Most of us don’t really take a look at our resumes until it’s time to apply for jobs. I’m certainly one of those people. I’ve updated my resume only occasionally in between looking for new jobs. I’ve done a lot of experimenting with my resume over the years. This article summarizes what I started with, how I adapted and updated it, and tips to consider when brushing off the ol’ resume.

Starting Out

If you are just starting out, you probably don’t have a wealth of experience to list and it seems a bit intimidating to be applying to positions for which you have little to no actual professional experience. This is normal! While you may not have the professional experience, what you can do is leverage what you’ve done in your personal life. Have you volunteered for something? Great! List the volunteer activity as if it were a professional experience. Extra-curricular activity from school? Do the same thing! What you experience throughout life is all experience. It may or may not pertain to a specific position, but if you can list life experiences that do relate, then even better.

If you are dusting off the resume, go ahead and review it. See if there’s anything that can be refined. Did a project exceed expectations? Did you end up picking up additional responsibilities that aren’t quite listed? Add them! Refine the existing experience you have written down to more accurately reflect your accomplishments. Each word on your resume should add value to your overall effort. If you helped your team improve a process, what was your role in helping? What was the process? How did you improve it? What were the benefits to the company after it was improved? Was it long term? If you can explain the value you provided to your previous employers through your actions, it’s easier to see how hiring you for the next position will benefit the next company.

Expand

Before I do anything to my resume with my new experience, I expand on what’s already written. If I helped automate a server installation I can expand that to how I made decisions, how the project came about, what the outcome was, hurdles I had to overcome, decisions I needed to make, input I sought, etc. I can expand a single bullet point into several highlighting problem solving skills, leadership, cost-benefit analysis, etc. This highlights soft skills which are typically skills one must learn by doing and cannot necessarily learn by being taught. Think about each bullet in your resume and expand it to highlight as many soft skills as you can that you used in meeting your accomplishments. Once you’ve worked over your resume, then you can add to it with your new experience in your last position. Reviewing your entire resume helps bring forward all of your skill sets you’ve developed over your professional career.

One example of expanding would be to take a rather generic bullet point like “Automate data acquisition.” and expand it into multiple bullet points highlighting the various tasks you accomplished:

  • Automated data aggregation, formatting, validation, and report generation.
  • Automated testing analytics.

This type of expansion portrays your accomplishments more clearly and provides a clearer view of your part in company success. Companies would rather hire someone who is capable at communicating than someone who flies under the radar and just punches the clock.

Add Value

When you’re finished expanding, go back and revise your bullets to stand out. Include specific amounts when possible. Be sure you are able to explain your values during an interview. Estimating saving a company $1M better have an explanation on how you came up with that number and concrete examples backing it. If you’re unsure of a number, you can still estimate one, but be sure you can explain your estimation process. Estimation is a great skill to showcase during an interview and backing it up proves your authority on the skill.

Continuing with our example, we can add specific values to each of these bullet points to highlight the value provided to the previous company. This allows a potential employer to see the proven value you brought to the company and foreshadows the value you will bring to them:

  • Saved the company 1,081 hours by automating data aggregation, formatting, validation, and report generation for 36 products.
  • Save the company 500 hours by automating testing analytics for 22 projects.

This value clarification also shows how much you were working. It highlights the amount of work required to accomplish your goals and the total cost savings provided to the company (almost a full-time employee salary!). This relays to prospective employers that hiring you will save them money. Business think in terms of bottom line. If you add more perceived value than you cost, you can negotiate a higher salary and prospective employers will still see it as a net-positive deal.

Reduce

Once you expand, update, and add value to all of your positions on your resume, it’s time to make some cuts. I keep several copies of my resume. I use LinkedIn as an fully expanded resume listing every position and every project and everything I’ve ever done to add any value at all to any company. When I put this all in a PDF, it’s 11 pages. This is clearly too long-winded to be successful at getting into any position (I’ve tried and had little success).

The first person that typically looks at your resume is also looking at other resumes, too. Potentially hundreds depending on the company. If they come across an 11 page resume you can almost be sure it’s immediately removed from the running. This person is a human and humans get bored easily. You need a concise, clear, standout resume to get further into the process. You can always bring your 11 page resume to your interview to bring up talking points (although, I would caution against that).

Any bullet points that merely list responsibilities of a position provide zero value and just take up valuable space. If a bullet point doesn’t add value, remove it. If a bullet point doesn’t explain what you did, the value it brought to the company, and highlight a skill it needs to be refined or removed. The earlier examples are great at identifying value and skill. This individual saved the company a lot of time (and time, to a company, equals money). It also showed a penchant for automation. Other aspects of the resume should be backing some form of experience. This individual was a molecular biologist and they were highlighting their expertise in data reporting. All of the bullet points for that position highlighted how their data reporting skills saved the company money and could save the next potential employer money, too. The skills listed in this resume also portrayed a knack for automation, which is a skill that spans multiple disciplines. Each bullet identified a skill possessed by this individual, the value this skill brought to the company, and how the skill made this individual a subject matter expert on the subject.

