The Way to a Winning Résumé

Follow these easy tips, and your CV is sure to impress even the most jaded HR executive

Your ideal position just opened up in another company, and you feel well-qualified for the job. If you can just get a sit-down with the employer, you know he will be blown away by your knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm. But to get that chance, you will need to make your résumé stand out from the hundreds human resources has been deluged with, by both snail mail and e-mail.

Résumé isn't a science, and a tip-top one will never guarantee you an interview—let alone a job. But knowing the pitfalls that HR professionals see coming a mile away can mean the difference between getting a call and getting the cold shoulder. As you proceed up the corporate ladder, it's wise to rethink various aspects of your résumé, because different strategies are particularly effective at various stages of your career. Also, there are different pitfalls that await people of different ages. But regardless of your age or stage of career, a smart résumé is essential.

Bear in mind that a résumé isn't merely a summary of what you've done, it's also "an invitation to a discussion," advises Susan Gottlieb, who fills middle-management positions for blue-chip companies with Korn/Ferry subsidiary Futurestep. Just as in a wedding invitation, you want to follow a protocol that meets your invitee's expectations, but in this case, you also need to give a teaser about who you are and why an interview with you is an appealing proposition.

Focus on Specifics Before even sitting down at the computer, it's wise to invest some time researching the type or types of job you are applying for and deciding how to aim your résumé at that target. If you think you can just polish up the résumé you've held onto for a year or more, think again. "Using a generic résumé instead of a targeted résumé is the biggest mistake [job seekers] at all levels make," says Pat Kendall, a nationally certified résumé writer and author of two books on the subject. "When you send a résumé in, show that you know where you would fit into the business. Employers aren't career counselors."

To this end, avoid spilling your entire life story onto the page and focus on the experiences and abilities that would translate to success in the new job. You may think your yearlong ice-fishing expedition in Alaska is really indicative of your ability to micromanage, but a prospective employer will have a tough time making the connection.

On the other hand, if you're fresh out of college and looking for your first real job, personal experiences ought to be fleshed out a little more. Semesters studying abroad, Eagle Scout honors, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity—this is the kind of personal information you should be offering. These experiences will help set you apart from other novices.

Stick to One Page All résumé writers should leave out personal qualifiers like age, race, religion, and marital status. They have nothing to do with your ability to perform the job as well as anyone else, so don't risk the very real possibility of becoming a victim of prejudice.

Since you have such a limited opportunity to make yourself look good, keep your résumé short—in proportion to your experience. If you've been in the industry for five years or less, keep it down to one page, according to Karlene Comiskey, president of Washington executive search firm KDSearch. Should C-level executives be tempted to break the two-page standard? "Unless you're Bill Gates, there's no reason to go over two pages," Comiskey advises "After that, people just stop reading."

Your chronological work experience is what will garner the most eyeball time, so cut out anything that's vague or, in HR-speak, fluff. "Fluff is when you're not talking about specific accomplishments," says Futurestep's Gottlieb. Where possible, be detailed and quantifiable, and present your points with action verbs instead of passive language. "Leveraged employee referral program to reduce third-party vendors by 35%," for example, is much more effective than "Was the supervisor of 10 people in a challenging environment."

Misspellings Are a No-No Avoiding the plague of vague also means that if any of the companies you worked for isn't immediately recognizable, include a one-line description. And if you occupied more than one position in the same company, making the responsibilities and duration of each position clear is a great way to sell your upside potential.

Your attention to these pitfalls, however, will be rendered meaningless if you make grammatical errors and misspellings. Whether you're just out of college or gunning for an executive desk, these little mistakes show that you don't pay enough attention to detail and don't put enough thought into how you present yourself. KDSearch's Comiskey says forgiving HR people might let you slide with one flaw, but two is an express route to the trash can. The best way to make sure you've covered all these grounds: Hand over your résumé to someone you trust and respect for a second opinion.

Click here to see a slide show of winning résumé strategies uniquely tailored to the different phases of job-seeking, whether you're just starting out, eager to switch careers, or looking to stay active at a time when other people are thinking about retirement.

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