Writing an Effective Resume

Your résumé is your chance to display your qualifications, skills, and ambitions. It is a record of your goals and successes, and a way of communicating your capabilities to a potential employer. The résumé conveys to others what you already know, namely that you are a competent, distinctive, and enthusiastic candidate for the position.

Even so, because most employers receive heaps of applications for every open position, your résumé has to do more than showcase your credentials. In order to be effective, your résumé must do the following:

  • Show that you are qualified for the job
  • Incorporate keywords and terminology from the field
  • Highlight your strengths even if the reader only has time to skim it
  • Offer details about your experience to a reader who is looking for them
  • Present the strongest possible version or image of you

This handout can help you write résumés that accomplish all of these things. Remember, however, that every job (and therefore, every résumé) is unique, so be thoughtful about how you incorporate the suggestions it offers.

Common Résumé Errors

Just about everyone (unless they plan to get by on good looks alone) will have to compose a résumé at some point in their professional lives. However, few people ever receive information or instruction on how to compile this kind of document effectively. Below, you will find some mistakes that many résumé-writers make and strategies for avoiding and repairing them.

Résumé Mistake #1: Assuming that there is only one correct format or layout for a résumé

Of course, there are some ‘rules’ of résumé-writing that all applicants should follow. However, the best résumés are those that are built around the applicant’s specific credentials, and can take many forms.


  • Most résumés will be organized in one of two ways: chronological or skills.
  • There are two basic ways of arranging your résumé on the page: indented and two-margin. Mix and match these within your résumé to keep it visually interesting and emphasize important information.
  • Create labels for each section that are recognizable and tailored to your strong points.

1This resource contains information adapted from the following volume, which can be consulted for further information:
Locker, Kitty. Business and Administrative Communication. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2003.

Oh no! I found a comma splice. How do I correct it?
You have several options. Simply select the one that sounds best in a particular instance.

  • Add relevant categories as needed. Common categories include Education, Experience, Computer Skills, and Foreign Languages
  • Combine headings so that you have at least 2 or 3 substantive items under each one.
  • If you have many points under a heading (more than 7 or so), create subheadings within it.
  • Avoid putting major categories together (for example, by creating a heading for Education and Work Experience).

Résumé Mistake #2: Including a ‘Career Objective’ at the beginning of every résumé …

Many people begin their résumés with a 'Career Objective' or similar statement. Although these might help the writer focus, they are only necessary in certain circumstances, and may not be advisable in others. It is very difficult to write a good Career Objective, and a statement of this sort that is poorly worded or overly vague can hurt your employment prospects.


  • A 'Career Objective' can be helpful if the job for which you're applying doesn't seem to relate clearly to your education or previous work experience.
  • You may also want to include a 'Career Objective' if your school or department provides employers with résumés from a number of students with different majors.
  • In other cases, include a 'Career Objective' only if you can write one that is powerful and effective.
  • If you decide to include a 'Career Objective,' it's a good idea to customize it with the name of the company to which you are applying.

Résumé Mistake #3: Promising that your “References are Available upon Request” …

Although many job-seekers assume this is a generous strategy that promises the employer further information without giving them too much to read, there is no reason to include this statement. After all, no one with a credible work history will refuse to provide references if employers request them.


  • Always include complete references upfront if your potential employer requests them.
  • If the employer does not specifically request references with the résumé, you may omit this category.
  • BONUS JOB-HUNTING ADVICE: Don’t forget to bring reference information with you to the interview (even if you included it on the résumé)! Very often, employers will not consult references until they are seriously considering an applicant. Be prepared to provide them with all necessary contact information. Also, some applications will ask whether or not they have your permission to contact your past and current employers. If you are looking for a job without your current employer’s knowledge, it is not unusual (and generally not a major problem) to ask that your prospective employer not contact your current job.

Résumé Mistake #4: Cramming all of your information onto a single page …

One page is often enough. However, if you have extensive credentials, use two pages. Employers will make the effort to turn the page if the story you tell about your skills and experience is compelling and relevant to the job. More information allows you to be more persuasive.


