Writing Your Résumé Step-by-Step

Where to begin? The blank page can be quite intimidating. Take some advice from other writers—you have some options. Many writers start by free writing, that is, they write the initial story quickly, without any regard for formatting, editing, or self-censorship; the goal is to get the main elements on paper. Then they revise, edit, and put things into an order that makes sense.

If this approach sounds too haphazard, try an outline. Many nonfiction writers start this way, with an overall idea of what is to come. The writer then goes back and systematically fills in the various elements. This is also followed by revising and editing and moving information around as needed to best present the information.

Résumé writers have similar systems. Some prefer to jump right in and write as they go. Others create a basic outline and fill in the proper information. Whatever the method, the thing to keep in mind is that, even with an outline, no résumé is "one size fits all." Your résumé is a portrait of your unique history. Using examples from a book and trying to make it fit your situation will generally not work, as you may end up using wording that is not your style or personality and does not represent your uniqueness. When résumé professionals work with their clients, they take detailed notes from conversations and/or questionnaires completed by the applicant. This way they can create a unique document tailored to the personality of each client.

Much of the editing and revision for all types of writers involves cutting—finding more succinct ways of saying things and deleting unimportant information and wording. Moving and changing the order of information can also be done in the editing and revising stage to create the best possible document.

Given that the blank page can be intimidating, what follows is an outline approach that will take you through the process step by step. Keep in mind that the format you choose may not be in the exact order as the following sections; similarly, you may not be using each section, depending on your unique circumstances. Feel free to skip around—if you find one section easier to write than another, start with that. This will help you get into the flow of writing and will help build your confidence for the tougher sections.

What You Will Need

Remember all that stuff you learned about yourself when taking your interest, values, skills, and aptitude tests? Here is where you get to put some of that to work. As you prepare to write your résumé, you will need a variety of information on hand. Compile or make lists of the following information:


Have a copy of your transcripts handy. Review your coursework to see which are most relevant to the job you are seeking. Compile information on any special projects you completed (particularly senior projects) and how these contribute to your position as a job candidate.


Make a list of your skills, or refer to any skills assessment tests you completed.

Work History, Internships, etc.

Make a list of all the jobs you have held, your job descriptions, and, most important, what you accomplished while on the job. How did you help your employer? Did you contribute to cutting costs or increasing sales or improving service? If you have copies of any performance reviews, look those over as well. (If not, make a mental note to hang on to them in the future so you can update your résumé as you move through your career.)

Volunteer or Organizational Involvement

Summarize any volunteer positions, community involvement, affiliations, etc. If you hold or held any positions within these organizations, write them down.

Professional Memberships, Certifications, Training, etc.

Make a list of any professional organizations to which you belong. If you have completed any special certification or training beyond your education, make a note of that as well.

Special Interests

Do you have any hobbies or special interests directly related to the type of position you are seeking? You may want to add them to your résumé.

Computer and Specialized Skills

Make a list of all the software you are familiar with and any other special computer or technical knowledge that you have.

Your References

Although you will not be listing your references on your résumé, make a note of who may be willing to serve as a reference. Keep your list limited to professionals. Previous employers, teachers, professors, volunteer leaders, and the like are better choices than your best friend, your pastor, or your mom or dad.

Get ready to begin!

"A real benefit to preparing your résumé is that none of your prep work will go to waste. Every minute you put into it can be used throughout the networking, correspondence, and interview process."—Susan Britton Whitcomb, quoted from Résumé Magic

Your Name and Contact Information

This part should be easy. It is usually at the top of the résumé (but not always) and you should know what it is. Include as much contact information about yourself as needed. Make it easy for employers to contact you, but do not overdo it. If you have a home phone, office phone, cell phone, and beeper, you may not want to include all those numbers. You do not want your header to take up most of the top third of your résumé. Pick the phone numbers that will make it the easiest for a potential employer to reach you. You will also want to include your address and possibly your e-mail address and website address if you have one. Your goal is a balanced arrangement of your contact information. Look through the samples in this section for ideas on how to showcase your contact information. You may already have an idea of how you would like it to look. If you are stuck on this, do not fret—you can do final formatting after you have entered all of the vital information on your résumé. Making it pretty is important, but just as important is including all of the relevant information. Play around with some general ideas, but try not to get stuck on this part too long. You can always reformat as needed.


