5 Ways to Improve Your Resume


The vaunted resume. The gateway to the inbox of the HR department. The paper – usually stacked with dozens or even hundreds of others – that you hope will get you noticed among a myriad of candidates for a coveted position.

I sat in an advisory role once in an interview process. There were not many candidates, but each of the candidates was quite qualified for this position. After finishing a number of interviews one night, one of the leaders looked at the rest of us in this room and said in exasperation, “What are these colleges teaching, because they sure aren’t teaching how to write a resume!”

He was right. The forms had the right information on them, but some were messy while others had words misspelled. Some had information that was good, but not pertinent to this job. Even though I am not an “HR guru,” it was obvious to me that a lot of people do not really see what can set their resume apart from others.

To help you, let me give you five simple things to do. These may not seem huge, but trust me, just these simple steps will put you ahead of the vast majority of those sending in resumes for most positions.

1. Improve (but don’t overdo) your formatting.

Different positions and industries have varying ideas of what is “standard” for the format of a resume. The vast majority do not think that you have to have pictures or fancy lettering. In fact, the shorter your resume, usually the better.

You can find some common templates online (many for free, just do a Google search). Admittedly, they may look bland, but you are trying to share bullet points, not your design skills. Do not try to out-design, but look at resumes that are slick yet very refined.

2. Spell and “honest” check the document.

I am amazed at how many resumes have misspelled words in them! For one thing, there shouldn’t be that many words in total on your resume, but you should use a spell check tool. Also, read and re-read the document to make sure that a word is the right one, though it might be spelled correctly (“thought” instead of “though,” for example).

Additionally, make sure everything is current and honest. Did you really take “that” class, or just one like it? Did you go to that college, or just enroll? It is unethical to lie on a resume, and that honesty extends to having information that is up-to-date.

3. Only include what is pertinent.

This will change over time, but as you apply for certain jobs, only include areas that are pertinent to your current hunt. For example, when I was looking for a preaching job, I included that I once taught school, because that involved both teaching and administrative work. However, I did not include summer jobs as a teenager of mowing yards. That is not hiding anything, it just was not pertinent to what I was looking for at the moment.

You don’t have to include everything, and you can briefly explain in your cover letter than you have not included every job, project, or position, but that you would be happy to discuss them in an interview if the company thinks such would be helpful.

4. Use succinct, but actionable summary words.

“Led a group of 100 in the construction industry to build a small office building” sounds okay, but “Oversaw 30-day project, constructing area office building, leading 100 crew members” is better. It is still honest and fairly short, but it shows a time-frame and leadership, as well as the specific project. Avoid being too wordy, but don’t be afraid to make sure major positions are projects are highlighted.

5. Check and recheck your references.

Never (and I mean never) put someone down as a reference without asking. For one thing, it is rude. But it can also lead to an awkward conversation if you are not careful. Be sure the contact information and current positions/titles of your references is correct. If it is acceptable, try to include at least one reference that is not directly in your area of expertise. Unless specified, 4-5 references is usually enough, although you may want to have others available and make note of such (“Other references available upon request”).

Notice that none of these includes specifics such as paper type, formatting programs, software, websites, or other nuts and bolts techniques. Will following these steps land you the job every time? Of course not, but taking the few extra minutes to make these steps will put you leaps and bounds ahead of most others applying for the work.

Are you working on your resume? What tips do you have for other readers? Leave a comment below!

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  1. Joolie

    I edited my resume every time I applied for a job, changing the order and including or excluding skills as applicable. Read the job description you’re applying for very carefully and target every single aspect of your resume, from cover letter to experience, to the job and company you’re addressing.
    Quality, not quantity, is key in applying for jobs.
    I took hours writing and re-writing my resume and cover letter for each job I applied to, but I only had to apply to three jobs. I was interviewed for two and hired by the first one. The second one called with an offer months later when the friend-of-a-friend who was hired didn’t work out. The third position was never filled.
    My present employer has stated attention to detail was a major factor in hiring me over the other 200+ candidates. This is fodder for another post, but the deciding factor why they chose me out of the short-list was how I treated email as business communication, with proper punctuation, words written in full, spelling correct, and the projection of a professional attitude.

  2. [email protected] Finance

    I actually work in HR and I agree with all of these things, except only including what is pertinent to the position at hand.

    To illustrate why I disagree:

    I am a blogger and freelance writer. I also work in HR. It certainly wouldn’t be pertinent to include my freelance writing skills on my resume when applying for an HR job. However, these skills have helped me land my jobs (current and past). A secondary skill of an HR professional is to be able to write policies, communicate effectively with many facets of the organization, and deliver information in appealing ways. While writing skills certainly wouldn’t make it on the job description, if you have a skill that may not apply in an obvious sense, I would say still include it 🙂

  3. JP

    Thanks for your post Adam.

    I work at a global management consulting firm. I have reviewed hundreds of resumes over the years.

    A couple super practical time saving tips to add to Adam’s good advice:

    1. Find The Best Formatted Resume. Then Copy It. – Otherwise it will take you hours and hours to start from scratch. Ask for resumes from all your friends, co-workers, and family. Then copy the format of the one you like the most. Will save you tons of time.

    2. Pay Someone $5 to Edit It…or $10…or $15. After you’ve stared at it for 10 hours you’re sure not going to find all the grammar and spelling mistakes. Choose a friend who is known as an excellent writer.

    3. Start All Bullets W/ Verbs or Don’t – Just be consistent.

    4. Practice Interviewing – Look people (not your resume) is going to get you your next job. Your connections, your friends, your next door neighbor – that’s the “in”. Your resume is table stakes.

    The #1 thing that makes a different in interviews is practicing before you walk in the room, hands down. It will determine 50% – 75% of how an interviews goes after you get one.