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Is a 3-page resume too long?

resume

In the March 21, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks a perennial question about the resume.

Question

I have been receiving your weekly newsletter for some time and  I always appreciate your insight. What is your opinion of a three-page resume? I have been in professional positions since 1985. I find myself in job-search mode and I am having difficulties in keeping an updated resume to two pages. Thanks in advance for your time.

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind words.

I’ve seen good one-page resumes and I’ve seen good 20-page resumes. I think a resume should be as long as necessary to accurately communicate what an employer needs to know about you.

That doesn’t mean you should not try to keep it as concise as you can. A resume is no place to list everything about your past. Employers don’t need to know everything. All they need to know is what is exactly relevant to them. The rest is interference that can lead to rejection.

What’s a resume for?

More important, a resume is not your “marketing piece.” That pronouncement is a career-industry marketing ploy to sell you unnecessary resume services. (See How (not) to use a resume.)

Most of the time, a resume does not get you in the door. Personal communications and referrals are the best way to get in the door. Your resume should be used to fill in the blanks about your credentials after you’ve established substantive contact with a hiring manager. (Yes, I know that’s not easy. That’s why the person who works hardest and smartest at this is most likely to win the job.)

While you’re waiting for one of the many resumes you sent out to get you an interview, your competitor is meeting with the hiring manager because he was referred by someone the manager knows and trusts.

What should your resume do?

Do you know how long the average manager spends reading a resume? Six seconds.

If your resume doesn’t deliver the goods — “Why you need me to boost your profits” — quickly, you lose. See Resume Blasphemy and “Put a Free Sample in Your Resume,” pp. 23-26, in How Can I Change Careers? (This PDF book is not just for career changers. It’s for anyone who wants to show they are the most profitable hire.) Here’s a brief excerpt from the book to get you thinking about your resume in a new, potent way:

“Give the prospective employer a free sample of what you can do. This will get the employer’s attention and it will distinguish you as a job hunter whose goal is to do the job for the employer, rather than just to get a job… You need to package the information in a way that says explicitly to a prospective employer: This is what I can do for you. Before you can deliver this job-offer-eliciting gift, you need to understand an employer’s needs. That means understanding the problems and challenges his company faces. And that can take quite a bit of research. Do it. There are no shortcuts to delivering value.”

Make your resume as long as it needs to be. Does it deliver instant answers to the questions on the manager’s mind? If you don’t know what those questions are, you’re not ready to write that resume. When you’re ready, you’ll know exactly how long it needs to be. (See Tear your resume in half.)

How long is your resume? How long is too long? More important, how do you use your resume? What’s the interview yield of the resumes you hand out?

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31 Comments
  1. I’ve seen one page resumes that were bloated and five page resumes that were terse.
    As for showing how you can make money, I still think that is dangerous – since you are unlikely to know enough of the details of the prospective employer’s business. (If you have had the conversation with a hiring manager that lets you know this, I agree with you that the resume is just a piece of paper (or bunch of electrons) that HR needs, and not important.
    So how about the resume showing how you helped make current and previous employers more profitable? The you can have the other conversation during the interview – a conversation which is a lot more interactive than any resume.

    • “As for showing how you can make money, I still think that is dangerous – since you are unlikely to know enough of the details of the prospective employer’s business. ”

      True, but businesses often share similarities. As a petroleum geologist, I may not know the details of a prospective employer’s assets, but I can demosntrate that I know petroleum exploration in general (“I will find you oil”), accompanied by thorough googling on the company, the area geology etc.

      Similarly, a salesman may not know the business in detail, but he may know how to sell in general, and the market for similar products.

    • @Scott: Ah — but I got you thinking :-). Score one for me. If this leads you to show how you made a previous employer more profitable, now you’re ahead.

      @Karsten: Score 10 for stretching! It’s worth trying to figure out how to show you can add to the bottom line, even if it’s a bit of a stretch.

  2. Karaten..as someone who sold technical equipment for 20 years, I can tell you good salespeople understand the business they are selling to, and the better you understand this, the better you do. I would not go into a meeting in sales without knowing with whom I was meeting, how long they had been with the company, to whomthey reported , was their division profitable, and about 60 other things.

    Nick’s Koolaid is the elixir of success here…a candidate who makes a personal connection to the hiring manager beats any resume with its shiny fonts and formatting.

    • Knowledge is power, and I agree: The more you know, the better. I got my last two jobs through personal contacts, and after thorough investigation. My point was that if you talk to a prospective employer, demonstrating skills in “the tools of the trade” may compensate for not knowing internal business secrets. I cannot know (at least, I should not know) the inside company details of an oil prospect, but I can demonstrate knowledge of the area, geology and exploration skills.

