Reducing résumé clutter

In the comments to last week’s post on organizing a job search, a reader asked if we might be able to put together a résumé organizing post. Since I haven’t put together a résumé in more than five years, I thought it best to turn to a professional. Today we welcome guest author Tiffany Bridge who worked for many years as a recruiter for a job placement company. Welcome, Tiffany.

Usually, uncluttering is about organizing your stuff in such a way that life is simpler for you. Résumé uncluttering is a special challenge because it’s about organizing your stuff so that it’s easier for someone else — most likely someone you’ve never met.

Common causes of résumé clutter and how to combat them

The One-Page Résumé. This is one of the most pernicious lies ever to haunt hiring managers. Yes, the Career Services people at your college were right that you should keep your résumé to one page when you’re just coming out of school, but once you have some real experience to talk about it’s needlessly constraining.

Solution: Your résumé should be exactly as long as you need to describe it, and no longer. For most people, this is about two pages, but even three are fine if you need them. You generally only need to cover about the last 10 years of your experience for most fields.

The Functional Résumé. This is another one of those things that your college Career Services people tell you about, which kind of makes sense when you’re getting out of school, but is completely useless once you’ve had a job or two. Hiring managers want a sense of career progression, how you got to where you are now, and a functional résumé completely obliterates any ability to observe it. It’s also commonly used to play down embarrassing gaps in one’s work history, so the hiring manager starts wondering what you’re trying to hide — firing? nervous breakdown? prison sentence?

Solution: It’s fine to have a functional component of your résumé if you have a job history that’s not a straight line toward your goal or if you’re trying to change fields and need to pull all your relevant skills together. However, you still need to be able to show the actual chronological history of your career.

The Objective Statement. This is a waste of an inch or two of space you are trying to use judiciously. If you’re bothering to apply to a job, clearly your objective is to get that job. No one needs to be told that.

Solution: A summary statement is a nice alternative, especially to pull together disparate experience, as long as you avoid tired phrases like “customer service-oriented,” “team player” or “seasoned professional.” Or you can skip it altogether and just jump straight into “Experience.” Your cover letter will explain your objectives better than a statement on your résumé.

In short, remember that the HR person or hiring manager giving your résumé the first review is going to be scanning, not reading. Keep the most relevant information (your experience) near the top, avoid pointless and outdated conventions, and don’t be afraid to take enough space to help the reader connect the dots of your experience and skills to get a complete picture of your strengths.

30 Comments for “Reducing résumé clutter”

  1. posted by Kathy on

    All good ideas. Thanks! I see resumes all the time…

    I tell people often that a resume is not a “professional alibi”. We don’t need to know everything you did at every job, in an effort to show that you were busy, had responsibilities, and were competent. Stick to key accomplishments and responsibilities. If you were in a retail role, and you are not currently applying for a retail role, I don’t need a job description of what being a cashier 8 years ago involved.

    I’d add that a one page resume is not a bad idea for people with less than 10 years experience, and I view resumes all the time, and am constantly amazed at how much extra words, irrelevant facts and extra white space to get to 2 pages. Leave it at one and be concise if you can.

    Obviously, teachers, scientific roles, etc., have their own formats that go beyond the one or two page resume assumptions that most other roles have.

  2. posted by Michele Connolly, Get Organized Wizard on

    Neat tips!

    Like Erin, I’ve been resume-less for years, but it’s great to have the myths dispelled for my readers.

    M 🙂

  3. posted by tim on

    As an almost professional job hunter – resumes are an odd thing that you can never quite master. Every HR department, every manager, every peer looks for something different.

    I have two resumes depending on what job function I’m going after. A resume for a more senior position will have bigger words versus just an engineering position which will focus more on tactical accomplishments. It starts off with name, professional associations, and gets right into prior jobs. A description of the company, industry, duration, and primary accomplishments. At the end I include what products I have experience with and a references section. No one looks at those sections but it feeds HR and job hunter databases with the appropriate keywords for searches. I always keep my resume at 3 pages. Two is too short to describe some job accomplishments accurately and anything beyond 3 is just a waste of paper. Rarely does anyone read past the second page (I sure don’t when interviewing others).

