Before you begin your résumé, you need to know the different types of résumés and their purposes.
In basic terms, there are three general formats: functional, chronological, and a combination of the two. There are other formats, but these are the most common and the most likely to be used by a recent graduate or someone new to the workforce.
The chronological résumé is formatted how it sounds—by chronological order, typically listing the most recent position held first. This type of format will often list education toward the bottom of the résumé but not always.
For those who have a steady work history, this format can work very well. Employers also tend to like this format because it is straightforward, easy to understand, and does not leave any timeframe unaccounted for. For the same reasons, however, this format may not be suited for those who have little or no work history, an inconsistent work history, gaps in employment, or a trend of job-hopping. These "red flag" issues will stand out immediately in a chronological format.
What about those with little or no paid work history? The chronological format can be designed to work with situations challenging for new grads. Volunteer work, internships, and work study programs can all be presented as legitimate work experience in a chronological format. The difficulty with this format for new grads is, of course, that many do not have much work experience, that what they do have is inconsistent (such as seasonal work or various part-time jobs throughout college), or that their work history is very limited. For those people, the functional or combination format may work best.
In the functional format, skills, achievements and other important highlights are presented in order of substance, and work history, if any, is either listed toward the bottom or, in some cases, not listed at all. Headings vary according to what the person has done. Possible headings include education and coursework, volunteer work, and related organizational memberships. Education is often listed near the top of the résumé in the functional format because it can be the applicant's best selling point. This is often the case for new graduates.
Because work experience is not highlighted in direct relation to an accompanying position, some employers are wary of the functional format. However, in the case of a new graduate, employers also realize that this population often has little or no paid work experience or that work history may not be directly related to the applicant's college major or current job target. In this case, it would be silly to not highlight one's education, relevant coursework, and affiliations, because these are the items directly related to the current job search. Listing unrelated part-time jobs in a chronological format could actually work against the applicant, even for an employer that typically prefers a functional format.
This format uses elements from both the chronological and functional formats and combines them in the document. For recent grads who have both relevant paid or nonpaid work experience in addition to education, this format could work, although it is best suited for someone with a lengthy career history. The first part of the résumé is dedicated to showing-off career highlights and accomplishments; the following sections outline the candidate's work history. For most recent graduates and people new to the workforce, a variation of the chronological or functional formats will usually suffice; functional is often the format of choice. As you will see in the sample résumés provided, there is much room for creativity and tailoring basic résumé styles into documents that work very well for each candidate. (For an in-depth discussion on résumé formats beyond the scope of this section, refer to Résumé Magic by Susan Britton Whitcomb.)
Newsletter résumés, though not one of the primary formats, are just as they sound; formatted to look similar to a newsletter. Typically two or three columns, information is presented in an eye-catching manner and is best suited to more creative-oriented jobs. When used appropriately, it can be very effective and help the applicant stand out from the crowd.
Curriculum Vitae (CV)
The CV, or curriculum vitae, is a style used primarily by those in the education and medical fields. It is a straightforward listing of education, work history, publications, and other relevant material. College graduates with doctorate and possibly master's degrees will sometimes need a CV depending on the position being sought.
Most positions are best suited for a résumé that leans more toward the conservative side using a well-known format. There are cases that warrant a more creative approach, but these are typically reserved for those seeking positions in creative fields. Artists and designers, for example, are better suited to using a more creative and riskier approach than someone with an M.B.A. looking for a position on Wall Street. Similarly, those seeking positions in advertising or sales may take a more aggressive approach in their résumé and cover letter than would someone in accounting.
While it can be tempting to create a flashy résumé or presentation, in most cases it is best to err on the conservative side. Even artists can deliver a "traditional" résumé to accompany a portfolio, which will showcase the artist's true talent.
Write for Your Audience
In all forms of writing, including résumés and cover letters, the most important question to ask is, "Who is my audience?" It may seem contradictory, but you are not writing your résumé for yourself; you are writing it for the person who reads it, and you want that person to call you immediately to schedule an interview. Therefore, your résumé needs to catch that person's attention and show how you can meet that person's needs.
Use language appropriate for the field in which you are trying to get a job. If you are unsure of the "speak" of a particular profession, consider joining a professional organization in your field, paying careful attention to how language is used within the community. (For those with e-lists or online discussions, take a month or so to observe how members communicate with each other before posting a message yourself.) Reading trade magazines is another way to get a feel for the types of words and communication styles used within your soon-to-be profession. Also consider perusing want ads for the types of jobs you are considering applying for. Often, job postings will use keywords and phrases typical to the type of job being advertised.
Be cautious of overusing technical terms or acronyms. Even if these terms are commonly used in your field, it does not hurt to spell-out acronyms and use slightly less technical language or a combination of both (for when résumés are electronically scanned). The initial reader of your résumé may be someone in the human resources department who is not as familiar with the jargon as is the person with the ultimate hiring power. You do not want to talk down to your reader, nor do you want to confuse your reader.
Keep It Simple
It can be very tempting to use fancy language, verbose sentences, and multi-syllabic words in an attempt to impress your reader. The downside to this approach is that your prose can become bogged down and you may come off sounding more foolish than intelligent. Also remember those few seconds you have in which to impress your reader. Making that person wade through a long sentence will not help your cause; you want to present information in a clear, easy-to-understand format that will quickly tell your reader what you are capable of, not that you are capable of constructing complicated text.
Watch for the potential overuse of action verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Many résumé books provide lists of action verbs to choose from when describing your experience, and yes, they are important. But they are most effective when used sparingly and in the right context. Action verbs are words such as allocated, initiated, managed, provided, assisted, directed, etc. Adverbs describe verbs (action) and often end in "-ly," such as quickly, rapidly, adroitly, impressively, wholeheartedly, etc.
