How to Write a Resume | The HR Approved Guide

Eating, sleeping, dying, and resume writing; these are all the things that all humans end up having to deal with regardless of age, gender or social status.

Thought about as frequently as fire extinguisher batteries and tornado/hurricane/earthquake emergency plans, many job seekers are left flat footed and desperate when they lose their job or need to switch careers.

Fortunately, like developing emergency preparedness plans, writing a resume is not that scary of a thing once you know what kind of information to include.

Below is a comprehensive guide, one of the most complete in the world actually, on everything you will need to know to help get your resume written.

From the different types and how to choose the perfect format, to the order of the information required and how to write it in a way that gets HR attention, this guide will set you straight.

Use the table of contents above to help skip directly to any section if you have any particularly burning questions.

Additionally, if there is something that was missed or you would like more clarification on, please let us know in the comments at the very end of this page and one of our retired HR professionals will help sort you out!

Best Methods for Composing a Resume

One of the primary reasons resume writing remains such a mystery for many is simply because there are a myriad of options when it comes to creating the actual document.

In this section we outline the 4 primary methods used to create an effective resume, the pro’s and con’s of each and how best to go about approaching each method.

How to Write From Scratch

Perhaps the most difficult but also potentially one of the most impressive methods is creating a resume completely from scratch.

Of course, “from scratch” isn’t quite accurate, as formatting an entire resume out of a completely blank Word document is an almost impossible task.

Instead of trying to perform the impossible of Microsoft formatting, it is best to start with a pre-formatted template in which you can fill in all of your own personal details.

The benefits of starting with a template include saving a massive load of time that would otherwise be spent trying to get line spacing and margins just right.

Another benefit, if using one of the resume templates that come pre-installed with Microsoft Word or if downloading a professionally formatted template from a site like Copy My Resume, is that you know the formatting will be standardized and HR approved.

The downsides of starting with nothing is the substance of the resume will all have to come from you.

This can create truly unique resumes, but be careful to double check your final product to other resumes to make sure your verbiage, formatting and details are all “in line” with proven successful resumes.

Selecting and Using Resume Building Software

Nowadays perhaps the most efficient way to craft a resume in the shortest amount of possible time would be to use one of the many resume builder web apps available online.

There are a wide variety of tools, both free and paid, that do most of the heavy lifting for you, as well as the formatting and proofreading, which can save literally hours off your total composition time.

Free tools usually have less features, such as only exporting in .txt file type, which isn’t ideal, or feature only a few basic styles to choose from when creating.

Still, these free options will get you started and you can always modify them more once you save them from the builder tool.

Paid resume builders are increasingly sophisticated, often using primitive forms of artificial intelligence to pre-populate sections of your resume like work experience bullet points and additional skills.

Many of these online resume makers simply ask your job title and then provide you details from which you can select the most relevant. This ensures a high quality of writing that is generally error-free.

Use caution though when vetting various builder tools online. There are a whole range of price points and billing options, from one-time payments to monthly subscriptions. Read the fine print before paying for anything!

Paying a Writer

Another option for those pressed on time would be to pay a professional resume writer to take care of the whole thing for you.

This process usually involves a quick interview/survey so the writer or writers can collect necessary information from the applicant. They then input this information into a template and improve upon the existing experiences.

Quality resume writing services are not cheap, as they employ only CPRW certified resume writers to hand-craft the resumes.

A few things to keep in mind when vetting resume writing services:

  • Make sure the writers are association certified (CPRW, NCRW, PARW, or CARW).
  • Make sure the company is locally based, using only native writers.
  • Make sure you have the ability to communicate directly with your writer.
  • Make sure the service allows for revisions upon completion.

Once you’ve found a company do some background research to see if there are positive/negative reviews.

Writers are great because truly talented ones know how to make even the must mundane resumes shine.

On the other hand the cost usually runs anywhere between $100-300 dollars per resume, which can be quite pricey.

For this reason writers are most often utilized by executives who are crunched for time and have the money to spend on a boutique service.

Copying a Friend’s Resume

Asking a friend who has been successfully hired who is at a similar career level (beginning, mid, senior) to borrow their resume to base your own off of is one of the most popular ways to get a resume on the cheap.

