Writing Tips to Spice Up Your Resume

K P. White, M.D., Ph.D.

In my life I have read a lot of resumes… as an editor, as an employer and CEO of a company, and as a University professor. I still have the resumes of people I have hired. I remember what impressed me about their resumes and, similarly, why other resumes failed to catch my eye.

The first thing that stands out in my mind about the most successful resumes I have seen… is that they stood out. They were different from the rest. Something about them made me take a second look. Then, when I did look more closely, I discovered that these stand-out resumes were well-organized, clear, concise but not too humble and brief, and contained all the information I needed to know.

Let me start then in reverse order. What does an employer or a school or program admission officer need to know about you? Obviously, it depends what type of position you are applying for. Nonetheless, there are a few things that are essential:

Your name, address, phone and fax numbers and email address should be at the center top of the first page in large, bold letters. I remember once reading a resume on which all of that information was left out. How the heck could I have contacted that person if I had been interested in them? Make that information immediately accessible to the reader. Don’t make them look for any of it.

Next you should put your birth date, birthplace, citizenship and languages spoken. In most circumstances, employers and admissions officers want to know if you are 21 or 61 years old. They want to make sure that you can work or go to school in their country. And they want to know that you can speak their language. All of this information they usually want to know right up front. Obviously, there may be circumstances where you do not want to put this information front and center. If you are 73 years old, you may find it difficult getting into Medical School. If you are young, however, note that relative youth often is an advantage, especially for positions requiring a resume. A young person with an impressive resume is more impressive than an older person with a similar resume. Doesn’t that make sense?

Next, in one clear sentence, explain your Career Objectives. This lets readers know why they are looking at your resume. Admittedly, almost every resume should be accompanied by an introductory letter explaining why you are submitting the resume; but sometimes the letter and resume become separated. Explaining your career objectives at the top of your resume will make it stand out from the rest, because most people just do not think to do this.

Then list your Education and Degrees, starting with the most recent degree or program first and going backwards in time. For example, list your Masters in English Literature from Quakadoo University, 1999 before your Bachelors of Arts from Cucamunga College, 1996. This essential information should be in bold font. But don’t just list your degrees; in regular font, also mention any awards or distinctions you received while in each program. You can follow this with sections on Additional Credentials and on Awards, if you have them and if they are pertinent.

The same basic rules apply when you list your Past Employment. But instead of just mentioning dates of employment and awards you received at any given company, also briefly summarize what your responsibilities were with each position. One client whose resume I edited had worked at the same company for 37 years. Imagine how brief her work history appeared to be: one line, one employer, 1967-2004. I suggested to her that she break down those37 years into all the various positions she had held over those 37 years, and then briefly summarize her responsibilities in each position. This one change added five extremely impressive pages to her resume.

After listing your past employment, and somewhat dependent upon what you are using your resume for (for example, to find work, get into school or be hired to run drum-making workshops across the state) you then should list your Skills, Computer Programs you know, Professional Memberships you have and/or whatever else is pertinent. End the resume with a brief description of your Hobbies and Interests.

So now… how else can you make your resume stand out? A few hints:
  1. Use somewhat thicker, lightly-colored (non-white) textured paper. This may sound hokey, but it works. Readers look at this and often say to themselves: this person is serious about their career and they obviously are trying to sell themselves; these are good things. It also makes your resume stand out and easier to find in a stack of white paper; if they accidently lose it… Hey! They can find it again!

  2. Don’t clutter your resume. Unless there is a specification for one or two pages only, don’t be afraid to spread things out a bit. Leave reasonable margins, above, below, right and left. Especially if you are using nice paper and judicious bold font, this makes the resume look especially sharp.

  3. Use bold font for all headings, followed by regular font for explanations. You might even have headings in a slightly larger font size, for example font 14 versus font 12 for the remainder of the text. Your name at the top of the resume definitely should be in a larger font size. You may even use a nice script font for your name, address, phone numbers and email address… but only if everything still is completely legible. For example:


  5. Finally, again dependent upon what you are using your resume for, consider inserting your resume into a full portfolio. A friend recently asked to me to take a quick look at his resume. I nearly fell over. Man! It was nice! He handed me not a resume, but a beautiful portfolio. He was planning to distribute it to various schools and government agencies that might be interested in workshops he did on Native American drum-making. The portfolio was spiral bound with a soft, colored, cardboard cover. On the front cover was his name, in big, bold script in the midst of a lovely Indian drawing he’d found on the internet. Opening the portfolio, I found an opening/introductory letter, followed by his resume, followed by two letters of reference, followed by a couple of photocopied newspaper clippings covering previous work-shops he’d done, followed by a couple of additional letters from event organizers who had hired him, followed by a couple of pictures of drums he’d made, and finishing with a brief letter thanking the reader for having read the resume and again providing contact information in big, bold font. The back cover showed a lovely digital photograph of him playing one of his drums.

I told him that it was the most impressive ‘resume’ I’d ever seen. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. The first resume he handed out, the very next day, resulted in him being offered full time employment traveling across the province of Ontario giving his workshops to schools. That first person he handed his portfolio to was so impressed by it, even at a quick glance, that he asked Dan to have a seat and wait while he showed it to his supervisor. One hour later, after a series of completely spontaneous interviews, he was offered a newly-constructed position on the spot.

Now, I cannot promise everyone this type of success, and there may be some settings where a portfolio is not truly appropriate. Nonetheless, I truly believe that the extra effort and expense of a portfolio enhances most employment and many educational pursuits. Consider it.

Hey! And if you get to be the President of Harvard University one day because of this, you can add THAT to your resume!!!
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