10 Tips for a Powerful Resume

Hemishare’s Lisa Lovallo in Rio de Janeiro

Writing a resume doesn’t have to be a daunting task.  The very origins of Curriculum Vitae are the Latin words forcourse of one’s life.  If you think of your CV more like a picture of your life that you are communicating to the person who is reading it, you will have an easier time expressing the things that every recruiter wants to know about you: Where have you been?  How are you qualified to take the next step? What will you contribute to the team?  It should be a story about you in a concise, cohesive way that emphasizes your best accomplishments and your diverse contributions.

There are lots of resumes tools and templates out there depending on your industry, job function and years of experience.   It is certainly necessary to capture the nuances of your work and express your individuality.  But in an attempt to communicate this individuality or nuanced experience, many people end up communicating a lack of professionalism through their resumes without even knowing it.  If you have a professional-looking resume, it instantly communicates that you are a professional – and that you’re organized, thoughtful, and willing to put in the effort to get it right.  Everyone wants that first impression, right?

Here I demystify the process and give you 10 general tips that will improve your business resume and help you convey a professional image from the very start.  Reference this resume template, which has all of these elements built in for you to use and customize, though it’s certainly not the only one out there.  (NB: if you’re a recent grad, switch the “Experience” and “Education” sections in this template)

1. Keep it to one page

If you can convey an “executive summary” version of yourself, your professional accomplishments, and your academic preparation in one page, you will most certainly be able to communicate effectively in the business world.  People enjoy reading short, action-oriented emails or presentations that clearly express the purpose and desired outcome.  These days, everyone has so much on their plate that they need to get to the point as quickly as possible.  Help them do that with your resume.

Quick tips:

  • If you have many accomplishments, publications, a portfolio or other long list of qualifications that will make your resume longer than one page, place a note in the “Additional Information” section to the effect of “please inquire for list of publications and conference presentations.”  That way, the recruiter is aware of these contributions, but they don’t take up valuable real estate on your CV.
  • If you have held more than a handful of jobs, list the 3-4 most recent jobs and elaborate on the details of them.  Then, group the other jobs together as bullet points under “Other Experience” with a brief (one line) description.
  • Make room by changing the formatting: change your margins from 1” to 0.5”, make your spaces between sections size 8 font instead of size 12, etc.
  • It’s OK to have more than one resume to highlight different qualifications.  If you a professional by day and a musician by night, put together a different music resume specifically for your weekend gigs.  On your professional CV, just list “performing musician” as an additional interest.

2. Bullet points are your friends               

A lot of communication in the business world happens in bullet points, so there is no reason that your resume shouldn’t emulate that concept.  See what I mean?

  • Bullet points are used to organize your job experience into recognizable themes
  • It’s easy to write in short phrases when you start with a bullet point
  • Bullet points are easy on the eyes…the recruiter’s eyes, who is reading hundreds of these a day

3.  Quantify your outcomes and accomplishments

Business people like to know how much, how fast, and the bottom line.  Express your accomplishments in terms that they are used to looking at.  While it is impressive to see large numbers on a resume (“saved the company $150M”), you can still convey non-qualitative accomplishments in numeric terms.  Check this one out, for a non-profit “grant writer”: “Wrote 12 grants over 5 months, leading non-profit organization to receive $200,000 in new funding, up 32% from last year.”  Impressive, right?

Even if you don’t think about numbers for your job, take a moment to “quantify” as many of your accomplishments as you can by comparing them to last year’s results, before you worked on the project, how many clients you worked with, etc.

Which person would you invite to an interview out of these two?

Person A: Responsible for new client acquisition and sales

Person B: Acquired 50 new clients in 2011 versus 30 in 2010 through 3 initiatives: 1) increased client satisfaction by 25%, 2) generated 200% more users on company website, 3) opened up 3 new geographies.  Resulting increase in sales revenue of 45% year-on-year

You might pass on blasé Person A, but would probably invite Person B, who comes across as results-oriented, motivated to improve upon last year’s results, and easily grasps simple numbers.  This is actually the same person, but with a better resume.   Don’t get passed over for great opportunities because your resume is boring.

4. The “so what?” test

Though I effectively applied the “so what?” test to most of my resume unconsciously before handing it over to my career counselor, she brought this great reality check front and center for me that I find extremely valuable when judging resumes myself (thanks, Maria!).  Once you’ve been toiling away with your resume and all of the bullets start to look the same, take a step back.

For every sentence, every bullet, ask yourself “so what?” – the answer should be something to the effect of: “this shows that I can accomplish challenging tasks with few resources and still improve the results,” or “the recruiter will know that I can handle financial modeling.”  If you’re stumped, or if your answer doesn’t really tell the recruiter anything more about your contributions, try to restructure the phrase as in Tip #3.  If it still doesn’t work, you can probably hit delete.

“So what?” questions you can envision a recruiter asking you about your resume:

  • So what about your role on this project makes you a good leader?
  • So what about the work you did proves that you have a special skill or contribution?
  • So what about your work style will be great addition to my team?

Answer these questions in your bullet points, and you can spend your valuable interview time talking about much more interesting things to help you land the job.

5. Leadership & action words

Your resume is one whole page to tell someone what you have accomplished.  It’s not a list of your job requirements or what someone else thinks you do.  It’s a description of the actions you took to generate results.  Write in the active voice (“I generated value” not “value was generated”) and use strong verbs that express your leadership skills.

Think about your resume as a page of your favorite childhood MadLibs.  In the version of MadLibs: Your New Resume, any time there is a blank spot for a verb, try one of these:

Led, managed, supervised, developed, designed, created, identified, overcame, accomplished, resulted in, established, earned, generated, launched, valued, mentored, trained, grew, increased, decreased, analyzed, saved, evaluated, coordinated, etc.