  • If you have looked at your résumé carefully and eliminated everything that is non-essential but still need more room, don’t hesitate to use a second page.
  • Use your space economically … don’t take advantage of a potential employer’s good nature by padding your résumé with tangential information (no matter how interesting you might be …)
  • Your résumé must be visually inviting as well as informative. Don’t use fonts that are too small to read comfortably or too large to seem professional. Also, consider your margins carefully.

Formatting Your Résumé for Human and Electronic Readers

More and more employers have automated their hiring process, and many use some combination of computerized and human tracking systems. It is important to design your résumé so that you appear as an attractive candidate in both screening processes. It is a good idea to have two versions of your résumé (one for people and the other for computers). These two résumés will have similar, if not identical, content, but should be formatted differently.

Preparing Your Résumé for Human Consumption

When you are considering how to format your résumé for a real live reader, focus on making the document attractive and easy to skim.

  • Use bulleted lists to provide explanations (save the narrative for your cover letter).
  • Employ bold lettering for emphasis (rather than writing words in all CAPITAL LETTERSor italics).
  • Leave adequate white space / blank lines in the margins and between major items.
  • At the same time, be sure that your résumé appears to fill the page (so, for example, skip lines in the listing of positions you have held, but not between the bullet points that describe your duties in each).

Writing a Résumé for a Computer

Employers use computerized job application systems for two main reasons. First, electronic versions of résumés take up less space, are harder to lose, and can be accessed by multiple readers simultaneously. Second, some businesses – especially those that are large or get many applicants – use computerized systems to screen applicants in and out of the next step in the hiring process.

  • Type in 12-point font throughout. Do not incorporate boldface or italics (even if you are referring to a book or magazine).
  • Do not use boxes, borders, or graphics
  • Format ragged right margins, without columns.
  • Use as many pages as necessary, but do not staple them.
  • In situations where your résumé will be ‘read’ by a computer first, incorporate keywords from the job posting or the company description. Be strategic and think about what they are seeking in a candidate.

Writing a Web-Based Résumé

If you have the technical know-how and the time (and a prospective employer might be interested in this information), writing a hypertext Web résumé can be very effective.

  • Include links to web pages you’ve designed, documents you’ve written, descriptions of courses you’ve taken, and other relevant pieces.
  • If you are posting documents, do so in PDF format to protect the integrity of your work.
  • Be careful about attaching your résumé to a personal homepage, even if you provide employers with a direct link to it. They are quite capable of surfing over and finding out things that you might not want them to know.

Actually Writing Your Résumé

Now that you know what not to do, and how many résumés to prepare, you’re ready to start the actual work of writing your résumé. Before you get started, remember that résumé-writing takes time and practice. It can be a frustrating process, and certainly requires a great deal of information that you might not know off the top of your head (What month did you start that job in the mailroom? What was the name of your boss three companies ago?). Give yourself plenty of time to create this essential document. Don’t expect to compose a perfect résumé in an hour, send it out, and get an offer for the job of your dreams tomorrow.

Bonus Job-Hunting Advice: Most career counselors advise treating job-hunting as a job in and of itself (especially if you are not currently employed). That is, plan to devote many hours per day to perusing ads, writing cover letters, tweaking your résumé, and making phone calls. Some people get lucky and get a job from the first résumé they send out – but most have to wait a lot longer (and address way more envelopes) than that.

What Kinds of Résumés Are There?

There are two main kinds of résumés. The chronological résumé is a more traditional format, which emphasizes job titles and dates, while the skills résumé is built around what you did, not when you did it.

The main difference between them is how you organize your work history. In a chronological résumé, list job titles and dates in reverse chronology (most recent/current job first). Include title, organization, city, state, dates, and other details describing your duties. When writing a skills résumé, choose headings to highlight strengths, using terms from the field. Combine activities from classes, paid jobs, and volunteer work. Then, create a separate section – “Employment History” – in which you provide a less detailed reverse chronology of paid jobs.

It’s best to let the situation (your work history and the nature of your desired position) determine what format you employ. If you have a consistent work history without any major gaps and ample experience in the field for which you are applying, a chronological résumé will be fine. However, if you are returning to work after a long hiatus or thinking about moving into a different field (for which you believe yourself to be qualified, despite not having much experience), a skills résumé might be best. Skills résumés are designed to showcase what you did, not when (or where) you did it. You may decide to develop both a chronological and a skills résumé for your job hunt.

How Many Résumés Should I Prepare?

