Work & Money

Expert answers to fundamental resume-writing questions

How to get the basics right when it comes to this job-search cornerstone.

How to get the basics right when it comes to this job-search cornerstone

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

A well-written, nicely-formatted resume is the cornerstone of any job search process. After all, that's what both HR managers and online Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) will examine to determine your qualities as an applicant and fitness for the role — these days, it's virtually impossible to apply for most jobs without submitting one. 

But if you're applying for your first job or you've had a career shift, for example, trying to draft the "perfect" resume can be a time-consuming challenge, and poor formatting or language choices can easily derail even the most qualified applications. 

To help answer common resume-writing questions for your next employment application, we asked experts Claudia Gale, an HR Business Partner at a large bank in Canada, and Jean-Pierre Fernandes, a Campus Engagement Specialist at Ryerson University's Career & Co-op Centre, for their top tips, and take on how to address tricky scenarios and atypical circumstances. 

What are some general resume dos and don'ts for any job-seeker?

"I always tell people to be genuine and be yourself. Inject a little personality into your application," says Gale. "Companies want to hire the right person, and fit is so important. It's often less about what you have done and more about who you are and how you will approach the job." She also suggests that you avoid jargon, and try to be as specific as possible. And, for roles that require specific technical expertise (for example, a professional designation or qualification, or experience working with a particular program), be sure to note on your resume how you meet the qualifications.

"Ensure you customize your resume for each role. It is a competitive market and employers need to know what makes you special," says Fernandes. He also recommends that you always proof-read your resume, be truthful, use a consistent format and style, and keep it at two pages or shorter ("unless it is a CV or the job posting suggests it"). "Don't put every little detail on your resume," says Fernandes. "Put in what is most relevant and what will have the greatest impact. Your interview is where you can elaborate."

Generally speaking, what's the best way to format and submit a resume?

Fernandes recommends submitting your resume and cover letter as one document, in PDF format, with your name and the job title in the file name. "I personally prefer a PDF because the formatting tends stay as it should, whereas with Word it can get mixed up, especially if someone's opening it in a non-Word format," says Fernandes. "[For fonts,] I would stick with like an Arial or Calibri. Those are sort of pretty standard, and they're easy for ATS tracking systems to read." 

What should one put on a first resume?

It's possible to create a compelling resume even if you've never had a paying job. "Work experience is not all that employers look at for a job; many employers want to get a sense of who you are personally," says Fernandes. "You can indicate your suitability for a job through volunteer experience, teams you've been on, or clubs you've joined. It is about taking these experiences and drawing out the transferable skills."

Note that when you are putting together your first resume (or looking to revamp and old one!), there are a number of free templates available online and on job-listing and career websites, and many school career centres will also have resume examples available for you to reference — even Word offers a number of templates. "Big job sites like Workopolis, Monster and Indeed have lots of resources," says Gale. "I advise job seekers to look out for job-specific resume templates that can offset guidance on best practices for that particular field."

Is there a difference between a CV (curriculum vitae) and a resume?

"A CV lists everything — it's a list of everything you've done, and it's quite detailed," explains Fernandes. "It might include, in addition to work experience, things you've done in your academics like journal [publications] or research [projects]." A resume, alternatively, should be more targeted or tailored in focus, says Fernandes. 

What's the best way to frame an employment gap on a resume?

If you're re-entering the workforce after some time away — for a sabbatical or extended parental leave, for example — it can be helpful to explain any employment gaps on your resume to the hiring manager. "This is where a cover letter or objective statement can really help," advises Gale. "Be clear about taking time out of your career, and explain what you have done to get back up to speed. Many people pivot in their careers, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that."

How should I format my resume if I've had a career change?

Fernandes doesn't think a career change means that you need to format your resume differently; rather, it's about drawing attention to the right things from each job or experience. "More often than not, there are skills you developed and utilized that can be highlighted in previous roles," he says. "Utilize those to tell an employer why you are a good fit for an opportunity."

If I'm applying for a job as an international candidate, what information should I include on my resume? 

According to Gale, you should include all relevant work experience on your resume, and stress how that international experience can apply to the role. "Highlight where you think there may be transferable skills. Things like leadership, problem-solving, sales, and data and technology skills are valuable no matter where you come from," says Gale. 

What's the best way to showcase a diverse, non-linear career on a resume?

If you've had a mixed career, you may want to use a combination resume, advises Fernandes. "Combination resumes focus on both your skills and your work experience. Right at the beginning, instead of jumping right into your job experience, it would focus in on your skill sets from other jobs," says Fernandes. 

Instead of following a simple chronological order, you would list your most applicable experience first, and everything else below that. "Within a combination resume you will feature relevant skills and work experience at the top so it is the first thing that someone sees," says Fernandes. "This will help ensure they know exactly what makes you qualified for a role."

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.


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