Looking for Work? Heed This Advice

You don't need to list everything; trim it down.

A guide to creating a winning resume

By Alison Rooney

Creating a resume isn’t what it used to be.

In a recent presentation at the Desmond-Fish Library in Garrison for job seekers, Ryan Biracree, its digital services coordinator, focused on crossing the digital divide to stand out from the crowd.

“You don’t get a chance to get across your real personality, to use your charm,” he said. On the other hand, “doing things digitally gives you the opportunity to get across what you need in a calculated way: you don’t have to worry about how you dress, you’re not hindered by prejudice against race and/or gender. You have control of the whole way you present yourself.”

A resume “should take inventory of what you have,” he said. “The information it contains will change with each job submission.”

To begin with, he said, applicants should “take stock of your skills, certifications, recommendations. Have a list of references ready, with every form of contact covered; both email and phone. Not everyone will ask for letters of reference, but be ready for them if they do.” And, though it may seem obvious, “make sure that they’re going to give you a good one. Some are surprisingly tepid.”

For the resume, “assemble a list of everything you’ve done, then pare it down. Don’t try to make it fit on one page right off the bat. If you had a project that turned out well, if you led a team, mention it. We may want to minimize something if we think the achievement wasn’t that noteworthy, but you never know what the value may be.”

You don’t need to list everything; trim it down.

Summary lines, working a bit like headlines, are popular, but tricky. “You need to use concrete language,” Biracree said. “ ‘Innovative achiever with bold ideas’ is nice but it doesn’t mean anything.”

Instead, fine-tune the language to the industry, and be specific. “Avoid things like ‘award-winning’ because there are plenty of awards you can buy, and employers know this,” he said. “Think of the qualities needed for specific jobs. There’s always a drive to energize and make things sound exciting, but that’s not necessarily appropriate to every field. Sometimes competence is exciting. Do I want to hire an exciting accountant? No, for accounting, competence is sexy.”

People are on both sides of the fence about narrative resume writing, according to Biracree. “It works for things like teaching, where you can spell out what and how you taught, rather than just listing jobs, but often bullet points are better,” he said. “To some extent it also depends on how long the resume is. If it entails lots of reading, some employers will throw it out because it makes them do too much work. Because the vast number of resumes are submitted electronically, it can be overwhelming to read all that text. Know your industry and adapt — have both, and choose between them on a case-by-case basis.”

Showing you can write a good cover letter is crucial, he said. “Every formatting error, even meaningless capitalizing of letters, can come across as careless. If you’re not a very good writer, ask for help. Being conscious that your skills are weaker in this area indicates that you’re not overly proud, which can be a positive.”

He acknowledged that cover letters can be challenging. “They will inevitably have parts which come across as artificial. They can feel smarmy, so avoid the peacocking and focus on what you’ve done, then support it with evidence.”

That will also serve to make your interview, should you get one, “a lot less awkward. Cover letters often serve as a road map for how applicants will approach the interview. The most important thing is to read the job listing carefully and to respond specifically to what they are looking for. Try to determine what’s most important about this job and stress that. You can leave things out. Have multiple versions of cover letters, too.”

“Avoid the peacocking and focus on what you’ve done; then support it with evidence.”

He also advised that if you’re a high school grad with little or no working experience, stress your dedication; at the other end of the spectrum, older people shouldn’t be overly concerned about trimming their resumes.

“The prevailing wisdom is a one-page resume,” Biracree observed. “With older people, employers know that trimming was done. They understand you’re not going to give them everything you’ve ever done. There’s no need to include all of your working history, but remember, people of older generations — if you get called in to an interview, they’ll see you!

“Many places are ageist, but, like other things, if you wind up getting hired, there is greater harm in hiding part of yourself than being upfront and honest. Lengthy experience in your field can be your ‘thing.’ Higher turnover means experience is valued. Just be sure to let it come across that having experience doesn’t make you immune to new things. Don’t say ‘I can’t,’ mention instead: ‘Are there professional opportunities to learn new skills?’ ”

For stay-at-home parents, it can be a real challenge, and “it’s a bigger challenge for women, who are all too often seen as prioritizing family over job,” Biracree said. “If you’re coming back after a long absence emphasize that the gap in your resume is not a gap in your knowledge. You’ve engaged with the industry, your faculties have not been compromised. If you have a big gap for other reasons, including illness or incarceration, don’t lie, don’t make up fake jobs. Show them you’re not coming back with a handicap; that time has made you more capable.”

Always remember, Biracree said, that a job search is a two-way street. “Being upfront about your needs is important, if you have the privilege to do that.”

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