Adjectives describe nouns. Your keywords will typically be nouns; when using your keywords in sentences (as opposed to a list, which is also acceptable and sometimes more appropriate), the tendency to back-up those nouns with adjectives can be tempting and distracting. Let us say that quality assurance is one of your keywords. Stating that you developed "a comprehensive, all-encompassing, detail-oriented, innovative, structured, and really, really, really impressive quality assurance program" would definitely be overkill. Choosing one hard-hitting adjective may work to your advantage. Trying to drive the point home with excessive adjectives and adverbs will not. (Think of the child who tries to make a point carry more weight by saying that he or she is very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very hungry and really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY wants ice cream.)
Your résumé is not an exercise in seeing how many different types of fonts, font sizes, and bullet styles you can cram into one page. You may want to use a different font for your name or main headings. You may want to highlight important information with a different bullet style from that used in the rest of your résumé. Limit your fonts and bullets to one or two styles. If using more than one, choose a second one that is complimentary to the first.
For all things résumé, less is generally more.
General Formatting Issues
Place your most important information in the top third of your résumé. Again, employers will do a quick visual scan of your résumé and may not even make it to the bottom of the page. You want to include your best information in the most eye-catching position, the top third, to make your reader want to read the rest of the material. Use the rest of your page space to back-up what you state at the beginning.
Use white space to your advantage. White space is exactly as it sounds—the parts of the page that do not contain type or graphics. Aim for a balance of white space throughout your résumé to make it visually appealing and easy to read. If your résumé is crammed full of type from top to bottom and left to right, it will be difficult to read and will be a turn-off to your reader, no matter how well you have composed the information. Use your formatting wisely to accommodate for white space. You can do this by changing font size (but do not go smaller than 10-point type), using bullets and tabs, creating space before and after headers, and so on. (Keep bulleted lists short; too many bullets are just as distracting as a lot of type.) If needed, use more than one page.
Use your headers wisely. Your name should be the largest print used. From there, a gradation of heading sizes should follow but not be overdone. More than three sizes of headers will make your résumé look junky. Also avoid excessive use of bolding, italics, and underlining. These enhancements should be used sparingly to highlight only the most important information. Use these features too much, and your reader will be left confused as to what is important and what is not. Worse yet, your reader may determine that you yourself do not know what is most important.
Keep your font size readable. Your name and contact information may be quite large and in a fancier font, but the rest of your document should fall within standard sizes; 10 to 12 point for most of your text. You can play around with your headers to find something attractive that works, but remember to be consistent. You want your headers to grab attention, not leave your reader feeling dizzy.
How Many Pages?
Your résumé should be as long as it needs to be to convey all the pertinent information while still using sharp, concise writing.
Too vague? Obviously, your résumé will be at least one page and should be formatted in such a way to fill the page without crowding it. For those who have concerns that they do not have enough information to put on a résumé, please refer to the previous chapter.
You may have heard some "hard and fast rules" about page length when it comes to résumés. Some will tell you that someone just entering the workforce or fresh out of high school or college should never have more than one page. Even those within the résumé-writing profession do not always agree on this issue. But to say that a college graduate should ALWAYS have a one-page résumé is akin to saying that an executive should ALWAYS have a two-page or longer résumé. The fact of the matter is that résumés are individualized, creative documents geared toward a particular person's history. Oftentimes that history can be well summarized on one page; sometimes it can not. A general guideline to attempt to keep your résumé to one page is not a bad one to follow, primarily because it forces you to focus on what is most important and keeps you from becoming too wordy. However, if you need additional space, use it; but use it wisely.
If your résumé falls onto a second page, you need to use your judgment about whether or not to keep it on two pages or condense it to one. If only a few lines spill over, you need to reformat or cut to make it fit on one page. Any additional pages, whether they are the second, third, or fourth, should have enough information to cover at least half the page, if not most of it.
Who is most likely to need additional pages? Obviously a seasoned worker with a long history will have a greater chance of needing additional pages. For graduates, those with advanced degrees (masters or doctorates) may require additional pages to cover relevant educational experience and/or publications. (These groups will also more likely fall into the category of needing a CV, or curriculum vitae, instead of a résumé.) However, those with significant experience, whether paid or unpaid, or with extensive related activities may also find that two pages are better than one.
I Have a Heading but Not Much Else
If you have information that you need to include but is not enough to stand on its own under a separate heading, consider combining such information with another category. For example, you may only belong to one professional organization, but it is a crucial one to your field. Listing only one piece of information under a heading is a waste of a heading, can lead to too many headings, and can take up valuable space. Limit your résumé to a few crucial headers and combine as needed. You will notice in the samples that headings have been combined in numerous ways, such as: Activities & Organizations, Affiliations & Activities, Organizations & Volunteer Activities, Honors/Activities, etc.
Hopefully, the information presented here and the samples given will be enough inspiration to allow you to strike out on your own. The problem with templates that come as part of your word-processing program is the same problem that occurs with using résumé-generating software. It can be too limiting, thereby stifling your creativity, and the auto-formatting functions can be enough to drive you batty if you try to customize your document. Another potential problem is that your résumé will come out looking as though it was generated from a template. You want your résumé to speak to your audience about who you are and why you are unique—not scream, "I used a template!"
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of writing your résumé from scratch, it may help to invest in a good book outlining all the bells and whistles of your particular word-processing program or to enroll in a course. This will help boost your confidence as well as teach you new things. Heck, you can then add it to your list of computer skills on your résumé!