Resumes are as important as ever if you’re on the job hunt. Hiring managers and recruiters are processing dozens or even hundreds of applications at a time. Resumes provide a snapshot of your experience and qualifications, and nowadays, they have to achieve that in just a few seconds.
That means the best practices for resume structure have changed. And with the rise of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) technology, your resume must be not only eye-catching but also robot-friendly.
Read on to learn how to structure a resume to meet both these needs while proving you’re the best candidate for the job!
Table of Contents
What should a resume include?
Too many candidates take the “kitchen-sink” approach to their resume structure — the more the better, right? Wrong.
Consider your resume a tool to get you in the door. You don’t need to include your entire life story, no matter how fascinating or relevant. So, what’s the best way to structure a resume?
Should your resume start with an “Objective,” “Professional Summary,” or something else? Answer: It totally depends on your industry and the type of role you’re seeking.
In any case, this is where you should highlight your core talents and qualifications. Hiring managers will read this if nothing else, so make it count! It’s the resume equivalent of your “elevator speech.”
Professional Summary: A bullet list highlighting your abilities and accomplishments. Use this if you’re switching industries and want to show cross-transferable skills.
Career Objective: A brief statement about your qualifications for a role and how they suit the company’s goals. Use this if you’re applying for a specific position within a company.
Professional Profile: A blend of the above two types that features both your skills and your overall career aspirations. Use this for your general resume (e.g. one that you post on LinkedIn or Indeed).
This replaces the “Work History” that used to be common when writing a resume. With the new title comes a new approach: Rather than simply listing your responsibilities in each role, focus on your achievements.
Bad: “Handled incoming customer calls and service requests, documented calls and updated CRM”
Good: “Improved customer retention and affirmed brand reputation by resolving customer complaints and maintaining accurate user records”
Note: It’s acceptable practice to exclude “I” from these statements, as shown above. This can help save precious space on your resume.
Tip: When writing a resume, use compelling metrics and measurable results whenever possible, e.g. “improved conversion rates by 120%.”
Unless you’re a recent graduate whose school projects make up most of your work experience, keep this section short. A simple bullet list of your degrees and diplomas will suffice.
Also, you don’t need to list your graduation year. And depending on your age, you may not want to do so.
Hiring managers can easily calculate your age based on this information. Unfortunately, both people over the age of 50 and under the age of 25 can experience age discrimination, so feel free to leave off your graduation year.
Depending on your desired role, you may require industry certifications or specialized expertise.
This is where you list those qualifications, training certificates, and so on.
For example, if you have an Agile project management certification, you should absolutely include that in a resume for a project management role. Think about any specialized training or continuing professional development courses that you completed with a reputable organization.
When writing a resume, you don’t need to include qualifications that are irrelevant to the role in question. If you have none that are relevant, either skip this section or go out and get some new certifications!
Skills and Interests
This part of the resume structure can be tricky. Avoid compiling a laundry list of skills, especially if they’re not relevant to the position.
Unless you’re applying to a role at HBO, no hiring manager cares if you can name every single character in Game of Thrones. (And even then, they probably will call BS on that as they can’t do it either.)
Only include skills that are relevant to your ideal role. Also, aim for a mix of hard and soft skills.
Hard skills can include:
- Popular software applicable to your role, e.g. Adobe Creative Cloud for a graphic design or photo/video position, or HubSpot CRM for a marketing role.
- Technical skills relevant to the position, e.g. front-end coding, programming, heavy equipment, etc. (Tip: Don’t waste space on common skills/software such as Word and Outlook, as those are assumed.)
Soft skills can include:
- Workplace competencies, e.g. time management, presentations, digital communication
- People skills, e.g. team-building, leadership, conflict resolution
- Personal attributes, e.g. patience, honesty, sense of humor — only include these if they are listed in the job posting and you believe they are crucial to your work style and achievements.
This should go without saying, but… never lie about your skills or experience. You will get caught, fired, and potentially blacklisted. Keep the focus on your unique talents — because you do have them!
Societies and Volunteering
If they are relevant to the position, you may also list your interests in the form of professional societies, volunteer work, and extracurriculars. Just be cautious here as you may accidentally disclose your membership in a protected class.
For example, your role as president of your local PFLAG or Catholic Relief Services chapter is impressive — but it also suggests your sexual orientation or religious affiliation. Getting your foot in the door is hard enough, so do what you can to ward off implicit bias.
While it is illegal to avoid hiring someone due to their race/ethnicity, disability status, age, religion, or sexual orientation, you’ll find it hard to prove discriminatory hiring based on a rejected resume.
Only include positions if they are especially relevant to the role you’re seeking. For example, include those volunteer roles if you’re applying to be a nonprofit coordinator (and you’re certain the company’s values align with yours).