The benefits from using a friends resume for inspiration is that it has already passed all the hurdles required of an effective resume, including being error free, properly formatted and impressive to hiring managers.

It cannot be stressed enough that copying a friends resume still requires the writer to customize all of the sections, from the obvious name and address, through the experiences, education and additional skills sections.

This option is great for recent graduates and those just starting their careers who don’t have the money to pay a resume writer or to pay for an online resume builder.

 

Understanding Resume Design Fundamentals

The design aspect of the resume, while important, is one that many job seekers invest too much time in. Hiring managers are first and foremost looking for qualified applicants and despite rumors, they look at all resumes sent their way.

They do not selectively pull a handful from a pile based on aesthetic appeal, or at least they shouldn’t be.

Most documents are never even printed during the screening process, with documents being downloaded, filtered and reviewed online, often with the assistance of ATS or Applicant Tracking Systems.

For this reason the color, font, and styling elements are of relatively minimal importance. These aspects should only receive about 5% of your time, with the remaining 95% being invested in the actual writing and editing process.

Making your resume aesthetically pleasing and professional looking is still worth the effort however, and will stand out should you be invited for an interview, at which point the document will be printed, passed around and more closely scrutinized by non HR types.

Below we break down the main aspects of resume design and cover what is acceptable and what is not when stylizing your document.

Selecting Impactful Colors

All body fonts of your resume should be black and only black. The only text on the whole document that can ever be colored is the name at the top and that is only best done when in conjunction with other colored styling elements such as line breaks.

Styling elements should be kept to a minimum, with a line break between the name/contact section and body of the resume or a line running vertically separating subheadings are the two most common applications of stylized color.

If your resume theme has the options for color try to choose something that is relatively muted. No neon colors, no bright primary colors, these give resumes a less mature, less professional feel.

Instead of primarily orange, look for a “burnt orange” or “rust orange”. Instead of bright blue look for a “navy blue” or “midnight blue”.

It is important to remember that colors and styling elements are there to augment, not detract from the core focus of the text.

Selecting Appropriate Fonts

Font selection can be one of the trickiest things to get right with a resume, especially given the thousands of various font families available online today.

Contrary to popular belief, you are not limited to just Helvetica, Arial and Times Roman. You can select any font you wish as long as it looks professional.

What constitutes professional? Well, if you can’t imagine the font being printed on a business card or used in an instruction manual on an airplane, then it probably won’t fly (pun intended).

Never use overly stylized fonts, hand-written style fonts or character based fonts as these simply detract from the body and confuse resume processing software.

Selecting an Font Style

For style you will can go both serif and sans-serif. Serif simply means stylized, so these fonts will have tiny little twists and subtle additions to the end of lines to add a bit of character. A common example of a serif font is Times New Roman,

best resume fonts

Sans-serif simply means no styling. These fonts are made with straight lies exclusively. A common example of a popular sans-serif font is Helvetica or Arial.

 

Selecting the Correct Font Size

Many experts contend that only sized 12pt font should be used on resumes. The fact of the matter though is that sizes can range anywhere between 10pt and 12pt.

The best rule of thumb when choosing a size is to start out with 12pt and write out the whole resume.

Once you have completed writing use the length of the document to determine font size modification.

For example, if your resume is just under one page with a glaring white space at the bottom you can increase font size to the nearest tenth decimal place to help beef things up a bit, in addition to “filling out” existing bullet points with a bit more detail.

If your resume is just over a page, so for example, one page and 1/4th of a second page you can again adjust your font size down from 12pt by the tenth decimal place to try to squeeze the document onto one page.

 

Understanding Resume Length

First, let us clear up the most widely perpetuated myth in resume writing. Resumes do not always need to be only one page in length.

This is not a rule but simply logic as fewer pages means simpler uploading/attaching, fewer instances of potentially forgetting the second page and easier printing/carrying/distribution for interviews.

Resumes exceeding one page in length are however no less impactful than their shorter cousins.

Ultimately, the total length of the document should be dictated by both your profession and your total years of experience.

Some professions expect multi-page resumes, like academic positions where research and publications need to be cited, or executives where various advisory or board member roles need inclusion.

For entry-level candidates, students and mid-level candidates with only a few work experiences then one page is definitely optimal as you never want to artificially inflate the length just for lengths sake.

