Looking for a job is like a rollercoaster.
There are high and low points throughout the process. The unknown of new opportunities excites you, but you feel vulnerable and anxious at the same time. Everyone experiences that turbulence at some point in their job search.
Writing a resume is one of the first steps in that journey, and it’s one of the most overwhelming. You want to make a good first impression — which might leave you second-guessing every last action verb and skill you choose to include. Tools like resume builders and ChatGPT can help you brainstorm a first draft, but it’s up to you to perfect it.
Learning how to make your resume stand out may feel like a science, but there are rules and guidelines you can follow to convince a hiring manager that you’re the best choice for the role.
The importance of an outstanding resume
Within a single sheet of paper is the story of your career. Your work history, accomplishments, and skill set weave together an account of your potential as an employee. And on a job application, your resume should grab a hiring manager’s attention based on the story you tell.
On average, potential employers spend just 7.4 seconds reviewing a resume. While that may sound like an impossibly short amount of time to judge a candidate, it’s often necessary. Some positions draw hundreds of applicants pining for their next job. Hiring managers have to quickly go down a new hire checklist to ensure you have the technical skills or experience necessary to perform the job.
During this time, hiring managers and recruiters also need to filter out mismatched candidates before reaching out for interviews. They’re looking for someone genuinely interested in the new job — someone motivated enough to show how passionate and qualified they are. And if a hiring manager uses an applicant tracking system, they’ll also filter resumes based on keywords and specific skills. You need to survive both the algorithm and their keen eye.
Aligning your most relevant qualifications and tuning your language to fit a company’s vernacular is a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Effective resume writing targets the job description, and a one-size-fits-all resume can’t do that. The extra effort you spend personalizing every application could put you one step closer to landing your dream position and ending the job search.
How to write a resume
The blank page is daunting to look at. But great resumes start with headings and sections, and starting with an outline helps you fill the page faster.
Here are the sections you should include:
1. Work experience
Arguably the most crucial section, clearly label your work experience with separate points for every job entry. If you can, only include jobs that highlight your suitability for the role.
But don’t be afraid to include experience that isn’t obviously relevant. While a career change from product engineer to project manager may seem unrelated in technical skills, you can show off the value of transferable soft skills. The key is to include a description or bullet points that make the connection clear.
Each entry should include the following:
Many job seekers opt to organize this section in chronological order from most to least recent. This is likely the best option if your career and skill learning has a clear linear trajectory.
But sometimes, it makes more sense to put your most relevant experience at the top, even if it’s not your most recent job. This is sometimes known as a functional resume. You want your reader to see your best work first. A new parent who quit a full-time job for a part-time job with less hours may want to focus on career highlights rather than recent positions.
It also might make sense to split your resume into sections for different skills. If you’re applying for a management position at a software development company, you might want to have subsections that emphasize management experience and development experience separately. This helps a hiring manager quickly gauge your full potential.
2. Unpaid work or volunteering
This section is similar to your work experience but only covers unpaid positions. Follow the same format, instead with volunteer or personal projects relevant to the role or that helped sharpen your skills. This could also include internships. Remember to also include descriptions here so hiring managers clearly see why you chose to include every point.
This section will likely be the smallest. List any relevant degrees — associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and even PhDs — in order from most to least recent. Here’s what to write:
Name of educational institution
Name of your program or degree
Date of graduation (if you feel comfortable putting this information)
You may have professional certifications relevant to your role. List them here with the date you acquired them. This is an especially important section if the job you’re applying for requires certification or licensure, legally or otherwise.
If you’re applying for a role that requires something like a driver’s license or certification in a programming language, be sure to highlight it. But non-required certifications fit here as well, like those from online courses. These demonstrate essential soft skills such as self-motivation and initiative.
A summary statement typically goes at the top of your resume, though it usually isn’t recommended. A vague summary or objective statement wastes space. Employers likely don’t want to hear that you’re a “Motivated employee looking to learn new skills” because that doesn’t say much about you.
If you decide to include a summary, be specific. And if everything you’re saying appears later in your resume, it might be best to omit it entirely. Save this statement for your LinkedIn summary.
List soft skills and technical skills that are relevant to the role. Reinforce each one with practical work experience, metrics, or engaging action verbs that tell a more complete story. The less guesswork a hiring manager has to do, the easier it is to identify the strength of your candidacy.
This is your space to be as specific as possible. Instead of writing that you have “good communication skills,” write “thoughtful communicator who uses active listening and empathy to construct strong interpersonal relationships.” And instead of writing “coding,” specify what languages you know and how you’ve used them. You can also emphasize self-directed learning experiences to show your initiative.
7. Link to portfolio
If possible, link to some of your representative work, or at least have a sample
If relevant, link to some of your representative work or have a portfolio with sample projects ready in case the hiring manager asks for them. In some fields, especially creative, a digital portfolio is standard, so include a link to yours if possible.
