Why You Need a Résumé

A résumé is essentially a document that enables you to sell yourself to an employer; yet, as seen in the previous chapters, it can function in many other ways, too.

Is a résumé a marketing tool or a business document? This is a question under continual debate. And, while it is definitely not a piece of fiction, it is a creative document that can, and should, be adapted to meet differing needs.

There are no rules, and yet there are; but rules can be broken depending on the circumstances.

Is it any wonder so many people find résumé writing to be a difficult process?

You want your résumé to "sing," but not too loudly. While the résumé is an advertisement of sorts, most will not go to the lengths of what we see in ad copy and on television, except perhaps on a résumé for an advertising writer.

On the flip side, you do not want your résumé to evoke yawns from the person reading it. The résumé is a business document and should therefore follow rules of business writing, except that many of the standard rules of writing, including business writing, do not apply.

What Exactly Is a Résumé?

A résumé is a brief summary of your skills, accomplishments, and history as it relates to a potential job. It is a selling tool used to get an interview. Employers may receive hundreds or even thousands of résumés for a particular job. The résumé may be the first document an employer sees about you. If a job does not require an application, your résumé may be the only information an employer sees. And an employer may see that information for a very short time. On average, employers scan résumés for about 20 seconds to determine whether or not candidates are worth a more thorough reading. Twenty seconds! That is not much time in which to make a positive impression.

The good news is that unlike a job application, the résumé highlights only your strengths. Information such as why you left a job or other potentially negative or damaging points are not included. Other good news is that different formats may be used to best highlight a person's experience. The format chosen will be the one best suited to promote your assets. Further good news is that if you follow the steps provided here and the instructions listed, you will have a much better chance of creating a résumé that will get a second look.

Writing a résumé can seem like a huge and difficult task. But once the process is broken down into smaller steps, it can be much easier to face. It is even possible that you may learn some things about yourself! Believe it or not, the writing process can actually be fun. Sure, some issues can be challenging, such as how to show experience if you are a first-time job seeker. But other parts can be very satisfying, such as finding the perfect action words to describe your experience or discovering that you have skills you never thought of as marketable before.

Why Do I Need a Résumé?

You may wonder why you need a résumé, particularly if you are seeking a job that only requires you to fill out an application. There are a few answers to this question.

Even for jobs that ask only for an application, having a résumé on hand will make filling out that application much easier. You will have all the necessary information in front of you on one (or maybe two) pieces of paper; it will help when filling out the section of the application that asks for previous experience.

Having a résumé can also boost your confidence. By walking through the writing process, you may surprise yourself as you come to realize that you have more experience than you thought. Or maybe your list of your skills looks more impressive on paper than you thought it would. Just knowing that you have put in the effort to write the résumé and see what you have to offer an employer can put you above the competition.

When you walk into your first interview, your experience from writing the résumé will make you much more confident when it comes to answering tough questions. You have already outlined your strengths and accomplishments; now you can elaborate on them. And because your résumé will be targeted to a specific job type, you will be able to gear those interview answers accordingly. Chances of getting taken off guard by a simple question such as, "Why do you want this job?" will be very few—you will be able to give an insightful answer because you will have put in the thought ahead of time. While other candidates may give reasons such as "I want to buy a car," you will be able to answer honestly how that particular job fits your goals and objectives—and how your particular set of skills will benefit that employer.

And why not submit that résumé with the application? Job applications are very specific and limited. A résumé can fill in some blanks, further explain skills and experience, and set you apart as a serious contender for the job. That you care enough about yourself to put in the effort and submit your résumé with an application can demonstrate to an employer that you are serious about your job search and future.

For the recent college grad, a résumé is absolutely essential. In short, nearly everyone needs a résumé.

When Should I Start Writing My Résumé?

Now. The earlier you start working on your résumé, the better. This not only gives you a jump on the job search process (if you haven't officially started yet), but will also make it easier to update as you progress through your educational and working life. A high school student can start by listing coursework and extracurricular activities specifically related to his or her career choice. This information can easily be revised as more coursework is completed or edited as new experience becomes more important (or as career goals change).

