Five Ways to Improve Your Resume Now

Use these simple guidelines to create a more effective resume or CV.
01 April 2006
John Cain
No matter if you're a recent graduate or well into your career, when it's time to move on, and hopefully up, your resume or CV is probably going to need some attention. The five tips below will put you well on your way to an eye-catching resume.
1. Tailor your materials.
One of the most frequent mistakes people make with their resume and cover letter is to create a single version and use it for every job they apply for. With rare exception, each job is going to have a unique set of criteria and qualifications, even when the position is essentially identical from company to company. If you take the time to emphasize the areas of your background that match up with the advertised position description, you're giving yourself a substantial advantage over those who submit a "one size fits all" resume and cover letter.
2. Use a two-page format with a summary.
One of the most commonly repeated items of mis-advice about resumes is "they must be one page." The reason given is that hiring managers don't have enough time to read much of the resume, so if you don't put all of it on a single page, they might miss something crucial. The truth is that they don't even read a single page. Instead, they'll skim through the resume looking to see if you have the basic criteria the position asks for. If they find that, they'll slow down and read the entire document carefully. This means that if you create a summary of your qualifications as the first section of the resume -- ideally, tailored to the position -- it places this crucial information right where the reviewer is able to easily access it.
3. Go easy on the bullet points.
Just as with PowerPoint presentations, overuse of bullet points destroys their intended purpose, which is to call attention to selected items. Many resume templates, including the basic ones contained within Microsoft Word, use bullet points for practically every item on the page. A much more effective way to use them is to write a descriptive paragraph to describe your job duties, and save the bullet points for your most attractive accomplishments.
4. Research the company and the job.
You'll face a lot of competition for jobs that attract many candidates. One way you can help make your resume stand out is to do some research. For instance, if you can learn the name and position of the person who will likely read your resume, address it to them. If you have a good idea of what the company's mission statement and recent history are -- these are frequently accessible through the company website -- you can use these to help tailor your materials, especially the cover letter. This will also give you an edge when interview time comes, as you'll be able to demonstrate your knowledge of the company's needs and how your skills can help achieve them.
5. Check it, double-check it, and have someone else check it.
Speling and grammer erors attrak the rong kind of attension. They send the message that you have poor written communication skills and don't pay attention to detail. If you can't be trusted to produce error-free work on something as important as your resume, the reviewer may reason that you can't be trusted to produce error-free work on the job. This might not be true, as being able to write skillfully isn't necessarily a prerequisite to being a successful engineer, but it does give that impression, and it's important to leave only positive impressions with the reviewer. Don't rely solely on Word's spell- and grammar-checkers. These tools are a good first step, but make sure you also ask at least one person who is a skilled writer to review your resume for errors.

BONUS TIP! Put Things in Context
Instead of simply listing your skills, a far more effective way to advertise them is to show them in action. Instead of just saying "Manufactured aspherical lenses," a better way is to say "Programmed and monitored WidgetWorks LensScraper fabrication system to manufacture aspheric lenses." This way, you've described the equipment you used and some of the specific processes involved. When your skills are shown in context, it's that much easier for the reviewer to translate those skills to the position they are trying to fill.

John Cain
John Cain, SPIE course coordinator, has taught the seminar "Optimizing Your Resume" at SPIE events.

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