What should a resume look like now? What do hiring managers look for?
March 15, 2016 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Sadly, my job may be defunded by summer. I have not actually formally applied for a job in eleven years. How do I resume?

I have a pink collar job that's basically skilled secretarial work. (I do a little bit of everything - I order lunches, but I also prepare grant budgets, I take minutes but I also process visa applications.) I will be applying both for more of the same and for slightly more administrative jobs.

What format is ideal right now? What format should absolutely be avoided? Are two pages permitted now or not?

How should I express my work history? I started out here in one role, was promoted to another, took on my old role in addition to my new one due to budget cuts and then added some stuff. So basically, I have had career progress, but I've also had...regress?

How far do I need to go back, jobs-wise?

What are the favorite verbs? How much do I need metrics like "improved process X by Y"?

What kinds of "personal goals" and personal stuff generally do people expect in the cover letter? When last I did this, mere enthusiasm and good spelling were enough, but now it seems like you're supposed to say more about yourself as a good culture fit.

Obviously, I know how to match the language in the resume to the job posting, but what other recommendations do you have?

And should I inflate my accomplishments? I tend to the deflationary, "just a secretary" approach, but I am told that people talk themselves up. How do I do that? Should I do that?

If you are part of the hiring process, what makes a resume stand out to you?
posted by Frowner to Work & Money (20 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
I highly recommend perusing the archives at Ask a Manager. Look through her topics here- the cover letter, resume, and bad advice topics are all good places to start exploring.
posted by aabbbiee at 10:29 AM on March 15, 2016 [15 favorites]

And should I inflate my accomplishments?


Have you thought about working with a resume editor to help you through this? Resume to Interviews gets a lot of recommendations on AskMe.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 10:43 AM on March 15, 2016 [6 favorites]

My last three employers have used job application web sites that horribly mangle anything that looks like a resume and I spent a bunch of time cutting and pasting my pretty resume into terrible web sites. I got to be party to a few searches at the last two employers and we all know how badly it mangled things, so we didn't stress about format much.

I think going over a page is fine if it's tight and still relevant, not just going on about former student jobs with no relation to the work I need done.
posted by advicepig at 10:49 AM on March 15, 2016

What format should absolutely be avoided?

I think they're wrong, but some people hate functional resumes to the point they'll throw them out without looking at them, so don't use those.

Are two pages permitted now or not?

Absolutely fine for a mid-career person, as long as it's two pages of content with no filler.

How should I express my work history? I started out here in one role, was promoted to another, took on my old role in addition to my new one due to budget cuts and then added some stuff.

List the new title and duties first; maybe touch on some of the old stuff. Then the old title and duties. Don't think of it as a regression, think of it as having done the job of two people during a touch economy.

How far do I need to go back, jobs-wise?

I would include everything that's relevant to your career with at least the dates and a one line description of the job. But unrelated stuff and internships and the like are just a distraction at this point.

What kinds of "personal goals" and personal stuff generally do people expect in the cover letter?

Many people don't read cover letters or only skim them. IIRC, you're in academia? If I were hiring for that type of position, I'd like to hear a little about how you've helped both students and faculty succeed. If you've been involved with student organizations as an adviser or anything like that, it's worth mentioning.

And should I inflate my accomplishments?

Don't lie, don't exaggerate, but put good spins on things. You're not "just a secretary," you're an important part of the system. I've been in systems where there wasn't someone good taking the minutes and getting them out, and it wasn't a great environment as a result.
posted by Candleman at 11:24 AM on March 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Two pages is definitely fine. This is especially true because hiring managers and recruiters will be reading your resume on mobile devices if they receive it. Use a large enough font, avoid shading, and include whitespace.

I didn't bother with a resume service. I considered hiring a career coach, and got some free consults from career coaches to clarify what I wanted in my next job. I received enough advice in the consultation process not to need their services. Being clear on your intentions and what you want will make you an attractive candidate, and will make it easier to frame your (legitimate) experiences on your resume.

After I concluded this coach screening process, I rewrote my resume and started inquiring seriously on opportunities. I was referred to a recruiter by a former colleague of mine. This recruiter gave me resume feedback for free. The advice was to quantify everything, show months of employment, and summarize the years of experience with major skills/technologies in the summary section. The resume itself is now fine.

