With Resumes All the Ink is Relevant

On average, hiring managers and HR folks read a resume for 6 seconds. You’ve probably spent half of those six seconds reading these two sentences. Such a narrow window of opportunity is the consequence of decision makers having too little time and 100s of applications to filter through and filter out. For better or for worse, filtering out is always the first priority of HR after applications are received. As a result, if an actual person receives your email they will likely skim it. Potentially, though not always, once you get to an in-person interview someone will actually read most of your resume. “Resume At Submission” and “Resume At Interview” constitute two use cases that require your specific attention as you craft a resume for a particular position.

For both use cases the stakes are high and the window is small, which means your resume needs to be focused and relevant. As I talk with job candidates they often ask me what experience they should include on the resume they’ll submit. (First of course, I tell them there is no “the” resume, only “a” resume for this position.) For instance: Should I include working at California Pizza Kitchen; should I include my research assistantship; should I include my internship at a nonprofit even though I want to work in marketing?

Given the need for your resume to effectively present your value to a company I recommend that job candidates practice the rule of making All the Ink Relevant. All the ink on your resume should be directly relevant to the position that you’re applying for (NOTE: this doesn’t at all apply to Federal jobs for which success demands a shotgun approach. More on that in another post.).

Two Ways to Be Relevant

Job experience can be relevant in two ways. First, your experience can demonstrate a position’s required or desired Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSA’s). These are the action-oriented attributes you gained or demonstrated in a previous position.

The second way experience can be relevant is if it proves you have content or domain expertise. Experience in this category may show that while you didn’t do social media campaigns (a KSA) you did live in Shanghai immersed in the culture and therefore have relevant experience for a job in China.

All of the ink on your resume must fit into either one of these categories. The holy grail for resumes—the kind of resume that will almost certainly be selected for a phone screen—is the one that has the longest continuous sequence of positions that include both categories. For example, you’re applying for a job creating social media campaigns for multinationals in China and have, since college, worked at companies in which you had increasing responsibility for managing social media campaigns and always in the Chinese context. For the hiring manager, this is the least risky person to call because the candidate seems to have experience doing exactly what they need and can contribute immediately day one.

Patch Work History

As the job market has changed, allowing (or forcing, depending on your perspective) employees to shift positions and companies more frequently, a resume showing a single, smooth trajectory like the one above will become increasingly rare. Most new graduates likely have resumes that represent a similar patchwork history. The trick is to ensure that your experience is presented in a way that tells a relevant story. This is where resume personalization comes in again. The bullets you include under each position should highlight the most relevant work experience (either KSA’s or domain expertise) that you have. They should essentially allow the hiring manager to check off all of the elements on the job description. If you make the mistake of submitting the same bullets to each company it is very unlikely that they will appear relevant and compelling to each one or any one for that matter. The lack of relevancy will raise doubt in the reader’s mind and they will, without a care, put you in the “No Bucket” and move on to resume #77 of 345.

How to Use It

After you’ve conducted informational interviews and identified positions at a few of your target companies, try revising each resume you submit with this rule (All the Ink is Relevant) as a guide. First, highlight the key elements of the job description. Then think back through your positions (paid or unpaid). What did you do that was relevant to each element? How did you demonstrate that skill? What positions involved exposure or responsibility in the same domain? (And think broadly about the domains. If you taught swimming lessons the domains include: swimming, teaching, youth, and training. The domain isn’t just “swimming lessons.”) Before you submit a resume, make sure all the ink is relevant.

If you’ve made a career change or recently discovered your calling the fit between your past experience and your target role probably won’t be perfect. As you gather feedback from your informational interviews, you may even learn that you need to take an internship first or start in an adjacent industry and move toward your desired role over time. Career making is complex and highly competitive. In order to succeed you need to be relevant.

PS This all applies to cover letters too.