Refining a resume mostly revolves around distillation, that is, the process of subtracting and condensing to make things as accurate and succinct as possible.

Adding fluff to artificially inflate your resumes length will only dilute the relevant/valuable experiences you have, making it more difficult for the reader to discern and appraise your value as a candidate.

 

Popular Format Types

If you are using a resume writer or an online resume builder you don’t have to worry about formatting your resume as these will both do it for you.

If you are trying to determine the best type of pre-formatted template to use, or writing your document from scratch, then understanding the main resume format types will greatly assist you in crafting the most impactful document possible.

Reverse Chronological

Reverse chronological resume formatting puts your oldest experiences towards the bottom and your newest experiences towards the top, thus as the reader moves down the page they go back in time through your professional history.

This type of format is by far the most common and works for probably 80-90% of applicants.

The benefits of a reverse chronological format is that it puts your most recent, and thus usually most relevant experiences at the top of the page for the reader to immediately process.

It also puts older and less relevant experiences towards the bottom so as not to distract from more relevant work.

Entry-level candidates, mid-career level candidates and even some managers are all prime candidates for this particular layout.

Reverse chronological is not advised for:

  • People who have switched between multiple industries that don’t have much overlap
  • People who are executive level in experience
  • People in academics where experiences in the form of research and publications need more space for listing.

Functional/skills-based Format

Functional or “skills-based” resumes do not follow the a traditional timeline throughout the document.

Skills based resumes often start out with a summary of qualifications or skills section at the top of the resume where targeted skills relevant to the position being applied to are listed.

The second part of the resume will include work experiences, but since the skills are already listed at the top, they usually then only list employer name, location and date under the employment history section.

The education section will then close the resume unless there is are certifications or accreditations to mention.

Functional style resumes are good for technical workers, such as specialized construction workers, or people who work internationally as foreign employers may not be as useful to the reader as the skills achieved while under said employment.

Combination Format

A combination style resume is any mix and match part of a chronological resume and a skills-based resume. These resumes will have clearly defined sections, but not necessarily in chronological order and not necessary with skills listed first.

Combination resumes are used for unique cases where people have big gaps in their work history or are transferring from something like the military to public employment.

This resume format is best left to the experts, or built around a template at the very least to avoid creating a confusing and thus ineffective document.

 

Writing Introductions & Openings

The introduction to your resume is the second thing the person doing the hiring will read after the cover letter, which makes it quite important indeed.

Cover letter’s are openers, usually written in paragraph form and only containing one or two select bullet points highlighting why your resume should be considered for a specific position.

The resume opener re-affirms the more broadly mentioned relevant experience of the cover letter but in a shorter more succinct form.

There are two main types of openers for resumes, they are:

Writing Career Objectives

The career objective is the most common type of resume opener and is used for applicants of all experience levels.

Limited to just a couple of sentences, with 3 being the maximum, the humble career objective only has to accomplish two things.

First, it has to state the relevant experience you have as an applicant for a specific position. This will be in the first sentence. Some examples include:

Veteran Sales Manager with 10+ years in the automotive industry seeking a satisfying management role at…

Or

Recent Columbia graduate with degree in microbiology seeking a research position at…

Notice how both examples identify the writers background which is relevant to the position applied to.

Avoid providing experience or background that is not directly applicable or transferable to the position and industry to which you are applying.

Also note that if you have work experience, stating how much in numerical form is suggested as it stands out and is immediately noticed by the reader.

If you are an entry level applicant you can lean on your relevant education/degree as an opener if it is applicable to the job.

If your degree is not directly relevant you can open with previous part-time work experience, volunteer experience or skills that are applicable.

Writing Summary of Qualifications/Professional Summaries

The summary of qualifications and professional summary are interchangeable resume introductions used by upper-middle to senior level applicants.

These usually open with one or two sentences and include 2-4 highly relevant bullet points. Bullet points are always an even number to balance the page, as 1 or 3 bullet points would make for awkward formatting.

Professional Summaries in particular tend to feature less bullet points and more sentences, sometimes up to 4 or 5 in length.

The idea is that because of the candidate’s deep expertise in an industry or regarding a position, he/she needs more space to expand upon them.

