a pain-free guide to writing a resume

No offense, but your resume is probably a mess. It’s not that you aren’t skilled or accomplished, but most people’s resumes are middling at best. That’s understandable – resumes aren’t something you write on a regular basis, and most of us feel weird about trying to sell ourselves.

Fortunately for you (although unfortunately for me), I’ve read thousands of resumes, and I can tell you what makes a small handful of them stand out so that you can use those same strategies yourself. At New York Magazine today, I’ve got a guide to make writing your resume as pain-free as possible.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. sam_i_am*

    I’ve come to the realization that I am awful at figuring out what my accomplishments are. I really need to work on that! I don’t have great actual metrics of anything I do, which has always made it tough for me. But “tough” doesn’t mean “not doable.” I want to revamp my resume, so this is good timing for this article. I guess maybe my yearly reviews would be a good place to look for resume fodder.

    1. No_woman_an_island*

      I think it’s doubly hard for people who show up to work and do their job well because it’s the right thing to do, and who expect others to do their jobs well. These days, it seems so many people can remain employed by doing subpar work. It’s hard to count something as an accomplishment, when it really just seems like it should be part of regular decent performance. I have always struggled with this.

      1. Angry socialist*

        I agree, especially when my job is “try to execute whatever harebrained idea my boss comes up with today”.

    2. A Manager for Now*

      A tip I got from my mom was to keep a file of accomplishments. I keep a personal file of all the nice things people have said about me, projects I’ve done, goals I’ve met, people I’ve trained or managed. It’s handy to look at when I’m trying to put together a resume or my end-of-year reviews!

      1. sam_i_am*

        That’s my last sentence! It’s something I somehow hadn’t thought of until reading this article.

    3. T.N.H.*

      This is an excellent time to ask a friend for help in exchange for coffee or wine. Not to actually write the resume, but to talk through your accomplishments and help draw them out of you, especially if you struggle to acknowledge the things you do well.

    4. I hate forced potlucks*

      Something that helped me was sitting down and telling my husband exactly what I did everyday or every week. He helped me write a list that seemed more like accomplishments, than daily tasks. So if you have a partner, parent, sibling or friend maybe they can help you with that.

    5. Sloanicota*

      I have read this advice hundreds of times over the years and I still can’t do it. If I mean “managed website” I just can’t say “increased page views by 20%” – first of all because I know that number would be BS (bots or whatever) and second because I know someone else’s content – blogs, SEO, whatever – impacted that number a lot more than my scheduled updates. I just … managed it. That’s all.

    6. Sled Dog Mama*

      I recently had to write a professional bio for the first time (12 years into my career). It was SO HARD! I finally gave up and told my husband that I needed a bio and gave him the facts it had to include. He wrote an excellent bio that was 100% true but a completely different view of me than I have ever had. I never would have thought to say I’m passionate about improving Rural Healthcare but yeah I totally am.
      Moral of the story, ask everyone’s perspective (ok maybe not your parent’s but everyone else)

  2. Firecat*

    I’ve actually found that in highly regulated industries, such as healthcare, it’s important to show job duties and a few accomplishments since the resume can act as a sort of “proof” that they are hiring competent people for the role (which is mandated by law in my industry).

    I was getting a lot less hits when I had purely accomplishment based resume. I started getting way more interviews and eventually landed a promotion when I switched to a hybrid accomplishment/task based resume.

    1. No_woman_an_island*

      Agree. In my field (not IT, which is the example she used in the article), we look at the skills section first to see if they’ve used various programs and software we’ll need them to use. Yes, you can absolutely train people on these programs, but it gives you a very good idea of who can hit the ground running, and who will need substantial training to start. It doesn’t necessary exclude someone — just gives us helpful information about what onboarding might look like.

      1. cabbagepants*

        This is interesting! I’ve come to ignore the “skills” section when screening resumes because too many people just write down anything they’re familiar with, even if it was a passing experience years ago.

