Your resume is not about you. Sure, it has your name at the top and it traces your career progression. But to serve its true purpose — securing you a great job — it can’t be a mere autobiography.
Instead, experts say, your resume should be a mirror, one designed to reflect the ideal candidate for the open position you seek.
What hiring managers are looking for is evidence that applicants’ skills will help meet the company’s goals. So when considering what to include on a resume, don’t just list a summary of qualifications like job titles, dates and duties.
“A resume needs to clearly convey what you can do for employers,” says Katherine Akbar, president of Your Edge for Success, a writing and career services company based in the District of Columbia region. “The biggest mistake that people make is only talking about what they have done and failing to show the benefit they have provided.”
Here’s how to turn your resume into an irresistible reflection by packing it with direct explanations and subtle clues about your career skills.
Do Your Homework
It’s fussy and time-consuming, but the secret to job-hunting success is tailoring your resume to every single position you apply for, says Heather Barker, director of human resources for oil and gas company TGS.
Each employer looks for a unique combination of skills and experience, and you should do your best to align your resume with the profile of each company’s ideal candidate (while remaining honest, of course). To figure out this profile, read the job advertisement thoroughly.
Additionally, employers want to hire people who understand the company culture and share its values. To discern these details, check out the company’s website and social media accounts and talk to current or former employees.
Include Keywords in Your Skills Section
Many companies run job seekers’ resumes through applicant tracking systems designed to search for specific keywords. Resumes that don’t contain these magic words are automatically discarded.
Keywords often are present in job advertisements, so be sure to read each one carefully to identify phrases that will ensure your resume makes the cut. After you’ve picked the keywords out, “make sure those appear at least once and preferably more than once in a resume and cover letter,” Akbar says.
Additionally, she recommends saving space on your resume for a “separate section of core competencies,” or a list of skills. These should contain probable keywords and mirror the requirements of the job you’re seeking, plus include anything else relevant to the industry in general. On a resume for a position in computer science, for example, list the coding languages and software you know how to use that the job will require.
Employers look for people whose career experience closely matches the responsibilities of the job for which they’re hiring, which means that a specific job title might be a keyword. If you’ve never held a position with the exact title of the one for which you’re applying, but your responsibilities were a match, explain that with a brief phrase in parentheses, Akbar says: Associate People Coordinator (human resources associate).
Akbar recommends job seekers use the website Jobscan.co to compare their resumes to specific job advertisements and identify keywords they may be missing.
Skills to Put on a Resume
Even though every employer has unique needs, most share a few common goals, Akbar says. Many are looking for people with these key abilities:
— Increasing revenue
— Saving time
— Making processes more efficient
— Solving problems
— Improving the company’s reputation
— Preventing liabilities
— Cutting costs
If you have job skills that can help meet these needs, include them on your resume. Explain how you’ve used them in previous jobs in a way that makes it immediately clear to a hiring manager how you will use them at his or her company.
Keeping applicant tracking systems, keywords and key abilities in mind, these are skills to consider including on your resume if they’re relevant to the job you seek, along with explanations for why they matter:
— Client advocacy, client success or customer service: These phrases reflect company philosophies. Using them shows you understand and can fit into the corporate culture.
— Project management: You can keep track of multiple moving pieces, coordinate with co-workers and turn projects in on time.
— Leadership: If you’re applying for a management role, this is an essential skill to possess. It means you can inspire and organize other people.
— Flexibility: You can learn and adapt quickly as responsibilities and business models change.
— Reliability: You do what you say you’re going to do. You meet deadlines and accomplish goals.
— Attention to detail: You care about the particulars and turn in work that’s highly polished.
— Writing, editing or public speaking: You can communicate clearly to co-workers, supervisors and clients.
— Data analysis: You have a mathematical mind and can distill important information from spreadsheets.
— Proficiency or fluency in languages other than English: This is an asset in the increasingly global economy.
However, Akbar notes, “you would want to be wary of including things to just sound boilerplate.” Only include skills that relate directly to the specific job advertisement and company.
Show, Don’t Tell
Writing teachers implore students to not only state their point, but also convey it indirectly through their choice of words, sentence structure and telling details. The same philosophy — show, don’t tell — applies to communication on resumes. Rather than write “excellent communication skills” on your resume, demonstrate your talent by submitting polished application materials.
“Don’t tell people you’re detail-oriented; show you are detail-oriented with the care with which you prepare your resume,” Akbar says.
That means the punctuation and formatting should be consistent, she explains, and the document should be edited and proofed repeatedly until it is error-free.
