The no-bullshit guide to resume content

Something about me: I’m a professional resume writer. Really. Certified and everything. I was good at it, so much so that my happy clients often hired me to write other things for them, too, thus turning my career as a resume writer into a career as a business writer. Which was awesome, and not just because business writing is more lucrative. No, it was mostly awesome because I’ve never had a single business client call me a rude name when I argued against the use of the word “languagely” (in an application for a teaching job), or have their scary lawyer dad call and yell at me over my suggestion that being captain of the high school football team should not have its own entry in the “Experience” section of a resume (when you’re 40), or say to me, “I know how confusing this must sound to someone of your probable IQ category” (while explaining something that would not be confusing to anyone except, maybe, the profoundly mentally challenged).

Seriously.

Resume writers get shit on regularly. Those of us who crossed into the earthly realm on the day the talent fairy was handing out “resume writing” really got the short end of the stick. Our gift isn’t entertaining or enviable. It won’t get us on America’s Got Talent. We don’t live in the upper echelons of the talent pool; we’re not even in the middle. We’re third class all the way, baby, mucking through the trenches, trying to sell someone’s ten-jobs-in-two-years swath of professional destruction as “highly adaptable!” and “knowledgeable in many industries!” while that same person – the very one who, in their original resume, claimed to be, “highly detail orented” and to have “excellent, writing skills” – insults our intelligence and morphs into a literary philosopher who wants to spend 40 minutes in an existential debate on periods versus “that little half-two-dot-thingie” (translation: semicolon) at the end of sentences in a bullet-point format.

This is why Rule #1 of the No-Bullshit Guide to Resumes is this:

If you hire a resume writer, don’t be an asshole.

Because if you are an asshole, and you catch her on the wrong day, the resume writer you think is struggling to understand just might, in fact, know that the 115 IQ you keep crowing about isn’t all that stunning. And when you mention putting this on your resume, she also just might decide to bow to your superior intellect… knowing full well that those five little characters will become the equivalent of a blinking neon light, broadcasting to hiring managers nationwide exactly how enormous an asshole you are.

So be nice.

Rule #2:

Relevant skills and knowledge, and the experiences where you got them. Period.

In other words: You’re not as interesting as you think you are.

I’m sorry.

In the eyes of your family and friends, you’re still a special snowflake, I promise. But unless a publishing company has given you an advance, don’t try to write your autobiography. Your resume is not a biographical document. It is a marketing piece. If you’re looking for a job, you are in sales. Your resume is your advertising. What are you selling?

  • Relevant skills
  • Relevant knowledge

Note that what you can do and what you know are only half the battle here. The other half is making sure what you include is relevant to the job that you want.

You’re not selling your big heart, or family, or athletic prowess, or commitment to the environment, or any of the other stuff that, sure, enriches your life or whatever. You’re not selling your hobbies (with rare exceptions) or volunteer work (with rare exceptions). You do not need to provide a detailed itemization of every job you’ve ever held since you were 16, or even an itemization of every job you’ve held in the last five years. Example… Let’s say you’re an administrative assistant. You’ve been an administrative assistant for 10 years and you’re applying for a new job as a – what else? – administrative assistant. Following so far?

Now let’s say that two years ago you took a second job scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins as a favor to your sister’s husband’s aunt’s doctor’s cousin’s friend’s wife’s depressed Schnauzer that needed an IV drip of bubble gum flavor ice cream that was too expensive without an employee discount hook up somewhere. You worked there for a year, until the dog died in a suspicious toy-retrieval incident, after which you put in a responsible two week notice, licked your last cone, and ended your illustrious career as an ice cream scooper.

Do you put Baskin Robbins on your resume?

NO. You do not. Why? Because no one cares. It doesn’t pass the “relevant” test.

“But… don’t I have to be honest about my work history?” you ask.

Yes, you do. BUT YOU DO NOT HAVE TO INCLUDE UNNECESSARY CRAP. It is not dishonest to exclude irrelevant information from your resume. If the experience does not work to actively promote the skills and knowledge required for the job you want, leave it out.

Advertisement. Not biography.

Rule #3:

Keep it simple.

