Your resume only has a few seconds to grab the attention of recruiters. To give yourself a chance of getting an interview, your resume must stand out from the crowd. How do you write a resume that'll achieve just that?
The Truth About Recruiters
Recruiters are busy people. They've got to plow through hundreds or sometimes thousands of resumes looking for the perfect candidate.
When you send in a job application, how long do you think the recruiter spends reviewing it? Most job seekers guess that it's around four to five minutes.
Yet it's common lore in the world of careers guidance that recruiters spend less than thirty seconds looking at each resume they receive. But is this really true? Surely, with all the time and effort you put into writing your resume, it deserves more than a 30-second glance?
Job matching service Ladders decided to put these assumptions to the test. They asked:
- Are the job seekers correct, and their resume gets a good five minutes consideration?
- Or, are the careers counselors correct, and it's more like 30 seconds?
Ladders decided to use the most objective way possible to find out. Rather than asking recruiters how long they spent studying each resume, they relied on eye tracking technology to discover the truth.
The research discovered both groups are wrong. Recruiters don't spend five minutes looking at each resume. Nor do they spend 30 seconds.
Recruiters actually spend just six seconds reviewing a resume. In other words, they're getting through 10 resumes every minute. You've got to be special to catch their attention.
Note: You can read the full study from Ladders. Because they used eye tracking technology, you can also see what parts of your resume recruiters will look at.
You might spend hours writing a resume, but unless you're doing it right, you won't get any opportunity to shine beyond those six seconds. What can you do to make those six seconds count in your favor?
The answer is to tell a great story with your resume.
Why Use Storytelling Techniques To Write Your Resume?
Stories are our natural way of communicating as human beings. Everyone loves a good story. Stories grab our attention and pull us in. According to Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business:
"When you tell a story, people slow down, and they listen."
Additionally, stories are the way we search for meaning. By consciously using your resume to tell a story, you're helping recruiters find the deeper meaning in your professional experience.
You're joining the dots between everything you've done. You're helping them discover a story about you that they can tell to themselves. Aaker again:
Research shows that the stories others tell about you shape how they see you... Stories persuade and they move people to action.
Finally, we remember stories much better than pure information. Aaker claims that stories are up to 22 times more memorable than raw data such as facts or statistics. She cites the example of the nonprofit Save the Children, who tested stories against statistics in their fundraising materials. The stories raised twice as much money.
All resumes tell a story of some kind about a person's career. The key is to consciously tell a joined-up story that makes you attractive to potential employers.
The Powerful Writing Ingredients of a Story-Based Resume
By telling a story with your resume I don't mean turning it into a novel. You should still keep it as short as possible—ideally on a single page, and two pages maximum. As Jennifer Aaker says, stories can be as short as a tweet or an SMS message.
You're not becoming a fiction writer. Rather, you're incorporate storytelling elements into your resume. What are the key ingredients of storytelling? To tell an effective story with your resume, you must:
- Be a Traditionalist. Write with an established structure and be creative within that structure.
- Show, Don't Tell. Stories are always more powerful when the listener or reader is allowed to draw their own conclusions, rather than being told what to think.
- Be the Hero. You're the main character in your story. Show how you've defeated villains or conquered challenges.
- Define Your Endings. Use the "consequences" story technique to showcase your results.
Whatever stage you're at in your career, you can incorporate these into your resume. You can use a resume to tell a story whether you're a 40-year veteran in your industry or you've just left high school.
Be a Traditionalist
When you're trying to stand out from the crowd, it's tempting to try off-the-wall ideas. You might think:
- "Why don't I print my resume on purple paper?"
- Or, "How about I get a graphic designer to make my resume look extra special?"
- Or, "No one uses Comic Sans for their resume, so why not me?"
Or maybe you'll put your dog as one of your references or write a poem instead of listing your key skills (both of these are unverified true stories I found online, and embarrassing as it is to admit, I once included a poem with an application. I wasn't successful).
Thinking out of the box can work, but it's a long shot. More often than not, your resume will go straight into the trash basket because you're trying to be too smart.
Why Be More Traditional With Your Resume?
Why is this? When you send in a resume, recruiters are looking for what careers coach Ramit Sethi calls competence triggers. They're looking for subtle signals to indicate your skills and mindset. For example, they want to know whether you can follow guidelines, and whether you can work well as part of a team.
In both cases, a resume printed on purple paper would act as an incompetence trigger. It would show that you think you're above the rules, and that potentially you'll be hard to work with.
When storytellers sit down to write, they start with an established structure. Typically, this is the standard three act structure. That's because writers know they should stick with what works. Having a structure gives them a starting point, and parameters for their creativity.
How to Use a Resume Writing Structure That Works in 2022
When you're writing a resume, stick with the established structure. You can be creative within that structure, but you shouldn't ignore it or subvert it.
The traditional structure includes:
- your name
- your contact details
- your mission statement or elevator pitch (optional) (This a mini-story about who you are, and what you'll bring to the role you're applying for.)
- your key skills and/or achievements
- your employment history (in reverse chronological order)
- your education history (in reverse chronological order)
- your references
Alternatively, you can list your key skills and achievements within your employment section under each role. However, to follow the guidelines in this tutorial, the above structure is the most effective.
Show, Don't Tell
If you ever take a creative writing class, one of the first rules you'll learn is "show, don't tell." What does this mean?
Let me give you an example. "The car was unfit to drive" is telling. You say straight up what you mean, rather than painting a word picture, and allowing your reader to draw their own conclusions.
Here's how a writer might show that the car was unfit to drive. "Brandon assessed the state of the car. Both headlamps smashed. Three flat tires. A web of cracks across the windshield. A trail of thick, black sludge leaking out from under the hood. A classic car it might be, but he wouldn't be taking it to town anytime soon."
