The Résumé Test & Checklist: Does Yours Pass?
If you ask ten “experts” what an effective résumé should look like, you’ll get ten very different answers. There is no one-size-fits-all template for a perfect résumé – it’s very subjective, and opinions vary widely. Certainly, if you show your résumé to any professional “Career Consultant” – i.e. someone who gets paid to offer career advice and re-write résumés – they will likely tell you that yours is flawed, and that they can “fix” it (for a fee, of course!)
Naturally, I have my own opinions on what constitutes an “effective” résumé. Recently, I posted a blog describing the process that most recruiters and HR people go through when screening résumés against a job opportunity. [“The Brutal Truth on How Résumés Get Eliminated.”] The sad fact is that the average résumé-reader will give your résumé less than 15 seconds of eyeball time on the first pass. They’ll scan the first page of your résumé, rarely progressing on to the second or third pages. If they don’t quickly see exactly what they think they want or need right up front … bye bye – delete key for you! Most job-seekers never find out the true reasons why their résumés are eliminated, and my “peek behind the curtain” proved to be quite revealing for many readers.
The Purpose of a Résumé
The purpose of a résumé is NOT to sell yourself. Rather – the purpose of a résumé is quite simple and straightforward: it’s to get you an interview! An effective résumé (similar to an effective Elevator Pitch) should pique the interest of the person who is reading it, show that you are a close match to the criteria they are looking for, and make them want them to find out more about you. Unlike a job application, it is not a legal document and there is no requirement that it must contain a complete history of everything you’ve ever done. It should be truthful … but it’s up to you to decide what to include or not include.
The 15-Second Eyeball Test:
Keeping in mind the typical 15-second viewing window most résumés get, here’s a test that you should perform to gauge the effectiveness of your own résumé. Choose an impartial friend or networking acquaintance, and ask them to look at your résumé. Ideally, it should be someone who doesn’t already know all about your professional work history or your career background. Hand them your résumé and ask them to take 15 seconds to review it. Now look at your watch … and time exactly 15 seconds. (If you want to be generous, you can extend this to 20 or 30 seconds … but certainly no more than that.) Then, immediately take it away! Now ask them the following questions:
1) “What do I do for a living?”
3) “What industry do I work in?”
3) “What are my most significant skills?”
4) “What is my current career objective?”
If they can’t answer those basic questions after looking at your résumé for 15 seconds, you need to work on it! It occurred to me that a résumé checklist might be an extremely useful tool. My intent here is to provide job-seekers with a guide to evaluate their own résumés based on elements that I think are pretty basic, and essential for any effective résumé. This checklist should help as you go through the process of revising and rewriting. Once you’ve done a re-write, try the 15-second eyeball test again – either on that same person, or someone else. See if your score on those basic questions improves.
The Résumé Checklist:
□ Two pages or less.
□ Formatting is standard and easily readable. Uses only standard fonts (Times New Roman, Ariel, etc.) No colored text, graphics or other non-professional flourishes. Is saved in the standard Microsoft Word format – .doc (not .docx or .pdf.)
□ Contact information is up front and easy to spot. Email address sounds professional.
□ Clearly says in top third of first page what industry you are in, and what profession and job function you’ve had, and what you want to do next.
□ Chronological format (as opposed to “Functional.”) Lists the most recent and relevant companies you’ve worked for, what positions you held and the dates you worked at each place. Has brief one-line descriptions of the companies. Has bullets that show what skills were used and what you accomplished at each place.
□ Showcases critical background, experience, education, and skills directly tied to your work objectives.
□ Highlights your most marketable skills.
□ Contains all the various keywords and buzzwords common in your industry, and typically found on job descriptions for positions you match. (Create separate modified versions for specific jobs you are applying to, using the language found in the job descriptions.)
□ Contains quantifiable results, accomplishments and achievements using numbers, dollars, percentages, names of any awards you’ve won, etc. Provides concrete, measurable data whenever possible.
□ Makes liberal use of “action” words (e.g. “created,” “completed,” “built,” “developed,” etc.) to trumpet your accomplishments.
□ Avoids using the “I” word.
□ Answers the question: “Why should someone hire you?”
□ Does NOT include a list of your professional references. (Save them for when they are requested.)
□ Avoids personal details that have no connection to your professional profile (e.g. hobbies, family information, non-work related activities, etc.)
□ Contains no typos, spelling or grammatical errors.
Now, I should mention that some of these checklist items are open to interpretation and modification, depending on your own circumstances and personal preferences. For example, if you are a graphic artist or web designer … it’s probably OK to have the résumé look less business-like, and more “artsy” – using colors, non-standard fonts, graphics, etc. And if you feel strongly that your non-business activities are likely to help you impress a potential hiring authority (for example, charity involvement, volunteer work in your community, etc.) then by all means include them. The bottom line is that you should do what you think is best, and seems to work for you.
It should also be pointed out that satisfying all of these checklist items will not “fix” certain issues that often raise red flags and get people eliminated by screeners. Re-writing your résumé will not overcome a lack of the required skills, experience, education or other qualifications listed for a particular position. Likewise, unexplained gaps in your employment chronology or having too many unexplained short job stints over a limited time period are two potentially troublesome issues that are difficult overcome no matter how you write your résumé. [Read “Explaining Short Job Stints and Employment Gaps” for strategies on how to deal with those issues.] All you can do is present your history in as positive a light as possible, using the most effective format you can.
Again, as I said at the top, there are multiple and sometimes contradictory opinions out there on what an effective résumé should look like. Based on my own experiences as a recruiter who has reviewed literally thousands of résumés … these checklist items represent general guidelines that I feel will apply to most résumés and most job-seekers.