How To Get Started On Your Resume

Rachel Schneebaum

So you’re a new graduate getting ready to apply for jobs, and you know you need a resume. Or maybe you already have a resume—from summer job applications or a career workshop, say—but you know it isn’t up to snuff, and you want to start over from scratch. This can seem like a daunting task: how, exactly, do you get started on your professional resume?

In this article, I’ll break the resume-writing process down into several steps—from doing research, to drafting your resume, to getting it ready for submission. Each individual step is less daunting than the thought of the entire project; and by the end, you should have a resume ready to get you started in your new career.

1. Look at sample resumes

Before you start writing your own resume, it’s a good idea to get a sense of what other resumes look like. If you still have access to your college or university’s career center, take advantage of their resources: career centers often keep records of past graduates’ resumes and the fields/careers they went into. You can also find lots of sample resumes online: good places to start looking are professional resume-writing sites and career-specific job board/industry information sites.

Look at lots of different kinds of resumes, and pay attention to their organization, design, layout, and the information they include. Design-wise, which resumes most quickly catch your eye? Try to pay attention to and write down what it is about their design that makes them stand out. Which resumes are most reader-friendly, making it easiest to find any information you’re looking for? Again, pay attention to how those resumes are designed and laid out, and write down anything you notice that increases readability. Are there any sections that all resumes include? Are there any sections that aren’t standard across the board, but are included in all resumes in your desired field? Keep note of all these sections. Do the noted sections always appear in the same order? If so write down the standardly accepted order in your field. If not, note which order of presented information seems most effective to you.

By reviewing all these sample resumes, your goal is to find an ideal resume that you can use as a model for your own. Or, if you can’t find one perfect resume, to compile the good qualities of several different resumes into an ideal model. Use this model as a guide to creating your own contentless template: set up your design, including the section headers you’ll use in the order you want to present them.

In addition, when reviewing all these resumes, you should pay careful attention to the type of wording used—especially the way strong action verb phrases are used to highlight accomplishments and achievements. You can write down particularly effective examples to help with your own writing, but be careful not to just copy and paste content from someone else’s resume into your own.

2. Ask for help from a trusted professional

If you’ve done a lot of research and browsed a lot of example resumes but still don’t feel completely confident—maybe you’re not sure about your design ideas or the types information you think you should include, or maybe you still have no idea how to start—this is a good point in the resume-writing process to get some outside help.

Again, if you have access to your college or university career-services center, you can ask one of the career counselors there for help: you might be able to work on your resume one-on-one with a professional or attend resume-writing workshops there. However, keep in mind that a career counselor’s advice might be too specific to the school’s guidelines or that particular counselor’s individual pet peeves—and these things don’t always match up with hiring managers’ preferences. In addition to—or instead of—relying on a career-services center, you might want to talk your advisor or a favorite professor who knows specific information about you, your work and abilities, and the particular field you’re looking to enter.

3. Compile all relevant information

At this point, you’ve already collected and put together information about what you want your resume to look like and what sections of information you want to include. Next, you’ll need to gather all the information you can about the content to include in each section.

First, you’ll need to create a focus and “brand” for your resume. There are several kinds of information you’ll need to do this successfully: information about the specific job (or type of job) you want, information about the (relevant!) skills you possess, and information about what makes you special. Finding this information requires further research: in addition to looking at sample resumes and paying special attention to the kinds of focusing information they include at the beginning, you should browse job boards in your industry for examples of the types of job openings you’re thinking about applying for. Read this listings carefully, paying special attention to the following: specific job titles, preferred skills and qualifications, and preferred personality attributes (note that the most important skills, qualifications, and attributes are usually the ones that are highlighted early in the job listing and/or repeated several times throughout). Again, keep track of this information: write down example job titles, skills, qualifications, and attributes.

With the information you’ve collected in mind, think about yourself in particular: what’s the title of the job you want, as specifically as possible? What makes you special? What separates you from all the other new graduates applying for the same kinds of positions? Write down everything you can think of. This is the information you’ll use in developing your “brand”: a very short, sales-pitch like statement you place at the beginning of your resume to catch employers’ attention and interest. (Learn more about focusing your resume—including information about creating a branding statement—by checking out our article on “giving your resume a focal point.”)

Next, collect all information about your education (especially anything that makes you stand out). Write down the location of the school you attended and the dates you attended—including specific graduation date. Write down your major(s)/minor(s) and any honors you might have received in your major/minor department(s). If you’ve earned an impressive GPA—or if your overall GPA is average but your within-major GPA is exceptional—write it down. (Again, include your GPA in your resume only if you can do so in a way that makes you stand out; it’s not required information.)