The objective statement is seen by many as passé, particularly in the way it has been traditionally used. Job seekers have often used the objective statement to state what they are looking for in a job as opposed to how they can benefit an employer. Or, perhaps even more annoying to employers, objective statements have become blanket expressions that tend to all sound alike, such as, "A challenging entry level position in (insert job title) with room for advancement."

The objective statement can still work for many new graduates or those without much or any work history. Because professional profiles or summaries are often used in place of the objective, someone with limited experience may prefer to use an objective. The key is to make it unique to your situation and show how you can be of benefit to the employer. There are many fine examples in the sample résumés to follow.

If you choose to not use an objective but want to say something similar, there are other options. If you are targeting a specific company or type of position, you can include a header that encompasses your expertise or job goal. You will see a variety of ways this is done in the sample résumés. Some use the job title as the header with a line or two afterwards to further describe the expertise. Other headers include Target, Career Goal, and Career Focus.

Summary or Profile

A summary or profile is an overview of a candidate's history or expertise. It can be used in conjunction with or in replacement of an objective. Often, a summary or profile will contain keywords; other times it is more of a narrative describing the benefits of the candidate to the employer. The narrative may also include important key words written into the summary rather than presented as a list.

Because the summary or profile is an overview of your expertise, you may want to complete this section after you have written the other sections of your résumé. You will want this section to highlight your capabilities, which will be backed up by specifics in your résumé. It may be easier to do this in reverse, by listing the specifics in the body of the résumé and then completing the profile that summarizes everything else you have included in the document. Otherwise you may feel that you are not sure what you are supposed to be summarizing.


For many recent graduates, education will be given prominent placing on the résumé because it is the candidate's most valuable asset at this time. With limited work experience, an impressive education section can showcase your knowledge, related coursework, and projects completed while in school that are directly related to an employer's needs.

How much information is included about your education will depend on your circumstances and how much other experience you have to include on your résumé. At a minimum, include your degree earned, the school's name, and the city and state of the school. You do not need to include the exact address of the school.

Should you include your GPA? This is a question of considerable debate, even among résumé professionals. As a general rule, anything below a 3.5 should be omitted. For highly technical and competitive fields, you may not want to include it unless it is a 3.8 or above. What if you have a 4.0? Some may feel this is an honor worth noting; it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to achieve this grade level. But keep in mind you may be asked in an interview what you did besides schoolwork. Employers like their employees to be well rounded with skills above and beyond academics. Interpersonal skills can be just as important, if not more so, than academic grades. Again, use your discretion when determining whether or not to include your GPA. What may be appropriate for one person and one field may not be for another. A good rule of thumb: If you are in doubt, leave it off (this applies to everything else on your résumé as well).

Whether or not you include relevant coursework is dependent upon what courses you completed and whether those courses are useful for the job you are seeking. The more specialized your degree is, the better chances that you have relevant coursework. Nursing students, for example, may want to include coursework in specialized subjects that qualify them to work in particular areas of nursing. An engineer with little work experience may want to list coursework that demonstrates a competency in various engineering methods. Conversely, an English major seeking a position in sales need not include medieval literature as a selling point; it is not relevant.

Special projects completed in school may be included in lieu of real-world working experience. Sometimes these projects require just as much, if not more, work than do their real-world counterparts. Assignments often include challenging parameters that are not likely in the outside world or that could be negotiated in a real-world scenario. It can be helpful to note these challenges and how they were overcome in the project description. Any special skills used to complete the project should be included and, if appropriate, the grade received. If the project has the potential to be completed in the real world, or if this actually happened (such as a landscape design used by a local resident), it can be worth noting. Note positive results whenever possible.

