Resume Help/Resume format


Dear Dr Converse

I'm getting a lot of conflicting opinions about how to do my resume.  Can you give me some simple guidelines on how to put this thing together?  It seems like everybody has their own way of doing it and I'm wondering if it really makes a difference.  It seems like an employer would be more interested in what is in the resume instead of how it's put together, right?  I appreciate any helpyou can give me.

Hi Nadia,

This is probably one of the two most common questions I have gotten over the years.  Let me begin by answering your second question first and then we'll discuss guidelines.

While it is true that the content of your resume is important, it is also true that the format and style you use is - almost - equally important.  The reason is simple:  if you present a cluttered or disorganized or unprofessional document to a potential employer, they will (with some justification) conclude that you are a disorganized and/or unprofessional individual.  That being the case, why would they want to consider you as an employee?  In other words, the documents you submit (cover letter, resume, application, and others) are a reflection of you and the kind of work you might be expected to do on the job.  If you present an unprofessional app package why would any employer assume you would, once hired, transform yourself into a thoroughly professional individual?  You wouldn't.  So presenting your best professional self right from the beginning is the way to go.  Let's look at how you do that.

You are correct in your observation that there are lots of opinions out there about how the resume should be done and disagreement among us professional folks about how to do it (I had such a disagreement with someone just yesterday).  What I am going to tell you is based not only on my forty-plus years of doing this, but also on the research I did with employers all over the country in preparation for writing my two books on this topic.  So, what follows isn't just my opinion; this is what employers tell me they are actually looking for.

Here are my Five Rules of Resume Writing: (1) Don't lie.  (2) Don't use a template.  (3) Be brief.  (4) Be specific.  (5) Make it perfect.  If you do these things, you'll certainly have an above-average resume since 99% of everyone else will not follow these rules.

First, don't lie.  Don't fudge.  Don't exaggerate.  Simply provide straight-forward factual information.  It's fine to make yourself look as good as you can, of course.  But don't claim what you can't prove.  If you are dishonest, and you get caught, it is normally grounds for termination.

Second, I don't advocate using resume templates for two reasons: first, there are some good ones out there but there are many more that are dreadful.  Remember that people that design those templates are generally graphic artists whose job it is to create something they think looks visually "awesome."  Their focus is not to help you get hired; it's to design something visually striking.  You might wonder "what's wrong with that?"  As a concept, there is nothing wrong with that.  But remember that YOUR job is to get hired.  And lots of resume templates go over the line that separates "visually striking" from gaudy and unprofessional.  And sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference.  But the most important reason not to use a template is that it makes you look lazy.  The impression you are giving the employer is that you were too lazy to create your own document, so you simply took a template and filled it in.  Not a good first impression, is it?

Third, remember that the resume is a snapshot, not a narrative.  This is one of the areas that I disagree with other resume writers on.  But I disagree with them for a very specific reason: if your resume is too dense, too cluttered with information (even if that info is good stuff) the person you send it to is simply not going to read it.  Period.  Put yourself in the place of the reader.  In response to an average job announcement, an institution may get 300 applications or more.  If you are the one who has to sift through them, would you rather read one that you can easily scan in two minutes or would you take the time to read every word in one that will take you 20 minutes to get through?  Seriously.  That is what application reviewers are up against.  And if it takes you 20 minutes to get through one, how long would it take you to get through a pile of 300?  Answer: a long time.  And no one in their right mind is going to opt to do that.  Remember what an application reviewer's job really is.  It is NOT to find the best five people from that pile to call for an interview.  It is to eliminate 295 people from consideration.  THAT is the real task.  And I can tell you that a highly-dense resume that tries to relate everything of importance will give the reviewer the perfect opportunity to eliminate that applicant.  Harsh, but true.  So, present yourself in the briefest possible way that still communicates your suitability for the job being advertised.

Which brings us to "be specific."  Take the exact words used in the job announcement (where the employer will list the qualifications they expect you to have) and describe in a very few words, the things you have done in your previous professional employment that meet the employer's needs.  You list the previous employer, provide the inclusive months and years of employment, and with a few bulleted items of no more that four to six words each, address the employer's needs.  Avoid all kinds of boilerplate like "team player" or "multi-tasker" or "self-starter" because they are meaningless.  Nearly everyone will claim those sorts of things.  Instead, use a very few words to tell what you actually DID in previous employment that match the prospective employer's needs.

Finally, make it perfect.  I mean EVERYTHING!  Grammar, punctuation, consistency of verb tense, style, font, everything.  Then give it to someone else to review.  Read it out loud to yourself.  Does it sound right?  The vast majority of resumes I have reviewed over the years (tens of thousands of them) had something wrong.  Maybe it was a small thing, like a period at the end of one bullet and not at the end of others.  Or it might have been a big thing.  I had one guy who misspelled his own name.  But this thing represents you, so make it perfect.

Hope this helps.  If you'd like me to take a look at your resume once you get it done, I'd be happy to do it at no charge to you.  Send it as an email attachment to the address below.

Best wishes,

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Ralph D. Converse, Ph.D.


I can answer questions about general job searches, resume construction, crafting an effective cover letter, and how to prepare for, and conduct, a winning interview. My speciality is the field of education, but I also have extensive background in business and administration. I know what works and what doesn't work and I can make your application package stand out from the rest ... because that is what you have to do.


I have interviewed for, and held, dozens of jobs in a career going back more than 42 years. I have taught at all educational levels including middle school, high school, community college, and university. In more than 42 years of experience on both sides of the job-search process, I have interviewed hundreds of applicants and have reviewed literally tens of thousands of job application packages. I am the author of 12 Mistakes That Got Your Job Application Rejected ... And How To Fix Them! I conduct workshops for job seekers in a variety of locations every year.

Music Educator's Journal, Teaching Music, Music and American Culture (forthcoming, 2013), Last Teacher Standing: The Job is Yours Now! and 12 Mistakes That Got Your Job Application Rejected ... And How To Fix Them!

B.A. New Mexico State University; M.Mus. Southern Illinois University; Ph.D. University of California and University of North Texas

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