A resume is a conventional document that summarizes a job applicants’ professional qualifications, including relevant work experience, achievements, skills and education. When paired with a cover letter, a resume illustrates what a job candidate brings to the table in a way that makes employers want to hire them.
This comprehensive guide will show you how to make a resume that piques employers’ interest. We’ll cover why a resume is vital to a job search, how to write a custom resume for a job, how to pair one with a good cover letter, and what to avoid when writing a resume. Plus we’ll provide resume-writing advice for job seekers with unique circumstances, such as career changers or job-hoppers.
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Anatomy of a well-written resume
Resumes must contain the following sections:
This is where you add your contact information, including your full name, phone number, city, state and ZIP code.
Professional summary or resume objective:
If you’re applying for your first job, returning to work after an absence, changing your career or applying for a different job within the same company, then use a resume objective statement. Otherwise use a professional summary.
Your resume format determines where this section fits in your resume, but you should always list your employment history in reverse-chronological order.
Like the job history section, where you place your skills section will depend on your format. Display your skills in a bulleted list for clarity.
Unless you’re applying for your first job, place your education section at the bottom of your resume.
Resume writing — a detailed guide
You must customize your resume for every job, so gather all the facts first.
- Research the company. Take note of their values, goals, culture, recent news and history.
- Think about why you want the job and how you can contribute.
- Write down all your past work experiences, volunteer jobs and community work.
- If you have already written a cover letter, match your strengths and achievements to it in your resume.
- Make a note of recent awards, their titles and dates.
- If you have a unique story to tell, such as job gaps or a long spell of unemployment, are unemployed, or you’re seeking your first job, see our advice below.
Pro tip: Write a rough draft of your resume first, and then revise it until you’ve written the final draft. Taking the extra time now will pay off down the line.
Pick a resume example to use as guidance.
Examples are some of our best teachers. That’s why we have hundreds of resume samples to help you write your resume. Our examples will show you how to craft a compelling professional summary or objective statement, where to put keywords, which format to use, and how to highlight your skills.
Pro tip: When choosing a resume example, select one from the same industry or job title you are applying for.
Choose a resume format.
There are three standard resume formats: chronological, functional and combination. While every resume must contain a summary or objective and work history, skills and education sections, each format places them on the page differently. The best format for you will depend on your career goals, work experience, skill set, and whether or not you meet unique circumstances such as employment gaps.
Pro tip: If you are applying to multiple jobs, you may consider a different format for each job, depending on your qualifications and the job requirements. For example, you may have a lot of experience in one industry and might choose a chronological resume for that job application. But if you apply for another job in an unfamiliar industry, a combination resume is a better choice.
Select a resume template.
A resume template is a useful tool when you’re writing a resume. Templates provide the design and layout for your qualifications, putting everything together in a professional way. We have many different styles from which to choose.
Pro tip: Match your cover letter template to your resume template for consistency.
Fill in the header with your contact information.
Place your contact information at the top of your resume. Depending on which template you choose, it.
Pro tip: The contact information in your resume heading should be identical to the contact information you use for your cover letter.
Write a professional summary or an objective statement.
Professional summaries and resume objective statements are three- to five- sentence introductions that sum up what you offer. They should be packed with keywords from the job description and include relevant accomplishments, your most desired skills, and an accolade or an award if appropriate. They should always sit at the top of a resume under the header.
Pro tip: Professional resume summaries are suited to job applicants with at least one year of experience. If you do not have work experience, then you should use an objective statement instead.
Write your work history in reverse-chronological order.
Listing your most recent employer first and moving backward to your first employer provides a clear picture of your employment history and highlights steady progressions in your career. It can also accentuate employment gaps, career or industry changes, lack of experience, and a pattern of job-hopping, which is why it’s crucial to pick the correct resume format.
The most valuable elements in a work history section of a resume are quantifiable achievements. Hiring managers prefer these over bulleted lists of job duties because they show the results of your work and indicate what you can achieve. Writing your work history as a list of measurable accomplishments will help you stand out from the competition.