An example of a Summary of Qualifications might look like:

Chief Financial Officer with over 20 years of experience attracting funding form venture capital, managing business expansion and optimizing product/service price positioning strategies. A few of my particular expertise include:

Vetted 50+ VC Offers Quarterly Increased Company Reserves to $14B Reduced Employee Turnover by 32%
Expanded Acquisitions Department 2X Continued Company Legacy of Dependability Entered 5 New Emerging Markets

 

An example of a Professional Summary/Career Summary might look like:

Outgoing and results-driven Executive Assistant with over 12 years of administrative and client relationship management experience in a multitude of finance-based industries. Excels at leveraging interpersonal leadership skills as well as financial acumen to build, sustain and foster peak-performing teams. Experienced trainer with demonstrated success in confidential communications and CRM management. Proficient with MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Adobe Suites, Outlook Enterprise, FileMaker Pro, Salesforce,  and Fundamental C Language Programming. Proficient in English and Spanish. Intermediate Mandarin abilities.

 

Professional Experience Section

The biggest and most central part of the resume, the “body” is the professional experience section. This is where all the claims made or outlined in the cover letter and career objective are substantiated by real world experience.

Comprising 50-70% of the resume this section should take the longest to write as it requires not just thoughtful composition but also the clear recollection of past experiences, particularly those relevant to the position being applied to at the time.

It is a good idea to start the process on a piece of scratch paper, listing your relevant work experiences and as many achievements/special duties as possible under each.

Then go back and cross out anything that can be considered “generic” or an “every-day task” as these wont’ stand out to potential employers. Remember, you want to look as uniquely suited for the position as possible.

Don’t worry about experiences that are more than 12 years old, unless you are an executive level candidate, in which case you can include these in a Functional or Combination formatted resume.

Make sure most recent experiences are at the top and older are near the bottom. The more recent experience, the more bullet points you can include.

The number of bullet points under each experience should taper as the time goes by, with least emphasis being placed on the oldest experiences.

Types of Experience- Relevant Jobs & Internships

One common misconception is that every single past experience needs to be included in the professional experience section.

While this may be the case for entry-level candidates for only one or two experiences, for most experienced candidates it is simply not always necessary.

Experiences aren’t listed just for the sake of being listed, they are supposed to qualify the candidate for the position being applied for.

Thus, including non-relevant experiences and bullet points that don’t lend themselves to qualifying the applicant are just a waste of space.

Always look to include experience bullet points that are either directly applicable to the job applied to or are at least transferable across industries.

In addition to only including relevant jobs and bullet points other work like volunteer-based positions and internships can also be included in the professional experience section.

Adding non-compensated work is especially useful for entry-level applicants and recent college graduates as they often times are lacking relevant professional experiences.

Importance of Reverse Chronological Order

With the exclusion of Functional resume formats, all professional experiences will be listed in reverse chronological order as the most recent experiences will also most likely be the most relevant.

If you are a senior level applicant, that is someone with 15+ years of experience you can be selective in the detail listed under each experience, with less detail and fewer bullet points included under older and less-relevant positions.

How Far Should I Go Back?

How far back in time an applicant should go when writing their professional experience section depends on:

  1. The seniority of the applicant
  2. The industry being applied to
  3. The overall working length of the resume

First, a veteran careerist with over 15 years of experience will naturally have more experience sections than a more entry-level applicant. These veterans can have 5 or more unique employment sections in their employment history section.

Second, some industries require more detail than others. If you work in a highly technical field, such as engineering or academics, then including your entire track record along with notable achievements/hallmark projects and publications is required when applying to new positions.

Finally, the overall length of your resume can influence how many professional experience subheadings are included.

For example, if the resume is already well over one page, like 1.5 pages, then keeping a more lengthy experience section isn’t an issue as the resume will likely be unable to be shrunken to one page anyways.

How Many Bullet Points Should Be In Each Section?

It is a common misconception that all professional experiences require the exact same amount of detail and thus the same number of descriptive bullet points.

This is simply not the case. More recent experiences deserve a lion’s share of attention and thus can have more bullet points whereas older experiences, simply because of their age, tend to have fewer bullet points.

A standard resume for example may have 5 or 6 bullet points under the most current experience, 4-5 under the second newest, 3-4 under the third newest, and 2-3 under the third newest.

