The Art of Writing Resumes: How Long Does It Take to Burn a Sheet of Paper?
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burning resumeIt’s 6:00PM, the end of a long day, and the weary manager is starting to feel hungry. She’s going to be late for dinner and already knows that her family – yet again – will complain about her lateness. This doesn’t help her mood. Her assistant brings in a stack of resumes from which she will pick five people to interview for the open job position. There might be 50 resumes there, but after reading about 10 of them she knows that the remaining 40 will feel like there might as well be 100 more to read. The assistant hands her one resume at a time. And each time, the manager holds the piece of paper with both hands– the air conditioner isn’t working, so she might have to fan herself with your resume at some point. The moment she starts reading your resume from the top down, her assistant will light the bottom of your resume on fire. The flames spread, climbing up the page as if fueled by the angst with which you are waiting to hear back about a possible interview. At some point, the manager will have to let go of the burning paper or skip her fingers up the sides to delay the sting of insensitive flames. Flames that care not for your future aspirations. The time it takes for the flames to win this game of chicken is how long your resume has to convince her to pick you.

The 30-Second Rule
Though the above scenario is fictional, the notion that your resume needs to convince the manager within 30 seconds that you are the right fit for the position is very relevant in real-world scenarios. As someone who has submitted many resumes, read many people’s resumes, and has made hiring decisions, the 30-second window is a good rule of thumb to live by. Reading resumes and picking who goes to the next round is not high on the list of priorities of things to be done. People often leave them to the end of the day or to the last minute; and you never know what the attention span of that person will be when they finally get to your resume. Thus, to err on the safe side is to make sure that your resume concisely presents your best qualities that best fit the requirements for the job. The reality is that the hiring person might actually spend five whole minutes on your resume, or place it into the “yes pile” for a closer read later on.

One Page Only
Resumes should only be one page long. They are short, concise representations of your finest qualities and experiences. Once the length of a resume surpasses one page, then the resume starts to become what is called curriculum vitae (CV). CVs are similar to resumes, except that they have no page limit, so your description of each job, award, or publication can be long and detailed. There have been times when I have received resumes that were three pages long – but at least the pages were stapled together – and that made me want to scream, in dramatic fashion, “Why?! WHYYYYYY?!”

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The Order of the Sections
There is no rule that says that your academic information (schools attended, degrees, GPA, etc.) must be the first or second section of the resume. A rule of thumb is to consider which section of your resume would best suggest that you are a good fit for the job, based on the job description. If your previous work experience makes you well-prepared or a good fit for the job, then put that section at or near the top. If your previous awards or competitions make you a good candidate for the job, then put that section at or near the top. Your academic information should always be on the resume, but can be at the bottom. After reading the the top sections, if the hiring person wants to know your academic information, they will look for it since they know that it has to be somewhere on the page. Some resumes have a short paragraph as the first section, which is called “Objective” or “Goal.” This is the place to describe any unique situations about yourself, what your background is, and what your future goals are. However, be concise and use some resume lingo that is described in the next section of this article.

Use Resume Lingo Suited to That Industry
Each industry has certain buzz words that they like to hear or that convey specific meanings, which informs the hiring manager that you have relevant experience. The style of writing for anything on your resume should be concise, using as few words as possible and as many key words as necessary. Also, avoid long, run-on sentences; use short ones. Make an effort to use some resume “lingo.” Lingo means “technical terms specific to a group or profession.” Instead of writing, “I did a great job every time, even though there was a lot of pressure,” write, “Results-oriented and comfortable in a fast-paced, deadline-driven environment.” Some key words carry lots of meaning, such as “independent.” This word can mean that you have reliable transportation to get to work every time, it can mean that you are a quick learner and don’t need much supervision, or it can also mean that you can think critically and solve problems.

Be careful not to overdo the lingo, which can make you sound too detached or robotic. The key is to balance a smooth flow, being concise, and being clear.

The following are examples of generic resume lingo that is useful for describing things that you did or what you are. The absence of these terms won’t necessarily hurt, but their presence suggests a certain degree of resume competency. Feel free to mix and match them.