Quantifiable achievements can come from a range of activities, such as increasing customer satisfaction or saving a company money. Some accomplishments are difficult to quantify unless you keep careful track of them, but all of them can be measured in terms of time, dollar amounts, volume and percentages with a little thought.
To identify quantifiable achievements, begin by asking yourself questions like:
Did I save the company money? How much? How?
Did I create a new program, process or initiative that saved time, enhanced productivity or increased revenue?
Did I meet or exceed my or the company’s goals? How? How did that benefit the company?
Did I lead a team on a special project? How many people were on the team? What was the project, and what did we accomplish?
Did I receive a promotion in record time?
Here are some examples of quantifiable achievements:
Organized monthly volunteer projects with more than 30 volunteers per event.
Provided award-winning in-home medical care for 10 senior citizens over 3 years.
Implemented a filing system that organized more than 500 past and current employee files, increasing efficiency by 100%.
Raised employee retention rates by 15% over a 3-year period by implementing a company culture initiative and organizing quarterly team events.
Exceeded sales goals by an average of 30% every quarter in 2020.
Pro tip: If you lack job experience, then use this section to spotlight volunteer service, internships or relevant school and personal projects — they count!
Highlight your relevant skills.
Create a separate section to display your skills and format them in a bulleted list so they are easy to skim. Where you place this section will depend on your resume format and template.
The more your skills match the job description, the more attractive you will be to the hiring manager. It’s also good to show you’re well-rounded, so use a mix of targeted soft, technical and hard skills. But be honest! You will be expected to use those skills if you are hired.
Hard skills are practical abilities learned in school, on the job or through training.
Examples of hard skills include: Computer software, foreign language, typing, bookkeeping, presentation and project management.
Soft skills are personal attributes, innate abilities and personality traits we are born with and develop throughout our lives.
Examples of soft skills include: Interpersonal, leadership, listening, problem solving, adaptability, perseverance and collaboration.
Technical skills encompass very specific tasks, and they often pertain to particular industries.
Examples of technical skills include: Computer software, foreign language, typing, bookkeeping, presentation and project management.
PhotoShop (graphic design), OSHA safety procedures (construction), electronic health records (EHR) (nursing).
When matching your skills to the position, comb through the job requirements. Employers often list “Required Skills,” “Essential Duties” or “Skills and Competencies,” which usually include the technical skills required by the job as well as hard skills needed to perform certain tasks.
Employers also weave soft skills throughout job descriptions, like so:
“If you’re analytical, organized and a strategic thinker with an eye for the big picture and deep customer empathy, then this might be the job for you.”
It’s perfectly acceptable to use a skill twice in your resume, such as in your job history and skills list, but you must provide context (and don’t overdo it!)
For example, a job requirement might be “Organize materials and supplies for all facilities departments, including janitorial, landscaping and maintenance.” In your employment section, you could add an achievement like “Created a system for organizing supplies for a 300-room, multi-building hospital, reducing waste by 65% and increasing staff output by 20% over a 6-month timeframe” and list “organization” in your skills section.
Or the job description for a server position says they expect their employees to build rapport with guests. One way to show you can do this might be to list interpersonal skills in your skills section. In your job history, point out a time you were recognized for building relationships with clients, which resulted in increased sales and customer retention.
Pro tip: If you lack work experience or you’re changing careers, then lean into your transferable skills, which are attributes and abilities that you can apply to most jobs and industries. Examples include persuasion, negotiation, organization, time management and communication skills.
Include your education.
Always create a section dedicated to your education. Include the name and location of schools you’ve attended, the degree(s) and scholastic honors or awards you’ve earned (if any). If you did not earn a degree, it’s acceptable to note the subject you majored in or list relevant coursework. Don’t list your GPA unless it’s at least a 3.5.
Pro tip: If you are a student, recent graduate, or applying for your first job, it’s acceptable to put your educational details at the top of your resume, under your objective or summary and work history. Otherwise, place it at the bottom of your resume.
Optional: Add a section for licenses and certifications
If you have licenses and certifications that can help you get the job, then highlight them in a separate section directly below your education section.
