How to Write a Resume: A Guide for Students and New Grads

Written by Neil O’Donnell
Updated June 2019

Neil O’Donnell, CPCC is a nationally certified career coach whose experience includes over 15 years of career counseling experience in addition to his having written thousands of resumes and cover letters. Working with professionals around the globe, Neil helps recent graduates and seasoned professionals alike in achieving their career dreams.


Most students and professionals CRINGE at the thought of writing a resume. It’s almost as if people believe they’re doomed to a life of bad jobs if they don’t get their resume perfect!

Why are these fears so intense and prevalent?

Part of the problem is that most students (and established professionals) remain unclear about what a resume is, what purpose resumes serve, and what are the most important rules to adhere to when creating a resume (and which ‘rules’ should be ignored). Let’s tackle all these concerns here and now to make certain you’re set on how to write a resume that is purposeful and helps you advance within your chosen field.

Table of Contents

  1. What is a resume?
  2. Why do I need a resume?
  3. Getting an interview with your resume
  4. How to make your resume stand out
  5. What is a CV (curriculum vitae)?
  6. What are the best types of resumes?
  7. What is the best resume format for me?
  8. How to make a resume for young professionals?
  9. How long should your resume be?
  10. What are the best fonts and font sizes for your resume?
  11. How should I write my resume objective?
  12. Should I include references on my resume?
  13. Top 10 resume writing tips for 2019
  14. Top 5 resume mistakes for 2019

What is a Resume?


what is a resumeResumes are simply 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.

How’s that for a straightforward answer?

Whether on paper or in some kind of digital format (e.g. LinkedIn), a resume serves as a way for a job seeker to market her/his skill sets to employers. Think of a resume as an introduction to employers that asks them to consider you for a position at their company.

Why do I Need a Resume?


An “elevator pitch” is 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 essentially your “elevator pitch” for getting a job. You need the resume to quickly show specific skill sets, accomplishments, and education you’ve attained which suggest you would excel at a specific job. Now, like an elevator pitch, a resume needs to capture a hiring manager’s attention quickly and convince that person to read the entire resume.

Does a resume get you the job? No! But a great resume gets you noticed and potentially invited for an interview.

In essence, hiring managers are gatekeepers who control which job applicants are considered for interviews. If a hiring manager scans your resume for 10 to 30 seconds and fails to find evidence that you’re qualified for a job, then he or she will likely move on to the next applicant’s resume.

Not fair?

Maybe, but that’s the reality job seekers face. Hiring managers have a limited time in any given day and other responsibilities beyond reading resumes. As a result, you need to grab a hiring manager’s attention and hold it to make a convincing case that you possess the skills needed to do a job well!

Resumes: The Key to Interviews


resume to interview

As I stated previously, a resume doesn’t generally get someone a job offer. But it does help or hurt a job seeker’s chances of getting an interview. And interviews are typically the main way to determine who gets a job offer.

Let me walk you through the hiring process. Most companies have set hiring guidelines which include:

  • Assembling a committee of staff to consider applicants. The committee members are usually individuals most likely to work with the person ultimately hired.
  • The human resources department posting an ad indicating a job opening is available. This often includes a requirement to post an ad in local newspapers and in national and/or international news outlets and to leave the ad up for a set period of time (four to eight weeks, for example).
  • Interviewing three to five candidates who, based on their submitted resume (and cover letter), appear qualified for the job. Sometimes hiring managers will interview more than 5 applicants, but that’s not often, in my experience.
  • The company performing a background check of the top candidate(s). If the background checks turn up no red flags indicating the applicant may be a poor choice, then the applicant is offered the position.

From plenty of personal experience, these procedures take months to a year to complete, which drains 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).

And committee members have other responsibilities to complete if they want to keep their own jobs!

Given the time crunch involved, hiring managers and committee members try to get through resumes as quickly as possible so they can get to the interview stage.

Now, as most jobs receive 50 to 100 applications from job seekers (and often several hundred in big cities), how much time do you think a hiring manager can spare to read over any given resume?

Count on a hiring manager spending less than 10 seconds reading your resume! Less than ten seconds! To further complicate things, hiring managers don’t have time to read LinkedIn pages. In fact, many businesses enforce policies that forbid hiring managers and committee members from considering anything other than the resume and cover letter submitted by an applicant.

Hence, the resume becomes the key to getting to the interview stage, and your resume needs to grab a reader’s attention quickly!

How do you make your Resume Stand Out?


Before getting to the nuts and bolts of buildling effective resume formats and designs, it’s important to understand what makes a resume great, something that convinces a reader to spend more than 10 seconds reviewing it.

