Tips For Polishing Your Resume
Most of the resume advice on this site is aimed at new job seekers who haven’t written a resume, or who need to write a new resume for a change of careers, etc. But let’s say you already have a resume for the job you want. Maybe you’ve even uploaded it to a few industry-specific application sites or submitted it in response to a few job listings, but you haven’t been having much luck getting responses. Of course, there are lots of reasons you might not be getting interviews or job offers (yet!): maybe you’re missing a preferred qualification that other applicants have; maybe the job openings you applied for were already intended for in-company hires, and only listed as a formality; maybe it’s just the fact that today’s job market is flooded with applicants and it’s easy to slip through the cracks. However, your resume is almost always the most important tool used by hiring managers to find job candidates. This means that improving your resume is the most important and most effective thing you can do to improve your chances of getting an interview invitation.
In this article, I’ll identify and explain several ways you can polish your resume to make it more effective and compelling. These few simple tips might help to prevent you from losing out on any more job opportunities.
1. Check your resume’s format and focus
Although your resume’s content is much more important than format or style when it comes to landing you a job, a poorly formatted resume can make it difficult for employers to find the particular content that they’re looking for—and that can get you dropped from consideration immediately. Your resume should be clean, clear, and easy to read: make sure you use no more than one font and that all your text is black. Make sure you include blank space in the margins and between sections to make your section headlines stand out and to improve readability.
(Note: your resume might be an exception to the one font/one color rule if you’re applying for a job in graphic design or another design-based creative job. In this case, your resume serves as an additional opportunity to actually show off your design skill—so be creative and original! That said, it’s generally good design practice to limit your font and color choices. Also—especially in your resume!—design features should help improve ease of readability and information flow rather than hiding or distracting from important content.)
In addition to a clean style, your resume should have a clear focus. Formatting isn’t the only issue that can hide important information: an unfocused resume with relevant and irrelevant information mixed together can make it equally difficult for an employer to find the information they’re looking for. Because there are so many applicants and so many resumes to read for every job opening, if the most relevant information doesn’t leap out from your application, odds are an employer is going to bother searching for it.
To polish your resume, remove any information that doesn’t directly relate to the job you’re applying for. Don’t list everything you’ve ever done and every position you’ve ever held; instead, only include those positions, experience, and skills that make you seem like the most desirable candidate for the job. You might have some past experience that isn’t obviously relevant, but that did require skills necessary for the job you want. In these cases, focus on those transferable skills and how they’ll help you contribute to the position you’re applying for, instead of just describing what that past experience was.
2. Move the most important information to the top of your resume
As I’ve emphasized repeatedly, employers are very busy and usually flooded with applications for a single job opening. This means that it’s your job—well, really, your resume’s job—to impress them as quickly as possible to ensure that they’ll keep reading your resume and keep you under consideration for the job. What’s the easiest, most effective way to do this? Look through your resume, gather up all the most important and impressive information it contains, and move that information to the beginning of the resume.
After your contact information, add a headline that identifies the job you want as specifically as possible. Your headline can also include a description of yourself (e.g., “experienced sales coordinator”) or a slightly longer “brand statement” that describes your most important and unique abilities, achievements, and personality skills—a sort of extremely short “sales pitch” to catch an employer’s attention. (For more information about headlines and brand statements, check out our article on giving your resume a focal point.)
Next, make a list of all the most impressive skills, experience, achievements, etc., that you’ve gathered from the body of your resume. Depending on the kinds of items in the list, the type of experience you have, and the sort of job you’re applying for, you might title this list something like the following: “Qualifictions Summary,” “Career Summary,” “Key Strengths,” “Professional Profile,” etc. Organize the information you’ve collected into three to four bullet points that show your potential employer exactly why you are the best possible candidate for the job. Each bullet point should demonstrate strong writing (use action verbs and phrases found in the listing for the job you’re applying for) and specific examples containing numerical information whenever possible.