Pro tip: Licenses and certifications can boost your resume if you don’t have much on-the-job experience because they verify your technical skills and are different from average.
Resume-writing advice for job seekers with unique circumstances
Most recent graduates do best with a functional resume emphasizing their skills since they often lack practical experience.
Education should go directly under the header in a recent graduate resume because it’s one of your biggest recent achievements. Include your GPA if it’s 3.5 or above.
An objective statement works for recent graduates because it focuses on their goals rather than their professional experience. Goals should always be job-focused and not self-centered.
Play up your soft skills. They are key for recent grads to get noticed. Transferable skills, especially, show your versatility and ability to fit into almost any job.
Highlight volunteer work, relevant class projects, internships and summer jobs in your work experience section.
Seeking an entry-level job
If you have one to three years of experience, then try a combination resume format. It emphasizes skills and brings your work experience to light, and if you’ve got it, you may as well flaunt it.
Emphasize the hard skills you gathered from your present and previous employers if they match the requirements for the job you’re applying for, but don’t forget to add your most sought-after soft skills, too!
You can get away with using a professional summary since you have some experience. At a minimum, your resume summary should: Point out that you’re experienced, emphasize your most relevant qualifications and mention an achievement from a previous job.
Seeking an Internship
Like a recent graduate, job applicants writing an internship resume lack real-world work experience, so we advise them to use the functional resume, which spotlights skills over experience.
Let your education shine, even if you are still in school. Hiring managers will look for it when hiring for an internship.
Use a resume objective statement to start with a bang! Let your passion and drive shine through and emphasize the skills that matter most for the role. Tell the hiring manager how you intend to use those skills and your knowledge for the advancement of the organization, not your future.
Emphasize academic and extracurricular achievements, such as honor roll, scholarships or dean’s list.
Seeking a managerial/supervisory role
When writing a resume to get a job as a manager or a supervisor, you’ve got to highlight performance, starting with your professional summary. Don’t be shy about your awards and measurable achievements.
Provide examples of direct supervisory experience in your employment history.
Play up your soft skills, such as leadership, critical thinking, adaptability, communication and problem-solving.
The functional and combination resume formats serve career changers better than chronological resumes because they place skills at the forefront.
Transferable skills are vital for career changers because they can be applied to just about any job. Play them up as core strengths in an objective statement, provide examples of how you have used them in your job history and make sure you put several in your skills section.
Focus on only the most relevant aspects of your career in your employment section and include notable achievements from those jobs.
A functional resume is the best choice for job-hoppers because it takes the spotlight off work experience and emphasizes skills, but a combination resume can do the trick, too, especially if you’re a job-hopper with several years of experience.
In your professional summary statement, mention how long you’ve worked in the industry, highlight some essential hard skills and explain right off the bat how you can use them in the position.
Group some of your jobs together in your employment history section. For example, if you worked several short-term gigs as a contractor over a number of years, then group those jobs under the subheading “Contract Work.”
Don’t include all of your past jobs — it’s unnecessary to keep the shortest stints.
Be very clear about what you accomplished in each role. Use numbers to put them in the spotlight.
Returning to work after an absence
If you’ve been out of work for a while and you want to put your best foot forward to pick up where you left off, then choose a combination or a functional format to show off your skills.
Use a resume objective to briefly mention why you were out of work (for example, if you were focused on being a parent) and be enthusiastic about returning to work! Don’t forget to tell the hiring manager what you want to achieve in the new job.
Use your skills section to show off the skills you picked up while you were gone, as well as those hard-earned skills from previous jobs.
If you took continued education classes, took some time to volunteer, joined a professional organization or parent-student council, then add those details to your resume. Your volunteer work counts as work experience, classes fit the education section, and professional, parent or community organizations should fall under a new section at the bottom of your resume.
Recently laid off/unemployed
If you were laid off recently and have been unemployed, it’s appropriate to use a chronological resume if you have had at least one job.
Make sure you promote yourself in your professional summary — don’t emphasize that you were laid off. Instead, confidently write about what you’ve accomplished while employed and what you can do for the company.
