How to Write a Resume: A Guide for Students and New Grads
No matter how qualified you are or how much experience you have, writing a resume can be intimidating. In fact, most people cringe at the very thought. So, why is that?
Part of the problem is that most students (and, for that matter, established professionals) remain unclear about what a resume is, what purpose it serves, and what rules need to be adhered to (and which “rules” should be ignored). We’re going to tackle all these concerns here and now. We’ll ensure that you know how to write a resume that is purposeful and helps you advance within your chosen field.
A first piece of advice: While most colleges have a career center, students rarely take advantage of these services. Don’t make this mistake. All graduates should connect with their alma mater’s career center. These centers usually offer free or low-cost resume-writing services, basic resume examples, and interview preparation support!
Simply put, resumes are marketing devices that individuals use to quickly summarize their work history and skill sets in an attempt to show a reader (a hiring manager or an employer) that they’re qualified for a posted job. Think of a resume as an introduction to employers that asks them to consider you for a position at their company.
Have you ever heard of an “elevator pitch”? It’s a quick speech that businesses practice to promote a product to a buyer in about 30 seconds (the length of most elevator rides). A resume is your “elevator pitch” for getting a job. You need the resume to capture a hiring manager’s attention quickly and show how your specific skill set, accomplishments, and education make you the perfect candidate for a specific job.
Does a resume get you the job? Nope. But a great resume gets you noticed and, potentially, invited for an interview.
You see, hiring managers are gatekeepers who control which job applicants are considered for interviews. If a hiring manager scans your resume and fails to find evidence that you’re qualified for a job, then it’s on to the next applicant’s resume. It may not be fair, but that’s the reality job seekers face.
Next, let’s walk through the hiring process. Most companies have set hiring guidelines:
- Assemble a committee of staff members to consider applicants. The committee usually consists of those individuals most likely to work with the new hire.
- Post an ad indicating that a job opening is available. Human resources is often required to post the ad in local newspapers and in national and/or international news outlets. They’re also typically required to leave it up for a set period of time (4–8 weeks, for example).
- Interview 3–5 candidates who, based on their submitted resume (and cover letter), appear qualified for the job.
- Perform a background check on the top candidate(s). If the background check doesn’t turn up any red flags, then the applicant is offered the position.
This process can take a long time to complete, draining hiring managers and committee members of time and energy. What’s more, the process costs hundreds if not thousands of dollars for ads and background checks (not to mention the lost work hours for committee members, who have other responsibilities to complete if they want to keep their own jobs!).
For each job opening, a company receives an average of 250 applications. So, how much time do you think a hiring manager can spends on any given resume? The answer is about six seconds. But if you write a great, attention-grabbing resume, they’ll want to keep reading—so your resume is key to getting that interview stage!
Before getting to the nuts and bolts of building an effective resume, it’s important to understand what makes a resume great.
And no, including a $50 bill is not an effective strategy! Your resume needs to captivate its readers, convincing them that they would be foolish not to read the entire document! How do you accomplish this? I’m glad you asked.
Just as with a cover letter, a good resume is targeted to the job to which you’re applying. That’s what makes you stand out from a crowd of applicants. Targeting your resume means that you fine-tune it to include keywords from the job description. You refocus and reword each section to show how your experiences and accomplishments make you a great candidate for that specific.
Here’s an example: If you apply for a job that lists “editorial experience with Chicago Manual of Style” as a required qualification, then you need to highlight your past experience utilizing Chicago-style editing procedures. You should also highlight how your knowledge of CMS led to specific accomplishments. So, a bullet point on your resume might be:
That’s how you stand out! Hiring managers are looking for these keywords/buzzwords when they scan resumes. If your resume includes them, they’re much more likely to read your entire resume.
There are three main types of resume: chronological, functional, and combination. Additionally, there’s the CV, aka the resume on steroids. Most professionals don’t need a CV, but academics, scientists, artists, and doctors might. Read more about CVs here. Now, back to the matter at hand:
- A chronological resume lists jobs in reverse-chronological order. For each job, it provides details about the job seeker’s accomplishments and duties.
- A functional resume provides a list of skills that the job seeker possesses and gives little more than the name of the companies and the candidate’s job title and, sometimes, the dates.
- The combination resume format is mix of the chronological and functional formats. Most resumes are in a combination format.
The chronological resume provides details about your job history, but can be rather boring. Additionally, a straightforward chronological resume doesn’t have a section highlighting an individual’s skill sets, which is crucial to getting noticed. A functional resume helps highlight your relevant skills for the job you’re applying for. But some hiring managers may find that the functional format hides shortfalls in your work history—and you never want to give an impression that you’re hiding something.
Given the weaknesses of both chronological and functional formats, your best bet is the third type of resume format: the combination.
So, what are the most important components that should always be included when making your resume? There’s no one-answer-fits-all, but here are some suggested sections:
- Heading: First things first: at a minimum, the information at the top of your resume should include your name, email address (make sure it’s professional!), and phone number. While a physical address is less important for online applications, tradition means that many hiring managers expect it. At least include your city and state.Also, your email address should have an appropriate username. Instead of some goofy or otherwise unprofessional username, simply use your last name and a number (e.g., “firstname.lastname@example.org”). Unfortunately, email@example.com is not acceptable. As for your phone’s voicemail message, don’t add music or joke around too much. Instead, state your name and that you’ll return calls as soon as possible. That’s it!
- LinkedIn or your portfolio: Nowadays, more and more people include their LinkedIn URL instead of their address. For artists(painters, photographers, etc.), including a link to your online portfolio is also appropriate For those with blogs or other websites related to the job you’re applying to, including those is an option as well. These can all be included in your header.
