Seven Ways to Ensure Your Resume Doesn't End Up in a Recruiter's Trash

Knowing when to summarize and when to be specific is the key to writing a resume that stays in a recruiter's keep pile.

Résumés are the stock and trade of the recruiting business. Thousands flood a typical executive search firm every month. With that kind of volume, no recruiter has time to read every single word of every résumé that passes in front of him. So how can a job-seeker ensure that his résumé captures the recruiter’s attention? By avoiding some all-too-common mistakes such as long-winded summaries and acronym alphabet soups, and by adhering to the following best practices.

#1 It’s a résumé, not your molecular structure. Forgo long prose in favor of uncluttered, bulleted lists that capture the essence of your work experiences. Candidates need to get to the point quickly so that recruiters—who are notorious for their short attention spans—will put your résumé in the keep pile. If you’re not qualified, your résumé won’t make it anyway, but if you are, you want to make sure it doesn’t get tossed because it was too dense to read. Don’t list every gold star you got in your career. Instead, highlight a few of the significant contributions you made in each of your jobs. Clearly state what the contribution was and why it mattered. If you get your point across succinctly, you’ll have much better luck getting in the door, which is the point of your résumé in the first place.

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If you’re making a transition from academia to industry, or if you are an accomplished executive who has authored articles, keep your publication list separate from your business résumé. You might wish to include a “Publications and Presentations” subhead on your résumé where you can write something like, “Published over 30 articles in leading peer-reviewed publications in the chemical engineering field. Complete bibliography available on request.”

#2 Focus on the business benefits your skills offer. Don’t confuse features and benefits. A car’s feature is its six-speed automatic, electronic transmission. The benefits of that feature are smoother shifts, improved performance and better fuel economy. A feature of your résumé might be “installed new Cisco network at five worldwide sites.” That doesn’t tell the recruiter that the benefit was a reduction in the company’s operating costs, or that it allowed global order entry, which helped increase sales by 12 percent. You may need to communicate some plain facts, such as the number of employees you supervised and the budget you were responsible for. Try to cast those facts in the context of the business objective they helped achieve or the opportunity they helped create. If you’re applying for a technical position, make sure you explain why your technical expertise matters to the business. If you have experience in particularly hot areas such as offshore outsourcing, Web 2.0 or software as a service, make sure those buzzwords are prominent on your résumé and state why they matter.

#3 Put names in context. Give a one- or two-sentence description of each employer listed on your résumé. Even the most experienced recruiter can’t claim to know every single company in a given industry, let alone those from outside his or her area of expertise. Give the name of the company, the location of its headquarters, and state its industry, size, and whether it’s public or private. For example, “xyloPhlegm Inc., Evansville, IN, is a public biotech company with $25M in annual revenues in 2006 and a market cap of $127M. Key products include xyLoxin for male pattern baldness and xyTox for sepsis.” You don’t need to copy the annual report, you just need to provide enough information to give your reader a general sense of the organization.

#4 Avoid acronyms. Some technology executives—both in IT and the life sciences industry—want to demonstrate just how techie they are by throwing around a lot of jargon. I often see the following terms in résumés that land on my desk: ERP, SAS, MEMS, HPLC, 510 (k) and MALDI/TOF. Not everyone knows what these acronyms stand for, so spell them out and put them in layman’s terms if necessary. If a recruiter or hiring manager can’t understand your résumé, it’ll get tossed.

#5 Keep the formatting simple. The vast majority of back-office work in recruiting is done electronically. Your résumé will be entered into some kind of database so avoid fancy formatting, which increases the likelihood that the text won’t import correctly. Tables are a disaster. Indents don’t usually work. Custom bullets are a nightmare. Headers and footers wreak havoc. And forget about photos. Those elements might look nice on paper (or in your software), but they don’t do so well when transmitted over the Internet. Tech-types sometimes try to show just how tech-savvy they are by creating highly designed résumés, but recruiters are generally unimpressed.

#6 Resist the urge to summarize. Many job-seekers include a summary at the beginning of their résumé stating their strengths and the type of position they’re seeking. The dark secret is that many recruiters don’t read them. When we get a résumé, we want to be able to quickly determine whether the candidate’s experiences and credentials match both the position we’ve been retained to fill, and the specific criteria provided by our clients. Summaries don’t provide the level of detail we’re looking for.

A summary may be appropriate for a general résumé that you share with colleagues, but if you are applying for a particular position, I’d delete it (or at the very least recast it to the position before submitting it). Another trend is to aggregate all your “features” (Built an IT organization of 100 employees from the ground up; Led a transformation of the company’s core computing platform in 12 months; Developed a state of the art, service-oriented loan processing application in six months) at the beginning of your résumé. Many of my colleagues and I don’t like this format because it doesn’t indicate at which company these wonderful accomplishments occurred. We generally prefer a straightforward, reverse chronological format.

#7 Don’t tell tall tales or lie through omission. Fabricating or exaggerating facts on your résumé is the kiss of death. Just ask Marilee Jones, MIT’s dean of admissions who stepped down after nearly 30 years with the institution amidst a controversy over falsifying her academic credentials. While outright falsehoods are rare, glorifying positions or accomplishments is far more pervasive. A good recruiter will be able to detect hyperbole, and when they do, they’re more inclined to turn your résumé into a paper airplane. The temptation to exaggerate is just not worth the risk.

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Also avoid the temptation to downplay or downright avoid digressions in your career. Some professionals try to hide gaps in their work history by saying they “consulted” during those periods. If you have legitimately started a consulting practice based on your experience in the industry, fine. Put it on your résumé. Many times, though, I see résumés where every two- or three-month gap is represented as a consulting gig. I know that those “consulting gigs” are code for “looking for a job after being laid off.”

It’s okay to have spaces in your work history. Many workers make multiple career changes in a short period of time. They get laid off and spend four months or more looking for a new job. Sometimes a new position doesn’t work out and an employee leaves after six months with the company. Those scenarios are far more common than they used to be and no longer carry the same stigma they once did. You don’t need to highlight these left turns on your résumé, but don’t try to hide them either because they will come back to haunt you. One of the first things any recruiter will do is check that the dates on your CV add up.

Most job-seekers, especially those in IT, can benefit from revisiting their résumés. IT professionals are particularly susceptible to loading their CVs with alphabet soup and not articulating the business value of their work. The dos and don’ts listed in this story should help focus your résumé, whittle it down to the two or three pages that recruiters desire from experienced candidates, and ensure that it doesn’t end up in the recycle bin.

Christopher M. Palatucci, PhD, is the life sciences practice leader at Polachi, an executive search firm that serves clients in the technology, life sciences, venture capital and private equity industries. Palatucci has over 20 years’ experience in the life sciences industry, having spent more than 10 in operational roles at biotechnology companies.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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