Write and Ready

Avoid the most violated résumé-writing rules



This is the problem with the résumé-writing world: Everyone thinks they are an exception to the rules. Everyone thinks they can pick and choose which rules are important. Do not do this. Until you work in human resources and personally scan 300 résumés a day, you are in no position to discard rules of résumé writing. Here are the six most violated rules among the résumés that people send to me to review:

One page. The point of a résumé is to get you an interview, not a job. A hiring manager has to sift through a pile of résumés to figure out which person to interview. Each résumé gets about a 10-second look. If you think you need a longer résumé, give someone one page of your résumé and have them look at it for 10 seconds. Ask them what they remember; it won't be much. They are not going to remember any more information in 10 seconds if you give them two pages to look at; 10 seconds is 10 seconds.

Ditch the line about references on request. It's implied. Of course, if someone wants a reference, you will give one. No one presumes that you will not. So when you write that you will provide a reference, you seem to not understand how the game is played. (Bonus tip: If you have an excellent reference, like a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who vacations with your mom, have the reference call before you even go to the interview. It sets the tone for the employer to think you are amazing.)

Tread lightly on the personal interests line. Your personal interests are not there to make you look interesting. They are there to get you an interview. Every line on your résumé is there to get you an interview. So only list personal interests that reveal a quality that will help you meet the employer's needs. If you are in sports marketing, then by all means, list that you kayak. If you were an Olympic athlete, put it down because it shows focus and achievement. If you are a mediocre hobbyist, leave it off. Personal interests that don't make you stand out as an achiever do not help you. Personal interests that are weird make you look weird, and you don't know if your interviewer likes weird, so leave weird off the résumé.

You must list achievements, not job duties. Anyone can do a job. Achievements show you did the job well. Past performance is the best indicator of future performance, so don't let someone think you just showed up for your last job and didn't do it well. It's very hard to see your achievements from the trenches. You might think you did not have achievements because your boss doesn't ask you to do achievements; your boss asks you to do tasks and projects. But if you do not see achievements, you need to recognize that and ask for help to see them. A résumé coach, or even a friend, can help you to see them more clearly.

Don't be a designer unless you are one. If you have more than three fonts on your résumé and you are not a designer, I can promise you that you have botched the layout. If design were easy, no one would get paid for it. Recognize your strengths and keep design elements to the bare minimum. And please, save Photoshop for cards to your mom. Just because you know how to use the shading tools doesn't mean you know how to use them well.

Penelope Trunk has launched new businesses for multinational corporations and she founded two of her own companies. Trunk's forthcoming book is Brazen Careerist: New Rules for Success (Warner Books, May 2007).

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