After 23 years of working on information technology for the forest-products giant Weyerhaeuser, Neil Mann lost his job when the company downsized. For Mann, polishing his résumé for the first time in two decades was almost as daunting as having to find a new position.
"My résumé was in terrible shape," says Mann, of Bellevue, Wash., who was laid off in 2009 and is now 65. "I really had no insights into how to update it and use it to find a new position." Along with being long-winded, jargon-riddled and poorly formatted, the record of his career was out of date. What's more, Mann says he had no idea how to prepare it for the online application process that the majority of employers use today.
With the help of a career coach, he gave his résumé a complete overhaul. Several months later, he landed an IT role in the health care sector, and, later, at the University of Washington in Seattle.
If, like Mann, you haven't updated your résumé in at least five years and aren't sure where to start, consider this your primer.
1. Include only recent, relevant work.
Just because you've been in the workforce three or more decades doesn't mean you should list every single job you've had. "Nobody needs to know that I was a high school teacher for three years," Mann says of a job he held in the late 1970s. Instead, his résumé focuses on the senior IT project management experience he's accumulated during the past two decades.
Drop all but the past 15 years of professional experience from your résumé, advises vocational psychologist and career coach Janet Scarborough Civitelli, who runs the Austin, Texas–based consultancy VocationVillage.com. (She makes an exception for folks who have a strategic reason to include earlier experience.) Unless you work in academia or the sciences, stick to two single-sided pages, she adds.
Another tip is to organize your résumé chronologically so it's easy to follow. If your most relevant accomplishments are not your most recent, start the document with a Career Highlights section and place your greatest hits there, Scarborough Civitelli suggests. Then corral your less relevant experiences from the past 15 years into a second section called Other Professional Experience.
2. Mind the employment gaps.
Suppose you took a five-year break from relevant work. You need to address this gap on your résumé, as employers will want to know how you spent the time. "Human resources professionals and recruiters are trained to look for gaps, and that's the first thing they're going to ask about," says career coach Sherri Edwards, owner and principal of the Seattle-based consultancy Resource Maximizer.
Fortunately, Edwards says, there are ways to present employment gaps in the best light without lying. They key is to decide on an explanation to frame your path, however winding, in a way that makes sense. Suppose you left the legal field to work in nonprofit arts administration but then decided to return after a few years. Edwards suggests condensing the arts-sector info on your résumé so it doesn't take up as much space as your legal background.
3. Use keywords, but do so sparingly.
Tailor your résumé to each job you pursue, using keywords and phrases that echo the experience the job listing requests. "Using the right keywords is essential," Scarborough Civitelli says, especially since some companies use electronic systems that scan for certain industry-specific terms. Online services like Jobscan can tell you how well your résumé aligns with a particular job description.
Scarborough Civitelli warns against gaming the system by stuffing your curriculum vitae with keywords or sneaking them in using white text. "The software will likely reject those tricks as fraud," she explains.
Of course, keywords and catchphrases alone won't land you the interview. You can make your résumé more impressive by adding specific metrics about new advertising revenue, sales numbers or budgets. Just be sure you don't give away any proprietary information or trade secrets of past employers.
4. Nix education dates.
Unless you recently returned to school or obtained a professional certification, it's usually best to omit education dates from your résumé, Scarborough Civitelli says. There are exceptions, however. In the academic and science fields, for example, hiring managers will expect to see graduation dates.
5. Keep formatting simple.
Crisp and clean is the name of the game. Choose a simple 10- or 12-point font such as Helvetica or Calibri, but when pasting a résumé into an online form, you may need to use plain text, to avoid formatting problems.
Resist the urge to highlight your CV with boldface, italics or underlining, Edwards says. Same goes for unusual formatting. Although standard bullets are acceptable, tables and charts may confuse electronic recruiting systems, Scarborough Civitelli warns. And forget about including a photo of yourself. HR professionals don't want to know what you look like (even though they can easily find you on LinkedIn), lest it open them up to discrimination claims if you don't make the cut, Edwards says.
Give your résumé a straightforward name, such as LastName.FirstNameResume.doc, Scarborough Civitelli says, and send it as an attachment only if requested. Avoid PDFs, as some electronic systems may not be able to read them.
6. Modernize your contact info.
In contrast to standard practice 10 or 20 years ago, avoid including your street address on your résumé. In this digital age, no one needs it. Instead, provide your email address, cellphone number and LinkedIn URL. If you want an employer to know you're located nearby, add the city and state, Scarborough Civitelli advises.
Your email address should be straightforward and professional. Firstname.Lastname@gmail.com is usually the safest bet. If you own your own domain, like Firstname@Lastname.com, that also works well. If you have a LinkedIn profile — and if you're in the job market, you should have one — make sure it doesn't contradict any details or dates mentioned in your résumé. "So many employers look at LinkedIn," Scarborough Civitelli says. The last thing you want to do is cast doubts on the validity of your CV.
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