should your resume be in narrative form?

A reader writes:

I am a job applicant and recent MBA grad. I have gotten a lot of resume feedback from various sources, one of whom advised me to make my resume a narrative. My contact is an angel investor for high-tech start-ups and would presumably know what he’s talking about. Basically his point was that that format would help convey passion and excitement between the lines — if not explicitly written out.

He suggested the narrative resume to tell my story in full sentences, including everything from the degrees I have to the experiences I have had. I wrote one on his suggestion, and here’s an excerpt:

“Parallel to the MBA program, I engaged with a number of exciting companies. As a start-up consultant analyst for Swift Expo (July 2012 – December 2012) I performed a market assessment through pricing analysis, conjoint hedonic analysis, and value-based pricing concepts such as lower-valued use of assets, marginal analysis, price ceilings, floors and controls.”

I am very hesitant to use this version in job applications since it feels like what I wrote was simply a very long cover letter (he suggests also sending a separate cover letter). I’d very much appreciate to know what your take is.

What?! No. That is not the way you should word things on a resume.

A resume needs to be able to be quickly scanned, and it needs the information most employers are looking for to be easily accessible in that quick scan — which is initially only about 20 seconds, if not less. It shouldn’t be in narrative, it shouldn’t be in the first person, and it shouldn’t be in full sentences. It should be bullet points.

Let me repeat that: Bullet points. I beg you. Otherwise, employers’ eyes are going to glaze over reading those blocks of text, and you are going to be overlooked in favor of candidates who wrote easier-to-skim, punchier resumes that provide information quickly and in the format most hiring managers want it in.

Your resume also shouldn’t characterize your employers as “exciting” or anything else subjective. Subjective stuff is for your cover letter. Your resume is for what you achieved, not how you felt about it.

The guy who gave you this advice might be a fantastic angel investor, but that doesn’t mean that he knows what most hiring managers are looking for on resumes. You can always find people with random/minority opinions about what makes a good resume — including people in positions of power and authority — but they don’t always speak for what’s effective with the majority.

He’s told you how to write an effective resume for a job with him, perhaps. But it’s not the most effective way to do it more broadly.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Sascha*

    I had a debate with a friend who does not include dates on his resume for the jobs he held – he just listed the jobs and achievements. He said he lists dates in his application and mentions years of experience at particular jobs in his cover letter, and that’s sufficient. What are everyone’s thoughts on this?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Bad. He should be including dates. Otherwise it looks like he has something to hide. Employers want to know how long you were at jobs, and how recent those accomplishments were. Saying “well, the info is on my application” isn’t sufficient; he can’t expect employers to do the work of cross-referencing the two documents.

      1. Seal*

        Just had a couple of resumes come through that listed degrees from multiple institutions, but no dates of graduation. Since their work history included dates, I don’t know what they think they were trying to hide. It’s pretty easy to figure out that if your first job in the late 80s/early 90s required a specific degree, you must have received said degree in the late 80s/early 90s or before. You’re not fooling anyone here, just annoying the search committee.

        1. Anonymous*

          That’s interesting. I remember reading on AAM not too long ago that it’s OK to leave the years off the degrees when they date you like that.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yeah, I think it’s fine and don’t know why an employer would be annoyed not to know your age, which they can’t legally consider anyway if you’re over 40.

    2. Paula*

      Please don’t do this. I’m not an HR person, but I do get to do all the hiring for my department, and in any given stack of resumes, there will be several who would be good hires. So don’t make it hard for me. I might have a huge stack of resumes and if one of them takes too much time to read, I will just move to the next one. This includes making me go back and forth from your cover letter to your resume to fill in holes. And if your resume is just huge blocks of text, it makes it hard for me to scan it to see if you have the experience I am looking for.

    3. fposte*

      That doesn’t even make sense–he’s willing to share the dates but not put them where hiring managers want to see them? What does he think he’s gaining there?

      Is he job-hunting now? If so, is he getting interviews at the rate he hopes to? If so, there’s not much point in telling him. If not, you could mention that it might be worth experimenting with a conventional resume format.

