How to Write Resumes That Get Callbacks

During fifteen years of recruiting in which I have looked through at least fifty thousand resumes, I have come to a shocking conclusion: 90% of applicants write their resumes without even knowing which job they are applying for! Consequently, they produce resumes that are so broad and unfocused as to virtually ensure that they will make the reject pile, or at best, the “Hold until later” pile. My objective here is to get you past this most common and egregious of all resume sins and take you a few steps further to ensure that your qualifications get the full attention they deserve.

1. Tailor Your Resume for the Job You Want

When culling through stacks of resumes numbering in the dozens or even hundreds, recruiters are looking first for a way to get rid of most of the stacks. The first and easiest way to do that is to keep only the ones whose qualifications, experience and interest clearly fit specific available or upcoming openings. Those relatively small numbers of resumes earn a second look or an immediate callback for an interview. All the rest go into the pile for rejection slips or directly into the trash can. This method of culling resumes for fit to specific positions is used for all non-entry-level positions and is applied more rigorously the higher the position and salary levels.

The bottom line — writing shotgun resumes will ensure that you will be sending out mass mailings and endure long, frustrating waits between callbacks for interviews. When you finally do get one, it is likely for a position in the low end of the range for which you are qualified, a position that won’t take full advantage of all your unique and wonderful qualifications.

In writing resumes it’s important to hold firmly in your mind the one or two perfect positions for which you will walk through fire. You only want to work at one job, the right job, one that makes full use of your unique set of qualifications, experiences, aptitudes and interests. If two or maybe three positions would fit equally well, write one resume for each position. In this age of PCs equipped with word processing software and printers, it’s easy to cut and paste in order to generate two or more resumes that focus on different aspects of your qualifications. It’s far smarter to spend a few extra minutes to customize your resumes up front than to waste many frustrating hours sending out endless series of mass mailings, then waiting weeks or months for callbacks.

In custom tailoring your resume, the first step is to check out detailed listings for the positions that interest you and for which you feel best qualified. Study these listings to get a very clear picture of the specific qualifications and experiences expected of applicants to that type of position. That will enable you to add two very important sections to any resume for a non-entry-level professional position: “Position Desired” and “Relevant Experience”. These two sections should lead off your resume to ensure that you make the first cut into the short stacks.

2. Organize Your Resume for Efficient Review

Clear, logical organization isn’t merely a useful quality in a resume — it’s a key quality of every successful professional. All employers value those qualities and your resume offers the first clue they will have as to whether you possess those qualities and to what degree. So, yes, assuming your resume made the first cut, it will be scrutinized for signs of your mental processes at work. It’s true that resume services will produce professional-looking resumes for a fee, but you are the ultimate judge of whether what they produce is up to the high standard of clarity and logical organization that will be expected of a promising professional applicant.

Your resume should be divided and organized into clearly labeled sections designed to present your data in the way most likely to be read by recruiters. I’m sure there is some variety in the sequence in which recruiters scan resumes, but chances are it will proceed in roughly the following order:

  • Name, address, phone/fax number and email address
  • Position Desired
  • Relevant Experience
  • Professional References
  • Related Experience
  • Professional/Graduate Education, Seminars, Courses & Honors
  • College & Honors
  • High School & Honors
  • Languages
  • Hobbies & Interests
  • Career Objectives

Some of these labels and headings may simply not apply to you. For example, you may not have had anything worth putting into “relevant experience” if you are fresh out of school. Or you may have no honors worth mentioning. If so, leave out the word from section headings. The Professional References section would also not apply to entry-level applicants. If so, it’s better to add a “References” section at the very end of your resume and include two or three meaningful references — possibly employers for summer or part-time jobs.

Recruiters disagree as to whether a “Salary Desired” is useful to include in a resume. My firm opinion is that it isn’t. In most cases, recruiters judge your appropriate salary range based on your qualifications. Applicants do themselves a disservice by including a desired salary range that may not be justifiable and only makes them appear unrealistic or naive. The resume may be tossed into the reject pile on that basis alone. Conversely, if your desired salary range is below what the market will bear, you would be shortchanging yourself. The employment market is highly volatile. Often, it can change between the time you print out your resume and the time you receive an offer. For those reasons, my firm advice is to dispense with any mention of salary until you are being considered for an offer.

3. Be Concise, Precise & Honest

Another strong opinion I have formed over the years is that a resume should never be more than 2 pages, including references. Long resumes tend to show lack of focus and poor organizational and presentation skills — not to mention a certain amount of insecurity about the key qualifications (i.e. relevant experience, professional education, college). Also, any serious professional would be expected to keep in mind the realities of reviewing large numbers of resumes. Few recruiters are likely to spend the time to reading through 3 or 4 page resumes in order to cull out relevant details. The presumption is that if it isn’t presented up front, it’s probably not important. In 99% of cases, that presumption is borne out.

On the other hand, I also believe that a very short resume — one page or less — suggests a lack of experience and qualifications. That’s fine if you’re fresh out of school or are seeking an entry-level position, but most professionals with even a few years of experience are likely to have at least a half page of relevant experiences, professional references and professional education and training that will make a resume exceed a single page.

Precision in describing relevant experiences and professional training is highly valued because it shows not only clarity of thought but actual knowledge of the areas described. Only someone who has experienced specific work-related tasks can describe it with a high level of specificity. For example, “Graphics and layout” is a very poor substitute for “Proficiency in page layout using Quark XPress, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator on MacIntosh systems”. Next

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