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Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Resumes that sell

Writing a good CV isn't easy -- but it's really important

October  1995
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We take a close look at the features that make up a good resume for a Unix professional. (1,300 words)

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This month I give some advice on how to write a good resume. It amazes me how many competent people with impressive backgrounds and good writing skills simply do not spend the time it takes to construct an effective CV (curriculum vitae). Even if you have already interviewed and are confident that you may be offered a given job, do not forget to prepare this document. When applying for a job, you will always be asked to produce it. And if you pull out last year's version from under a jelly doughnut, that sure-thing job may take a hike.

What makes a good resume?
Dear Edgar:

What makes a good resume?

I recently contacted a recruiting firm that asked for my resume, then proceeded to edit and reformat it for a client they wanted to present me to. I thought I had created an accurate reflection of myself and my skill set. I'm resistant to their changes. Doesn't it make sense that I should be the one writing my own curriculum vitae?


Dear CV-Sure:

It is your resume and you should always write the first draft and control the content; but it is generally a good sign if your recruiter takes the time and interest to work on it with you. Most search firms just take whatever you give them and send it out, regardless of what it looks like. Ideally, a counselor should have your resume in hand when going over your skills and career goals. He will then take the facts and help to fashion a document that speaks to the people you are attempting to reach. This is not a creative writing workshop for us. Although accuracy and honesty are the most important objectives to keep in mind, realize that there is an art to writing a good resume. Hundreds of resumes flow in, around, and out of my desk every day. The same is true for hiring managers. The main difference is that we invariably try to work out who the person is behind each paper. Those in charge of hiring don't have the time to consider the career goals and personalities of every individual behind every resume. One 30-second look is all you get. This page represents your first impression, so be concise, precise, and to the point. The difference between an ineffective CV and an eye-catching gem is usually just a bit of editing.

The optimal length for a resume is one page. Hiring managers deal with an endless stream of faceless resumes and will not stop to read the epic narrative of Joe Botz and the many ups and downs of his twenty years in the industry: from the mailroom to the mainframe. I have seen resumes that were literally 12 pages long. I assure you that the last few chapters of these epics never made it to their intended audience, and the majority of them simply went unread. Remember, many times the first page is the only page pulled from the fax machine.

The object is to distill all of your pertinent career information into a clean page of easy-to-read text. It should be formatted in such a way that it can be quickly scanned for your name, degrees, and skill set. A little deeper look should take the eye to the next level of detail: objective, GPA (if worth mentioning), specific job duties, etc. The reason so many resumes are of epic length is that some people feel the need to tell their life story. There's room for that at the interview -- or better yet around the water cooler once you've got the job. I've encountered others who understand the value of limiting the length, but still try to squeeze their autobiography into a page or two by eliminating everything else but their name. If a load of information is packed into one big block of text and the manager has to wade through tons of ink to find what she wants, she won't bother.


The optimal length for a resume is one page.
Hiring managers deal with an endless stream
of faceless resumes and will not stop to read
the epic narrative of Joe Botz.

Four parts to a strong resume
There are four main parts to a resume: objective, education, skill summary, and jobs. By first stating your career objective, you set the tone for how the resume is to be read. You may have specialized in certain areas, but this lead-in marks out your future course. Then list your academic credentials: where you went to school, what degree(s) you received (and when), and your GPA. The next section, which is unique to technical resumes, gives a quick summary of your basic skill set. Our standard is to create two headings and devote a line to each -- hardware and software.

In the last section list your jobs in descending order, starting always with the most recent. This is the most important area and most difficult to compose. Try here to convey the extent of your duties and accomplishments in the least space possible. For the more relevant and recent entries, include mention of the kind of work the company you worked for does, the nature of your project, and what you specifically did. The remaining descriptions require just a couple lines summarizing your duties.

In writing this, the core of your resume, I recommend that you phrase the descriptions in basic sentence form, but drop the "I." For example, "Developed the Disk Operating System for Microsoft." By leading with a verb ("Rolled out 500 Sun Workstations") you convey a greater sense of action. And if you want to make note of a few tasks or technologies that do not deserve full sentences, bullet them. The happy medium is to touch upon everything important while leaving room for more specific questions to be addressed in the interview. Don't forget, resumes get you the interview, not the job.

Also stress business skills
Almost as important as presenting your technological pedigree is including your business skills. As open computing enters into more and more end-user marketplaces, more and more people are learning their technical skills in the context of other areas of expertise. If you are the MIS director in the world of banking, brokerage, or accounting, highlight this. Many times in New York I've seen an investment bank hire a systems administrator more for his knowledge of back office systems than for his Unix skills. In general, your skill set is the most important thing to convey on your resume, but do not forget to place it in the context of some field(s) of knowledge where applicable.

Like anything else, it takes time and experience to learn how to write a good resume. First, you must know what you want and what the hiring managers are looking for. Then you must sculpt the whole of your experience and career objectives into a pleasing page. My advice is not to wait until a job opportunity arrives to pull out your dusty CV. If a recruiter or anyone else knowledgeable in such an area wants to help, consider yourself lucky. (If you don't trust this headhunter, well, that's another issue.) Regardless, take it out every few months and reshape it a bit. A tight, clean, well-written resume immediately conveys competence and points to someone deserving of an interview.


Keep sending in your career questions, and don't forget to check out the past articles at the Pencom Career Center.

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