What’s Wrong with Most Résumés?
by Dr. Sandy Marcus
Having written, edited, and critiqued literally thousands of résumés in all fields for over 30 years, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that most résumés fail to capture the attention of potential employers for 7 predictable (and curable) reasons. These are:
1. Lack of focus. Most résumés I see look like a random laundry list of everything the person has done in his or her career. There are also endless lists of skills, personal characteristics, numerical results, verbs, unnecessary detail, and often details that are not written clearly or would not be understood by someone outside of the industry or job that is being discussed. I believe that what everyone tries to do on a résumé is to make everything stand as equally important. Can't be done! As a result, the typical résumé is unorganized in the sense that it lacks a dominant focus, a clear sense of purpose and direction. You have got to ask yourself what your major goal is in writing your résumé, and EVERYTHING you do needs to be guided by that goal.
2. Not "tailored" for the type of position being sought. Even if your résumé makes it clear what type of job (or specific job title) you are applying for, most résumés I see do not emphasize in the body of the résumé the factors that relate to that job title. For example, I just worked with an experienced nurse who wants an administrative or supervisory position. Her initial résumé emphasized all of her technical knowledge and experience (which is considerable), because she was convinced that the more she is viewed as a competent nurse, the better her chances for a managerial position. This is true only up to a point. She also needed to emphasize those responsibilities and accomplishments in her career that would be of value in an administrative role, so that a potential employer could quickly see that she has had "enough" managerial activities (in addition to her medical skills) in her background to justify hiring her. And it was important that these managerial activities not get lost in a sea of technical nursing details.
3. Not written for a "skimmer." Everyone knows that potential employers do not "read" résumés in detail at first. They "skim" it, usually taking perhaps only 15 to 30 seconds to see if it is worth reading in detail. By trying to make everything "stand out" (such as by using differing fonts, underlining, boldfacing, italics, writing items in columns or boxes, and other devices), you have no control over your reader's eye. When your reader is skimming, his or her eye will naturally start at about the top center, but then quickly scan down the left side of the page. The left side of the page is where the battle for your reader's attention is fought. And, therefore, THAT is where you had better put the most important words, items, and information.
4. Failure to ask the two fundamental questions. The two most important questions in deciding what to emphasize in your résumé are: 1) What does the reader want to see FIRST? 2) What do I want the reader to see FIRST? What most readers want to see FIRST (before they decide to either throw out your résumé or read it more carefully) can vary. Most, however, are looking for key factors, usually academic degrees, certification and licensing, job titles, or key skills related to the job. Some may look first for gaps in employment, school activities, recent training, or other factors. You also want your reader to see certain items FIRST. Perhaps you want your reader to see how you helped your present employer improve the quality of their product or service, or some other accomplishment. You need to emphasize that. In any case, you want to make sure that your reader can find all of these "firsts" without having to read in detail.
5. No clear benefit statement to the potential employer. Why does any organization hire you, me, or anyone else? It is basically for two reasons: To solve the organization's problems and to achieve the organizations goals. And usually those problems and goals are directly related to the organization's bottom-line needs -- increasing profits by increasing income, reducing costs, improving customer satisfaction, increasing company visibility, improving quality and teamwork, enhancing productivity and efficiency of personnel, and so forth. There should be a brief and prominent statement that your résumé reader sees first that mentions those benefits and how (in your particular area of expertise) you can help the company realize those benefits.
6. Key accomplishments are buried in the middle of the résumé. I frequently read items like this: "Developed a specialized quality assurance program which resulted in a 20% reduction in production costs in the third quarter." What's key here? I believe it's the 20% cost reduction. Therefore, that is the way to write the item: "20% cost reduction in production in the third quarter by developing a specialized quality assurance program." Your skimmer will see the "20% cost reduction," even if they don't read the whole item.
7. Unique strengths not recognized and not made clear. After 30 years of providing career and job search counseling to perhaps 15,000 individuals, you naturally begin to see predictable patterns. And yet, it is still of crucial importance to recognize that no two people are alike. Each one of us has our unique strengths, or one-of-a-kind combination of experiences, or individual career path, or specialized knowledge and expertise. Often we do not emphasize what is unique about our background in a résumé, let alone even recognize it. But it is your uniqueness that makes you stand out from others. If you have trouble seeing it, get some guidance and figure out what it is, and place it prominently in your résumé. It very often determines whether your résumé will be thrown out or you will be asked in for an interview.
There are many different solutions to the above résumé flaws, but I believe that it is critical to find solutions to them if you want to make sure your résumé is in the less than 5% that are not immediately discarded.
Sander Marcus, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Certified Professional Résumé Writer in Chicago. He has over 3 decades of experience in providing career counseling, aptitude testing, job search coaching, and résumé writing to tens of thousands of individuals. He is the co-author of 2 books on academic underachievement, various tests, and numerous articles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 312-567-3358. http://www.center.iit.edu