All companies in all industries, even technical fields like the one for which Barker hires, want employees who are effective communicators, she says. “We want to make sure their writing skills are effective, and they pay attention to detail,” she explains. “If you’re not going to spend the time to triple check for errors, you’re not a good fit for us.”
Another skill essential to demonstrate is the ability to understand and follow directions. If a job advertisement asks for specific information on your resume, provide it. And if the ad instructs applicants to submit their materials a certain way, either via email, through the company website or via the mail, follow those instructions.
“The way people send in their resume matters,” Barker says.
Quantify Your Resume Job Skills
When it comes to describing your accomplishments, numbers are more compelling than assertions, Akbar says, and she recommends quantifying your skills whenever possible.
She provides an example: “If you were to say, ‘I created a new process that saved my previous employer time,’ people might believe you. If you say, ‘I created a new process [that] saved 10 hours of employee time per week,’ that’s concrete and it’s much more persuasive.”
So if you increased productivity or raised revenue, by how much? If you attracted new customers or social media followers, how many? These are the kinds of questions your resume should answer.
Watch Your Language
The language job seekers use to describe their skills often reveals how much experience they have, Barker says.
For example, a hiring manager might assume that someone whose resume says “I created policies and hired 12 people” is less tenured than another applicant whose resumes says “I collaborated with the chief executive to create a new strategic plan and executed a 10 percent staff reduction.”
Improve your resume by upgrading your vocabulary. Use descriptive verbs like “collaborated,” “persuaded,” “pioneered,” “revamped,” “exceeded” and “acquired” to vividly explain your accomplishments and skills at the same time as you convey expertise.
Don’t Forget Soft Skills
Emotional intelligence, people skills, soft skills … there are many terms for the ability to, in the wise words of our kindergarten report cards, “play well with others.” Many employers look for candidates who have strong social skills, especially for leadership roles, Barker says.
Interviews and cover letters tend to reveal emotional intelligence, which is not always easy to demonstrate in a resume. But there are ways to inflect your resume with hints of humanity that imply you’re a pleasant co-worker or caring manager.
As mentioned above, word choice can be revealing. A supervisor who “oversaw 10 direct reports” comes across quite differently from a supervisor who “mentored my team to help us succeed at our shared goals.” The former sounds like a mere boss, while the latter seems like a true leader who motivates other people.
“Verbs really depict your philosophy on management,” Barker says. “If you look at the resume in its entirety, you’ll be able to see those threads woven in and out of each of their roles.”
Balance Confidence With Humility
Some job seekers succumb to the temptation to use their resumes to boast about their skills. Be wary of coming on too strong, says Lauren Salomon, principle consultant with People Advantage and industrial-organizational psychologist: “You should be careful about over-exaggerating. Maybe they’ll never check to see that you made $40 million for the company, but you never know. They can verify things.”
Instead, be strategic about the ways you try to manage the impression you give to employers. Research published recently in the Journal of Business and Psychology found that job seekers who engage in too much self-promotion in their cover letters and resumes come across as unlikable, which hurts their prospects. Meanwhile, job seekers who promote themselves but also use “ingratiation tactics,” like giving compliments, expressing gratitude and echoing opinions, do better. These balancers seem confident without being arrogant, according to the study, ” Impression Management Use in Resumes and Cover Letters.”
The takeaway for job seekers is, “if you are going to brag, do so in a way that people will still think that you are nice,” study co-author Marie Waung, professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, said in an email.
This advice is especially relevant for women, for whose self-promotion hiring managers typically display a lower tolerance, Waung says.
Skills to Leave off a Resume
Hiring managers receive dozens or hundreds of applications for each open position. To stand out from the pack, avoid using cliched terms to describe your skills, recommends Salomon.
“Things like ‘team player’ and ‘people person,’ people are tired of hearing that,” she says. “It gets their attention more where you can demonstrate that you’ve shown these skills.”
Hiring managers are generally not interested in skills you’ve honed in your free time related to hobbies, Barker says. When editing your resume, personal skills should go.
“I don’t really want to know what they do outside of work time on a resume,” she explains. “You have limited space. If you’re putting that information in where you could have been putting more skills, it could detract.”
And don’t include skills that are too basic or are only relevant to jobs more entry-level than the one you’re applying for. For example, unless the job advertisement specifically mentions it, there’s no need to indicate that you can type.
“You might be strong at file management, but if you’ve progressed past doing clerical work, you’re not going to list that,” Akbar says.
Leave these skills off your resume:
— Microsoft Office
— Data entry
— Outdated coding languages or software
— Cliched soft-skill terms, like “people person” and “team player”
More from U.S. News
Update 10/17/18: This article was originally published on Dec. 18, 2017, and has been updated to include new information.