      • No argument about showing you know a lot about the field. My objection to Nick’s elixir is solving a particular problem for them. When I interviewed I probed for technical knowledge first – if the candidate didn’t have that, who cares what kind of a fit they were?

        • “When I interviewed I probed for technical knowledge first – if the candidate didn’t have that, who cares what kind of a fit they were?”

          If you can show that you can solve similar problems to what your target business is having, that implies that you have the technical side of things.

          Also, there is some criticism of the current technical interview process in some fields:
          https://theoutline.com/post/1166/programmers-are-confessing-their-coding-sins-to-protest-a-broken-job-interview-process

          • Ugh; that was a depressing article but thanks for posting the link. I predominantly hire highly technical folks myself and I resent the process described there being called a “whiteboard” session. What is described in the article is a damned pop quiz and it’s unnecessary.

            I love the whiteboard because I get to see how the candidate will put all the parts together, how they problem solve, and how they collaborate. I can’t remember once asking “what’s the command for ‘X’?” and having a successful outcome.

          • Thanks for the article. Ugh. I think that maybe people who rely on these pop quizzes don’t understand the area well enough to be able to probe the candidate for his or her skills.
            When I worked at Bell Labs in the good old days we weren’t allowed to give pop quizzes. Never hurt us. And I’ve never used them.

    • I worked for AT&T during the first divestiture, when things were chaotic, and one of our technical vendors had a better org chart of the place than we did. I was very impressed.
      I’ve made sales calls, as a technical expert, and received lots, and engineers hate clueless salespeople. Which I’m happy to say we didn’t get much of the last 15 years or so.

      • It’s utterly astonishing how far the “interview” has gone down the tube. Understandably, most people think it’s just fine to show up, fold their hands, and wait to be asked questions about their credentials.

        Imagine being homeless, starving, you don’t want to beg. You want to make some money to buy food. You want some work. Is it better to walk up to someone on the street and say, “Would you pay me to work?” or to look for someone struggling to install a fence post and say, “I’ve been watching you trying to dig that fence-post hole. I know how to do that. Would you like to hire me to do it for you?”

        It’s really best to find someone with a problem you understand before you ask for work. I think we’ve lost that.

  3. Karsten..as someone who sold technical equipment for 20 years, I can tell you good salespeople understand the business they are selling to, and the better you understand this, the better you do. I would not go into a meeting in sales without knowing with whom I was meeting, how long they had been with the company, to whomthey reported , was their division profitable, and about 60 other things.

    Nick’s Koolaid is the elixir of success here…a candidate who makes a personal connection to the hiring manager beats any resume with its shiny fonts and formatting.

  4. My #1 resume rule is to take the first page (regardless of how many there are after it) and to rip that first page in half (left-to-right). If that top half of Page 1 does not effectively identify what type of professional you are nor SELL you to the reader, then the whole document is crap. Like Nick said, you’ve got ~6 seconds.

    • I only have one issue with the “6 seconds” line. 6 seconds might be the average, but that’s only because 6 seconds is all it takes to decide whether the person is worth the 6-10 minutes it will require to give the document a thorough going over.

      In 6 seconds I can tell whether the author can construct a sentence, communicate an idea, and communicate the RIGHT idea. I can tell in 6 seconds if the resume is cookie-cutter or tailored to the role I’m trying to fill. I can tell in 6 seconds if I’m going to be reading BS or if I’ll be challenged (in a good way) to really understand this candidate’s career trajectory and what I’d like to speak about in an interview to dig deeper.

      Sadly, most of the resumes I see aren’t worth even 6 seconds. The glaring proofreading issues are so common, and so egregious, most of the resumes I see get less than 3 seconds.

      • It doesn’t take long to discard a resume that says, “seeking a technical position at Company X” when the resume was sent to Company Y.

  5. Length of resume is irrelevant. It is what it (does not)contains that is critical. I have been out of the workforce 5 years and find omitting things like dates at jobs is more likely for it to get a review, I posted the same resume 2 ways in 2 different time periods and the one with dates got no response where the one without generated a lot of interest. But then again it is just one tool.

  6. Six seconds? That’s a lottery. I prefer to make sure the hiring manager will spend more time on it, by establishing good contact first – isn’t that what you teach, Nick? ;)

    • @Karsten: I think that, done right, a resume is handed over only after a substantive conversation has happened with the hiring manager.

