When I set out to find expertise for this post on resumes, I was surprised to find that real humans were behind it all.
Humans! With real feelings, pet peeves, hobbies, relationships, experiences, and backgrounds -- they're the ones reading our resumes and cover letters.
They're also the ones who get annoyed when we don't put our employment record in chronological order; who just don't feel like reading paragraph-long job descriptions; and who get excited when you went to the same college as them.
I asked some hiring experts what they actually care about when they scan resumes, and here's the inside scoop on the tips they shared with me. (And don't miss out on what they said about cover letters at the end.)
What Hiring Managers Definitely Care About
Limit your resumes to one page if possible. It takes hiring managers six seconds to decide whether they like your resume or not. If they do, they'll keep reading. If they don't ... well, it's on to the next. So, chances are, they won't even get to page 2. But if you have to bleed onto another page, definitely don't exceed two.
Formatting speaks to the way candidates collect their thoughts and organize their ideas. As HubSpot Director of Training and Development Andrew Quinn explains it, “A candidate’s resume is their ad to me. How are they structuring this ad so I get a clear picture of what they’re capable of?”
There's a fine line, though, warns HubSpot Recruiter Emily Kueffner. “If you stray too far from normal formatting, it’s hard to read and understand your resume. Don’t get so creative that your resume becomes difficult to digest.”
Specifically, we spoke about the infographic resumes some candidates have sent in. Every hiring manager I spoke with advised sticking to the classic resume form instead of infographics or other formats. "Infographic resumes are terrible,” says HubSpot Recruiting Manager Leslie Mitchell. “We appreciate creativity, except when it’s overkill and hard to follow. Keep it simple -- everyone appreciates a simple resume. If you’re a designer, showcase your creativity with a cool portfolio website in addition to your simple resume.”
Hiring managers throw away resumes with spelling errors – but writing quality goes beyond spelling mistakes. Writing and presenting data in meaningful ways is a critical skill for any position, from blogging to engineering.
Are the details you want hiring managers to know about you easy to consume? Do you use concise sentences to convey your performance and accomplishments? Are your verb tenses consistent (except for current positions)? Is your language overflowing with buzzwords, or does it sound natural?
“Formatting, spelling, syntax, and structure are all evidence of attention to detail,” Andrew told me. “This is important for any job, but especially if you’re applying to a job where attention to detail matters.” If you’re applying for a writing position, this is even more important. Same with sales – salespeople have to write emails all day long, so have you mastered the crisp, business style of writing?
Hiring managers want to know if you’ll need to relocate. If you already live near the company's office, great! If you would need to relocate, then it gets a little more complicated. Technically, hiring managers can’t legally ask you directly where you live – but omitting location will raise eyebrows. Even PO boxes are a little iffy.
If you do need to relocate, you should still include your current, out-of-town address on your resume, but be prepared to answer relocation status questions in an interview. If the company doesn’t offer relocation packages, will you be able to afford taking the job and moving anyway? If not, you may be wasting time.
College/Graduate School and Major/Concentration
Which is more important: Where you went to school, or what you studied?
It depends on the job you’re applying for. In most cases, your degree should make sense for the role. "Hiring managers are looking for the tie-in," says Leslie. "They're looking for what's relevant about what a candidate’s done in school." That doesn’t mean only marketing majors can apply to marketing jobs – marketing teams might hire someone who came out of creative studies like liberal arts, graphic design, or writing. An engineering team, on the other hand, probably won’t hire someone without a computer science degree.
It also depends on how successful you were at the school you attended. While there are some hiring managers who only give interviews to graduates of top-tier schools, most say it helps to go to a top-tier school, but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker if you went to a lower-tier school or community college. A community college graduate with a 4.0 GPA could be more attractive than an Ivy League graduate with a 2.0.
Speaking of GPA – when to take it off your resume is subjective. “The benchmark is five to seven years after graduation, which is when candidates tend have a solid track record of employment,” says Andrew. “But if you did well in school but had lackluster job prospects following graduation because of, say, a bad economy, you could definitely leave it on longer.” It goes both ways, he explained: If you had great jobs and accomplishments following graduation but didn’t have a good GPA, consider removing your GPA earlier.
Three to five years after college or graduate school graduation, you can move your "Education" section to the bottom of your resume -- unless you connected with someone through an alumni network or if you know an executive there also went to your school.