- Education: List your degrees and any certificates or certifications that are relevant to the job you’re applying to. Once you’ve started college, you can drop your high school diploma since getting into college requires you received a high school diploma or a GED. Read more about crafting the education section of your resume here.
- Summary of qualifications, professional summary, or resume objective: You know that hiring managers read quickly, so catch their eye immediately by starting with a summary of qualifications, professional summary, or resume objective. Think of this as a snapshot of everything you have to offer a potential employer. It can save the recruiter valuable time by highlighting your most impressive achievements and clearly connecting your diverse experiences. For this two- or three-sentence brief, focus on your relevant skills, unique qualities, and quantifiable accomplishments.
Here’s an example for a marketing executive:
This example highlights the individual’s expertise in leadership, marketing, and sales. For advanced positions, C-Level especially, such miniature biographies appear more polished than a bulleted list of skills and accomplishments.
- Core competencies: Whether it’s to highlight technological proficiencies or industry certifications, a “core competencies” section, in concert with a professional summary, can help a reader quickly gauge if your resume is worth a full read. Here’s an example to coincide with the professional summary presented in the last section:
|Branding campaigns||Marketing management||Advertising campaigns|
|Contract negotiations||ROI assessment||Market analysis|
|Budget administration||Program development||Event marketing|
- Professional experience: This is where job seekers list the jobs or internships they’ve previously held and currently hold, along with their duties and accomplishments for each role. Include both the date you started and ended for position (month and year), and tailor each position description to the job to which you’re applying.
In addition to listing the duties you performed at each job, it’s critical to highlight your accomplishments. Did you break a record for monthly sales or secure new customers from a region previously untapped? Maybe you created a new website that yielded a 50% increase in site visitation over the previous website? Did you create a new filing system that provided staff with 24/7 access to client records and company forms?
Hiring managers love to see accomplishments like these from job applicants—and they love to see hard numbers. If you can’t think of any quantifiable accomplishments off the top of your head, try harder! Here’s another marketing example:
End Hunger Inc., Communications and Marketing Coordinator
Minneapolis, MN, October 2013–April 2017
- Developed, wrote, and designed digital and print content for supporters, donors, volunteers, and staff, including email marketing campaigns, social media posts, newsletters, and event collateral.
- Grew nonprofit’s web and social media presence and followership, increasing e-mail click-through rate by 19%.
- Assisted in coordinating fundraising events, including annual dinner-auction, which had 14% increase in attendance and 11% increase in revenue from previous year.
While you generally list jobs in reverse-chronological order, if an earlier job provides your best qualifications for the job you’re applying to, consider two separate experience sections: “relevant experience” and “additional experience.” For all previous experiences, use the past tense, as above. For current roles, use the present tense.
- Extracurricular and volunteer experience: Especially when you’re in college or a recent graduate, it can be hard to fill a page with your professional experience alone. If you’ve participated in extracurricular activities or volunteered, chances are you’ve acquired some valuable skills along the way. Even if your extracurriculars don’t seem relevant at first glance, you definitely gained some transferrable skills, so hone in on those. Aa a reminder, a transferable skill is a skill that is relevant regardless of the position you are applying for. You take these skills from job to job. Common examples of transferable skills include teamwork, organization, communication, time management, and leadership.
- Awards and accomplishments: Depending on context, you can feature your awards and accomplishments in your resume summary, integrate them into individual job descriptions, or add them beneath your “Education” section. But, if you have three or more awards, feel free to create a new section. Just remember to be specific, quantify your triumphs wherever possible, and focus on honors that are pertinent to the job description.
- Additional information, technological proficiencies, affiliations, and more: For that little something extra that you want to highlight, you can include an “additional information” section. Feel free to switch up the section title if you wish; it should best reflect the areas that you want to highlight. Many jobs require knowledge of technology, so you might consider a section listing your tech expertise (operating systems, languages, etc.).
The content of your resume is the most important part, but you also want it to be visually pleasing and readable. After all, first impressions count! Here are the basics; check out our in-depth resume formatting guide for more information.
- Length: “How long should a resume be?” is the most-asked resume question by far. If you’re in college and applying to internships, stick with one page. If you’re a new graduate, same answer.
- Margins: It’s best to use standard one-inch margins, but you may use margins as small as .5 inches. Whatever you choose, be sure the margin size is consistent on all sides.
- Font: When choosing a font, make sure it’s easy to read. Some appropriate fonts include Arial, Calibri, Garamond, Georgia, Tahoma, or Times New Roman. Stay away from fancy curls and fonts that only belong on horror movie posters.
- Font size: Use size 11- or 12-point font. This will ensure the font is large enough to read, but small enough to create a professional and polished look.
- Punctuation: The most important thing is consistency. If you use periods at the end of your bullet points in the first section, use periods throughout the entire document.
- Color: A splash of color for your name can look nice on a resume and make things pop. If you’re printing your resume to mail or use at a career fair, use black ink on white, cream, or ivory paper.
- Alignment and spacing: Generally speaking, it’s best to left-align each section title of your resume. Ensure everything is evenly spaced, between sections and between lines (which should be single spaced). Strive for consistency and readability, and you’ll be fine.
Is it acceptable to write “References Available Upon Request”? Sure, it’s acceptable, but doing so serves no purpose and takes up valuable space on your resume. Most hiring managers don’t ask for references until you’ve made it to the final round of interviews—and they’ll definitely ask you for them if they need them. So, rather than wasting resume space, get ahead of the curve by starting a separate document listing the contact information for 3–5 references. That way, you’ll have it at the ready if and when an employer asks.
For college students and recent graduates, part-time managers, professors, and teachers are acceptable references. Your list of references should include the same heading as your resume and include each reference’s name, title, employer, and contact information.
Follow these guidelines and peruse our many resume samples, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a stand-out resume.