In the March 8, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wonders, just what really needs to be on a resume?

I’ve read conflicting advice about what to put in my resume. Right now, it runs over two pages, since I’ve got quite a bit of history that I need to present. Some resume advice says to keep it short, even just one page, and to say only what’s necessary. But what’s necessary?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

The purpose of a resume is not to recite your entire work history. At least 30% of any resume is jargon that’s in all resumes — cut it.

Here’s what I’m talking about. The “objective,” for example, is purely wasted space. Look at five resumes, and you’ll see all the same jargon and gibberish about wanting a job with a growth-oriented company, and good opportunities, and a progressive work environment, where you can make a positive contribution as a team player by “working with people.”

Gimme a break. Gag me with a spoon. Your resume doesn’t need to explain to anyone why you want the job.

If the hiring manager doesn’t already know why you want to work there, then don’t send the resume…

Another 30% of resumes is past history that is repeated, in one way or another, from one job description to the next. Cut it or shorten it way down…

The biggest waste of that 30% of space devoted to detailed work history is job jargon…

At least 10% of a resume is about credentials that, especially for management jobs, aren’t used to make a decision to interview you…

That leaves about 30% of the space in your resume to show how you’re going to apply what you’ve really got in your toolkit, to help the employer.

Where in your resume is that? Where do you show how you will do the specific job for the specific employer in a way that will drop additional profit to the bottom line? That’s what’s necessary… [Want a more detailed explanation and tips? Subscribe to the free newsletter, which includes the entire discussion.]

Try this test: Tear your resume in half. Read the top half. Does it tell me how you’ll bring more profit to my bottom line?

I can tell in 5 seconds whether your resume is worth reading. It quickly tells me you have a good idea about what I need, and outlines how you’re going to do it. Or it’s a bucket of history that I have to sort through, to figure out what you can do.

And I don’t have time to do that. Don’t gag me with your history.

Oh, I know it’s offensive that a headhunter or a manager won’t invest the time to read, fathom and understand who you are — and to guess what you can do. The reason you haven’t landed a new job is because you haven’t found a manager willing to carefully read your resume, right?

No, the reason is that your history doesn’t matter as much as what you can do next. And managers suck at figuring that out.

So tell me: What do you put on your resume? Do you even use a resume?


  1. Nice. “your history doesn’t matter as much as what you can do next. And managers suck at figuring that out”

    I try to put more effort into initiating contacts at the company and discussing the product/market and then translating that information into the cover letter/email.

    Remember, the resume is a list of your accomplishments, outside of the resume you must show how you achieved these accomplishments and that you are capable of adding value to the new company as well.

  2. This discussion reminds me of quotes that I read a few months ago:

    “Find a company that hires people, not paper.”

    “You are not your resume. You are your work.”

    Seth Godin, “Linchpin.”

  3. I find objectives on a resume helpful in at least one case, which is when I am passing someone else’s resume to a prospective hiring manager. I like the way Nicholas Lore suggests phrasing the resume objective in “The Pathfinder,” which is along the lines of an “X” position with an organization where “Y” and “Z” would be needed. If I recall correctly, “X” can be a type of role, such as “management,” “sales,” or “research,” and Y and Z are distinguishing work attributes that you bring to the table for the company.

  4. @Shara: I find objectives on a resume helpful in at least one case, which is when I am passing someone else’s resume to a prospective hiring manager.

    Try this instead. Don’t just pass the resume on. Stop the manager and have a talk. Explain what you know about the mgr’s operation, and the help it needs. Then bring up the person you’d like to introduce. Explain how the person could help the manager achieve his or her goals. Then recommend the person. “She’s going to be a real catch, and I’d rather we get her than lose her to one of our competitors.”

