Getting the Job, Part 1: Resume Best Practices

[ This is post one in a series of three called “Getting the Job: Tips from a Hiring Manager.” ]

Have you ever noticed how a job search is like a marketing campaign? It’s a perfect case-study in marketing. You have a product (yourself), you’re figuring out who your buyer is (a potential employer), then getting them to buy (by hiring you). A few years ago, I worked as a hiring manager. I sorted through hundreds of resumes, made lots of phone calls, interviewed lots of people, and learned a lot in the process. The biggest lesson I learned was figuring out what’s truly important to the hiring manager, and how it’s not necessarily what you might expect. Applicants often focus on things that aren’t so important, and miss some of the more crucial elements.

Now, I’m just one person, and my experience isn’t the same as a lot of other hiring managers so I don’t claim to speak for them. But below are some helpful hints that I’ve found to be important. In my opinion, the most important thing you can do is put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes. The first thing to know is that most “hiring managers” really don’t hire for a living—they do other things, like HR, Payroll, Accounting, or something similar. So hiring is just one of the many things they do. And if you were to ask them, they would tell you it’s their least favorite part of their job. Hiring isn’t always pleasant. It’s stressful, time-consuming, involves a ton of paperwork, and there’s often pressure from upper management. Here’s a secret that you might not have heard before: a hiring manager will go through his stack of resumes looking for ones he can toss right away. He only has so much time in a day, and reducing the total number of resumes he actually has to read through is an effective way to help manage his time.

What a hiring manager is looking for:

Here are some things a hiring manager will be looking at carefully as he works through his stack of resumes.

  1. Job Requirements: Most jobs have some sort of requirement for certification or skills, and finding out which people do and don’t meet this requirement is pretty easy to do. At my company, in the positions we were hiring for, having a valid driver’s license was an absolutely non-negotiable requirement for the job. And I got piles of resumes and applications from people who either didn’t read that requirement, or hoped they’d be an exception. For me, these were the first to go. And it’s frustrating to receive these resumes because they’re a waste of time.
  2. Spelling Errors: I think everybody already knows this one, but its worth repeating. If your resume has spelling or grammatical errors, whether its fair or not, it simply won’t be considered. That’s the harsh reality of the hiring process. And no upper manager would ever question this practice. The assumption is that if you can’t properly spell words on your resume, you’re probably not a person who pays attention to detail, or you just don’t care.
  3. Presentable and Readable: If your resume has a strange font, or smudgy ink, or coffee stains, or is crumpled, it may get tossed. This may also seem harsh, but it’s another way that you look like you’re not paying attention or don’t care. Make it easy to read, and don’t ramble on about how you work hard or have a good work ethic. Instead, point out specific things your potential employer is really looking for in a candidate: your experience using the software program his company uses; the fact that you have your own tools, your ability to build a record number of widgets in an hour, etc. Make sure you know what’s important to him and focus on that.
  4. The “Work History” Section: If he sees that you’ve had fourteen jobs in the last five years, he may think either you’re a bad worker who is constantly getting fired, or you have no attention span and just can’t stick it out. Either way, it doesn’t look good for you. The last thing he wants is to go through the hiring process again anytime soon. He wants a keeper, and you don’t look like one. If you do have a colorful work history like this, I have two suggestions for you. First, just don’t let it get to this point in the first place. Second, you can try only listing your three or four most recent jobs. But expect him to ask you why your work history isn’t complete, and be honest when you answer. You don’t necessarily need to explain this on your resume. It can wait for the interview, if you make it that far.
  5. Staple vs. Paperclip: This one is not such a big deal, but it sure annoyed me. When I had a filing box full of resumes, occasionally I’d open that box to see five or six loose pages because they’d been handed in with a paperclip. If the pages of your resume get separated, it may be tough to figure out which pages go together, or hard to find your contact info. There’s a super-quick fix for this: just staple your pages together. It’s better. Trust me.
  6. Overall Length: This is a hotly debated topic, but in my experience, it’s relative to the job you want. Some people vehemently hold to the “one page” rule. I don’t. I’ve seen some horrific one-pagers, and conversely, I’ve read every word on some three-pagers. If you’re a teen that’s applying to be a part-time janitor (like I was once), make it short. One page, max. However, if you’re applying for a “real” job with a “real” company that is planning on taking time to screen applicants and wants a solid hire that will last for years, feel free to use two or even three pages.  But make it feel short and readable. Don’t waste the manager’s time. If your resume is ten pages long, no matter who you are, it’s going to get tossed. If you really are so special that your resume needs to be ten pages long, the hiring manger already knows who you are.
  7. Cover Page/Recipient: First of all, you don’t necessarily need a cover page. But if you are going to take the extra time and effort to create a cover page you better make sure you know your audience. Make sure it’s addressed to the right person. Don’t give it to the intern, and don’t give it to the CEO. Give it to whomever they want you to give it to. Most companies have a very specific way they screen applicants and people who don’t follow this really annoy people in HR and they’re only hurting their chances of being considered for the position. If the company wants you to give your application to Betty at the front desk between 8:00-11:00am, do so. Don’t just email “to whom it may concern” at [email protected]. The company will not go looking for it, so it’s up to you to aim carefully.

