Step 1: How to make a professional resume that gets you hired
This is step 1 of the road map to your first (or next) job.
You’ll revisit your resume many times with new projects and achievements. You’ll also transpose it to places like LinkedIn and Indeed, which makes it the bedrock of your journey to gainful employment.
And this is how you make it shine.
There are a lot of bad resumes out there, but not all of them have to be.
It’s hard to create a badass resume when you don’t have too much experience under your belt, but there is definitely a way to make yourself stand out while you build up your experience and personal brand.
It all starts with your resume.
Table of Contents
Ditch the Objective. Write a Killer Headline Instead
Summarize Your Skills, Credentials, and Experience
Quantify your achievements instead of listing tasks
Where to find free resume design templates
The finished product and next steps
Ditch the objective. Write a killer headline instead
You’ve probably heard that your resume needs an objective, but is it the best way to go? Probably not. It’s not very relevant to hiring managers these days, and it’s no mystery why people want jobs. Everybody wants experience and a paycheque!
If you were hiring somone and they wrote, “My objective is to gain experience in digital marketing,” you’d just roll your eyes and lower your expectations as you scanned the rest of the resume.
Spoiler alert: so would hiring managers.
Aside from being redundant and a somewhat outdated formality, it’s a poor use of space (and a hiring manager’s time). You can use that paper real estate to advertise something more immediately useful than “I want to build skills in the XYZ industry.”
You’ve probably heard that hiring managers spend something like 10 seconds scanning a resume, right? It’s actually only 6 seconds. There’s no room for nice-to-haves in that first 6 seconds, unfortunately.
What you want to avoid is overloading your summary section. Even accomplished professionals could be passed over easily because the resume is too dense to read. Look at the summary in the image below:
Surely we can all think of something more important or unique to say about ourselves in that first 6 seconds other than “to gain experience in the XYZ industry,” and in one or two sentences, too.
That’s why you’re going to write a better statement about yourself in where the objective used to live.
Merging your credentials with your “why”
You want to summarize a few things about yourself in a very small number of words—and you’ll need this for your LinkedIn profile in the next step anyway, so it’s worth doing the work now.
You can take a few different directions with this one:
Summarizing your skills
The most straightforward and utilitarian approach, listing your skills and credentials works well in traditional industries and corporate environments. However, it puts recent graduates at a disadvantage with established professionals because it plays the “years of experience” game.
Explaining what drives you
It may just be a fad, but a growing number of professionals are changing their LinkedIn profiles to focus on culture, personal branding, and what drives them rather than straight qualifications. This may work for companies looking at generalists rather than specialists, but it works better for established professionals.
Conveying your professional narrative
This is the hardest to pull off, but also the most effective: explaining what you do, how well you do it, and why you do it all in a few sentences. This is the real challenge in writing a killer headline because you need to create a narrative that a hiring manager will believe on an emotional and logical levels.
The third approach is generally the best, but it’s difficult.
Some employers won’t care what drives you as long as you do a good job. But as more Gen Xers and Millennials climb into management positions, you can bet that having a badass and believable career mission is going to give you an edge. It matters even more when you lack experience (being a recent graduate), since it speaks to your willingness to learn and grow with the company instead of just fulfilling a role.
Follow this resume summary example
Here’s what my resume’s headline looked like after I wanted to show off my shiny new skills and certificates:
“Content manager, SEO expert, and Google Analytics Power User”
Not bad. There’s a lot in there, and I certainly feel confident in backing up all of those statements… but it’s missing some character.
So I found inspiration from the only professional that’s ever made me remember his mission statement: Oli Gardner, the co-founder of Unbounce.
Let’s look at that excerpt:
“He’s obsessed with identifying and reversing bad marketing practices, and his disdain for marketers who send campaign traffic to their homepage is legendary, resulting in landing page rants that can peel paint off an unpainted wall.”
Now that’s a badass career mission statement (or “why”), if ever I heard one. It’s also too long for a resume, so if we were Oli Gardner then we’d need to distill it into a single line. As an example of a short resume headline, it would look more like this:
“Reversing bad marketing with landing pages and smart pay-per-click advertising campaigns.”
That’s a bit more manageable, right? Here’s what makes it successful:
Leads with verbs
This gives the statement a sense of action and presence, grabbing your attention more than a list of tasks.
