How to write a resume

February 19, 1999

A good resume is about self-promotion, but unlike the traditional CV, it is about raising questions rather than trying to answer them


Occasionally you will see a job advertisement asking for a resume. Although these are more commonly requested in the US, it is useful to learn the techniques of resume writing - if only to pep-up tired, rambling CVs. In any case, outside academia, what most British organisations want more resembles a resume than the traditional CV.

A resume is short, snappy and to the point. It is a door opener, a piece of personal PR with all the same qualities as any good piece of advertising. Take a restaurant flyer, for example. A quick glance tells you what is on offer, what the specials are and how to get there. The first person sifting through job applications typically spends only a minute with each resume. Anything you can do to quickly identify yourself as a strong candidate is going to help.

"A good resume raises questions; a CV tries to answer them," says Ed Bock Jr, from Pfizer Human Resources. Bock told a careers workshop at last month's American Association for the Advancement of Science that there is "a fine balance between telling too much and too little".

He says that a resume is staccato and accomplishment-centred - showing not the milestones of your personal history but how you "added value" to each of the situations you were in. Instead of saying: "spent six months working as database research assistant", you might say, "researched and executed a data management project". Leaving out pronouns sounds punchier and saves space. And, do not forget, it is quite reasonable to brag about your work. Outside academia a resume is about one to two pages, though it can be longer if you have worked at PhD or postdoc level.

A resume will not include a list of your publications, though if you are determined to put some in you can have maybe three recent ones. There should be more space for what you did yesterday than what you did two years ago, and you may leave out altogether what you did ten years ago. The most recent events always come first on a resume.

Bock adds that a resume need not include a summary. It is the job of the employer's human resources department to summarise your experience in their mind and determine whether you are suitable. It typically should not include any personal information such as a picture, the age of your children, your marital status, race or national origin. In the US, federal mandate decrees that they cut out the pictures anyway. You do not include any of your interests unless they are directly related to the job: the time for this kind of detail is at an interview. As for your life objectives, this should be in a covering letter.

Bock insists you should not put references on your resume. If an organisation wants references they will ask, and this will be a good indication that they are interested in you. When this happens you will find it useful to tailor the referees you offer to the job you are applying for. Bock warns that some unethical companies use a list of referees to locate other candidates. It is not common, but you do not want to create your own competition. And do not bother putting: "References available on request." It is obvious and wastes space.

Having said all this, resumes and CVs vary from place to place. If you are not sure what is right in a specific sector, then the only thing to do is ask the human resources department. In any case, you will find that looking at the techniques employed on a US resume is a salutary lesson for the authors of dusty five-page CVs. At the end of the day, both CVs and resumes are about selling oneself - something that Americans tend to do very well.


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