Showcase your skills in the employment section, and add a variety of hard and soft skills to the skills section.
Bring your measurable achievements front and center in your employment section. Chances are the hiring manager will be so impressed, they won’t even notice your unemployment status.
Job transfers or promotions
A chronological resume is an excellent choice if you’ve been working for at least one year and you are asking for a promotion. If a job transfer is what you’re after, then consider using a combination resume to bring your skills into focus along with your work history.
If you want a job transfer, then a resume objective that explains why you want the transfer is the way to go. But if you’re looking to get promoted, use a professional summary to talk up what you’ve done that led you here.
You want to prove that you deserve a promotion, so your employment history should show that you’ve been consistent and reliable or that you’ve steadily risen through the ranks. For a job transfer, make your transferable skills work in your favor by displaying how you’ve used them in the form of measurable achievements.
Add relevant certifications, licenses and continuing education classes if you have them to show the hiring manager you’re serious about the new position and willing to go the extra mile to get there.
Moving into a permanent position
If you’ve had freelance gigs or contract roles for several years, then the chronological resume is a good way to show that you have the experience needed to move into a full-time position.
Your professional summary should exude enthusiasm for the role and explain that you are ready for a permanent position.
If you have worked as a contractor, freelancer, gig worker or part-time employee over the years, then categorize your work under those headings.
Playing up your accomplishments in your employment section and professional summary is critical if you want to snag a permanent job. Add a measurable achievement to each job you list.
Your technical skills are invaluable assets when going from a contract job to a permanent position. Mix several relevant technical and hard skills with soft skills like communication, determination and reliability.
Need to relocate
If a job is in another city and you’re certain you intend to relocate, then let the hiring manager know in your summary or objective. If you make it known off the bat that relocating is not a concern for you, then they will be more apt to keep reading your resume.
Express your enthusiasm for the job and the location in your professional summary or objective statement, so the hiring manager believes you’re serious about the job and the move.
Target your job history to the job. Use keywords from the job description and highlight experiences that match the job.
Emphasize soft skills like adaptability, flexibility, resilience, determination and open-mindedness.
When you have a referral
The best place to bring up a referral in a job application is in a cover letter, so write one to go with your resume and mention it first thing.
Use your professional summary on your resume to let hiring managers know you were referred by a shared contact.
A referral isn’t enough to get a job — you still have to prove you can do the work. Use your experience and skills, to emphasize your value. Don’t skimp on the measurable achievements, and make it clear you’ve got the hard and soft skills required to accomplish great things for the company.
Unadvertised job openings
If you hear about a job, but it’s not advertised, then use a resume objective to let hiring managers know precisely what you know about the job and why you are interested.
Write a cover letter to accompany your resume. Use it to explain in detail how you heard about the job opening.
Since you don’t have a job description from which to pull keywords and other information about the job requirements, emphasize your soft skills and any technical qualifications that match what you know about the job. Use industry keywords throughout.
When you’re writing a resume without a job description or lead, your best bet is to base your resume format on how many years of work experience you have. A chronological resume is the best choice if you have a steady work history and at least one year of experience.
If you know you have the technical skills for the job you are applying for, then highlight them.
Write an objective statement that states your aim for applying and precisely what you can do to help the company.
Measurable accomplishments are critical for a cold-call resume — don’t be shy about yours!
Write a companion cover letter detailing your reason for sending a cold-call application, whether it’s because you admire the company, heard about a need they have that you can fill, or you use their products and have an innovative idea for a new one.
For an appealing networking resume, choose the format that works best for your experience and goals. For example, if you’re still in school and do not have practical experience, then a functional resume will display your qualifications best.
Write a resume objective that explains in descriptive and compelling language why you’re sending the resume. Summarize your top skills as well as a relevant award or scholastic or professional achievement.
Display your aptitude in a concise work history section. Whether you have several years of work experience or one or two volunteer jobs or internships, focus on the impact of your work and describe how you helped the organizations achieve their goals.
A companion cover letter is critical for filling in the blanks about how you are connected and why you want to expand your network.