A college student may not have a great deal of time to devote to a résumé, but adding a few brief notes along the way will make the refining process that much easier as graduation approaches. Waiting until the last minute or even the last few months before graduation can cause undo stress. Besides, it is impossible to know when an opportunity may come knocking. An unexpected career fair may pop up, a recruiter may pass through town, or, as you practice your networking skills, you may come across the perfect person to give your résumé to—and you will want to be prepared for those moments.

Can I Use My Résumé for More than Looking for a Job?

Absolutely. You will find that your résumé is an invaluable tool, applicable in many situations. For those who are just starting a career or education, the résumé becomes essential.

College Applications

When submitting college applications, include a copy of that hard-earned résumé. Many applications will allow students to send additional information that may help admissions officers make decisions when looking at prospective students. Your résumé will not only highlight your best qualities but will also show your initiative.

Once you have been accepted to the school of your choice, you may wonder how you are going to pay for it. Scholarship, grant, and work study program applications may also allow for additional information. Your résumé should be among the list of essentials included in that application packet.

Internships and Co-Ops

Even though school programs help place students in internship positions, your résumé is still crucial. Make sure that administration and faculty involved in the internship program have a copy on file. Additionally, you will want to send a copy ahead of time to the employer you will be working with or bring it along your first day. Even though as an intern your primary objective is to learn, you still want to present your most professional side to the employer you will be working with. You never know what possibilities may await—ensure that you put your best foot forward!

Work co-ops are another possibility. Unlike internships, co-ops are paid positions that incorporate classroom study and real-world experience. Competition for these positions can be tough. Your résumé should demonstrate why you are the ideal candidate for one of these positions.

Following your internship or work co-op, do not forget to add to your résumé your new skills, responsibilities, and achievements acquired during the program.

Volunteer and Community Service

Even though volunteer work is not paid, it still requires the amount of responsibility you would show for a "real" job. Many volunteer organizations want and need to know the caliber of their volunteers, particularly if the job entails work with a special population such as children, the elderly, or the disabled. No one can and should expect to walk into a volunteer organization and be given a job on the spot simply because the work is non-paying. Have your résumé on hand when seeking volunteer work. Even if part of your reason for volunteering is to gain work experience, you will still want to bring the best version that you have available.

Help! I Do Not Have Anything to Include on a Résumé!

Some of you, even after reading through the entire résumé section, will feel that you do not have enough experience or credentials to list. Your grades may be less than ideal, or maybe you have not participated in as many activities as you feel you should have. Or maybe your coursework and activities have nothing to do with your chosen field. How do you solve the age-old question, "How can I get experience if I cannot get that first job?" Fortunately, there are ways to gain experience and prove yourself a worthy and reliable employee.

Job-Training Programs

If you are a high school student, find out if your school has a school-to-work program. (If it does not, why not look into helping get one started? Such initiative would look great on your résumé.) For those who fall in the 16 to 24-year-old category, see if there is a local Job Corps office. This private and government-funded program works with youth to develop and train for career goals. Visit with career counselors or contact the local Job Service to find out what options are available in your area.

Volunteer Work

Donating your time is an excellent way to learn new skills and help your community. Volunteer work comes in many forms, from working with children to building a new home. Volunteering can be an excellent way to meet people and, as you prove yourself, become an excellent means to gain references. And all the work that you do as a volunteer can go on your résumé as opposed to a job application, where space may be too limited—see why it is a good idea to attach that résumé?

How do you find volunteer work? If you are in high school, contact the guidance counselor's office, or if in college, contact the vocational guidance office or general studies office. Chances are that someone there will know of groups actively seeking volunteers. You can also try the local Chamber of Commerce. Other ideas are to contact some of the larger organizations, such as Americorps (http://www.americorps.com) or United Way (http://national.unitedway.org/). Your school or public reference librarian may also have suggestions for volunteer work. Ask around. If you have a particular interest, such as tutoring children, contact local schools. If you have an interest in social work, call the local food bank or Salvation Army. Browse through the yellow pages for organizations that provide services similar to those in which you would like to eventually find work.

Spot and Temp Jobs

A great way to earn some extra money while looking for a permanent position is to work spot or temporary jobs. Spot jobs are available through the local Job Service (and sometimes employment agencies) and are usually "at the last minute." Once you get yourself on the spot job list, you will be asked to call in on the mornings of days you are available to work. If a position is available, you will be directed where to go and when. These types of jobs often involve physical labor, but they can be an excellent way to improve your skill set and prove your reliability and willingness to work (and get paid to exercise!).

