resume formats

Posted: May 17, 2014
By: Clay Cerny

I sometimes meet with clients who write resumes in a strange format:  They hide their success stories.  This format places a section called Honors or Achievements at the bottom of the document.  The problem with this approach is that information that might help an employer decide to bring a candidate in for an interview is hidden.

My advice is to put your achievements with the job where you received the honor or earned the distinction.  For example, if I was named Sales Professional of the Year for 2013, that achievement should be with my current company.  To make the point more impressive, I recommend adding something about scope or quantitative measure.  For scope, you could note how many employees were considered for the award.  For quantitative measure, you could list percentage over goal or increase from the previous year.  Be careful that you don't simply name the award and not tell the reader why you received the honor.

Even as the job market heats up, competition for the best jobs remains fierce.  Show why you are someone who deserves an interview.  Don't hide your achievements.

Posted: December 13, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

A client looked at a sample of my resumes and said it was exactly the way a resume should be formatted.  I asked her why she said this.  She heard an expert say so on the radio. While an easy sale is always nice, I challenged her thinking a little.  Rather than thinking one way is right or wrong, the key question to ask is about function and strategy: How does it work?

My priority in a format is to create something that is easy to read.  To do that, I arrange my work using a combination of paragraphs and bullets.  I also avoid frames, lines, and boxes except for a line at the top of the page.  Some resumes are formatted with great attention to graphic design.  There are two problems with this approach.  First, heavy formatting that makes a resume look good also makes it harder to read.  Rather than the eye moving from word to word and line to line as it would on the page of a book or magazine, it has to jump from box to box.  Worse still, some formatting features (headers, footers, tables) cannot be read by scanning software and never make it to a human screener.  What good is a great looking resume if it is never read by an employer?

My biggest problem with formats and functions is the claim that “bullets are easier to read.”  Every time we see a bullet, we stop reading.  So the all-bullet resume involves a series of start and stop actions that make it difficult to understand what a person does.  A well written paragraph (block) that describes job duties is easier to read.  Bullets are great to describe success stories and achievements, places where you would want a potential employer to stop and think about what you have to offer.

Never accept any resume “rule” as right because some experts says it is.  Go behind the “rule” to think about function and strategy.  There is no one size fits all.  While I use a similar format in all of my work, it changes from client to client based on what elements I want to highlight.  To put it simply: Beware of simple rules, especially when they involve resume formats.

Posted: November 16, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

There is only one rule in writing a resume: Don’t lie.  Everything else is strategy.  For example, when a client has good work experience, I put education near the bottom of the resume.  However, if a client has obtained a recent degree or certification that an employer will care about, education will move to the top of the document.

Here are two more complicated examples.  A client is trying to get a position in clinical research.  Her education is recent, so I put it first on the resume.  Most people would say that professional experience should be the next element.  The problem is that this client’s experience is not as relevant as volunteer work she has done for more than six years.  In this case, I put volunteer experience before professional work because it was more relevant to what potential employers need to know.

Similarly, another client wants to return to the type of work he did 15 years ago.  Rather than discuss this client’s work history in a simple most recent to least recent format, I put the work that matters most first even if it is 15 years old. It is this person’s best claim to be able to perform the kind of work he wants to do. Some employers might say that this experience is dated.  Others, however, might see it as relevant to the position they need to fill.

Everyone agrees that employers don’t have time to read resumes carefully and figure out what you want to do.  Make it easy for them.  Put the elements first that show why you are qualified.  Don’t hide your selling points.

Posted: September 22, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

Everyone is in a hurry.  One consequence of our rush-rush society is that people claim that they don't have time to read.  They look for short cuts.  In resumes and other business documents, bullets have come to represent a fast read.  However, when we look at the function of the bullet, it doesn't tell us to go.  It says stop.

At a community group meeting last week, someone I like suggest that it would be easier to read a marketing letter if we changed two paragraphs to bullet formats.  Each paragraph had 4-5 sentences of essential information.  In paragraph format, our eyes roll from sentences to sentence.  We read quickly.  If the same information were laid out with bullets, our eyes would have to stop at the end of every sentence for the period and stop again at the start of the next sentence for the bullet.

The false assumption of bullet lovers is that it is easier to read lines than paragraph blocks.  If that were true, newspapers, magazines and books would be laid out in all bullet formats.  Instead, these publications use bullets properly:  to call out important information.