Prepare one résumé for each type of job. If you are applying to be a dog groomer, a substitute teacher, and a lab technician, you will need three résumés, each of which will be specific to the type of job you’re seeking. Within that job search, if you are applying to be a dog groomer at three different places, then you can send them all the same résumé. Of course, you might alter your résumé slightly for similar positions at different companies, but the content will be basically the same.

What Should I Put in My Résumé?

Here’s a list of the common categories for résumé information. You may add to or subtract from this list as necessary, but the ones marked with an asterisk (*) are essential and should appear on every résumé.

Contact information*
Career objective
Summary of qualifications

Contact Information
Include your name, address, phone number, e-mail address. If you have a professional Web site, include the URL.

  • It’s often a good idea to make your name and contact information a bit larger (but not too big!) than the rest of the text in the document.
  • Make sure that your e-mail address is professional. That is, if it contains words like “dude” or “foxy,” it is worthwhile to create another, tamer e-mail address to use for your job search. Also, be careful about listing your e-mail address at your current job, as many companies monitor their employees’ electronic correspondence.

Summary of Qualifications
This is an optional category in which you can summarize your achievements, knowledge, skills, and abilities. Generally, this will take the form of a bulleted list (containing 3-7 items) that contains specific information. Use the terminology of your desired field.

Sample qualifications, by field:

Accountant: Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, Audits, G/L, Microsoft Excel, Financial Reports, SEC Filings, Budget Analysis, Gross Margin Analysis, Month-End Closings

Human Resources: EEO Regulations, ADA, Applicant Screening, Applicant Tracking, 401K, Merit Pay Program, Training & Development, Compensation, Recruitment, Diversity

Marketing: Strategic Planning Skills, Market Research, New Product Transition, Trade Show Management, Competitive Market Analysis, Team Skills, Multiple Priorities, Direct Marketing Campaigns, Business Models, Marketing Business Plans

Of course, each field will prioritize different skills, and it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with their keywords before you compose this optional section.

  • Don’t be too general or overly specific. The idea is to show that you have a variety of experiences that will translate readily into new positions.
  • Take careful inventory of your skills. You may not realize how marketable you are because of the tasks you perform every day.
  • It’s always helpful to consult the job description of the position for which you are applying, so that you can echo their requirements in the list of your qualifications.

This is an essential part of your résumé. Depending on the position you are seeking, the relative importance of your degree to your chosen field, and the extent of your other qualifications, this category can appear before or after your work experience.

List your education in reverse chronology and provide the following information:

Degree Major Month and year received University City State
It is optional to provide the following information: focus area or major; GPA (overall, in major, last term, etc.); information on thesis or senior project; courses related to major; courses/hours in areas of emphasis.

  • As a new high school graduate, list your high school experience only if you were

valedictorian or salutatorian.

  • If you’re applying for scholarships or jobs during college, you can include high school if you need it to fill the page or elaborate your educational history.
  • If you paid for a significant part of your education, you may want to say so. (For example, under “Education,” you might include a bullet point like “Paid for 65% of my expenses with jobs, scholarships, and loans.” Alternately, under “Experience,” you can indicate that “These jobs paid 40% of my college expenses.”)
  • Consider carefully whether or not to include your GPA. Your prospective employer will be left to interpret this information, and you never know how they will take it. Also, different disciplines have different standards about what counts as a ‘good’ grade point average. Finally, if your academic record is not – as they say – predictive of your ability to succeed, omit your GPA from your résumé.

For most employers, this will be the heart of your résumé. If you are writing a chronological résumé, describe your work history in a reverse chronology, including relevant information like job titles, dates, organization, city, state, and details about your responsibilities and accomplishments. If you are writing a skills résumé, mine your work history for the list of skills you will provide under relevant headings (and don’t forget to create another heading for “Work Experience.”)

  • Don’t use “I” in your résumé; it is, however, perfectly appropriate to construct “I’ sentences in your cover letter.
  • Use sentence fragments punctuated as complete sentences.
  • Offer details and incorporate numbers when they make you look good (i.e. By what percentage did you increase sales? How much revenue did you generate? How many staff did you supervise?)
  • Use action verbs: Analyzed … Coached … Coordinated … Created … Demonstrated … Designed … Developed … Edited … Evaluated … Examined … Interviewed … Investigated … Motivated … Negotiated … Organized … Persuaded … Planned … Provided … Researched … Sold … Started … Supervised … Trained … Wrote …

Your extracurricular or non-work activities make you a unique candidate. In this optional section of your résumé, list your participation in student organizations, civic groups, professional societies, and sports.

