Feature Article: Dirty Little Resume Secrets

Jack Molisaniby Jack Molisani
Here are a few little-known facts about the job hunting process. If you know what really happens when a company reads your resume, you can take action and increase your chances of getting interviews.

A resume is a vehicle that shows whether or not you match what the reader is looking for.

Cambridge Dictionary says a resume is a written statement of your education and work experience, used especially when you are trying to get a new job. Wiktionary.com says a resume is an account of one’s employment history and qualifications often for presentation to a potential future employer when applying for a job. Both of these definitions are wrong.
So if your resume is not a summary of what you have done, and not a summary of what you can do, then what is a resume? A resume is a vehicle that shows whether or not you match what the reader is looking for.
It’s not your life story. It’s not a capabilities overview. It’s just a vehicle that (hopefully) shows that you have what somebody is looking for. That may be a controversial definition, but it is a good definition? Well, how can you tell if a definition is good? If you get more interviews as a result of using it, it’s a good definition. Keep it. If you get fewer interviews as a result of using it, it’s not a good definition. Discard or change it.
Never blindly follow anyone’s advice (even my own) without verifying that it works. In fact, you could rephrase the above to cover any advice you ever get from anyone about anything: If it works for you, it’s true, keep it. If it doesn’t work for you, it’s not true. Discard or change it.
The most common question I’m asked as a recruiter is how long should a resume be. Some “experts” say two pages, some say one, some no more than five. Who should you believe? How can someone who doesn’t know you or how much experience you have give some arbitrary number and tell you that’s THE number. Well, we just discussed one way to decide if a datum is true or not. Try various lengths and see which one gets you more interviews. However, let’s circle back to my definition of a resume.
Assuming a resume is just a vehicle that shows that you match what the reader is looking for, how long should your resume be? Long enough to show you match what the reader is looking for! If you can do that in a page, do it in a page! If it takes five pages, take five pages.
Consider this: there are only two situations where someone would be reading your resume.

  • You sent it to them, solicited or unsolicited.
  • They found it somewhere (in a resume database, on a job board, etc.)

You may have sent your resume to someone in response to a job posting. You may have sent it to a company in the hopes of working there with no particular job in mind. You may have posted it on every website under the sun, moon, and stars, hoping that someday somebody somewhere would find you and give you a job.
But why you sent your resume doesn’t matter. What does matter? Why someone is reading it. And why would somebody be reading your resume? To see if you have what they’re looking for! So my definition works for this too.
Now, what they’re looking for may be industry experience, tools and technology, domain knowledge, or something else entirely. You may not know exactly what they’re looking for, but you do know one thing: that they are looking for something. And if you know that they are looking for something, you can take proactive steps to help them find it.
All right, let’s take this a step further: What’s wrong with the following definition? A resume is a short account of one’s career and qualifications, prepared typically by an applicant for a position.
It doesn’t take into account that the reader is looking for something, and judging whether or not you have it. So let’s combine my definition with that definition, and you get: A resume is short account of one’s career and qualifications, typically prepared by an applicant for a position that shows how the applicant matches what the reader is looking for. That’s a workable definition!
If you know a resume is a vehicle that shows how you match what the reader is looking for, you can take proactive steps to find what the reader is looking for, and thus increase the number of interviews you will receive.
Let’s look at more resume secrets.

No one will ever read your resume.

People may scan it, read parts of it, search for keywords in it, but no one’s going to read your resume from beginning to end and weep at the sheer beauty and brilliance of your writing, your spelling, and your mastery of the English language. We just don’t have the time.

You will never be hired because of your resume.

You’ll be rejected because of your resume, weeded out because of your resume, even mocked and scorned because of your resume (and believe me, we mock and scorn). If you’ve never been a hiring manager, here’s how companies normally decide who to interview: They will take a stack of resumes (printed or online) and divide them into two categories. The reviewer will probably think to him/herself, “No…no…maybe. No…maybe…no…no. OK, let’s bring these two in to interview.” No hiring manager has ever said, “Look at this resume! We must hire this person immediately!” It just doesn’t work like that.
Even if you are an exact match, companies have often been burned by candidates who say they have the experience needed, but really don’t. So even if you look like a great match on paper, in the company’s eyes you’re still a “maybe.” So if you do get called in for an interview, it won’t be because they loved your resume, it’s because you weren’t rejected yet.

The longer your resume, the greater the chance you’ll be rejected.