        1. Lenora Rose*

          Someone commenting at NYMag noted the Skills section is there to get past the keyword algorithm; it’s much easier to wedge in the bits from the job description that are relevant there than in the workplace section. If that’s the case, then yes I can expect the human filters to start skipping out on that section unless there’s a really unusual skill set at the top.

          1. Cedrus Libani*

            The skill section filter is real. On my resume, I do my best to put the keywords with the jobs, to make it clearer what I’ve actually done and when; even so, there are generic ones that I’ve just stuck in a list at the bottom.

            Once upon a time, I didn’t think I needed a skills section. Then I was invited to apply for a very specialized job by the founder of that company, who had worked with me previously and knew I was a legit world expert on that micro-niche topic. Flew out for the interview, met with people, did some free consulting…and then met the actual hiring manager, who at first refused to believe that I knew how to use a computer at all, then wouldn’t let me drag the conversation back to a technical interview, telling me that stuff was above my pay grade.

            Turned out that my resume had been intercepted by someone in HR. “Windows” and “Office” were required skills for the position I had applied for, and since my resume listed neither, I did not meet the required qualifications. But when the founder insisted, HR approached the hiring manager for their other opening: an inventory tech, basically unpacking boxes and putting the stuff where it goes, computer skills merely recommended. “She’s the friend of a VIP but completely unqualified for the job she wants. Can you help me out?”

            If a keyword is in the job description, you want that keyword on your resume, no matter how strongly the rest of your resume implies it. Don’t trust AI and/or HR to make inferences. Use the keyword.

            1. KTurtle*

              Your interview story…I just…I can’t even…the only word that comes to mind is “absurd”. If the hiring manager thought “Windows” and “Office” were so important, why not ask directly? “You didn’t think to give basic skills precious real estate on your resume, so you must be better suited for unpacking boxes” is…absurd.

              1. Cedrus Libani*

                He did ask! The specialist group found out I was coming and put themselves on my schedule, so there I was, standing at the whiteboard with a marker in each hand as I explained exactly what was wrong with their setup and how to fix it. (I’d made the same mistake myself and recognized it immediately.) But their time was up, and the hiring manager came in, looking…displeased. We agreed that yes, I was there because I had friends in high places, and then he started in with his concerns. The position would require some work on the computer. You have no experience using Windows or Office, but it’s important to the role. If you were hired, would you be willing to learn?

                If there were a Nobel Prize in professionalism, I might have won it right on the spot. I kept my initial reaction between my ears: “LEARN Office?! Do you think I’m Amish or something? Of course I know Office. I’ve been using Windows since I was a toddler! Also, who the hell do you think I paid off to get through MIT without touching a computer?” Instead, I blinked for a moment, collected myself, and said out loud: “Actually, I’ve got quite a bit of experience with Office. Can you tell me more about what’s needed for the position?”

                We were both in full “politely humoring an idiot” mode, so this didn’t come out during the interview itself. As I recall, we talked about organizational skills, my tolerance for boring tasks, and why I thought it was OK to not disclose that I can’t drive. (Was outright angry about that last one, but kept it between my ears: “So, do you make all your engineers do random errands during the work day? Or would it just be ME, you vaguely sentient pile of -isms?”) But by the end of the day, we’d both worked out what had happened; the hiring manager apologized, having finally read my resume instead of taking HR’s word for it that I was some hapless nepo baby, but there was nothing to be done. I wasn’t the errand girl he was looking for, and I’d already met the guy who had been hired for the job I thought I was applying for, so I walked away with good karma from all that free consulting and a story to tell.

            2. Lenora Rose*

              Holy crow.

              presumably the someone in HR was a person? Could they not *read* the rest of your resume and realise you had high level computer skills listed, which renders Windows and Office obsolete? Or do they themselves literally not know a thing about computers beyond Windows and Office?

        2. Mockingjay*

          It’s industry dependent. I’m in federal/defense contracting, and my skills section lists software programs and databases, as well as the names of military systems and projects I have supported. Those are keywords in the contracts and gov’t provided labor categories, so you definitely want them listed. The skills section is literally a laundry list, but you can’t get past the ATS without it.