No, including a $50 bill is not an effective strategy here! Your resume desperately needs to captivate its readers, convincing them they would be foolish (and negligent) not to completely read the entire document! How do you accomplish this? I’m glad you asked!

Target your resume for the job you’re applying to! That’s how you stand out from a crowd of applicants for a position!

RESUME TIP #1 Targeting a resume means that you fine-tune your resume to include keywords from the job ad and reword each section to show how your experiences and accomplishments make you a great candidate.

Here’s an example: If you apply for a job seeking applicants with expertise “in editing using Chicago style,” then you should make certain to highlight your experience in the past editing manuscripts utilizing Chicago-style editing procedures. You should also highlight accomplishments you attained while using the Chicago style: “I revamped editing procedures to specifically utilize Chicago style in all company editing processes.”

That’s how you stand out! Hiring managers are looking for such keywords/buzzwords when scanning resumes. If your resume doesn’t have such keywords incorporated into the top half of your resume, a hiring manager is less than likely to read your entire resume. In other words, you won’t get an interview let alone the job.

What is a CV (curriculum vitae)?


what is a cvSo, before getting to the nitty gritty, let’s discuss a term many of you may hear but not need to actually conctern yourselves with: CV, the resume’s older sibling.

CV simply stands for “curriculum vitae,” a term for what is in effect a comprehensive summary of an individual’s professional history, or what I generally refer to as a “resume on steroids.” This is a document that lists all relevant work experience and all the intricacies of each job listed. Additionally, such documents include details such as articles published in peer-reviewed journals, works of art produced, songs written/performed, continuing education completed, patents received, computer programs created, museum exhibitions, photos published, and conferences an individual presented at.

As I stated at the start of this section, most professionals don’t need to develop such a document and can simply utilize a one- to two-page resume. For a few fields in particular, CVs are crucial, including:

  • Academics or higher education professionals
  • Scientists
  • Medical doctors
  • Non-profit managers
  • Artists

Admittedly, a resume will generally still suffice for job seekers in even these listed professions. If you ever have any question as to whether a CV is right for you, check with professors in the field (college professors are at the forefront of CV users).

As for length of a CV, seasoned professionals with more than fifteen years of experience often have a CV in the range of five to seven pages.

What Types of Resumes Can I Choose From?


As you can probably imagine, there are an endless amount of design elements that job seekers can choose from. For the record, resume-weight paper that is either white or off-white is pretty much the standard for printed resumes. Using dark gray paper with purple ink, on the other hand, is not considered professional. See the sample resumes for an idea of designs that are generally used.

As for TYPE of resume, there are three main types: chronological, functional, and combination.

    • A chronological resume lists jobs in reverse-chronological order and provides details about a job seeker’s accomplishments and duties from those jobs.
    • A functional resume, meanwhile, provides a listing of skills that the job seeker possesses and gives little more than the name of the companies and the job titles the job seeker had at each job (sometimes, a functional resume includes dates when the job seeker worked at each job).

The benefits of a functional resume? It 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. You never want to leave an impression that you’re hiding something.

The chronological resume provides good detail about your job history, but many consider this format rather boring. Additionally, a straightforward chronological resume often doesn’t have a section highlighting an individual’s skill sets, which I feel is crucial to getting noticed. Given the weaknesses of both chronological and functional formats, I recommend the third type of resume format: the combination.

  • The combination resume format is a well-balanced mixture of the chronological and functional formats, adding flair to the chronological design while also filling in all the details that a functional resume sometimes lacks. Most resumes are in a combination format.

How to Make a Resume: Overall Resume Format


best resume format

So, what are the most important sections that should always be included when making your resume? In all honesty, there are no set rules, and quite frankly, individuals on the same hiring committee may have different views of what should and should not be included on a resume. At times, this lack of agreement can be frustrating. That said, here are sections I strongly recommend for your resume.

  • Heading – Your name at the very top of the first page of your resume. In most resumes I write for clients, I place the client’s name at the top. The only time I change this are the few instances where I list the client’s address and contact information above their name. Yet, in those instances, the client’s name is boldfaced and at a font size significantly larger than that of the rest of the resume (usually 20 to 24 font size). If your resume goes beyond one page, I recommend you add your name and page numbers in a footer for the document (e.g. O’Donnell ǀ 1). While some resume writers may suggest repeating a person’s name and contact information on top of every page, I find that to be awkward and distracting.

