How to Write a Resume, Part One: Practices to Avoid

by EGH

Long before I came to have an actual profession and actual career, I was employed as a career counselor. Despite the fact that at that time I’d written no more than two resumes, one of which was to get a position at the career center itself, I spent a year teaching other people how to write resumes and cover letters and how to apply for jobs. I took pride in how concrete and helpful my job was.

In the time since I’ve left school, the job hunt has gotten a lot worse. A good resume and cover letter matters today, as much as it ever has. I’m not dumb enough to think simply writing a good set will get you a job, but doing poorly could cost you the interview. Too few people really know how to write a cover letter or resume, so in this two-part series we’ll tackle the dos and don’ts of resume writing.

For the record, writing a resume is always a huge pain in the ass. It totally blows, and there are no hard and fast rules. Different people will tell you different things you MUST include, or formatting you MUST follow, although generally those people are completely full of it. There are all kinds of jobs and employers, and what they look for in a resume varies widely. My advice is intended for the broadest sector of the American job market: corporate, non-profit, and government sectors.

(As a disclaimer: non-Americans, academics, artists, freelance authors, and graphic designers can follow parts of this advice, but you should be aware that your professional specialties have additional rules, and you should look into them.)

Part One: DON’TS

Part one is all about bad habits. I’ve got a top 10 list of hated and common resume features that I strongly encourage you to stop using in your resume. Part two will look at what to do instead.

1. The Objective.

Everyone knows that your objective is to get the job. Somehow this ridiculous thing persists, forcing you to try to articulate some vague greater career goal that doesn’t sound like complete gobbledygook. Forget the objective — I think it was created by the military-industrial-corporate complex just to try your patience. You really don’t need it, so stay firm when you show your resume off to someone and they suggest you put it back in because, “you really need an objective!”

2. Bullet Points.

I love bullet points. They’re so great in Power Point, and I love to put little bullets next to every single item on my shopping list. But don’t use them in resumes. That’s because using bullets to space out a list is:

  • the
  • most
  • space
  • wasting
  • way
  • you
  • can
  • write
  • something.
  • Repeat: The most space wasting way you can write something.

The appropriate use for a bullet point in a resume is when you use it as a symbol to visually space out a list. Use it as a symbol and place it between items in a list reading across the page instead of up and down:

thing 1 • thing 2 • thing 3 • thing 4 • thing 5

Alternatively for lists I also like the up and down slash (shift + ):

thing 1 | thing 2 | thing 3 | thing 4 | thing 5

3. The Huge Left Margin.

Somehow many resumes end up with big left-hand margins where you put just the titles of your companies or dates worked (I suspect MS Word is responsible for this). I did a bunch of math to figure this one out. Here’s the straight dope: if you have a 1″ header at the top of your resume with your name in it, and standard 1″ margins around the page, the space left over for your actual resume text is only 55% of the whole page. If you add a left column; which I’ll conservatively estimate at 1.5″ inches (insert pause here for math), all you have left to write in is 41% of a page!

*Bonus: Grand conspiracy theory time: I hope you realize now that MS Word is systematically trying to keep you from employment. MS Word won’t be happy until your resume is merely your name and a tiny little box in the center containing an objective with four bullet points. Also 55% of the page is all you usually use. So yeah, we’re all killing the planet. Let all use 0.5″ margins from now on.

4. Abbreviated Dates.

You worked at a call center from 7/27/99–1/11/11. Remember you’re going to get a quick scan through and then a very slightly longer second read. Anything you put on the resume that causes a pause where someone goes, “umm … 7 is … July, 99 is 1999 … to … 1 is January, 11 is 2011,” is taking up your reviewer’s brain space, that they should be using to be impressed by you instead. Second, you know where you see the slashy date format? On credit cards, on time-stamped receipts, tax forms, any impersonal transactional documents, not correspondence or proper business documents. Be classy and use just the full name of the month and the full year: July 1999- January 2011

5. Future Perfect Continuous (“I have been”).

I see this all over: “have been assisting,” “have designed.” It’s extremely common and extremely passive. Own your actions: assisted, designed. You answered, managed, ran, collaborated, and led. Be bold.

6. Full Sentences.

Your resume isn’t the place for long, beautiful, elaborate sentences. Everywhere else in the world, little bitty sentence fragments are unwelcome; your resume is where they find a home. Think brisk and businesslike. We’ll go into what exactly you should put in your resume in another installment, but if you find yourself writing a biographical sentence like “I found myself in charge of our department’s annual meeting and have been enjoying rising to the challenge of designing an engaging program that stimulates our productivity,” you’re probably on the wrong track.

7. The Word “I.”

Not using the word I in your resume is going to make it sound more officious and objective. Think of your resume as speaking in the third person about you, but it doesn’t know your name or your gender, so it simply states. This one is also going to receive detailed follow-up in Part two, but as a sneak peek: “Led a team of 30 over the course of a 10-week, award-winning sales program.”

8. NO Times New Roman or Arial or Comic Sans Fonts.

Type matters. Everyone out there is going to be using Times, Arial, and Calibri, because they’re defaults. Without falling off a cliff and landing in the ocean of Papyrus, Comic Sans, and French Script, I urge you to give something a little more daring a try. How about: Garmond, Bookman, Gil Sans, Univers, or Helvetica?

There are two main types of font; Serif and Sans Serif. You probably already know about that, but if you don’t, do some Googling. Sans Serif is good for tech jobs, and anything cutting edge. Serif is good for hoity-toity occupations, old fussy firms and librarians, anything where you think of wood paneling. Some employers could go either way and then maybe it’s more about what you are like.

9. Inconsistent Formatting.

Humans are primed for pattern recognition, and we’re really good at seeing the places where a pattern breaks down. A chip in your nail polish will jump out at you until you can’t see anything else, just as a subtly limping zebra is screamingly obvious to a pack of hyenas. So too with your resume. If you plan to bold the titles of all your jobs, you better check that you did it. If you orient your dates to the right, they better all align. Check it once or twice, let it sit for a few hours or a day, and then look again. Fixing spelling errors goes without saying, but formatting errors often get missed.

10. Colors.

No, no, no! You need to be smart about how your resume will print out in black and white. If you let an automatic hyperlink to your email go in, then that one word is going to print out a little lighter than everything, and if it gets photocopied it will end up a total wreck. If you put your name in purple, that’s what will wash out. Also included under the umbrella of color: fake logos, monograms, decorative borders, and images of any kind. You are allowed words, straight lines, bolding, maybe a few bullet points if you use them wisely, and nothing else.

Phew. That was exhausting. I think I really get how the mean army sergeant/gym coach/reclusive genius/inspiring inner school teacher in the training montage feels when he or she is yelling at everyone, because they need to be broken down before they can be built up. I’m looking forward to part two, where I finally afford you all the grudging respect you’ve earned, and actually give you some positive advice and we can have … well, not fun … because resumes suck, but at least a decent time with it.

EGH is a professional by day, Hairpin commenter by night, and weekend career counselor. She would like you to drop and give her the names of the last five jobs you had in reverse chronological order.

Illustrations by Leah Lin.