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

Posts this week will include some reprints of older posts that I still love. This post was originally published 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!

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    You also want to remember that when you ask for an advice on something people will opine about everything – even stuff that wouldn’t give a second thought to.

    For example – I hate times new roman. I think it’s ugly – I think it’s the font equivalent of a bad haircut. I don’t notice it when someone sends me something in that font.

    I won’t use it myself, if you shove your resume at me and ask if I like the font, and it’s not calibri or arial I’ll say that I prefer one of those…but I don’t really care.

    If asked and I advise you to stop stapling an 8X10 of you with your dog, or to remove the skills section where you claim to be an expert at giving hugs – that’s real advice.

    If I tell you I’d use a different font or to center your info instead of having it in the right hand corner I’m basically just suggesting that you do it like I would – although I wouldn’t care either way upon reading someone else’s resume.

    1. Bridgette*

      Glad someone else hates Times! I detest that font but told my friend to go ahead and use it (or similar serif font) for her all-business resume…it’s going out to some very conservative, corporate companies and is supposed to looked business-suit as possible. As a designer I abhor it but I can see it’s use in certain situations.

      I have several copies of my resume and a few different portfolio types for whatever kind of company I am applying to. Marketing and design firms…those get the creative, colorful resume and fun portfolio. Universities, law firms, hospitals…those get the straight-laced stuff that makes me yawn…but it’s what they want to see.

      1. Lanya*

        Yes – in the design and advertising world, you are not only judged on the content of your resume, but on its design as well – including font choices.

        1. Jamie*

          I love this – and totally get how your brains voice has a font.

          Mine is calibri – pink. My brain’s voice is not allowed any input into my resume design.

          1. Bridgette*

            Heh, my brain’s font changes weekly with whatever mood I’m in. But my brain voice never changes – always Anthony Hopkins.

      2. Ellie H.*

        I like Calibri best. Did Calibri always exist? I just found out about it when I started using Outlook for work last year (it’s the default Outlook font) and now I write everything in Calibri. Previously I liked Arial best. I totally hate Times New Roman now.

          1. Jamie*

            You beat me to, it! I was an arial girl until this version – now it’s all calibri all the time. It just looks so clean.

    2. KayDay*

      I hate Times New Roman too, but mainly because it reminds me of writing a school paper. Every time I see it used professionally, I think it was really written by a 10th grader.

      Adobe Caslon Pro is a good professional looking serif font. Garamond is really pretty (IMO), but it can be really tiring if you ever have to read 20 resumes in a row in 10pt Garamond.

      1. fposte*

        We do a lot of final version stuff in Garamond. My choice for single most beautiful character is the ampersand in Garamond Italic. I have it on a t-shirt.

        1. KayDay*

          “My choice for single most beautiful character is the ampersand in Garamond Italic. I have it on a t-shirt.”

          You are awesome.


  2. JT*

    Note also that not all advice is equal in quality or importance. For example, the typeface used is not very important unless it’s truly strange. But if someone is going to give advice on typefaces, some of us are more knowledgeable than others on how to make a document broadly appealing and readable. “I like X” (typeface or whatever) is not good advice. “X works best at communicating Y because Z” is better advice, especially if it comes from someone with expertise in the topic.

  3. Andy Lester*

    I tell people in my conference sessions “There is no one way that job hunting works, because if there was, there would already have been a single book written on it, and everyone would read it.”

    There are something like 6,000,000 businesses in the United States. Don’t expect that everyone does everything the same way.

    I’m also fond of saying “Don’t take anything that anyone tells you as gospel, including me. Take what you like and leave the rest. Use your own best judgement.”

    1. Bridgette*

      Amen to that. Do what makes sense to you. If nothing makes sense, take a walk, clear your head, then tackle one thing at a time.

  4. Elizabeth West*

    *clicked on the inappropriate sharing link*

    I use Times but I’m so used to it because either that or Courier are recommended for manuscripts that I just don’t notice it. Courier makes my head hurt. Other than that, I like Garamond, Verdana and Ariel. Calibri is okay.

