I've worked on enough people's resumes as a favour over the years to understand that it's still a part of the hiring process a lot of people struggle with.
Hacking The Hiring Process is a series of deep dives into each stage of the technical hiring process, with real, actionable advice and examples you can take away and implement immediately in your next job search.
BLUF - Bottom Line Up Front
If you just want a specific piece of advice in this article, the below list details the areas we'll be going through in this article:
- General Resume Layout & Design Best Practices
- Nailing The Personal/Professional Summary
- What Information Is/Isn't Relevant To Include?
- How To Write In Resume-ese: Framing Your Experience Properly
- Introducing Project Highlights
- How Long Should Your Resume Be?
- What Is An Applicant Tracking System (ATS)?
General Resume Layout & Design Best Practices
There are miles and miles of digital ink used up talking about what the "right" layout and design for a resume is. The truth is that there isn't any one "right" way to design or put a resume together.
I've seen some awful resumes in my time with fantastic content, and some resumes I'd happily frame that were padded out with fluff and weren't really saying anything at all.
Fundamentally, a resume lives and dies based on its actual content; but the importance of laying that content out in a way that makes immediate sense to the reader can't be underestimated.
I've reviewed dozens of resumes, written dozens myself and spent real money and time on sharpening my own to the finest level that I can.
After a whle, some general patterns emerge on how to lay out all the information. Let's break down an example - my own so I have full permission to dissect it - in general and break down how it's structured to be easy to read:
Your resume doesn't have to be the same design, color or font as mine, but the general "shape" of it should be pretty similar. At a minimum, you'll need to have:
- A strong, eye-catching banner section across the top, identifying you.
- A concise, informative professional/personal summary section , summing up "who you are" as a professional.
- The bulk of the remaining resume real estate should be taken up with the career summary section , summarizing your work experience.
- Whether you split it to the side like mine or leave it to the end, you also need an expertise and professional credentials section somewhere.
You should have to make a strong argument that much else is valuable enough to deserve territory on this document. Remember, the average recruiter or hiring manager spends maybe a maximum of 45 seconds to a minute scanning your resume.
From reviewing a bunch myself both to help members of the community and professionally as part of my role, I've found this to bear out. I really did try and make sure I thoroughly reviewed every resume top to bottom and it's exhausting work doing it for 10-20 people for a niche/complex role.
Some roles these days are getting 500+ applicants and it's just not feasible to spend much more than that scanning a resume by eye - if your resume even gets through the ATS to hit someone's eyeballs. We'll get to that later, though.
Picking A Design
Honestly don't overthink this one, my friend.
You're vastly overestimating how much the person inevitably reviewing this document will care!
With sites like Canva being free to use or $12 per month or so for Professional tier, and over 12,000 professionally designed resume templates on that site alone; you really don't have an excuse for having an ugly-looking resume anymore.
Plus, a lot of these templates will already have put these sections in for you, saving you a bunch of work. Choose whatever personally brings you joy, with some caveats from experience (your own mileage may vary):
- Try to avoid putting a headshot picture in your resume. I'm not sure why employers and recruiters hate them, but they are very vocal about it!
- The overall color scheme honestly isn't all that important, as long as it's not overly garish.
- If printed out, your resume will be likely handed out in black and white anyway, so it's the design that's more important.
- Whatever you choose, stay consistent and thread that design theme throughout the whole document.
- No graphs, no graphics - don't ask the reader to do work to understand the data. I promise it'll just result in your resume being skipped over.
- Pay attention to where your eyes dart first and which elements your eyes go next on each template. If it's banner >> content as opposed to banner >> fancy image >> graphic >> content, you're on the right track.
- The resume should take as little "mental work" on the part of your reader to comprehend as possible.
Sure, your resume might have done just fine with one or all of these things, but it's not optimal for maximizing your chances of success.
Personally, I picked a pretty basic minimalist one with a central structure I liked and just changed what I didn't like.
The Banner Section
This is where this guide steers into my own personal opinion on what makes for a good, eye-catching resume - so disclaimer here: you may not agree, and that's okay!
I think one of the first places on a resume the eye hits is the very top, so it makes sense to concentrate some real energy in making this section visually pleasing, but also informative.
My aim with the banner section of my own resume was to:
- Look different enough that it caught the eye of a reader.
- Contain enough in the way of information that if that was all the person read, they'd still have a good idea of what I'm good at and a few avenues to investigate/contact me.
I personally did this by going into Canva and creating a LinkedIn banner, which fundamentally serves a very similar purpose.
I chose a professional-looking but interesting graphic feature (the crosshatching) for the left side and made a choice to include the logo I designed for CodeBlooded Cyber in the middle.
Your name should obviously be front and center, as this is the primary purpose of the banner section. However, as long as it is visually prominent, it doesn't have to take up the entire rest of the space. Choose a professional font that both renders and prints well, as you'll want to be using this on LinkedIn and your resume.
