12 Rules for Good Resume Writing

Good resume writing requires you to follow some very specific rules and conventions. Here are 12 rules you need to follow to create a winning resume.

Rule 1 - Never Lie

Ensure that everything on your resume is true. Present yourself in your best possible light, but do not lie or overstate accomplishments.

Be particularly careful if you hire a resume writer. When you receive the completed resume, read carefully through each point, and make sure you understand the point and could elaborate upon it and back it up in a job interview.

Unfortunately, some paid resume writers get "creative" with content, and you end up with a document that you don't understand or doesn't really reflect your true experience. I have worked with clients who had paid someone else to write a resume for them. When I asked those clients about specific items on their resume, sometimes they would say something like, "I don't know what that line means. The person I paid to write my resume wrote that."

If you find any points that don't make sense, ask the resume writer to clarify them for you. If, after the clarification, they still don't make sense, or you feel they aren't a true reflection of your experience, require the resume writer to make changes at no charge. It is his or her job to present you honestly, at your best, and in a way that you can back up in an interview.

Rule 2 - Avoid Personal Pronouns

Avoiding personal pronouns is a funny little quirk but, the words I, me and my do not belong on a resume.

The best explanation for this convention is that you are writing in point form, and you need to write as concisely as possible. The employer knows you are talking about yourself, so words like I, me and my end up being filler words that don't add any useful information.

Whatever the reason, avoid using these words because they look odd to anyone who reads a lot of resume.

Rule 3 - Target Your Resume

You must be absolutely certain that each resume you submit is targeted to the position you are seeking. There's no getting around it; if you are looking for more than one type of job, you will need more than one resume.

In fact, you should even fine-tune your resume when applying for the same job at different companies. The need to target your resume is even more important if your resume will be screened by an applicant tracking system. Although the job titles may be the same, different employers have different priorities. Do some good research before you start writing. Discover what a particular employer's priorities are, and address them in your resume.


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Rule 4 - Proofread

Proofread, proofread and then proofread some more!

No matter what type of work you are seeking, employers assume that your resume represents you at your very best. People may forgive the occasional typo in other documents that are not related to your job search, but your resume must be completely free of errors.

If your resume is a representation of you at your very best, and there are typos in your very best work, employers may then assume your regular, daily work will be low quality. One little typo can be enough for some employers to decide you are not right for the job.

Ideally, you should get someone else to proofread your resume for you as well, particularly if, like me, proofreading is not your greatest strength. Another person will see your errors more easily than you will.

Rule 5 - Don't Get Fancy

If you are submitting a paper copy of your resume, avoid fancy paper with designs or colors. Fancy paper might make your resume stand out but not in a good way. Flashy paper does not present a professional image. Black ink on good quality white or off white paper is ideal.

Most people print their resumes on standard printer paper. You would be surprised how well a good quality, heavier weight sheet of white paper stands out in a pile of standard printer paper.

On a similar note, avoid the extreme designed resumes you find around the internet. You know the ones I mean. They are covered with graphic images, cartoon people, multiple fancy fonts and plenty of color. Unless you are in a highly creative field, a resume like that is not going to make a positive impression with most employers.

In fact, many employers look at a resume like that and wonder why the applicant felt his or her skills and accomplishments weren't adequate to stand on their own without fancy tricks. Your resume should be pleasing to the human eye, but for the vast majority of job seekers, it should not be a piece of visual art.

Rule 6 - Do Not Specify Reasons for Leaving Jobs

Employers do not expect to see that information on a resume, and, depending on your reasons for leaving, that information may not show you in your best possible light.

If employers are interested in your reasons for leaving a job, they will ask you during the interview, and it is easier to explain your reasons for leaving your last job when you are in an interview.

Rule 7 - Write Words Out in Full (With One Exception)

For the most part, you should avoid abbreviations and contractions on your resume. A resume is a formal document, and abbreviations and contractions do not belong on formal documents.

The exception to this rule comes into play when you are submitting any type of digital copy which may be read by a computerized applicant tracking system that looks for keywords. In that case, if a word or phrase has both a full version and an abbreviation, and an employer is likely to use that term in a keyword search, you must include both the full version and the abbreviation somewhere on your resume.

