Writing a resume is, for some individuals, a straight forward task -- develop a marketing piece that targets the right employers, with the information they want, in a format that communicates clearly. For others sitting down to write a resume appears to be an exercise in shooting in the dark. They not only do not know what types of employers they are attempting to motivate, they are not clear what skills or experiences they possess that might be valued. In either case, the development of an effective resume is the same process.
To write a resume that works, you begin by understanding the purpose of the document, how it will be read, what it does, and what it cannot do.
The resume is not a personal history. It is a concise, clearly stated outline of your education, work, and volunteer and co-curricular experience that highlights your qualifications for employment -- full time, summer, or internship. Where possible, it targets a specific audience and uses language that will connect with and motivate that audience. If you have not identified the audience you are trying to reach, you should begin by satisfying the toughest audience you have -- yourself.
The resume is a marketing document that rarely travels alone. It is most often accompanied by a cover letter that serves to further establish the specific connection between your qualifications and the needs of the potential employer. In those instances in which a letter is not included, it is most likely because you are hand-carrying the resume. Your conversation serves to describe how your qualifications "fit" the description of need that the employer has stated -- whether in a job description, an advertisement, or in a marketing brochure. Finally, the resume might be delivered by a third party -- a parent, an alum, or someone with whom you have developed a relationship through networking. It is the job of this person to connect you to the employer.
Most resumes are read in one of two ways. In the first scenario, a person reads through one or a stack of several hundred resumes. Most readers read twice. They skim the resume seeking to understand the nature of your experience and how it might have the potential to meet their needs. Then they go back, seeking more depth which will establish the connection between their needs and you. In the second scenario, the resume is "skim-read" by computer. It is actually assessed through a keyword search. Specific qualifications, skills, traits, or languages listed in the position description are sought. The range of keywords used will vary according to the needs of the job. The can be fairly general such as: leadership, management, supervision, creative, problem solving, research. They can also be specific,: Mandarin, C++, area of concentration, GPA, editorial, performance type. The machine read resume then goes to a reader for further analysis and confirmation of the "fit."
In either case, it is important that the resume can be read quickly and that important information is described accurately and assertively. Whether you are an undergraduate, a graduating senior, or a graduate student your resume will be a presentation that documents your general qualifications which might include:
* your ability to learn quickly;
* to adapt to new environments;
* to research, analyze, and solve problems;
* to work with and/or lead a team;
* to follow instructions;
* to deal with ambiguity;
* to make decisions; and
* to communicate effectively.
Preparing to write your resume. Start by writing a comprehensive outline of all the experiences and facts you might want to include in your resume. Keep this outline as a reference while you experiment with a variety of formats and styles.
Understand what employers are looking for. Identify several prospective employers and gather information - ideally by visiting people at the place of work, or at least from company and vocational literature - about what qualifications that kind of job requires.
Show your resume to your friends and your advisers. Friends can tell you whether they think you have succeeded in communicating your strengths. Advisors can comment on the impression your resume makes and what they learn about you from it. When you interview career advisors to learn about occupations and gather job hunting advice, you may ask them to critique your resume as well.
The Harvard Guide to Careers has information and advice on how to write a resume and cover letter. Sample resumes and letters are included to help you get started on designing your own presentation. Attend an Introduction to Writing Resumes and Cover Letters meeting which is held once a month. If you would like to see a counselor about planning your job hunt and preparing your resume, make an appointment with the counselor of your choice. If you would like a counselor to review a draft of your resume, come to a Resume Review Session, Monday-Friday, 1:30-3:30.
Choose the format that best communicates your qualifications.
Most employers - especially in business - prefer a one page resume. These employers want an effectively organized and concise presentation of the most pertinent information about you. Employers in education, public service, and human services do not seem to have a strong preference, but a concise presentation shows that you appreciate the value of their time. If in doubt about resume length, ask counselors and career advisors.
Remember that a resume is a sample of your work. If you claim skill in organization and ability to communicate clearly and concisely, your resume should demonstrate your proficiency in those skills.
