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How to Get Your Resume Noticed (And Out of the Trash Bin)

The days of sending a generic CV are out. You need to be able to stand out and make the connection that lands an interview.

Harvard Business Review

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How long does it take a recruiter to decide if you’re right for a job? It’s actually around seven seconds, according to eye-tracking research. To put that into perspective, close your eyes and take two deep breaths. That’s the time, on average, hiring managers spend skimming your resume, sizing up your history, hopes, and dreams before either tossing it into the trash or moving you to the next round of the application process.

For those of us just entering the workforce or looking to make a career transition, one thing is clear: We need to find ways to stand out — and fast. While there is a plethora of guidance on the Internet surrounding how to be a “great” candidate, it can be contradictory or confusing depending on where and when you look.

I’ve spent the past few weeks catching up with recruitment experts who specialize in remote work, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), in attempt to decode the most up-to-date advice when it comes to applying for a new job — especially during this pandemic. I’ve asked them to weigh in on everything from how resumes are screened to how candidates can make connections that might help them land an actual interview.

Here is what I’ve learned:

Outsmart the Robots

According to Sulaiman Rahman, CEO of DiverseForce, recruiters may not be the only ones you need to impress. “Organizations are increasingly using automation to screen resumes, so it’s important for job seekers to use keywords that are also found in the actual job description,” he told me. In short, more and more artificial intelligence (AI) tools are being used to match the language in your resume to the language in the job posting.

This means that, when you apply for any job, you should pay attention to what the company has written about it — everything from the general description to the qualifications. The language they use has been intentionally crafted to highlight the skills and experiences they seek, so weave that language into your CV. If you do, you have a better chance of outsmarting AI and moving your application through the initial screening process.

Rahman also cautioned against overly cluttered or involved design layouts. “Unconventionally formatted resumes may be catchy to the human eye,” he said, “but it can be challenging for automated systems to find keywords on those resumes, and this can backfire on the candidate.”

Pro tip: If you want to show off your creative side, consider making an online portfolio instead of showcasing it on your resume. This is a great way to highlight your career and experience through colorful, eye-catching content. Include a link to your profile on your resume. Another option is to use a cloud-based recording platform like Loom to make a personalized video that can be linked to on your resume.

Show Off Your Skills

Your resume should tell a story about why you are the best fit for this role. And like all great narratives, it should begin with a hook. Underneath your name and title, include a summary about what you have to offer and who you are as a professional, as well as a key skills section highlighting your strengths — focusing on the ones that are most relevant to the job.

Here is an example of what a this might look like:

An aspiring project manager who thrives on creating order out of chaos, I am energized by “wicked” challenges and am comfortable with ambiguity, having served in multiple internship roles with distributed SaaS start-ups. I keep teams on track and have a knack for identifying blind spots and finding elegant solutions to unforeseen problems. Playing a key role in remote product launches has been exciting, but what drives me continues to be the opportunity to forge a path for others as part of an underrepresented group in tech.

“The top of your resume should be a forward-leaning section that shares what you have to offer and who you want to be as a professional,” Brie Reynolds, career development manager at FlexJobs, said. “It’s very different from the rest of the resume, which is backward-leaning and shows what you’ve accomplished thus far.”

For the key skills section, Reynolds also recommends highlighting any remote-work skills. “Because so many roles are becoming at least partially, if not fully remote, a technology skills section showcases your ability to work with and through various platforms.”

Pro tip: Be sure to include any business-related programs you’re familiar with (Microsoft Word and Excel, Salesforce, WordPress) and any remote collaboration tools you’re comfortable using, like IM/chat programs (Slack, Teams, Google Chat), file sharing (Dropbox), document collaboration (Box, Google Drive), or video conferencing technologies (GoToMeeting, Skype, Zoom).

Don’t Restrict Work Experience to “Work”

Recently out of college with little work experience? Consider including major projects and papers you worked on as a student. “Group projects and large research papers can involve the types of skills that many employers are after: communication, writing skills, time management, focus, project management, teamwork and research — just to name a few,” Reynolds said.

It can be tricky to decide where to place this kind of experience on your resume, but if the work you’ve done has largely occurred in an academic setting, the experts recommend listing it separately under a “Relevant Experience” section. Use titles like research partner, strategy lead, or project manager, and make clear any time restrictions you were bound by to emphasize that you are comfortable working on a deadline.

Prospective employers will be impressed by your ability to connect the dots from the classroom to the real world and communicate value beyond an assignment’s scope.

Pro tip: Only highlight projects that are relevant to a potential role.

Let the Numbers Do the Talking

Which of these statements sounds more impressive?

  • “In my past role, I led the team to increase revenue by 20%.”
  • “In my past role, I increased annual revenue from $5 million to $6 million, a gain of 20%, while leading a global team of six employees spread across four time zones.”

Most recruiters would probably say the second. Not only does the second sentence talk about the candidate’s accomplishment, it also shows the depth of their success by citing cold, hard facts.

Like facts, no one can really argue with numbers. “They help us understand just how successful a candidate has been,” Lance Robbins, director of economic and workforce development at Distribute Consulting, explained. “Metrics are essential to telling the story of previous successes.” So keep track of any quantifiable milestones you’re hitting in your current role, project, or internship. You never know when you’ll need to pull data together to bolster a job application or interview.

Pro tip: Continue this practice even after landing a job. You can use numbers to make a case for why you deserve a promotion or a raise down the line.

Keep Your Cover Letter Personal

Last but not least, let’s talk about cover letters. For these, you want to capture the reader’s attention right away. One foolproof way to do this is to address the reader by their actual title. (Put yourself in their shoes — if you got a letter from a recruiter that began with “To whom this may concern” or “Dear potential job candidate,” would you be enthused? Probably not.)

You can usually find this information through a professional networking site like LinkedIn. Robbins recommended identifying a shortlist of 15 to 25 target employers. “Reach out to current employees in similar roles. Remember, though, that online networking is not unlike real-life networking, so pitching yourself early isn’t usually a good idea,” she said. “Take time to build trust and engage with others in a supportive way. Let people know you’re available and would love to be considered for a current (or future) opening.”

A few suggestions:

  • “I noticed from your LinkedIn profile that you’ve been at the company for X years. What do you love most about being there? What has kept you from pursuing work somewhere else?”
  • “On the company careers page, I read that X is one of your company values. What does that look like for someone in your role? How do you see it in practice?”
  • “Are there any skills or practices that you’d recommend I brush up on to find a role like yours at your company?”

As you begin to actually draft your cover letter, think about what your reader is likely to care about. Scan the company’s website, and view their mission statement. Research the company so that you are up to date on any recent news or media mentions. Check out their social media accounts to see what they are talking about. Review publications in your field of interest, noting any industry shifts that may be relevant to mention. All of this will help you better understand the organization’s needs, values, and interests.

Now ask yourself, “Knowing this, how can I contribute to those areas if I were hired for the role? What makes my contribution unique?” Write that in your cover letter.

Pro Tip: Making personal connections, finding out who the hiring manager is, and reaching out personally with your application materials could be the single most important action you take — the one that lands your resume on or nearer to the top of the virtual pile.

Kristi DePaul is a content creator whose writing on career navigation and personal branding has appeared in international outlets and has been cited by prominent think tanks and universities. She is founder and principal at Nuanced, a thought leadership firm for executives, and serves as CEO of Founders, a fully remote content agency focused on the future of learning and the future of work. She earned a master’s degree from the H. John Heinz III College of Information Systems and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

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This post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was published September 7, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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