Make Your Résumé Work Better

by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D., Wednesday, July 31, 2013

resume design exampleAs a follow-up to my blog posts on filling in the "résumé gaps," I wanted to say a few words about designing or formatting a résumé.

I once worked as a placement counselor, many years ago. And, when I was practicing as a clinical psychologist, I counseled my psychotherapy clients on the art of getting employed. But, things keep changing, lsuch as what goes into a good résumé. To update myself on what's wanted these days, I've recently read quite a bit from people who currently have to review résumés day after day. Here's what I've learned, put together with the timeless practices of getting a job.

1. Your résumé is a document someone has to read. Maybe many someones. Make it simple and easy on the eyes and mind.

Most reviewers, even in smaller organizations, get a lot of résumés to look at and get awfully tired of reading them. The important thing to remember is this:

The people reading your résumé are not trying to find a good reason to hire you. They're looking for a way to eliminate you immediately and save everyone some work.

They don't know you and don't care about you. Play nice and give them a reason to like you enough to pass on your résumé to higher levels.

The front page should contain the essential information, but not great detail. Most organizations will tolerate up to three pages for a résumé -- although leaving it at two pages is better -- so you have time to fill in more detail on page two. It's just that you must tell them everything they have to know on page one.

The first thing a résumé reviewer does is scan the page. Write, format and design for scanning. Think about what kind of impression you can make in thirty seconds or less.

Learn to make powerful summaries and lists that inspire further reading on the next page or pages. For example, make a typical "elevator speech" to describe what you do now, or what you did in each prior job. Use those for your job descriptions. Use lists of your skills, divided into categories like technical, management, etc. Make lists of your education, just showing diplomas, degrees and dates, with no other explanations on the front page. You can talk about the schools you attended on page two. (Unless it's a particularly prestigious school like Harvard or M.I.T. or the best school in your field of expertise.) Most training and certificates can be listed on page two.

Get the idea? Present something that can be quickly and easily scanned, with only the most important data on the front page.

2. Résumé reviewers are looking for specific information. Make sure it pops out. And make sure it's succinct.

Yeah. I'm going to hit you on the head with this again. Be brief. But include the stuff everyone expects to find: your education/training; your military training; your work experience; your skills; your basic personal information.

To make sure all of it is easy to see, stop doing résumés the old way like listing your information in page-spanning paragraphs consecutively from top to bottom.

Instead, lay out columns so that the sections of data are side-by-side. So a single glance can show all the brief details at once. Pretend you are laying it out like a magazine, which has to put eye-catching ads beside interesting content. Remember that you have to attract the eye to the whole page without distracting from any part of the page.

Use color to emphasize the separate categories of information. Something like yellow highlighting is excellent for that.

What? You'd like to see an example. Of course. Here's one I made, just click on the link and download the pdf. Résumé design example.

3. Personal information like interests are often important to the final reviewers, even if the initial reviewers disregard it So, continue to put it on the front page.

I read an article recently by someone who reviews a lot of résumés. He said something that I think is true for a good number of reviewers. He said that he liked to see what people had as personal interests because it was what made them human and real for him. It gave him a better sense of dealing with a person who had a real life. And it often made the difference between whether he trashed the résumé or passed it on.

Maybe reviewers don't know it. Maybe it's an unconscious effect. But I think if you write about your interests, even though it's just a list, people who read your résumé are more likely to feel that they could connect with you.

4. Yes it can make a difference if your résumé is pretty. But don't go overboard with design.

I ran an image search on Google with the simple keywords "resume design." Many of the examples I saw could have won awards as works of art. But a résumé reviewer would probably say "gag me with a spoon!" Black backgrounds. Neon colored highlights. Names, titles and categories written sidewise or on a slant. Pictures growing out of trees. Are you kidding me?

Remember what I said about how tired reviewers can get of looking at résumé? Can you image how hard it is to review fifty résumé with black backgrounds? Having to turn the page on its side to see if the info you want is there? Squinting at tiny print? How many ways can you say "Trash Can?"

If you haven't already downloaded the pdf résumé example I made for you, do it now. A picture is worth, well, you know the rest of that, and I've already written about a thousand words.

5. One last thing: designing your own résumé doesn't have to involve expensive software.

You can use my example résumé and other people's online examples as templates and just roll your own. To make sure that I could say this honestly from experience, I took the time to do my design entirely in the free OpenOffice software. (LibreOffice is comparable and also free. I have used both.)

No fancy design software or expensive, brand name word processors. No photo manipulation or illustration programs. Just the office suite from If you don't have it and want something that rivals the well-known, popular offerings, download it now. If you have a brand name word processor or office suite, well, you're all set.

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Now, here are some recommended pages to give you more ideas about résumé design, formatting and content. -- an entire seven-part tutorial.

Google search for "resume design format" and choose "Images" in the navbar. You'll find so many ideas for a résumé format it'll make your head spin.

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