Third, compile all information about your employment history—including summer jobs, work-study jobs, internships, and volunteering work. For each position, write down the name of the company or organization, the location of the company or organization, and the dates you worked there. Also, write down information about what you did in each position. Note that you probably won’t include every position you’ve ever worked in your resume—only your most relevant and impressive experience—but it’s still a good idea to keep track of and collect information about everything you’ve done, just in case you find any significant skills or experience that you had forgotten about.

Finally, and most importantly, use all the information you’ve gathered so far to put together a list of your achievements and accomplishments: all information in your resume should be written in terms of achievements and accomplishments rather than duties and responsibilities. (For more information, check out our article on the importance of tracking your accomplishments.) Go through your collected work history and think about anything stand-out or impressive you might have done in each position: write down things like leadership roles, management of other employees, promotions, compliments and commendations from bosses or superiors, awards won, etc. Note that your job history isn’t the only place to look for achievements: think about whether you accomplished anything particularly noteworthy as part of a sports team or other school group or activity, career-relevant projects you took the lead on and excelled at in your classes or as summer research, a career-relevant thesis you write for departmental honors, etc. (For more information, check out our article on how to bulk up your resume.)

4. Write a draft of your resume

At this point, you should have gathered together everything you need to create a successful resume: you’ve got a template with section headers, plus all the content information you need to flesh out those sections. Now, the daunting task of “resume-writing” is just a matter of transferring information from your notes to your resume. (Note that if you haven’t finalized your design ideas, you can just start with a simple text resume and worry about design elements later—after all, content is always the most important part.) While turning your collected information into a resume, here are some important issues to keep in mind:

  • Stay focused and sell yourself as an employee: including a headline, branding statement, and list of key skills and qualifications near the beginning of your resume will help you do this.
  • Focus on accomplishments and achievements, and don’t forget to describe those accomplishments and achievements using the sorts of active verb phrases you found in sample resumes.
  • Use keywords when describing your skills, qualifications, and accomplishments. These are words and phrases used by database searches to pick out promising resumes based on relevance matching. Some of the research you did previously—looking through sample resumes in your field and job listings for the kind of career you want, for example—is an excellent source of keywords. Generally, you want to use the same kinds of words and phrases found in job listings, industry-specific terms and skills, etc. Because of the possibility of keyword searches, it’s even more important to be as specific as you can in every aspect of your resume: for example, the exact job title or the company name might be used as search terms, and if your resume includes these specifics, than you’re already more likely to be selected for an interview than an identical candidate who was less specific in these areas. (For more information, see our articles on how to use keywords and how to find the right keywords.)
  • Highlight transferable skills—these are skills that you might have developed and applied outside your desired industry (teamwork, leadership, organization, multi-tasking, etc.), but that you can also use to excel in the new career you’re applying for.

5. Polish your resume

Once you’ve completed a first draft of your resume, this doesn’t mean you’re finished! First of all, make sure you proofread and edit your writing at least twice, and preferably have a colleague or advisor proofread it as well. Any tiny mistake can make the difference between a job offer and immediate expulsion from the applicant pool. Colleagues and advisors might also have important content suggestions—especially if they’re familiar with the job market in your field or the company you’re applying to work for.

Second, don’t think of your resume as some sort of static document written in stone that you simply resubmit with every job application you send off. Instead, you should think of your resume as a living document: whenever you gain new experience or education, earn new awards or achievements in your field, etc., you should add that information to your resume.

Finally and most importantly, unless you only ever apply for one job, “your resume” should actually be a collection of slightly different versions of a resume—each version specialized and personalized as much as possible for a particular job opening, a particular type of career, a particular company, etc. And again, even if you’ve picked over the first version of the resume as much as possible with the finest-toothed comb, always check and double check each new version for typos, grammar issues, specifics you forgot to change, and so on, before you send it out for consideration.

There’s no doubt that no matter how much you break up the process, writing a resume is a lot of work. However, if you follow the steps above, the process should feel at least a little less daunting. What’s more, at the end of the process, you should have a resume (or collection of resumes) with all important considerations addressed and taken care of—which means you’re one large step closer to landing your dream job!

About The Author

Rachel Schneebaum

Rachel Schneebaum is a PhD candidate in philosophy, with a graduate minor in cognitive science, at the University of Arizona. She graduated from Williams College in 2009 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in both English and Philosophy. Rachel hopes to more effectively help students decide on, prepare for, and eventually succeed at their dream jobs.

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