    That’s a referral and a recommendation. Please think twice about “passing a resume on to a manager.” If you can’t heartily recommend the person, then don’t do anything. The difference is enormous. Isn’t it what you would like someone to do for you when you’re job hunting? :-)

  5. a few very basic rules:
    1)Two pages in a readable 12 pt typeface.At least 11pt.
    2)No jargon, spell it out in simple English – skip the pretentious word you learned in vocabulary builder.
    3)Skip the popular buzz words; do not ’empower’ or ‘utilize.”Train’ and ‘use’ are real words that mean something.
    4)list of skills? gimme a break
    5)no one reads objectives but resume writers
    6)colors? photos? exotic layouts? maybe if you are an art director otherwise keep it simple.
    7)hobbies? – for everyone that loves your bowling success there is someone who thinks bowlers are weird.
    8)outside activities? a prospective employer does not care if you sing in the choir or love to hike. It is NOT RELEVANT.
    8) personal data? married, three kids, dog named Spot? not relevant either.
    9)The only cover letter that makes sense is one addressed to the decision maker and clearly and simply states what you can do to: improve, increase, add value, make simpler, fix,solve etc something important to that person.
    10) All “towhomitmayconcern” cover letters a) indicate you are just one of the mob of clueless job seekers and b)are torn off & tossed by anyone who still bothers to read your resume.
    11)skip the name suffix letters unless they are directly related to the particular job. You are an ‘MBA’? terrific say so under education.

  6. I’ve thought long and hard about removing any veterans references (military experience, American Legion membership, etc.) from my resume. It seems to be an instant turn off to some employers and not relevant to others.

  7. I agree that “jargon dropping” should be avoided, but technical terms have a place in a resume and cover letter, to explain what you can for the company. One precise technical term may save a long sentence. As a petroleum geologist, I make sure that the resume is read by another geoscientist who understands those terms. HR rarely understands them, because they do not understand the work, and that’s a good reason to avoid HR.

    My resume is never more than one page, and basically lists my education, experience and e.g. software and language skills. The rest is explained in the cover letter (also never more than one page at my experience level), which also explains some of my previous work and how i can use my skills for the company. I always include a cover letter, even if not asked for, to tell the company what I can do for them. Otherwise, the resume would be like presenting a list of ingredients for a dish, without any explanation on how to use them to prepare it.

    Employers like to see the human behind the tech, so I include a few words on my other interests, but keep it brief – max two lines.

    This has landed me many interviews, and recently a good job…so I will not be sending any more resumes for a while :)

  8. I find that list of computer languages on my resume generates a lot of interest.

    I only put something in that list if I can put it in the job description too. (that shortens the list to the truly relevant).

    But I’ve gotten more than 10 interviews because of the list. I’d like to say that yes, I agree, just put the computer languages in the job itself. But what I’ve found is that it is the list that generates interest. The jobs confirm the interest and make it more interesting.

    And I’d like to say the opposite, but that isn’t what my experience offers.

  9. Sorry, I was not clear. I mean the ‘skills list’ that lists “Team builder, empowers associates, leads by example…” perhaps virtues but not helpful.
    By all means if there are specific systems, languages, software etc that are relevant to the job list them. Perhaps right next to ‘Education’.

  10. I prefer sending a short business proposal to the manager in charge and then having a discussion or to pitching this personally to him or her. Sort of like doing the job to win the job. A lot harder, but more fulfilling intellectually for me.

  11. @Karsten: I like how you mix and blend ;-)

    @Lucille: No need to want to say the opposite! If it works for you, I’d like to know a bit more. The resumes that have the list of languages and that have generated interviews – did you submit these directly to a specific manager, or to HR, or via website? I’d like to know whether you think someone read them to begin with, or whether you think a scanner (or search routine) picked up the language up as keywords.

    Thanks for the extra info!

  12. Nick,
    I’m now hiring, so I’m seeing lots of resumes. These are highly technical jobs, and the first thing I look for, especially for experienced candidates, are the buzzwords describing the special skills and tools people I am looking for know. Describe them in terms your grandma can understand, and I’ll think you are nuts. As for languages, if my job involves coding in C++, seeing a resume without C++ on the list of languages is going to make me toss it. Period.
    HR doesn’t filter resumes that come in as a result of the job post on our company web site.
    As for saving money for us – I teach the economics of our specialty, and that would be a hard thing to do well, even assuming they know a lot more about what we do than they should. If they can convince me that they’ve done the job before, and give me examples that they do it well, I’m going to be happy. Nearly every technical paper – especially from universities – starts off with a section about how the technique proposed is going to save money, and 99.9% of them are out to lunch.

