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Dust Off Your Résumé This Spring

Marcelle Yeager
How not to mess up a cover letter

Every night you go home from your less-than-satisfying job determined to update your résumé, which you haven't opened in five years. You stare anxiously at the closed file on your laptop, shut the cover and decide to watch reality TV instead.

Many people have just done the same exact thing. It's time to break free of the pattern, move on and spring clean your résumé.

Set aside an hour on a Saturday or Sunday and mark it on your calendar and do the same the following Saturday or Sunday and the ones after that. Tackling it on the weekend is best since you're less burned out from the daily grind and more well-rested. And revising your résumé over a few weeks gives you a fresh perspective each time and won't be as daunting as working on it for hours in one sitting. Each time, print it out and get your red pen ready, because there is a lot you can miss if you only review it on the computer.

As you read through your résumé, imagine you are a hiring manager reviewing an applicant's résumé and not your own. Ask yourself these five key questions as you read.

1. Do I like this person enough to want to read past the first few lines? It only takes someone about six seconds to decide whether to read your résumé closely, so you need to catch his or her eye immediately. How can you do this? Under your name and contact information, write a brief career summary that states your current job title, years in your field and your strengths. This only needs to be two or three lines long. Eventually you will tailor this to the job description to which you are applying, using the same idea.

Putting your greatest accomplishments at the top is another option. What are you most proud of? Select two or three standout moments to feature in bullet format.

2. Do the bullets under each job give specific examples of work she's performed and/or outcomes? The days of simply listing job duties are over. You need to get specific with your bullets, so instead of saying "wrote reports for top management," give details. What kind of reports and how many? In what department is the top management for whom you wrote?

If one of your reports received kudos from a colleague or client, if it was referenced in a publication or acknowledged by a top manager, that's what you need to include in your bullet along with the report title. Results are what human resource managers want to see. Of course you need to keep in mind confidentiality rules, but if you can provide the name of a report and details, go for it.

3. Is the font legible and is the résumé concise? There is always debate about the right length for a résumé, but one page is still preferred. You can work toward this by taking your red pen and striking out superfluous words. Most people can benefit from this exercise. Check your margins -- Can you make them smaller without going outside the printable page? If you can't get it down to one page, get it as close as possible.

Are you using a simple font like Arial or Times New Roman? If not, change it to something easy to read. You may think you're unique by choosing Symbol font, but truly, it's only distracting. You don't want a hiring manager puzzling over your fancy font instead of getting to know you. Size is also very important, so stick to size 10 and above.

4. Are there many cliché or overused phrases? Résumé readers do not like seeing clichés. Examples are: "excellent written and oral communication skills," "demonstrated time management skills" and "team leader and player with the ability to get the job done." It's fantastic that you possess those skills, but it doesn't make you stand out from a crowd. Candidates write those things all the time, so you want to go a step further and show these characteristics by providing specific examples of how you've demonstrated those great qualities on the job.

5. Are there mistakes in the text? Are there a consistent number of spaces between words and after periods? Did you misspell a word? If you have even a slight mistake, it is a huge distraction because the reader will stop paying attention to you and will be looking for other mistakes. Managers are likely to weed out résumés with only a few mistakes or with minuscule or distracting font to whittle down the pile.

The best way to rid your résumé of mistakes is to review it on paper. Review it once, twice or even up to five times. Ask three additional people, family members or friends, to look at it for you after you've done multiple reviews of it yourself. Then you need to review it again after you've received their edits. This is so important, and yet, so many people send in résumés with mistakes.

If you follow this advice, it will take several weeks to get a good résumé clear of mistakes, but it is worth it. Your résumé is your only way in. If you don't clean it up, you may not get that call.

Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet (@careervalet), which delivers personalized career navigation services. Her goal is to enable people to recognize skills and job possibilities they didn't know they had in order to make a career change or progress in their current career. She worked for more than 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Marcelle holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.

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