    2. ecnaseener*

      Yeah I also include my job duties – I think it’s useful whenever the job title isn’t self-explanatory. Like if you’re an accountant or a software engineer or whatever, everyone knows what that entails and you can probably just do accomplishments + skills. When it’s more nebulous or more variable, people might need to know which duties you have experience in.

      But in some cases you can combine a duty and an accomplishment into one bullet – eg you handle [duty] for [impressive number] cases, or maintain high quality level at [duty].

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        Even in accounting, there are so many things that you could specialize in that I feel like I have to go into it at least a bit. Like, if you’re a tax preparer: what kind of tax? What kind of entities — corporations, estates, nonprofits? Foreign tax reporting? (There are SO MANY foreign tax forms.) And so on.

        1. Lily Rowan*

          Of course — a person reading your resume has to know what your job was. But you have no idea how many people just put their job description, which is (a) too long and (b) doesn’t give you any sense of the person and what they think is important, never mind what they are actually good at.

    3. Frickityfrack*

      I work in government and it’s largely the same. We have to be able to justify why we hired one candidate over another if someone appeals, so it’s a lot more important that we be able to say, “we need this, this, and this, and this candidate checked all of those boxes.” A lot of postings won’t even take resumes anymore – the entire state Dept of Labor just changed their process so that they don’t accept attachments to applications, so no resumes, no cover letters, nothing.

      In my case, it’s borderline impossible to do an accomplishment-focused resume anyway. I get tons of positive verbal comments from customers, but there’s no way to be like, “basically everyone tells me how nice the experience was” in a measurable way, and the rest of my job doesn’t have quantifiable requirements. There are no awards, there’s no professional organization, nothing that would lend itself to that.

    4. NeedRain*

      Yeah, I think that advice is not great or just plain doesn’t work for many jobs. I’m a cataloging librarian. My job mostly consists of doing variations of the same thing every day forever and potential employers need to know that I have been successfully doing this for a long time and know all the associated tools and skills. Special projects where I “accomplish” something are one-offs, not my bread & butter.

      1. Seahorse*

        Another librarian here, and a hybrid model worked well for me. I got more responses when I added metrics to my standard duties.
        “Staffed reference desk” vs. “Provided reference assistance to ~500 patrons per month”

      2. Elizabeth*

        Agreed. My husband is in the trades and it’s similar, to a degree. He puts circles together, all day, in varying formats. Within the industry, recruiters know he’s highly successful because he doesn’t get laid off until the project is completed (dates show this), but it doesn’t translate outside of the industry. I’ve had to rely on skills because there are big differences between commercial and industrial projects (which many people wouldn’t recognize) but also because there aren’t really any measurable accomplishments (didn’t die, didn’t get fired, didn’t wreck anything?). He’s trying to transition into office work, so I think this is the expected format to follow, but it’s a struggle.

      3. Lulu*

        There are loads of ways you can add more metrics in, which would be very helpful for the hiring librarian to see. How many books/month do you catalog? How many are original cataloging? Do you have special subject expertise, and if so, how many items do you process in that area? Do you collaborate with other technical or systems librarians? Do you communicate with reference librarians regarding how items are cataloged? Are you involved in any efforts to improve subject headings? Do you edit MARC records to align with your institution’s expectations? Do you repair books? Are you involved with how physical books appear in a discovery layer next to ebooks?

        I’ve known cataloging librarians who are perfectly capable of cataloging, except that they manage to process like… 5 books a day. I really want to see what someone’s output is.

        1. NeedRain*

          Over the past decade I’ve gotten interviews for almost every job I’ve applied for, and I start a tenure track faculty position as a rare book cataloger in two weeks… I’m pretty sure I’m doing it right.

