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An IDEO Recruiter’s 3 Strategies for Writing a Better Resume

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Aug 30 2019

In my career advising days, I’d tell job seekers that one of the most important spaces they will occupy is only 8.5 inches wide by 11 inches long—or about 21 by 28 centimeters for our friends outside of the US. Trying to capture yourself, your experience, and your potential in one-to-two pages is hard. It’s often the first introduction companies have to you. As with any space, there are ways to make it feel empty and impersonal, or crowded and noisy. Luckily, there are also ways to create a page that is welcoming, clean, and easy to navigate, too.

Here are three exercises and strategies that might come in handy next time you’re applying for a new job.

1. The “So What?” Test

Sadly, most bullet points on resumes read like a laundry list of job tasks, and many feel redundant if those tasks can be assumed by reading the company name and job title. Instead of telling a resume reader what you did day-to-day, tell them about achievements and things you are proud of. Tell them about the moments when you went above and beyond.

Read each bullet point out loud and ask yourself this question: So what? Why is this bullet point important? Why is it taking up room on your resume? Now imagine someone else—a stranger, someone who has never met you—going through your resume the same way.

If you get defensive or fired up when you run the “so what?” test, that’s good! That means there’s something you’re proud of in that bullet point that you need to communicate. Make that the heart of your bullet point.

When I run resume writing workshops for people starting out in their careers, they can become self-conscious and feel that their limited experience isn’t worth bragging about. To prove that you can take this approach with any job or experience level, I’ll provide you with the wait-server example. (Back in the day, I worked at a restaurant and firmly believe it teaches you great skills.)

If I were to take the laundry list approach, my bullet points would read:

  • Greeted patrons
  • Took food orders
  • Provided friendly service

That's all great, but it's assumed that a server would do those things. It’s the job, after all. With that list, I’m not telling you anything new or unique about myself.

If I communicate my achievements and proudest moments instead, my bullet points read like this:

  • Worked part-time while in school
  • Trained all new staff
  • Organized a volunteer day for employees
  • Selected as employee of the month in my first month

This has a different tone to it. In this new phrasing, I communicate that I'm good at time management, I have the ability to teach and mentor others, I was able to project-plan and activate engagement, and I very quickly made an impact.

So what, you ask? That’s what!

2. The Tailoring Session

Just like tailoring your clothes, tailoring your resume isn’t about creating something from scratch. It’s about snipping, hemming, and stitching things together so that it fits perfectly. Use this strategy to keep yourself from reinventing the wheel over and over again.

Keep a master resume that lists every single experience you’ve ever had. The master resume is where you don’t have to worry about page count—it’s for your eyes only, so there are no limits. Add sections and bullet points to your heart’s content. Let this master version be everything from your security blanket to your resource library.

When you are ready to apply to a role, create a copy of the master resume and give it a name that is specific to the role you’re applying for.

Now read the job description again. What are the requirements? Use those as guidelines for tailoring your resume. Because you’re starting with a master resume, you don’t need to create new language. Simply delete the text that isn’t pertinent to the role, leaving only the relevant experience.

You are almost done. Before you submit this tailored resume, read through it. Start from the bottom, then move your way up, going in chronological order. Does this new tailored resume show career progression when read from the bottom up? Is there a thread that runs through it? Does it need to be stitched together in some places? When you are ready to go, make sure you convert it to a PDF!

3. Give Curly Parsley the Chop

In the culinary world, NFG stands for non-functional garnish. If you’ve ever ordered a breakfast dish at a restaurant that came with a random slice of orange, and the orange has a piece of inedible curly parsley stabbed into it, you have experienced NFG. This unnecessary addition has nothing to do with your dish; in fact, it may spoil some of the flavors, and you might even start off your meal a bit annoyed that you need to eat around it.

On a resume, NFGs include images as fillers, multiple fonts, italics, bold, a spectrum of colors, and charts and infographics with no data source.

Use these things wisely and sparingly. Remember, you want to create a space that is welcoming, clean, and easy to navigate. A resume with curly parsley is hard to read. If the eye doesn’t know where to look first, the mind will get tired trying to figure it out.

Best case scenario: The person reviewing the resume needs to work hard and find extra mental energy to focus amidst all of the distractions. Worst case scenario: Your resume gets passed over because it’s sensory overload.

If you do want to share more but don’t want to overcrowd your resume, here’s a challenge: Think beyond the resume.

Times have evolved. There are other ways to highlight your work. LinkedIn is the obvious one, and GitHub is useful for engineers. More and more, we see candidates creating personal websites to showcase their experiences in interactive, visual ways.

If you are feeling tight on space, provide links to other resources where you can get more creative. And there’s always the cover letter!

Hopefully these tips help save you time, energy, and a bit of anxiety when you're crafting a resume. Remember, there is beauty in simplicity—after all, the only person who can truly pull off a pink, scented resume is Elle Woods.

  • Virginia Martinez

    Director of Talent, Recruiting, IDEO San Francisco
    Virginia is a recruiter and strategic partner for organizations, leadership, hiring managers, and candidates. She is data-driven and human-centered, and will always put purpose ahead of process.
  • Violet Hill

    Communication Designer, IDEO Shanghai
    Combining her love of problem solving and visual expression, Violet is living her dream life as a designer in Shanghai. Outside work, you’ll likely find her creating new ways to rearrange her apartment and tending to her extremely large family of plants.
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