3. Reword your “work history” and/or “experience” sections
Since you’ve already written a resume, you don’t need to start from scratch here: you should already have sections listing your past positions, the work you did at each position, and the skills you used or developed there. All you need to do in order to make your resume much stronger and more polished is to change the phrasing of these sections so that your resume is achievement-focused rather than task-focused. Organize each position into a bulleted list, and make sure each bullet point uses strong, active phrasing that highlights your accomplishments. Eliminate all passive “duty” language. For example, let’s say one of your past job descriptions is the following:
Responsible for managing product development teams; in this position, duties included compiling team information and distributing it to superiors/presenting it at board meetings. As team member, responsible for working with others to come up with new ideas for product campaigns.
There’s a lot of important, positive information here—you’re both a leader and a team player! you’re an innovative thinker and a skilled presenter/campaigner!—but it doesn’t “jump out” at the reader because it’s buried in boring, passive language. With a tiny bit of reorganization and rephrasing, though, you can make your resume really stand out. For example, you can turn that boring paragraph into the following exciting, interest-grabbing, reader-friendly bullet points:
- Managed teams of employees to coordinate product development campaigns
- Compiled information from all teams under my supervision; used collected data to create dynamic presentations aimed at company executives and board members
- Collaborated with coworkers to conceive and design innovative ideas for new product campaigns
4. Reword your resume so that it includes keywords
Most resumes these days are first searched and evaluated by a computer database before ever reaching the eyes of a human reader. This means it’s important to include keywords—or, words and phrases that are likely to be used as search terms when evaluating resumes in the database. (For more information about keywords, see our articles on how to use and find keywords to improve your resume.)
Again, though, this can be a simple task with an already complete resume: all you need to do is replace some of the words or phrases you’ve used with synonymous words/phrases that are included in the job listing you’re applying for. Words and phrases emphasized in a job listing are most likely to be used as search terms when browsing resumes submitted to that job. Keywords can include the company name, the specific job title, industry-specific terms, technological terms, certifications, programs or tools in which you must be experienced; as well as character traits, qualities, and more general skills. Make sure you reword your resume so that it includes as many keywords as possible in as many sections as possible—it’s especially important to make sure that your beginning “qualifications summary” (or similar) section includes plenty of keywords.
5. Adjust your resume—and your brand—to reflect a particular job/company
Anything you can do to personalize your resume to the specific job/company you’re applying for makes you look like a dedicated employee for that job/company. (Think about the importance of personalization from your end: isn’t it the worst to receive what’s obviously a form rejection notice? On the other hand, a personalized rejection that mentions information from your resume and provides encouragement or advice directed at you specifically is something you might actually bother reading—even though it’s still a rejection! It’s easy to detect a form letter—I know I delete form rejections immediately, so why think employers treat form resumes any differently?)
Now, you might have already done a lot of personalization by adding company-specific keywords into your resume. You can also adjust your headline and brand statement (if you’ve included one) to reflect the specific job you’re applying for and include some company-specific phrasing. In addition, read the company’s website and/or any other promotional materials: try to mimic any common language, wording, or writing style that seems to reflect that company’s message or character.
6. Proofread, proofread, proofread!
Sure, everyone makes typos, and the fact that you’ve misspelled something doesn’t automatically mean you’re a worse employee than anyone else. However, sending out a resume with even a single typo in it can make a huge difference when there are so many applicants battling for the same position! Even the smallest mistake can signal to your employer not that you’re human like everyone else, but that this job opportunity clearly isn’t important enough to you for you to do enough proofreading! Proofread your own work at least twice, and see if you can get a friend or colleague to proofread it for you again—often someone who’s more removed from the document is able to catch mistakes unnoticed by the author. Don’t forget to check grammar and sentence structure in addition to spelling.
Even though it’s possible that a typo won’t hurt you, a perfect document is an illustration for your employer of your work ethic and attention to detail.