6 Universal Rules for Resume Writing
For busy hiring managers, your resume provides a snapshot of your career and is often the determining factor in whether you land an interview. If job search is a journey, a stellar resume is your passport.
The fundamental principles of resume writing have remained constant for generations, but evolving technologies mean more aspects of the application and hiring processes take place online than ever before. By staying up to date with current best practices, you’re better able to put your resume to work for you.
If you’re getting ready for your next career move, keep these six universal rules in mind as you create or update your resume. Note that you can apply these rules to any resume format, but because of how various software read your resume, a simple, one-column format with a professional font may serve you best.
1. Cover all the basics
The goal of a resume is to best represent your relevant skills and accomplishments, and there are several ways to do that successfully. That said, every resume requires these basic elements:
- Relevant educational degrees or certifications and/or licenses. The importance of your educational background will vary based on the job or industry you’re interested in. If you have many educational credentials, you only need to include the ones that are most relevant to the job description.
- Relevant work and volunteer experience. Most people choose to list their experience beginning with their most recent job. Don’t include everything you did in your past jobs. Instead, focus on achievements over responsibilities.
- Contact information. Your full name, the city where you live, your email address and phone number. Because this personal information is sensitive, you should be cautious about who you share your resume with. Read over these guidelines for a safe job search to protect yourself.
- Relevant skills and your level of mastery (for example, “conversational Spanish” or “familiar with Microsoft Excel” vs. “fluent in Spanish” or “expert at Microsoft Excel”).
It’s important to note that the basics of a resume often do not include references. It’s a best practice to leave these off your resume. This helps you save space and also preserves the privacy of your professional contacts.
2. Explore other resumes for inspiration
It can be useful to see how other people have written about their skills and experiences. We have hundreds of resume samples for you to explore. Choose the job category and title that’s relevant to you and see samples from people with different amounts of experience. This is a great way to uncover stronger ways to describe your credentials and to avoid overused words.
You can also get a sense of the internal language used within a particular industry or company. You might have experience that isn’t directly related but is still highly relevant to the position you’re applying for, and you want to include it in your resume. Someone else’s resume might feature a similar history and offer an example of how to frame this experience in a compelling way.
3. Use as few words as possible
Employers need to quickly understand your work experience. Format your experience as a list of short, scannable statements, rather than writing out dense paragraphs. For example:
Too wordy: Applied expert budget management skills to achieve a 20% reduction in departmental expenses through diligent research, identifying significant inefficiencies.
More concise: Achieved 20% departmental cost savings by eliminating inefficiencies.
The typical resume is two pages maximum, so make sure all the information you’ve included is essential. If you can’t decide what is essential, ask yourself if what you’re including is relevant to what the employer is asking for in the job description.
It’s also important to consider the kind of work you truly want to be hired to do. In other words, don’t include past experience for tasks you strongly dislike doing. Keep the experiences that you want to keep building on and match what the employer is looking for—this meets the definition of essential information to include on your resume.
4. Quantify your accomplishments whenever possible
Numbers and data bring your work experience to life and help hiring managers envision the potential impact you could have in their organization. When you can, back up your achievements with real data to boost your credibility and add informative detail to your resume. For example:
Unquantified: Improved lead generation through strategic content marketing initiatives.
Quantified: Achieved 180% year-over-year lead growth through strategic content marketing initiatives.
5. Use keywords that employers are using in their job descriptions
Hiring managers want to see that you can speak their language and know the language that’s commonly used in their industry. When they see their own keywords mirrored back to them in your resume, it reinforces the idea that you’re a strong candidate for the role. And if your resume will be posted to an online database like Indeed Resume, the right keywords are critical to getting found by employers.
One way to become familiar with the different keywords is to experiment with different search terms on Job Career Critic. Carefully read the job postings that interest you, and take note of the terms and phrases that employers are including there. You may begin to notice commonalities and can include some of these words or concepts in your resume if they are applicable to your background.
6. Proofread several times to catch typos and misspellings
Unfortunately, a single typographical or spelling error is sometimes enough to get your resume discarded early in the game. Proofread your resume multiple times, doing a thorough line-by-line, word-by-word edit. Reading content backwards—awkward and time-consuming though it may be—is a great way to catch minor mistakes that you might otherwise miss. And an outside perspective is always a good idea. Ask a friend, mentor, or family member to review your resume for you before you begin submitting it to employers.
A strong resume can streamline your job search process, helping you showcase your strengths and get one step closer to your dream job. With some diligent work up front—and by adhering to these six rules—you can turn this fundamental job search document into one of your strongest professional assets.