When you show rather than tell, you create a vivid picture in the reader's mind. You pull them into the story.
Where to Use the 'Show' Technique When Writing Your Resume
The best place to use this technique on your resume is with your key skills. Instead of stating what your skills are (telling), give examples of when you've put those skills to good use (showing). This is a great way to be creative with the traditional resume structure. As Richard Maun writes in Job Hunting 3.0:
Giving people the opportunity to infer our key skills from our achievements is a stronger selling style than telling our key skills by listing them out. Once you've read 200 [resumes] that all talk about excellent communication skills, good time management, great problem solving skills and wonderful leadership, it's easy to see how quickly these statements lose their currency and soak up valuable space, without adding any value.
Let's take a look at how to turn your achievements into stories.
Resume Writing Tips to Show Your Achievements
Talking of stories makes it sound like you need a grand, sweeping narrative. The truth is, you don't have to be a Hollywood scriptwriter to tell a good story. Stories don't need to be long either. According to legend, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote a six-word story:
"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
What makes a story into a story, rather than a fact? The simple answer is consequences. In a story, one event happens, then something else happens because of that. To paraphrase E. M. Forster, "The king died and then the queen died" is a factual statement. It's raw data. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a story. The story shows the link with the new event.
When you're looking for stories to tell in your achievements section, look over your past professional experience and ask yourself: "What were the positive consequences of me being in that role? What did I do that made a difference?"
Write down everything you can think of, even if it seems small or insignificant. Your future employer isn't expecting you to have been a world leader, changing millions of people's lives. They only want to know that you had an impact in the workplace.
How to Write Achievements on Your Resume (Simple + Effective Techniques)
Let me show you how you can do this with what seems like simple or mundane work. One of my first jobs was working on the help-desk at a hardware store. My achievements here include:
- handling hundreds of customer enquiries every day in a polite and professional manner
- processing up to 100 refunds per day
- supervising 12 cash registers, each processing $10,000+ per day
As you can see, I'm showing that I had a moderate level of responsibility for a junior member of staff, and I'm doing so in a way that makes it simple for the recruiter to draw their own conclusions about my key skills. One of the ways I do this is through using numbers. Richard Maun explains:
Numbers are easy to remember and make your case for you. Saying that you 'improved the business' that you 'saved some money' that you 'have good experience' is bland and pointless. Saying that you 'increased sales by 20%' that you 'saved [$]10,000 a year' or that you 'have 15 years' experience' suddenly becomes more interesting and memorable and I would want to know the story behind how you saved that money.
Maun's other tips for writing your achievements effectively include:
- Stating How You Did Them. This includes sharing the "methods or tools used to get results." For example, I might explain that I helped a client set up a mailing list with 2,000 subscribers using MailChimp.
- Make Sure to Cover All Your Key Skills. This means listing a range of achievements. Maun recommends that in addition to listing technical achievements, you should focus on your achievements with people. List the times when you led a team, or how you helped an employee develop.
- Focus on Your Professional Achievements. That is, unless you're at an early stage of your career or you're returning to work after an extended break.
- Think About the Challenges You Faced at Work. If you're struggling to come up with achievements, think about the challenges you faced in your work environment. How did you tackle those challenges?
For examples of achievements you could adapt for your resume, check out our Storytelling Resume Cheat Sheet. It's free to download.
Learn more about including your achievements on your resume in this tutorial:
5 More: Simple (Helpful) Resume Writing Tips for 2022
Aside from using storytelling techniques to write your resume, you also need to make sure to include all the necessary information and format it correctly. Here are a few tips that'll help you write a good resume:
1. Tailor Your Resume to the Job Posting
While using a resume template can save you a great deal of time when it comes to writing a resume, you shouldn’t send the exact same copy to each posting you apply for. Instead, personalize the details to the job posting by including only the relevant skills and education.
2. Use References Only When Necessary
Back in the day, it was pretty common to include a list of references on your resume. A reference from an executive manager at a high-profile company certainly looks impressive and gets you noticed. However, nowadays, recruiting managers won’t even get to that section until they've selected a few final candidates. If the posting requires listing references on your resume do so, otherwise use that space to highlight your skills, achievements or other more relevant information.
3. Consider Using a Hybrid Resume
If you've got a lot of gaps in your employment or if you’re trying to break into a new field, using the traditional reverse-chronological layout and format isn't the best choice. Instead, consider using a hybrid resume that lists your skills and achievements.
4. Save Time With Templates
Consider using a resume template instead of writing a resume from scratch. There are plenty of professional resume templates on Envato Elements. Download an unlimited number of resume templates for a low monthly fee and use them in an unlimited number of projects. A bonus about signing up for Envato Elements is the fact that you'll also get access to other assets such as images, website templates, social media templates, fonts, and more.
If, on the other hand, you prefer to make a one-time purchase, check out our resume templates over on GraphicRiver.
5. Add Personality to Your Resume Template
Finally, don’t forget to customize your resume template with your personal brand colors and fonts. Doing so will add a touch of personality to the resume template and allow you to stand out from other candidates. However, be sure to use color sparingly and stick to legible, traditional fonts.
Put These Resume Writing Tips to Good Use
Now that you've learned some resume writing secrets, it's time to make use of these tips.
I recommend collecting a toolbox of useful stories, so you can submit a custom resume for each role you apply for. For each application, you submit, choose the stories that best match your job specifications.
You can write a good resume by applying simple story techniques. That way, you can land the job you aim for.
Editorial Note: The tutorial was originally published in January of 2014. It's been comprehensively revised to include new information—with special assistance from Brenda Barron.