I’ve rejected many candidates who had 12+ page resumes because I just wasn’t finding what I was looking for. However, not once have I ever rejected a candidate because his or her resume was too short.
There have been some times when a resume says the person has the experience required, but the resume is rather short on details. When that happens, I’ll call or email asking for more details. But notice what happened: He or she got me to pick up the phone and call, which is really a phone interview if you think about it.
If you’re going to err in your resume, err on the side of brevity, and save the details for the interview. Companies will use your resume to reject you, so give them as little ammunition as possible.

You are writing for Short Attention Span Theatre (SAST).

This takes “no one will read your resume” to whole new level. Not only will people not read your entire resume, they probably won’t even read entire paragraphs. We’re talking short attention spans. Short!
This may not hold true for candidates applying for jobs in public utilities or some government agencies because they are required by law to read every word of your resume and then log it for compliance purposes. But for most companies, this is true. This is another reason I say a resume should be long enough to show that you match what the reader is looking for, and no longer.

Tailor your resume to show you match the job requirements.

Most job applicants suffer from what I call “misevaluation of importances.” That is, you should evaluate what is important to the reader, and highlight that information in your resume.
For example, if you’re applying for an engineering writing job and your degree is in computer engineering, put that at the top of your resume. If you majored in English, you may want to put that at the bottom. While you may think that showing an English degree makes you more qualified for a writing job, consider your audience. If an engineer is evaluating your resume, he or she may think someone with “just” an English degree couldn’t possibly understand software engineering well enough to document it.
Again, you should evaluate what is important to the reader, and show that information in your resume, early and often. Here’s a real-life example: A company called me once looking for a contract technical writer with patent writing experience. I found someone and submitted him, and the manager emailed me back ten minutes later saying, “he doesn’t have patent writing experience.” He did have patent writing experience, but it didn’t appear in his resume until the middle of a bulleted list, in the middle of the second page. The manager just didn’t read that far. (Remember, short attention spans!)
What made matters worse is the resume had a summary that said, “10 years’ experience writing user manuals, policies and procedures,…” What it should have said is, “10 years’ experience writing patent applications, user manuals, policies and procedures….” Had the hiring manager read that as the first line of the resume she would have thought, “That’s exactly what I’m looking for!” and would have continued reading to see where the candidate did it. Instead, she rejected him as not being qualified.
You must show you are match for what the reader is looking for at the very top of your resume, or the person will stop reading and reject you as unqualified.

Employers automatically assume you are not qualified for the job for which you are applying.

Why? Because 95 to 99% of the resumes we receive are from people not qualified for the job for which they are applying. So we just assume you’re one of the 95% until you prove otherwise. This is another reason that the top of your resume must show that you have what the reader is looking for. Otherwise, we stop reading because it confirms our assumption you aren’t qualified.
Yes, that absolutely means that you have to write a separate resume for each job. Hate to tell you that, but it’s true. To maximize your chances of getting an interview, tailor each resume you submit to exactly show how you match the job requirements.

The smallest typo or formatting error can scuttle your chances of getting an interview.

One. That’s all it takes: One.
I used to say engineers can get away with typos in their resumes, but writers and other content professionals cannot, but I don’t even believe that’s true anymore. An engineering manager once commented about a software engineer who had typos in her resume, “If she can’t write two pages of error-free resume, how could I possibly expect her to write 10,000 lines of error-free code?”
Most people are so familiar with what they think is in their resume that they can’t effectively proofread their own work. Take my advice and have someone else proofread your resume. In fact, give it to ten people. Everyone could find a different typo and not one person find them all.

Companies are looking for current experience.