    Lastly always have an up to date plain text version and Word version around at all times. And keep it simple and uncluttered as possible.

  4. posted by Jesse on

    Thanks for this! As someone who’s going to be job hunting in the near future, this should really help me get my resume cleaned up. Now to find someone to translate it for me…hhmmm

    I need to find out how to say ‘uncluttered’ in Hebrew…

  5. posted by WilliamB on

    Some more thoughts, from someone who’s hired for several different organizations.

    1. Make it pleasing to the eye.
    – Use a serif font for resumes you give to people because they’re easier to read; a sans serif font if you know your resume is going to be machine scanned.
    – Don’t make the font too small. In the industries I’ve been in, 10 point was standard; you name at the top can be larger.
    – Don’t crowd the white space at the margins. I like 1″ on the sides and 3/4-1″ top and bottom.

    2. Make it easy to read job dates; if you don’t, readers will think you’re trying to hide something. Typically this means lining up the dates (year only or month/year) on the left or right edge. I think it’s OK to invade the margins a bit for this, as long as the desscription text doesn’t invade as well.

    3. Have a right-side footer with your name, the date of the resume (month/year), and page # of total # (page 1 of 2). The date of your resume better be this month, no one likes to see an old resume. The footer is in the margin so it won’t take away from your writing space.

    4. Put something in your “personal” or “other” section for you and the interviewer to chat about. If it’s a common hobby like reading, be more specific about what you read.

    5. Sometimes summary statements at the top are a good idea. “Professional stunt rider with 8 years experience with horses, goats, and bulls and with documentary and movie experience, seeking job in New Mexico.” The point of this sentence isn’t what you’re seeking (although that needs to be in there) but what you offer. This is the cliff notes version of why the company wants to hire you.

    6. For the love of all you hold holy, do NOT depend on spell checker. Ask several others to read your resume. If necessary read the resume backwards, word by word – a tedious but practically foolproof method.

    I couldn’t agree more about the functional resume. It always, *always* makes me wonder what the applicant is hiding. Then I have to spend inordinate amount of time figuring out his career progression. Generally I don’t have the time to take so I don’t interview that person. There is one exception: if the person states up front that he wants to make a dramatic career change and also includes standard career progression and achievement information, then I’ll pay attention. But I still need to see what he did in his previous career and whether he advanced in it.

    Tiffany, can you offer some insight about cover letters? When to write one, what should be in it, common mistakes.

  6. posted by Michele on

    @tim brings up something I was going to say. It’s not a bad idea to keep multiple versions of your resume on hand, depending on what type of job you’re applying for.

    As a recent law school graduate, I have a resume that goes to law firms, and a different one for just about everything else. There’s a usual, expected format for attorney resumes that doesn’t really work for other sectors of the economy.

  7. posted by Rue on

    I agree with WilliamB – I’d love to see some info on cover letters. Those are what I have the hardest time writing.

    THANK YOU for agreeing that objective statements are a waste of time. It’s so difficult to write one, especially if you’re just looking for any job – how many different ways can you say “I need a job so I can pay my bills”?! I think one would be worthwhile if you’re applying for a very specific job in several different places, but other than that I don’t see the point.

  8. posted by Dawn F on

    I saw a resume one time that a lot of borders – lines under their name section at the top, lines separating the different sections, a fancy line of dots across the bottom… Perhaps that could be considered clutter because I kept staring at the borders instead of the material that really should matter.

  9. posted by L. on

    I disagree with one of your points: I am a hiring manager and I simply will not consider anyone with a resume over one page long. With a stack of 10,000 or more resumes (really), who has time to start flipping pages? It’s simply a sign that the applicant lacks the analytical ability to prioritize which information is least important and can be removed.

  10. posted by Maega on

    I think it is a great idea to narrow down what hiring personnel look for, but you cannot define it so specifically. You really never know what they want. So you need to cater to the basic expectations, that may mean sending a functional resume and including an objective. I wouldn’t be so quick to cut them out. I was told, by a top 10 university recruiter if I didn’t send a functional resume I wouldn’t be considered. This was a wakeup call for me to be ready to send a functional and chronological resume when job searching.

