The Résumé Doctor Is In

Specialists can help you craft a document that gets results. Here's how to find the best help.

If you are one of the legions who've been axed, downsized, or dissolved, you may find yourself hovering over your PC, frantically updating your résumé. If it has been a decade or so since you've done this, you'd be wise to apprise yourself of some new trends swirling about in curriculum-vitae land. It can make the difference between cranking out a punchy masterpiece -- or a jargon-ridden loser certain to never see the dark side of an HR department scanner.

Take the summary section. Never heard of it? It's the practice of bulleting key achievements underneath your name. Some of these headliners blather on for nearly half a page before moving on to work experience. But anything longer than a few sentences is seen by some as a sneaky way to hide big gaps in employment or ultra-short stints. Moreover, long summaries can leave the reader with no idea as to when and where your achievements occurred.

Even if you knew that, consider this: Nearly all the top headhunters and outplacement specialists we consulted said 90% of the résumés they see are riddled with errors or misrepresentations, including "sales manger" for sales manager, "skilled in massaging" for messaging (this from a Wharton MBA), and "on contract with the state" (in jail).

That's why you might want to consider hiring a résumé doctor. Such a specialist can help you craft a document that teases employers with your juiciest career achievements without destroying your allure. Think of it as a movie trailer for your career. Its purpose is to get you in the door so you can answer questions face-to-face -- not on an overloaded sheet of paper.

There are legions of c.v. surgeons out there. You can find them on the Web, at outplacement and headhunting firms, or even on the bulletin board of your local coffee shop. They usually charge anywhere from $40 to $200 for a quick re-do to $5,000 for the five-star treatment, which includes cover letter assistance as well as hours of hand-holding.

But be careful. Résumé revamping is a largely unregulated field rife with sham grammarians, sloppy formatters, and pricey "career-repurposing" poseurs who promise access to "hidden job markets" that don't exist. One alleged expert -- recommended by a top-five executive headhunting firm -- sent us a prized makeover performed for a Wall Street information-technology executive. Underneath the candidate's name was a short summary that began: "Proven track of increasing operational efficiencies." When we pointed out that the word "record" was missing, the résumé doctor defended the sentence, only to eventually cave: "We don't write in perfect sentences," he explained.

That's not to say that all 21 of the résumé doctors we encountered were a disappointment. Among those we felt helped craft the clearest, most data-filled résumés: Mike Jeans of Boston outplacement firm New Directions; Jack Downing, managing partner at Cleveland-based executive headhunting firm WorldBridge Partners; John Lybarger of Career Architects, based in Denver; and Tamar Shay of Roslindale (Mass.)-based Shay & Tannas, which specializes in "inoculating résumés from environmentally or biologically induced ADD."

So how to go about screening for stellar assistance? First, ask for samples of previous work. The average manager will spend but a few seconds scanning a résumé. So start with the superficial. Have the margins been pushed to the outermost reaches of the page to accommodate muddled thinking? Exemplary résumés breathe with ample white space to make key information easy to absorb. Unless you're a senior executive, avoid the now rampant practice of extending it beyond a page.

Unfortunately, the less-is-more philosophy is the hardest thing to execute. An easy formula: bullets that billboard your accomplishments. A good résumé doctor will elicit your inner braggart by grilling you for context and quantification: How big was the division you were running and by what percentage and in what time frame did you increase profits? Was the economy mired in a recession at the time? "I had one guy who had added $3 million to the bottom line, and he didn't even have it on his résumé," says Downing.

Avoid meaningless phrases ("innovative problem solver with business acumen and emotional intelligence required for achieving 21st century business imperatives") and schlocky testimonials ("project viewed by some as virtually impossible!"). Focus on the past 10 years of your employment history. Jobs held prior to that can be summarized at the end.

Another trend: the inclusion of personal information. The only such details that belong on your résumé are those that buttress your case. Saying you jog is irrelevant. But including that you ran the Boston Marathon might show your perseverance and an ability to operate under pressure. So might clocking 1,300 hours in a Phantom F-4 during the Gulf War. Does your job require heavy networking? If so, a low golf handicap is a major plus.

Once your résumé doctor hands the polished makeover back to you, give it to three of the most anal-retentive people you know. Challenge them to find a single mistake.

In the end, it's likely that no one -- not even the boss who hires you -- will read your résumé word for word. But it must be flawless nonetheless. Especially in a job market like this.

By Michelle Conlin

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