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What is a Resume?

A woman sitting at a table going over her resume with an advisor

A resume is a summarization of your education, skills, work experience and other relevant aspects of your career.

Resumes are a standard and hugely important part of any job search. You’d have a pretty tough time finding an employer that won’t want your resume at the beginning of an application process. It’s an efficient way for them to determine (and for you to demonstrate) that you’re a good candidate for a position.

In lots of ways, a resume is your first impression.

It’s crucial your resume accurately and professionally represents you and your qualifications. An effective resume results in interview invitations, which can lead to more opportunities, more connections and a more fulfilling career.

What Exactly Do You Include on a Resume?

An employer can, and likely will, ask you about anything on your resume. Regardless of role, level or industry, you always want to include things that you’re comfortable elaborating on. It wouldn’t look too good if you were asked about a skill or a previous experience and had to scratch your head instead of responding promptly. 

Knowing yourself and how to speak about yourself is arguably the most important aspect of your job search. That starts with your resume.

There aren’t steadfast rules but rather guidelines when it comes to preparing your resume. There isn’t just one way to make one. It’s only natural that you will have unique work experience, separate skills and a different educational background from other applicants.

There are standard sections you’ll want to include on your resume.

Three necessary sections include:

  1. Heading and Contact Information: This should be at the very top of your resume — the first thing employers and recruiters see. You want your name large and legible at the top of your document, with all your up-to-date contact info. This goes without saying, but you won’t get any calls back, no matter how good your resume is, if it’s phone number-less.

    Alongside your name, include your location, phone number and email address (be sure to choose or create a professional one).

  2. Education: Here’s where you’ll list your school(s), degree(s), graduation date(s) and, optionally, your GPA. Generally, you’ll want to include your GPA if it’s above a 3.5. The GPA is something you may choose to omit if it’s below that figure or if you’ve been working full-time for 3-5 years.

    If you have college experience that did not result in a degree, you can still include it, but be sure it’s clear that you didn’t yet complete it. You can do this by omitting a graduation date and including the number of credits you’ve done.

  3. Work/Professional Experience: This section will require the most amount of your attention. Here’s where you’ll display where you worked, your job titles, locations, employment dates and the job functions you performed at each of them.

In addition to the sections above, there are some others you may want to consider based on your background and experiences:

  • Skills: Even with a well-worded work experience section that speaks to your skills, a separate skills section can act as a nice, digestible list of your capabilities. If you’re wondering what skills to put on your resume, there are what employers consider to be ‘hard skills’ and ‘soft skills.'

    Hard skills typically consist of things like spoken languages, programming languages or any special systems or software you know how to use. Soft skills are more people-y — abilities like adaptability, communication skills, collaboration and problem-solving. If it makes sense for you, include your relevant skills, both hard and soft, into one ‘Skills’ section.
  • Certifications: A section this like can vary widely. What you include will depend on your experience and targeted roles. Examples of what could belong in this section are: A+ Certification, OSHA certification, CPR certification, CPA License, Real Estate License, ESL Certificate, etc.
  • Related/Relevant Experience: This is a good section to include if you have experiences to showcase that are unpaid or not considered professional.  For instance, when you’re freshly out of college, you might include your time as a resident assistant or teaching assistant. While these student leader positions might not be considered professional, they may be crucial to your experience at the time.
  • Relevant Coursework: This section is a good one to include for current students and recent grads trying to showcase specifics within their degree. For instance, a student with a business administration degree might include the titles of their marketing classes if they’re targeting marketing positions and want to stand out more.
  • Awards: If you’ve received any awards, accolades or special recognitions, show them off! You can include things like scholarships, Dean’s or President’s List recognitions, or the Employee of the Year award you got from your company.
  • Publications: Do you work as a writer, publisher, editor or journalist? A section like this will allow you to showcase the details of works you’ve had published.
  • Volunteer Experience: This section can highlight your involvement with charities or organizations. It can be a nice way to show employers something personal and noteworthy about yourself, but it can also be a strategic section for career changers. Involvement with charities or organizations in your targeted field is a great way to display your commitment and sincere interest in getting started in a new field.