    When you think about several areas of the resume, to a “resume minimalist” it may be important to cut things that were mentioned in this post- however be careful because the people you are sending it to may not have the same expectation.

  11. posted by Tiffany on

    I could go on and on about this topic, but wanted to spare you all my blather. 😉

    As for cover letters- when in doubt, write one. But personal pet peeve here: DO NOT ATTACH IT TO AN EMAIL as a separate document. That’s just obnoxious. An email IS a letter. Your cover letter should be in the BODY of the email. A cover letter can include things like: how you came to be aware of the job posting (convenient for name-dropping anyone who referred you), the specific parts of the posting that interest you, and how those things relate to your resume. Close by reiterating your contact info and that you look forward to speaking with the person you’re addressing.

  12. posted by Daily Digest for September 22nd on

    […] Shared Reducing résumé clutter […]

  13. posted by Marie on

    The one-page rule burns me up. When I got laid off the state made me take a class that included resume coaching, and the one-page rule was beaten into us. I was in my mid-twenties and a freelance writer and editor, and the coach said I had to cut it down because it made me look like a job-hopper. Contract work was beyond this woman’s brain capacity.

  14. posted by Jacalyn on

    I’d just like to echo the fact that many a time, there is no way of knowing exactly what should is ‘relevant’ to a particular position. Case in point: I am a recent college grad. Before sending in my last job application, I hemmed and hawed about whether or not to include my relatively casual position as a staff writer for the local university newspaper (it was a relatively minor role, and I also had an unpaid editing gig that I thought better connoted my writing abilities). I ultimately included it. My first day on the job, what did my boss’s boss want to talk about? The University newspaper – she had been a writer there as well. She has referenced this item in my resume several times since then, and I’d be willing to bet that it played no small part in me scoring the job.

    In a nutshell: your potential employer’s views about your experiences might not be the same as your own.

  15. posted by Andy on

    Having a resume more than 1 page is usually a bad idea, unless you have 20+ years of experience. There’s just no reason to list more than 3-4 recent positions, and those should easily fit onto one page. Having a “hobbies” section is pure filler–it’s never going to help get you an interview, which is the whole point of a resume. Resumes aren’t supposed to be entertaining to read.

    Also, if you *do* have two pages, make SURE the second page is completely full.

  16. posted by Job Search Tip for September 23, 2009 — Rock Unemployment! on

    […] Melanie on September 23, 2009 Unclutterer just put up a great post about reducing résumé clutter. This is a good place to start if you’re looking to revamp an old résumé for a new job […]

  17. posted by Robert Dagnall, on

    Generally a good article–I like the idea of applying uncluttering techniques to one’s resume and professional presence–but there’s a critical error.

    You write “Your cover letter will explain your objectives better than a statement on your résumé.” Cover letters are frequently skipped or discarded. Your resume should be built to sell you on its own, with the cover letter as an introduction and accessory. This way, you’re covered whether they read the cover letter or not.

  18. posted by Robert Dagnall, on

    @L, who “simply will not consider anyone with a resume over one page long”: you can make up such arbitrary rules to reduce your workload, but doing that costs your company a great deal of potential talent. Shouldn’t the emphasis be on quality of hire instead of pagecount?

  19. posted by Henrik on

    I agree with Robert Dagnall when he writes “Cover letters are frequently skipped or discarded.” Many times the cover letter is only read by HR if anybody. When the hiring manager gets the resume they never get the cover letter.

    I find it useful to see the resume as a marketing flyer for you. It should have enough interesting information to want them to see you, but not so much that they can discard you right there and then. It’s a difficult balance.

  20. posted by WilliamB on

    Andy –

    You list a couple things that conflict with my experience. To best help others reading our conflicting ideas, let’s share the basis for our statements.

    I do not know if I’ve gotten interviews based on my “other” section, but I have had several where items in that section were the basis for a large chunk of the interview. I have also used that section to highlight skills/experiences that are relevant but not attributable to work. One example is extensive travel in the foreign country in which the company did a lot of business.