Your resume is a sales tool in selling yourself to a potential employer. Treat it as a marketing campaign. If it’s not string, clear, and concise, make it that way or remove it.

The Process

This is probably a good time to talk about the whole hiring process in the 21st century. If you’re applying for jobs, it’s probably online. You’re either talking to a recruiter or using a job board like Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Dice, or any of the hundreds of other job boards available. You should target the job boards relevant to your industry if possible. Look around and see if you can find a job board specific to your industry.

You may believe that getting that first interview is the first step of the interview process. You may be surprised to find that the first step is not getting an interview, but instead getting your resume to a human. This is typically accomplished by human-first contact (a recruiter or an internal hiring specialist) or through an applicant tracing system (ATS).

You can tell when an ATS is being used when you have to fill out some series of forms rehashing your resume. This puts your resume into a machine readable format that the ATS can then search for keywords. If you have the skill set they are looking for, but lack the keywords the ATS is looking for, you’re quietly eliminated from the running. You don’t typically get any indication if you’ve been rejected through an ATS based hiring process. When you are targeting a position that uses an ATS, it’s a good idea to break out your skills into industry standard terminology and list it in a skills section of your resume. I pull out all of the languages I’ve worked with and list them in a group close to the top of my resume. This makes it easy to copy and paste keywords into an ATS based resume submission.

In the case of a human-first hiring process, your resume length is a typical factor in elimination. An 11 page resume will quickly find the trash can even if you are the dream candidate. For human-first applications, you must keep your resume crystal clear and concise. The human that first looks at your resume needs to figure out if it’s a general match within 5 seconds of looking at it. If you don’t clearly highlight your skills, you won’t stand out in the hundreds of resumes this person has to go through. You do have more creative freedom with a human-first application process to better portray your skills through resume layout.

After the initial screening process, you may get a second phone screen. This typically means you made it past the gate keeper and someone with some sort of knowledge about the position and about the company wants to talk to you. They have your ATS resume (in whatever format the ATS spits it out in) or your “human” resume (in the format you submitted it in). Depending on this, you may want to highlight your skills verbally during the screening call. This phone screen may seem like it’s a “getting to know you” but you should treat it as a stage to shine on. Your soft skills are what’s being tested, the phone screen person doesn’t typically know much about the skills necessary for the position, they want to make sure you’re still looking, that this job interests you, to tell you a little bit about to company, and to gauge if you are not an asshole. Nobody hires assholes.

If you manage to pass the phone screen, the next step is either an in-person or over-the-phone interview. This is the last step for some positions. This is where the rubber hits the road. A team of people or one person is on the other end, they’ve read your resume (along with tens of others that made it through) and want to test that you know what your resume says you know and if you’re a good fit for the team dynamic. This is the tougher of the interviews and if more are after this they get even more tougher. This interview is the make or break moment for your job search in a position. This is where you bring together all of your soft skills to highlight your hard skills. PRACTICE THIS BEFORE THE INTERVIEW. Unless you interview regularly, this is where a small mistake can cost you the position (this has happened to me more times than I care to reflect on). You should be able to answer their questions with a story reflecting on past positions on how you accomplished something similar. If you don’t have experience let them know you haven’t had the experience but do tell them what you would do if found in that situation.

I’ve been asked how I would handle an employee subordinate to me that was disruptive to the team. I’ve never been in this position (nor would I really want to be), so I explained I had never experienced it, but that I would pull the employee aside and talk about it. We would come up with ideas on how to not be disruptive and make a performance plan on how to measure when the employee was being disruptive and what to do when the employee recognized they were being disruptive. This solution seemed simple to me, but someone who may not have been ready for the position may not have had this type of answer.

Many other times, I’ve been asked questions that directly related to projects I’ve been on in the past. Something like “how would you handle negative performance by a third-party?” and was able to reflect on one of my projects that directly involved a negatively performing third-party contractor. I explained that I had actually experienced that and explained what I did do. This was nowhere on my resume but does show the soft skills the company is looking for and backs them up through concrete action.

There have, of course, been interviews I’ve been on for a position that was (looking back on it) clearly out of my experience. I’ve been on a manager interview for a movie theater (this was a really long time ago!) and asked what I would do if a customer complained about seeing a rat drag a nacho tray up the theater aisle during a movie. I didn’t know. I never even experienced the rat issue. So, I offered what I would do in that position: apologize and offer a movie pass for a later showing. It wasn’t what the other managers would do (and I’m not quite sure what the “correct” answer was). Needless to say, I didn’t get the position.

Wrap Up

In the many interviews I’ve had during my career, I am often deflated when I get passed over for a position. It’s taken some time, but I finally realize that getting passed over for a position isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It does come down a fit on both sides of the process. Ultimately, you aren’t passed over because you suck, it’s typically because of “fit.” On one interview, the culture of the company and my culture just didn’t line up. Other interviews, they were looking for someone with either more or less skill than I could provide, I would have struggled or been underpaid and frustrated for that position. If you focus on being yourself and presenting what you have to offer in the best light, you will find your fit, it may just take some time.

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