5 Steps to Writing a Well-Organized and Stylish Resume

Whether you’re just diving into the job pool or heading out to deeper water for a mid-career change, having a polished, professional-looking resume is important. While there are many books, software programs, and even people willing to help you out (for a price), there really isn’t any reason you can’t create one yourself. This article will take you step-by-step, from organizing information to submitting a finished copy.

Step 1: Gather
Before you start, it helps to have all the necessary information. Jot down the names and dates for all past educational and work experience. Brainstorm a list of skills (computer, linguistic, managerial, etc.), personal activities, and awards.

Step 2: Sift
The key to writing a good resume is specificity. Tailor your resume to the job you’re applying for. If you’re pursuing a position as a human resource manager, for instance, it’s probably a good idea to mention the fact that you took a conflict management course at the community center. Conversely, you might not mention your pizza delivery job from ten years ago. Remember that a resume should not exceed a page in length – you’ll have to be picky when it comes to what information to include.

Step 3: Organize
Not all resumes are organized similarly. The key here is to emphasize (by putting toward the top of the page) your strengths while downplaying any weaknesses. If you’ve just graduated college and have little applicable job experience, you will probably want to put the Education section at the top of your resume. If you’re applying for a technical job and know four computer programming languages, place your Skills section first.

Below are the six most commonly included sections in a resume. A few (Education and Work Experience) are staples, while others (Personal Activities, Honors/Awards) might only be applicable in certain circumstances.

Objective – This is a one- or two-sentence statement explaining your goal. Basically, it’s a chance to show the recruiter that you know what position you’re applying for, where it is, and have some idea what skills are required. You might write something like “Seeking to use my writing, editing, and organizational skills as a Project Editor at XYZ Publishers.” Avoid anything overly-sentimental like “Looking to achieve personal growth while contributing my skills and talent in a challenging and rewarding career.” If you include an Objective section, it should always go at the top.

Education – Mention the most important institutions you attended after high school. If you went to a junior college before transferring to a university, you probably won’t need to include your junior college information. Include the dates of attendance, degrees earned, and any honors conferred at graduation. If you’re a recent college grad with little work experience, it may be a good idea to note applicable coursework completed.

Work Experience – This includes paid and unpaid labor. Generally, you should include your position, the company’s name, and dates of involvement. Also include a brief (1-2 sentence) description of what you did there. Begin each sentence with an action verb such as “assisted,” “managed,” “wrote,” “planned,” “processed,” etc. If the value of a job isn’t obviously apparent, you may want to mention skills you picked up while there. For instance, “gained managerial skills” sounds much better than “acted as shift-leader in fast-food restaurant.” Unless the company you worked for is extremely well-known, you should also try to describe the company with something like “at an international nonprofit organization” or “in an up-and-coming law firm.”

Skills – What skills do you have that employers want? Don’t use vague buzzwords like “detail-oriented” or “team player” – give concrete information. What computer programs do you know? Can you speak any other languages? Do you have expert knowledge in a certain field? Again, remember to tailor these skills to the specific job you’re applying for. If nothing really seems to fit, skip this section and save space for something else.

Personal Activities – Do you do anything in your spare time that the employer would be happy to know about? If you’re applying for a nursing position, noting that you volunteer at a retirement home demonstrates your compassion and interest in helping people. But no one looking to hire a new accountant cares if he or she breeds show-quality golden retrievers. A vet, however, would.

Honors/Awards – Have you won or been given any honors or awards that demonstrate your skill or commitment? Make sure the awards are suitably impressive. This section should only be included if you have at least three things to highlight. Otherwise, it will seem as if you only had one brief moment in the sun that you now cling to obsessively.

In addition to these sections, the following line is usually included at the bottom of the page: “References available upon request.” You should have at least five personal and professional references who you can give to curious employers.

Of course, you will want to have your name and contact information at the top of the page. It’s best to include all possible means of communication: your street address, home phone, cell phone, and email address. Make sure you clearly designate which number is your home phone and which is your cell. Also make sure that your email address contains your name in some form. “johndoe@” or “jdoe@” or “johndoe55@.” Avoid overly-personal addresses like “wildgirl003@” or “cat_lover_jill@.”

There are generally two methods of organizing information within a section. You can arrange it chronologically (most recent first) or impressionistically (most important first). Chronological organization is usually the best bet – it’s straightforward and (hopefully) shows a progression of ability. Opt for impressionistic organization if there is something specific you wish to highlight or if there are chronological gaps that you do not want to call attention to.

Step 4: Format
Yes, there are many software programs that will do this for you. However, employers end up seeing the same types of resumes over and over again. With a little effort on your part, you can make a clean, stylish, and unique resume. Keep these principles in mind:

Continuity – Continuity among and between sections is essential. Use the same font type, size, and special attribution (bold, underline, italic) for similar items. This does not mean that everything has to be formatted exactly the same. Thus, you might use Times New Roman 14pt bold for the major headings (Education, Work Experience, etc.), Arial 12pt underline for the names of positions or awards, and Arial 12pt normal for general descriptions of these positions or awards. Similar things should be aligned together. Your major sections may be flush with the left margin, your position titles tabbed in a half inch, and your descriptions tabbed in a full inch.

Keep it simple – Don’t clutter the page with too many fonts, too many sizes, or too many font attributions. If you use different fonts, make sure they are very different (i.e. serif and a sans serif fonts). Fonts in different sizes should be at least four points apart (12pt and 16pt). Unless the font tends to be large, do not use less than 10pt. Do not use all three font attributions (bold, italic, underline) on the same resume – stick to one or two. Avoid using colors, as they will not show up when the resume is printed on a black and white printer.

Add a personal touch – Add something unique that will make your resume stand out. Spruce up your list of past employers with arrows instead of the standard round bullet. Add a border around your name and contact information. Use dotted lines to separate main sections. Just make sure your “unique touch” enhances, rather than upstages, the content of your resume.

Keep the reader in mind – Employers only spend an average of 15 seconds per resume. They won’t be happy if they have to wade through unreadable typefaces or jagged alignments to get at the meat of the resume. Make sure your font styles and sizes are easy on the eyes. Put the most important information toward the top of the page.

Step 5: Final touches
Always proofread! Give your resume to someone else to read, since you are less likely to catch your own mistakes. Save your resume file with your name (“John_Doe_Resume”) so that employers will easily be able to identify your file. If you have the means, you may want to save your resume as a PDF file. Not only does this ensure that your resume will look exactly the same to the employer as it looks to you, it also sends a message about your competency with computers. Finally, always print out a copy to make sure it looks the same on paper as it does on-screen.

If all of this seems like too much to handle, relax! You aren’t being hired on the basis of your resume. Remember that employers usually use resumes as tools to determine who moves on to the interview stage. A well-organized, well-written resume simply gives you a leg up on the competition by creating a memorable first impression.

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