- Target your content for the job.
- Consider your audience.
- Use active voice.
- Be concise.
- Be specific.
- Don’t overdo it.
- Apply keywords from the job description.
- Emphasize your achievements in your employment section.
- Use power words.
- Be brutally honest.
- Focus on the employer.
- Proofread it.
- Build it.
Research is one of your best tools when writing a resume. Since you have to target each resume you write to the job you want, you must know what the company is about and what they need from you as a prospective employee. You should also review the job requirements closely. Knowing exactly how you qualify will help you show that you’re the best match.
Target your content for the job.
A custom resume is a stand-out resume, so match everything you write to the job description. But be honest! If the job calls for someone with strong math skills and yours aren’t that great, focus on the skills you do have that match the position and tailor your achievements around those.
Consider your audience.
Hiring managers don’t have much time to spend pouring over every resume that comes their way. That’s why it’s so important to make every word count. Plus, your resume will likely come under the scrutiny of an applicant tracking system (ATS), which many companies use as frontline security to ensure that each resume meets basic criteria for the job. Your resume must be clear, formatted correctly, and match the job description to get past this discerning software.
Use active voice.
Phrases written in active voice (i.e., “Streamlined processes for a 50% increase in efficiency,”) are more engaging than those written in passive voice (i.e., Efficiency was increased by 50% due to new process”) because they denote authority and action — exactly what you want to present on a resume.
ATS programs and hiring managers all prefer resumes to be short and to the point. Your resume must fit on one or two pages, maximum. Write short statements that reflect your best achievements and skills.
If you want employers to see your value, then you’ve got to be crystal clear about what you offer. Don’t announce that you’re a “results-driven problem-solver.” Instead, prove it by giving a specific example of a problem you solved that stemmed from a results-driven approach.
Don’t overdo it.
For the most part, hiring managers prefer resumes and cover letters with clean and simple designs because it’s easier for them to find the information they want. It’s perfectly acceptable to pick a template with a splash of color, but flashy graphics and stylized fonts might make you stand out for the wrong reasons.
Apply keywords from the job description.
There’s that pesky ATS software again! ATS programs love keywords, and they are built to find them. They search for keywords that match the job description, so use as many of those as you can — if they truly apply to you. And don’t just stick them all in your skills section. You’ve got to sprinkle them throughout your resume so that when the hiring manager reads it, they’ll know how each keyword applies to your experience.
Emphasize your achievements in your employment section.
Most resumes have employment history sections with bulleted lists of job responsibilities for each job. We don’t recommend this approach because it doesn’t tell employers what you’re capable of doing for them. When hiring managers review resumes, they look for what job applicants have contributed to other companies. They want to see measurable achievements, not duties.
For example, this: “Created a grievance escalation procedure that reduced customers’ complaints by 40% over a three-month period” instead of this: “Accountable for handling customer complaints for the sales department.”
Use power words.
Words like accelerate, optimize, resolve, initiate, transform, enhance and spearhead evoke prospective hiring managers’ interest because they are dynamic, evoke emotion, and get right to the point. With so many words to choose from and numerous ways to use them, you’ll never run out of fresh ways to describe your qualifications.
Be brutally honest.
Lying can be a fatal mistake for your job search. If you get caught, not only could you lose the job, but it could damage your ability to get hired in the future. Always stick to the truth. If you’re not the right fit for the job, move on until you find your match.
Focus on the employer.
This may seem counterintuitive because you’re trying to sell yourself. Still, objectives that mention what you want from the job, lists of job duties filled with pronouns such as “I” or “me,” and life stories instead of summaries are big red flags for prospective employers. They want to know what you can do for them, so make them the focus of your resume.
Red flags such as typos, inconsistencies, misspellings, improper formatting, inappropriate fonts and missing information will get noticed and can turn hiring managers off. Walk away after proofreading once and review your resume again with fresh eyes to make sure everything is in order.
You’ve written every section of your resume at least twice, proofread and saved your final version, and you’re ready to send it off with a cover letter. Good work! Our easy-to-use Resume Builder will help you build a professional, application-ready document in minutes.