I have received more leads from networking/word of mouth than from independent job applications that rely solely on the resume itself. This is normal. It really suggests where you should be investing your time. The resume is necessary and must be sufficient, but it's hardly the most important part of the hiring process. Be sure to invest enough time in the other activities that will make you truly successful in the job search.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:33 AM on March 15, 2016

Nthing AskAManager - she wrote this article recently on what's changed about applying to jobs recently, in addition to all her other great advice.
posted by jouir at 11:35 AM on March 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, so far!

Do I need to be on LinkedIn if I'm a secretary? I have avoided real-name online presence until now and don't really want to start.
posted by Frowner at 11:41 AM on March 15, 2016

I found that for a white collar job search, the usual strategies do not work. I followed the advice from a book called 2 Hour Jobsearch by Steve Dalton helpful. He runs a site now;

2 Hour Jobsearch

I read the book and found the advice really useful.
posted by indianbadger1 at 11:50 AM on March 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

A big value of LinkedIn for people in your market is being able to find people that your contacts know at companies to get on the inside track, so if you've not been actively using it already and don't want to be an active user of the site, I don't think it will do you much good with a near term job search. And part of that value comes from being willing to be a little pushy on acquaintances to make introductions, which may not be your thing either.

It won't hurt having an account with a resume on it and it may help a little; whether or not you're worried enough about the job search to want to have one just in case is up to you. It will be a highly ranked result for Google searches for your name if you do set one up.
posted by Candleman at 11:58 AM on March 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Cover letters -- In my industry, nobody does these. YMMV based on the industry.

Two pages is fine. The one-page thing is really only for new grads and entry-level folks.

Use a standard chronological resume format. Any other format screams "I AM TRYING TO HIDE SOMETHING". If there's a theme you want to get across, you can state it in a sentence or two at the top of the resume. That's just my personal opinion as a hiring manager though. Also in the just my opinion category, I could care less about action verbs. Metrics like improved X by Y are nice, if you have them. I generally assume people are fudging their metrics but if I were hiring a secretary, I would be impressed by a resume that showed that the candidate cared about improving process efficiency and things like that.

I would go back at least 10-15 years in terms of history, if you have it. Older jobs, like 7+ years ago, you can just list the title and dates, don't really need to have a ton of details.

What *really* makes a resume stand out to me? Well, aside from relevant and impressive work experience, which it's a little too late to do anything about now.... Correct mechanics -- including capitalization and punctuation -- and, honestly, LaTeX. I am a real sucker for LaTeX resumes. Again, that's probably just me, but I think it looks super professional. Not sure if this kind of preference exists outside of tech.
posted by phoenixy at 12:31 PM on March 15, 2016

How should I express my work history? I started out here in one role, was promoted to another, took on my old role in addition to my new one due to budget cuts and then added some stuff. So basically, I have had career progress, but I've also had...regress?

This all shows your willingness to take on extra responsibilities and learn new things. Stop telling yourself it was a regression because (1) it wasn't and (2) you'll do a better job of selling yourself in your resume and future interviews if you don't have an undermining script running through your head.
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather at 12:50 PM on March 15, 2016 [6 favorites]

My resume is done with my Name and contact info in the Header portion of a Word Doc. I use Garamond. No address. Just Name, Cell Phone and email address.

I start off with a short statement of my entire career. Yours might look something like:


Executive secretary with X years of experience with in the NGO-Non-Profit arena. Skills and experience include:
- Advanced MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint
- Preparation of Grant Budgets
- Fluent in Portuguese
- Project planning and execution

- Advanced MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint

Then write out your current position, thusly

NGO-Non Profit
2004 to Present

Executive Secretary
2010 - Present
Executive Secretary to the Managing Director of NGO-Non-Profit whose mission is to bring world peace and end hunger in the world. Duties Include:
- Preparing grant budgets in excess of $XXm or 50% of total annual operating budget
- Organizing international and domestic travel, reducing costs by 5% in the past fiscal year
- Planning and producing an annual fund raising event that netted $XXXXX in donations
- Implementation of new Membership Management software that reduces time to enter member information by 20%

Administrative Assistant

Secretary to Clinical Director. Duties included:
- Creating monthly Clinical Reports
- Recorder for all Executive Meetings
- Onboarding of new staff members

You want to stress the out-of-the-ordinary things you did in your job, and there's no need to mention that you type, file, answer phones or order lunch. We'll take it for granted that those skills are implied. You also want to quantify (within reason) that what you did saved someone time or money somewhere.