  13. Nick,

    This goes to somewhat to what Scott is saying. I don’t know how to write a resume that addresses saving or making money. I’m a graphic designer. I have worked mostly in packaging and product design. I am in the early-mid point of my career. I have never been a decision maker. I have worked as a functionary, basically building what other people have told me to build. In my last two jobs, sales/marketing did not make any performance data available, that was not a thing designers needed to be concerned with. They would just tell you ‘blue is in.’ or ‘make something like (popular product)’. Also like Scott, my profession relies on a laundry list of skills and software packages.

    Most jobs I apply for are “Wanted, designer who knows (skills/software) and has (experience that dovetails exactly with what the job we need done is.)”

    I am also applying for listed jobs. I know this isn’t how things are done, but I am tied to my location and my dream jobs here are few and far between.

    Do you have any recommendations for tailoring my resume, in lieu of bottom line related information?

  14. @P. Miller

    Then we certainly agree!

    I think it is a serious problem today, that careers gurus, websites and media talk a lot about fluff that is not really relevant to work: Generation X, Y, Z who love freedom, team players, flexible but demanding, and never leave their work at the job… All job ads want team players, all gurus tell you to portrait yourself as one. Companies’ careers sections are full of BS about how fantastic it is to work there, about empowerment, good benefits, how all the übermenschen who work there love their work so much that they “work hard”, but also have the time and work-life-balance to “play hard” (but nothing about unpaid overtime and union busting, of course). Basically, all this noise invites applicants to play on the stage by filling their resumes with buzzwords.

  15. @Nick – I do not have my resume on any job boards. I submit my resume and cover letter to either a hiring company or a recruiter.

    But since I am a software developer, the list is incredibly important. If the job wants C++ and I don’t have it, I won’t get in. But if I do, then they will look further.

    It is the combination of technical skills and the list of software packages that gets interest because it speaks to my software tool box and the kinds of business problems I have solved.

    The other thing that grabs people’s interest is my tag-line, which is “Software with no bugs”. A tag line I back up with 2 projects I did which had no bugs.

  16. @Jayson–
    If you have no way of demonstrating impact on the bottom line, there are still ways to show that you benefit your company.

    First, think about what an employer really values in a graphic designer. Do they want someone to meet or beat deadlines? To improve efficiency or productivity? To build or maintain brand? How else might someone in your position make a positive impact on a company? Or, how might you make your boss’s life easier?

    Then, come up with examples of how you have accomplished those things. These are your achievements even if they don’t affect the bottom line.

    To think this through further, you might consider “CAR” stories–what Challenges have you met at work? What Actions have you taken to solve them, and what were the Results? See if you can condense these stories into short, high-impact statements.

    Are you known for anything in particular at work? For example, do colleagues think of you as the “go-to” person for something specific?

    Do your performance reviews bring out any unique and/or highly valued qualities?

    Do you have any references with great quotes in them? You can actually take a quote and use it as a testimonial right on the resume. This can be a powerful way of “proving” how accomplished you are. (If you don’t have written references already, get them now!)

    I hope some of these ideas help you.

  17. @Scott: You make some compelling points. In 1981 my partner and I left the search firm we worked for because the owner had no interest in bringing in pc’s to help us do our work. We started our own biz, first with a TRS-80, then with a first-gen IBM PC. I spent months in each case writing code that would enable us to organize our candidates by skills, functions and, yes, buzzwords.

    When we did a search for a client, we’d start by generating a report of about 5 candidates per page – that included virtually nothing but lists like what you describe.

    Because this was unheard of, our clients were thrilled. Because they knew our reputation, they trusted the info we sent them, and it sped up the interview cycle enormously. Our clients knew that carefully-vetted candidates were behind every report. They chose who they wanted, and we scheduled the interviews.

    Cut to the present, when lists, buzzwords and keywords are the coin of the realm. But lists and keywords mean nothing when candidates can simply take your job description and reproduce your own “list” on their resume, to make it through your “scanner.” How do you know they’re legit? How do you know that “C++” means serious C++ skills, rather than just one online course under the belt?

    There’s nothing wrong with such lists by themselves, and they can be incredibly useful to both candidates and employers. But relying on the written word – whether as a manager or applicant – to make that match, is very likely to lead to incredible amounts of noise in the process.