“Reversing bad marketing” and opening up about ranting about it tells you what drives him (and sounds authentic!).
It tells you how he solves problems: with landing pages and pay-per-click advertising, two specialty skills in digital marketing.
You aren’t left wondering what value he brings. It’s clear that he wants to elevate the level of marketing all around.
You can get a good overview of his professional profile in seconds just by reading the summary.
Examples (if possible)
Being able to prove what you did or point to a project where you succeeded is an important lead-in skill for the interview.
Back to my own resume: I need to take it from just a summary of skills to a professional narrative, just like we did with Oli Gardner. Here’s what I came up up with:
“Generates traffic for growing companies to grow even further with SEO, analytics, and excellent content.”
That’s more in line with what we’re looking for. It tells companies a few crucial things immediately:
- The what: I generate web traffic, which underpins business growth.
- The how: I accomplish that with SEO, analytics, and high-quality content marketing.
- The why: I’m looking to grow with them in the long term rather than just filling a predetermined role.
This is how you should write your resume headline. It’s going to go on LinkedIn, too, so put in the time to whittle it down to the essence of who are as a professional (or want to be).
A word to the wise: Remember that Oli Gardner spent years working in the digital marketing industry before co-founding his company to improve advertising for everyone. He’s also selling a software product, so his larger-than-life persona is designed to create an emotional attachment between you, him, and his product. He puts a healthy dose of edge into his persona, but that probably won’t work for you as a recent graduate with a lot to learn.
So: tone down the snark, even if it’s awesome.
Explaining your “why” or preaching your truth can also be unwanted in more conservative working cultures. If you think it won’t be appreciated, then don’t do it. The financial industry tends to be one of the worst culprits for that, while marketing tends to embrace snark and edginess much more.
Trust your intuition on this one.
Summarize your skills, experience, and credentials (in that order)
Let’s get some altitude on that resume after taking a deep dive into your headline: remember that hiring managers and recruiters scan your resume in 6 seconds.
They aren’t going to dive into your recent job history in that amount of time, much less reach the second page. That’s why it’s usually a good idea to include a summary page. It gives them a substantial snapshot of your career to date.
Here’s what you need on that first page, as well as what it could look like on your resume.
Put your core skills front and center
Don’t hide your skills on the second page. Put them front and center! Let hiring managers know what you enjoy doing and where you excel. Most liberal arts programs teach you a collection of skills that you can put on a resume, to start:
You’ll use persuasive writing in every kind of exercise: proposals, sales, anything marketing related, team leadership–you name it.
Research underpins everything from strategy to office design and everything in between. It powers ideas that chart the company course.
Being able to pull together disparate strands of indormation to mount an argument or solve a problem is critical in today’s information age.
Argumentation and rhetoric
Whether it’s winning funding or overcoming sales objections, argumentation helps you and your organization to win in competitive situations.
Polling data, website traffic, survey answers, and purchasing patterns all need to be sliced, diced, analyzed, and explained to non-experts in client and leadership positions.
Making a sales pitch, leading a strategic meeting, or presenting something on behalf of your company? Public speaking is the skill you need, and you’ll have some practice from tutorial.
Everybody has a specialty, but not everyone has a general knowledge base that allows them to quickly become fluent in another area of knowledge. That’s how you adapt.
Having a second language isn’t guaranteed in any Humanities discipline, but you’re likely to have come across one, be it French, Spanish, Mandarin, or even Latin (mea culpa).
Sometimes these need to be demonstrated instead of listed on a resume, but they’re important. How you gel with the rest of a team matters almost as much as your core skills.
You also have soft skills at your disposal, although you need to demonstrate them rather than list them (best to leave them for cover letters, interviews, or portfolio examples). Evaluating them is such a subjective exercise. They look like this:
- Managing teams with their own motivations and work styles
- Cultural knowledge and sensitivity (super important for leadership roles)
- Thinking in abstract concepts (strategy, workflows, automation logic)
- Comfort with ambiguity in professional settings
- Connecting individual tasks to team and business-level goals
- Big-picture thinking that incorporates everyone’s ideas
Soft skills are incredibly important, but most employers don’t consciously realize that—especially not for entry-level roles. They envision most entry and mid-level positions as voids to be filled with a collection of tasks with a vague gut feeling about cultural fit. Demonstrating your soft skills can definitely put you ahead of the competition if you have the hard skills down pat, though.