You don't need to go back to the beginning of time. You only include jobs for about the last 10 years, unless there's something really special you did outside of that range that you want to showcase.

True story: My dad, who is a well respected clinician and known within his community, had an 8 page resume that went back to 1954 and included experience he had as a summer camp counselor. Oh my.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:47 PM on March 15, 2016 [11 favorites]

Do I need to be on LinkedIn if I'm a secretary? I have avoided real-name online presence until now and don't really want to start.

Do you mind some strange tangential advice?

I totally respect your desire to keep your name private on social media, and don't think that you should change it.

Having said that, there is a damn good change that people are going to google your name/OldJob/email/etc. The issue with not having a named online presence is not what you might expect. In my experience, people are much less likely to think "oh this Frowner must be a tinfoil hat wearing old fuddyduddy" than to accidentally mistake you for someone else who has a similar name/email/etc, and that can go any which way of wrong for you. God help you if your name happens to be even remotely common.

Here is what worked for me: I set up a site that was a professional extension of my resume, then listed the site under my contact info on my resume. This gave me much more control than letting social media misuse my info for profit, yet kept me from being mistaken for a low-rent doppelganger who makes bigoted twitter posts. Freely giving an employer an online resource, at most, will sate their desire to google you, and at least will give then enough information to help separate you from similar sounding online personas.

Note: I bought a domain for my name (FirstMiddleLast.com, which I was lucky to get as my name is super common), and now when people search MyFirst MyLast my site is the top search result. You may feel very uncomfortable doing this, which is completely understandable, but I wanted to mention it just in case.

Feel free to PM me if you want me to send you a link to my site so you can see what I'm talking about.
posted by Shouraku at 2:27 PM on March 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I *think* you may be able to hide your linkedin from search engines. At the very least, you can set your public profile to Firstname Lastinitial (mine is currently set that way).

I'm not sure what kind of work you do but I work in the private sector and when I was looking for jobs a few years ago, I was discouraged at how many jobs you have to apply to via those job app websites which are the worst as I'm not convinced that all the resumes are even seen by a human (initially). So that's something that may seem different.

I think we are roughly the same age - I have a two page resume and it's been fine. I had my whole resume redone by a professional service and if you're interested, I can send it to you - you could use the general outline as a template as well as see the kinds of words and phrases that they used when they rewrote it for me.

Anyway, I spent a full year in 2010-2011, as well as 2013-2014 looking for jobs at full force so I feel like I learned A LOT about the entire process from beginning to end. I'd be more than happy to help or answer any questions if I can. Also, as we live in the same city, if you're interested in expanding your network and would like to send me your resume, I would be more than happy to ask around and keep my eyes and ears open for anything that might come up. Good luck!
posted by triggerfinger at 7:10 PM on March 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was discouraged at how many jobs you have to apply to via those job app websites which are the worst as I'm not convinced that all the resumes are even seen by a human (initially).

This is a very good point - many screenings are conducted by simply written algorithms that look for keywords. Obviously, use the specific word used in the job listing, but you can also boost your chances of getting through the roboscreening by using some synonyms as well. Sometimes looking at similar postings at the same company will help pick some other key words to use.
posted by Candleman at 7:52 PM on March 15, 2016

A lot of good advice.

Ruthless Bunny's template is great, and I second scittore's encouragement to own your accomplishments. I don't even know you (except from here) and I think bring a lot to the table despite your self-deprecation.

Now might be a good time to think of new potential areas to use your skills in.

One thing I haven't seen mentioned:

Have at least three versions of your resume. Hold on, I swear it's not as bad as it sounds.

Think of the first as the Brain Dump. Put everything you can remember that might matter here, shaped by the feedback above. This is so you have the material to work with years later if you ever need it. Nobody will ever see this but you - it's a memory bank.

The second can be your working resume in the format outlined above, formatted in Word.

The third is a text-only, single column resume for robots and uploading to websites. It'll save you a lot of time.

I recommend you call out any specialized skills (visa applications), or software you know.

Save your working resumes with a suffix _DATE so you always know which is the most recent.
posted by canine epigram at 5:16 AM on March 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Talk to the university careers service (I think?) you are affiliated with - even though you are not entry-level, smart people there should have a good handle on what hirers are looking for, and up-to-date advice with samples of n>1 than you see above.

That being said,

If the hiring process is "manual", a lot of the above advice is good.

