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Job Search Skills

Tips for Improving Your Resume

by Julie Dobrinska
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The sole purpose of a resume is to get an interview. Your resume should clearly explain what you've done and indicate what you're capable of doing. In a 30-second scan, you must entice an interviewer to want to know more, without giving them any reason to knock you out of the running. If this sounds like a daunting task, don't panic - there are hundreds of resources available to help with resume writing and just as many services that will actually prepare your resume.

Regardless of who creates your resume, however, it's up to you to check the details. Experts and friends can help, but you are the one with the vested interest. To start fine-tuning your resume, see how it stacks up in these areas:

1. Have You Included the Right KEYWORDS?
Keywords are nouns or phrases that relate to a particular position. Most recruiters search for qualified applicants using keywords. The resumes they receive are catalogued electronically and filtered using industry-specific keywords related to each particular position. If your resume contains these keywords, it will show up in their search. If not, you may be out of luck. That's how important keywords are. Even when computers aren't used, the person reading your resume will still be looking for words and phrases that directly relate to their needs.

So, whether your resume is being dumped into a database or viewed by a human, it should include 25-35 keywords related to the type of position you want. While some experts suggest having a "Key Characteristics" or even a "Keywords" Section, most suggest placing keywords throughout your resume – in the job history, professional summary, skills, education, and accomplishments sections.

Keywords commonly refer to:
  • Technical and professional areas of expertise
  • Job titles
  • Job descriptions
  • Projects, achievements, skills
  • Buzzwords and technical jargon
  • Licenses, credentials, affiliations
  • Tools, software programs, machines, and equipment

Keywords can be found in:
  • The job ad or posting that you are answering.
  • Other ads and job boards in general, where you can see what employers are looking for in your field
  • The standard job description for the advertised position. This information can be found in the Occupational Outlook Handbook or by searching online. Two websites that might be of help include Salarysource.com, which offers a free listing of basic job descriptions (job descriptions at Salarysource.com) and Monster.com, which has a lot of helpful job search advice, including a list of over 120 free job profiles (job profiles at Monster.com).
  • Trade Journals and magazines related to the occupation.
  • Organizations, affiliations, and websites associated with the position or field.

Examples:
(1) A resume for an administrative assistant, might include these keywords and phrases: administrative assistant, secretary, typist, transcription, dictation, Word, MS Office, Excel, Access, multi-tasking, organized, capable, excellent communication skills, ability to problem solve, flexible, office manager, meeting planning, switchboard, multi-line phones, purchasing, document preparation, etc.
(2) A resume for an environmental engineer might contain the following keywords and phrases: environmental engineer, environment, regulations, federal, state, and local statutes, compliance, inspections, wastewater, Excel, hazards, hazardous waste, AutoCAD, project management, groundwater sampling, soil sampling, remediation, analysis, communication skills, Superfund Site, petroleum, etc.

Resume keywords are an absolute necessity in today's job market. Using them does not guarantee employment, but not using them could bring your job search to a halt.

2. Does Your Resume Target a Specific Employer?
When it comes to resumes, one size does not fit all. You need to tailor your resume for each particular job opening. A quick review should show each employer that you have the skills and experience they want. This extra work is definitely worth the trouble, because fine-tuning is critical to reaching your immediate goal: an interview.

As you review your experience and accomplishments, highlight the skills and achievements that directly relate to each available position. Remember that employers are only interested in your ability to meet their specific needs.

Helpful hint: Create one master document with a complete list of all your experience, achievements, and skills in a resume format. Then revise this master document to fit each prospect. It can also serve as an excellent resource for completing job applications. You should update your master document along the way to reflect changes in your experience, mastering a new skill, getting a promotion, attending a workshop, meeting a specific goal, or receiving praise for a job well done. That way it's ready when you need it.

Keep in mind the 15-year rule for work experience. In general, you should not include any job history past 15 years to avoid potential age discrimination issues.

3. How Does Your Resume "Travel"?
There are many avenues by which you can apply for a job – you can apply online, post your resume on a website, answer an ad via snail mail or e-mail, or hand your resume to someone in person. And different avenues may require different formats.

For example: A Print format, A Scannable format, An ASCII or Plain Text format for posting online, An ASCII or Plain Text format for sending within the body of an email message (similar to the plain text format above, but uses shorter text lines and breaks in between sections for readability) An RTF (Rich Text Format) for sending as an email attachment

Here are some things to consider when doing an electronic resume:

1) Try to find out how the potential employer would like to receive the information (as an attachment or in the body of an email message) and send accordingly, 2) Edit your resume carefully to remove any symbols or unnecessary words, and 3) Send a "test" message to several friends who may have different computer setups to see how your resume travels before sending it to a potential employer.

Helpful hint: Always use standard fonts and bullets on electronic resumes. If you use a font or symbol that is not on the recipient's computer, their software will automatically substitute something else. Then you will have no idea how your resume may appear to the interviewer. One applicant used a non-standard bullet which turned into tiny little lips.

Also, whether you are using a hard copy of your resume or an electronic copy, including a cover letter is still a good idea. In an electronic version, the "cover letter" can either be an attachment or the email message itself. Numerous books and online resources can help you create both hard-copy and electronic resumes, so if you are doing this yourself, be sure to do thorough research!

4. And believe it or not, we still have to ask: Is Your Resume Error-Free?
After you spend hours customizing your resume, adding keywords, and working on the format, you don't want it to land in the discard pile because of a typo. Talk about a heartbreaker.

Typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors are a surefire way to get nixed and are completely preventable. So read your resume from top to bottom, then bottom to top; read it aloud, and then read it again. Ask a trustworthy friend or relative to go over it with a fine-tooth comb. Spelling and grammar might not matter in your next job, but they can prevent you from getting it in the first place!

Helpful hint: Don't rely on spell-check. Words can be spelled correctly and still be misused: there, their, they're; to, too, two; public, pubic; manager, manger - the possibilities are endless!

For more advice on various aspects of the job search process, check out other topics in our Job Search Skills category

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