Originally published in The Fauquier Times-Democrat, April 2009

In today’s challenging job market, a top notch resume is a must. Most employers take about 10 seconds to decide your professional fate based on your resume and cover letter.

As a recruiter, I reviewed hundreds of resumes on a daily basis and tossed out most after five seconds. Why? Because my clients needed “the best,” and most resumes did not reflect “the best.” You need to package your experience, skills and talents to differentiate yourself from all the other desperados.

Your Personal Brand

Your resume should be part of your personal brand, a marketing package that speaks a consistent message of quality and high performance. Your personal brand consists of your resume and cover letter and you — your appearance and dress, your behavior, and your written and verbal abilities. Successful professionals are conscious of all aspects of their personal brand and strive for continual improvement. In a tight job market, attention to personal branding is a necessity.

Resume Essentials

A resume should never be submitted without a cover letter or transmittal email. Even if you submit the resume through a job board, there is usually a provision for a cover letter. Well-written cover letters separate the superstars from the average performers. A cover letter provides context for your resume and showcases your relevance to a specific job requirement. For example, a good cover letter may take one activity from your resume and add detail to further demonstrate your abilities.

There are many different styles and formats available for resumes; however the best format is simple and presents your qualifications in a logical manner that easily shows how your experience matches the job requirements. One common effective style presents a summary of qualifications at the beginning of the resume followed by a list of key words that describe your experience. Your specific work history and education is then listed chronologically. Careerbuilder.com is one good resource for possible resume styles and also provides examples of cover letters.

5 Rules for Winning Resume Packages

In general, there are 5 rules to preparing winning resume packages.

    1. Include key words consistent with the job requirements. Recruiters and managers frequently conduct a key word search of your resume to ensure that you have specific skills. Put the key words up front under a heading called “Skills” or “Training.”
    2. Use the active voice to describe your experience. For example, start sentences with verbs such as: directed, organized, coordinated, supervised, led, prepared, developed, created, worked, managed, wrote, analyzed, assessed, compiled, researched, constructed, built, reviewed, designed, etc.
    3. Customize your resume to make it directly relevant to the job requirements. Make it easy for the company to see how well you would fit the position advertised. Develop a couple versions of your resume if necessary.
    4. Use a one- or two-page format for your resume. Do not use more than 2 pages.
    5. Pair the resume with a customized cover letter. A cover letter typically consists of the following parts:

a. Declaration of your interest in the position and where you saw the position advertised.
b. One or two sentences describing your most relevant experience. You should also consider adding a sentence that aligns your interest and skills with the company’s overall mission or goal which is usually found on the company’s website.
c. Summary statement pulling together 1 and 2.
d. Closing statement with interview request and contact information.

Of course, you may not be a perfect fit for an advertised job. For example, if you only have one or two years of experience and the advertisement requires at least five years, don’t bother responding. However, if you are a whiz-bang expert after only three years, go for it, but explain yourself in the cover letter or else risk having your resume trashed upon receipt. Also, consider if the advertised position would be a promotion from your current or previous job or a lateral move, i.e., a position with the same level of responsibility. If the position would be a promotion, make sure to describe your ability to take on more responsibility in the cover letter.

When pursuing a new job, it is also important to understand how the resume review process takes place at most companies. For most mid- to large-sized firms, the human resources (HR) department is the first stop for your resume package. HR is typically staffed by administrative personnel whose job in part is to review resumes to see if they match the requirements listed by a job “requisition.” A requisition is a job order developed by the hiring manager. It describes the position requirements, i.e., years of experience needed and set of skills. It is very specific and uses many key words. The HR staff usually input your resume into a database and then screen the resume against the job requisition to see if key words match. If no key words are matched, the resume is rejected. If a few key words match, the resume may be considered, if many key words are matched, the resume is manually reviewed by HR staff and possibly forwarded to the hiring manager.

Many resumes are rejected by the HR staff because they are poorly written. Make sure to use spell check and have someone review your resume package for grammatical errors.

Most of the time, the hiring manager receives resumes at least once a week in batches after the HR review. At smaller companies, the hiring manager may review the resumes directly or have an associate conduct the initial review. Some companies have a process to acknowledge the receipt of a resume, others do not.

If you have not heard from a company within one week of submitting your resume, contact the company to check the status of your submittal. Check back periodically as well to ensure that the company knows you are interested and serious. Above all, keep the faith, you will find the right job if you have a solid personal brand and are persistent in your marketing. Good luck!