    As an employer, I like seeing an “other” section. It gives me a sense of what the person might be like, if there are points of commonality or shared experiences/values, if s/he has non-work experience that could be valuable to my company. My boss at a different company – a very experienced executive who’d already started two successful startups – wanted to see team sports experience (or military, but that wouldn’t be in an “other” section). His experience is that people who successfully participated in team sports were better team players, able to negotiate group needs and goals.

    What’s the basis for your statement?

  21. posted by Penelope Parker on

    Now that it is illegal for a recruiter to ask a candidate’s age, is it OK to leave off the first twenty years of work experience and education dates?
    I am being interviewed by people whose parents are younger than I am, and can see in their eyes they are uncomfortable.
    How do we get around the hurdle of the initial invitation to an interview, if we are judged on what we did in 1980?

  22. posted by Life Hack Posts Worth Reading this Week | LifeSnips on

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  23. posted by The CV Guy on

    One of the key issues to remember with Resume and Curriculum Vitae (CV) debates is that in my experience if you put 100 recruiters and hiring managers in a room you will get 100 different opinions!

    Being on both side’s of the fence (14 years of managing corporate recruitment teams and delivering CV Services) I have a few observations.

    The length of resume should be no longer than two pages, however this is not to say it should be two pages.

    Your resume is your personal marketing real estate. It’s only job is to get you through the door, it will not get you the job, you will do that through the interview process.

    So, to coin a phrase, ‘You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression’.

    With this in mind the first page has to be the page that grabs the attention of the recruiter or hiring manager whether it is the document in it’s entirety or the first page of two.

    This is done with a mixture of layout and script.

    If you do not have the work experience and key achievements to fill two pages do not use ‘filler’ to pad it out. Doing this weakens the overall feel of the document.

    Far better is to try and condense into one page with sharp, succinct achievements with strong wording that makes the recruiter say ‘I want to see this guy/gal’.

    The layout is often key. It has to pass what I call the human ‘scan test’. Looking through a pile of CV’s either online or on paper is tiresome to say the least. It is what recruiters do to do their job, however it is far from their favourite job, believe me!

    So in a 5 second ‘scan’ they need to easily know, who the person is, their areas of expertise, achievements, current role and circumstance and could that person ‘fit’ what they are looking for. Easy! 🙂

    If you pass this test you stand a great chance of getting onto the recruiters ‘lets take a more in depth look’ pile, and that is when the rest of the resume comes into play.

    Wording needs to focus on achievements. Listing what is effectively the job description under a job is nothing more than filler and should be avoided at all costs.

    Other ‘filler’ sections that are not require are referee/references (‘References available upon request’ is more than sufficient) and hobbies (unless you have notable achievements within them and then this should be branded as ‘Other Achievements’. Reading a book and liking to travel does not enter this section!).

    Photo – never put one on unless specifically requested by the recruiter!

    With all this the real issue is that your resume should be an ‘organic’ document and is a piece of your job search strategy.

    Having one fixed document and sending out to all and sundry is not a well thought out strategy. If you do 20 job applications and get 20 regrets do not be surprised.

    Take time to research the company and job role you are applying for and if necessary alter your resume to highlight your achievements that match what the company is looking for.

    Sure it takes more time, however your results will change for the better.

  24. posted by larryheard on

    And you don’t really have to write “Reference available upon request”. It’s just redundant and unnecessary, hiring managers would automatically ask this when you are considered for an interview. Some thought in how to write a resume. Just keep it clean and professional. No grammar errors, no I and me statement, and use specific figures when you can. Keep your qualification relevant to the position you’re applying to.

  25. posted by Lorraine on

    Have you ever had this happen? After you’ve written something, you go back and look at it, say, a week or so later, and wince over the “obvious” errors you made: typos, grammatical errors, and so on.The same thing may be true for your resume.

    While I have no doubt you’ve put a lot of thought and effort into its preparation, it’s always worth a second or third look, especially if you or an objective outsider have not critically examined it in a while–or at all.

    And with the need to tweak resumes to better match position requirements, all the cutting and pasting may be wreaking havoc on what you once thought was the perfect resume. Also, the more you stare at your resume (or any document), the less likely you are to spot errors.

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