The Buzzer-Beater Résumé

It's not uncommon for people to spend hours (and/or hundreds if not thousands of dollars) brushing up their résumés. Is this time and money well-spent? That all depends on how it performs in the real world, of course.

Given that time and expense, would you be discouraged if a recruiter or hiring manager spent a mere 4-5 minutes reviewing your masterpiece? Turns out that would be an eternity according to the findings of a study that looked at how résumés are scanned and processed by recruiters. Eye-tracking technology was used to reveal that on average, the typical résumé gets a six-second look before an initial "fit/no fit" decision is made.

Six seconds. Let that sink in.

Making matters worse, this is the average length of time a human spends on this task. Many companies employ software algorithms that instantly parse, score, and sort your résumé before it ever reaches human eyes. Oh, the (in)humanity.

Going From Yawner to Page-Turner

How do you create a résumé that can elbow its way into the keyword-matching mindset of the reader or that soulless computer algorithm I mentioned? A résumé that triggers enough "keep me" cues to survive the 6-second countdown? First, it pays to assume that anyone reading your résumé is consciously or subconsciously asking the question "What's in it for me?" Construct your résumé in a way that repeatedly answers that question. Give the reader a reason to put your résumé in the keeper pile. Here are some ways to apply psychology and beat the 6-second buzzer:

1. This is Résumé 101 advice, but use a professional layout. The study above noted that non-traditional layouts scored low on reader comfort. They took too much cognitive bandwidth to fully process because the eye was distracted by the atypical layout. An exception would be a résumé for a creative type candidate in fields such as  fashion, web design, or graphic design. In these cases an infographic or other creative flourishes might work. This underscores a rule of thumb in any type of communication: Know your audience. (Pro tip: It is becoming acceptable to leave off your street address. Name, city/state, phone, and email are sufficient bits of contact info at the top of a résumé.)

2. I strongly recommend an executive summary just below the contact info header. This is an opportunity to inject a mega-dose of keywords into your document. This will pay off with both human readers and software parsers. Have fun writing this summary. It should reflect your personality and individualism, which is another way to grab attention amidst a sea of résumés using terms like "team player," "organized," or "self-starter." Don't be afraid to write it in the first-person, which is a great way to connect with the reader. Treat this as a process of discovery and your authentic voice will quickly emerge. (Pro tip: Take a free online personality survey and use the report as inspiration for your summary. I like and, but there are many others.)

3. Make sure your dates of employment are accurate and conspicuous in your layout. In my experience, this is one of the places that readers will key on for a variety of reasons, some obvious and some subtle. Own your career path and be ready to give a transparent and candid explanation of your moves. Be aware that if too many questions are raised by frequent moves, you may never get a chance to explain yourself. There are other strategies for managing that situation. We'll look at those in a future post.

4. When describing work experience, take a step back and identify the impact you had on each position. Think in terms of actual measurable accomplishments. Don't simply list responsibilities, grandiose though you may think they were. That common approach is no better than reciting your last job description to a potential employer. Instead, make ample use of numbers and symbols which will visually jump off the page. Compare the following examples and decide which bullets look more compelling to you:

General & Boring

  • Responsible for selling company products and services (That's it? Did you win new business, clean up on renewals or referrals, meet or exceed your goal, mentor a teammate, or help develop new products?)
  • Oversaw development of policies & procedures manual (Really? You contributed to the bureaucracy? Did your P&P manual create new efficiencies, generate savings, improve morale, solve a problem? Explain!)
  • Managed key marketing programs (C'mon, this one is unforgivable. Marketing is chock full of metrics; go crazy.)

Specific and Impressive

  • Generated $3.5MM in annual revenue from 15 unique accounts in 2015 OR Grew profitability by 28% over previous year
  • Launched efficiency policies that reduced waste by 19% OR Created staff recognition program that was rated 4.7/5 by employees in an anonymous survey OR Improved average staff tenure and retention by 2.6 years
  • Grew new customer base by 36% and exceeded customer conversion goal by 29% OR Increased outbound call volume by 19%

See the difference?

5. Regarding length, conventional wisdom recommends you keep it under 2 pages. I disagree. This limit always reminds of an Abe Lincoln story. He was asked "Mr. Lincoln, how long do you think a man’s legs should be?" Lincoln answered, "Long enough to reach the ground." Likewise, a résumé should be long enough to do its job. It helps to have some insights into the reader's expectations. Some technical résumés may be up to 10 pages or more especially if a person is extensively published or lists numerous presentations. If a résumé is filled with relevant information and impressive specifics, a few extra pages won't be an issue (within reason). For these longer résumés, a crisp executive summary becomes even more important.

6. Back to Résumé 101 advice: Check, double-check, and triple-check your work. One tiny typo will mar the impact of even the most well-designed résumé. A résumé is your official professional bio; it's your showcase and calling card. It has to be pristine.

Bonus tip: Repurpose your upgraded résumé by copying and pasting it into the corresponding sections of your LinkedIn profile. Your well-honed executive summary section, in particular, will yield immediate benefits because LinkedIn searches comb your profile for keywords that improve your ranking in search results. This is a great way to be found by colleagues, hiring managers, and recruiters.

Spend time upping your résumé game with these tips and you'll be tossing up buzzer beaters every time. Your résumé alone may not win the game for you, but it may help you send it into overtime. Now, go make it rain.