      1. Toni Stark ` Stark Enterprise*

        “What does he think he’s gaining there?”

        Either he is over thinking or not thinking enough.

      2. Sascha*

        He was told (by a well-meaning family member) a functional resume is what hiring managers are looking for now. Yes, he’s hunting, and I don’t know if he is getting interviews, but I don’t think he is getting as many as he could. I think his materials could be a lot stronger (that’s true for most of us though, me included).

        1. fposte*

          1) I hate functional resumes and 2) even the functional resumes I’ve seen have dates on them, for heaven’s sake.

  2. mahmadiqbal*

    I have another query. I have heard, a single page to two page resume is good enough. However, I have recently started applying for new jobs after a 4 years gap and now the recommendations from everyone is to cram as much detail as possible in the resume, especially the keywords of the jobs, so it can pass through the resume selection software. This will result in my resume becoming 6-8 pages long. Is this really the new way of resume in the market?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      What?! No. Two pages are fine if you’re more than a few years out of school, but 6-8 pages never are (except in academia, apparently). Don’t cram things in; focus on the highlights that you want employers to see.

      1. mahmadiqbal*

        Thank you. Common sense dictates the same. However, I have 14+ years of experience, and the last two recruiters refused to submit my resume to the jobs which I was applying for without the changes. Their reason is its a waste of time as no matter how competent I am, but if the resume is not short listed through the resume selection software, its pointless for it to be submitted. The only reason, I listened to their recommendation, is because its coming from 2 of the biggest recruitment companies in the west coast. After talking about it with some of my old colleagues in the east coast, I received the same answer. Basically, each job receives so many resumes nowadays, that it is humanly impossible for them to review them individually, and hence comes the resume selection softwares. Basically all top fortune 500 companies uses them to sort them out. I have a 2 page resume, covering 6 jobs in 4 continents. I am now confused what exactly to do?

      2. LouG*

        I’d add that government may also be an exception. I just applied to a job with the federal government and they want so much detail for every job (salary, hours, full contact info and address for supervisors, etc.) that my resume was much longer than normal. I read that the average resume on USAJOBS is 4-5 pages.

        1. Jessa*

          This, if a government job says for instance “facility with MS Word.” you better have “x years with MS Word in the resume or cover letter. Or you can forget it.

          1. CW*

            Surely anyone who doesn’t have the intelligence of a stunned haddock has at least 10 years ‘experience’ of using this hugely intricate and specialised piece of software.

            1. Anonymous*

              Well, part of it is also what you do with Word, and for that matter, the last version you used. Ability to use Google helps.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      Know your industry!

      I have 3 versions of my resume:
      2 page for private, nonprofit jobs (my go-to resume)
      4 pages for federal government
      and a whopping 16 pages for my academic CV

      1. Rana*

        Yup. Academic CVs are as long as they need to be, period. For more senior folks, they can cover a lot of ground, and even new candidates generally can list a fair number of papers, presentations, publications, classes taught (sometimes with descriptions!), degrees, committee work and other service activities…

        (And that’s not even talking the instances where your application packet must also include sample syllabi and assignments, evaluations, transcripts, statements of teaching philosophy and research plans…)

  3. Confused*

    Does fighting crime go into the work experience, professional hobbies/interests, or volunteer section? Also, may I include a picture of myself if I’m wearing a mask/cape ensemble that covers my face?

    1. ThatGirl*

      Also, may I include a picture of myself if I’m wearing a mask/cape ensemble that covers my face?

      Um, no. Don’t you know that your evil arch nemesis has hi-tech, government/CIA/FBI grade software that can scrub your mask off and leave your face revealed?

      Then he will tweet it to his legion of followers who will stop at nothing to take you down.

      Silly rabbit. ;-)

      1. Snidely W.*

        You should also be sure to include a list of all the substances which weaken your powers. For EEOC reporting. Or something. Yeah.

    2. Bess*

      Definitely “volunteer”. After all, you’re not getting paid, are you? That’s what the billions of dollars left to you by your parents/generated by your genius inventing are for.