Work Experience

As you will notice in the sample résumés, how you list your work experience can take many forms. At the least, you want to include your position title and the company name. While most résumés will somehow show a length of time worked at a particular job, not all will. If dates are not listed, however, it may look suspicious to a potential employer. If you have a solid work history, or worked the same job for a fairly long period of time, you may do well to list years only. If your employment was shorter, or if you are listing an internship, for example, you may want to use both the month and year.

The job, what you did, and how or if it relates to your target position will determine how much and what kind of information you include in the employment section. For positions that have little to do with your target, you may only list the job title and employer. For positions that are similar to your target, or require you to use similar or transferable skills (those applied in a different situation but easily adapted to your new line of work), you may go into more detail.

You may want to list what you did at your previous job. The tendency is to write "responsible for" or "duties included" and then list what you did. Over the years, the words "responsible for" have become overused on résumés, and it is best to avoid using them. Eliminating the "responsible for" and using the rest of the description can work or at least give you a starting point. For example, Responsible for monitoring cash flow can be changed to Monitored cash flow. Use succinct descriptions and action verbs or nouns when possible. This will keep your copy short and to the point. If you have copies of your job descriptions from previous positions, use them as a reference, but do not use them word for word. If you are currently employed, use present tense when describing your position (manage cash flow). If you are referring to a previous job, use the past tense (managed).

How well did you do your job? Did you go above and beyond? Did you make any special contributions, cut costs, improve sales, provide exceptional customer service or devise a better way of doing things? Any accomplishments you achieved while on the job can and should be listed on your résumé. Ideally, you will be able to quantify your achievements, that is, provide a number detailing money saved or earned for the company, time reduced, etc. The more you can show the results of an activity, the better. Accomplishments can be listed under the job title or, depending on the format, may be set off as a separate heading altogether.

Alternate Headings

Education and work history are probably the two main headings that most people include on a résumé. Many alternate headings can be applied to the résumé. In a functional style, an achievements, highlights, or skills section may be set aside to draw attention to specific details, leaving the work summary section to list the basic information of job title, employer, and dates. You will notice that the samples in this section use a variety of headings to showcase different accomplishments or highlights from a person's background. Also note that not all of the highlighted information is from work-related experience. Experience from volunteer work, internships, and positions within organizations can all contribute to a list of achievements and highlights. Sample headings used to highlight achievement-related activities from the samples in this section include: Selected Leadership Highlights, Telecommunications Highlights, Highlights of Value Offered, Skills Summary, Strengths & Accomplishments, and Experience Summary.

Because the recent high school or college graduate presents a unique set of challenges to résumé writing, many other areas of a person's history may end up on the résumé that probably would not for those who have a few years of work history behind them. These listings are appropriate but should only be used if they help support the goal of the résumé; that is, they should only be listed if they support the candidate's position that he or she is the best person for the job. Listing that you were a member of the football team may not help you if you are seeking a position as a laboratory researcher; but it may help if you are applying for a position that requires a great deal of teamwork. Whatever you decide to put on your résumé, ask yourself if it will help position you as a stronger candidate than your competition. If the answer is no, or even a maybe, leave it off. Unnecessary or weak information can be more detrimental than no information. The following is a list of potential headings frequently used for new graduates or those just entering the workforce.


If you took part in internships and the experience was directly related to your job target, include this as a separate heading. Similarly, if you do not have paid work experience but do have internship experience, this can be used in lieu of the work history.