    If you had two applicants before you, which would you choose to interview? One you’ve never heard of, who includes on the resume a tasty list of languages and technologies that you’re looking for. Or one who e-mailed you to say that someone in your department suggested they get in touch with you because you’re looking for strong C++ skills.

    I’m not trying to be cute. It’s a loaded question. I believe that personal contacts and referrals save time, help ensure the integrity of information, and promote faster, more accurate decision making about hiring.

    I concede your point that in a highly-technical job, being able to speak the language means a lot. But you should see some of the management resumes I’ve seen, from people with long histories in highly bureaucratic companies, where the generation and use of jargon is a substitute for productive work.

    Imagine if you and your team had the kind of access to more and better relationships with your peers – so that recruiting could be done with some e-mails and phone calls, without having to deal with the onslaught of resumes that are mindlessly generated by job boards?

  18. @Jayson: Do you have any recommendations for tailoring my resume, in lieu of bottom line related information?

    No sarcasm intended here. If your objective is to pursue jobs via job listings, then tailor your resume to include all the buzzwords in the job listing. It’ll fly through the keyword scanner.

    America is awash in workers who do their job and don’t worry about their employers’ profitability. And employers have in large measure taught them to behave that way, because many employers don’t give a rat’s batootie about what you think or know about the business itself.

    But every single job contributes to the cost of doing business and/or to revenue. In other words, to profits. Not everyone cares or ever will care. My message is that those job hunters and employees who figure out how they fit into the profit equation are more likely to be successful than those who don’t.

    Suggestion: Go talk to the owner or CFO of your company. Ask them to talk with you about how your job fits into the profit equation. They’ll be stunned, but if they’re smart, they’ll talk to you, and they’ll learn a lot themselves.

    As companies shrink in size and competition grows, every employee and every job is subjected to scrutiny: Are they paying off? The companies that can answer the question will perform better than those that don’t. And I think that workers who take the time to figure it out are very smart.

  19. In the second paragraph, Reya does a nice job of listing various forms of “profit.” Profit doesn’t start out as cash. It usually starts out as people doing something that either helps control costs or boost how much revenue the business gets to keep. Now, THAT is an accomplishment.

  20. @Jayson, I think a designer who creates packaging from scant direction (“blue is in”?!) is absolutely making decisions on the job, and not just executing tasks robotically.

  21. A new challenge for today’s resume is to find a politically correct term for “It’s the economy, Stupid!” when explaining, why, after four DECADES of continuous and upwardly mobile employment, I now appear to be a problem employee who either can’t hold down a job or has become a nefarious “Job Hopper”.

    I have no problem working for younger bosses–I fully embrace the concept of “Senior Novice, Junior Mentor”. However, it is very disconcerting to sit in an interview and realize that my unbroken job history is longer than the life-span of the person interviewing me.

    Hiding the facts won’t help, but I am concerned that somehow I got into the few interviews I did because (thankfully) someone was paying more attention to my capabilities than to my job history.

    Because a resume is not a legal document, I realize that I have considerable leeway here, but what would a graceful way be to record this history? Even short stints have valuable insights and experiences (how many people can say that as a logistics manager, they drove a hilo on an unprotected dock through six inches of snow?).

    Basically, the problem of “gaps” in employment has been a problem for about twenty million Americans since December 2007. Is that when hiring managers stopped reading the papers and listening to the news? What part of “through no fault of their own” is being ignored in lieu of the outdated rules of resume evalution that are only now being brough to light in this dark economy?

    Please, anyone–enquiring minds want to know!

  22. @UnderEmployedAndClinicallyDepressed

    I too have had the same reaction. God, it’s so stupid. I was interviewing recently, and my job history is 4 years in one company, up to 1 year in several.

    “So what made you change jobs?”.
    “The economy has been terrible for the last 10 years. Either the company lost money or were about to. I had to support my family so I found the next job.”.
    “What makes us think you’d stay with us.”
    “Well as you can see, I’ve been working for my current employer for 4 years. I have worked for Companies X, Y & Z for years.”

    If they are chicken, or afraid of the cooties, the interview gets stuck. If not, the we can get going on how I can help them in the new job.

  23. P. Miller:

    Listing my hobbies helped me land a job once. The department director saw a hobby and said, “Oh, that’s interesting. What’s involved?”

