Resume Writing: A Start-to-Finish Guide

Writing a resume can be really scary—not only are you trying to make a great first impression on potential employers when your dream job may be at stake, but there’s so much conflicting information out there on how to do it right!

This article aims to be a general guide on the process of writing resumes, from beginning to end. No one person can have all the answers, especially because opinions on best practices differ. But if you’re looking for a resource that will guide you through the entire process of creating a great resume, you’re in the right place.

How do you know what you’re talking about?

I accidentally ended up a practiced resume creator. I am a freelance writer (so I do a lot of different things with my days) and I had a job making sample resumes, as well as one that involves tutoring people of all ages on how to clean up their job application documents.

I’ve helped people who just needed some quick revisions to their almost-complete resumes, as well as people who had a mostly-empty page and had no idea what to include. Others needed their long, extensive resumes pared down to a single sheet of paper. Basically, I’ve solved a lot of resume problems.

I follow my own advice when applying for gigs and get a LOT of calls back from people saying they loved my resume. I don’t always get the job, because that’s just how life is sometimes, but my resume seems to do the trick.

NovoResume

A quick note before we get started: there are lots of great resume programs out there floating around on the internet, but the one I have the most experience with is NovoResume. You can use everything you need for free, but you can pay for a premium account if you really want to make your page stand out. (Full disclosure: I used to work for them, but they’re not paying me to write this. It’s my genuine opinion that it’s a really good place to start designing a visually appealing resume.)

The First Step: Brainstorming

Lots of people skip this step and sit down to a blank page and wonder why they feel stuck. Or they type something up and get frustrated because it’s boring and doesn’t express anything about who they are. If you rush, you’re actually slowing yourself down.

Open up a Word document or get a piece of paper and write down EVERYTHING you can think of that you might want to include on a resume for ANY job at ANY time in the future. Don’t self-censor. Forget for a minute that you’re writing a resume at all, and just write down a bunch of stuff you’ve done with your life. (This would be a good time to implement a mind map.)

You should absolutely consider recruiting someone else for this process—somebody who knows you really darn well. This might be your best friend, your partner, or your parents. Go through all the questions on your own and then discuss them with other people.

Here are some questions to think about, in no particular order:

  • What did you do in each grade in school? (Obviously, things from second grade might not be relevant to your resume when you’re 25, but they might remind you of something that is. Realistically, a resume for someone under 20 would include stuff from middle school on.)
  • What were you best at in grade school? Be as specific as possible—instead of “English,” write “essay writing.” Instead of “science,” write “experiment design.”
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What impact have you made on other people and the environment around you?
  • What do you like most about yourself as a person? What do your parents feel proud of you for? What do your teachers comment on? What do your friends admire most?
  • If someone was going to describe you with 3-5 adjectives, what would they pick?
  • What are your values/morals/ethics? (Do you care about honesty? Social justice? Encouraging young people to vote?) What really gets you fired up?
  • What skills keep you going during your busiest days? For example, organization, time management, the ability to delegate…
  • What did you do for each of your jobs/volunteer positions/clubs? Write a complete list of your duties and responsibilities.
  • What numbers can you think of in connection to each of your jobs/volunteer positions/clubs? This can include your GPA, statistics about your performance, the number of times you won Employee of the Month… whatever you can think of. (We’ll talk about this in more detail below, but your list of job duties should actually be a list of job ACCOMPLISHMENTS, which are most compelling when they have statistics attached to them.)
  • What are some problems you’ve solved? How did you solve them? (Maybe you fixed an elderly neighbor’s leaky roof, or you started a fundraiser for the drama club.)
  • What are some causes/issues that you care about? What are you passionate for?
  • What do you know how to do with technology and computers? You definitely have some specific computer skills, and writing “computer savvy” on a resume isn’t going to cut it anymore. Do you edit together AMV’s? Do your project partners always request that you do the Powerpoint because you’re the best at it? Write down all your computer skills you can think of.
  • What do you do for fun? (Not every hobby belongs on a resume, but you should write them all down anyway.)
  • What makes you the happiest? Be honest!
  • What experiences have you had that have led you to mature the most? What have you done that increased your independence? (Babysitting? Learning to drive?)
  • What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you? How did you survive it?
  • What are your goals and dreams? How have they changed throughout your life?
  • When did you lead a group of people? What were you doing? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Do you speak any other languages? Even if you just took Spanish in high school, or you know some Russian from your grandmother, it’s worth writing down. Speaking another language is impressive, even if it’s rare in your area.
  • How do you help the people in your life?
  • When was a time that you were brave or courageous?
  • What are the traits you most respect and admire in other people? Which ones do you share? How do you know?
  • What have you taught to others? What could you teach to others if you had a platform? What is a subject you consider yourself an expert in? (Magic: The Gathering strategy? Civil War history? Baking really awesome pies?)
  • Have you gotten a promotion at any of your positions? Why?
  • Have you made any changes at a company where you’ve worked? (Created new policies? Streamlined something? Fostered a connection with a local organization?)
  • What awards have you won? (Even if this is a perfect attendance award from second grade, you can use it to brainstorm—in that example, you might be inspired to mention how reliable you are!)
  • What do you want your resume to accomplish?

