I don’t think anyone enjoys writing resumes. They can feel like pointless exercises in self-glorification at best, and exercises in the fine art of b.s. at worst. You have to take all the things you’ve done over the past 1-5 years and condense them into a 1-page document that will (hopefully) convince a person with hiring power to give you a job.
With all this pressure, all this confusion, it’s easy to just plug some random facts about yourself into one of those online resume generators and call it a day.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
I can’t promise you that I can make writing a resume fun, but I can show you how to do it as painlessly as possible. More importantly, I can show you how to write the resume that will cut through the stack of hundreds (or thousands) and get you that job, internship, or other opportunity you want.
In today’s post, I’m going to give you the lowdown on resumes. I’ll start with an explanation of what a resume is and why it’s important. Then, I’ll cover some common questions about resumes. Finally, I’ll show you how to create the perfect resume for the position you’re applying for (and how to stand out from the crowd).
Let’s get started!
What Is a Resume?
As I was researching this article, I realized that I didn’t know anything about the history of the resume. It’s such an accepted part of life these days that, much like the internet or pizza bagels, it’s easy to forget that it’s a recent invention.
Of course, how recent of an invention it is depends on what you define as a “resume”. The word comes from the French résumé, meaning “summary”. If we define a resume as a summary of job skills and experience, then the first resume dates from a letter that Leonardo da Vinci wrote to a potential employer between 1481 and 1482.
Resumes as we know them today, however, didn’t come into existence until the mid-twentieth century. By the 1970s, they looked much the way they do today: professionally formatted summaries of skills and experience that were expected with any job application.
Before this point, resumes did exist, but they were much more informal, often scribbled on scraps of paper. They also included information that would be, well, inappropriate on a modern resume such as height, weight, marital status, and religion.
To read a full, ahem, résumé of the resume’s history, check out this timeline from Business Insider.
So what purpose does a resume serve these days? After all, can’t potential employers just look up your skills and experience on your personal website or LinkedIn profile?
They can, and in some cases job applications will require you to apply with your LinkedIn profile. And it’s always a good idea to include a link to your personal website as part of your resume.
Still, the resume as a standalone document remains a key part of most job applications.
So why is your resume so important? Let’s have a more detailed look.
Why Resumes Are Important
Resumes matter because they show a potential employer two crucial things:
1. A Quick Summary of Your Experience
This is the most obvious function of the resume, but from an employer’s perspective it’s invaluable. If a job lists specific experience requirements or a minimum GPA, then it’s easy to filter out resumes that don’t include them.
It can also show the breadth of experience you have and even, in some cases, signal your qualifications. Someone who went to a prestigious school or interned at a prestigious company, for example, looks like a more qualified candidate (even if that isn’t actually the case).
2. Your Writing Skills
You might think that a cover letter is the best demonstration of your writing skills to a potential employer, but your resume also showcases key writing abilities.
It displays your ability to condense a large body of information into a concise, 1-page document.
It shows that you can organize information in a logical manner.
And, of course, a resume that’s free of spelling and grammatical errors shows that you’re careful enough to proofread and pay attention to details (more on the importance of proofreading later on).
5 Sections That Every Resume Should Include
We get into the nitty-gritty details of resume creation later in this guide. But if you just need a quick primer on what sections your resume should have (and what to include in each section), here’s a brief breakdown:
1. Work Experience
Your work experience is crucial for helping a potential employer decide if you’re qualified for the job.
When listing work experience, we recommend you use the following format:
- Name of company
- City and state of company (and the country, if the job was outside your home country)
- Title of your position
- Dates you worked at the company (month and year is fine; no need to include specific days)
- Bullet points explaining what you achieved at the company
Here’s what this looks like in a real resume:
Filling in most of this information is easy, but the bullet points explaining your achievements are where some people run into trouble.
Specifically, many people make the mistake of just describing their “official” job duties. However, this tells a potential employer nothing about what you actually did at the company.
To make this information more useful, highlight your achievements, not your duties. If you can include numbers and statistics to back up what you achieved, all the better.
For instance, take a look at Thomas’s sample resume. He doesn’t just say, “Built a YouTube channel.” You could say that even if you had a channel with zero subscribers.
Instead, he gets specific and says, “Built a YouTube channel with 1.4 million subscribers and 63 million total views.”
If I were a potential employer, those numbers would get my attention. I’d want to interview such a candidate just to hear more about how they managed to get so many views and subscribers.
Note: In addition to formal “jobs” at companies, your Experience section can also include any cool personal projects you want to highlight (such as your website).
Up next, you should include a section summarizing your highest level of education. That’s right — if you went to college, then no one cares where you went to high school. The only exception is if you have a master’s or professional degree. In that case, put that before your undergrad info.
Here’s the format we recommend for listing your education:
- Name of educational institution
- City/state of school (and country if you earned the degree abroad)
- Degree you earned, followed by the field you earned it in
- Date you earned your degree (if you’re a recent graduate)
- GPA (optional)
Here’s an example:
In general, I don’t recommend including your GPA if it’s lower than a 3.2. If you include a low GPA, you’re unnecessarily making a bad impression.
The skills section is your chance to showcase anything you can do that would make you more qualified for the job. To list your skills, just use this format:
- Category of skill: Specific skill name
Here’s an example Skills section:
When writing the Skills section, the most important things to keep in mind are:
- Make sure the skill is relevant — If you’re applying for a job in corporate HR, for instance, then your spearfishing certification doesn’t matter.
- Make sure it’s actually a skill — Specifically, you want to include hard skills. Examples include software you can use, languages you can speak, and processes you know how to perform. Leave out soft skills, such as “good communicator” or “great leader.” You can demonstrate these during the interview.
For more tips on skills, skip to this section of the article.
4. Extracurriculars and Leadership
If you just graduated, then this is a chance to add some additional experiences that weren’t technically “work” but that are relevant to the job.
This section can include formal extracurriculars and leadership positions at your university/in your community.
When listing extracurriculars and clubs, just use this format:
- Name of club and name of leadership position (if applicable), followed by the years you were in the club/held the position
Here’s an example Extracurriculars and Leadership section:
5. Honors and Awards
This last section is a chance to showcase any impressive honors or awards you received while you were in college (or even outside of college).
Here are some examples of things to include in this section:
- Honor roll/dean’s list
- Fellowships/research grants
- Honor societies
If the honors and awards are relevant to the job, that’s even better. For instance, if you’re applying for an engineering position and you were part of your school’s engineering honor society, that’s definitely something to include.
Here’s an example Honors and Awards section:
Common Resume Questions
Now that we understand why resumes are important, we can move on to some common questions students have when creating resumes.
Some of these are literal questions that I had when I created my first resume, and others are based on common problems I’ve observed when helping others create resumes.