How to Write a Masterpiece of a Resume

Rockport Institute Resources

This award-winning guide to resume writing will teach you to write a resume equal to one done by a top-notch professional writer. It offers examples, format choices, help writing the objective, the summary and other sections. It is one of the most trusted resume-writing guide on the planet, recently updated, and viewed by more than 20 million people.

Writing a great resume does not necessarily mean you should follow the rules you hear through the grapevine. It does not have to be one page or follow a specific resume format. Every resume is a one-of-a-kind marketing communication. It should be appropriate to your situation and do exactly what you want it to do. Instead of a bunch of rules and tips, we are going to cut to the chase in this brief guide and offer you the most basic principles of writing a highly effective resume.

The good news and the bad – The good news is that, with a little extra effort, you can create a resume that makes you stand out as a superior candidate for a job you are seeking. Not one resume in a hundred follows the principles that stir the interest of prospective employers. So, even if you face fierce competition, with a well written resume you should be invited to interview more often than many people more qualified than you.

The bad news is that your present resume is probably much more inadequate than you now realize. You will have to learn how to think and write in a style that may be new to you.

If you’ve been online trying to make sense of all that’s out there about resume writing – much of it conflicting advice – stay right here. We have the final word on those nagging questions (Length? Format? Font? Keywords?). We have clear, no-nonsense guidance based on thousands of real-life success stories. Here’s how to do it yourself, broken down in 10 parts.

1.RESUME WRITING = MARKETING
Our guide is based on one fundamental premise: Your resume is a marketing document. It’s not the history of your past; it’s an ad. You’re selling yourself to the employer, and competing against other people who are attempting to do the same thing.

A great resume doesn’t just tell them what you have done but makes the same assertion that all good ads do: If you buy this product, you will get these specific, direct benefits. It presents you in the best light. It convinces the employer that you have what it takes to be successful in this new position or career. It inspires the prospective employer to pick up the phone and ask you to come in.

YOU’RE ADVERTISING YOURSELF
Here’s a key thing we know based on deep research: Every resume is a one-of-a-kind marketing communication. It should be appropriate to your situation and do exactly what you want it to do. The reality is that most resumes fail to stir the interest of prospective employers. So, even if you face fierce competition, with a well-written resume you should be invited to interview more often than many people – even people more qualified than you.

A great resume doesn’t only tell the employer what you have done. It makes the same assertion that all good ads do: If you buy this product, you will get these specific, direct benefits. It presents you in the best possible light. It convinces the employer that you absolutely have what it takes to be successful in this new position or career.

DO YOUR RESEARCH
The very best marketing is research-based marketing. So, do your research. Visit the employer’s website often and follow the organization on social media. (Do this of course after doing any necessary cleanup of your social media profile, WORK ALL THE DIGITAL ANGLES.) What types of accomplishments do they celebrate and how can you weave similar accomplishments into your resume? What kind of language do they use to describe achievements? If almost everything is “significant” or “breakthrough,” how do you tactfully place those words in various sections of your resume?

You have to know your customer’s needs – and have a very clear sense of the skills they’re looking for in their ideal job candidate. Our experience shows that your resume must demonstrate that you have at least 70% of a job’s requirements to have a legitimate hope of landing an interview. Do all the research you can, from online searches and social media tracking to networking with people you know. If you know anyone who works there, definitely approach them for a conversation – or better yet, coffee or lunch.

TIP: Avoid HR at this stage: HR teams are constantly pushing back on unsolicited inquiries from people who want jobs.

CUSTOMIZE
A sobering fact is that job recruiters spend an average of six seconds on every resume as they sort through digital stacks of applicants. So, focus on the employer’s needs, not yours. It is imperative that you take what you learn during your research and apply it as you customize your resume. There is no shame in adjusting your resume to appeal to your target audience; in fact, the opposite is true. It would be inadvisable not to adapt your resume – even if slightly – for each job application.

Imagine that you are the person doing the hiring. This someone with skin in the game. Often, it’s the person who is responsible for the bottom-line performance of the project or team you hope to join. This is someone who cares deeply how well the job will be done. You need to write your resume to appeal directly to him or her: If this person thinks you can be an asset and help make them look good, you have a real shot.

To reiterate: Your resume is a very informed, targeted advertisement. At the end of the day it’s an ad…nothing more, nothing less.

2.YOUR RESUME’S #1 JOB: LAND AN INTERVIEW
It’s critical to always bear in mind that your resume is a tool with one specific purpose: to win an interview. If it doesn’t, it isn’t an effective resume. So how do you prevail? First, embrace some basic truths about the job-seeking landscape.

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU
First, let go of any misguided preconceptions about what your resume is: It’s not about you. Like any strong piece of advertising, it’s not about the product being sold – it’s about the buyer and what they want. Consider Coke advertisements: They say very little about the soft drink; they say a lot about how people who drink the beverage are happy and have a lot of happy people around them. The focus is on the benefits of drinking Coke. Your resume is about the benefits of hiring you.

