Most of us like to structure a task, especially written work. For example, I start every writing project with an outline. So, it’s not surprising to me that jobseekers want a structure, or set of easy-to-follow rules for resume writing.
Every organization I have written resumes for has given me a set of rules to follow. Formatting rules, in particular, can help define a resume brand, simplify work for the team, or both. But everyone’s career situation and work history is unique. That means every jobseeker’s background should not be shoehorned into the same structure.
Here are four “rules” related questions I’ve been asked about lately:
- Should I use a resume template?
- Must the resume be organized in reverse-chronological order?
- Do all my credentials need to be on the resume?
- Should my entire work history be on the resume?
These are a small sample of the rules I’ve seen online, in books, or in memos from organizations I’ve worked for. Importantly, it’s not bad to have rules. Guidelines and structure are valuable in every aspect of business. The discussion below includes “rules” I recommend following, as well as those that are outdated or counterproductive.
Should you use a template?
Word-processing templates should be avoided. My clients have sent me many resumes during the past 24 years that have been built using MS-Word and similar templates. The templates usually place resume text into MS-Word tables and text boxes that can be difficult to modify and update. And many templates I have seen emphasize the wrong information, such as employment dates. For example, the template may place dates in the left-hand column. We read from left to right in English, so hiring managers will see our dates of employment first—something most of us do not want emphasized.
Another problem is that applicant tracking systems (ATS) will probably not read these resumes correctly. Save the resume to a text editor such as WordPad to see if the text makes sense when you are trying to use a word-processing template.
Start with a blank page on your favorite word-processor, and then build your resume from an outline. That’s a best practice that works for many written products.
Must the resume have a reverse-chronological structure?
A widely accepted best practice is that resumes should be reverse-chronological. Work experience starts with your current job and woks backwards.
Although there is no controversy over the order your jobs should be in, clients occasionally ask about so-called functional resumes. A pure functional resume has no employment dates on it. “Hybrid” formats summarize employment dates near the bottom of the resume.
ATS systems, I’ve been told many times, cannot interpret functional or hybrid-functional resumes. Hiring managers do not trust functional or hybrid-functional resumes because they feel the candidate is hiding something. So avoid using functional resume structures.
Fortunately, there is a workaround when your most recent job does not showcase the skills and experience you wish to emphasize. Create a strong personal brand headline, accomplishment-based summary, and skills section above your work experience section, as shown at this link.
Do all my credentials need to be on the resume?
An area where jobseekers may have to make tough choices is education. A degree can put you at a higher salary range, so think twice about not including your education on the resume.
Failing to include a degree on your resume can even eliminate you from being considered for a job you qualify for and really want to land. At least one client lost an opportunity because her college education was not on the resume she submitted.
Some coaches feel relevance is a strong consideration. Dr. Dawn Graham, in her book, Switchers, cited the case of an HR professional that did not include her doctorate on her HR resume because it was not relevant.
My approach is to recommend that clients include accredited university degrees and industry-accepted certifications on resumes and LinkedIn profiles. The research is clear—the more you learn, the more you earn—as discussed in our October 22, 2022 post.
There are rare exceptions. For example, a prominent attorney and lobbyist suggested we delete her membership in the US Supreme Court Bar because this implied that she argued cases before the high court—she has not. We also took her coursework at Oxford University, England, off her resume because it represented “only” a Junior Year Abroad, rather than a Rhodes scholarship. Despite the “watered down” resume, she landed a new job within the week.
Should my entire work history be included on the resume?
There are lots of “rules” about how far back work history should go on a resume. Many resumes I see go back to the jobseeker’s college graduation even if they graduated 20 or more years ago. On the other hand, some jobseekers have told me they put their last three jobs on their resume. The most common practice I see is to put 10 to 15 years of experience on the document.
While the “10 year rule” makes sense in certain cases—references move on and former employers keep records for a limited number of years—there are many exceptions. Perhaps your most relevant job ended around 2005? Or, you’ve been in essentially the same role for 16 years and your accomplishments are well documented?
Exceptional experience and education will make your resume shine. Professional judgement, rather than fixed rues, is needed to decide what to include or edit out of the resume.
All of us—professional writers and coaches, as well as DIY jobseekers—would find resume writing easier and faster if a one-size-fits-all set of rules worked. Every time I’ve tried to follow a set rule, I’ve found an exception. So, apply your judgement. Then consult an expert when you are not sure. Next week, we will cover more questions about resume rules that might or might not be good to follow.
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