Even the Smartest People Can Have Rotten Resumes: How to avoid looking bad on paper

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Years ago I dated a man with an incredibly impressive career background. A tech executive, he was seeking new employment, and he asked me to review his resume. Having been a print editor early in my career, I'm asked to do this quite often, as if aligning the gerunds in your list of qualifications will make all the difference. Looking back, I suspect that this man desired more that I see his impressive credentials than I provide my honest feedback on his CV.

The result was not what he planned. I opened the document, saw a wall of words that ended with "Won seventh-grade science award," and wondered to myself, "How did this guy ever obtain gainful employment?"

I'm amazed at how a resume can make or break a perception. Though I had dated this man for several months and respected his business savvy, the impression left by his resume was that he was insecure (every job had 10 bragging points, rather than three our four key, quantifiable accomplishments); unfocused (who would want to read a resume that looked wordier than Tolstoy?), and amateurish (a seventh-grade science project? He was in his mid-30s!).

Though I love to espouse the eventual end of the resume, it still is a key factor in setting an initial impression. And though I've been asked to review many resumes, I haven't solicited feedback on my own--I'm en English major, after all! At the end of the day I've felt I could adequately make my case, though truth be told I can count on maybe one finger the number of times my resume got me a job.

When I became a manager at a startup without an HR team and had to sift through hundreds of resumes for a person I desperately sought to lighten my load, I became painfully aware of the arrogance with which I had formerly relayed my own qualifications--I saw it in every resume I dismissed.

Like the candidates on my reject pile, I never included a concrete objective--why limit myself to a specific job?, I rationalized: the hiring manager might just be blown away by the breadth of my experience and offer me a bigger, better job. I loved to sprinkle in the who's that I worked for, rather than the what's that I did.

But now, as a hiring manager, it was so critical that I find someone with very specific experience that the wheat almost separated itself from the vague, unfocused chaff. Things that I didn't think mattered on my own resume suddenly mattered a lot: Misspellings in a cover letter? That employee would likeluy not pay attention to detail. Inability to state specifically what position he was seeking? That candidate was too indecisive to get this position. No mention of computer skills? I don't have time to walk this person through a crash course in Powerpoint.

I realized that the boring, concrete crap that I thought wasn't very interesting was reassuring to see on paper.

I was rather intrigued with a recent series on Jason Alba's blog, JibberJobber. Alba enlisted a group of top-notch hiring experts from such pubs as About.com and CareerHub, recruiters, and resume writers to chime in on a reader's resume, breaking it down more granularly than I would ever have the patience to do myself. The exercise is a useful one, however, more than I imagined.

What I thought would be a remedial exercise in the fundamentals of resume writing was more an advanced course in entering the mind of a hiring manager. The resume was posted (with some details left out for privacy purposes).

Starting with initial reactions there were some very useful bits of advice from recruiter , regarding the overly simplified contact information of the applicant, who opted for the currently trendy name and email addy approach:

It’s a red flag because if not freely given, there can be an ulterior motive… is the candidate from out of state? Why does the candidate not want us to know where he lives? Is s/he going through some personal crisis that is causing upheaval that will effect his/her work? Companies have relocation money in their budgets and they will spend it for the right candidate.

I've often wondered, do I include my blogging in my resume? My article writing? While these items may make me look "well-rounded", including non-job-related items can confuse more than impress, according to Chapman:

As I read further, I notice that there seems to be a battle going on between whether this particular person wants to be an employee or work for him/herself. While including outside interests or other pursuits at earning income can be a positive, one must present them so that they intensify the attractiveness of a candidate as an employee and not as someone who might not be committed to the company; another potential read flag. – You must present as clearly as possible all and only the work history which will be attractive and desirable to the potential employer.

Says Daniel Sweet of FRACAT (Free Resume And Career Toolbox):

A more astute HR person or recruiter will see a generic resume that says: “I Don’t Know What I Want To Do With My Life. Would You Please Figure It Out For Me?”

And while no one necessarily enjoys making a quanitifyable case for her worth to the company, postitioning yourself as a cost center doesn't help. Chapman adds:

Every employer must justify the expense of an employee. Chiefly that is done by the employee creating more revenue than he or she costs the company in salary, benefits, and bonuses. The more valuable employees provide higher value by increasing overall sales higher than or by saving more money than their co-workers. – You must include achievements of cost reductions or increased revenues to position yourself above the competition.

And was I being picky about my former flame including his seventh-grade science project, or his love of marine life in his resume? According to Sweet:

As an employer, if see a candidate who has so many revealed extra-curricular activities as you have listed, it says that I’m never going to have your full attention, focus, and effort directed to the work you’re doing for me.

In the content review section of the series resume writer Barbara Safani makes a distinction that the resume "communicat(es) tasks rather than accomplishments."

The candidate’s current resume does nothing to distinguish him from his competition. Lots of people have skill sets similar to this candidate. What makes him different?

Imagine you are buying a new product…let’s say it’s a dishwasher…every brand has its own pitch…some dishwashers save water, some are better for the environment, some are faster, some are quieter…you get the picture. The consumer buys one of the dishwashers based on the product benefits, not its features…they all wash the dishes…the consumer needs to decide which dishwasher provides the most benefits to them. With a resume, accomplishment statements with key metrics best showcase a candidate’s benefits. Task statements merely convey features of the candidate’s experience.

Check out the Wrap Up if you don't have time to sift through the reams and reams of expert review.

At the end of this exercise I was clear that resume writing is hard! Often we don't know how we come across on paper until we are managers ourselves, and even then we forget what a hiring manager wants to see. I also have a newfound respect for resume writers. In fact, this English major has changed her tune on self-service. I belive that shelling-out for a second opinion is worth it.

Jory Des Jardins also writes at Fast Company Experts Blog and Pause.

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