  • Results-oriented
  • Accustomed to frequent deadlines
  • Independent
  • Accustomed to accountability structure
  • Client-facing
  • Responsible for quality assurance
  • Product management
  • Familiar with both back-end and front-end protocols
  • Streamlined protocols
  • Maintained client relations
  • Self-starter
  • Spearheaded efforts
  • Assisted manager in marketing assignments
  • Exceeded target goals
  • Developed the product or service pipeline
  • Exceeded monthly quota
  • Ensured prompt turnaround times
  • Comfortable in fast-paced, deadline-driven work environments
  • Seasoned troubleshooter; resolved glitches or conflicts
  • Resulted in tripled number of visits or sales
  • Well-versed in industry trends or insider knowledge
  • Participated from inception to final product delivery
  • Managed product release or launch
  • Provided valuable input that resulted in doubling of target
  • Advised on product strategy

Include or Not Include Your GPA
For high school, college students, or recent college students, your grade point average (GPA) is important. The rule of thumb is that the more jobs you’ve had, the less important your GPA becomes and the more important your work experience becomes. However, there is no rule that says you need to leave out your GPA after a certain time of working. On the other hand, some students don’t include their GPAs, especially if they don’t feel confident about it. In general, people do list their GPA, but it depends on what type of job or position you are applying for, how competitive you think the process is, and how much you think your other sections can make up for a GPA that is not listed. The more serious or competitive the application process, then the more reason there is to include your GPA.

Clear Formatting
Avoid fonts that having serifs (or tails). Use a clean font, such as Arial. This can dramatically add a spacious feel to the resume. The font size should not be too small, generally at least 10 point. However, if you are in need of more space, then make the font size of the spaces in between blocks of text smaller than 10. Maintain consistency in spacing size throughout the whole resume, meaning that the spacing between items can be smaller within a section than it is between sections.

Consistent Formatting
Consistent formatting allows the reader to know exactly where each section starts and ends. It also helps the reader know exactly where to find job titles, dates of employment, etc. Why? Because this information for each item on your resume is in the same side of the paper or is arranged in the same way in every section. Consistent formatting makes resumes so much easier to read. It will make the reader – who often has to read many resumes in one sitting – appreciate the effort that you put into your resume, which means they will appreciate you.

The joke is that a plumber is not just a plumber, but is a “sanitation engineer.” In reality, sanitation engineers are people who build and maintain municipal sewage treatment systems – not to belittle the difficult work of plumbing, though. In the context of resumes, embellishment means adding significance to something that seems insignificant – though sometimes people think that embellishment gives them the right to lie! For example, a job description of a waiter might start out as, “I carried dishes from the kitchen to the tables.” But after embellishment, it becomes so much more relevant regarding what skills were obtained from waiting on tables: “Transported multiple entrees at once from kitchen to dining area. Comfortable navigating fast-paced dining environment. Ensured customer satisfaction throughout dining experience, from food orders to checkout.

The Overall Visual Feel
Some people pack too much information into a resume such that just looking at it can make the reader feel claustrophobic. Over-crowded resumes suggest that you don’t know how to reduce descriptions down to essentials. It also takes away time from other items on your resume. Remember the 30-second rule!

The Ease of Pronouncing Your Name

This is a controversial topic, but native English speakers may have a hard time pronouncing or remembering foreign names. Unfortunately, this can hinder whether or not the reader gives your resume equal time compared to other ones. Thus, it may be helpful if you have an English name or nick name that can go along with your non-English name. For example, “David (Hiendat) Nguyen” or “Hiendat (David) Nguyen,” as opposed to “Hiendat Nguyen.” This makes it easier for the hiring manager to remember you and to discuss your application with her colleagues. I know people who purposely used their non-English names in law school so that the instructor would not call on them, based on names written on the seating chart, to answer questions during class. They said it worked for the most part! However, job applications are a case where you actually want to be called upon.

By David H. Nguyen, Ph.D.