How to Write a Resume

This guy's first mistake: putting "resume" at the top.­ See more pictures of corporate life.


­You always heard not to judge people on first impressions. Unfortunately, when it comes to your resume, your potential employer will be doing just that to you. Though you may pour your heart, soul and life story into that important document, chances are employers will pitch it after glancing at it for a few seconds. After all, they've probably got hundreds to read, and for a myriad of possible reasons, yours failed to entice them. It doesn't mean you're not qualified for the job. It might just mean you need to approach your resume with a new perspective and armed with some effective tips.


When you're constructing your resume, you have to walk a few dangerous tightropes. For one, you need to be able to brag about yourself without exaggerating. The employers who are poring through piles of resumes have seen it all and can usually smell bluffs from a mile away. Another difficult line to walk is making your resume stand out without descending to tricks and designs that merely frustrate the resume reader. Neon colors and funky fonts may get you noticed -- but not in the way you want. Rather, a clean format will draw meaningful attention to the meat of your resume: your qualities and accomplishments.



­An effective resume grabs the reader's attention quickly. But even the smallest grammatical mistake will foil your hard work. Murphy's Law, which states that "If anything can go wrong, it will," could have been written with resumes in mind. Fortunately, there's no mistake you can make that hasn't been made before. Because so many things can (and often do) go wrong, irked resume readers have filled volumes with guidelines and suggestions for resume writing.

We've assembled some expert advice on what to include and, perhaps more importantly, what to omit from your resume. Overall, keep in mind that your ultimate goal should be to land an interview -- leave them wanting more. It's easy to lose sight of this goal, so internalize it as mantra. With that in mind, let's go over the major parts of a resume.



Resume Format

parts of a resume
A conventional format is easiest on the resume reader's eyes -- and busy schedule.­ 

Although you want your resume to stand out, adhering to a conventional format will allow employers to find the information they want easily. Let's go over the components every resume should have.

Contact information: Make sure you feature your name prominently (usually centered and bolded) on the top of the page. Below your name, list your phone number, mailing address and e-mail address.


Objective: This brief statement conveys your intended position, which should sound like it's a perfect match to the position you're applying for. Here's an example: "Office manager position in a fast-paced environment where I can apply my administrative and organizational skills." Although listing an objective is great for those who have work experience in many fields, you may choose to use a summary instead of or in addition to an objective section.

Summary: This section emphasizes the attention-grabbing points you want the prospective employer to see immediately. Summaries are a few sentences long and describe what you're capable of as well as highlight the unique blend of relevant skills, qualities and achievements you bring to the table. The section should be crafted to hook your reader. It may open or end with an objective statement if you choose to not give that its own section.

Experience: You can list relevant experience chronologically, functionally or a combination of the two ways.

  • A chronological format is the most traditional. It begins with your most recent job and works backward. For each job, list your title, the company and an account of your relevant responsibilities. You can also list the applicable skills you displayed in each position.
  • A functional format lists the basics -- job title, company and duration of your employment. This format puts the focus on your skills rather than the positions you've held. Functional formats are best for those changing careers, upper-level executives and those with wide employment gaps.
  • A combined format uses chronological and functional elements. Though it's typically longer, a combined format starts by listing your skills and accomplishments and then goes into a chronological list of work experience.

Skills and accomplishments: If you're using the chronological experience format, you can follow it up with this section, which summarizes your special skills and significant achievements. For instance, a graphic designer might point out that he or she is "Proficient in Quark, Dreamweaver and Photoshop." However, if you're following the functional or combined formats, this section should come before experience. In that case, list subheadings of particular skills or accomplishments followed by short, descriptive evidence. For example, after "Leadership," you can explain, "Headed a committee dedicated to improving energy efficiency."

Education: List the school you attended and the degree you earned. Unless you're a recent graduate and don't have much relevant work experience, you should keep this below the experience and skills and accomplishments sections. If you're working toward finishing a degree, you can mention that here.