When it comes to good writing that is easy to read, bullets are not the magic bullet.

Posted: March 12, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

Recently a client asked me why I don’t write all bullet resumes.  She said, “They look easier to read.”  I agreed.  They do “look” easier to read, but there are at least two reasons why they are not easier to read.  First, a bullet asks the reader to stop at the beginning of each line, which actually means it is more difficult to read an all-bulleted format.  Second, since we were children, we have been trained to read paragraph style.  We actually read and scan text faster if it is formatted as paragraphs.  Why do I say this?  If all bullet formats were easier to read, wouldn’t books, magazines, and newspapers have evolved to an all-bullet format?

Bullets are a good formatting tool in other ways.  I use them in resumes to set a client’s achievements apart from job duties.  This format lets the prospective employer see how a job seeker can bring value.  Bullets are also useful for separating words or phrases in lists of skills, technical skills, education, or training.  If you need to separate a few items and are running out of space on a page, bullets can be a useful tools to set off information without using a whole line of white space.

For me, all questions of resume formatting should be decided by function, not “rules.”  The people who preach rules often don’t know why they say a certain format or style should be used.  If an expert of any kind gives you advice, empower yourself to ask them why they making their recommendations.  If their answer is simply, “that’s the way it’s done” or “it’s a rule,” look for someone else who has thought through the problem.  There are no rules about the use of bullets, only good and bad strategy.

Postscript:  Click here, here, or here to see samples of my resumes and how I use bullets.

Posted: September 17, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

Some clients want a resume that looks “eye catching.”  Some say they want something “modern.” I believe this kind of thinking focuses on the wrong priority.  Employers don’t look at resumes.  They read them, and they want to do that as quickly as possible.  A good resume needs to have enough content to show why you are qualified and what makes you better than other candidates. 

One popular resume format that I dislike is the all-bullet resume.  Again, the problem comes down to appearance and reality.  An all-bullet resume looks easier to read or skim.  When we try to read such resumes, however, we have to stop at the beginning of each line.  A paragraph style lets the eye move from line to line as we do in any type of writing.  If the all bullet format resume were easier to read, why are newspapers, magazines, and books still published in paragraph style?

Bullets work well in any format when you want the reader to stop and think about something.  I use bullets to focus on achievements or to distinguish between similar elements that are grouped closely on a page.  If all elements on a page are set off by bullets, how can the reader tell one element from another?  They are all the same.  This style of resume looks easier to read until you try to read it.

I have a similar problem with resumes that set elements off with tables and boxes.  Again, if a resume were posted on a wall at an art gallery, this style might score points. However, graphic elements often make the document harder to read.  Words framed in tight boxes do not stand out as they would in a column layout. 

It’s common knowledge that resumes are read quickly.  Anything you can do to help the reader move through a document also helps your chances of landing an interview.  Make your resume look good, but focus on content more than format.  Describe why you are qualified and what value you will bring to the employer.  That’s what hiring managers are looking for.

Posted: August 14, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

A client sent me a resume I wrote that she reformatted.  The original we wrote together was two pages. My client reduced it to a one page all-bulleted format because someone told her this format “looked easier to read.”  Let me explain why this common belief is false. 

I structure resumes so duties and skills in resumes are paragraphs, blocks of text which we commonly read in letters, newspapers and books.  Bullets are used to designate achievements and success stories.  Sometimes I will use them in simple lists.  My goal is to keep the reader’s eyes moving from right to left. (sample 1, sample 2, sample 3)

All bullet formats do look easier to read.  However, the opposite is true in practice.  Bullets are intend to make us stop and think about a point.  Think about the function of a period at the end of a sentence.  It tells us to stop.  A bullet at the beginning of a line plays a similar role.  In a paragraph style format, the reader stops briefly at the end of a sentence and moves to the next line just as she would in any other kind of prose.  In an all-bullet format, she has to stop at the end of the line and stop again at the beginning.  How can this be easier to read or “scan?”   One expert even calls this format “death by bullets.”

The other problem I’ve found with all bullet resumes is that they are almost always poorly organized.  Job duties are not listed in a relevant order.  Achievements are often interspersed with job duties.  The reader also has no way to easily distinguish job duties from achievements. 

All bullet resumes do “look” easier to read – until we try to read them.