After the 3rd experience, or for experiences exceeding 10 years in age, bullet points are not even necessary and just the employer, location, date and job title will suffice.

Quantifying Numerically

One of the biggest missed opportunities for applicants to immediately grasp hold of the readers attention is the lack of numerical quantification.

Numerical quantification is simply stating achievements or outcomes in number form, often in dollar terms, percentage increases or running totals.

For example stating how much a Sales Manager increased quarterly profit in % or $ terms will both grab the readers attention as well as re-enforce the claim.

A bullet point that reads “increased quarterly revenue by 48% by deploying optimized multi-channel sales strategies” looks much more targeted and valid than simply “increased quarterly revenue via expansion optimized multi-channel sales strategies”.

Besides piquing human resources attention numbers are what managers and CEOs will want to see when screened resumes are forwarded to them.

Business leaders care much less about formatting and traditional resume elements than HRs. These people instead are numbers people and a resume without numbers is vague and lacking in qualification.

Always try to add numerical quantification whenever possible. If this requires digging back into company history or asking previous managers/coworkers to confirm figures then it is worth doing.

Double checking figures is important. While you can safeguard your claims by stating “approximately”, it is still important to have figures based in reality as if interviewed and questioned you will need to be able to back up the claims made in your resume.

 

Education Section

The education section is an oft-unsung hero of the resume. While the section holds different importance for different levels of applicants, it is a critical element to all.

For senior level applicants the education section can be a common tie between a hiring manager who may be an alumni of the same university as the applicant.

For entry-level applicants the educational section holds much more importance as it is the most relevant and recent experience used to qualify the candidate for the position being applied to.

Writing University History

For many applicants today having a university degree is critical for career advancement. Whether from a traditional 4 year school or a technical college, including your degree and area of academic expertise or training is key in reassuring HRs of your ability to perform the job.

Including relevant educational experiences re-affirms your understanding of industry fundamentals which serve as a kind of insurance policy for companies as they know at the end of the day their applicant can be trained and education built off to mold them into a role model employee.

Like professional experience, educational experiences should also be listed in reverse chronological order. For many people this puts university experience at the top of the list.

Include the university name, the location, the dates attended, the major/minor/focus of study as well as your GPA if it was impressive.

For example, a 3.0/4.0 isn’t a particularly impressive GPA so in this case the applicant would not provide that detail, which is completely acceptable.

However anything above a 3.5 is considered impressive and can then be included as an added little achievement bonus.

If you have a post-graduate degree you will include this above your 4 year degree experience as a stand alone experience within the educational section.

If your graduate degree was obtained from the same university as your undergraduate degree you can include them both under the same heading with two subheadings, one for undergraduate achievement and one for graduate achievements.

High School Details

High school experience is not usually as relevant if the applicant has a university education. However for those working in skills-based industries like construction or as administrative assistants then this should still be included as having a high school diploma still helps qualify applicants.

As with university, the high school section should include school name, location, dates attended and the affirmation of receipt of a diploma.

If you did attend technical college or university then you can omit the high school education section altogether as it will be less important as well as an assumed achievement.

Training/Vocational School

Vocational and technical training should be listed in the same format as 4 years university experiences.

This means the inclusion of the school name, location, dates attended and program studied.

Additional accomplishments like Deans List, academic achievement awards and the like can either be included directly in the educational section or included in a separate “Awards and Achievements” section at the bottom of the resume, preceding or supplanting an “Additional Skills” section.

Additional Skills & Certifications

As the traditional “closer” of the resume the additional skills and certifications section is often written as an after thought as opposed to being viewed as a critically important element of the resume.

Copy My Resume is more of a believer in the inclusion of certifications, awards and achievements sections over the traditionally vague “additional skills” section.

All relevant skills worth sharing should theoretically be included under the professional experience and educational sections they were obtained/utilized at.

Adding certifications and training like first aid, special licensure, company awards on the other hand are a great way to finish a resume on a high note.

If working in an industry that prizes certifications and training, such as construction, engineering, medicine and education then make sure to include industry-expected certifications.

It is also important to make sure your training and certifications are up to date.