Make your resume stand out from the others:

It’s surprising to me how many resumes I’ve seen that are unimaginative. If I have a stack of 100 applications, odds are 98 of them will look exactly the same. Here are some tricks to make yours stand out from the rest of the pack:

  1. Use off-white paper. Almost everyone uses ultra-white paper to put black type on, and that’s not a good thing. It’s not eye catching, and actually can give you a headache after sorting through a huge stack of them. On the other hand, do NOT buy that special, expensive “resume paper” at the office supply store—that’s annoying too. It’s far too pretentious. Find a shade that’s not quite white and you’re good to to. It’s easier on the eyes, and it’s a small detail that can make yours stand out. Or at a bare minimum, put some color in it somehow.
  2. Don’t use the Times New Roman font. The only reason this font is ever used is because it’s the default font in MS Word. So most people just type away without ever changing the default font. If you want to look like you’ve put a little more thought into writing your resume, choose a different font.
  3. Put a picture of yourself on your resume. This is something I’ve only seen two or three times, and it’s extremely impressive. All a resume really does is try to convey a sense of who you are in a few sheets of paper, and a picture is a fantastic way to help this along. When a hiring manager is looking over your resume, he’s also asking himself “do I want to call this person in for an interview?” so if you have a nice portrait of yourself, use it. It can give you a little bit of instant rapport if you do get called in for an interview. That familiarity will help you make a connection.

Note: some people—and it seems to be women more often than men—have expressed fear of doing this because they feel it could be used in a discriminatory way (i.e. the manager won’t process your resume because he doesn’t think you’re attractive enough). I have two counterpoints to that. First, if a hiring manager is going to discriminate based on your looks, he could just as easily do so at your interview. Second, if you’re going to be discriminated against due to your looks, you don’t want to work for a company like that anyway! So don’t worry about it.

Some Final Notes:

  1. Don’t put skills you don’t like using on your resume. If you’re applying to be a salesman, and at your last job you won the “cold-calling award” three years in a row but you HATE cold-calls, don’t talk about your mad cold-calling skills. Otherwise, the hiring manager will be screening you with that in mind, and if you’re hired, you’ll be expected to make lots and lots of cold-calls. Instead, focus on the things you prefer. If you’re a PERL programmer but are equally adept at C# but you just don’t like C#, don’t talk about it. Just focus on your PERL skills. It’s a little bit unfair: once people find out that you’re good at something, they’ll try to use that to their advantage. Anything you put on your resume can potentially become part of your job description.
  2. Don’t exaggerate or be evasive. Exaggerating your skills or work history is a big no-no. At one place I worked at, we got a call from a company looking at hiring one of our previous employees. He had apparently written on his resume that he was a “Director of Transporation” at our company. Whoops. He was never a director of anything. He just happened to drive the company van a few times. Don’t exaggerate. It makes you look very, very bad. Being evasive is also a good way to test the patience of a potential employer. If you were fired for cause at your last job, don’t pretend you were involved in a company-wide layoff. Why? Because if the hiring manager finds out the truth, you’ll never get called back. If you have a criminal conviction and you’re applying to work at a company that will run a background check on you—be honest. If you have a criminal background but apply for a job that requires a clean background, when the background check comes through with issues, you won’t get the job. Don’t waste their time.
  3. Don’t try to fit everything on your resume. The ultimate goal of a resume is NOT to land you the job, but to get an invitation for an interview. If you can do that, you’ve succeeded. The interview is the time and place for explaining all the little nuances: why you quit without notice at your last job, why you’re looking for a new job while you’re currently employed, or telling them that you have special requirements for taking every other Friday off. Don’t try to explain that on paper.

Resumes are not the be-all and end-all of the job search; they’re just the beginning. And like beginning anything else, if you want to take the second and third step, you have to start with the first step. So get your resume in order, and make sure you’ve considered the hints above. Next up: the interview (coming soon).

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