How to Write a Resume: 21 Critical Tips for Success

(Last Updated On: February 8, 2019)

Learning how to write a resume is often the most difficult part of finding a job. When my husband was medically discharged from the US Army, I took a professional resume writing class. Since then, I’ve had hundreds of people ask me to teach them how to write a resume.

In all reality, though, my process for writing a resume boils down to these simple steps.

You have six seconds to make an impression.

It’s bizarre but true: many employers require resumes but few actually read them. According to Glassdoor, “the average recruiter or hiring manager spends 6 seconds reading a resume.” Six seconds!

Obviously, it’s not going to be the details that keep your resume out of the rejection stack. The recruiter doesn’t have time to analyze your high school accolades, your perfect qualifications or even your job history in any detail. They are going to scan it and make a quick judgment call.

The fastest and most reliable way to get your resume into the “yes” pile is to have an organized, visually-appealing resume. It needs to be unique, well-formatted and easy to scan.

Need to know how to write a resume? Always follow these guidelines.

These are time-tested techniques that will help you write a powerful resume. I’ve used this exact strategy hundreds of times!

Find a visually appealing template.

When I was first learning how to write a resume, I worked exclusively in Microsoft Word. However, there are many easy and free online tools that can help you develop a visually appealing resume.

One of my favorite tools is Canva. This free online editor has many resume templates that you can use. They are organized into several different categories, including simple, modern, minimalist, corporate, professional, infographic, creative and more.

Not all of Canva’s templates are suitable for resumes, in my opinion. Hiring managers want a resume that is clean and easy to scan. Therefore, it’s important to make sure that whatever template you choose conforms to these best practices:

Be careful with color.

Color can be an appealing accent but you will need to be very conservative. A single accent color in a few places may be acceptable, especially when you are seeking creative jobs. In most cases, though, you’ll want to design a resume that looks good printed in grayscale.

Never use a colored background. Colored backgrounds are very distracting and can make it difficult to scan the resume.

Avoid excessive colored text. The bulk of the text should be black or dark navy blue. On a white background, this text has great contrast and is easy to read.

If you choose to add color, choose one color to use as an accent. Use it sparingly, to highlight certain elements of the resume. The example below is a Canva template that uses an accent color in a very professional way.

Be generous with white space.

Margins are a powerful visual aesthetic. Although it may seem like wasted space, the extra white space is actually very visually appealing. Although it may seem weird to talk about white space in an article about how to write a resume, white space is critically important.

Make sure that your template has at least one-inch margins on all sides and blanks pace between the various sections of the resume text. Resist the temptation to fill in every blank space. It’s easier to scan a document when it’s well-padded with white space.

Use bullet point lists for emphasis. 

Bullet point lists are easy to read and make great use of white space. They are attention-getting and easily digestible. Use a template that includes bullet point lists or you can add them to whatever template you choose.

Use an easy-to-read font.

We’ve established that hiring professionals want to be able to scan your resume quickly. It is critically important to use a font that can be scanned and read quickly.

Resist the temptation to use fun or unconventional fonts in the resume. The only acceptable place to use a fancier font is in your name. Even in this case, though, the font should be easy to read.

The bulk of the text should always be written in an easily digestible sans-serif font. San serif fonts do not have the little flourish lines on the ends of certain letters (such as t, d, and s) and are much easier to read quickly. Some of the best sans serif fonts include Arial, Helvetica, Open Sans, Quicksand, Veranda and Futura.

You should never use more than two fonts. You can use one font throughout. If you choose two, use one for the headings and one for the text.

Avoid using excessive formatting also. Bold and italics may be okay in certain areas. I always place headers and subheaders in bold. However, many studies have shown that underlined text is more difficult to read so avoid underlining anything!

Do not include a photo.

Avoid photos. Unless you are applying for an acting or modelling job, you should not include a photo on your resume.

Hiring managers must be careful to avoid allegations of discrimination based on race, age, weight, gender, attractiveness or personal style. Including a photo on your resume immediately puts the hiring professional in a compromising situation. In many fields, a photo on your resume can damage your chances at actually getting the job.

If you want to include a photo, consider setting up a LinkedIn profile and including a link in your resume. This is an indirect way to show your hiring professional what you look like.

woman gets job because she knows how to write a resume

Present the best version of yourself.

Writing about yourself is probably one of the most difficult aspects of learning how to write a resume. It’s not easy to strike that balance.

Polish your job history and experience.

This is one of the most difficult parts of learning how to write a resume. It can be difficult to make your job history and experience look compelling, especially if you’ve been working at entry-level jobs or ones that are irrelevant to the career you want to pursue.