Obviously, all this (weirdly personal) information is NOT going to end up on your resume, but it’s all important for brainstorming.

Write it down. I’m serious.

Layout

If you don’t want to use a resume maker, you can start with a blank page and make your own.

In a word processor (like Microsoft Word or Libre Office) tables are your friend. Take a blank 8.5×11” page and create two tables that each have two squares. Keep a blank line in between. For now, this will split the page into quadrants, but the top two sections will end up much smaller than the bottom two sections and you’re going to want to have the ability to play with the margins. (I’ll be more specific later.)

In the upper left, put your name, your job title, and your resume summary. (We’ll talk about writing resume summaries below.)

In the upper right, put your contact information.

The other two squares can include whatever you want in whatever order you want, but I usually put Work Experience and Education on the left and everything else on the right. (We will talk about what “everything else” could mean.)

Header: Name & Contact Info

Your name should be in big letters at the top of the page. Duh. Employers have to know who you are.

It used to be common to write your entire address on the top of your resume, but since people don’t really use snail mail anymore, it’s no longer done. It just takes up extra space that could be used for more meaty information. Put just your city/town and region, plus your phone number and your email address.

(Note: you need to have a professional-sounding email address; ideally this would be some variation on your name. If you don’t have an email address that’s not embarrassing to say out loud, make one for free right now. Right now.)

It’s also now common to add personal webpages that might be relevant to the job. It’s generally a good idea to have some sort of professional online presence—both for personal branding reasons and so interested employers can take a look at something more detailed than a one-page resume—but you need to be VERY selective about what URLs you include. If it doesn’t shine, don’t include it. If you have a professional blog, that’s great. LinkedIn pages are really common too, but don’t bother including it if it doesn’t show off your unique personality or isn’t up-to-date. Leave out your Facebook unless 100% of its content is stuff you’d be proud to show to employers. (While you’re at it, set your profile to private in case you get Googled.)

Job Title

Underneath your name, in smaller letters, put the job title you have now or the job title that you want to get. As we discuss below, you’re going to have to customize your resume for every single job application that you do, so it’s worth plugging in the exact job title from the advertisement. Don’t stress, though—it’s okay to be more general for now.

Resume Summary

Your parents would probably tell you that your resume needs to include an objective. That practice has fallen by the wayside, and today resumes should instead include a summary. An objective is a statement about your goals and what you want in a job, but it doesn’t tell your potential employer how you’re going to benefit their company. A summary, on the other hand, is more like an elevator pitch—it serves to market you to your resume’s readers.

Summaries can be the hardest part of a resume, but by the end of this section you will feel confident in your ability to write one to suit any position—I promise.

While the resume summary comes at the top of the page, it might be worthwhile to come back to it after you’ve written the rest of your page. Why? Because it’s a summary. It highlights important details and fills in information that might not appear elsewhere.

Remember all those questions you answered above? Take a look at what you wrote down. What are the two most important traits you have? What are your greatest accomplishments? What are your most advanced skills? These are going to be the most pertinent things to include in your resume summary.

Here’s my formula for a resume summary:

[Adjective] and [adjective] [Job Title] [most important fact about you]. [Another flattering fact about you and your career or education]. [A third fact about you]. [Maybe a fourth if you really have something to include].

That’s it! You don’t have to follow that to the letter, but it’s a pretty general way to get things done. Remember not to use complete sentences or first person—it should just be the simplest, most concise facts that you really want an employer to know.

I thought it might be a good idea to show you mine. Here it is, using the formula I showed you above:

Passionate and self-motivated Writer & Editor with 3+ years of experience blending academic knowledge with on-the-job training to create enjoyably readable content. Specializes in working with ESL clients. Dedicated researcher and emotionally intelligent communicator. Engineer of viral game promoting positive mental health.