Resume-writing mistakes to avoid
You’ve got to market yourself in the best way possible if you want to stand out from the competition and get a hiring manager’s interest when applying for a job. That means your resume has to be flawless. Don’t ruin your chances of getting a job interview by making the following common mistakes:
Using outdated or missing contact information
Make sure your contact information is current, correct and complete. Do not leave out your phone number, email address or location, and if you are adding your LinkedIn profile, make sure it’s presentable if it’s been a while since you’ve updated it. Same goes for your portfolio or website if you have them. Don’t add them to your contact section unless they reflect your best work. Lastly, make sure your resume and cover letter contain identical contact information.
Using the same resume for every employer
We know it can be tempting to reuse the same resume for every job application, especially if you are applying to multiple jobs in a short timeframe. But don’t! It will come across to employers that you aren’t really interested and they may think you’re lazy. On the other hand, a resume that is tailored to a specific job conveys real interest and a willingness to go the extra mile. Plus, potential employers can see exactly how you fit the position.
Not being concise
Hiring managers don’t have time to read a lengthy document. Your resume should be clean, well-formatted, organized and to the point. That’s why preparation is so important. If you present only the most relevant experiences and qualifications that present you in the best light, then you don’t need a long and wordy resume.
Having misspellings, grammatical errors and typos
No matter how strong your qualifications are, if your resume contains incorrect grammar, poor spelling, and missing or incorrect information, it can cost you the job because hiring managers won’t take you seriously. Such mistakes convey that you are sloppy, don’t pay attention to details, and that you aren’t that interested in the job. Avoid this mistake by proofreading every resume you write more than once.
How to pair a resume with a cover letter
A polished job application includes a resume and a cover letter. The two documents should complement each other.
To align your cover letter and your resume:
Apply the same style. Your resume templates and cover letter templates should have a similar style and use the same colors. A consistent look between the two will make your application cohesive and tell employers you pay attention to details.
Be mindful of formatting. Your cover letter and resume must be formatted correctly. If you use Arial 11-pt font for your cover letter, then use it for your resume, too.
Use the same header content. Again, consistency matters. If you add a link to your LinkedIn profile on your resume, then put it on your cover letter, too. If you write your phone number (415) 555-5555 on your resume, don’t write it as 415-555-5555 on your cover letter.
Use your resume to summarize your qualifications and your cover letter to talk about them in detail. Your cover letter is not a repeat of your resume, so don’t use it to rehash it or talk about each job line by line. Instead, make your cover letter into a short narrative using skills and experience from your resume strategically. For example, pick a few skills from your resume and give meaning to them in your cover letter. And if you display awards on your resume, then use the space on your cover letter to talk about one or two of them in detail.
Check out these articles for more information about writing a resume.
How do I write a resume after a long period of unemployment?
When writing a resume after a long period of unemployment, spin your story in the best light. Use your summary statement to emphasize the value your unique skills can bring to the table. Don't lead with your last job. Instead, lead with the most relevant. If you have relevant training, put that above work history. Omit exact dates and simply include years.
How do I write a resume for a career change?
To write a resume for a career change, use a functional or hybrid format. These formats will emphasize your most relevant skills, accomplishments and work experience. Our resume builder can help you decide which format to use based on the information you provide.
What is important when writing a resume?
When writing a resume, it is essential to bear in mind each employer’s immediate needs so that you can tailor your resume to fit. Always pull keywords from the job description when crafting your skills section and summary statement to help your professional resume bypass application tracking systems.
Should I include references in my resume?
No, you should not include references in your professional resume. Before an interview, if an employer asks for references, add them to a separate document or the body of an email. The only time it's okay to put references in a resume is if an employer specifically asks you to. Also, remember to ask your references ahead of time if you can share their information.
What should I do to make my resume stand out?
Surefire ways to make your resume stand out are to lead with a strong summary statement or resume objective that emphasizes your greatest and most relevant skills. Stress the value you can bring to the company and describe your accomplishments, rather than your responsibilities.