It will be easier for a company to hire someone with current training so they can begin working immediately as opposed to a candidate who will require more time and financial investment to get caught up to speed before they can even begin working.

Also, don’t be afraid to customize this section depending on your industry.

For example designers can include a “Software Expertise” section instead of an “Additional Skills” section where they can list all the multitude of software and hardware experience they have that may be viewed as a necessity for design positions.

 

References

References are one of the most misunderstood elements of a job application. For most applicants having references is not a requirement for application.

Unless specifically asked for in the job posting you do not include references along with a resume. However if the job posting specifically states it requires references then they cannot be absent.

It is always good to have a few people in mind you could use as references so that in case the potential employer asks for them you can provide them without much time delay.

Additionally, if you are providing references, such as a name, title and phone number of previous manager, it is important to alert the person ahead of time that you are applying for a job and used them as a reference so that they are not caught off-guard should somebody from HR phone them.

 

Uploading & Submitting Your Resume

Once you’ve finalized a document it will be time to submit it to the employer for review.

There are a few tricks to making sure your resume retains all the professionalism that went into crafting it so that is viewed exactly as it should be when received by the employer.

Always Save in PDF Format

While resumes are usually crafted in Microsoft Word or perhaps online using a piece of resume software, it is important to save the FINAL draft in PDF form so that none of the formatting or styling will deteriorate or change upon submission.

The reasons for Microsoft Word files changing formatting are endless, from conflicting versions of the software between sender and receiver, to odd resume upload functions that change how the resume is viewed.

Saving in PDF format ensures nothing changes and the only changes that can occur on the employers end will be annotations.

Printing Your Physical Resume

While a majority of applications are all online now, meaning documents are submitted digitally (in PDF format), it may still be necessary to print a physical copy of your resume should you be asked in for an interview.

While employers will usually print your resume and distribute it to interview participants themselves it is still a good idea to print 4-5 copies yourself to bring to the interview on the off chance that one of the interviewers does not have a hard copy to reference.

Do not skimp when printing. Only use black ink and invest in some quality heavier weight paper. Paper weight simply refers to the thickness of the sheet.

Standard printer paper can be quite light, shiny and cheap feeling. Buying a pack of heavier weight paper will only cost you a few dollars but make a world of difference in the “official” feeling of the final printed document.

Additionally, heavier weighted paper often comes in classy yet subtle off-white hues. A very light cream or ivory tint can add some sophistication to your resume.

There are also papers with very subtle texture too which may not be a bad idea if applying to a more prestigious position or within an industry that values aesthetics such as design, engineering or fashion.

 

Sending a Thank You & Following Up

Once your resume is submitted and your interview is completed it is important to follow up with a thank you letter.

This is not only simply a matter of being polite, it also serves as a reminder to the hiring company that you are waiting to hear back from them and are excited about the prospects of working for their company.

Thank you letters can be sent via email or by letter, although email is preferable as it is more immediate.

The standard wait time before sending a thank you letter is about one day. Sending a thank you in the same day is a bit ambitious and may not receive the same attention as a letter sent the next day.

If you are not contacted within 2-3 business days after the interview and if a thank you letter was already sent then you may want to consider sending a follow up letter.

These are usually quite short, often consisting of a simple greeting an closure, sandwiching a couple sentences again thanking the employer for their time, expressing your interest and wondering if any developments have occurred regarding your application.

Follow up letters are perfectly acceptable as applications are sometimes lost or get side-lined in day-to-day operations at busy companies. Follow up letters also show you really want the job and haven’t stopped thinking about it.

Never send more than one follow up letter however, as if the company hasn’t bothered responding then you are most definitely not in contention for the position any longer.

This is a rarity however as companies today are usually pretty good about getting back to applicants they interviewed to update them about their status.

 

Conclusion

There you have it, the complete guide to resume writing. The practice is old and can seem quite boring however no one document may hold as much power in determining your future than the humble resume.

Respect it, cherish it, nurture it, water it frequently, be proud of it and distribute it widely and your resume will feed you, clothe you and provide you a solid future.

If you have any questions about resume writing that we failed to mention in this guide please let us know in our Community Forum section.

You can also ask specific questions pertaining to your individual situation in the Forum and one of our volunteer HR professionals will try their best to follow up with a constructive answer.