  • The fact that you did not receive compensation for your role in these groups does not mean that you didn’t gain valuable experience. Don’t forget to list skills that you acquired, perfected, or used in new ways in these capacities.
  • If you had a leadership role, say so!
  • Be strategic when you think about whether or not to elaborate upon your participation in political or religious organizations. Even if you gained priceless experience in public speaking as the head of your campus Republican organization, your potentially Democratic future boss might be less excited about this than you are.

Honors and Awards
Recognition from another group or organization can suggest to your employer that you are worthy of their recognition as well. This optional category is the place to list scholarships, academic honor societies, listings in recognition books, awards from professional or civic groups, and accomplishments in sports (varsity letters, championships, Olympic meets(!) and so on); you may want to create a separate “Sports Experience” category.

  • Use this category only if you have at least three items to list. If you have one or two, combine it with another category by expanding the heading (turn “Activities” into “Activities and Honors”) or list it under another relevant category (tell them that you were on the Dean’s List under “Education”).
  • If you received an award from an employer, list it under that job in “Experience.”
  • List high school honors only in certain circumstances. It is acceptable to list them when applying for internships, fellowships, and scholarships. Otherwise, if you are applying for a job after college, list them only if they’re major and if you have college honors as well.
  • If the nature of the award is unclear, explain it.

If you have decided to include references on your résumé, it’s important to do it thoughtfully. List 3-6 supervisors, instructors, or advisors who have seen you in leadership roles. Include the following information for each: name, job title, organization, business phone, and e-mail address.

Be sure to get each reference’s permission before listing her/him, and ask them specifically (this might take some courage) about their willingness and ability to provide a positive reference for you. Posing questions like “Would you be willing to provide a reference for me if a prospective employer contacts you?” and “Do you feel you know my work well enough to speak specifically about me?” can help ensure that your decision to list a given person will be beneficial.

  • Be prepared to provide each of your references with information about you. These things might include your résumé, clean copies of papers or documents you produced for them, and so on. Also provide information about the kind of jobs you are looking for and who might be calling.
  • Some companies will ask for a personal reference, but unless they do so, list people who have known you in a professional capacity. If your best friend is also a colleague or an important professional resource, be sure to brief him or her ahead of time, so that they can speak about you in a way that is meaningful to a prospective employer.
  • Omit the list of references if it will be the only category on the second page of your résumé.

Keeping Your Résumé Current

As you gain more professional experience and also more perspective on how your qualifications fit together, you will need to revise your résumé. It’s a good idea to do this regularly, rather than every few years when you’re contemplating a career change or trying for a promotion. Revising your résumé if you haven’t seen it in ages will feel a lot like starting from scratch, and will likely take just as long.

  • Regularly add additional jobs, accomplishments, and honors.
  • Even if you don’t change jobs, chances are that you will have been charged with different duties as you continue to establish yourself in that role. Be sure to include these.
  • Make sure addresses and phone numbers are still correct.
  • Maintain contact with your references, and let that list evolve as you do.
  • Ask whether the format you’ve chosen is still the best way to showcase your strengths. For example: is the skills résumé that got this job going to get the next one, or would a chronological organization be more appropriate?
  • Evaluate whether details of earlier activities should stay or be replaced by information about more current accomplishments.

Making Your Résumé Even Better

Like any piece of writing, a résumé can always be revised or improved. Continual evaluation is essential to the task of composing an effective résumé.

  • Have friends and family members review it. Even without experience in your field, they can tell you whether it looks inviting, reads easily, and includes everything about you that it should.
  • Ask a trusted faculty advisor for input.
  • Continue to research strategies for successful résumé writing. There are a number of Web sites (like erésumés.com) that can help you with this stage of your job search.
  • Utilize the Writing Center. We offer tutorials and other resources, like books and handouts (see, for example the “Job Letter and Résumé Checklist”), that can help you make your résumé fantastic. Call 614-688-5865 or go to WC Online to make an appointment!