I took my two most central traits (passionate and self-motivated), combined them with my job title (Writer & Editor) and then pointed out that I have both academic credentials and practical professional experience. (Some writers might have one or the other, but it increases my credibility to point out that I have both.) The next few facts are relevant to the jobs I most often apply to. I genuinely like editing the work of people whose first language is not English, so I added that next. (Even if it doesn’t apply to a particular job, showing that I have a specialty implies that I’m experienced enough to have honed my skills.) Research is my favorite activity, and it’s been relevant to many jobs I’ve applied to, from article-writing to coordinating exhibits at a local museum. Something that I pride myself on in my private life and relationships is my dedication to improving my emotional intelligence, so I included that too as an important facet of what makes me unique. Lastly, I included my viral mental health game because I want to get jobs writing psychology articles, but also because I often do social media promotion for clients, and telling them that my content went viral shows them that my work is appealing to the online crowd.

As you can see, a resume summary isn’t just bragging—it’s made of carefully-constructed statements that highlight important parts of your resume and humanize you for potential employers. They should read it and immediately want to meet you.

If you’re unsure exactly what to put in your resume summary, just come back to it when you’ve finished everything else. By then, you’ll have a much more solid idea of what you want to include.

Skills

Contrary to popular belief, the Skills section is really important and should be placed near the top. (That’s why I like a two-column format—you can have Work Experience on the left and Skills on the right.)

You should already have a good idea of your best skills from the exercises above. Take 6-10 of the best ones and just plug them in. It’s okay to be a little general in certain situations—for example, if you’ve taken one Communication class, then you can simply list that as a skill, but if you have an entire Communication degree, you might want to be more specific.

If you want, you can divide up your skills by “Soft Skills” and “Hard Skills” or “Technology Skills” or “Kitchen Skills” or whatever would be most relevant for the job you’re applying to. You would probably want to list Soft Skills second, unless you’re applying for a very communication-heavy job like customer service.

You’re not going to want to hear it, but the Skills section is one of the key parts that need to be altered for every job you’re applying to. As we’ll discuss later, there is no “one size fits all” resume, and your Skills section should be tailored to the job ad. If any of your skills overlap with described job duties, make sure to include them.

Don’t be tempted to lie and say that you have skills that you don’t—you’d be revealed as a fraud during your first day on the job, so all you would have done is waste your time.

Work Experience

The work experience section is often regarded as the most integral part of a resume, so you should definitely spend some time on it.

Accomplishments

Most people, when writing a resume, will list four or five tasks they did every day at their previous jobs. This is NOT the way to go.

Instead, you need to show your potential employer how you can benefit their company. You do this by sharing your accomplishments along with your job duties. This can be tough, especially if you’ve mostly had entry-level jobs in which you didn’t have much of a chance to make an impact. Just do your best.

For an example, in my resume I write some of the basic things I do as a freelance writer, but I also make sure to include that on the website I use to find jobs, my customers have given me a satisfaction score of above 90% and I’ve kept that up for multiple months.

“But I don’t have any work experience.”

Here’s a problem that many young people run into when writing their first resume—they feel like they don’t have any work experience.

The short answer: yes, you do. You might not believe me yet, but nobody goes through life without gaining something to put on a resume. We all have passions. We all have hobbies. Unless you’ve been staring at the wall your entire life, you’ve got resume material. You just need to give yourself some credit.

If you haven’t already answered the questions from the list above, you might want to give that a try—I guarantee you’ll think of something.

If you’re really feeling stuck, here are some options you have for an entry level resume:

  1. Call the section “Professional Experience” or “Relevant Experience” and include your volunteer work.
  2. Dispense with the Work Experience section altogether and replace it with your Education. If you have a degree but you’ve never had a job, this is a good option.
  3. Make a resume that highlights your skills. In this case, you’re probably going to want to do one column, with your Skills section at the top.
  4. Go out and find something to put on your resume. If you want a career in a particular field see if you can volunteer to do some similar work for family, friends, or neighbors. If you’re a writer, an artist, or a tech wizard, you can find freelance jobs on the internet that will look GREAT on your resume. Obviously, this is kind of a long-term solution, but it will pay off down the road.

Education

Your most recent education needs to be included, but beyond that, it’s up to you. If you have a college degree, you don’t need to put your high school diploma—but if you were valedictorian (or if your page is looking a little sparse) you might want to.

Degrees and diplomas look pretty good on their own, but you can also include bullet points underneath listing accomplishments, your GPA, and/or subjects you studied relevant to the job.

If you’re part of the way to a diploma, give yourself some credit and include that! It’s okay to list the end date of a degree as “Present.”

