The real secrets of a killer resume

By Neil Patrick

There’s a simple formula that will improve your resume beyond recognition and get you interviews. It’s not magic, it requires no cheating or lying. It just works. Here it is.

Last week I was asked by a Twitter friend to provide him with a review and recommendations on how to improve his resume. I was happy to do so. As it turned out, he’d been in the same job for the last 18 years. So it’s fair to say, he’d not had much practice at writing a resume. Worse, the last time he had, the world of job applications worked in a completely different way.

And his resume was like so many others I have seen before. I was certain that it wouldn’t get short-listed by any recruiter or HR person.

But the good news is that it was so easy to fix, that I thought I’d share the method we adopted here.

How recruiters look at resumes

The role of your resume isn’t to get you the job, it’s to get you the interview. And it’s got to do that in just a few seconds.

Recruiters and HR folk are very busy people. It’s not at all unusual for them to receive over 200 resumes to sort through when they advertise a position. If you had 400+ pages of resumes in front of you, could you honestly read every word of every resume, let alone make any sort of scientific assessment of the detailed merits of each?

So they do what any sensible person would do faced with this dilemma. Each resume gets a quick scan and is either selected for the short list or rejected there and then. Typical time for this is shown by research to be just 5-10 seconds. Therefore we must give them what they want with just a few seconds scan.

Make it easy for them to choose you

Play them at their own game, scrutinise the job description and extract all the keywords from it. Now figure out how to include all of these in your resume.

Recruiters read the first few lines. Right now, they don’t care about your address or your email address. So don’t put these at the top of the page. Move them to the end.

Next you must have a compelling summary. This should be able to be scan read in around 5 seconds. This should be at the top of the first page. Here’s the first trick. Write a unique summary which is based not just on you, but the job description of the job you are applying for. Show them that you match it. Do not tell lies, but look hard at the job description and then find everything in your past career which shows how you have done these things already.

It may be that some things that are in the job description, you haven’t actually done before. But don’t give up. Think about things which might be similar or require similar skills and capabilities. Use these instead, pointing out how they are similar. Don’t expect a recruiter to understand this automatically – you must spell it out for them.

The language you use here is vital. Use short sentences. Include relevant keywords. Take as many of these as you can from the job description. This also helps if they are using resume scanning software which is increasingly common.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters

Producing the best resume is a sales job, not an administrative one.

Most people write their resume as a compilation of their previous job descriptions. This approach condemns you to failure before you even start.

Think about the job you want to get interviewed for. Next think about the type of person they'd want to hire for these jobs. Now give them this in your resume in a really clear way. Do not worry about omitting things which were on your past job descriptions. Think about every single line...does this point make me sound like a fit, or not? If not leave it out.

Do not just think about your hard skills like your knowledge of software or products, work out also what type of personality they ideally want. Most job descriptions include lots of supposed ideals like ‘team player’, ‘goal-focussed’ and ‘good communication skills’. Get smart, decide what is really important to the role. If it’s a collaborative team role, emphasise these parts of your approach and personality. If it’s a results driven role like sales, you’ll do better to talk about things like your success at hitting targets and deadlines.

Don’t just say it, prove it

This next step will transform the reader's perception of you. Present your accomplishments for each job you have held, emphasizing those which correlate with the job description. Bullet point these.

Start every sentence with a strong action verb. eg achieved, transformed, won, beat, excelled, increased, improved etc.

The next trick is to quantify or qualify each statement you are making with evidence to back it up. By doing this you turn what may sound like an idle boast into a powerful description of your ability to make a valuable contribution.

Most people have had targets and assessments of their performance - so select where you did well and talk about these and include the numbers as evidence. Think about your performance appraisals and take the best points from those. Use these as the proof of your accomplishments.

Reorder these bullet points after you have quantified your accomplishments. For example, let's say we were saying something like 'Increased client satisfaction by 20% each year leading to a halving of customer complaints.' That's a big and valuable impact. And therefore it could be the first statement you put at the top of the section.

Even if you worked in a non-target driven environment, you can still use this approach. For example, you probably got a lot better at what you did over time in your current or past job. So you can describe how for example, you managed to double the number of client accounts you worked on, or projects you contributed to.

Show how you made a difference

Recruiters want people that will make a positive difference. It might be that you do this by being a super helpful person and that's great - in fact it's a bonus, but sadly it won't get you an interview. So focus your resume on what you’ve achieved first. How you do it is secondary - if you get an interview, then you can talk about how you achieve things.

Now go back and streamline the whole document

Finally review the whole document again. At this stage:

  • Remove every single unnecessary word. If it’s not adding value, take it out.
  • Replace any weak verbs with strong ones. For example, instead of saying ‘Became project team member for x’, say, ‘Put myself forward for appointment to project team for x’
  • Check that every claim you make is verified with evidence to prove it.
  • Spell check as if your life depended on it! Do not rely on Word to do this for you. One particular case that I recall involved a resume which stated, 'I have extensive experience in pubic financing'
  • Finally revisit the job description and check that every keyword in it is included in your resume.

And that’s it. It may seem like a fiddly procedure at first, but once you adopt it as your normal process, it gets much easier and quicker. But best of all, you can be confident that your resume will be better than your competition…unless they read this blog too!

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