  • Contact Information – Your address and contact information should come after your name, though some resume designs have the name under the address, phone number, and email address (see included resume samples). Whenever you move throughout your career, your resume should be updated immediately. As for phone numbers, provide one number, preferably a cell phone you have on your person at all times. Hiring managers get frustrated when having to choose between two or three numbers listed. As for email, list one email that you check daily!
    • What About My LinkedIn Page and/or My Online Portfolio? I’m seeing an increase in the number of professionals who, instead of their address, include their LinkedIn page URL. I actually switched my CV to have just my phone number, email and LinkedIn page information. For artists (painters, photographers, etc.), including a link to your online portfolio is also appropriate whether you use Carbonmade, DROPR, Behance or some other online archive. For those with blogs or other websites related to the job you’re applying to, including those is an option as well.
    • A Note on Email and Phone Etiquette – As an aside, your email address should have an appropriate username. Instead of some foul, goofy, or otherwise unprofessional username, simply use your last name and a number (e.g. “odonnell89@email.com”). Hisroyalhotness@email.com is most certainly not acceptable. Such an email address could get your resume tossed without further consideration. As for your phone’s voicemail message, don’t add music or some trick or childish message. Instead, state your name and that you’ll return calls as soon as possible. That’s it!
    • A Note on Email and Phone Etiquette (Part 2) – Please reread the last section. Inappropriate emails and voicemail messages could get your resume tossed, or even worse—such childishness could get you barred from consideration from future job openings at the respective company.

  • Education List your degrees and any certificates or certifications that are relevant to the job you’re applying to. For the record, 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. Listing your high school diploma in such instances is a waste of space UNLESS you received a unique certification through your high school that helps your candidacy for the job. In nearly twenty years of writing resumes, I haven’t seen this yet.

    • List degrees with the most advanced degree first. Include degree completed and year you attained the degree. If you’re still in college, list your “anticipated” graduation date, (e.g. “May 2020 (Anticipated)”). If you received a Master’s or PhD, it’s acceptable to list the respective initials after your last name in the heading (e.g. O’Donnell, M.A.).

      As for placement, “education” is usually placed after the job seeker’s name and contact information. This is especially important if the job requires a specific degree. For entry-level jobs, education can be listed at the end of the resume.

  • Summary of Qualifications – For many of my clients, including recent high school and college graduates, I recommend including a “Summary of Qualifications” section. Instead of a simple listing of one-word skills as I see on many resumes, I prefer to see sentences of accomplishments that link the job seeker’s experience and skills to the job sought. For example, if applying for a paralegal job that requires experience in Excel and legal coding software, a great “qualification” to list would be:

    • “Adept in use of Excel and the use of multiple legal coding/billing software packages.”

      Such a listing would let a hiring manager know quickly that you possess specific skills the law firm is looking for. As for location, this summary of qualifications should be listed after education (or after name and contact information when education is listed at the end of the resume).

  • Professional Experience – This section is where job seekers list the jobs or internships they have previously held and currently work at, along with listing duties that link with the job you’re applying to.

    • Quick Notes About Listing Dates – I’ve found that a number of hiring managers are hyper-critical of job seekers who fail to list the month and year they began and ended jobs. If you worked at a job for over three years, I feel it is okay just to list years (e.g. 2013-2017). Otherwise, definitely list both the month and year (e.g. May 2013 – April 2015).

      In addition to listing duties you performed at each job, it’s critical to list accomplishments you attained while employed there. Did you achieve a record in monthly sales or secure new customers from a region previously untapped? Did you create a new website for a company that quickly gathered 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? Did you create a training program for new hires in an instance where no official training program existed?

      These are accomplishments that hiring managers love to see from job applicants. If you don’t have significant accomplishments to list, then this might be a wake-up call to make an effort to stand out and achieve accomplishments every year at every job!

      RESUME TIPS #2: For this section, list jobs in reverse chronological order. If an earlier job provides your best qualifications and training for the job you’re applying to, consider two separate experience sections: “relevant experience” and “additional experience.”

  • Volunteer Experience – Plenty of people are touting the listing of volunteer experience on resumes as a way to stand out to hiring managers. If you have volunteer experience that provided you skill sets and/or experience relevant to the job you’re applying for, I agree that listing such experience is beneficial.

    If your volunteer experience is completely irrelevant with regard to your professional life and responsibilities, it’s still perfectly acceptable to list volunteerism. Some employers are impressed by job seekers with a history of giving back.

    That said, many employers, hiring managers and search committee members couldn’t care less about volunteerism. Their only concern is that a job applicant has relevant “professional” experience. With this in mind, I suggest that if you need to open up room on your resume for listing accomplishments, trimming from the volunteer experience section is worth considering.
    • When you’re a new graduate with little professional experience and you need to fill in space on a resume.
    • When your volunteer experiences provided skills and training relevant to the job you’re applying to.
    • When you’re applying to a company that promotes community service.