The best way to convey your soft skills usually comes by way of these three things:
The best way to demonstrate your achievements is through published case studies on a website that you own (we’ll cover that in a subsequent step). It gives you full editorial control over the narrative of your softs skills, how you employed them, and what you achieved with them.
Dragon-slaying stories (courtesy of Liz Ryan at the Human Workplace) are brief case studies that you retell in a cover letter or interview. In cover letters, they might only be 2-3 sentences. They follow a simple formula of “problem, action, and result” (in that order).
References and recommendations
What’s better than showcasing your soft skills? Having someone else showcase them for you. You can feature written references upon request, recommendations on your LinkedIn profile, or just ask references to mention your soft skills when they’re called.
Don’t try to force-fit your soft skills into your resume if they just don’t seem to jive with the role you want or the rest of your credentials. We’ll explore other ways to make sure hiring managers get the message.
Add technical skills where possible (and relevant)
You might not have a lot of these at first—that’s a big part of why you’re here, most likely. We will focus on how to develop those with portfolio projects so that you can add them to your resume as soon as possible, but for now we’ll outline some technical skills you can highlight right away to sharpen your resume.
Publications follow established editorial styles, each with their own citation models and quirks. You probably know the Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Association Style, or the American Psychological Association style. Highlight your fluency with these to elevate your status as a communications professional.
Unfortunately, spelling and grammar have become hard skills these days. Everyone is supposed to know how they work, but standards have fallen across the board. How can companies handle product development, marketing strategies, or customer care if they can’t handle basic spelling and grammar? This is where you can carve out a niche.
Different from qualitative and statistical analysis, qualitative analysis blends skills in research, information synthesis, and writing to produce case studies that illustrate an argument or some kind of phenomena’s impact at a relatable, human level. It explores anecotal sources in a way that statistical averages and medians can’t.
Hard skills you can add in the future
There are plenty of skills you can work on to improve your short-term and mid-term horizons for employment. Some of them are extensions of your undergraduate skillset while others may require more in-depth learning.
Extend your writing skills and your empathy to write technical instructions for people who are completely unfamiliar with the subject.
Combine research, industry knowledge, and persuasive writing to win funding for focused projects, both private and public.
Learn a score of financial skills, leveraging your soft skills to sell financial services to every-day people who need professional opinions.
Sitck to HTML5 and CSS as complementary skills to digital marketing and front-end website development, rather than coding a database or an app.
We’re exposed to far, far more advertising today than in the 1970s or earlier. Everyone needs an ad writer.
Identify, analyze, and explain patterns in eCommerce data, website visitors, or anything else.
Slice and dice large quantities of data that would be impossible to do manually (think pivot tables!).
Proper project management is incredibly important to organizations, especially the ones that don’t realize it.
Hiring best practices
Speaking from experience, hiring practices today are pretty bad. Upset the over-reliance on tracking systems.
Connect skills in community outreach, persuasive writing, and event planning to raise money for good causes.
Teaching isn’t just for the classroom. It’s a critical skill to lead teams, pitch projects, and manage client relations.
This is one of the fastest-growing industries of the last decade. Google and Facebook Ads are big.
Did you know that people with certifications listed on their LinkedIn profile get viewed 6 times more than if they didn’t, on average?
You can bet that certifications will have a similar effect on your good-old-fashioned resume.
This one should go without saying. Don’t just put certifications in your headline, but consider giving it an entire section on your summary page.
If you have just one certification (and that’s all that’s available or worth getting in your industry), then just fold it into your education, core skills, or even technical experience. You likely won’t have many or any when you’re just starting out, but you can add them as you go.
Some fields are heavily regulated and might only have one or two certifications to get, but other fields with less regulation (read: marketing) let you rack them up.
Here’s a brief look at what you can go after:
- 7 different project management certifications
- More than a dozen digital marketing platform certifications
- 10 different financial certifications
- 5 different human resources certifications
Those are just the big fields with plenty of different certificates to earn, but there are more out there with just one or two you can earn.
The experience highlight reel
Your achievements speak louder than headlines and certifications combined, but sometimes hiring managers or recruiters don’t see them because they aren’t one of the first things on your resume.
But your job history is a detailed list of bullet points and accomplishments that probably can’t fit on a single page, let alone one-third of a page.