You must make judgments about what is most important and allot space accordingly. Descriptions of jobs performed and accomplishments must be brief and listing of activities selective. If you can't fit your resume on one page, put all of the most important information on the first page. Certain information that is included in longer resumes, such as a list of publications or a list of references, may be presented separately as attachments if you decide that they are important to your application. Other attachments may include an annotated transcript, clippings, writing sample, portfolio, and letters of recommendation.
Make purposeful use of capitals, bold, positioning, and spacing. Beware of using small type. If your resume is difficult to read, you will reduce your readership. It is best to avoid both underlining and italics which are likely to produce a blurred image if your resume is faxed or electronically scanned. Use white or ecru paper with matching envelopes and paper for your cover letters. Don't use brightly-colored paper - it will overshadow your message, it faxes poorly, and is more likely to land in the waste basket.
Style: Style also communicates a message. Staccato phrases or incomplete sentences such as "Designed data collection system. Analyzed data and prepared 60-page report" give an efficient, action-oriented impression. For some people, however, the flow of complete sentences is more suitable.
Appearance: Your resume should be neat, uncrowded, attractive, and easy to read. Accuracy in use of language, information, and spelling is key. Word processing on a computer is the most efficient way to produce your resume as you can try out different formats easily. It is not advisable to print your resume on a dot matrix printer. Laser jet and other types of letter quality printers are available in a variety of places around the University. Check and double check to make sure that there are absolutely no errors.
Content: Your resume will contain your name, address, and telephone number, and information about your education and work experience. Other sections, titles, and arrangements are at your discretion. Education and experience are usually presented in reverse chronological order. Give the most space to the most important experience. If you have several years of experience in your career field, your resume will focus on more specific accomplishments and skills. If you have years of work experience in several fields or are changing fields, a resume organized by skill areas may be more appropriate than a chronological resume.
Name, address and telephone: This is the most important information on the resume. Usually it is centered with your name in capital letters at the top of the page. If you must give a school address and a home address, place your name at top center and the addresses to the right and left.
Education: If you are a student or have just completed your education, put this section first. List your degrees or degree expected and date, your concentration, subject of senior honors thesis, and electives which are relevant to your employers. Include selected honors if you have received recognition for outstanding academic work. Ph.D. students should list their department, area of interest, dissertation topic, relevant courses, and selected honors.
Secondary school is usually listed on undergraduate resumes. Space devoted to honors and/or activities should depend on their contribution to the total presentation.
Work Experience: This section should include all experiences, paid and unpaid and extracurricular activities, which have given you the opportunity to learn to be an effective participant in an organization. Skills such as computer programming or foreign language fluency, you may want to list in a skills section.
Activities: If you are an undergraduate, your most relevant experiences in organizational and administrative work may be in your activities. You may want to describe your most career-related activities in the Experience section. On the other hand, you may decide that you can better highlight your activities in a separate section. Activities that are significant to you, but not career-related should be mentioned to indicate your breadth of interests. When listing campus organizations, be sure that you explain for the non-Harvard reader the type of each organization.
Interests: Save at least one line for a list in series of avocational interests such as, "Reading, playing guitar, running, and choral singing." Even a brief list rounds out your presentation and may establish an initial bond of common interest with the reader.
Personal Background: On a one-page resume you have had to leave out a great deal. This section may be used to mention information that you consider important such as: "Have worked every term to help pay college expenses delivering newspapers, washing dishes, bartending, driving a shuttle bus." "Lived in a small town in Ohio until I came to Harvard." "Born and grew up in New York City." (Where you spent your youth may be an important message to the employer.) "Played varsity lacrosse and intramural basketball."
Job Objective: Only if you have a clearly defined employment goal should you write a job objective. Otherwise, the cover letter is the better place to state your job objective. That way, you can tailor it to each job application and highlight and expand on relevant information. Your resume presents your qualifications to employers. Your objective is to attract the attention of the employer so that he will want to interview you.
For assistance in preparing your resume, read the chapter on resumes in the Harvard Guide to Careers or attend a workshop at OCS. To have a counselor review a draft of your resume, come to a Resume Review Walk-In, Monday-Friday, 1:30-3:30. Sign-ups for 10-minute slots begin at 1:00.