Whilst you can put anything you like underneath, I elected to highlight some areas of personal expertise that I'd be happy to get questioned more aggressively on in an interview.
Underneath that, I came up with a rough first draft of a concise way of summing up "who I was" as a professional. I then ran this through multiple iterations in ChatGPT (GPT-4, if you're interested) to get somewhere closer to the mark of what I was after.
I then took the best response I got, finalized it myself, and put it in the banner.
Everything else underneath is just a clear indication of some obvious ways to find more of my work and contact/reach me.
My major piece of advice here is to concentrate more time than you'd initially think into getting this right. Remember that 45 seconds to a minute you have to grab a recruiter/hiring manager's attention?
This section has to both catch their eye initially and be interesting enough to spur further reading.
Nailing The Personal/Professional Summary
A personal or professional summary section is a brief statement that appears at the top of your resume, usually just beneath your contact information.
It should be a concise, yet compelling, overview of your qualifications, skills, and experience. It's your first chance to tell the reader in your own words "who you are" as a technical professional. It's also your first (and potentially only) chance at capturing the attention of the reader.
People hate "bragging" about themselves for the most part though, and as a result they struggle to use this incredibly valuable piece of resume real estate as effectively as they could.
Here are some specific tips to get you off to the races:
- Use a professional tone - not too casual in language choices, not too formal either.
- Keep your personal summary short. It should be a quick overview that gives the hiring manager a sense of who you are and what you bring to the table.
- Talk yourself up! It's literally the major purpose of this section, you should sound like a fantastic choice after reading it.
- Some more specific advice on this one - try to stick to areas of expertise you're very confident in and go in. For example, I wanted to highlight quickly that I'm experienced and have worked in multiple areas of the cybersecurity industry. In addition, I wanted to highlight my tangible impacts on the places I've worked.
- Use action words: Use action verbs to describe your qualifications and accomplishments, and use numbers and statistics to quantify your achievements wherever you can.
- Every person and their dog is "results-driven" or "self-motivated". Instead, try to use different phrases to say stuff like this - think "Passionate [job title] driven by creating tangible business impact" rather than "results-driven professional"
An example of a personal summary for a job of a software engineer could be:
"Highly skilled software engineer with X years of experience in developing, testing, and deploying production software solutions. Proficient in [languages/tech stacks of choice]. Strong background in machine learning and proven, real-world experience in leading a team of developers."
If you're really struggling, this is another fantastic use case for something like ChatGPT to at least get a draft you like. Always make sure it's you that takes anything you get from LLMs over the finish line, though.
And for the love of God, if you do use ChatGPT - accurately read and fact check it first.
You do not want to find out for the first time at interview that your summary is claiming something untrue about you!
What Information Is/Isn't Relevant To Include?
This is another point where this guide steers into my own personal opinion on what makes for a good resume - so disclaimer here: you may not agree, and that's okay!
I personally err on the side of caution and try to include as much relevant information as I can on my own resume without violating my own rules that I've been telling you all.
Normally you'd want to include the following at a minimum:
- Contact details (multiple, shared as comfortable)
- Portfolio site, if you have one.
- Highest form of formal education (high school/college/postgraduate etc.)
- Industry certifications - I personally leave expired ones off but I can see arguments for keeping them on, you have passed them after all!
- Any publications, prizes, awards or media appearances you have been in related to your career.
For each specific job in your resume, I'd recommend structuring each one a little something like this:
So, each individual job you've done should follow consistent formatting and structure:
Job Title Company Worked For (Location or "Remote") MM/YY - Present (for current job) or MM/YY - MM/YY covering time worked. - Tangible impact statement showing some sort of real-world achievement - Tangible impact statement showing some sort of real-world achievement - Tangible impact statement showing some sort of real-world achievement Project Highlight: Single most impressive or impactful role, achievement or award won during time at job.
We'll get into why I think adding Project Highlights are important in a little bit!
When it comes to hobbies and/or interests, I personally don't bother. I feel like it's something that a good interviewer would likely ask and it takes up valuable resume space at this point in my career.
How To Write In Resume-ese: Framing Your Experience Properly
There's a real art to writing in the sort of language that sounds good on a resume.
It's an odd mixture of creatively showing yourself in the best light possible, whilst still conveying information to the reader about your real-world capabilities.
Many jokes have arisen about "LinkedIn-speak" or "Resume-ese" (as I call it), where "I changed a lightbulb" becomes:
Single-handedly managed the successful upgrade and deployment of a new environmental illumination system with zero cost overruns and zero safety incidents.
You don't want to go too far and end up becoming a meme of yourself like the above statement, but there is something we can learn from it:
- Instead of phrasing your impact statements with "I did" or "I was part of", try using a past tense starting with an action verb.