Tips for writing a resume that sells
Now that we’ve reviewed all the key components required to effectively structure a resume, let’s dive into the actual content.
Writing a resume is tricky — so tricky that there are actually certified resume writers you can hire. If you’re DIY-ing it, though, here’s what to know:
We mentioned Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) which, for better or worse, is what most organizations use.
These systems scan resumes, cover letters, and other application materials for target keywords, then deliver the most relevant results to hiring managers.
Unfortunately, if ATS can’t find those keywords, even brilliant, qualified candidates may have their resumes tossed out before they ever land in front of human eyes.
Peruse the job listing and pull out keywords. Pay close attention to any competencies or skills they’re seeking. For example, a project manager role may require experience with the Agile methodology. Add the keyword “Agile” to your Summary, Experience, and/or Skills sections, or you could be auto-rejected.
If the listing specifically mentions any soft skills or personal attributes, e.g. “flexible” or “goal-driven,” it’s a good idea to include those keywords when writing a resume wherever possible.
Keep it brief
Once your resume makes it through the ATS, it will join dozens or possibly hundreds of others on a hiring manager’s/recruiter’s desk. Assume they will spend no more than 30 seconds (if that) looking at it. So, avoid lengthy paragraphs and use bullet points where possible. You want to make it as ‘skimmable’ as possible.
One tip when writing a resume: Imagine that every word costs $100. In each sentence, ask yourself which words are an unnecessary expense.
In short: it’s a resume, not a Jane Austen novel! Keep the resume structure short and sweet.
Use a readable font
There are thousands of fonts in the world, and 99% of them are ill-suited to resume design. Remember, your resume should be super easy to read.
With that in mind, choose a basic typeface in 12-point size. Good font choices for writing a resume include:
- Times New Roman
If you’re applying in a creative field, “fancy” typefaces are acceptable for headings, etc. But again, don’t get too wild. You can always show off your design skills in your portfolio. Resumes should be relatively plain.
And, for the love of whichever higher power you believe in, don’t use Comic Sans!
Get someone to look over it
It can be hard to objectively review your own work. Before you send it out, have a trusted friend or colleague review your resume. Look for typos, spelling/grammar mistakes, weird phrasing, and diction issues.
Fresh eyes will almost always find something that could be clarified, cut, or corrected!
Use action verbs
As we mentioned above, the “Experience” section of your resume structure should focus on achievements and outcomes.
That alone should help you avoid boring verbs such as “do/did” and “have/had.”
In general, your resume should use action verbs that describe your accomplishments. Plus, this diction style reduces wordiness.
Bad: “Did regular social media tasks”
Good: “Crafted social media content and responded to comments”
Think about the verbs a comic book writer would use. Did Superman “do some saving” or did he “save the day!”?
Here’s some professional writing advice for every situation: avoid adverbs. There is almost always an existing word that you can use instead. You wouldn’t say you “walked very fast,” you would say you “jogged,” “ran,” or even “hustled.”
To cut down your $100 words and make your resume easier to read, skip the adverbs and use those awesome action verbs.
In addition to that: show it, don’t say it. Let your metrics demonstrate your skills or efficiency rather than saying you did something “expertly” or “quickly.”
Instead of “closely examined,” say “perused” or “analyzed.”
Instead of “grew over time,” say “cultivated.”
Instead of “continually checked,” say “monitored.”
Get a proper email address
Make sure your resume lists a professional email address. If you have your own domain, use that. (e.g. John@JohnSmith.com). Never use emails with funny or creative usernames such as “DudeMeister2000@hotmail.com.”
Email is almost always free, so you should have no issue making a new address for your job search.
On that note, don’t include your social media unless your content is especially relevant to the role and you have a decent following. Trust us, directing recruiters to your margarita-filled Instagram feed will do you no favors!
The one exception to this is LinkedIn. If you’re unable to fit everything you want onto 1 or 2 pages, use your LinkedIn profile to add more detail or context.
If after reading this article, you’re looking at your current resume and panicking — don’t worry. Writing a resume is difficult!
To optimize your resume, remind yourself that it’s a tool for appeasing ATS robots and capturing recruiters’ attention. Nothing more, nothing less. It is essentially a technical document crossed with an elevator pitch. With that in mind, you can somewhat relieve the pressure of crafting a perfect resume.
Leave detailed explanations and anecdotes for the interview. Don’t be afraid to customize your resume for each position. (In fact, you should do this.) Put your best features forward and cut the fluff. With the right keywords and fonts in the mix, you’ll make your resume go farther — so you can focus on nailing the interview, avoiding common interview mistakes, and landing the job.