How to Write an Effective Resume

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How to Write an Effective Resume

First, you have to consider why you are doing this and for whom.

The most common reason to prepare a resume is to get a job, or more specifically to win an interview. But sometimes, resumes are used to establish your credentials. They often accompany proposals and grant applications and serve to establish the suitability of the applicants for the proposed job or financing opportunity.

A resume is not merely a summary of your career and educational history. After all, just telling someone all that you have done won't guarantee they'll agree to give you a chance. It is important to sell yourself a little. Let the reader know what they'll get if they hire you, and be specific about it. Present yourself in the best light. Convince the prospective employer that you have what it takes to succeed in the job you've applied for.

When you send a resume in response to a job posting or include it as an attachment to a proposal or grant application, you naturally look at the process from your own point of view: that of the applicant. Let's consider things from the other side for a moment. Imagine you're the one getting all those resumes in the mail or via an electronic job posting service like or Your job is to sift through a very large pile of extremely similar documents and choose a much smaller number, usually less that 10 percent, to call in for an interview. How will you decide? 

Often the person doing the skimming is the one who'll have to work with the new employee. So what, in the end, are they looking for? Well, the perfect candidate of course! Your job is to convey to the reader that you are the one they are seeking.

Good resume writing begins with gathering all the necessary information. Start by collecting all the things you've ever done in one place. This kind of brainstorming should include everything. (Really, everything. Don't limit yourself at this stage to work-related activities. Draw from all your life experiences.) You'll be able to decide what to exclude later in the process. After you've gotten everything down, focus on gathering all the names, dates, and other specifics related to your experience. Make sure these are accurate.

Resume Formats

There are three (really two) basic formats used to organize your resume: Chronological, functional, and a combination of the two.

A chronological resume is a more traditional choice and is appropriate when you are staying in the same profession. It begins with an objective and includes a summary. All the experience you have accrued is listed, job by job in reverse chronological order. The experience section is followed by a brief section that describes your education.

A functional resume highlights your skills and accomplishments. There are many different formats for this type of organization. It is a good choice if you are changing careers, your skills are general, you are a student, or you are returning to the workplace.

A combined resume includes elements of both these formats and can take advantage of the strengths of each type while avoiding their negatives. This kind of resume can provide the employer with the chronology that simplifies reading a resume while still allowing you to highlight your abilities.


Begin with an Objective. Doing this allows you to target your resume and is an important step to getting your resume sorted into the stack of applicants that will move on in the process. You may have to alter your objective if you are applying for different jobs or answering various RFPs. The biggest mistake you can make here is to be too broad. A vague objective tells the person sorting the stack that you aren't really sure what you want to do. Try and avoid this:

Objective: To obtain a position that will allow me to advance my potential while seeking new and exciting challenges.

Huh? This kind of sentence says nothing about you, and even more importantly, nothing about how you can help your potential employer. So be sure your objective is to the point. Remember, you've only got a few seconds to impress the person skimming the stack. Try one of these formats:

Objective: A ------- position in an organization seeking Skill A and Skill B.

Objective: An entry-level position in mechanical

engineering where strong leadership ability and good communication

skills are needed.

Objective: Vice-president of aerospace engineering in an

agency where extensive knowledge of thermodynamics and heat transfer are


Objective: A position teaching technical writing where an

ability to motivate reluctant technical professionals to enjoy communicating

science to laypeople is needed.

The Summary

This section summarizes your qualifications and abilities for the position or grant for which you are applying. It is the best time to focus the reader's attention on why they should choose you over the other candidates in the stack. Most resumes don't get read carefully until they've made the first cut (and some not even then). Most resumes are skimmed. The summary is often the only section that gets read in its entirety, so make it lively and readable. Earlier, we said that the stack skimmer is looking for the perfect candidate. So ask yourself, what would make the ideal applicant ideal? Answer the questions you come up with in your summary.

