I Thought I Knew How to Write a Résumé. Here’s Why I Was Wrong

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You sit at your desk, heart racing. You just clicked a single button and the sirens began to sound. Could it be? No, that’s crazy. They’re not after you already… are they? You freeze, afraid to move, waiting for the pounding on your door for them to come and take you away.

Okay, so you probably won’t find yourself in this situation if you commit a résumé crime, but your fate won’t be much better. Guest writer Chau Le shares some of her mistakes as a recent grad and newbie résumé writer. Learn how she discovered the importance of understanding the specific position, putting herself in the recruiter’s shoes, and making sure her wording was precise and accurate—and how you can do the same.

When I got out of college, I applied to about 30 jobs and got no replies. I wasn’t surprised when Google didn’t call me back, but I was pretty sure I had more than enough qualifications to be a barista!

I had been confident in my capabilities when I was in college, but after multiple rejections (or what hurt more, complete silence), let’s just say that my confidence took a blow.

It’s now one year later and I’ve gone through a steep learning curve. Google still might not be knocking down my door, but I am happy to say that I’ve received interviews, gotten some contracting gigs, and—most importantly—no longer feel lost in a world of keywords and business jargon.

What changed in the last six months was that I switched up my attitude about finding a job. I once feared the workforce, deeming it a scary, uninhabitable planet that gobbled up and spit out recent college graduates. And my fear of working prevented me from presenting myself as a serious professional in the job market.

I was undermining my own capabilities by being wishy-washy and sloppy in the application process, spending little to no time reading the actual job description, and sending in un-tailored applications as if I were throwing out Mardi Gras beads from my personal parade float.

As I did more informational interviews, shadowed professionals, and researched what it was like to be “an adult,” my fear lessened and therein blossomed intention, which was the game-changer. With a new goal of nabbing a recruiter’s attention by putting myself forth as a worthy candidate for the job, I began pouring all of my time and energy into crafting the perfect résumé. Keep reading to see how my personal experience and learning curves translate into four tips on how to create and tailor a résumé that will (hopefully) land you an interview.

Step 1. Do Your Research And Read—A Lot

Why do parents and teachers tell us to read? It’s not so that we can recite a poem by heart, but because the more you read about a certain topic, the more you gather data and facts that can be filed and saved away for future use.

I knew something was wrong with my résumé—up until recently, I had one résumé that was supposed to fit all occupations (silly, I know).

If that wasn’t bad enough, I simply copied and pasted phrases that sounded good, but were sometimes irrelevant to the job. Hint: If you’re applying to a position as a technical book translator, you won’t need the words “people-oriented” or “enthusiastic networker” on your résumé. However, at the time, I thought that those were must-have, catch-all phrases, and dutifully dumped seemingly important keywords like those into my résumé.

After receiving countless rejections, I decided to figure out what I was doing wrong. So I read. And I read. And I read some more.

There’s a lot of content out there, but honestly not all of it was that helpful. Some “how to” posts and guides were written by an obviously bored author who didn’t care. But then some articles were so personal and heartfelt, it was like you had a résumé master and mentor sitting right next to you. I read them all.

One thing was pretty easy to figure out: There’s a lot of contradictory information out there.

Step 2: Weigh all the advice and decide what will work for you

In my case, all this reading and research led to a trickier problem: Figuring out who to listen to.

After you read a variety of opinions, you will hopefully begin to develop an intuition for what does and doesn’t work for that particular job and company.

For example, some posts encouraged leaving out your address, while others actually called you out for not writing down your location. The pro-address folks seemed to come from a more traditional stance, saying that it allowed the employer to visualize your location. However, other articles argued that writing an address was unnecessary information that could screen you out early in the race if the employer thought commuting might be a problem.

What did I do? I cut my address information down to my city and state, which is enough to give the employer an idea of my whereabouts, but didn’t crowd or add unnecessary info. Thus far, not only is my résumé cleaner looking, but the interviews are still coming in.

Step 3. Be the Recruiter

Imagine you come into work at 9am. There’s a stack of résumés piled high. You already have an idea what those papers will say. One out of every ten résumés might stand out, but in general, it’s a blur of cookie-cutter words on glaringly white paper.

What you want to do while crafting your résumé is to imagine yourself in the role of the recruiter. What would get your attention? What would you, as the recruiter, want to see in a candidate?

Here’s how I tackled this task: When I applied to a certain start-up, I decided to use the start-up’s theme colors for borders in my own résumé to show that I had done research on them, and spent time to tailor the résumé to their taste and style. Not only did I design the résumé to look like a page off of the company website, but I used the same tone and voice (clearly professional, but with a splash of humor) they used to describe their employees. One employee was described as the “Events Coordinator—and bubble tea lover,” which seemed like a cue that I could write “baking addict” under my list of interests. While I didn’t get the job in the end, I got their attention and made it to the final round of interviews.

Step 4. Use Keywords

So you did your research, lived in the mind of a recruiter for a day, and now you’re ready to start drafting your résumé.

When it comes to actually writing your résumé, I discovered two important rules of thumb.

1: Keep things concise.

2: Use (the right type of) keywords.

“BA in Intergalactic Peace from the University of Star Wars, 2014,” is easier to read, and just as informative as “Graduated from the University of Star Wars June 1, 2014, at 4pm on a Monday, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Intergalactic Peace.”

If the position you’re applying to requires a “thoughtful, detail-oriented individual with a touch of fearlessness”, be sure to insert those keywords throughout your résumé. For example, you can use “fearlessness” to describe your role as president of the lightsaber club in college or explain how your hobby of robot repair demonstrates your attention to detail.

For a more detailed example of how to tailor your résumé to a job description, check out this post.

Ready, Set, Go!

While in college, I’d copy and paste what looked good onto my résumé: the results were that I appeared lifeless and robotic on paper because I applied no individuality. While classes and workshops are a great start to creating your first résumé, be sure to research, read, and practice drafting several versions. Employers are picky, and it’s not what you present, but how you present it, that impresses employers and hiring managers.

I used to send the same master résumé to all jobs and industries, thinking that HR would do the work of finding out who I was (which explains why I never got any callbacks!). Today, I research the company and draft my résumé according to the kind of culture that company projects. The resulting jump from 0% to 20% callbacks is big when it comes to connecting with a potential employer, and just by changing my approach to how I write my résumé (words, style, tailoring), I’ve made a huge difference to my job search. I hope this advice will help you do the same.

Homework time! Chau mentions that there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, and that there’s no “one size fits all” approach to résumé writing. When you’re applying for a job, do your best detective work to learn as much as you can about that particular company. If you know someone who works there, ask them to look over your résumé and give you advice. Carefully read the wording of the job description and the company website and try to reflect that in your own résumé. And check out our résumé teardowns to see how some industry experts evaluate real résumés from students.

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