      And I agree about the picture being a bad idea. Software can do anything these days. Haven’t you ever seen CSI?

      1. Confused*

        I love this blog and all of you wonderful people who comment. All of that made my day lol.

  4. AnonMouse*

    I realized I was committing this faux pas on my USAjobs (government) resume. Bad me. -_- When I first created it a few years ago, I thought narratives were what they wanted, based on how I was reading the instructions (since you also had to write ESSAYS at the time for a lot of jobs)… of course, nobody would specifically tell you whether your resume was good or bad, since it was just a big computer system…I knew it was possibly a bad thing when I finally got an interview, and happened to ask about resume format, and the lady didn’t respond. Hahah. Whoops.

    After not searching for almost two years, I finally updated my resume last night and it was embarrassing how much junk I cut out by changing to bullet points, and removing the irrelevant experiences. It used to say “list every job” but now it says only mention relevant experience. I wish I could bonk my previous self on the head!

    1. College Career Counselor*

      That’s KSAs for the government jobs, with the essays. Major PITA for gov’t jobs, which are their own special brand of application bureaucracy. Like Alison, I can’t believe the OP was advised to do a narrative resume–makes me wonder if the person who gave that info was either

      a) raised in a different era/country where narrative resumes were more common (although I’m hard-pressed to figure out when/were that was)

      b) giving the advice so that the OP would stand out. In which caes, yeah, the OP’s application will stand out immediately and go into the circular file.

      Re: including dates. Yes, include the dates, with the possible exception of the date you graduated high school/college (although employers will still wonder), if you’re concerned about age discrimination. Not putting the dates looks like something to hide or you have some kind of resume by function rather than chronology. Every HR person I’ve ever talked to has said s/he prefers to know when/where you got the experience you say you did as easily as possible. If you make it hard for the screener (once you’re past the computer, that is) to figure out, you make it easy for that person to put you in the “reject” pile.

      1. De Minimis*

        It may depend on the agency, I’ve applied for several government jobs over the years and I don’t think any required the KSAs [including the one I ultimately got.]

  5. Toni Stark ` Stark Enterprise*

    Because that would sound like a glorified (long, depending on length of experience) cover letter to me.

    1. Rob Bird*

      Hey, not all of us get to wear our accomplishments like a suit of Armor, Mr. Stark! lol

      1. Toni Stark ` Stark Enterprise*

        That’s Mrs. Stark to you! I so wish I so wish that was my real name though! Sometimes I introduce myself as Toni Stark ` Stark Enterprise (I am on the IT side of the house), people get a real kick out of it lol.

  6. Rob Bird*

    I just got one today that started in 3rd person (Mr. Smith has a strong professional background…..) and was 7 pages long of nothing but projects he worked on. Here is what I couldn’t find on his resume:

    His contact info (just his name)
    Names or contact info of supervisors
    Any accomplishments
    Any real description of what he did (other then various other duties)

    If I had hair, I would have pulled it out. Instead, I *Facepalm*

    1. jubileejones*

      Wait…so it was 7 pages of project descriptions and not what he actually contributed to the projects??? What the…

      Rejection letter:
      Mr. Smith is not getting this job.

      1. Rob Bird*

        He has had good luck in his field (it’s a very specific field for a very specific type of employer), so it has been working for him (picture me raising my eyebrow and doing my best “That’s not logical” Mr. Spock imitation…).

        However, the job market for that field is not what it used to be, so now he has to go outside of that to find work.

    2. Sascha*

      I got something similar the other day, this guy who started out his resume with an objective that stated how awesome he was (“a True Visionary” – not making that up), and then listed his experience as a professor – except it wasn’t his accomplishment or duties as a professor, it was a list of course descriptions of EVERY COURSE HE HAD EVER TAUGHT. Yes, a very long resume. You might think he was applying for a teaching position – nope. Entry-level tech support.

        1. fposte*

          That’s kind of how I felt about “conjoint hedonic analysis.” Is that when people ask each other “Was it good for you, too?”