  • Technological Proficiencies – Most jobs require experience using technology whether it’s using Microsoft Excel to create databases or an advanced software package that is essential to a particular field. Consequently, I recommend a section listing all software packages and operating systems you’re proficient with (PC or Mac). It’s especially important to highlight your skill level with programming expertise listed as required for the job.

    • RESUME TIPS #3: What if your resume is packed and you have no room for a separate “technology” section? Make certain you add your technological skills in the qualifications section.

How to Make a Resume: Sections for Advanced Professionals


As your career progresses, other resume categories should be considered for inclusion. These include:

  • Professional Summary – Instead of a “Summary of Qualifications” section, I often recommend clients use a Professional Summary that summarizes the major skills and accomplishments usually covered by the former. Such a professional biography, usually three to five sentences in length, often reflects an advanced level of professionalism and proficiency within the field.

Here’s an example for a marketing executive:

Marketing and sales executive with over 15 years’ experience providing award-winning leadership for established and start-up companies. Expertise in healthcare management, pharmaceutical sales, and software industries. Proficiency in initiating and administering marketing assessments and CRM methodologies to immediately address customer concerns to increase company’s customer base and retention. Adept at navigating intricacies of healthcare industry and physician politics.

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 the applicant’s resume is worth a full read. Here’s an example to coincide with the professional summary presented in the last section:

CORE COMPETENCIES


Branding Campaigns Marketing Management Advertising Campaigns
Contract Negotiations ROI Assessment Market Analysis
Budget Administration Program Development Event Marketing

Should my Resume Be One Page or Two?


How long should a resume be? Must it be just one page? I get this question asked more than any other. I’m sorry to say that the one-page rule promoted by many has long been considered bogus!

Your resume can be two pages in length IF you have sufficient experience and accomplishments to warrant a second page. In most cases, a new college graduate should stick with one page. If you have a question as to whether you should use a second page, contact your college’s career center and ask for feedback. That said, there is another “page limit-related” issue I address with clients:

If you’re going onto a second page, make certain you can use a whole second page. I find many search committee members do consider a one-and-a-half-page resume as unorganized. The thinking for some is that using only part of a second page means a job seeker wasn’t organized enough to word his experience into a one-page document. While many of us who review resumes are fine with a resume that goes onto just a portion of a second page, it’s best to prepare for those few sticklers looking for one or two full pages.

Resume Fonts


Years ago, resume font preferences were pretty straightforward: you used Times Roman 12-point font. If you used something else, your resume would be suspect. Honestly, I don’t believe it was as dire as some argue, but today, there certainly are a number of acceptable font styles and sizes which job seekers can use.

First, whatever font you use, your font choice needs to be readable! Cursive style fonts are pretty to the eyes, but they’re often difficult to read and understand, especially for those like me who have bifocals. Instead, use a font style that makes it easy for the reader to identify a letter and for which none of its letters, capitalized or not, looks like another letter or a number (e.g., the “S” looks like a “5” or the “L” looks like an “i"). Also, use only ONE font style throughout your resume. Personally, I prefer the following font styles: Calibri, Cambria, Times Roman, and Garamond.

As for font size, use Times Roman 12-point font as a guide. Anything similar in size is generally acceptable, such as Calibri 11-point font. If a hiring manager needs to squint to read your resume, she is not likely going to spend much time on it.

RESUME TIPS #4: A final point for fonts: Use bold typeface to highlight skills or accomplishments that link well with the job you’re applying to. No, this does not mean to highlight something in every paragraph! However, highlighting a few things in this manner could catch a hiring manager’s eye and get your resume a closer inspection.

Should I include Job Objectives in my Resume?


best student resume objective 2017In most cases, you shouldn’t, at least that’s what most of us who know how to write resumes professionally usually advise clients. Why???

First of all, space is limited on a resume, especially if you’re aiming for a one-page document. The employer already understands your objective, ultimately, is to get the job you applied to. The space an objective takes up is better served listing additional accomplishments from your work history.

Secondly, most objectives I’ve encountered are useless as they simply include a lot of fluff. Something like “I am seeking a job which will help me grow professionally” or “Seeking opportunity for greater experience in my field” really isn’t clear. In fact, I think most hiring managers who read an objective like that will just sigh in frustration. Vague objectives don’t help your cause!

If you feel you absolutely MUST include a resume job objective, make certain it’s specific to the position sought and your skills that link to that position. The following objectives are good ones to use:

  • “To obtain a teller position at the Buffalo Bank.”
  • “To serve as a customer service manager at the Buffalo Bank, utilizing my skills in customer relations and accounts management to increase customer retention and revenue.”

