add that using the right keywords in your CV is crucial as most recruiters these days use management software to search for people with relevant skills.

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