  7. Just about every 5 page resume I’ve read is 6 pages too long.

    The major exception seems to be academia, where they want every published paper and just about every speaking engagement/academic presentation.

    The primary problem with most 5 page resumes is that they don’t actually have 5 pages of useful or pertinent information. Very, very few employers care what you did in 1986 and 1988. Make sure your resume is pertinent to the job you are seeking, and is not the encyclopedia of you.

    The question not whether three pages is a disaster, but does it add anything to your qualifications for this specific job? Read the bios given for Fortune 100 CEOs or Nobel Prize winners. They have accomplished a great deal but get it down to less than a page.

    • @Rick: The underlying problem that I didn’t even touch on in my column is that many, many HR people insist on an exhaustive resume that tells everything. To them, that’s the ante to get into their game. But I think they feel this way because they have no idea what they’re looking for. So, more is better. It gives them something to do to justify their job and salary.

  8. I’ve been around for +25-years and found it difficult to get everything onto 4 pages; even if I were very concise. My argument was that since I have such a lot of experience (I worked all across the globe), surely it should be ok. I heard many opinions – 2 pages is a must; no, it doesn’t matter, 5 pages is fine, etc. – until I met a coach who pointed out that ultimately it depends on the preference of person to whom you are applying. The point is, play it safe. Create a 2-page resume. Period. The people who like a 2-page resume will be happy, as well as the people who don’t care. The converse is not true and you may potentially miss out on an opportunity. I found myself a coach (yes, I had to pay for it), and it was absolutely amazing what she could “cram” onto 2 pages. I ended up with a way better 2-page resume, than a 4-page one (and I thought I was pretty good at it!). I’m not advocating paying for a coach, but be “brutal” and get to a 2-page resume. It will really force you to think and convey a very succinct and crisp message. No one cares what you did 10 years ago, let alone 20! The hiring manager will spend less than 30 seconds on the first third of your resume, and then decide whether they want to speak to you or not. You want job; give them what they want.

  9. Since résumés are almost never read by a pair of human eyes, I am beginning to wonder what would happen if I just put a bunch of key words (tailored to the job) on it and if I made the cut for an interview, then I’d bring a more standard résumé.

    There’s no one answer that will be right for all jobs, all industries, but I wouldn’t submit one longer than 2 pages unless I was an academic applying for a job in academia. Academia is an oddity. They want CVs (Curriculum Vitae), I’ve seen CVs that exceeded 50 pages because you’re expected to list all of your degrees, all of the books you’ve published, every journal article you’ve ever authored, co-authored, edited, and co-edited, every conference you’ve hosted, every grant you won AND information about the study said grant funded, committees you’ve served on and chaired, all academic administrative posts you’ve held (e.g., GPD, Dept. Chair, Associate Dean of __________), etc.

    I’ve also seen doctors use CVs for the same reasons–to have the space to list their research, their studies, articles they’ve had published, teaching, and more, but that too depends upon the doctor. If he’s practicing but not teaching, not doing research, not writing and publishing, then he uses a résumé. If the former, then he uses a CV.

    I’d check to make sure which is appropriate for your profession, and then proceed accordingly. But if a résumé is the answer, then I’d try to keep it brief. I’d keep the most current and most important jobs, projects, and accomplishments on it, and I’d eliminate anything that’s older than 10 years. I second those who stated that most employers don’t want to read about nor care about what you did 20 years ago. And if they are curious, then you can always write another résumé that contains your earlier job and skills history.

    • Secret to winning against the resume-matching software: copy and paste the job description at the end of your resume, make the font white and really small so someone will only see blank space or an extra blank page. Now your resume will match their job description 100%. I hate this particular piece of automation.

      • That’s called keyword stuffing and the white space-small font trick has been algorithm-fixed long ago. If anything, they will reject you outright after catching that ruse.

        Better to use a world cloud generator off the job description and tailor you CV accordingly.

    • @MaryBeth: When I do live presentations, I offer this deal. Give me five bucks and I’ll give you a guaranteed method to get your resume past the algorithm. Copy the job description and paste it into the end of your resume. Submit electronically.

      Then I ask them, So what? All we’ve proved is that the employer wants to interview key words. Is that going to improve your odds of getting hired?

      They all want to know what to put on the resume instead. “It’s a Zen solution,” I tell them. “Don’t use a resume.”

  10. I’ve had my resume ripped apart by someone who ended up hire me later.
    So it’s not something that must be perfect to get hired.

    That’s said to get your foot in the door more often you should list of course what’s relevant to the person that’s going to be interviewing you which should be your accomplishments.

