Whether you have taken time off since college or are switching careers, writing a resume that highlights your accomplishments and work experience will be fundamental to landing a new job. If you are not a recent graduate, you will likely have more work experience, and potentially more gaps or career changes which your résumé should address. Prompt offers numerous techniques to help you leverage your work experience on your résumé, and stand out amongst the competition.
What Do Résumé Readers Look For?
Most readers will be able to tell within thirty seconds if your résumé is worth their time. At most, they will spend two minutes on a résumé if they decide that you are a promising candidate. Therefore, all résumés should follow these guidelines: they should be clearly formatted, follow a conventional structure, include only relevant information, and make the most of limited space.
We’ll break down these qualities below:
The first thing readers will notice about your résumé is its format. Unless you are applying for jobs in graphic design (and even then, clarity should trump flashy presentation), your résumé’s format is not the place to show off your creativity or affection for Jokerman font. Instead, use a standard, streamlined format, and follow the conventions below:
Choose an easy-to-read, sans serif font, such as Times New Roman, Helvetica, or Ariel, in a readable size (between 10-12 point). Since your résumé should typically not exceed two pages, choose a font that will maximize your use of space while also being readable. You can vary font size depending on your section headings: for example, headings such as ‘Education’ and ‘Experience’ could be in 12-point font, while the content below can be in 10.5-11.5 to allow you the most space to describe your accomplishments.
Margins and White Space
While you should include all relevant experience, a crowded résumé will cause a reader’s eyes to glaze over. Use white space to your advantage when you can, and use standard margins. For more vertical space, you might make the vertical margins three quarters of an inch. Half inch or three quarter inch margins on all sides are also options, as well as half-inch vertical margins with three quarter-inch horizontal margins. Spacing between lines should be no more than 15 point and no less than 6 point. Generally, the best options are between 9 and 12 point.
Résumé Structure: From Top to Bottom
The first thing a reader should see is your name, centered at the top of the page in 24-36 point font. Depending on which font you choose, you might want your name in bold, and/or capitalized.
Centered below your name, include your contact information in 12-point font. Since your mailing address is likely not relevant, instead include your phone number, email address, current city, and any social media links if you have a strong online presence. Contact information can be separated with a period, vertical line, or a bullet point.
Section 1: Education
Most recent graduates open their résumé with a brief Education section. If more than ten years have passed since you received your highest degree, you can prioritize your work experience instead of education, and move this section elsewhere.
Here, you should include the name of your university, dates attended, and your degree. Follow similar formatting as the example below. This candidate includes academic honors in his Education section, but you may also have an Honors section if you have enough accomplishments.
University of California, Irvine Irvine, CA
MA Art History Aug. 2011-May 2014
-Thesis awarded departmental distinction
-Deborah Atkinson Research Fellowship
Columbia University New York, NY
B.A English Literature Sept. 2006-May 2010
Honors: Graduated magna cum laude
-Awarded honors for senior thesis
-Awarded departmental research grant
Section 2: Experience
The bulk of your résumé should consist of your relevant experience. This section may be divided into several categories: for example, if you are applying for a job as a science teacher, “Pedagogical Experience,” may be one category, and then you may have another section, “Research Experience,” to highlight your academic background in the sciences.
The secret to a successful résumé is learning how to tailor your résumé to each position to which you apply. Always prioritize activities and professional experiences that will show employers that you have experience in the field. When deciding which experiences to include, ask yourself these questions:
- Will a reader be able to infer something about my professional potential from this experience?
- Did I have enough of an impact to write at least two bullet points of description about my responsibilities?
- Did I stay in this position for at least a year?
- Did I commit a significant amount of time to this position? (At least 5 hours a week)
- What will I lose by excluding this experience? What can a reader learn about me and my potential if I include it?
After you have decided which experiences to include, focus on writing descriptions that demonstrate your impact. Because you have only a small space to describe the activity, your impact, and any recognitions you may have achieved, you can follow this formula for packing as much information as possible into one sentence: I did X as measured by Y by doing Z. The following examples effectively maximize impact in a limited space:
- Built and led the New Business Development team of 20+ employees
- Established a network of thousands of local businesses across the United States to use Foursquare for social marketing
- Developed a sizeable 3rd party application ecosystem that leveraged the Foursquare application programming interface (API) which provides customers’ locations
By using the verbs “built,” “established,” and “developed,” this candidate positions herself as a capable and innovative leader. On the other hand, weak resumes use language that is either vague (“participated,” “helped,” “worked with”) or based on basic tasks rather than above-and-beyond impact (“responsible for,” “maintained database,” etc.)
While professional experience should take priority in your résumé, not all experience will be work-related. When choosing which experiences to include, consider these options:
- Have you been working on your own blog, or otherwise building a strong social media network?