Do those objectives seem boring? They may, but they clarify what position you’re applying for and, in the case of the second, indicate the skills the applicant brings to the table. Now, for new college graduates who have little to no experience and are struggling to fill one page with information, adding an objective can help fill in space. Just remember that the objective should be specific as discussed here.

Should I Include References in my Resume?


Is it acceptable to write “References Available Upon Request”? It’s acceptable, but doing so serves little purpose other than to use up valuable space on your resume!

My first resume included a “References” section with those classic words: “Available Upon Request.” What I should have done was deleted that section altogether and simply included a separate list of three to five professional references. For recent graduates of college or high school, part-time job 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. Some argue you should only include a list of references if asked for it. Frankly, I think in most instances it’s okay to send a list of references along.

Now, in the event that you’re struggling to fill a page with skills and experience (for example, your resume is one and a half pages), adding two or three references on the actual resume to fill out the page is something I find totally acceptable.

Conclusion


Follow the aforementioned guidelines and you’re well on your way to creating a great resume. If you have the money, it may be worth it to hire a professional to write your resume. If you choose this route, make certain the resume writer is a certified resume writer or certified career coach (both of these certifications require completion of tests and submissions of resumes for evaluation before the writer receives certification). Also, ask the resume writer for references and samples before hiring her.

For those who know how to write their own resume, here are two different lists of reminders to keep in mind when taking on this endeavor:

Top 10 Resume Writing Tips


top 10 resume writing tips for 2017

  • List relevant experience and accomplishments. I don’t list my years working at the Gardenview Restaurant when I apply for jobs in academic and career counseling. My status as the world’s greatest dishwasher doesn’t mean a thing when I apply for counseling jobs. Yes, I was that awesome as a dishwasher!
  • Tailor each resume for each job applied to. Don’t rely on a general resume you send to every job. Such resumes stand out in a bad way. Input keywords from the job ad you’re applying to into your resume. Hiring managers are looking for such keywords to quickly weed out unqualified candidates.
  • Update your resume regularly. You should reevaluate your resume every six months. Input any new accomplishments or jobs in addition to new skills you’ve acquired.
  • Make certain your resume and LinkedIn page match. If you have a LinkedIn page, keep it in sync with your resume. Any discrepancies between the two could lead to a hiring manager thinking you’re hiding something or even lying.
  • Google yourself. Check and see what comes up, whether it’s an article about you or something you posted on a website. If anything inappropriate comes up, try to get it deleted BEFORE you start sending out resumes.
  • Delete inappropriate posts on social media. Check your Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts and delete any inappropriate posts or pictures. Then post appropriate posts (discussions about your job accomplishments or achievements in your education or profession) every day for a couple weeks. This will help bury those childish things most people post on a regular basis.
  • Place restrictions on your social media sites. It would be ridiculous to suggest that you never use social media sites. That said, there is nothing wrong with limiting who can see your material. Contact a social media outlet’s tech support to find out how to put in blocks if you need help. Just remember: If one of your friends shares something from your page, it can still get out there.
  • Make certain to research a company’s short- and long-term goals and adapt your resume to highlight skills you have tied to those goals. Knowing the company’s goals and adapting your resume to reflect your accomplishments that align with those goals is a great way to stand out to a hiring manager.
  • Have someone, preferably someone in your line of work, proofread your resume. I don’t care if you’re an English major who served as managing editor for the college paper. Every writer needs to have someone else proofread her writing. Why??? Because we as writers tend to overlook things in our own writing. FYI – I’m an award-winning author of books and articles and I still have others proofread my manuscripts.
  • Email a copy of your resume to yourself before submitting it anywhere. Doing this can help you determine if any formatting you used gets messed up over the Internet.

Top 5 Resume Writing Mistakes


  • Not updating your contact information. Your resume may be very impressive and quickly garner a hiring manager’s attention. But it will be hard to contact you if your listed email and phone number are ones you no longer use.
  • Using paper and ink that are considered unprofessional. Blue, pink, or purple paper with some unique ink color will likely lead to your resume getting shredded.
  • Using an email address that is unprofessional. Not only is MrAwesome@email.com highly inappropriate, but it will likely get your resume sent to the junk mail folder if sent via email.
  • Not being qualified for the job you apply for. If you know you’re not even remotely qualified for the job you apply to, not only will your resume be rejected, but you may also possibly be barred from consideration for any future job posting at the company. Hiring managers have a long memory and do not appreciate their time being wasted.
  • If you decide to hire someone to write your resume, make certain he is qualified. Yes, there are some without certification who write great resumes, but many of those without certification are horrible resume writers. Ask them for samples, references, and proof of certification.