    A few sentences into my explanation, he asked if something I said would have any bearing on a problem he was having. It did. He started writing stuff down furiously and said that he should have the engineer working on this problem talk to me about some possible solutions.

    This is not to say that putting your hobbies down will land you a job or that a resume is the only tool to use. You still have to show how you can do the work. But if that hobby has some relationship to the job (which can happen often with “technical” hobbies), it may help spark a conversation about your skills and what you can do to help the company.

    Note that this only really works when you’re talking to the hiring manager or people close to the job. YMMV, and it really won’t do much to help with HR besides filling in that mental checkbox that they want to see hobbies so that your resume is “complete” in their eyes.

    The hobby, BTW, was home brewing. The director was having problems with biological contamination in a process water line. I spent a while discussing the possible sources and technologies you could use to control/eradicate them.

  24. @Bob: “Uh, do you think your company will be in business 4 years from now, so I can stay with you?”

    @Chris: I got my first headhunting job after the firm’s owner rejected me. On the way out the door, we got to talking about sports we liked to play. Next thing I knew, she had her office manager call and invite me to lunch. Since I had no relevant experience to speak of (Doing cognitive psychology experiments?), he asked me about my hobbies. I talked about bike repair, photography, and carpentry. “So, you enjoy doing things with your hands?” he asked. “Yes, I guess I’m kind of mechanical.”

    So he hired me. And I asked him why. “Because you’re mechanical and you like to fix things and make them work. That tells me you’ll be able to work well with engineers, who do the same thing on another level.”

    Turns out he was right. I didn’t just recruit engineers for my clients, I picked their brains, loved the technology they worked on, and got totally sucked into the world of technology. Which made me successful at headhunting.

    But I’ll tell you this. I’ve also seen people’s resumes rejected because they play tennis, not golf, and because they belong to an association the employer doesn’t particularly care for.

    So, what’s the point? Simple. If you want to be very clear about who you are and what your interests are, because you want to work with like minds, then put all that stuff on your resume. It could help. If you’re worried about getting rejected because of that stuff, then omit it. It could hurt you.

    Chris, your story about home brewing and contaminated pipes takes the cake, though!

  25. @UNDER: I think the “odd” skills you possess can be very useful in the interview, but only if you can map them to problems and challenges the manager is facing. That makes them relevant, rather than confusing or “out of place.” So it’s up to you to figure out what’s troubling the manager, and how you can help.

  26. @UNDERemployedandClinicallyDepressed

    I have the same problem. However, in the few interviews I’ve had, none of the hiring managers cared about the length of time I spent at each job, only HR and recruiters seem to care.

    My problem is getting past HR/recruiters. I know all the recommendations that Nick (and others) have about ‘fixing a problem’ but I am not at that level. I’m really only a support person (legal and technical) and it’s difficult to connect with a manager and get them to see how I can help them. Unless I know someone at the company there is no way of knowing what they need.

  27. I once got a very nice job because I mentioned the jargon “PMBOK” in my resume. The owner of the company turned out to be a project management nut.

  28. @Unemployed and Depressed in Colorado

    Have you read Nick’s words about making contacts?

    I once read of a guy who came up with a target list, found a hiring manager, and then volunteered off hours in the same organization as the hiring manager, Made friends with him, and finally was hired.

  29. Hi Nick.
    Enjoy reading your column…

    You used one of my lines! I was thrilled to know someone else thinks
    exactly like I do on this. With regards to messaging, I always tell people “it has to be clear enough such that your grandmother and your 5-year old both understand it”.
    and look at that…you used the example of a 12-year old, but same idea!

    I recruit and do job search advising. When I ask people what type of
    position they are looking for, I get answers that are all over the map. I
    tell them it is fine they responded to me that way, but they are not to say it to anyone else! Nobody will hire someone who cannot articulate what they want to do and what they are good at. We all think we can be many things to many employers/businesses…truth is, in my opinion, we have to be more practical. Sounds simple, but sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to articulate.

  30. Thanks for good advices. There for sure might be a lot of garbage in everyones resume. The jobs that have nothing to do with those you´re trying to get now. It´s important to get rid of those and highlights those things you want them to see. So its pretty much helpful if your resume is visualy attractive, so asked your friend designer for help or try some resume builder like or whatever.

  31. Thank you ever so for you post.Really thank you!