For example, if you have a Master of Business Administration Degree, and you are submitting a resume to be screened by an applicant tracking system, you should include both Master of Business Administration Degree and MBA Degree on the document. That way, you won't be missed by employers who only search for one of the terms.

If you have not come across the term "applicant tracking system" (ATS for short) before, it simply refers to software that some employers use to screen resumes. Typically, resumes will be entered into an ATS, and the software will use keywords, education, employment history, and other information on the resumes to determine the top few candidates for the job. The employer will then view only the few resumes that scored best in the ATS screening process. Normally, resumes that do not score well in ATS screening are never seen by the employer.

Rule 8 - One Page or Two Pages - Either is Fine

You can always find some buzz around the idea that a resume should never be longer than one page. You can ignore that advice. It simply is not true.

Your resume must contain all of the information necessary to show employers you are a great fit for the job you are targeting - no more, and no less. And, your resume must be formatted in a way that is uncluttered and easy to read.

If you need two pages to accomplish both of those requirements, then use two pages. Do not omit relevant information or cram a lot of words onto a single page to try to avoid using two pages.

On the other side of the coin, if your resume is longer than two pages, you need to edit it. Most employers will not take the time to read through a three or four page resume.

One exception to the two page limit is when you are writing a resume that will be screened by an applicant tracking system. In that case, your descriptions of your skills and accomplishments must be thorough and keyword-rich. If your resume will be screened by an applicant tracking system, and you need more than two pages to accomplish that level of detail, go ahead and write a longer resume.

Rule 9 - Avoid Repetition

It can be tricky to avoid repetition if you've held the same job at different places. Also, you need to be on the lookout for repetition if you use a combination resume format because you need to ensure that your skills summary is not a simple repeat of your work history.

Once you're finished writing, review each point and ensure every one provides unique and compelling evidence that you are a great fit for the job you are targeting.

Here is another rule that does not hold true if your resume will be screened by an ATS. If you are writing a resume for a human to review, do avoid repetition. If you are writing a resume for an ATS to review, repetition is fine, and even desirable because it allows you to include more important keywords and show the full depth of your experience with certain tasks.

Rule 10 - Avoid the Distant Past

List your most recent and most relevant skills and experience. Avoid going back more than ten years in your work history unless you have a very good reason.

Employers are generally most interested in what you've done in the last ten years. Some may say that if you can't demonstrate that you've used a skill in the past ten years, you are probably no longer proficient with that skill. Also, if age discrimination is a concern for you, going back more than about ten years on your resume can age you.

Rule 11 - Everything Must be Relevant

Ensure that everything on your resume is relevant to the job you are seeking. Your profile will state the type of job you are targeting; everything else on your resume should prove that you would be great at whatever job you specified in your profile.

Here's a little trick I like to use: Write down the name of the job you are targeting on a sheet of scrap paper or a sticky note, and keep it by your side as you write. For each point that you add to your resume, refer back to the job title on that scrap of paper, and ask yourself whether that point helps to prove you would be great at that job. Then ask yourself whether you have written the point in a way that is compelling to an employer who is trying to fill that particular job.

If the point isn't relevant, then it probably doesn't belong on your resume. If the point is relevant but you haven't written it in a compelling way, then you need to fine-tune the point.

Rule 12 - Make it Easy to Read at a Glance

You probably already know that initially employers only take a few seconds to review a resume. They will only spend more time reviewing your document if you manage to quickly catch their eye with important and relevant information.

The best ways to make your resume readable at a glance include:

  • Use plenty of white space; avoid cramming too much information on a single page.
  • Use bulleted point form; avoid full sentences.
  • Use bolded text strategically to highlight what you want the employer to notice. Generally you want employers to notice your job titles and degrees or diplomas, not the companies where you worked and the school you attended. Therefore, bold your jobs and degrees / diplomas. Do not bold your former company names and schools.
  • Readers see what's on the left of a page first, so put the information you want employers to notice on the left of the page. That generally means job titles and degrees and diplomas go on the left, employment and graduation dates go on the right.

Get More Good Resume Writing Advice

My book, The Resume Writing Guide, shows you exactly how to create a resume one step at a time. I have worked with over 2000 clients and written over 1000 resumes, and I've pulled all of that experience together into this thorough workbook.

It is a comprehensive guide that takes you through the writing process and shows you how to highlight your strengths and minimize weaknesses to show yourself honestly, in your best possible light.


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