Creating a unique resume

Last edited on Sat, 24 Jul 2010 17:27:44 -0400

When I began applying for jobs for the first time during the winter of 2006, I realized at once the importance of a good resume. A resume's role in getting you the job you want is in some ways pivotal, and in other ways, trivial. I think of it this way: your resume is your chance to put forward a good first impression to a potential employer. It is pivotal because it can get you an interview; that interview in turn may get you the job. But it's trivial because it doesn't quite get you the job on its own. You need to back up a good resume with a good interview.

When an employer gets your resume, there are only two possible outcomes. Outcome A: They can see your resume, and say something along the lines of, "This person looks interesting. I want to find out more.". Or outcome B: they toss your resume into a stack of rejected resumes. All you are is dust in the wind. Obviously you want outcome A, but that being said, getting an interview is only the beginning. Once you go into the interview, you may as well forget about your resume. If you've written nothing but the truth on your resume, there's no need for you to review your own resume before an interview. You should be able to "see" your own resume with your eyes closed. I can probably recite mine by heart.

Now assuming that you've already got an outstanding resume, and that you got the interviews you wanted, all you have to do is ace the interview. That is actually a very big problem. I've read way too many articles on how to do well on interviews but none of the techniques worked for me, so I'll talk about interviews some other time when I figure out how to solve that problem.

But I have solved the problem of resumes. At least for myself, and hopefully it'll work for you. If you're already satisfied with your resume, and you think that it can get you any interview you want, then all is well and you don't need to waste your time reading this. But if you feel that your resume does not fully express yourself, and that it does not get you the interviews you are looking for, then I've got advice for you.

So if you are not happy with your resume, the question you should be asking yourself at this point is, "Does my resume represent me accurately? Is my resume actually an inscription of MYSELF on paper?". Sadly enough, the answer will be a resounding "No!" in most cases. And here is the reason. Few of us have actually made our own resumes from scratch. We didn't start with a blank piece of paper. Rather we started by reading some resume writing guides that ask us to follow certain guidelines, format text in a certain way, use characters of a certain size, divide things into sections, include a "References Available Upon Request" line, and all sorts of fancy things. Now don't get me wrong. Resume guides will help you get your average interview for sure. But let's say you're not someone who is just striving to be average. You want to rise above mediocrity. You want an outstanding job. And as the word "outstanding" suggests, an outstanding job requires you to "stand out". Here's the downside of following a resume writing guide that forces a specific structure on your resume: structure is good, but too much structure results in uniformity, and that is not the way to stand out. Think of yourself as an employer: you are always short on time, insanely busy, and have to pick ten candidates to interview from an applicant pool 127 resumes all of which follow almost identical formatting. You'd go insane trying to decide which ones are the better candidates. No wonder bosses always appear pissed off.

Why don't you make their lives easier? Imagine if out of those 127 resumes, there was the one resume that didn't follow any of the usual resume guidelines but at the same time did convey all the information that the other resumes conveyed. What better way to catch an employer's attention? Don't use some random resume guides' template to structure your own resume. Just the way you wouldn't talk to people with someone else's voice. You want to talk to people with your very own voice that is lovely and unique. So make your own resume template that will also be lovely and unique. Develop your own style. It'll do wonders for you.

Now that I've mentioned that, it would be very ironic if I started giving you guidelines as to how to write your own resume. But if you read on, you'll find that my guidelines actually aren't your average guidelines. The difference between what I write here, and what's written on a resume writing guide is that the guides tell you exactly what to do: they do the math for you. I won't do that. I'll give you concepts. You do your own math. How else were you expecting to write your own great resume?

Concept 1: Minimalism

My good friend Rajesh once challenged me to bring my 4 page resume down to a single page. At first, I thought it was impossible but with his help, I succeeded. It's the best thing that ever happened to my resume. The resulting resume was short, very easy to read, stood out, and I daresay made some employers chuckle. Read on if you want to know how I did that.

Many people have their full mailing address on top of their resume. What were you thinking? Were you expecting your employer to drop by your house for a cup of coffee? If they do decide to hire you or interview you, and if they do need your address at that point, they'll ask you for it via phone or email.

Skilled labour is all good, but when you have 35 different skills on your resume, I can't help but think you're just bragging. You sound like this, "Oh look at me. I can make your website with my 5 years experience, write you a new cross-platform complier with the knowledge from my compilers course, boss around others with my leadership qualities, babysit your child with my people skills, provide technical support to angry customers, and clean your garbage all at the same time.". No there aren't any jobs like that. Sorry. Cut down your skills section to include only the skills that are relevant for the job you're applying for. If you're interviewing to be lead janitor, do you really need to say you know Microsoft Office? On a more subtle note, if you're interviewing for a high-level Python developer, you maybe don't want to exaggerate the fact that you can kick ass in Assembly. But you do want to mention that you're the author of twenty-five Perl libraries on cpan.org.

It's fair to be proud of the fact that you've attended a very prestigious high-school, but if you already have your bachelor's degree or master's degree while applying for jobs, you seriously need to get over that time when you aced a grade 12 math quiz. It may have been a great achievement, but no one besides you really cares about it. So cut the crap and remove your high-school education information. Same goes for previous work information. Do you really need to say "I worked at Tim Hortons" on your resume? Unless you're applying to Starbucks of course, in which case, do you really need to say "I worked at Google"? I don't think making Starbucks coffee is a computationally expensive process that needs your optimization skills so that it can be carried out in O(1) time.

Also, don't be afraid to cut down entire sections of your resume at a time. If you want to work for the World Health Organization, you definitely want to talk about you volunteering to help polio-infected children in Bangladesh, but if you want to work for Facebook to fix the infinite amount of bugs they've introduced with the new Facebook, you probably don't even want to mention all your volunteer work experience. After all, the more personal information you give to Facebook, the more of you they own.

Concept 2: Humour

We're all funny people. No matter how boring you may appear outside, there's that stand-up comedian inside you just waiting to be unleashed. Inject some of that humour into your resume. How you do that is completely upto you. In my case, I know I'm a geek/nerd. Most of the jobs I apply to are geeky/nerdy jobs. Hence I crack little geeky nerdy jokes in my resume. I'll keep this part intentionally vague, because that last thing I want to do is tell you how to be funny. That's not funny at all. Or is it?

The bottom line is, try to make someone laugh or smile when they see your resume. It may sound very unprofessional, but surely your boss won't mind hiring a person with a sense of humour, would he? If your boss did mind, do you really want to work for such a boss anyway? If you don't have a sense of humour, then I'll have to write a completely different article on that just for you.

Concept 3: Visually Appealing

Don't use small and boring fonts. Small fonts are irritating and hard on the eye, and boring fonts are just that — boring. Pick something less boring and keep your text fairly decent sized so that people with some visual impairment can still read it. After all, employers often are older people. Make sure you bold out keywords. Keep in mind that employers spend very less time (<30 seconds) to decide whether to interview you or not. If your resume is catchy, and can easily be scanned, that's definitely a plus. If it appears boring, and if the words are hard to read, then tough luck.

Concept 4: Don't hesitate to violate Concepts 1, 2, and 3 when necessary

It is after all YOUR resume. Feel free to violate the above concepts, or parts of them. Make sure at the end of the day that your resume is you on a piece of paper. It must look like you, it must speak like you, and it must stand out like you.

Good luck!