Q&A: Résumés that stand out from the crowd shine in both style and substance

David F. Noble, the author of Gallery of Best Resumes, talks about what it takes for an IT professional's résumé to stand out from the crowd.

What are effective ways to make a résumé stand out? Ensure that you present the most important information about you just below your contact information. Susan Whitcomb, a professional résumé writer in Fresno, Calif., describes in her book Résumé Magic an imaginary rectangle approximately 2-5/8 inches from the top of the first page down to about 4-5/8 inches from the top of the page. In this hot zone you will want to put the most important information about you that will make you irresistible beyond any other candidate in the eyes of readers. If you discovered before Einstein that E=mc2, you should put that kind of information here. That is an overstatement, of course, but spend some time determining the most important information about you as a future employee and then express that information in this key zone in an exciting, readable way.

David Noble
David Noble

Things to consider for this box are what you do best, your strongest IT strengths that set you apart from your peers, your IT skills that outshine those of others, the most notable IT resources you bring to a company. This part of the résumé is your best shot at being noticed and chosen for an interview, so in this area make yourself look unquestionably the best possible candidate. There is no room for modesty here.

When you indicate areas of expertise, don't just list them -- cluster them. Put protocols, operating systems, hardware, software and programming languages in separate groups, with a small heading labeling the clusters.

Explain achievement results in a way that nontechnical readers can understand. Strive for a balance between language that IT readers will expect and information that non-IT readers will appreciate.

If you think that your résumé is weak in any way, such as a gap in your work experience, many short-term jobs, limited achievements or the absence of a degree, consider including one or more testimonials that attest to the quality of your work and to you as a valued employee. If you can't cull them from letters of reference, ask former employers and peers for a brief statement about you as a worker and for permission to include that statement in your résumé. Sample résumés in books that you can find in bookstores and libraries will show you how to present testimonials in your résumé. A professional résumé-writer can also be of help here.

What are common mistakes that IT professionals make on their résumés? Misspelling product names is one -- using, for example, AS400 for AS/400, CPM for CP/M, dBase for dBASE, Hewlett Packard for Hewlett-Packard, PhotoShop for Photoshop, QuarkXpress for QuarkXPress and Quattro Pro for QuattroPro. You can't pass yourself off as being detail-oriented if your résumé has a misspelling.

Another common mistake is to include in a list of software proficiencies early software like Ami Pro, CP/M, DOS, Windows 3.1, WordStar and WordPerfect 5.1. Unless there is a particular reason for mentioning an old program, omit what is no longer relevant.

I've also seen people fail to quantify achievements in dollar amounts, percentages or other numbers. Achievements without numbers don't stack up well against those that are backed up with numbers in competitive résumés.

Little things matter in résumés. Distinguishing between written and verbal skills is a mistake, since all words, whether written or spoken, are verbal. The distinction you want to make is between written and oral skills.

Visually, it's a mistake to use ellipses to separate items such as software names or programming languages in a single block of text. Periods between items in a paragraph of items are visual noise and make the list busy and less readable. List the items.

You should demonstrate that you understand the difference between abbreviations and acronyms. An abbreviation consists of uppercase letters (without periods) that you can pronounce only as letters, such as PC, NT and TCP/IP. An acronym is a combination of letters making a word that you can pronounce as a word, such as Basic, Cobol and Fortran. Sometimes the acronym is formed from the initial letters of a group of words, as in Basic, for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. Other acronyms are derived from multiple letters from a group of words, as in Cobol, for Common Business-Oriented Language or Fortran, for Formula Translator. An acronym such as radar (from radio detecting and ranging) has become so common that it is no longer uppercase.

And it's redundant to put colons after headings. A heading indicates that information is to follow. A colon indicates the same thing.

In practice, does substance trump style for hiring managers? Your question assumes that one category can be more important than the other. That's a possibility in a discussion, debate or book -- particularly if it is assumed further that style is not part of the substance -- but not in a résumé. Both substance and style are altogether crucial in a résumé. If the substance is lacking and not what the hiring manager wants in a prospective employee, the applicant has little chance of getting an interview. If the substance fulfills or exceeds expectation but the style is poor and has mistakes, the applicant will probably be screened out in favor of another applicant with similar credentials and an impeccable résumé stylistically. Today's job market has a surplus of qualified applicants and few open positions, so stylistic weaknesses have become more critical.

Those who pose the original question may want to hear that style is not important, or at least not as important as substance. If so, that answer gets the applicant off the hook of having a clean résumé stylistically. But if, from the employer's point of view, an undeclared purpose of a résumé is to screen out applicants from a stack of résumés, a high-substance résumé that is also error-free is a must, not a luxury.

Put another way, readable substance trumps less readable substance. Factors that make a résumé more readable are white space (3/4-inch to 1-inch margins, extra line spacing before section headings, and so on); left-aligned paragraphs; font sizes no smaller that 10 points (11 points is better); and serif fonts (like Times New Roman or Garamond) with little extenders, or serifs, at the tops and bottoms of characters, instead of sans serif fonts (like Arial) without these extenders. In low-light conditions, characters in a serif font are more readily distinguishable from other characters. Type the word "minimum" in a serif font and then again in a sans serif font, reduce the amount of light, and compare the two words. You be the judge about which version is more readable. If the difference is not readily obvious, try squinting.

Factors that make a résumé less readable are jargon or IT-speak that only another IT person can understand -- remember, the hiring manager may not be an IT professional; full-justification for paragraphs and long bulleted items, which can create ugly gaps between words; small headings (in point size); long lists; and a lack of parallelism down a list of bulleted items, where the first words of the different items are different parts of speech -- a noun, an adjective and a verb, for example, instead of a series of past participles such as "Created ...," "Organized ...," "Implemented ...."

To check for readability, read your résumé aloud. If you stumble, chances are that you have hit a less readable spot in your résumé. See whether you can change your wording there so that you don't stumble when you read it aloud again. Then ask someone else to read your résumé for readability. Your goal is to make every part of your résumé clear and concise.

If your résumé substance is top-notch and error-free stylistically, you can do more. Get on with the task of networking: talking with others, who can connect you with still others, and so on, to eventually meet someone who will recognize your worth and direct you to a hiring manager who will want to read in person your substance-rich, stylistically impeccable résumé.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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