Certifications/Training/Professional Training/Licenses

Many specialized degrees and related jobs require certification or training above and beyond one's degree. If you hold certifications that add credibility to your standing, include them on the résumé (but only if they support your candidacy—many people have outdated or current certifications that are no longer relevant to the types of positions they are currently pursuing). Similarly, any additional training or licensing beyond your formal education that can set you apart from other candidates should be included, particularly if the training or licensing is challenging or requires prerequisites to obtain. Some jobs require that applicants hold specific certifications or licensing; if this is the case, be sure to include this information. Not doing so can be a reason for immediate disqualification.

Computer Skills/Technical

In today's workforce, computer literacy is almost always a must. Even listing basic computer knowledge such as Microsoft Office lets the employer know that you are capable of using a computer. (If this is all you know, you may want to combine this information with another related subject so it does not stand out.) For jobs that require an intimate knowledge of advanced or specialized computer software, be sure to include this on your résumé (as long as you are indeed proficient in the use of the program). CAD (computer-aided design) programs are one such example. If you are seeking programming positions, list all of the languages you know that are still technically relevant.

Professional Affiliations/Memberships/Organizations

Any involvement in professional organizations related to your target job can be included on your résumé. If you hold any positions or leadership roles within these organizations, mention that on your résumé and what your duties are. Listing your length of time as a member may also serve you well if you have been with the organization for a long time (if you have recently joined, leave this information off). If you are a member of an organization considered "standard" for your field, be sure to include it. This will help demonstrate that you are familiar with the field and its common practices and expectations.

Volunteer/Activities/Collegiate Activities/Leadership Positions/Community Involvement

While these types of activities can be incorporated into a work history, your level of involvement and responsibility may warrant placing this information under a separate heading. If you have limited paid work experience, a section on your activities might highlight your commitment to your field or your community much better than your limited experience in the workforce. Any leadership roles or other positions that you hold or held during your involvement can be included to demonstrate your abilities to work with others and your commitment to getting things accomplished.


As the world economy continues to change and grow and as employers open offices across the globe, communication is an ever-more important issue. If you are fluent or can communicate in any foreign languages, it may work to your advantage to include this on your résumé. If you are interested in working abroad, definitely include this information. Even within the United States, those who are bilingual or multilingual may have a distinct advantage over their competitors, as businesses, services, and educational facilities are more attuned to the advantages of being able to reach various cultures.

Academic Honors/Awards

Depending on the honors or awards you may have received, referring to them on your résumé may be to your advantage. Listing academic honors can be particularly useful for those continuing in or entering education fields, although this information may be useful for other fields as well.

High School Achievements

High school achievements can be a bit tricky. If you are currently enrolled in or fresh out of high school and seeking work, by all means use your high school achievements to your advantage. For those who are out of college, generally speaking, high school achievements will probably not be necessary unless they are still relevant to your job search and extremely outstanding. Ideally, your activities during college will be more impressive than what you did in high school.


Including personal information and interests used to be the norm in résumé writing. Now this type of information is typically left off, but as with all aspects of résumé writing, there are exceptions. Personal interests that support your job search may sometimes be included if they have a direct relation to the job you are seeking. If golfing is one of your hobbies and you are seeking a position as the landscaper of a golf course, this information would be relevant. Stating that you like to collect rare comic books would not.

Personal information is also generally left off for a number of reasons. First and foremost, this information could be used to discriminate against you, whether done consciously or not. Purposeful discrimination against a candidate based on personal information such as marital status, religion, race, and age is illegal. However, for those seeking international positions, this type of information may be included if it is standard practice in the country in which you are applying. Many countries routinely include personal information on résumés. If you are intimately familiar with the target country's practices, include whatever information is deemed standard. If you are unsure, seek the help of a professional résumé writer.

Quotes from Others

While not a separate heading, including quotes from supervisors, teachers, or other persons in positions to support you can add some pizzazz and credibility to your résumé. Always seek permission from the person being quoted before using the quote.


As with personal information, there was a time when references were either added to the résumé or the standard line of "references available upon request" was included toward the bottom. Listing references is no longer a common practice; it is generally assumed that a candidate will be able to provide such a list if necessary.

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