    I only go a back about 15 years. That’s all that’s really relevant and it’s more than plenty. I’m waiting for the day somebody says what did you do before that last job? Not one person has asked.
    Although I did get asked recently ” what is something that is not on your resume that you could tell me about yourself”.
    I ended up telling about my experience buying my own place in Silicon Valley. And that seemed to resonate as the person I spoke to had a similar experience as well. I was told I didn’t have to talk about work…

    My resume right now is about 2 pages and that is as short as I can make it without all the space and I have to make it more pleasing to the eyes you scan through it.

    Today I was in an interview with the VP who literally saw my resume for the first time even though I’ve been interviewing with others on his team. He seemed to appreciate that I put it on his desk and he had it in front of them and was perusing it for a few moments before we talked.

    That is the best old school advice I’ve gotten recently which is to carry some copies of your resume with you to the interview.

    Last thing I will say is that recently a Headhunter who was sort of fed up with I guess bad resumes took it out on me and went through my resume ripping it apart piece by piece. I was glad to listen to this and I did feel abused but I got some good information of how to present myself on my resume. The Headhunter seemed to relish actually giving me that advice.

    I put all the ideas on my resume I sent it over and got a “thanks” and then ignored. That’s okay since I’m getting some really good quality interviews now and good traction. I have the best wishes for that recruiter.

    Finding someone to pull apart your resume and tell you how you should bring that yourself is really an invaluable tool. That Headhunter could have charged me.

    When I get a job I feel like I should send over a box of chocolates or something to that recruiter who is ignoring me now or doesn’t I guess have any job opportunities I would match…
    ( well there was one that was brought up to me but then I wasn’t offered up for it…)

  11. Nick,

    You say a resume is not a ‘Marketing piece’ agreed.

    A resume is YOU in person virtually and you have to sell yourself.
    For me, a resume is a sales piece; a part of marketing.

    I TALK in resume, not LIST.

    I endorse your “This is what I can do for you.”

    I am a resume writer and have a Job Getting Resume’ writing course so can’t resist writing you.

    Regards,

    Mukesh.

    • Mukesh: You’re welcome to express your opinion here, but you quickly contradict yourself.

      “You say a resume is not a ‘Marketing piece’ agreed.”

      Then:
      “For me, a resume is a sales piece; a part of marketing.”

      A resume is and isn’t marketing. That’s troubling. My point is that a resume is not “you,” virtually or otherwise. It’s a document. I understand what you mean by “virtually,” but a virtual thing is not the thing and cannot defend itself. Your resume cannot defend you. So when an employer finds a problem in your resume, you’re done. Toast. Out of the running. And you never know why. That’s why it’s very dangerous to risk introducing yourself with a document (physical or digital).

      I also think the notion that “you have to sell yourself” is nonsense. A person is not a product or a commodity. Getting a job is not selling – not in my opinion or experience. This metaphor reduces recruiting and job search to the silly exercise we see today — such low hit rates that it’s become silly.

      That’s my opinion.

  12. I’ve long been of the opinion the average resume could be condensed to a business card and be effective:

    L.T.
    Curmudgeon, 35 years Experience
    Snail Mail
    Email
    Phone
    (NOT every social media site known to man. Not any of them, in fact.)

    If A-List Corporation is looking for a curmudgeon with, say 35 years experience, there’s enough mutual interest to proceed.

  13. I have been an Investment professional since August 1974 in positions ranging from Investment Analyst to Managing General Partner to Chief Investment Officer. I have had signature authority for dollar amounts up to thirty-million. I have been personally responsible for starting four or five start-up enterprises. I start things and companies — that is simply what I do and have done over the last four decades or so. I have a one page resume, and a two-page resume. My resume gets a return phone call about forty percent of the time.

  14. Interesting I recently had to rewrite my resume for the first time in years. I was applying for a fairly senior role and the advertisement stated “resume not to exceed 2 pages”. I panicked when I looked at my 4-5 page spread and wondered how I would ever get that down.

    I did some research and found http://novoresume.com/ (I am not affiliated with them in any way other than as a paying customer) and was blown away by how much I could fit in one page while still making sure it was easy to read.

    Due to the type of role I then created a second page to highlight how my skills and experience would help solve their problems in more detail but the first page was still a great summary and could stand alone if needed. The impact of the front page was helpful in presenting a concise, professional resume. It clearly identified information recruiters were looking for and I highly recommend Novo Resume (they have free versions).

    I didn’t get that specific role but the new resume did prove successful in other applications.

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