Follow this format:

First, include a phrase that describes your job, and then make a statement about you that explains why your expertise is unique. Then include a statement or two or three that describes the proficiencies you have developed because of your experiences or the training you have received. Here you might want to include a special accomplishment, a promotion, or any awards or commendations you may have received. Next, make a short statement about your professional character, finishing with a professional objective. Here is an example:

Summary: Electrical engineer with over fifteen years of

experience in the aerospace industry. Adept at forming productive project teams. Excellent management and communication skills. Recipient of the IEEE Medal of Honor, 2005. Energetic self-starter with excellent analytical

skills seeks dynamic position overseas.


When your educational experience is more extensive than your work experience, place it first. Prepare this section in reverse chronological order and include only schools attended beyond high school. If you have not completed your degree include it anyway and put the expected completion date in parentheses, like this: NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, B.S. Electrical Engineering (Anticipated graduation date, June 2008). List your major and minor(s). You may also list specialized coursework that has prepared you for this particular job. Include your GPA only if it is over 3.0. If you have received advanced training, list that too.


Again, this section is in reverse chronological order; place your most recent experience first. List the dates of employment (2003-present), the name of the company and its location (Con Edison, Brooklyn, New York internships and volunteer positions. Calling this section experience allows you to include jobs for which you were not paid.

Optional Sections

You may include other sections in your resume if they are appropriate or typical for your profession. These sections can be useful if you have important information that doesn't fit neatly elsewhere.

Awards and Commendations But if they were received as a part of your educational experience include them in that section.

Professional Affiliations or Civic and Community Leadership


Personal Information Generally, this section isn't listed

anymore. Employers are barred by law from asking for most of the information you would normally include here like your age, marital status, religious affiliation or a picture, but some information about who you are outside of work can provide fodder for interview conversation, show well roundedness, or create common ground. It's your call, but most experts

suggest omitting this information.

References This has always been the standard close to most

resumes, with the additional available upon request tacked on, but

it is not necessary.


Now that we've gotten everything down and organized it into sections, you have to decide on the layout that will be most effective. A resume must be visually interesting. This translates, in most cases (unless you are applying for a job as a graphic designer), to a clean professional style that it easy to read and includes lots of white space.

First, include all your relevant contact information: name (bold, not underlined), address, telephone number and email address. (Please note: If your current email address is or, consider changing it.) (Also please note: If your answering machine message is, "Hey dude, this is Chris. Leave a message if you want, or jump in the lake. I don't care." You may want to consider re-recording a more professional sounding one. Most people will ask you to come in for an interview by phone.)

Next choose a font. For run of text, choose a conservative serif font like Times New Roman. They are easier to read. To add some visual interest, you may want to choose a conservative san serif font for your headings. They set the headings apart. Arial or Helvetica are both good choices. Limit the number of fonts you use to two (or at most three). The font size should be 11 or 12 point. Don't choose non-standard fonts like Comic Sans or Lucida Handwriting. They attract the wrong kind of attention.

Set large margins all the way around to ensure enough white space and justify left.

Some Suggestions

Write concisely and get to the point. Many experts recommend one page resumes. This seems a little arbitrary, but is a good rule of thumb. Most of us can produce a very effective document limiting ourselves to just one page.

Make sure you've included all the basic information and that it is accurate, both factually and grammatically. Do not attempt to proofread your resume on a computer screen. Print it out and look at it. You will notice errors you missed when you wrote it. Better still, have someone else read it.

Choose the correct tense and use it consistently. There are various approaches here too. If, for example, you are still working at a company, and one of your duties is to evaluate plans, that's what you would write. If you no longer work there, it seems logical to say evaluated plans. But this forces you to change tenses throughout your resume. So, either describe things accurately, (i.e., things done in the past in past tense, ongoing actions in the present tense) or use present tense throughout.

Don't ask for a particular salary on your resume, save the haggling for after the offer, don't include references, and don't explain why you left previous jobs.

Do be accurate and honest. Including information that is fabricated on a resume is a breach of professional standards. The federal government often specifies degree requirements when it hands out lucrative contracts. More than a few corporate executives, academics, and politicians have received the gotcha treatment because they lied on their resumes.

A focused, targeted resume will yield the best results.