- Think "Drove revenue growth as part of a highly successful sales team" instead of "I was part of a highly successful sales team and helped to drive revenue growth".
- This is more of a stylistic choice on my part, but I think it works in aggregate to sharpen the impact of the language when you use it consistently.
- Your impact statements should follow a structure of Action Verb >>> Detail of Action Performed >>> Tangible Impact >>> Benefit.
- Think "Created an effective onboarding program for new Solutions Architects and salespeople, streamlining the ramp-up process and improving team performance".
How many impact statements you include per job is entirely up to you, but I wouldn't go for more than 7 or so. We're ideally shooting for total resume length of 2 pages max.
Introducing Project Highlights
I can't remember exactly when I was given the advice to add in Project Highlights to my resume, but it remains one of the singularly best pieces of career advice I've ever gotten.
As you can see above (and foreshadowed earlier), a Project Highlight is something you should ideally add at the end of each specific job.
The Project Highlight should be the single most important, impressive and impactful thing you did, won or role you held while you were at that specific employer.
Together, they create something of a highlight reel of impressive achievements for you in the reader's mind, if they're just skimming your resume.
Think hard about what you put here, it's extremely likely that these will get pulled up and drilled into at interview. It's certainly happened to me more than once!
How Long Should Your Resume Be?
As long as it needs to be - how long is a piece of string?
Jokes aside, this is something that some people will agree with and others will vehemently fight me on, regardless of what I say here. My personal opinion is that as long as what you're adding is complete quality and earned its place on the document, then keep it in.
However, I also believe that not many recruiters or hiring managers are going beyond page 2 or 3 of a resume. If you're struggling to keep to two/three pages, then I highly recommend putting something at the bottom of your last page like so:
Full work history past [start date of earliest job on resume] available on request
What is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) / Optimizing for ATS
Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are software used by many, many companies nowadays to streamline the hiring process. For jobs receiving hundreds or thousands of applications, they're essential in making any real hiring process possible.
ATS systems are designed to automate the initial stages of the recruitment process, such as resume screening and candidate tracking.
Here's how they work:
- Resume upload: Candidate applies for a job, they submit their resume and cover letter through the company's website or a job board. This is then uploaded into the ATS.
- Resume screening: ATS scans resumes for keywords and qualifications that match the job requirements. Resumes that do not meet the qualifications or have errors may be automatically rejected.
- Shortlisting: ATS sorts resumes and shortlists the most suitable candidates based on the qualifications, skills and experience mentioned in the resumes.
- Tracking: ATS tracks progress of the candidates throughout the recruitment process.
- Scorecards: Some ATS will also generate scorecards for each candidate, providing a quick overview of their qualifications and how well they match the job requirements.
It's important to note that not all ATS systems are made equal. However, the general purpose of all ATS systems is to automate the initial stages of the recruitment process, making it more efficient and less time-consuming.
Additionally, the ATS can help companies to make a more fair and objective decision by standardizing the process and removing any potential bias.
Here are some tips to help ensure that your resume makes it through an ATS screening:
- Thoroughly research the job posting and include relevant keywords and phrases in your resume.
- These keywords should be specific to the job you're applying for and should include industry-specific terms and phrases.
- Use headings and bullet points to organize your information and make it easy to scan.
- Save your resume in a standard file format such as a Word document or PDF.
- Avoid using any special characters or symbols that may not be compatible with the ATS.
- Highlight achievements not just responsibilities: Tailor your resume to show your achievements and not just your responsibilities. Make sure to include quantifiable data such as numbers, percentages, and statistics.
TL;DR / In Conclusion
Writing a resume from scratch can be daunting and even overwhelming - especially if you're in a situation where you haven't needed one in a long, long time!
Thankfully, there's a huge array of tools available to today's job seeker that just weren't around a few decades ago.
Tools like ChatGPT and Canva can empower you to put together a resume and cover letter that you'd have paid handsomely for in years gone by.
You can even do A/B testing between applications to gather data on what works best without an onerous level of effort!
Things to note:
- You do not have long to grab the reader's attention at all - plan your resume accordingly.
- Make sure the reader has to do little to no "mental work" to get the relevant information from your resume.
- Leverage tools like ChatGPT or examples you find online to combat "blank page syndrome" if you hate 'selling yourself'.
- This is perhaps your only chance to impress a recruiter or hiring manager out of a stack of hundreds, make sure every element is tuned to the best of your ability.
- Proofread, proofread, proofread!
If you enjoyed this article, check out the other articles in the Hacking The Hiring Process series:
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Resumes
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Job Adverts, Specs & Red Flags
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Recruiters & Headhunters
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Initial Phone Screens
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Behavioural/Cultural Fit Interviews & Questioning
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Technical Interviews & Questioning
- Hacking The Hiring Process: Salary Expectations, Offers & Negotiation