"A bad resume can certainly keep you from getting a job, but a good resume won't usually be the reason an employer hires you," Ballard says, adding that strong networking skills are often more important than the right resume.
Still, having a good resume counts for a lot. And in a tight job market, even little questions like "How long should my resume be?" can frustrate and confuse job seekers.
Presenting your resumeYears ago, job applicants mailed, hand-delivered or faxed their resumes. Now your resume will likely reach an employer either through email or an online submission form. Either way, you need to think about how you're going to present your resume without garbling it in transmission, says Ballard.
"If you are submitting online and they give you the option to upload a PDF, that's where you want to use your nicely formatted resume," Ballard says. "Keeping it in PDF format will ensure that the formatting stays intact."
If you can only upload your resume as a Microsoft Word document or you're asked to paste it into the body of an email, Ballard tells job seekers to keep the formatting simple and save it as a rich text file, or RTF. "That way," she says, "if the formatting is stripped, the end result will be close to what you submitted."
Typos and other mistakes -- rather than formatting -- are much more likely to cause an employer to overlook your resume, says Ballard.
As for style, Ballard says it's best to avoid gimmicks such as designs and colors. Keep it clean and simple because employers usually scan resumes. Bulleted lists can be used to break up longer paragraphs and move the reader's eye down the page. And while English teachers may cringe at this advice, many resume writers say it's OK to use incomplete sentences in favor of concise, descriptive statements.
And remember, if you do get asked for an interview, make sure to print copies of your resume on nice paper and bring them with you.
Updating your resumeOf all the questions surrounding the resume process, none is more vexing than how far back a job seeker should go in describing his or her relevant work history. Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to that question, according to Tiffani Murray, an Atlanta-area resume writer, HR veteran, and author of "Stuck on Stupid: A Guide for Today's Professional Stuck in a Rut."
For job seekers who have spent decades in the workforce, Murray says it's usually not necessary to detail every position they've held. This isn't always true for today's younger workers though, as they are increasingly changing jobs every few years. In what could be dozens of relevant jobs they'd want to list, they'll need to scrutinize the position to which they want to apply. The key to deciding whether to include a particular job is to always show progression. Just know that showing progress doesn't always mean including the internships you had in your early 20s, Murray says.
Even as more jobs are becoming the norm, she says recent college graduates shouldn't try to beef up their work experience just to fill space because employers will see right through that.
"Employers looking at recent college grads don't expect them to have a ton of experience, so there's no point in embellishing," she says. Instead, recent grads should be honest about their experience and use their cover letter and interview to make their case.
Do you need a second resume?In a tough job market, you often hear that it's important to expand your job search. But widening the scope of your search may mean that you'll need a second resume, says Murray.
"It is a good idea to have different versions of your resume, particularly if you have diverse skill sets," says Murray. "For example, if you've worked as an IT developer and as an IT project manager, you may be open to both types of job openings. The foundational resume may be the same, but you can create a version more geared to developer work, and then take the same foundational version and tailor it to project management."
The goal, says Murray, is to create two documents that are different enough to be considered in two different job pools while maintaining your overall story.
"If you only create a catch-all, generic resume, you may find that you don't have enough specific details for either position," she says. "With each job you apply to it's OK -- and a good idea -- to make small tweaks to your resume that address items in the job description and relate them to your work experience or skills."
Sweating the small stuff
Anyone who has ever written their resume has probably heard more than their share of advice when it comes to including things such as GPA and the length of the resume. The truth is these things do matter, but only in specific cases, says Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
"In most fields, no matter what your age and experience, one page is usually enough," says Langerud. "(But) that does not apply to fields like education, arts and science research. If you must go to a second page, then make sure the most relevant information is on the first page, because (the reader) may not get to Page 2."
The decision to include your grade point average is usually a question of how long you've been out of school. "The more experience you have," says Langerud, "the less it matters."
For recent college graduates, Langerud says it's a 50-50 chance whether the employer will want to see it. "If they want to know ... tell them," he says.
Like it or not, keywords play a big part in vetting resumes, so it's important for job applicants to understand how a keyword-rich resume can improve their chances of getting called in for an interview.
"Keywords are used by hiring managers for a reason," says Kevin Burns, director of the undergraduate business career center at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. "They describe what the hiring managers need."
Because keywords represent the bare bones of a job description, Burns says it's perfectly fine to cut and paste about 70 percent of the keywords you see from a relevant job ad into your resume. Use the remaining usage on related keyword synonyms, changes in tense, word order and word combinations. Burns says this keeps "your resume from looking like you are a lazy cut-and-paste-only artist."
Resumes that simply lift relevant keywords wholesale are easy to spot partially because they are incredibly hard to read, Burn says. While going that route might get your resume through the first selection round, it won't necessarily make you out to be better hiring choice.
It seems old-fashioned to submit a cover letter when you are already transmitting your resume via emails and forms, but it's absolutely critical, says Ian Siegel, CEO of ZipRecruiter, a Santa Monica, Calif., online job board that matches employers with job seekers.
"One-third of hiring managers throw out applications without a cover letter," says Siegel. "That's a big risk for job seekers who don't send one."
It can be tricky to write an effective cover letter that gets noticed. Siegel says the key is to think of the cover letter as a companion piece to the resume.
"The resume is all about the job seeker's abilities and experience, and the cover letter is about applying those abilities and experiences to the job," Siegel says. "To do this, the job seeker needs to articulate how she can help the company. Remember, the job is open because the company has a void. As a job seeker, you need to show how you can fill that void."
Before you send off a prewritten response, make sure to reread the job posting for tone, Siegel says. "Mimicking the company's language and personality will help the job seeker demonstrate a cultural fit."
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