Tech & Work

Clarity is key in writing your resume

A resume should not only grab a hiring manager's attention, but clearly state why you're the perfect fit for the job. Often, unclear language, and time gaps, can torpedo the goal. Resume expert Kevin Donlin explains how to correct those mistakes.

If your resume is unclear, it won’t work. And, as a result, neither will you. That sums up this month’s expert review of an IT consultant resume submitted by Scott R., from California.

In critiquing this resume with Jim Mustful, a recruiter for Minneapolis, MN-based Princeton Search Group, I uncovered three major problems:
  1. An unclear format that will give hiring managers the impression Scott has been job hopping like crazy
  2. Unclear language that doesn’t provide insight on Scott’s professional achievements
  3. An unclear work history that will beg this question from interviewers: What did Scott do for 10 years after college?

While these problems aren’t fatal when viewed individually, together they torpedo this resume, which is lacking strong credibility to draw attention or an interview invite. You can download the edited version, shown in Figure A, to use as a guide for making sure your own resume is crystal clear to hiring managers.

Let’s plug those leaks
After identifying the three big issues, Mustful and I mapped out ways to clean up, and shore up, Scott R’s resume.
Figure A

Revamping the unclear format
“My first reaction was that it appeared as if he was a job hopper, even though it turns out he wasn’t,” said Mustful. For example, the recruiter explained, the same company was listed twice with no context about the change. “I could not quickly see how he went from one to another. Was he promoted? I don’t know. I spent five minutes trying to figure that out,” explained Mustful.

At first glance, it appears that Scott R. has held four positions since 1999. That gives an impression of rapidly changing jobs, which, according to Mustful, could lead some employers to question Scott’s ability to stay with one company.

The solution? Change the format.

I suggest putting the company name and overall time worked there as a primary heading, followed by the job titles and cities/dates. In Scott’s case, readers will see that his last two jobs were for the same company, like this:

XXX Corporation                                              January 1999-Present

Manager, Network Operation (April 2000-Present)

Promoted to San Francisco office to blah, blah


Network Administrator (January 1999-April 2000)

Blah, blah


Note how I added language to show how he got his current job (“Promoted to San Francisco office”). If you were promoted to any job you’ve ever held, say so.

Rewriting unclear language
Below is an example line from Scott’s resume that is weak, and all too common in IT resumes:

Responsible for all network infrastructure purchasing with a budget of over $300,000.

But what does it mean to be responsible for something? Do you plan it? Manage it? Watch others plan and manage? Since it can mean almost anything, language like “responsible for” means nothing. It’s unclear.

The solution is simple—describe exactly what you have done in this and other areas, using verbs that paint a word picture of action, like this:

Plan and carry out all network infrastructure purchasing. Manage and adhere to $317,000 budget.

But don’t stop there. Now it’s time for the all important details: How did you get that responsibility? Were you specially selected? And have you saved money while engaged in these activities? If so, say so. Like this:

Promoted to plan and carry out all network infrastructure purchasing. Manage and adhere to $317,000 budget, saving up to $15,000 per quarter by purchasing reconditioned equipment that meets all specs.

To improve this and any resume, you must focus squarely on the results you’ve produced. Everything else is secondary.

Cleaning up the unclear work history
Scott graduated from college in 1986, but the first job listed on his resume begins in 1997. That leaves 11 years unaccounted for. When it comes to gaps in your resume, know this: Employers and recruiters will assume the worst—that either you were unemployed for that length of time or did not have any career focus. The solution here is pretty simple—don’t leave any employment gaps.

A simple paragraph or two, summarizing what you did in prior positions, can put a hiring manager’s mind at ease:

Prior experience in marketing/IT management at ABC Corp. (1986-1992) and networking/help desk at 123, Inc. (1993-1996).

Make your career goals clear
To sum up, if your resume is unclear, you can expect readers to assume the worst. Be sure to provide a clear context for everything in your resume. And since it’s nearly impossible to write 100 percent objectively about yourself, reach for outside help. Always show your resume to at least two to three people whose judgment you trust.

Also, recognize a brutal truth: Most IT and high tech folks undersell themselves in their resumes. “They definitely have trouble saying how they’ve been successful,” said Mustful.

This may be due to the fact that success in IT often hinges on completing projects—so job seekers spend much of their resumes simply listing projects. But they hurt their employment chances by failing to carry the process one step further and describe the results of those projects in language that excites employers: money saved or money earned.

Companies hire people because they want to reduce costs or expand revenues. If your resume shows that you can do either, or both, you’ll get called for interviews. If your resume is unclear and leaves out winning details, you’ll likely get passed over.


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