  7. PEBCAK*

    Bullet points, and clean, simple formatting. If you bold random phrases, make sure they are important ones. Bolding “200K in savings” is good, bolding “team player” is not. Don’t make this difficult for me.

  8. AnotherAlison*

    Hmmm. I wish a narrative resume was a thing. (A thing that works, that is!)

    Imagine just being able to tell your story in all its gory details upfront, rather than doing the dance. . .Here’s my highly sanitized profile of myself, now you ask me a bunch of painful questions to figure out who I really am.

    1. Anonymous*

      They are common in Eastern Europe, though American style resumés are starting to catch on too. A proper narrative resumé starts “My name is Jane Doe and I was born in City in year. I attended ThisOrThat Primary School and SomeSortOf Gymnasium or High School.” It goes on to list your university experience, and your jobs you have had before. You should alsos ay something about your interests and hobbies.

      In communist times, for a while it was fashionable to confess something very mild, like having previously wanted to try Coca Cola or having read a western magazine once as a teenager. After this comes the all important “but then I realised the error of my ways and now I realise communism is great.” But this fell out of fashion in later years.

  9. Sara L*

    I have a related question: should the bullet points with your duties and accomplishments be in present or past tense? With my current job especially I feel weird because there are things I did before I switched departments and things I’m doing right now. Or better yet, a new store opening that I will be spearheading in a month.

    1. Rob Bird*

      I say use it where is it appropriate. If it is something you have done in the past (but not in your current position), use past tense, like “I slammed out some code that would keep my toater from becoming sentient”.

      If it is something you do in your current position, say that. Like, “I create macros to pull data from the LOLCats website, so all ur basses belong to us”

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Past tense for past jobs, present tense for present job (unless they’re things you only did in the past in your present job and will never do again — in that case, those should be past tense too).

  10. shellbell*

    I guess I’m lazy. When I’m reviewing resumes and I see one in narrative form, I just refuse to look at it. I generally have so many to review and I just don’t have time. I spend a very short amount of time reviewing for the first cut.

  11. Anonymous*

    I hate gimmicks, and I think the sample narrative included in the OP’s post is weak. But I have come across a resume that read almost like a poster. It included a few key short statements that highlighted the applicant’s areas of expertise and past projects, with the key points bolded/in a larger font. Surprisingly I thought that resume was effective – it was extremely easy to read and the person’s qualification/personality came through. So *maybe* if it is done really, really, really well, a unconventional resume can work.

    (However, the fact the applicant came from a strong reference and that he held senior, specialized positions with companies that are leaders in my industry might have added to the resume’s effectiveness. If it were written by someone with less stellar than qualifications, I’m not sure how I would’ve reacted to it.)

  12. OP*

    Thanks for all the comments and suggestions. And a big thanks to you Alison for your reply. It was a confirmation of what my gut was telling me. Since I have not sent the narrative version out for all these reasons I also didn’t spend much time on improving on it either. Basically, I needed to know whether to spend time on it or not. So thank you.

  13. W.W.A.*

    It drives me up the wall when people who claim to be “thought leaders” or “change agents” dispense their idiosyncratic advice about how to be successful, get a job, etc. It’s very difficult to ignore the advice of a successful or famous person, but sometimes they live in the most distinct bubbles.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Bad idea. You’ll always see articles like that because journalists look for “trends” to write about, but the vast majority of hiring managers hate them.

  14. Tracy*

    Just for the record, as a hiring manager, when I hire a person for a position, I pay very little attention to how a resume is organized or whether it is written as a bullet list or in long paragraphs. If I have 100 resumes sitting on my desk, I do not flip through them expecting to spend 5 to 20 seconds on each one so everyone gets a short but fair shake. Hiring a new employee is a very important task, and anything that is this important deserves some time, thought, and effort. I read resumes—even if I have to stay at the office until 3:00 a.m. on my own dime to do it. I am interested in substance rather than brevity. You might also be interested to know that I do not believe in 5-word e-mail messages. If an employee wants to communicate something to me, I want the complete story—not a telegram. Enormous things go wrong in business when people fail to communicate the complete story about an issue. It must work because I have never hired a “dud” employee.

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