Companies and Titles
Hiring managers will look at where you've worked before (do they recognize the company names or know anyone who works there?) and your titles at those companies. "If you're applying for a sales position at a software company like HubSpot, we're looking for experience selling software," Leslie told me. "If you're applying for a services position, we're looking for customer-facing experience."
Yes, people tweak their titles at previous companies to more closely match the positions they're applying for. If you do this, your “new” title should be close enough to what you really did that if someone were to call and check a reference, they wouldn't be dumbfounded. Maybe “Clerk to the Surgical Waiting Room” becomes “Customer Service Clerk.” Also, make sure to change your titles on LinkedIn, too -- hiring managers will check for consistency on LinkedIn, Leslie said.
Top Few Bullet Points in Each Section
Each position you’ve had should be accompanied by no more than five to six bullet points. Remember, these hiring managers are scanning your resumes really quickly, so you want to make it easy for them to find and digest the relevant information by consolidating the most important points and putting them first. Paragraphs are a big no-no.
Focus on accomplishments first before responsibilities and duties. If you had a senior management role, include the number of people you managed. Include goals and metrics that hiring managers can use to compare you against other candidates, and make sure those metrics make sense so you don’t confuse the hiring manager. Run the metrics by your mom. I'm serious. If they make sense to her, then they’re all set. If not, then you weren’t clear enough and you need to tweak the language.
Dates of Employment
Hiring managers look for job hopping and large gaps in employment, which are both red flags. Job hopping is a sign of failure to commit, a quality no one wants at their company. A word of advice: You should try to stay at every job for at least a year, preferably two or more years; otherwise, it’s a red flag.
And if you took longer than six months off of work, Leslie suggests you explain the gap on your resume, perhaps in italics or parenthesis. “Travelled abroad.” “Took time off for family.” “Took time off for personal reasons.” They just want to see a rational explanation -- that you were doing something productive with your time, not just hanging out watching football, ya know?
What Hiring Managers Might Care About
Whether you include interests and hobbies on your resume depends on the company and the job. If you’re applying for a creative role, hobbies like photography and painting could be interesting to an employer. If you’re hiring for an accounting role, then a hobby like skydiving wouldn’t be good to include -- hiring managers might categorize you as a risk-taker, and do they really want a risk-taker managing their money?
“Think about the conclusions someone could draw from your hobbies relative to the role you’re hiring for,” Andrew advises. “Do they enhance or detract from the image you’re trying to convey? If you know the culture embraces unique individuals that have a broad background and set of interests, then it could be useful information. But conservative organizations probably don’t care what you do in your free time -- in fact, they could interpret outside hobbies as distractions.”
Companies with cultures like HubSpot’s want their employees to have some personality and invest in outside interests. So if you're applying to join that kind of culture, an "Interests" or "Hobbies" section could benefit you. "They’re great conversation starters,” says Leslie. “‘You’re a skier? Me too! Which mountain do you go to?’ It creates common ground for conversation and helps us assess culture fit.”
Before including or omitting this section on your resume, gain some intelligence about the company’s environment and culture. (And check out HubSpot's culture code if you haven't already.)
What Hiring Managers Don't Want to See
Frankly, they’re irrelevant. And they're too easy to screw up. Leslie recounted numerous times where candidates put the name of another local company on there -- huge mistake.
Instead, Leslie suggests replacing it with a “Key Skills” section at the top of your resume, in column format, that highlights the top six to nine skills applicable to the role you’re applying for. Be sure to change these skills for each job!
Although you should leave this section off your resume, you should have something in the Summary section of your LinkedIn profile. Focus this section on specific skills and achievements. It’s a good place to put a link to your portfolio, blog, SlideShare presentations, or examples of work you’ve created like open-source code. Use that space to talk about specific achievements you’ve had in previous roles, awards you’ve won, or projects you’ve worked on. The information and skills on here should be applicable to where you’re headed in your career, not irrelevant past skills. (Right after Leslie told me this, I took "emergency medicine" off of mine!)
As for cover letters?
“I’ve never met a recruiter who reads cover letters," Leslie told me. "We just don't have time." That's right. With this in mind, include important details on your resume, like gaps in employment, rather than relying on your cover letter (which may never get read) to explain it. And reallocate those hours you plan to spend writing and perfecting your cover letter to writing and rewriting your resume. Your resume is the most important tool in the first stage of the application process, so spend a lot of time on it and ask multiple people to critique it.