Your resume is not a place to brag; nor is it a place to be modest. Its sole purpose is to generate interest in you. What differentiates you from the competition. In addition to including all relevant information about your skills, background, accomplishments, etc., find ways to include details that could generate curiosity. Were you born in a different country? Is there community or volunteer work that’s appealing? Are you fluent in multiple languages? Did you go through college in three years – or later in life? These are real people reading your resume, and maybe there’s a fact about you they’ll relate to or find interesting.

YOU’RE TELLING A STORY
You have to learn how to write powerful but subtle advertising copy. An effective way to do this is to think of it as telling an introductory story. When you meet someone, you want to know “their story,” right? It’s the same for that hiring manager looking at your resume. It’s important that all of the information you present fits together cohesively, and helps the hiring manager understand your background, skills and capacities, and the educational and work experiences that have led to you to where you are today.

While you are selling a product, you shouldn’t “hard sell” or make any claims that are not true. Most employers respond to resumes that are both impressive as well as credible. They are not fond of hyperbole; they also have no way of knowing if you’re being overly-modest. It’s a balancing act

3.KNOW EXACTLY WHAT KIND OF RESUME YOU’RE WRITING
There are three basic types of resumes: Chronological, Functional, and “Combined” Chronological – Functional. Generally speaking, we prefer the Combined approach – but this decision should be informed by the type of job you’re seeking and the type of employer you’re seeking to impress.

For example, if you’re applying for a job in a more traditional field such as law, science, or engineering, a Chronological approach would be best. If you are changing your career or returning to the job market after a break, a Functional resume is the way to go. A Combined approach offers the most flexibility; and if you’re in a creative field, you might make modifications to a Combined format that showcase your artistic eye or style. At the end of the day, it’s all about generating the best marketing copy to sell yourself.

CHRONOLOGICAL
The chronological resume is the more traditional resume structure. The Experience section is the focus of the resume; each job (or the last several jobs) is described in some detail, and there is no major section of skills or accomplishments at the beginning of the resume. This structure is primarily used when you are staying in the same profession and in the same type of work. It is also commonly used in certain fields such as law and academia. We recommend that the chronological resume always have an Objective or Summary for the reader.

Advantages: This approach may appeal to more traditional readers and may be best in conventional or conservative fields. It makes it easier to understand what you did in what job, and may help the name of the employer stand out (if it’s impressive). The disadvantage is that it is much more difficult to highlight what you do best. This format is rarely appropriate for someone making a career change.

FUNCTIONAL
The functional resume highlights your major skills and accomplishments from the very beginning. It helps the reader see clearly what you can do for them, rather than having to read through the job descriptions to find out. Actual company names and positions are in a subordinate position, with no description under each. There are many different types of formats for functional resumes.

The functional resume is a must for career changers, but is very appropriate for generalists, for those with spotty or divergent careers, for those with a wide range of skills in their given profession, for students, for military officers, for homemakers returning to the job market, and for those who want to make slight shifts in their career direction.

Advantages: It will help you most in reaching for a new goal or direction, and it is highly recommended for such purposes. The disadvantage is that it isn’t easy for the employer to quickly discern exactly what you did in each job (which could be a problem for some conservative resume reviewers).

COMBINED
A combined resume includes elements of both the chronological and functional formats. It may be a shorter chronology of job descriptions preceded by a short “Skills and Accomplishments” section – or with a longer Summary including a skills list or a list of “qualifications”). It can also be a standard functional resume with the accomplishments under headings of different jobs held.

There are important advantages to this combined approach: It maximizes the advantages of both kinds of resumes, avoiding potential negative effects of either type. One disadvantage is that it tends to be a longer resume. Another is that it can be repetitious: Accomplishments and skills may have to be repeated in both the “functional” section and the “chronological” job descriptions.

4.GUIDANCE FOR A CAREER CHANGE RESUME
Clearly, career change has become a new norm of working. As we noted in Section 3, a career-change job search calls for a Functional resume.

DEFINE YOUR TARGET MARKET
“Target market” in advertising refers to people a company aims to turn into customers. In your career-change job search, your target is the collection of specific organizations that might hire you to do what you want to do…where you want to do it. Start with geographic requirements – is the world…. or Seattle? Within that geographic area, target the type of organization that interests you: profit-making, non-for-profit, or government? What kind of business or industry? What size organization?

Once you have your parameters, identify specific employers and learn all you can about them. What is their history? What do they emphasize in their messaging? Who are the decision makers? What is their hiring philosophy? What kind of work culture is it? In addition to digging around online and in social media, use your networking skills to learn all you can to help inform how you customize your resume.

PLAY UP TRANSFERRABLE SKILLS
Jobs in very different professional fields can often have a number of similar requirements. Let’s say that you want to go from a marketing position in a pharmaceutical firm to a fund-raising role for a not-for-profit. What are the skills you’ve already demonstrated that are applicable? They may be more than you think.

