Go Break Some Resumé Rules! (or not!)

A lot of the rules you’ll have learned about resumé building aren’t all they’re cracked up to be!

I remember in school we had a course on writing resumés (known as CVs on this side of the pond!). We were given examples of how to format it, a set of rules to follow and told to go make some.

I’m glad they set aside some time to talk about this, but most of what we were told turned out to be crap. 💩

I’d like to start off by saying, all rules about making resumés are not rules at all. They could be suggestions or guidelines, but there are absolutely no rules.

Your resumé doesn’t have to be plain and boring so as not to offend other people. If you like pink, use some pink. If you like pink fluffy unicorns 🦄, then you go on and chuck in some unicorns.

I love helping folks with their resumés and this one comes up a lot when I’m reviewing them. Every single resumé I look at is pretty much identical. If I’ve got a stack of 20 of them to review to give feedback, or a stack of 100 to look for candidates to interview… it’s just a stack of nigh on identical boring resumés with very little to separate them.

So the first piece of feedback feels a bit like marketing 101. It’s better to have 90 people absolutely hate your resumé and chuck it in the bin and 10 people absolutely love it, than to have 100 people not notice it at all.

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In fact, this can be an awesome thing. Kel, my co-host on the podcast, loves to refer to this as filtering. You can filter as much or as little as you feel comfortable doing, but filtering allows you (and prospective employers) to try to find good matches. When there are no filters, no controversial items in there, nothing that really stands out… then neither side is getting any benefit.

When it comes down to it, your resumé is your elevator pitch. It should lead the person reading it to want to know more about you. Once you’ve got them hooked, then make it easy for them to find out more. Draw them in and keep them interested!

How to make your resumé stand out

Ok. So it’s good to stand out from the pile, but how the hell do you do that?

You be you. What’s unique to you? Use your unique experiences to promote you! When someone is looking for candidates, they will have some interest in tech stacks and history, but they’re also looking for another human being that’s going to contribute to the team.

My sister has one of the best relatively unique pieces of background information. I haven’t quite convinced her to use it yet, but it’s awesome! She spent some time working with AmeriCorps. Beyond purely being an awesome way to contribute to society and, in her case, doing good work to maintain natural areas, she gained some amazing skills that apply to so many other roles.

She spent part of her time leading a team of young people, most between 18 and 25 doing trail maintenance. We’re talking about a bunch of teenagers running around with chainsaws… and no one got hurt. Seriously… Who wouldn’t take one look at that and think, “now that’s some amazing team leadership!”? Even if I’m looking for software developers those skills are invaluable.

You’re looking to stand out, and the things that are unique to you, are what really make that happen. That includes your experiences and your personality, which is another area that’s often neglected, or done because someone was following a rule.

Some folks say you shouldn’t put anything personal on your CV. Some say you absolutely must. A bit contradictory there… My view is, once again, you be you. Demonstrate your personality by deciding for your own damn self! If you want to slather your CV with unicorns and rainbows, go for it! If you want to show off your design chops and create a modern and amazing experience? Rock on! If you prefer logic and order, show off with a nicely organised minimal setup. No matter what choice, some people will love it, some will hate it. But that will always beat everyone ignoring it.

Information architecture.

Now, I said if you’re logical and like order you should make it nicely organised, but this goes for everyone. Information architecture is key. You’re building a user experience.

One thing I see a ton of is just following the tried and true format. Name and contact details at the top, followed by a summary, followed by work history, followed by education.

That can be ok, but put a little bit of thought into it. If your education or personal projects are more relevant to the job, then put them above your work history. Put some order to the information to help people find out why you’re a good fit.

In addition to organising the information, you need to really think about what you WANT to say.

Don’t just flood your resumé with as much information as you can. It can be very tempting to just type out absolutely everything you can think of so you don’t miss any opportunities. But what will end up happening is you’ll create pure information overload. No one will be able to find the important things! This is definitely a quality over quantity situation!

Do think about some of the types of content you need. One that often gets overlooked is what I like to call “keyword fodder”. Most of us will be submitting resumés to job sites where agencies and “head hunters” will be doing keyword searches. It’s good to have simple sections that tick the boxes for those.

Along with that, make sure you add context. If you claim to be an expert in Java, make sure you share why. Which roles did you use Java for? How did you use it? How long have you been using Java? I like to stick in a section of my favourite languages and put years next to them.

Note: I’m not a big fan of using stars or any other form. If you tell me you’ve been developing Python for 3 years, that’s something specific. If you tell me you’re a 4 star Python developer I’m left wondering… what do you class as a 4 star Python developer?

Bonus: Don’t forget the cover letter!

I’ve actually had people tell me they thought cover letters weren’t a thing anymore. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Cover letters are the perfect opportunity to be specific. Who are you and why are you, specifically, awesome for this job, specifically?!

Once again, there are no rules. This is a letter from you to the person who’s going to read your resumé! Share with them what you think is important!

Bonus Bonus: Github and portfolio

I can’t tell you how many times I read a resumé and somewhere in there find a link to their GitHub account. This sounds great in theory. What usually happens is this: I arrive at their GitHub. They have 158 repositories for every single little piece of project work they did in bootcamp or university and I have no clue what I’m supposed to be looking at!

You can star some repos, create really great readme’s to explain why this repository is important. What am I looking for? Did you come up with a novel solution to a specific situation? Did you learn something really important while working on it? Did you create an awesome looking interface? Toss in some screenshots! Maybe even a GIF showing off some functionality! Make it easier for me to know why I’m looking at this.

I also strongly believe in building a portfolio site, particularly for frontend devs, but this can be great for everyone. Concentrate the information you want to share! Build some case studies to show off your process. How do you tackle a project? Guide someone through your experience and skills. Show off with a video walk through or twelve of things you’ve worked on.

So go be you, stand out, do your thing, break some rules

When it comes down to it, a lot of this is about letting you shine through in your resumé and remembering that the rules really aren’t rules, even all the things I said in this! If you feel most comfortable following the rules, that’s absolutely ok too! But if you do want to break a few, go for it! 😁

Want to know more? We’ve got a couple podcast episodes that have even more ideas about resumés and interviewing!

Also, if you want some feedback on your resumé, feel free to drop me a note! I’d be happy to check it out and get you some honest feedback.