References: Many experts suggest stating "Available upon request" in this section. Employers don't tend to check references until after the interview process anyway, so it's a waste of precious space [source: Kennedy]. Others advise dropping this section altogether, as it's understood you will provide references when asked [source: Ireland].

With the exception of your contact information, include a headline above each section. Keep each section title prominent and consistently formatted (e.g., always bolded or always in capital letters). Now, let's zoom in on some tips for an effective resume and some common mistakes you should avoid making.


Resume Tips

resume tips
Even if it takes using a magnifying glass, review your resume rigorously for typos.

As we mentioned earlier, it doesn't take much to ruin a resume. Although the major components listed on the previous page are important, the devil is in the details. The following is a list of what to omit from your resume:

Errors: Typographical, grammatical and spelling errors are some of the most common and deadly mistakes people make on resumes. The best way to rid your resume of errors is to have several people look it over.


Salary: Most experts advise against including your current or desired salary. Career changes offer great opportunities for pay raises, so stay mum about your wages to gain the upper hand in salary negotiations.

Low grades: As a rule of thumb, include information only when it will benefit you. Give your grade point average (GPA) if it's impressive. Experts disagree on the cutoff point, but in general they suggest listing it if it's 3.0 to 3.5 or above.

Irrelevant personal interests: Similar to the previous point, list just the relevant information. Although you may intend these details to offer insight into your character, they'll more likely serve to waste the reader's time.

Meaningless phrases: Use specific language and active verbs in concise sentences.

So what relevant information can you include on your resume if you don't have much work experience? Recent college graduates can list campus activities and relate them to the position -- same goes for people looking to change careers. Don't try to hide your inexperience behind meaningless language; instead, appear up-front and eager to learn, which a resume reader will appreciate. After you've got a few relevant jobs under your belt, however, you can start to take college details and less relevant work experience off your resume.

It can be difficult to assess what skills to tout on your resume. First, think about what skills the employer seeks and examine which ones play to your strengths. If you're particularly apt at generalized skills that apply to most jobs, such as people skills, by all means include them. However, because so many claim to have such nebulous skills, try to back up your assertions with evidence.

Aside from facts, don't underestimate presentation. Resumes should be clean without any extravagant, distracting graphics or colors. Of course, the writing should be consistent across the board -- verb tense, headings format, indentions and the like. Otherwise, you will confuse the reader. To avoid clutter, use plenty of white space, which is easy on the eyes. Don't use excessively small font; 10- to 12-point fonts are best [source: Curtis]. Although these tips might seem counterintuitive to maximizing space, your language should be concise and strong enough to convey extensive experience and accomplishments.

While we're on the subject of length, note that some experts don't confine resumes to one page anymore. Especially experienced candidates should feel free to use two pages (or sometimes more) [source: Ireland]. If you do use multiple pages, list your name on the top of each one. No matter how many pages you have, if you're submitting a hard copy to a prospective employer, you should cough up the extra money to print your resume on nice paper and with a sophisticated printer.

A cover letter should always accompany your resume. Although this, too, should be concise, a cover letter gives you an opportunity to explain why you're a perfect fit for the job in question.

If you want to learn about negotiating your salary or you'd like to see resume samples, explore the links on the next page.



Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links­


  • Beatty, Richard H. "How to Write a Resume If you Didn't Go to College." John Wiley and Sons, 2003. (Dec. 16, 2008).
  • Curtis, Rose. "The Guide to Writing Unbeatable Resumes." McGraw-Hill Professional, 2004. (Dec. 16, 2008).
  • Ireland, Susan. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Perfect Resume." Alpha Books, 2003. (Dec. 16, 2008)
  • Isaacs, Kim. "How to Write a Career Summary." Monster. (Dec. 16, 2008)
  • Isaacs, Kim. "What's Your Objective?" Monster. (Dec. 16, 2008)
  • Kennedy, Joyce Lain. "Resumes for Dummies." For Dummies, 2007 (Dec. 16, 2008).
  • Rockport Institute. "How to Write a Masterpiece of a Resume." Rockport Institute. (Dec. 16, 2008)