Improve any résumé by asking these five questions

“Career stuff” (e.g., résumés, cover letters, interview skills for both sides of the table, etc.) is both a passion and a pet peeve of mine. I’m consistently appalled at how poorly prepared candidates are for interviews, at how generic most résumés look, and how bland most cover letters are (if they are even included in an application). I’m appalled because it’s not very hard to avoid these mistakes: it doesn’t take much time to write a cover letter that will grab the reviewer’s attention, it’s not hard to create a résumé that will stand out, and wowing the interviewer takes only a few hours of preparation.

Today, I’m going to focus a little bit on the most fundamental component of all job application packages: the résumé.

In terms of increasing your odds of getting an interview, a stellar résumé is probably second only to a powerful and trusted referral. If you’re serious about improving your résumé, then take a few minutes to examine it and in doing so ask yourself five questions¹:

  1. “Does it completely avoid Times New Roman font?
  2. “If 50 résumés were spread out on the floor, would it stand out visually?
  3. “Does it convey what makes me special, as a candidate?
  4. “Does it capture who I am, as a person?
  5. “Does it tell a story?

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, then get to work. If you replied “yes” to all of them, then great – you’re already ahead of all the folks who said “no”! But even if you did say “yes” to all five, there’s almost always room for continued improvement.

Times New Roman: the mortal enemy of the effective résumé

Using Times New Roman on a résumé says a number of things to an employer (e.g., “I’m lazy”, “I don’t have the word processor skills to change from the default font”, “I don’t care enough to try”), and none of them are good. Plus, it’s a thinner font and can be difficult to read. Being difficult to read is a sure-fire way of getting discarded. It’s not the employer’s job to struggle to read your résumé, it’s your job to make it easy to read (in fact, it’s your job to make it damn near impossible to ignore). You could do everything else right, but a Times New Roman résumé might just manage to undermine all that effort.

Visuals matter

A precursor to getting read is getting noticed: if your résumé stands out visually, then you’ve just tilted the odds in your favour. I remember (and I will never forget) one time receiving a résumé that was an infographic – that guy got an interview. And here’s a true story: when I was going through co-op at the University of Waterloo, one of the employers to which I’d applied showed all the other candidates my résumé as an example of the best-looking one they’d received – it’s important to note that they weren’t commenting on my qualifications, instead they were saying things like “this one was really easy to read”, and “the format really made sense”.

Stand out to be considered

Spoiler alert²: any decent posting will generate far more applicants than can be interviewed, and many of them will have the minimum skills required for the position. To be seriously considered, you have to separate yourself from the pack. Determine what makes you special as a candidate (e.g., an amazing achievement, an idea that was adopted company-wide, even experience outside of work so long as it’s relevant to the role), and make sure it pops out. If there’s nothing that makes you special, then get busy and do something that you can cite in the future.

Companies hire people, not paper

Although postings are for positions, companies actually hire people. Smart companies know that the right person with decent qualifications is a much better investment than the wrong person with stellar qualifications. You’d probably be surprised how many times the hiring decision comes down to “who” the person is, and this opinion starts to form even in the pre-conversation stage of the qualification process. Your résumé should reflect your personality to a fairly large extent: with style, with the layout you choose, with the words you use, with the tidbits you share.

What’s your story?

For thousands of years, knowledge was passed down through stories, so we humanfolk have a predisposition to remember a good story. You might feel a little bit restricted when writing your résumé, but you have more flexibility than you think. Forget what you’ve heard about a particular format (e.g., “headline, then objective, then education, them skills, then blah”) and present yourself and your qualifications in whatever order tells your story. Remember something that successful authors, screenwriters, and storytellers have always known: “Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.” (Lessons from the Top, p22)

With résumés, there are very few hard rights (it’s probably a good idea to include your name) and wrongs (ease up on the profanity?), so have some fun with it. The good employers will reward you.

¹What are my qualifications, you might be wondering? I suppose nothing, formally, but I’ve been reviewing résumés during the hiring process for 14 years and advising folks on the subject for almost as long. Plus, I’ve had some good results with my own.

²Dobby the elf dies in book seven


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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Posted in Careers, Everything
3 comments on “Improve any résumé by asking these five questions
  1. […] Setting aside content for a moment, the style of your résumé needs to be modern. Admittedly, this point is probably more applicable in some fields than others, but at the very least a slick, stylish résumé will help you to stand out from the crowd. I cringe when I see a staid, boring lay-out with a Times New Roman font. Cringe. […]

  2. Poor Dobby.

    Dobby died a free elf.

  3. […] Improve any résumé by asking these five questions […]

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