Once you’ve identified the relevant skills and knowledge you need to share, and the experiences that support them, you need to figure out how to convey them on paper. At which point most people start writing descriptions (in bullet points! Stick with the bullet points!):

  • Made up a new slogan for a campaign targeting chicken nipple fetishists.
  • Put together files for the Herbivore or Pothead? series of public service announcements.
  • Reported on public opinion following the elephant toenail crisis of 2002.

If someone has researched resumes online or bought a resume book, they may have a list of FIFTY QUADRILLION RESUME POWER VERBS AND OBSCURE TERMS THAT MIGHT MAKE YOU SOUND IMPORTANT IF THE HIRING MANAGER IS A TOTAL MORON. In this case, they may write this same information as follows:

  • Conceived, actualized, spawned and instituted an adaxographic shibboleth for avian teat fanciers.
  • Coordinated and harmonized documentation related to the Herbivore or Pothead? public outreach endeavor.
  • Synthesized and recounted testimony on municipal hypotheses post-pachyderm keratin phalanges envelope crisis.

Unless this second person is applying to write for a thesaurus company, he or she should be kicked in the face. DO NOT DO THIS. It makes you look like an idiot.

DO use verbs, but only ones that (1) you already knew, and (2) make sense. Take it easy on industry jargon, and don’t try to use get fancy with the adjectives – stick with simple, easy to understand details, and only enough to help set basic context. Your average eighth grader should be able to understand what you’re saying. A better way to frame the above would be:

  • Developed and launched the new slogan for an international campaign promoting chicken nipple products.
  • Managed documentation and filing systems for the Herbivore or Pothead? series of public service announcements.
  • Analyzed and presented the results from public opinion polls following the elephant toenail crisis of 2002.

Simple and to the point.

Rule #4:

Prove it.

Now’s the real challenge. You’ve got the skills. You’ve got the knowledge. They’re relevant to the job. You know how to write about them.

Question: How does that make you different from any of the other people applying for the same job?

Answer: It doesn’t.

The same job posting that attracted you, with your skills and knowledge, is also going to attract every other job seeker with the same skills and knowledge. This goes back to rule #2 – you are not a special snowflake in the job-hunting world.

If your resume has this:

  • Developed and launched the new slogan for an international campaign promoting chicken nipple products.
  • Managed documentation and filing systems for the Herbivore or Pothead? series of public service announcements.
  • Analyzed and presented the results from public opinion polls following the elephant toenail crisis of 2002.

Then you can assume that the resume right below yours in the pile is going to have something like this:

  • Developed and launched the new slogan for an international licorice shoelace initiative.
  • Managed documentation and filing systems for the Mr. Gluten Is A Big, Bad Bully series of public service announcements.
  • Analyzed and presented the results from public opinion polls following the Chick-Fil-A ass clown attack of 2012.

So now what do you do?

You prove it.

Anyone can say they’ve done anything. I can say that I’m pregnant with Justin Bieber’s love child that was conceived through the virile powers of his masculine voice alone, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be rolling in millions of paternity payoff in ten months. (Or does it?) Not everyone can prove it. If you can, you’ve just won yourself an interview.

“Great,” you say. “How the hell am I supposed to do that? The only award I have is an Honorable Mention I got for clapping erasers together in middle school band, and you just yelled at me about how that’s not relevant.” Don’t worry, I’ve got your back. Because it’s not about awards. I mean, if you’ve got ’em, that’s great. Make sure you mention that you were named Top Executive Pet of the Year or whatever the case may be. But what you’re really looking for is results. What was the outcome of the work you did? Can you quantify it, either specifically or generally? If not, can you at least describe it?

  • Developed and launched the new slogan for an international campaign promoting chicken nipple products.

Great. But even better is:

  • Developed and launched the new slogan for an international campaign promoting chicken nipple products, resulting in an immediate increase in sales.

If you can put numbers to it, that’s the money shot:

  • Developed and launched the new slogan for an international campaign promoting chicken nipple products, resulting in a 100% increase in sales over a three-month period.