    Following AAM’s advice, I did change my resume from a functional one to a chronological one, but it uses the language from the func one (I like the way I wrote some of the highlights). It DOES look much better. I made an online version too, with links and just my phone number and email.

  5. Mary*

    I’m wondering why you hate objectives? I use the objective to basically title my resume…i.e. “to become ‘blankity blank’ with ‘company.'” so that they know what I am doing there. Is there another way to “title yourself”?

    1. Andy Lester*

      If you’re applying for job X, then it’s obvious that your objective is to get job X. If there could be multiple jobs you’re applying for, then that information goes into the cover letter/email.

      Another reason to avoid objectives: They start out saying what you want to get from the company, rather than starting with what you have to offer to the company. Imagine if you met a hiring manager and shook his hand and said “Hi, I’m Mary Jones. Let me tell you what I want from you.” That’s what an objective does. The objective is all about what you want, not what the company wants.

      An objective is the worst way to start a resume. Instead, write a summary of the rest of the resume so that the reader knows that your resume is worth reading.

      1. Mary*

        I appreciate your quick response; it makes a lot of sense.
        I guess my thoughts on it were in consideration for the employer when posting multiple jobs and assisting the HR people organize the resumes.
        I don’t think I would ever apply for multiple positions at once with a company. Actually one recent application asked for 2 job choices, I was baffled and didn’t want to leave a blank…I may have screwed that one up. :)

      1. Mary*

        That was really helpful, thank you Allison. Even though the objective was only one line it opened the whole thing up so I could get it down to 1 page. The “7 things to leave off” was really eye opening too. Now off to work on my “subjective” skills…

  6. Rob*

    +1 to Alison’s point about asking 10 different people for their opinion on your resume, and you can expect 10 different opinions. (I use 1,000 people and 1,000 opinions personally, but the point is the same).

    That being said, just make sure you don’t screw any of the basics up. Make sure typos are non-existant. The things you put on there are factual. You give enough detail to describe what was going on, but not so much as to where you say when you take bathroom breaks.

    Once you get that stuff in your head, you don’t stress out so much and you can get back to being the kick-ass person you are.

  7. Amanda*

    How should you set up your resume to highlight your relevant work experience if the experience doesn’t follow chronologically?

    For example, I have an unpaid, part-time internship in between my two paid, full-time jobs and I don’t know if it’s better to go out of order and put my first paid job before the internship or go chronologically and risk having employers think that I’ve only had one real job since I graduated college (which was more than five years ago.)

    I also have applied for some museum positions and I have a summer internship that is way bottom of my resume if I go chronologically–how do I highlight it? Or should I even be concerned about highlighting it at this point since it was so long ago? I don’t have a ton of museum experience (although I currently volunteer) so I don’t want one of the few positions I’ve had to fall off my resume!

    I think this must be a fairly common concern since so many very experienced people are having to take stopgap jobs to pay the bills and I’m sure they don’t want Barista at Starbucks to appear between Executive Director at Well-Respected Nonprofit for example.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      One option is to start with a “Relevant Experience” section and then below that have an “Other Experience” section. Within each section, though, stuff should be listed reverse-chronologically (most recent to least recent).

  8. Natasha*

    I completely understand why hiring managers and recruiters are suspect of Functional Resumes. I had decided to create a Functional Resume until I read Ask a Manager. I purchased Alison Green’s e-book, How to Get a Job… which reinforces her position on the “functional”. My target job is one where I have minimal experience (about 1.5 to 2 years); and that experience occurred over 10 years ago. Job postings are asking for a minimum of 3-5 years. I have worked two part-time jobs for the past 10 years; neither supports a candidacy for the job I want. I literally have to skip over the past 10 years of “clerical” work and substitute teaching–in order to tie my skills to my desired job. The pluses: I earned my MBA (2008) specifically in my target job’s industry. And, I passed a certification exam (2012) also directly related to my target job. Using a Chronological Resume will certainly raise a red flag. I want my resume to be recruiter-friendly; I want it to get me interviews! What is the best way to position this over 10-year gap since my last professional and relevant experience? Functional vs Chronological is my dilemma. Is it a good idea to address the obvious head on in my Cover Letter? Sincerely, Natasha

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