Writing résumés is hard work. Conflicting advice, too many formats, no clear guidance, no idea what the specific hiring manager you’re applying with wants. It can seem like the murkiest of waters from the outside looking in.
You are not alone.
But there are a few details that ring true across the board that I recommend you focus on when building or changing your résumé, and one of the biggest is staying focused on relevant experience.
While it can be distinctly difficult as a young adult to stick to this rule, because you likely don’t have much, if any, experience relative to your chosen career, it is essential that you keep the hiring manager’s attention by not writing things they don’t care about. I’ve seen some move on the moment they read something that is irrelevant to the job you’re applying to. Harsh! I know. But we must adapt to the world around us, not the other way around.
In fact, in my own hiring days, some of the most impressive résumés I’ve seen to date are the most succinct. One had less than 20 words total. They find the most creative ways to use less words to make the biggest impact. They use design to speak multitudes and demonstrate competencies in nuanced ways. I’ll explain better how in a moment.
First, we need to set the scene for the advice you’re about to get. There is a mindset shift you’ll have to take on for the below to be effective. The negative effects of not doing so are stark: you’ll burn out quickly, waste time on jobs that aren’t going to get you where you want to go in life, and learn and grow less throughout the applying/hiring process.
The mindset is this: You must only apply to jobs that you’re willing to spend 1 full hour preparing to apply for, and 2 full hours preparing to interview for. Period. No exceptions.
Now that your mindset is ready, the following tips apply across-the-board no matter what industry you’re trying to tap into. Of course, there are industry-specific tips to add on top of these that you’ll need to make connections with people in the industry or ask for feedback from hiring managers to get, but the below will get you in the door!
Change your résumé to match each job you’re applying for
Changing your résumé every single time is arduous work but is also #essential to nailing the right position. Again, the hiring manager wants to see what makes you perfect for this specific position, not this type of position in general. You need to tweak your language to match the language the company uses, delete some irrelevant experience, possibly add a few things you thought of that you hadn’t added on other applications, etc.
I personally keep a master copy of my résumé that is chock full of every detail and experience I’ve ever had and create a copy for every application I send. The master is grossly long but I find it easier to delete than consistently add. But after you do it a few times – and you likely will – you’ll find what works best for you.
Highlight only highly applicable jobs
This is going to hurt sometimes, but only put jobs that are somehow directly related to what you’re applying for. This doesn’t mean that if you’re applying for a design position that only design-related work is relevant – it depends on the job. If it has a team lead component to it and you have leadership experience from another field, then highlight that leadership experience! But if there is no leadership component then avoid the urge, for sure. I’ll touch on how to address gaps in a moment.
Keep roles and responsibilities succinct and impactful
Only write the job roles and responsibilities that are directly related to the job you’re applying for. It is so easy to want to highlight all of the wonderful and varying responsibilities you may have held over the years, or maybe there’s a desire to just put everything because you don’t have much experience yet at all. Unless your total experience fills less than half a page, stick to this advice! I promise the hiring manager will thank you for it. Even one full page is not in any way necessary.
Full sentences are also in no way necessary. Speak in past tense and don’t use “I” – “Created engaging IG content. Managed three company portfolios, including client relations. Developed social media strategies for 8 businesses.” Be exhaustingly succinct – I wanted to write “Created engaging IG content with optimized hashtags and tagging, and thoughtful captions” but when I thought about it, ‘engaging content’ 1) covers the rest and 2) is enough information.
One way this way of thinking is sometimes described is “leave the hiring manager enticed but wondering”. Make sure s/he knows you’re a catch, but then leave questions for him/her to ask! That’s what an interview is for. You don’t ever want to be tempted to answer an interview question with “as you might have seen on my résumé…” Just “created engaging content” leaves room to be asked, “How did you engage your clients’ audiences with your IG posts?” or “Please describe the social media strategy you developed for one of your clients”.
If necessary – and only if necessary – write one liners to account for gaps in experience. This doesn’t tend to apply to straight-out-of college grads who can get away with gaps wonder-free, but rather those still in our 20s with varying experience that doesn’t always tie into what we’re applying for.
A one-liner lists a position you held for a certain period of time and nothing else. It says “I didn’t disappear off the face of the planet for 3 years, but I respect your time and won’t bore you with non-relevant details.” It looks something like this (let’s imagine you’re still applying for a design job):
Jan 2012 – Jun 2014 Assistant Office Manager, Auto Select Co.
And then move on! No description, no elaboration, nothing if it’s not highly relevant to this position. Another one of my favorites to see, that you can play around with, as appropriate, is:
Jan 2012 – Jun 2014 Full-time parent – honed time and people management skills
Don’t let it spill over the first line, but let’s be honest, being a parent is one of the hardest jobs alive! And you learn so many transferable skills while doing it. Don’t feel that it’s necessary, but if it makes sense then don’t hold back highlighting it!
If you’re still fresh out of school or hunting for internships then avoid listing working in typical high school job positions like grocery store clerk, fast food, the car wash, babysitting, etc. It’s not that they aren’t respectable jobs, it’s that they’re generally super irrelevant to what you’re applying to next. You might be able to draw connections between an Assistant Office Manager position and your soon-to-be design job, but there is zero correlation between design and the grocery store.
Focusing on what counts
Paid positions, internship experience, volunteer experience, and school projects count, classes do not. Simple as that.
It’s not that classes don’t sometimes truly prepare you for the real world, but when they do that experience comes out in the form of a deliverable, from a project. Saying you should be hired because you took Advertising Design II is bogus – so did everyone else with your degree. But saying you should be hired because you designed a super bad campaign strategy for a real life local business (as a part of that course) is totally legit and highly advisable to include!
Internship experience also counts, but must follow the rules above. If you took an internship as a copywriter in your freshman year, I’d leave that off. But if it’s kind of half-and-half on relevance and you don’t have any more experience, then be sure to include. Once you have 2+ relevant positions in your field, cut out your internships because you’re legit now, dude!
While we’re at it – listing awards and recognition should follow these rules, too. It’s so great that you were on the Dean’s List for four semesters, but no one cares after your first job after you graduate. Getting recognized for your public speaking skills is also commendable, but not for a design job. However, if you got an award related to design (I’m not aware of any but I honestly wouldn’t know) then by all means list that baby! Nine times out of ten, though, the awards should stay off the ol’ résumé.
That’s about it! Simple concept but admittedly difficult to implement. I’ll drop a specific to-do below to make it easiest to implement.
- Write a master résumé that has every last job, internship, or volunteer opportunity you’ve ever had, and fill it up with roles and responsibilities. Make a copy every time you go to apply to a new position and shave it down as far as you possibly can.
- Reword every line of your résumé to fit the language of the company you’re applying for. If you’ve written “designed IG content” and they say “create engaging posts” then shift your wording – it matters to the algorithms some companies use to narrow the applicant field!
- Decide whether to use one-liners. Most of the time there’s no need.
- Cut out irrelevant details like awards, babysitting, and non-relevant positions.
- Reword what is left to be as succinct and inviting as possible!
***always attach a portfolio of your work, when possible!