Consider these possibilities:

  • Time management
  • Project management
  • Collaboration
  • Persuasive communicating
  • Strong decision-making
  • Composure under pressure
  • Innovative problem-solving

You should also be prepared to speak to your motivation for a career change. You can weave a little of this into your Objective, then also be prepared to write about it briefly in your cover letter, and then of course speak to it when you land an interview.

KEY IN ON THE TRIBE
As a career changer, you are effectively moving from one tribe to another. Within the bounds of integrity, the story you tell has to explain why the tribe you now want to enter is really the right one for you (and not the other one). This is another instance where research is critical. Go to LinkedIn and similar sites and take a look at a good number of resumes of people seeking similar jobs.

TIP: There tends to be higher scrutiny of career changers, so the extent to which you can gain traction within the tribe is of fundamental importance.

5.THE JUICE: YOUR ASSERTIONS SECTION
In most cases, a great resume has two main sections. In the first, you make assertions about your abilities, qualities, and achievements. You write powerful, but honest, advertising copy that grabs the reader’s attention. (Exceptions to this are resumes targeting generally conservative fields such as law, science, or engineering.)

The second section, the evidence section, is where you back up your assertions with evidence that you actually did what you said you did. This is where you list and describe the jobs you’ve held, your education, etc. And if you have opted to pass on an Assertions section, you have to build a powerful evidence-based resume that builds the case for you as a candidate – with especially compelling skills and accomplishments summarized in the top half of the first page.

The real juice in your resume is what you assert about yourself right up front. This is where you shine. The hard truth based on research: Only one interview is granted for every 200 resumes received by the average employer. Research also tells us that your resume will be quickly scanned, rather than read. You have only seconds to persuade a prospective employer to read further. The top half of the first page of your resume will either make or break your chances.

FIRST: FOCUS
Ask yourself: What does the employer really want? How would you fill those shoes? What would set a truly exceptional candidate apart from a merely good one? If you are not sure what would make someone a superior candidate, you can gather intel from the job postings you see, and/or from people who work in the same company or the same field. You could even call the prospective employer and ask them what they want. Don’t make wild guesses.

Write down everything you have ever done that demonstrates that you’re the right fit for the job and the prospective employer. You don’t have to confine yourself to work-related accomplishments.

TIP: Use your entire life as the palette to paint with. The point is to cover all possible ways of thinking about and communicating what you do well. What are the talents you bring to the marketplace?

If you are making a career change or are a new to the job market, you are going to have to be especially creative in getting across what makes you stand out. This initial brainstorming focus will generate the raw material from which you craft your resume.

YOUR OBJECTIVE
So many resumes we see make a gallant effort to inform the reader. But we don’t want the employer to be informed; we want them to be interested and curious. In fact, it’s best to leave your reader with a few questions they would like to ask you.

In your assertions section, state your Objective – your intended job. Ideally, your resume should convey why you are the perfect candidate for one specific job or job title. There is debate out there about whether to state an Objective, but generally speaking, we think it’s a good idea. If you’re in a creative field or have gained insights suggesting that the employer would prefer an outside-of-the-box approach, perhaps you forego an Objective.

Keep it to the point, and keep the employer front and center as your write. Consider this example. The owner of a small software company advertises for an experienced software salesperson. A week later they have 500 resumes. The applicants have a bewildering variety of backgrounds, and the employer has no way of knowing whether any of them are really interested in selling software.

Then the employer spots a resume that starts with the following: “OBJECTIVE – a software sales position in an organization seeking an extraordinary record of generating new accounts, exceeding sales targets and enthusiastic customer relations.” This is a fit. Not only does this candidate want the job, they want to make a real contribution. Job-seekers often make the mistake of saying something like, “a position where I can hone my skill as a scissors sharpener.”

DON’T

  • Be unduly modest. You are selling yourself, period.
  • Wing it. Real preparation and homework is required – no matter how lucky you’ve been in the past.
  • Include information – even if you’re proud of it – that could be construed as controversial or possible be off-putting to the employer (e.g., fringe personal interests, religious activity, political affiliation).
  • List everything you’ve ever done. It’s better to leave an employer a little curious and more apt to interview you.
  • Include salary information. It is appropriate for you to provide this information only when asked.
  • Mention reasons for leaving jobs. You can have tactful, professional reasons ready for interviews.
  • Include references. Provide them when requested, and be sure your references know that an inquiry is on the way.
  • Try to be funny or cute – no matter how great your personality, these things don’t translate on paper.
  • Include every single piece of information about yourself – this is not your resume’s job. If the employer wants to know more about you, they’ll ask you for an interview.
  • Get wordy. Don’t use three examples when one will suffice.
  • Be hyperbolic. Don’t use more than one power word or adjective in one sentence.
  • Underestimate the power of reading the job posting carefully and doing all of your homework. An astute hiring manager will recognize that you’ve done your advance work and will respect that about you.