help! I’m getting confusing and conflicting resume advice!

by Ask a Manager on September 30, 2009

A reader writes:

Last week, I did a complete overhaul of my resume, specifically to cut it down from 2 pages to 1, because I keep hearing (from friends who work in HR, as well as in articles on the subject) that now more than ever, employers want a really clear, concise snapshot of each candidate with as little “fluff” as possible.

I decided to use a functional/chronological combo in order to highlight very specific areas of expertise, but to still lend a sense of when and where these skills were obtained.

I sent it to my father in law who has worked in HR for nearly 40 years for some feedback, and he in turn sent it to nine of his friends and colleagues (also in HR). The feedback has started coming in and it’s SO MADDENING! Not because I don’t appreciate their constructive criticism, but because so much of it is conflicting.

One person will say “great idea to cut it down to one page” while another says “don’t be afraid to use two.”

One will say “I love that she started off with a clear, concise profile highlighting her experience,” while another says “skip it.”

One will say “I love functional resumes because they really give me a sense of what the candidate’s greatest strengths and best developed skills are” while another says “I hate functional resumes because I feel like the candidate is trying to camouflage gaps in their employment.” (Which, by the way, is not at all the case here, since my resume does include a chronological component outlining my employment history.)

One will say “use a sans serif font,” while another says “garamond is a great font choice.”

It’s been maddening to read this feedback, because it often feels very “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” and also highlights how much we as applicants are at the mercy of the readers’ whims. Clearly, much of writing a “great” resume – one that will capture the attention of the very first person looking at it and pique their interest in meeting with you – is subjective.

What advice do you have for navigating the various personal preferences and pet peeves of HR professionals and hiring managers? There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast “rules” when it comes writing a great resume that is going to get you a call back, but what – if anything – would you characterize as best practices or safest bets?

You are living out exactly what I tell friends about their resumes: You can give your resume to 10 different people who know what they’re doing, and you’ll get 10 different sets of advice.

There are no hard and fast universal rules aside from the obvious (no typos, no illegible fonts, no 10-page monstrosities, no inappropriate sharing).

What there are instead are preferences. Often deeply held preferences.

But the reality is that when it comes to actually reviewing a candidate’s resume, a reasonable hiring manager isn’t going to reject a candidate because she used a san serif font even though the manager personally thinks a serif font is the smarter bet and recommends serif fonts to her job-hunting friends. For instance, I hate resume objectives — hate them, preach against them, want to rid the world of them — but am I going to reject a candidate simply for having one? Of course not. Because everyone knows that there’s a huge variety of accepted practices in how you do your resume.

So what does this mean for you, as a candidate seeking advice on her resume? First, don’t take any of it as absolute dogma (unless there’s something that the 10 people are all in agreement on). Second, ask your resume reviewers why they’re giving a particular piece of advice. It’s much more helpful to hear their thought process than to just get random, conflicting rules thrown at you. From there, make your own decisions. None of it is gospel, and any hiring manager who rejects a resume for not conforming precisely to her preferences is someone you don’t want to work for anyway. (It’s also not a mindset you’re likely to see much, or no one would ever get hired.)

That said, there are trends, conventions that are starting to gain majority support (although fewer of them than you’d think). For instance, in my experience, more hiring managers than not do think functional resumes are frustrating and possibly hiding something. And two pages has grown a lot more acceptable than it used to be, to the point that it’s really not an issue unless you’re dealing with someone very old-school.

But again, even these trends aren’t hard and fast rules.

The best you can do is get a feel for the types of things people care about and why and make choices that feel reasonable to you. Good luck!

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{ 6 comments }

Anonymous September 30, 2009 at 12:53 pm

I'm relocating to SE Minnesota and have been looking for a job since mid-March. This post is one of the best I have read and embodies the frustrations that I have experienced. I agree with your advice to the author: there are no hard-and-fast rules, and if someone is going to be so finicky to dismiss your resume because of font or because it's two pages vs. one page, it wasn't meant to be. I've had professionals tell me everything from my resume being too text-heavy to being perfect. It's confusing and irritating to get so much contradictory advice from experts. I now believe that so long as you adhere to some kind of conventional format that is acceptable to your field, you'll do okay. What I have been doing lately is trying to set up a lot of informational interviews; emailing professionals at institutions where I work to see if they would be interested in talking with me about their experience, their institution, and the field in general. Once I get them on the phone (and more often than not they are happy to oblige) they get a better sense of who I am and are more willing to act as a resource for me in the future, whether they have a position available or not. In this economy you don't want to be pushy, but you need to do a lot to show initiative and make yourself stand out. Off my soapbox. :) Thank you again for this wonderful advice!

Cara Scharf September 30, 2009 at 3:04 pm

I agree that putting an objective on your resume is silly (can't tell you how many times I've seen "Gain employment at your company"… well… duh), but what do you think about professional statements?

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 12:52 am

My personal pet peeve is when there's "advice" that you have to take. I recently went back to school for a graduate certificate program, and while I'm glad my tuition also covered job placement assistance, I was less thrilled with being required to make changes to my resume that I disagreed with in order for the career office to accept it for distribution.

One of my peers was actually instructed to take a previous internship in a state senator's office off her resume because politics could offend potential employers. I was flabbergasted. Sure, it makes sense not to delve deeply into your personal beliefs on a resume, but entirely omitting an obviously prestigious position like that is ridiculous to me.

jessified October 2, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I continue to be confused about why functional resumes are discouraged. Speaking as someone who has never been on the hiring side of the desk, can you give me that perspective and tell me why a hiring manager wouldn't want to immediately see what a person does well? If the jobs are listed at least somewhere on the resume, why can't the job skills be broken out into their own section? Wouldn't that help managers scan resumes quicker?

Lewis, AKA Seattle Interview Coach October 4, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Jessified, the problem with functional resumes is that it's difficult for a hiring manager to understand career progression. Functional resumes can easily mask candidates with limited work exerience or significant work gaps.

Functional resumes are an immediate red flag for me; it tells me that I need work harder to understand the candidate.

jessified October 5, 2009 at 1:22 am

Lewis: What about when a career doesn't have titles that show progression? For example, I have worked as a copy editor for the past 10 years. My job titles have all been copy editor. In the copy editing world, designations such as "junior" and "senior" or "assistant" and "associate" aren't standard.

All you'd see on my resume is "Copy Editor," "Copy Editor," "Copy Editor," etc. So a functional format (with all jobs listed secondary to my skills) would allow you to see what skills I used and developed at my jobs.

My employers would still be on my resume, but my job titles do not tell you in and of themselves how I've grown. If I listed my job title, employer and accomplishments in the format of a standard chronological resume, I'd be afraid you'd never read to the end!

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