Effective Résumé Writing

Miscellaneous

I recently completed a successful job search in which my résumé got a high response rate. In this post, I’ll share my thought process so that you can also create an effective résumé.

Empathy for the Reader

People write résumés because it’s a step toward achieving their personal goals. However, your résumé will be ineffective if you write it only from your own perspective. The purpose of a résumé is to impress your reader, and they don’t care what you want. Instead, imagine your reader as a panicked recruiter with an overflowing inbox. They’re only going to skim what you’ve written. You have maybe five seconds to get their attention.

For some reason, conventional wisdom dictates that there should be an ‘Objective’ section at the top of every résumé. However, stating an objective doesn’t make sense, given that your reader doesn’t care what you want. You must instead grab their attention by explaining your value to their organization. I recommend using a personal summary that describes your skills or experience in a one-sentence elevator pitch. The goal for the summary is to survive the first five seconds.

For similar reasons, the rest of your content should be sorted in order of relevance.

Brevity

Limit yourself to a single page, and don’t worry about trimming content to get to that length. If your reader makes it to the end of the page and still wants elaboration, they’ll contact you.

The famous designer, Dieter Rams, coined the phrase ‘less but better’ to describe his design philosophy. This mantra can guide you to strip out the irrelevant pieces of information that make their way into early drafts. If that’s too abstract, consider it another way: I’ve done interviews where we go through my résumé line by line, in methodical, agonizing detail. If there’s anything you’re not 100% proud of and comfortable discussing, delete it.

Attention to Detail

It’s worth repeating the standard advice about spelling and grammar: writing a résumé free of trivial errors is a great way to show that you give attention to detail.

If you’re applying online, it’s likely the recipient is reading your résumé in the original digital format instead of printing it. Make sure any URLs or email addresses are clickable links. It’s a waste of your reader’s time to copy and paste that information.

Design Principles

To be effective, your résumé must stand out visually, especially to recruiters who aren’t versed in the jargon of your field. We can get the necessary visual polish by using a series of concepts called prägnanz gestalt principles. Here are the applicable principles, and the way I used them:

Proximity describes the idea that your reader will naturally associate two pieces of information if they’re close to each other on the page. The opposite is true of pieces of information with space between them. Embrace both of these ideas by keeping headings close to the content they describe, while also leaving space between sections. Without any empty space, your résumé will look like an impenetrable wall of text.

Similarity describes how elements that have similar characteristics are perceived to be conceptually similar and of equal importance. In a résumé, this applies to our font size and font weight (i.e. light, regular or bold). In my résumé, I use the same font throughout, but vary the size and weight to guide the reader’s eye. Based on these attributes, a reader should immediately know which bits of text are headings and titles vs descriptions of finer details.

Continuity describes how shapes and lines in an image guide the eye toward the next focal point. In a résumé, this manifests as different amounts of indentation. The shape of your indentation should guide your reader’s eye and clearly communicate the relative importance of different pieces of information.

Font

Font can be the difference between a résumé that feels stiff and stodgy vs one that feels slick and easy to read, so we must choose carefully.

There are two categories of fonts: serif and sans-serif. Serifs are the small shapes added to embellish a glyph. Here’s an example of the difference:

An example of a serif and sans serif glyph

The ‘A’ glyph from two different fonts. Sans-serif on the left. Serif on the right.

The difference in legibility between these two categories is the subject of a nuanced and ongoing debate, but most people agree that sans-serif is easier to read when viewing the text on a small or low-resolution screen. Consider the probability of your reader viewing résumés on their smart phone.

We also want a font that communicates the appropriate tone. If you’re in a more formal field, a serif is likely appropriate. In other fields, a sans-serif can convey friendliness and approachability. Remember that not all fonts are created equal. See Comic Sans for an example of a font you should never use under any circumstance. Instead, use a font that looks clean and professional. For examples, see Georgia or Garamond for serif and Helvetica or Calibri for sans-serif.

An Example

Here’s a lorem ipsum résumé that incorporates the above ideas of empathy, brevity, gestalt, and font:

Example Resume

Click to see full size.

Keep in mind that I’m a software developer, and the format is tailored to that profession. You should adapt it to be applicable to your field as appropriate.

Time to Apply

I hope this post has given you some actionable ideas for improving your résumé. Now the rest of the process is up to you. Good luck.

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2 thoughts on “Effective Résumé Writing

  1. Good post. I’m glad to see appreciation for design, which should always be beyond and above the purpose of just aesthetics. Although nowadays the term is interchangeable —like the common, incorrect switch of “kerning” for “tracking” or letter-spacing—, the proper word for “font” should be “type-face”, for the sake of precision. Another suggestion is that left aligned text and shorter lines always makes it easier for the reader.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. Great point about the text alignment. You’re correct that ‘typeface’ is more proper, but I used the term ‘font’ to make it clearer for the intended audience (empathy for the reader, as discussed above).

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