A Cognitive Approach for Writing a Better Resume

I call this a cognitive approach because the tips that I have included here involve many cognitive activities (thinking, reasoning, remembering, and imagining). I have come up with them over the years, but I have recently had several friends and family members ask me to read their resumes, for me only to realize they put no real thought into it. It was a form they had to fill out, not a creative work that required thought, time and energy. Here, I’ve outlined a the advice I gave them to avoid the rote, form-like resume and write one that really reflects who you are.

1) Think about it. This is the single best piece of advice I can give. Do not rush the resume (or the cover letter for that matter). Take the time to write out all of your skills, all of the jobs you’ve had, all of your contacts, everything that you would put on a resume. One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone says “oh, I can take care of a resume in 10 minutes!” Well, I’m sure you could, but I can guarantee it will not be of a quality that you want to put out there. Go through other resumes and see what people have done. Look at the formatting, what sections they included, and the word choices they made. If you went to college, write down what skills you learned there (or, better yet, write down what skills you learned from each class). If you have honors, awards, accomplishments, publications, write them down. You want to create a database of everything that could be included so that you will best be able to represent yourself in the very short time and space you have.

2) Put yourself in the Hiring or HR Manager’s shoes. If you were hiring, what would get your attention? Think about how you read, what types of things catch your eye, and what you would look for from an applicant. What would you immediately be turned off by (e.g., bad grammar, poor punctuation, little attention to detail)? This means, also, tweak your resume for (almost) every job. Make sure that you have the keywords and attributes that they are looking for right there. Do not make them guess whether or not you can do the job or have what they need. Remember, you’re not being evaluated in a vacuum. Managers are looking at your resume along with a ton of others, and you want to make them want you. Also, remember that while something may seem trivial to you, if the hiring manager took the time to write it out in the job description, it probably isn’t trivial for them.

3) Don’t follow a template. I say this because it is easy to use a template as a crutch, and, let’s face it, if you are the hiring manager and you see the same format over and over, it just won’t stand out. It is fine to get ideas and use it as a guide, but do not follow it so precisely that you are indistinguishable from others. Not following a template allows you to not only be creative but also to completely customize the resume to suit your unique experiences.

4) Put your skills down on paper. This may not hold for every profession, but one of the best things I did was lead with my skills. I devoted the top third of the resume (after my contact information) to present my skills and personal attributes. I categorized them so they were easy to understand, and I outlined them so they were easy to see and read. For example, I used categories such as technological, analytical, and interpersonal. Across from each, I listed the pertinent skills (e.g., software knowledge and typing speed under technological; knowledge of statistics and research methods under analytical; “proven ability to work both independently and in a team environment” under interpersonal). I came up with this idea when I was part of several hiring committees. We had to use a rubric to rate candidates, and if we wanted someone with Microsoft Word experience, and it was no where to be found on the resume or cover letter, they would get the lowest “score” (one) for that area (versus a five for just putting it down). No matter how otherwise qualified a candidate was, if they had a low score from leaving out key skills, they were not selected for an interview (which is, after all, the point of a resume).

5) (Bonus Tip): Always include a cover letter, and, in that cover letter, map your skills and experiences to the job requirements (but do not repeat your resume). I do this by using a grid. If the job requires Microsoft Office experience, I will put that in the left column and in the right column, I may put something like “I have over eight years of experience using Microsoft office products, and have full proficiency in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access”).

I hope you find these tips helpful. Good luck on your job search, and remember, when all else fails, think about it!