- Have you contributed to open source projects?
- Have you participated and had an impact in any advisory or board positions?
- Have you worked on large-scale projects?
- Have you held leadership positions outside of work?
While your professional experience should take priority, you could also consider including additional sections if you feel they will work to your advantage.
If you graduated more than two years ago, you should not include undergraduate activities on your résumé. However, if an activity in which you participated during college has continued in a different form, you may include it. For example, if you were a varsity athlete and now spend weekends coaching a basketball team, you might include it under “Hobbies.” Similarly, if you developed a passion for community outreach during college and now devote a significant amount of time to volunteer efforts or mentorship programs, you could include a Community Service section.
Do not include awards unless they are extremely prestigious, or directly related to your field. Academic awards from college should not be included unless they were incredibly selective and demonstrate your early proficiency in a field.
Do not include a language section unless you are proficient in multiple languages. Those two semesters of Spanish are probably not worth mentioning, but if you are applying to a job in global communications, you absolutely should include a section about your language proficiencies. Many employers will value candidates who speak multiple languages fluently, so if you are multi-lingual you should absolutely mention your language skills.
All employers will assume that you have an advanced knowledge of basic software, such as Microsoft Office. Only include special skills if you have mastered programs or technologies that will be useful in your field.
Some candidates try to add character to their resume by including a brief hobby section. But be prepared: if you list “telling jokes” as a hobby, have a joke ready for your interview! A hobby section can give a reader a more personal idea of your interests, but remember to be brief and only include this section if you have space.
Timeline vs. Regular Format
There are two solid formats that we recommend people use to write their résumés: the Timeline and Regular formats.
Résumés written in the Timeline format have a column on the left side containing the time frame for each each item in the résumé. This format is recommended for people who have less content to included on their résumé or applicants who can make use of short bullet points effectively. The white space in the left column makes the résumé less daunting to readers, and Timeline résumés are also generally easy to read because of the clear progression of the applicant's professional development from the beginning of their education to the present day. The following is a template for reference in creating a résumé with the Timeline format: Timeline Résumé Template
Résumés written in the Regular format look more like conventional résumés. Instead of showing experience and education in chronological order, the time frame over which experiences and education occur are shown on the far right of the résumé next to each item. The advantage of using this format is that you can fit more information onto the page. The disadvantage is that it is easier for your résumé to seem cluttered and difficult to read. If you have ample relevant experience and need the space, use the Regular format and make sure to leave enough white space and stick to the standard 1'' margins. Click here for a template for writing a résumé with the Regular format: Regular Résumé Template.
By paying close attention to detail, and ensuring that your résumé demonstrates your aptitude and accomplishments, you will have an advantage over candidates with less professional presentation. Once you have a rough draft of your résumé, you can begin editing the content to make sure that your descriptions are dynamic and that they highlight your achievements and impact. A well-organized, streamlined résumé is instrumental in advancing in your field. By following these tips, you will have a professional résumé that demonstrates that you are a perfect fit for your dream job.
Here is an example of a professionally crafted résumé for a job in industry:
What Cindy did right:
- The Experience section is located before the "Education" section, which is because Cindy has more recently been in the workforce rather than in school.
- Cindy uses the Regular format, as she has plenty of experiences and content to choose from. Her résumé would take up too much space if written in the Timeline format.
- The Experience section contains quantitative evidence of good performance in the bullet describing her consistent position in the top 20% of traders in her past work. Employers love seeing measure of performance whenever applicants are able to provide them.
- The Experience section includes her participation in 826NYC and Explore NYC With Me. Although these are not full time jobs, Cindy should include them because she spent a significant amount of time on both and they show her drive and entrepreneurial tendencies.
- Aside from base level education information, the Education section includes only highly relevant activities and exceedingly impressive academic awards.
- The lack of a Skills section is acceptable if Cindy has no highly relevant skills. Generally, the Skills section should be left out if the only items that the applicant can write in the section are very general and common skills like "Microsoft Office" or "Can type at 90 words per minute."
The Big Picture
Since you should include the amount of time you spent in each position, your reader will be able to tell if there are any gaps in your résumé. If a significant personal event changed the course of your career, or required you to take time off from working, you can clarify these gaps in your cover letter. However, you should also make sure to include every relevant experience you had during those gap years. For example, if you are applying to a job in marketing and spent several years as a freelance marketing consultant while you raised a family, include that experience.
Applying to a new job after having significant work and life experience should never be a liability. By using dynamic language, emphasizing your impact, and presenting a clear, streamlined resume, you will demonstrate to potential employers that you are committed to your field. Let your experience work in your favor!