*IF* there is an computer-automated screen for the position's application materials, there are very specific word combinations from the advertised job that MUST be present in your cover letter and resume or it won't reach a human being at all. Please talk to people familiar with this process to have resume and cover letters that won't get binned.
posted by lalochezia at 5:54 AM on March 16, 2016

- To address your LinkedIn question: I am not on social media either - with the exception of LinkedIn. Think of it as a self-updating rolodex - it is hands down the best way to keep in touch with co-workers as the come and go, and it's an invaluable tool when you see a job posting at a certain company and you discover that someone you knew but maybe lost track of actually works there. You don't have to try to work the 2nd degree connections if you don't want to. Honestly, LinkedIn is pretty invaluable in many industries (though maybe not yours).

- 2 pages is not just fine, but expected once you're past your 20's.

- Don't be self-deprecating in your resume. People expect to read the best of what you have to offer.

- This should go without saying, but please have someone else proofread it. We have done a lot of hiring lately, including for 3 administrative positions, and I have not received one resume - not a single one - that was completely error-free, whether you're talking about typos or formatting (inconsistent punctuation etc.). Honestly, I've been shocked by this.

- Send a follow-up thank you note. I'd say only about 1/3 of the candidates I've interviewed in the last 6 months did this, which also surprised me. Particularly if you're interviewing with someone 40 or older, they kind of expect this. It won't win or lose you the job, but it could give you the edge over another, equally qualified, candidate - it actually has for us on one occasion. Also, keep the thank you note short and sweet. Some people say this is the place to remind the hiring manager of all the reasons why you're great for the job, but honestly, those emails were way too long and not only did I not read them, but it made me think that the candidates were unable to be succinct in business correspondence.

- I really recommend developing your SOAR stories - Situation/Obstacle/Action/Results. Basically think of some of the great specific results you've achieved and think about how to present this succinctly and effectively. This is largely an interview prep tool - and invaluable at that, as it helps you answer just about any question - but if you do it now, when you're developing your resume, you can include some of them on your resume (the Action/Results parts) as key achievements. Take the time to do this - you won't regret it.

- Protip: when you submit your resume, always send it in PDF format if at all possible. You don't know what version of Word (or whatever) the company is running, and I've seen some really funky resume formatting by the time it I receive it from HR. Will a weirdly formatted resume kill your chances? No, but why not eliminate the issue completely by sending a PDF.

- Another protip: you no longer need to put your physical address on the resume header - just your (personal) email and phone number will do. Physical addresses are only used to discriminate against you - as a hiring manager, I know I'm not supposed to discriminate based on commuting distance, but I'm telling you, we all do. I'm much less likely to ask to see a candidate that lives an hour + away unless I'm blown away by the resume. I've also heard of people googling candidates' addresses to make judgments on their likely salary requirements based on the size/state of their house on google images. Not supposed to happen, but it does - so why not eliminate that issue as well.

- Speaking of personal email addresses, consider setting up one only for job-hunting. At the very least, do not use an email that gives away your age or anything else that isn't really anyone's business for the interview. I recently interviewed someone whose email was 'karasmom@gmail' or something like that. I'm a proud mother myself, but that isn't how I want to pre-define myself in an interview.

Good luck!
posted by widdershins at 9:37 AM on March 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

Two useful things I haven't seen mentioned directly yet:

1) Keep a file in plain text (no formatting, lists done by - or something similar, not image bullets) with everything you might need to put into an online application (former managers, contact information, salary details even though I hate people asking, dates, etc.) plus a brief and a longer description of duties, because some places have character limits.

It saves so much aggravation to just copy it into the app you're working on, rather than have to recreate it again.

2) I do thank you notes that are basically "I really enjoyed meeting you and [whoever else] and talking about [position]." and then "Here's a link to this thing I mentioned in our conversation." or if I don't have one of those a "I'm particularly interested in what we talked about with X aspect of the job." if not. Short, sweet, but more a continuation of the discussion than a "Thank you for interviewing me."
posted by modernhypatia at 4:14 PM on March 17, 2016

Avoiding LinkedIn sounds like a bad move, unless you're not well thought of by professional contacts. It's basically replacing resumes for most businesses founded in the last 10-20 years, which is to say, most of the technology sector.

If you want more job options, and better job options, it helps to have a well connected network of folks who can see your accomplishments, even if they're thin.
posted by talldean at 8:04 PM on March 18, 2016

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