Avoid nondescript verbs that don’t express your role or value contribution.  Your MadLibs verb library should NOT include:  worked on, did, had, tried, got, helped out, etc., though even these would be better than not including any action verbs at all.

It’s hard, but I know you can do it.  Break down what you have done into the appropriate-sized chunk to arrive at what you actually DID for all that time.

6. “Resume-speak”

Wrote 2,400 words, generating 30 paragraphs in 2 hours. Conveyed 10 major points about successful resumes.  Provided useful tips & information for thousands of job seekers. 

That is the description of the action I am currently doing to accomplish a specific outcome.  You understood it very well, but it is to-the-point and free of useless verbiage.  Resume-speak eliminates unnecessary words, such as “the”, “and”, “I” and all of the other connecting language that we use when we write complete sentences.  It’s just not helpful to the reader, and it wastes valuable space that you could be using to elaborate on all of your amazing accomplishments in this manner.

7. Clean, cool, and concise

Ok, maybe not “cool” but I like how this sounds like “calm, cool and collected,” which is how you will feel about the prospects of your future when you start getting called for interviews.

Unless you are applying for a very specific creative job where it would be at your disadvantage to omit creative displays on your resume (think graphic designer), I strongly (read: STRONGLY) urge you to omit graphic elements of any kind from your professional resume.  This includes photos of yourself, logos & other graphics, WordArt (you know what I’m talking about), colors, boxes, other shapes and wacky fonts.  They are simply distracting and make you stand out – in a bad way – against other applicants with clean resumes. The only exception to this rule might be a few well-placed lines, but even then, a well-formatted resume doesn’t need those.   These elements may also ding your resume from automatic filters if they are unreadable, so don’t take the chance.

Remember, every inch of your one-page resume is valuable real estate and the information that you choose to convey says a lot about you.  Say as much as you can by being concise in your statements and in the information you provide.  Sometimes this means – say less.  Other than your qualifications and contributions, the recruiter just needs to know your name and how to get a hold of you.  That means: name, address, phone number, and email address.  One of each.  I promise you can do without the rest of that stuff.

8. Volunteer experience

Volunteer experience (and clubs, other organizations, etc.) is a great way to show that you have significant experience either in addition to your professional experience, or AS your professional experience.  If you’ve had a strong contribution as a volunteer – you have tangible “so what” outcomes to speak of – then consider including it as part of your professional experience.  Simply think about it and format it the same way as you would any other job position.

If your volunteer experience is not as substantial as a fulltime or part-time job, or if your resume is already jam packed with professional experience, then consider including it in the “Additional Information” section by listing the organization’s name, your role, and how long you have participated.  This will be enough to pique recruiters’ interest to pursue it further if they want to.

Correctly placing your volunteer experience can tell a recruiter a lot about you.  If you are just trying to take up space because you feel like your professional experience is lacking, but your volunteer contributions aren’t that substantial, a recruiter can tell.  Focus instead on enhancing your professional experience by squeezing out all of the “so what’s” that you can find.  It would be appropriate to increase the level of detail about your professional accomplishments in this circumstance.

9. Don’t underestimated “Interests”

The very last line in your resume should be “Interests.”  It should include things like sports your play, hobbies you enjoy, and anything else that could help drum up some small talk (briefly).

Many times interviewers are holding back-to-back interviews, or for some other reason only get a chance to look at your resume just minutes before your interview (if at all).  In an effort to come off as friendly and engaging while still absorbing the information from your one-page CV (another reason brevity is important), your interviewer looks at your education first, and then your interests second.  This is to be able to generate small talk with you during the first few minutes of the interview to put you at ease, and to give them a chance to catch up on your resume (why it should be clean and concise).

Make sure your last line says something like this:

Interests: college football fan, avid golfer (15 handicap), PADI Level 2 certified scuba diver; enjoy cooking, reading non-fiction, and taking road trips along the East Coast  

More often than not, the person sitting on the other side of the desk is able to relate to at least one of those interests, or will know enough about them to ask a few easy questions right off the bat, such as “I’ve always wanted to go scuba diving, what is your favorite dive site?”  It’s a free way to bond with the interviewer – who is also a human being and in many cases the person with/for whom you will be working if you land the job – and it’s a good way to get comfortable quickly.

Defining your interests a little more specifically helps to show dedication to them (with your golfing handicap or Level 2 diving certification).  Don’t be afraid to include a little humor, either, it will go a long way in helping you make a connection with the recruiter/interviewer and help your resume stand out.

10.  Use your cover letter to tailor your fit for the position

Think of your resume as the basics of what everyone should know about you and your professional qualifications.  With just one resume, it is easy to apply for different kinds of jobs (within reason, of course).

The cover letter is an excellent opportunity to highlight the parts of your resume that are most relevant to the position for which you are applying.  You can – and should – submit a cover letter for every job to explain what about your experience is specifically useful to the position.  This shows that you understand how your experience fits in with the new position, and gives the recruiter a good feeling for your qualifications. Don’t feel like you need to cram everything into your resume just to get your point across.  Use the cover letter to help you explain things in a little more depth and in a conversational tone that will give the recruiter another layer of information about you and your fit with their organization.


Stay tuned for Hemishare’s future post about cover letter best practices!

Lisa Lovallo is the CEO and founder of Hemishare. Her passion for connecting talented young people with valuable international opportunities sprung from her experience in Mexico City as a Fulbright Binational Business Fellow and then as a management consultant for four years. She is an MBA/Masters student in the class of 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and Lauder Institute of International Studies. She speaks fluent Spanish and Portuguese.

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