            1. Lulu*

              I’m glad you’re doing well! I was just responding to your idea that you can’t add in more details about your metrics and capabilities. But I’d also push back on no one caring about speed. It’s not that I think you need to catalog quickly, but many catalogers really struggle to work through a backlog or a large donation of historical materials. I’ve been at libraries where the same backlog has remained, mostly unchanged, for years. This might be a case where you’re doing great so you don’t necessarily know how others don’t have the same abilities you do. As a library director, I’m saying those skills are not as ubiquitous as we would like.

    5. No creative name yet*

      Right. I think with some industries/employers you need to get past an initial screening that needs to make it easy to identify, for example, if someone has X years of performing a specific task or using specific expertise before it even gets to the subject matter experts who might be able to better understand and appreciate the accomplishments. Some job tasks may lend themselves to being described with an accomplishment, but it’s harder/less feasible for others.

    6. korangeen*

      Yeah, I think in a lot of cases it makes sense to have a mixture of accomplishments and job descriptions. Especially for the older jobs on the résumé, to me it makes sense to have those ones be just short descriptions, so that it’s clear I have a decade of relevant experience, but I’m not wasting space and energy listing accomplishments from an early-career job from 10+ years ago.

    7. A Person*

      I have to agree with you on this one. I’ve seen the “accomplishment-based resume” advice before, and I REALLY don’t think it works in what you’ve called highly regulated fields where they want to know from a scan of your resume, at minimum: have you done x before? are you familiar with X regulations? have you used Y software? Great, you are competent in your field, let’s continue on from there. Soft skills and metrics are still extremely important, but in both sides I’ve been in (interviewer/interviewee) that is addressed during an interview.

      As kindly as possible, if I saw a resume as outlined in the article for what I do, I’d be asking “what’s all this fluff?” worth noting , however, that I don’t know about the opportunities that I don’t hear back on after submitting an application. I certainly think it works for fields as outlined in the examples in the article – but it does NOT apply universally by even a small margin.

  3. mango chiffon*

    On the design part, please don’t include a photo of yourself (unless that’s part of your country’s job application norms). I (US resident) received a resume like this once and it made me feel uncomfortable and it distracted from the more important information on the resume itself.

  4. Budgie Buddy*

    I recently saw a discussion about using AI to make a resume and I wonder about that. I’m too picky to use AI for basically anything, but it might be a good topic for a weekend open thread on work here.

    1. NeedRain*

      hoooooo boy don’t. Just don’t, unless you plan to scour it word by word so it’s not inaccurate or B.S. (source: experiences attempting to use AI to help me prepare for a job interview. It did good on generating possible questions, but all its suggested answers were word salad garbage and I can imagine it doing the same to someones resume.)

    2. ecnaseener*

      It might be useful for coming up with ways to rephrase something if you’re stuck on it. But it would certainly be prone to writing false information, since it’s trying to predict what goes on *a* resume not *your* resume. So you’d need to check it carefully and idk if it would save much effort overall.

      1. NeedRain*

        I was trying to get it to help me phrase a presentation title… .but it didn’t know what a subtitle was.

      2. Not Jane*

        Having not ever even looked at AI myself, doesn’t it rely on inputs though? So could you ask it to look at *these copies of my previous resumes and job descriptions* and put together a resume from that? Or does it use online content only?

    3. CR*

      I’d love for Allison to write about the increasing popularity of using AI for resumes, cover letters, or even for work tasks.

      1. Budgie Buddy*

        Yeah there’s a sort of “Well they do it so why can’t we” going on since companies are also using AI to screen applications.

        I get the feeling, but also “Ughhhh I sure do hate how other people do the thing, doing the thing is so awful, I guess I might as well do it too” is not really how I make decisions.

        1. NeedRain*

          I would LOVE to have Allison address whether or not places are actually using AI for screening, or if they’re still just using keyword matching. I’ve noticed a trend for people to say “AI” whenever they mean “computer does it and I don’t know how”, even for things that have existed for decades before the current AI trends.