Temps, or temporary jobs, are also available through the Job Service or other employment agencies. These types of positions can also be found through networking (a friend of a friend knows of a company that needs a temporary receptionist while the permanent one is out on maternity leave), the classifieds, recruiters, and other traditional forms of finding work. While these positions are not permanent, they can be a great way to prove yourself, learn new skills, earn references, network, and perhaps work into a permanent position. If you do a great job for the company, they may decide that you are worth keeping around (or refer you to another company looking for someone exactly like you).

Can't I Just Buy Some Software?

Many software programs and websites claim to help you create a fast, easy, yet effective résumé. Prices for these "services" vary quite a bit. One problem with software and "fill in the blanks" Internet programs is that there is little room for variety. The programs use pre-set formats with limited space. While some of the layouts are very attractive, that is only one element of the résumé; content, and using a format that is right for you, is also important—which sometimes requires breaking the rules. It can also be much more difficult to target a résumé when using software—computer programs can be quite rigid. As such, hiring a real person skilled in the art of résumé writing is a much better choice if you ultimately decide you want help.

Hiring Someone to Write Your Résumé

"We consider résumé writers to be 'advertising agencies for individuals' which encourages creative freedom and uniqueness rather than conformity … if appropriate in meeting a client's career goals and 'standing out from the pack.'"—Frank Fox, Executive Director, Professional Association of Résumé Writers and Career Coaches.

A professional résumé writer can help not only write a better résumé but determine what information should be included and what can be left off. A résumé writer can also help target the résumé, give it a professional appearance, and add creative flair. Professional résumé writing services vary in price, but on average, a high school or college grad can expect to pay anywhere from $75 to $150, depending on what is included (résumé only, résumé and cover letter, etc.). Often, a job package will include both hard and electronic copies of the résumé and a cover letter. Depending on your budget, needs, and the services offered, professionals may also provide career coaching, job search assistance, and marketing assistance. Be careful when seeking a professional. The Internet, in particular, is overcrowded with less-than-qualified people offering a variety of job-search services. At a minimum, seek a member of a professional résumé writing organization such as the National Résumé Writers' Association, the Professional Résumé Writing and Research Association, or the Professional Association of Résumé Writers and Career Coaches. All of these organizations offer certifications for writers, and, ideally, a professional that you choose will hold one or more of those certifications.

Even if you decide to hire a résumé writing professional, it is still a good idea to write at least a draft of your résumé for your own purposes and the reasons already mentioned. Additionally, a résumé-writing professional will ask you a wide variety of questions and/or ask you to fill out a questionnaire. You need to be prepared to answer those questions. Even a professional will be unable to write the best résumé if you do not provide adequate information.

Linda Matias, president of the National Résumé Writers' Association and president of CareerStrides (http://www.careerstrides.com), says that one of the biggest challenges new graduates face today is how to leverage their experience into what an employer is looking for. College students are taking their job search more seriously than their parents did, because the first job out of college sets the tone for their career. As such, students need to know how to relate transferable skills from part-time jobs held during college into full-time career jobs afterwards. Students are making better choices and do not want to get stuck in the wrong type of job.

At the same time, students are realizing that they do not have to remain in the same job as their parents may have. Company loyalty does not exist like it used to, and students look for jobs with this mindset. Students are looking at jobs as opportunities to learn more about their field.

When it comes to job searching, Matias recommends going back to the basics. "The person who will stand out is the one who has done his or her research. It may sound like old advice, but the ones who follow it are the ones who succeed." Candidates need to show an interest in the company, not just the job; that can be the crucial difference.

Matias recommends that students go into the job search emotionally and mentally prepared for the long haul. A degree does not necessarily mean a ticket in the door. Finding the right job can take a while. She suggests that students have a plan in place in case the job search stalls temporarily. This can help deal with the accompanying emotions and help students revisit their job plan if needed.

The Final Word: Honesty

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when writing your résumé is that everything on it must be accurate. Word choices and presentation are geared to truthfully describe your experiences and present them in the best possible way—but not to embellish them. The best wording, descriptions, and formatting mean nothing without honesty.

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