Resume preparation: 9 professional resume writing tips

I was browsing through a few dozen resumes today, and I noticed some common mistakes. I thought I’d share with you some professional resume tips to help you to learn from their mistakes.

Below are the professional resume tips you should take away from each mistake:

1. Use the body of your email to sell yourself

Actual Example: Someone emailed me their resume saying: “I’m a current graduate student at [school]. I would like to apply for the [open position]. The attachment is my one-page resume. I hope to have further contact with you in the future. Thanks.”

Analysis: Is this a human or a robot? The body of the email is both uninformative and abrupt. For all I know, they used that exact text to apply for a job at McDonald’s. I get no sense of who the applicant is. Ask yourself: what will make me want to open your resume if I have dozens of others to go through?

The Fix: Treat your email body like a cover letter.

In the body of your email, give me something that makes me want to learn more about you.

Treat your email like a cover letter by introducing yourself in a moving way. Make me think: ah… this is a real, likable person. I want to learn more about what they can do for me.

Be concise and make sure you:

  1. Demonstrate that you get things done by identifying a few concrete tasks you completed or quantifiable change you brought to related projects.
  2. Demonstrate your passion by describing how this position relates to what excites you in life.

2. Send your resume as a PDF

PDF files can be viewed on all computers, regardless of operating system or software version. It would be silly to send me a .docx if there’s any chance I can’t open it.

Never send your resume as a .docx file. Hiring managers will not take the time to convert your resume to a .doc so they can read it. (Many don’t even know how). When you have lots of applicants, it just doesn’t make sense to waste time converting dozens of resumes.

Always. Send. A. PDF. Otherwise, it may never get opened.

3. Name your resume like this:  “[First] [Last] Resume.pdf”

Imagine you’re a hiring manager for a moment. You have a folder full of resumes on your hard drive. You have too many applicants to remember their names. Wouldn’t you want your resumes to have consistent file names – one single naming system so you can quickly see exactly whose resume is whose, alphabetically?

It’s always a breath of fresh air when I don’t have to manually change the filename of your resume. And every breath of fresh air I get when dealing with your resume, the more I like you. It’s probably unfair, but when dealing with dozens of applicants, that’s just not something I want to have to deal with.

The bottom line is that every time you make my life easier, you score points in my book. So name your resume: First Last Resume.pdf.

4. Use bold text to emphasize your most important points

Hiring managers don’t have much time to make decisions. That’s why in your email body, you should put your most important points in bold. The items that will win you the job should jump off the screen.

One applicant today took the time to bold each company name and position he held in the body of his email. This made it easier for me to scan his text, filter out the noise and hone in on his credentials. Before I began reading through his email, I could already see where he’d worked. And after I finished, the bold text still stood out, reminding me again of his credentials. He successfully emphasized his most important points to me.

How can you use bold to strengthen the text of your email?

5. Include concrete actions and quantifiable results. Vagueness is a deal-breaker!

The more vague you are about what you’ve done, the less I care.

This is weak: “Worked on Project X,” or “Led Project Y.”

How do I know what you did on Project X? Or what results you achieved? What does it mean to lead Project Y? What did you actually do?

This is strong: “Identified and reported 27 bugs per day testing Software X,” or “Developed complete end-user requirements for Project Y based on 15 two-hour customer interviews.”

This tells me you actually did something. Concreteness is your best friend. If your bullet points make me clearly imagine you doing a specific task, then I can picture you working at my company.

Vagueness is your enemy. If you use broad verbs that don’t describe specific actions, then I can’t picture you working at my company. I don’t care if you “oversaw” or “worked on” something. That means diddly to me. What did you actually do?

This is weak: “Responsible for new client acquisition.”

“Responsible for” is too vague. So is “oversaw.”

You were responsible for new client acquisition, but did you actually do it? That doesn’t tell me what you really did. Nor does it quantify the results you achieved.

This is strong: “Cold-called 50 potential clients a week, converting 10% into paying customers.”

That’s much better. It tells me exactly what you did. I can picture you on the phone, chatting it up with prospective customers, winning over new clients and increasing my company’s bottom line.

6. Include two or three quotes from good references.

Everybody says “references available upon request.”

To stand out, actively insert two or three “testimonials” from people you’ve worked with. It can be a past bosses, co-workers, project teammates or even professors. Keep each quote under three sentences. Make sure they concretely support your greatest strengths.

This is weak: “John was a great teammate to work with on our Project X.”

This says nothing about what John is good at. Vague verbs like “great” or “excellent” don’t tell me anything about John. What is John specifically great at? Sometimes a brief story is the most effective way to illustrate your strengths.

This is strong: “We hired John after our last programmer left us four weeks behind schedule. John’s ability to consistently meet coding deadlines under high pressure helped put us back on schedule. He was a hard-working and invaluable member of our team.” Or, “John’s ability to connect emotionally with our customers made him our second most highly-rated customer service rep. He always left our users with a smile.”

7. Be a human, not a robot.

Take a moment in your email/cover letter to say something I can relate to. “I am really interested in working with you because we share a love of great design.” Okay, so you are in fact human and you acknowledge that I am a person with similar interests. Maybe we would even get along!

Don’t be afraid to include you interests on your resume as well. They show that you lead an interesting life and are not as boring as your bullet points might make you sound.

8. Give your resume to two other people to proofread.

You are going to miss a typo. It doesn’t matter if you have super-human editing skills. Do yourself a favor: have two other people read over your resume and cover letter before you send them in. Inevitably, those people WILL find a typo that you missed. I guarantee it. A fresh pair of eyes can only end up helping, not hurting you.

9. Always provide your phone number.

If you actually care about getting the position you’re applying for, you’ll make it as easy as possible for me to contact you. If all you give is your email address, it appears that you don’t care enough about the position to be contacted in person. Always, always provide your phone number.