Recruiters and hiring managers may also check your LinkedIn profile and domain-specific profiles, like GitHub, for concrete examples of successful projects. Ensure your resume is consistent with your body of work across all professional platforms.
Fine-tuning your resume
An effective resume leads a hiring manager’s eye to all the right places. Here are three tips for submitting an accurate and concise document:
1. Include only relevant information
Whether you’re a seasoned professional or a recent graduate, including every single piece of professional experience is unnecessary. All of the metrics, skills, and certifications should reflect the specific job you’re applying to. Unessential information confuses and distracts potential employers from your value to the role.
Recent graduates with little practical experience can find ways to highlight relevant transferable skills without filling the page with unnecessary jobs. If you’re a recent economics graduate, your job sorting books at the university library shouldn’t eclipse valuable internships or coursework — unless that job taught you something about economics.
2. Highlights accomplishments, not responsibilities
Managers want to know you can perform. Listing your personal achievements rather than roles and responsibilities shows not only what duties previous positions included, but that you thrived while completing them. Use action verbs or list employee reco gnitions to place the focus on your performance.
Imagine you previously worked at a public relations firm. Compare these two descriptions:
“I was responsible for the execution of clients’ national media campaigns.”
“I spearheaded successful national digital media campaigns for clients of varied industries, improving organic engagement by 50%.”
The former tells the recruiter about your job, but the latter tells them about you. The specificity helps readers immediately understand why you were an asset.
3. Keep it short
Like any professional communication, your resume should be short and to the point. It should have clear formatting that guides the eye from one section to another.
Ideally, you’ll fit everything you need on one page. The document may stretch to two pages if you’re further along in your career or need to submit a CV instead of a resume. Just make sure everything on those two pages is relevant. Extraneous work history might distract rather than impress.
Make your resume stand out
Now that you know the basics, here’s how to write the best version of your resume:
1. Consider the hiring manager’s needs
Read the job description closely and explore the company website. Get a sense of company culture by reading its mission statement or company core values. Then, include those elements on your resume to catch a hiring manager’s attention and tell them you fit the culture.
Remember, you aren’t just applying for a job. You’re applying to become part of a team. Show exactly how you’ll add to company culture and collaborate with existing employees. If a company’s job ad mentions seeking team players, make sure your resume highlights your history of successful collaboration.
2. Make sure it looks good
Hiring managers review countless resumes each day. You have some freedom to play with your resume format, but you should follow some general guidelines so it’s easy to read:
Use an appropriate font: Cursive fonts and Wingdings have no place on a professional resume. Consider professional-looking typefaces like Helvetica, Arial, or Times New Roman.
Be consistent: When you pick a design format, you commit to a set of “rules” for your resume. Make sure your bullet points follow the same style, the sizing of your headers is consistent, and your lines have equal spacing.
Don’t overcrowd it: Leave enough room in the margins so your resume doesn’t fill the entire page. White space helps your reader find necessary information quickly.
Use a resume builder: There are many free resume builders and templates available online. Your word processor might even have some built-in. Consider using one so you don’t start from scratch.
Consider color when appropriate: Adding some colored text or icons helps your resume stand out. Just make sure it’s appropriate for the industry you work in. Illustrators can use a creative resume to show off their artistic skills, whereas a colorful document for a public policy analyst could demonstrate a lack of sincerity.
3. Proofread for errors
Hiring managers might decide not to hire you from as few as five writing errors. Typos and grammar mistakes show carelessness and poor attention to detail, and they’re an easy way to get a job rejection.
Make sure to check your writing closely. Apps like Grammarly ensure every comma and apostrophe is in the right place. And reading your resume out loud, to yourself or to a friend, helps you catch errors, improve flow, and check for repetitive language.
4. Demonstrate industry knowledge
Always be learning. Intellectual curiosity and commitment to growth are personality traits many hiring managers look for, whether you’re new to the workforce or a seasoned employee. It shows employers that you’re proactive, engaged, and open to new experiences.
Now make sure that growth mindset comes through in your resume. It isn’t about saying “I love to learn,” but showing it.
Stay on top of current trends in your field and work them into your cover letter and resume. If there’s a new programming tool in high demand, share your know-how in the skills section. Describe how you used it to improve your performance at a previous job.
5. Get an objective eye
Ask someone else to look over your resume and give you honest feedback. Seek out people who you trust to give constructive criticism rather than tell you what you want to hear. Coworkers, colleagues, or anyone you feel comfortable turning to for career advice will likely offer the perspective you need to write your best resume.
Also consider hiring a professional resume writer or career coach. Both offer valuable insights about industry expectations and effective techniques for leveraging your best skills and experiences.
It all starts with your resume
Now that you know how to make your resume stand out, you can emphasize the right details and grab hiring managers’ attention.
Writing the perfect resume takes time, thoroughness, and careful editing. And while it may feel daunting, following common resume rules and paying close attention to the job description puts you one step closer to your dream job.