That means you’ll need to choose the absolute best points from your work history and insert them strategically into your summary section. Pick the most impressive stats to put in here:
- Did you build a website?
- Did you conduct killer legal research?
- Did you help someone create the perfect investment portfolio?
- Did you raise money for a great cause (and how much)?
Put those achievements front and center.
Skills to leave off your resume
It’s tempting to pad your resume with generic “skills” just to fill it out, but that’s a mistake. Never fall into the trap of padding your resume to make up for a lack of experience. You know what I’m talking about:
"Proficiency with Word"
Hiring managers roll their eyes at this one. Just don’t do it.
Everything should be results-oriented. This isn’t saying anything useful.
If you aren’t a team player then you won’t get hired anyway.
"Excellent communication skills"
People will wonder why you couldn’t communicate something better.
"Beginner in French"
Few, if any employers want to see highschool-level language skills.
"Instagram and Facebook"
Even marketers greatly exaggerate their skills here.
“Guacamole ninja” just isn’t that funny, no matter how quirky you think you are.
Don’t succumb to the temptation! Every other liberal arts graduate out there is going to list those just to pad their resume.
And yet a bigger list of skills isn’t better.
Recruiters and hiring managers worth talking to know that you’re just starting out. There’s some leeway for not having a 3-page resume at 22 or even 27, and the answer isn’t to stuff it with anything you can think of on the spot. Focus on quality over quantity, my friends.
No one wants to read 3 pages of mediocrity and desperation.
But they’d love to read a short and sweet 1-2 page resume showcasing promise from a few projects that you hit out of the park. That is where the money’s at, literally. After being unemployed for 9 months, one of my former bosses revealed to me that it was a few achievements that set me apart from the crowd:
- Creating my own portfolio website.
- Building a freelance clientele on my own (albeit slowly and with many pitfalls).
- Managing a content division in a previous role, even though I wasn’t ready for it at the time.
- My experience as a graduate Teaching Assistant.
My boss told me that I was the only person with those qualifications out of 200 applicants. All of that can be unpacked in greater detail on the second page, but it sure as hell paid off to showcase them on page 1.
You can do do that too. Put your achievements front and center and don’t water them down with fluff or mediocrity.
Quantify your achievements instead of listing tasks
If you take away one thing here, it should be this:
Quantify. Your. Resume.
Everyone else just lists the tasks they’ve done, and it’s a fruitless tactic. You’ve probably been doing it yourself—hell, I did it for years without success—and there are some valid reasons why we’ve all been there:
- We haven’t been in roles where we could measure the outcome of our work.
- We’re rarely trained to measure our contributions.
- The vast majority of job postings have conditioned us to write about tasks instead of results and process.
Number three on that list is probably the worst culprit of them all. Modern hiring practices tend to make ridiculous requests that boil down the role to a collection of tasks. That kind of job description inherently tries to boil down the candidate to a collection of tasks, too.
You know exactly what I’m talking about.
It’s that garbage you see when job postings simply demand that you’re able to write 45 words per minute, or that you have “intermediate or higher” expertise with the exact software that the company uses, even though it would need to be learned on the job.
Do not play that game.
Quantify your resume instead to prove that you can learn anything and become successful in whatever role you enter.
Look at the comparisons below. Which is better?
Do not list vague tasks like these:
- Managed social media profiles
- Wrote blogs on a weekly basis
- Held client meetings
- Produced monthly reports
Quantify your responsibilities instead:
- Grew a social media channel from 50,000 to 600,000
- Wrote content with 100,000 views
- Led 12 people in client meetings every week
- Identified 20% web traffic growth in monthly reports
The scond one is better for obvious reasons:
- It demonstrates a clear value that can be measured.
- It implies that the candidate understands how to measure and manage success.
- The candidate understands how to connect his or her own performance to larger business goals and metrics.
Playing the “tasks” and “words per minute” game is a losing proposition for any serious professional. Reducing yourself to a bare-minimum kind of efficiency just devalues yourself as a candidate, to say nothing of your confidence and self-esteem as a human being. New graduates already have an inherent disadvantage with the lack of hard skills anyway, making it a losing proposition.