Now, even with all these possible sections in mind, this is a quality-over-quantity kind of situation. You don’t want to bombard a hiring manager by sharing every detail you can think of or presenting five pages of everything you’ve ever done. Rather, be intentional about your sections, phrasing and details based on the job postings you’re applying to. Tailor, tailor, tailor.

Okay, But How Do You Write a Resume?

An effective structure for your bullet points follows this formula:

  • Descriptive verb + task + the purpose/accomplishment 

Imagine you’re a receptionist at a local clinic. A big part of any reception role might be answering phone calls, but simply including ‘answer phone calls’ isn’t the best sell for your prospective employers. With this format in mind, that bullet point could sound something like:

  • Utilize phone systems to address patient concerns and schedule appointments

See how adding the purpose rounds out the responsibility a lot more? Following this format allows you to incorporate a lot of details from your position and, in turn, highlight many more transferable skills.

If you’re a manager at a clothing store, ‘Manage store operations’ would be a correct description of your role, but it feels incomplete. This bullet point could stick the landing better if it said something like:

  • Manage a team of 10 sales associates to meet sales goals and conduct store operations

Now, these are basic examples, so think critically to find a good verb and good purpose for your own responsibilities. Remember there are guidelines to creating your resume, but not steadfast rules.

You can always try framing your bullet points by leading with the accomplishment instead if it opens the opportunity for you to use stronger verbs or highlight a different skill.

Here are some examples of that:

  • Mitigate client concerns by scheduling consultations and directing phone calls
  • Meet sales goals and conduct daily store operations by managing a team of 10 sales associates

Ultimately, What Makes a Good Resume?

A good resume is tailored to the positions you’re applying to and should paint a complete picture of what you do and what you’re capable of.

Regardless of how you tailor it or the sections you incorporate, it’s important that your resume is easy to read and understand, contains professional language, and is free from grammatical and spelling errors. If you aren’t the best writer, consider using online software like Grammarly to make sure your writing is correct, concise and delivers your intended message.

Also, have you ever used the ‘read aloud’ feature on Microsoft Word? Although robotic, it allows you to hear what you’re writing. If you have a hard time catching errors, try listening to what you wrote. Not only will it become apparent where your phrasing could be awkward or clumsy, any mistakes will be glaring.

And if you’re sick of looking at a screen after all this reflecting, writing and editing, take the technology-free route of tapping a family member or friend on the shoulder to give it a second set of eyes. It’s seriously important there aren’t any errors.

Above all, your resume should be written in a way that paints a complete picture of what you do and what you’re capable of. Remember, an employer may only spend a few minutes determining what you’re bringing to the table. The clearer the picture you paint, the more responses you’ll receive.

Without enough detail, an employer won’t be able to determine if you’re a good match. Plus, it’s a chance to display your own self-understanding. A candidate who knows themselves and their capabilities well is the best kind of candidate.

There isn’t just one way to create an effective resume, but any resume should be a clear, professional and accurate representation of who you are as a candidate. It should have up-to-date contact information and clearly outline your experience and qualifications.

There is so much to consider when it comes to job searching and your overall career development. For any help, be sure to consult with a career advisor at your school or in your community.

Online. On campus. Choose your program from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Colleen MacBride is a career advisor with the career services team at Southern New Hampshire University. In her role, she supports students in navigating their career landscape and prepares them for their next steps.

She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Human Development from the State University of New York at Oswego, where she advised and mentored students at all stages of their college career. Before SNHU, MacBride worked as a program advisor at a college in Orlando, Florida, and as a cast member at Walt Disney World.

Having worked a breadth of roles in multiple industries, she recognizes the importance and effectiveness of highlighting transferrable skills while maneuvering through a career and targeting new opportunities. Connect with MacBride on LinkedIn.

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