Whatever companies are looking for, they want you to be doing it in your current job or your last job if you’re not currently working. For example, if they want someone for a process engineering project, they want someone who is currently doing process engineering. There’s an illogical assumption that somebody who’s doing it now is better than someone who’s not currently doing it, no matter how many years of experience you may have. This is why it’s so hard to break into a new area. Even if you can do the job, they are looking for someone who is doing the job not someone who has done it, or can do it.
I’ll give you an example, a real life story. I had a client that created a very specific type of technology. This hiring manager wanted someone with current experience with FrameMaker (an authoring tool used for creating large manuals). I found somebody who had experience documenting this specific technology, but his FrameMaker experience was six+ months old. I knew the manager wasn’t going to like this, so I grilled this person. I had him send me FrameMaker samples. I asked him every Frame question I knew. He did brilliantly—the guy knew his stuff. Plus he had experience in this specific technology. What was the chance of that? So I submitted him, and the hiring manager immediately replied, “I told you I wanted someone with current FrameMaker experience!” I’m thinking, “Why? FrameMaker hasn’t changed in the past five months.” I asked the manager to at least talk with him, look at his samples, perhaps take a test. But no joy. The hiring manager had a fixed idea the experience had to be current. At this point I realized that the requirement was not reasonable, and I stopped working with this manager. The point of this story? Even if you have done what they are looking for, you may not get an interview you if you’re not currently doing it. Sorry, but it’s true. (Don’t shoot the messenger.)
So what can you do to get around that? Figuratively speaking, you slap them in the face with what they’re looking for, right at the top of your resume. Then go into details about your previous jobs in direct ratio that the experience matches the current requirements. In other words, I don’t want to see 2 ½ pages of your current job before I get to the previous one that has the experience I’m looking for.
If you are a full time staff employee applying for a full time staff position, I suggest you use a hybrid format: a summary of your skills (that show how you match the job requirements) followed by a standard chronological resume. Remember to put minimal details about your current job and much more detail about the job that shows your applicable experience.
If you’re a contractor, I suggest you put on your resume something like, “1989 to present, independent contractor working on projects such as…” and list your contracts in the order that they relate to the job to which you’re applying. It is much less important for a manager to know the exact dates of your contract than for them to see right up front that you match the job requirement.

What you did in your job is more important than your job title.

It’s been a while since we discussed the definition of a resume, so let’s revisit that: A resume is just a vehicle that shows you match what the reader is looking for. Whenever you need to choose what to put in your resume and what to leave out, run it through this filter: If it helps show you match what the reader is looking for, leave it in. If it doesn’t, leave it out or change it.
We also established earlier that your resume is not your life’s history showing every detail of every job you’ve ever had. Take your job titles. “Everyone knows” you should list your exact job title on your resume, right? Perhaps not.
Say you are working as a technical writer but the title on your offer letter was, “Information Engineer,” or worse—“Member of Technical Staff.” In such cases, listing your exact job title on resume works against you, as the company is looking for a technical writer, not an “information engineer.” To better help companies find you, list what you do in your job, not what you are called.
Let’s take this concept a step further. What if you perform two main activities in your job? For example, you are a technical writer and a courseware developer, but your title is just “technical writer.” If you only list “technical writer” on your resume and apply for a courseware developer position, a Short Attention Span manager might just skim your job titles and think “he’s not a courseware developer.” Now if you list what you do (not what you’re called), your resume would read “Technical Writer/Courseware Developer.” Does that help communicate that you match what the reader is looking for? Yes! Keep it in.
Note: If you are filling out a job application and it asks for your title, then by all means list your exact title. But by the time a company is asking for an application, you’ve probably already received an interview and perhaps have an offer pending.
List what you do in your resume, and your actual title in a job application. Or list what you do and your job title: Technical Writer/Information Engineer.

What you did is especially important when you are trying to transition into a new career.

Say you are a sales engineer, where half the time you did sales support and the other half the time you did technical writing (you wrote proposals, wrote specifications, etc.). But if you apply for a technical writing job, and your last three job titles say, “Sales Engineer, Sales Engineer, Sales Engineer,” you’re probably not going to get an interview because they want is a “Technical Writer.”
If you put “Sales Engineer/Technical Writer” and apply for a technical writing job, they’ll see you’ve been doing tech writing for the past 22 years. I know because that’s how I got my first technical writing job.

What to do

Now that we’ve examined what not to do, let’s summarize what to do:

  • Find out what the hiring manager is looking for (when possible) and make sure that information is easy to find in your resume.
  • Be brief, but clear (write for SAST).
  • State what you did, not what you were called.
  • Have ZERO DEFECTS in your resume.

Remember: Keep what works for you, discard or change what doesn’t. The end result will be more interviews!
This article follows the webinar Resume Secrets That Might Surprise You presented by Jack Molisani on August 8, 2018 for STC.
Jack Molisani is the president of ProSpring Technical Staffing, an employment agency specializing in content professionals. He’s the author of Be The Captain of Your Career: A New Approach to Career Planning and Advancement, which hit #5 on Amazon’s Career and Resume Best Seller list. Jack also produces the LavaCon Conference on content strategy and technical communication management. You can reach Jack at JackMolisani@ProspringStaffing.com or follow him on Twitter @JackMolisani.