Don’t have access to the absolute specifics on the numbers, but can get close? Estimate it:

  • Developed and launched the new slogan for an international campaign promoting chicken nipple products, approximately doubling sales over a three-month period.

For everything on your resume, ask yourself, “What was the result?” Then prove it.

Rule #5:

Everything in reverse chronological order, including your writing.

Yes, I know. You were gifted a resume book when you graduated back in the early 90’s and it’s totally rad and turquoise, and it tells you that you don’t have to go in reverse chronological order, you can make this wicked awesome thing called a functional resume and fuck chronology because it’s soooooo Reagan-esque.

That book sucks. Burn it.

Chronology matters. It did not matter as much back in the 90’s, when the economy was good and the dot-com industry turned everything on its head, and when functional resumes were new and no one understood what the hell they were looking at. In 2012, functional resumes are buh-bye in almost every case (skilled resume writers know when and how to still make them work, when absolutely necessary – this is “do not try this at home” territory). Functional resumes are the calling card of parolees and chronic deadbeats. They’ve been used and abused as a tool to hide lengthy periods of unemployment for so long, that they raise instant suspicion in any experienced hiring manager.

List your experiences in reverse chronological order. Most recent first, followed by the one before that, and so on.

And then, within your bullet-point sentences, also write your information in reverse order.

This, again, goes back to what we talked about in rule #2. You are not writing an autobiography, you are writing a marketing piece. And in a marketing piece, you want the “hook” to be the most visible thing. Same deal here. In most forms of writing, we think chronologically:

I did A, which led to B, which resulted in C.

On your resume, you want to write it in reverse chronological order, so that the result comes first:

I made C happen when I did A and B.

So, to go back to our previous example:

  • Developed and launched the new slogan for an international campaign promoting chicken nipple products, approximately doubling sales over a three-month period.

We now have the final piece of the puzzle, the last bit of oomph to really bring this home. We need to take this information, and write it so that the result comes first. In doing so, we also want to remember to use a nice, appropriate, not ridiculous verb in the beginning. So we might end up with this:

  • Increased sales of chicken nipple products by approximately 100%, by developing and launching a new, international slogan.

Want to really blow them away? Bulk up your proof with the reason why it worked:

  • Increased sales of chicken nipple products by approximately 100%, by developing and launching a new, international slogan that used humor as a tool to reach former customers who turned to competitors during the elephant toenail incident of 2002.

In summary:

Rule #1: If you hire a resume writer, don’t be an asshole. They may get revenge in ways you’re too smart to notice.

Rule #2: Relevant skills and knowledge, and the experiences where you got them, and nothing more. This is an advertisement, not a biography.

Rule #3: Keep it simple. Use bullet points. Use verbs, but only ones you already knew. Provide easy to understand details for context. If you need a thesaurus, you’re doing it wrong.

Rule #4: Prove it. Set yourself apart with results. Quantify where you can, describe where you can’t, but always think in terms of results.

Rule #5: Everything in reverse chronological order, including your writing. No functional resumes. Experiences in reverse chronological order. Writing in reverse chronological order: results first, then actions. Bulk up your proof by adding simply stated explanations for why the result came to be.

Final Thought: All rules apply all of the time, except when they don’t. So above all else, use common sense. And probably hire a resume writer. But not me; I’m out of that shit.

Was this post helpful? Check out the second in the “no-bullshit” series, The no-bullshit guide to tough interview questions!

6 Responses to “The no-bullshit guide to resume content”

  1. Scott

    I recently found myself frustrated by how false I sounded while trying to write a resume. My reaction was to search for “no-bullshit reume”, which led me to this. I’m glad it did, as I find your perspective refreshing. I’d be grateful to read a similar tirade discussing cover letters, if such thoughts exist and could be put to paper. Thanks for sharing.

    • firstcityline

      I’m glad you liked it, Scott! I have plenty of snark for cover letters, I’ll have to think about putting together a post on it. :)

  2. Juan Miguel Pedraza

    Outstanding! Best on the Web. Reminds me of Chuck Klosterman. Love the language, the debunks, the killer use of tough love.

    Must reading for my MRKT 201-Personal Marketing students [University of North Dakota].

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