Start incorporating these nine professional resume tips into your resume right now. What can you improve?

  1. Use the body of your email to sell yourself.
  2. Send your resume as a PDF.
  3. Name your resume like this:  “[First] [Last] Resume.pdf”
  4. Use bold text to emphasize your most important points.
  5. Include concrete actions and quantifiable results. Vagueness is a deal-breaker!
  6. Include two or three quotes from good references.
  7. Be a human, not a robot.
  8. Give your resume to two other people to proofread.
  9. Always provide your phone number.

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  • Kim Avery, Certified Career Coach

    Thanks Pete.

    I especially agree with your suggestion that the resume writer be specific. Anyone can say that they are a good salesman, customer service rep., etc.

    Measurable, observable specifics help your quality speak for itself.

  • Great post! I was all smug, thinking I was going to ace this “quiz” on all 9 points … but I stumbled right at #2.

    I’ve always sent my resume as a Word .doc file; it never occured to me to do anything else!

    It’s been 5 years since I was last in the job hunting market. Perhaps this need only came with the advance (?) of Office 2007 and the .docx format?

    Still, it’s great advice, and if I were searching for a new employment (I’m not, boss, honest — I love my job!), it’s something I would have overlooked.

    Great tips, all the way through.

  • This is great advice I’ll be keeping in mind as I revise my resume to send to various internships. The hardest part is writing measurable results. Maybe you could write a post soon about that.

  • Good post. I’ve seen a ton of resumes over the years and I will tell your readers that, WITHOUT A DOUBT, your tip #5 is the major difference. If you can remember nothing more from this list, remember tip #5. That’s PURE GOLD. Get in the habit of writing that way and differentiating yourself in that way. Being vague in a resume is poison. Be specific and stand out.

  • Pete,
    Thanks for this great post. this is the first time I am reading a piece that advices that resume should be in pdf and I actually agreed with your point as it makes sense.I will advice clients on this new piece

  • jim

    nice for share

  • Make Money Online

    Very good tips its little details like this that have a large impact on if you get hired. Many human resource departments are very busy and little errors can get your resume tossed fast!

  • Shereen Khan

    Really well thought out tips. I never thought to send resumes as a pdf file. I am currently in the job hunting process and found these tips very useful. The tricky part is making your resume stand out among many others. These simple tips can help do that.

  • Great article, I particularly like points 1 and 5. I receive five to ten resumes (for backup storage) a day and I am amazed at the difficulty many ‘experienced’ employees have at selling their qualities let alone backing them up with concrete statements or statistics.

    Perhaps you could add a vital eighth point: ‘Use the appropriate words and statements that will get the attention of your reader. This can be done by including words and statements in your resume that match/mirror those that appear in their ad.

    Ric – orglearn

  • Ooops I mean “tenth point”

    Ric – orglearn

  • Yes you are absolutely right that send your resume as PDF because in pdf all your formatting,fonts and page breaks will remain exactly the same-so for this reason I also recommend sending your resume as PDF.

  • Hi Pete, great article, it was a lovely read!

  • Resume Builder | Blogger

    “5. Include concrete actions and quantifiable results.”

    I couldn’t agree more with you on this Pete. Goals achieved are like gold pieces in your resume. The employer loves them. It would also be better to include the methods and ways by which you have achieved your goals. This will give the employer an idea of your mindset and planning in work.

  • @Kim: Vagueness is definitely a dealbreaker. How can a hiring manager trust you if you don’t tell them exactly what you’ve achieved? They don’t have time for generalizations.

    @JP: Thanks for the kind words. Sending your resume as a PDF is often overlooked! It preserves your formatting, no matter where it is opened. It’s easy to forget this after you’ve slaved away getting your word .doc looking just right.

    @Rachel: I totally agree. One thing that helps is to constantly ask (at your current position): what quantifiable results can I bring this week? How can I measure my impact here, so I can talk about it to others later?

    @Mike: “Being vague in a resume is poison” – Definitely!

    @Yinka: I’m glad the PDF point made sense to you. I once had a candidate send me his resume as a word .doc, with “Track Changes” still turned on!! All I could see was red lines and edits. Needless to say, I didn’t even read his resume.

    @Shereen: I’m glad these tips were useful.

    @Richard: GREAT POINT! “Include words and statements in your resume that match those appearing in the ad for the position.” This is SO IMPORTANT. For example, don’t say “I’m interested in your internship position” when you could say “I’m interested in your Graphic Design internship position.” Not only does this show you took the time to make your resume specific to this position (demonstrating your desire for this specific opening when your competition might be sending cookie-cutter applications), but the company is probably filling more than just that position, so you better make crystal clear which one you’re applying for. If I see a vague “hire me” cover letter without the exact position you’re applying for, I don’t have time to contact you to clarify what you’re interested in. Thus, you’ve already killed your chances. Awesome point, Richard.

    – Pete Kistler
    @pete_kistler and @brandyourself

  • “9. Always provide your phone number.”

    This has got to be the best tip among the list for me. I’ve worked in a recruitment company before and I have to say this has got to be the most annoying blunder when a job seeker misses out on including his contact details in a resume.

    To top it all, it happens when you have found your most qualified candidate only to find out that his mobile is an old number and his email is on “mailer-daemon”.

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  • Rd99Hse1

    who said that?

    Good article, tips like this go beyond just resume sharing and building.

  • While we can't tell you who actually said that I'm glad that you enjoyed the tips, they for sure go way beyond just the resume.

  • Trace Cohen

    While we can't tell you who actually said that I'm glad that you enjoyed the tips, they for sure go way beyond just the resume.

  • always dont forget to put a contact number on your resume, so that if they will going to hire you they can keep in touch of you anytime.