Other Stuff

Here are some optional sections you can include if you have some particularly juicy experience or if your page is kinda empty. These are not the only sections you can have, but they’re some of the more common ones.

Volunteer Work

Volunteer work is one of the classic sections to include on a resume. Remember to think outside the box—lots of things you’ve done can count as volunteer work. Do you cut the elderly neighbor’s grass because your mom makes you? Do you babysit your younger cousin? Write it down.

Clubs

When you were brainstorming, you should have included all the clubs that you have attended. Not all of them are going to belong on a resume, of course, but if they have impressive standards or you had a leadership role, put them in!

Your attendance at a high school gaming club might not be worth including, but if you were president, that changes things! National Honors Society membership is another good one to include, since the expectations for staying in the organization are high.

Awards

Any award that you’ve gotten could potentially belong on a resume. If you’ve already included a certain one as a bullet point in your work experience or education section, you don’t have to repeat it.

Publications

Publications of any type are a great thing to include on a resume, even if they’re not necessarily directly relevant to the job that you’re applying for.

Revision

The next step is to revise your work. Not only do you need to check for spelling, grammar, and typos, but you need to spice up your language—especially your verbs. Don’t get too wild, but sit down with a thesaurus and insert great action words into your bullet points.

For example, under my description of my job as a freelance writer, I started out with a bullet point that said “Writing posts for social media.” It’s accurate, but it’s not super interesting—I’ve already used the word “write” or “writer” a billion times elsewhere on the page. I switched the verb to “crafting.” Not only does it imply that I have expert knowledge like a “craftsman,” but it also includes duties like finding images to go along with the post. Overall, it’s stronger. See how strong you can make your resume.

“Okay, but this is longer than a page.”

People will often get excited when writing a resume and end up with a finished product that is longer than a page. You absolutely 100% need to pare it down. It might hurt to excise things you’ve worked so hard on (writers call this pain “killing your darlings”) but your resume needs to be a single, easily-scannable page. If it’s longer, your potential employers will think you’re self-important or can’t follow directions. (Not a good first impression to make.)

Here are some ideas on how to condense your resume:

  1. Make longer sentences shorter. Leave out unnecessary words. Change “Performed opening and closing tasks in the store on weekends” to “Performed Opening and Closing tasks” or “Opened and closed store on weekends.”
  2. Take out boring job duties. If you have a long list of things you did for a job, you can take out the most mundane or obvious ones.
  3. Cut out irrelevant jobs or degrees entirely. If you’re a high-level professional, you definitely don’t need to include the fast food job you had when you were sixteen. If you’re a Ph. D., you probably don’t want to include your high school diploma. Take out anything that isn’t tailored to the job you want. When I’m sending my resume to a potential freelance client, I include my job as a literature tutor, but I don’t include my job as a tarot reader at a haunted house. It’s not dishonest to just leave things out.
  4. Take out your least strong sections. If you have plenty of job experience in your field, you might not need to write about your volunteer work. If you’ve graduated college, you might not need to put in your clubs.

If you still end up with more than a page, trim it down again. And again. This is one of the rare hard-and-fast rules about resume writing—one page only!

Personally, I keep a default version of my resume with everything that I could possibly want to include, which turns out to be two pages. Tresume article pdfhen I edit it for the jobs I am actually applying to. Which leads us to our last point…

Customizing Your Resume for Each Job

This is something no one wants to hear, but your resume needs to be customized for each job you’re applying to. These changes don’t have to be drastic, but they do have to be done. Remember to save a copy of your default version!

When you’re customizing your resume, firstly take a close look at the job posting. Incorporate as many words from it as you can, especially the job title and the skills. (While, of course, remaining honest.) This will show your potential employers that you’re an excellent choice because you have all the skills they need!

Secondly, decide which items you’re going to keep and which you’re going to throw away. I needed to make drastic changes to my resume recently when I applied to a job that was totally out of my field—I wanted to be the local museum’s coordinator. My experience as a freelance writer proves that I’m a successful and driven person, but it’s not directly relevant—so I pared down the number of bullet points for that entry. I made sure to include that I had studied history in college, and that I had held a research-based volunteer position with my school’s theatre department. I took out some writing and technology skills that I knew weren’t going to be relevant, like writing effective product descriptions.

It might seem like a lot, but once you get in the habit of customizing your resume, it will barely take any effort at all.

Check out my sample resume here!

By now, you should feel confident about each step of the resume creation process.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment below!

If you’d like my help with your resume and/or cover letter, feel free to get in touch!

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