Use This Resume Sample Writing as a Template
The trick is to add concrete information to your resume in order to give a sense of scope to the role, even if you don’t have that official data on hand. For example, here’s what my position as a Teaching Assistant looks like on paper through the lenses of tasks vs. quantification:
Teaching Assistant tasks:
- Led seminars every week
- Marked student essays
- Mentored students with assignments
- Highly positive teaching reviews
Teaching Assistant "quantifications":
- Mentored 40 students per semester, leading two seminars per week
- Raised a class average from C+ to B+ in one semester
- Marked, edited, and proofread 400+ pages of student work under tight deadlines
- Highly positive teaching reviews for 3 semesters
The first list isn’t very exciting, is it? The second one tells hiring managers exactly how many people I taught, what kind of workload I sustained, and even the results of my teaching.
Alternatively, Follow the PAR Format
You might not be able to quantify much in your role, for some reason. As a freelancer I’ve had agencies cut me off completely from the end client, so I couldn’t even get a sense of how the work was received or if it improved the client’s bottom line.
If that’s the case, then you need to implement a story format into your resume. It follows three simple steps:
Every business has problems, pain points, or goals. These prompt you to start projects and solve problems. Outline it clearly and briefly.
With the problem established for context, explain what you did to solve the problem.
Explain how your actions created a positive result for the organixation. Connect it to revenue if possible, too!
Every company faces business challenges, and that’s why they hire employees. As an employee or freelancer of some kind (even a volunteer), you’re solving those problems. It doesn’t mean you need to achieve world peace, though. Just figure out what value your actions brought to the organization and make sure they live on your resume.
References, design templates, and cleaning it up
Should you include references in your resume?
It’s probably best to hang on to references until you’re asked for them. I know it seems like you’d have an edge being as efficient as possible, but it just gives the hiring manager in question an excuse to evaluate you from a distance.
You can hardly get your foot in the door and start a one-to-one conversation if the hiring manager doesn’t ever have to reach out to you.
There’s also a power dynamic at play here. You don’t want to put all of your cards on the table right away. Since it’s customary for hiring managers to ask for your references upon completing the first interview, it’s possible that you’ll come across as desperate if you include them right away with your application.
It sounds a little petty (and I used to think that it was), but exuding self-confidence through the little things can give you an important edge throughout the process. Employers don’t hire desperate people—and if they do, then there’s a reason why that you probably don’t want to find out.
This forces the interviewers to request something from you, even if they’re the ones ultimately holding the “employment” card. It’s subtle, but it works.
Where to find free resume design templates
I don’t design resumes, but that doesn’t make design any less important. Luckily, you can find resume templates all over the web. Here’s where you can find the most accessible ones:
- Canva has a ton of interesting designs—including the one I now use.
- Microsoft Word has some decent templates.
- Google Docs has a handful of templates, but they’re pretty tame.
If those don’t work for you for whatever reason, then try out these online resume builders for size:
One of those templates or resume builders will have the design you’re looking for. Plug your mission statement, credentials, skills, and experienced in to whichever one you choose. Massage the copy into it, and then give it a proofread once you’ve had enough time and distance from writing it.
Pro Tip: not every industry will appreciate design flair in your resume. Marketing? Definitely. Finance? Probably not, unless it’s a fun fintech startup like Wealthsimple. Research the company and its culture ahead of time—and trust your intuition on the best design to use.
The finished product and next steps
You’ve made it to the end of this road map! Good stuff. Take a moment and take stock of everything you’ve worked on so far. You should have these things in your resume by the time you’ve finished:
By the end of this road map you should have:
A killer headline for your resume
Skills and credentials summarized and/or quantified
Quantified achievements in the PAR format
A resume design template to add visual flair
I ordered it this way so that you focus on what you want to say and what you want to highlight before choosing a design. Don’t spend hours trying to choose a design at first. Once you find your voice in writing out the nuts and bolts of your resume, you’ll know which design you really want when you see it (because it will fit your personality, your tone, and your industry). You may also find that the design you want doesn’t fit absolutely everything you want, and that’s no reason to panic.
Spend time massaging that content into the design. Experiment with font sizes, different typographies, and even wordsmithing your sentences or bullet points a bit.
It’ll be worth it.
And with that, you’ll have a new-and-improved resume that you can hand out on a moment’s notice! We’ll put it on job boards and even a portfolio website in Step 5, but that’s a little further into the road map.
Next stop: putting that resume on LinkedIn.