      2. yvve*

        The only one I’d defend is cover letters– they’re sooo tricky and so often people just kinda put nonsense for jobs they arent really invested in– obviously its better to actually do a good job if you can, and you care about the job! but if you’re just gonna bullsh*t something meaningless it might as well be ai bulsh*t

  5. mindless drone #55*

    I wish I knew what to do given that I don’t have any measurable successes. My job doesn’t bring in any money for the company, it’s really quite dull and I can’t think of any accomplishments. Literally all I do is ask vendors to send us our shit and then report to the bosses that our vendors are behind schedule (sorry) and given that I can’t control time and space, there isn’t anything I can do about it. ¯⁠\⁠_⁠(⁠ツ⁠)⁠_⁠/⁠¯

    1. Nina*

      Sounds like you’re what would be called a buyer in my industry – you deal with the vendors so the technical people don’t have to (thank you, so much, you have no idea, if I had to deal with vendors I would stab something) and provide updates to keep people’s planning accurate. That’s super useful! At my last job some of the most valued people (by other staff, not necessarily by management…) were the buyers.

    2. ecnaseener*

      That sounds like you could use the trick of imagining what someone incompetent would do in your job — constantly forget to follow up with vendors? Make the boss chase you down for updates? Be so bad at communication that the vendor can’t even tell what you’re asking about, so they avoid dealing with you?
      And then flip that on its head for your positives: you reliably keep up with # outstanding orders, promptly circulate status reports, and overall keep your part of the process running smoothly.

  6. Ruth*

    How should a list of publications impact the length? I’m revamping my resume now and with 10+ years of experience, and showing results, I’ve got 2 pages of the main content. But I’ve also published a lot (not in academia). I want to reflect that by listing selected pubs (and edit this list to reflect the ones most relevant to the job). Do you think it’s ok to have a 3rd page that’s selected publications?

    1. Cedrus Libani*

      I’m an industry scientist, and I handle publications as “achievements” under each job. Not the full citation, just enough to show that I did a thing and other specialists in the field thought it was worth publishing. “Thesis work published in Cell and Llama Reports”. That sort of thing.

      I also have a website with the full list of publications, including links to the papers. Costs me $5/month to host it on my personal domain.

  7. Not Jane*

    Regarding job history. I am 50 years old. I got my first job at 14. There are a lot of jobs. In recent times I have tried an approach of only going back 10 years. I have also tried an approach where I list like the last 4 jobs in detail and then provide a list of ‘professional experience’ where I list my professional jobs (not the casual jobs while I was at university) with bullet points and just one line listing company, job title, and a sentence about what I achieved there. Even that takes up a good third of a page. The other problem I have is I’ve worked in government the last 10 years. This means firstly, my job title has changed about 4 times but is essentially the same job, and secondly, I have undertaken many acting/temporary roles within my organisation throughout that time. It really makes my job history look messy and I’m not really sure how to deal with it. I tend to stick to ‘timeline’ so it looks a bit like how LinkedIn comes up, with a main job and a job sitting under it – like job A from 2012 to now, and job B from specific dates within that time.
    Anyone have any suggestions as to how to structure it I’m open to all ideas!

    1. Cedrus Libani*

      For avoiding the large pile of job titles, when you’ve been there awhile and have received promotions but you’re doing the harder bits of the same job rather than a new job entirely, it’s pretty normal to do something like: Llama Technician II – V (2013-present). If you can do the GS equivalent, I think it would be understood.

      If the job title changes were really just some underemployed person fussing with the org chart, I might go with the latest nomenclature. Maybe mention it at the background check stage. I’d also put the acting/temporary jobs as bullet point(s). How much detail depends on whether you did specific things that you’d like to highlight, or you just want to convey that you were trusted to go do these different jobs and figure it out.

  8. Nancy Gribble*

    You mention education- how would you recommend someone who attended a year or so of college, didn’t graduate, and learned everything on the job? I have a couple of professional certificates (short programs from executive education programs) but no degree, and my original course of study is nothing related to my current profession. Should I just leave it off entirely?

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