Match your experience to their expectations.

If possible, read over the job description several times as you craft your resume. Try to find ways that your experience matches up with the expectations of the company. Use bullet points to highlight the experience you have that matches what they’re looking for. I often use their same wording, if possible.

For example, I’ve helped several people who wanted to shift from customer service to technical support. A recent job description listed “answer calls and works customer issues via a trouble ticketing system” as a required responsibility. Since the person I was helping had done that in their previous environment, I directly copied that into their resume under the relevant job heading. Of course, I adjusted it to be past tense (answered/worked).

Condense and limit your information.

Remember, most hiring managers only spend six seconds on your resume. The resume is an introduction, not a full explanation. You can always elaborate in the interview.

Keep things simple and straightforward by limiting the amount of information you present. In most cases, you should only showcase your last 3-5 jobs and you should only use 3-5 bullet points for each job. Look for the most relevant or impressive statements and remove the rest.

Use powerful language.

It doesn’t hurt to pull out a thesaurus! There are certain resume power words that are more effective than other words. For example, hiring managers love to see words like “organized,” “coordinated,” “executed,” “produced,” “established,” “launched,” “diagnosed,” “amplified,” etc.

Always look at what you’ve written and see if there’s a more powerful verb or adjective that you can use instead. Words like “experienced” and “detail-oriented” are too vague to be helpful.

Quantify everything you can.

Employers love to quantify, or measure, your success and experience. Add numbers wherever you can. Percentages and numbers make a big impact!

Format your resume to minimize the gaps.

Gaps in job history can be concerning to a hiring manager. If you have gaps of more than a few months, just list the year you started and ended at each company.

There is some information you should NOT include.

Just because your resume template calls for a physical address or resume objective doesn’t mean you should include it. When it comes to mastering how to write a resume, it’s important to eliminate information that could potentially damage your chances at getting the job.

Remove your physical address.

Since most employers will interact with you over email or telephone, your physical address has become irrelevant. Recruiters may not consider applicants that are not local and they may decide that your commute time would be too long. In telecommuting jobs, it’s simply irrelevant altogether. Just remove your address and replace it with something else, like a link to your LinkedIn profile.

Remove any information that may lead to discrimination.

Employers must be very careful to avoid the appearance of discrimination. By including certain information in your resume, you can place your prospective employer in a precarious situation.

You should never include any references to your birth date, marital status, religion, or other protected classification. It is illegal for employers to consider this information in their hiring decisions and they cannot request it. Providing it on your resume can only hurt your chances.

Be careful with what you place in your “education” section.

In most cases, you should remove your high school information. The only reason to keep it on your resume is if you’re a recent graduate or if you did something very impressive or relevant during your high school career.

If you’ve graduated college but it’s been at least three years, remove your graduation date from your resume also. This will prevent accidental age discrimination from taking place.

In almost all cases, your education should be placed under your job history.

Reconsider that career objective.

In most cases, you can also delete the resume objective. Unless you have something very compelling to say here, it simply takes up valuable resume space and restates the obvious. They know you want the job; otherwise, why would they be looking at your resume at all?

Never say “references available upon request.”

This is simply stating the obvious. If an employer wants references, they will request… and they will expect those references to be available when they ask.

Remove any acronyms.

Remove any acronyms and replace them with the full phrase, at least the first time. This helps recruiters understand what you’re talking about and it helps computers pick up the relevant data. If you’re uploading your resume to online job boards, this can make a huge difference in the matches you receive.

woman looking for work discovers best job search sites

Always double-check the details!

Ensure that your resume has the best chance of success by double-checking all of the details before you declare it finished. Although many recruiters just scan the resume for mere seconds at first, paying attention to detail can make a big difference if they scrutinize the resume later on.

Be consistent in your formatting.

When you’re learning how to write a resume, it’s important to always be consistent. Headers should all be the same font, color and size. If you use all caps for the title of one company, be sure to use that formatting for the title of every company. If you use bullet points for one job description, be sure to use it for all of them. That consistency creates a professional, polished look.

Always use a spell-checker!

Spelling mistakes are easy to catch. If you fail to run a spell-check on your resume, it immediately sends negative signals to your employer.

Save it correctly.

You should always save your resume as a PDF. This ensures that the formatting will not be messed up when it’s opened on a different computer.

The file name also matters. If you’re emailing the resume or uploading it, a simply titled “resume” will get mixed in with hundreds of others. Always title your file “[Last Name] Resume” or “[First Name] [Last Name] Resume” to ensure that it doesn’t get lost in the mix.

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