Recently a young college student on the cusp of graduating asked for help with their resume and the resume that the person showed was simply awful. The student who produced it was smart, the college the student attends is very prestigious, and yet the resume, and every application attached to it in the future, was destined for the reject pile.
It was beautifully formatted on very nice paper but it took a whole page to say almost nothing. Essentially it was a very large business card because the only information on it that was useful was the contact info and what college the person attended. I asked the student what kind of advice they wanted – did they want a few generic pointers or actual constructive criticism to help improve their resume? The student, to his or her credit, chose the critical path and after several revisions had a resume worthy of who they were as a person that ultimately helped them land several job offers and ultimately a dream job.
Like it or not, a resume is a proxy for who you are a person, at least as it pertains to the corporate world. This one-page avatar (recent college grads should fit their resume onto one-page) should be able to give anyone who reads it a quick introduction of what you’ve done, where you’ve been and potentially what you might be able to accomplish in the future. The simplest way to do this is by using bullet points. Yes, bullet points are your friend, but beware of having too many. If you have a job and put down 12 bullet points of things you’ve done, the person who reads your resume probably won’t read more than one or two. And they will think that you don’t know how to highlight what’s important. I find that three is usually a good number, although that isn’t written in stone.
Remember while a resume can sum up who you are, your resume should never be considered complete or finished. Yes it needs to be finite (one-page, or two-pages at the most if you have a lot of experience), but it needs to be uniquely shaped to fit each situation or opportunity. To help with this process I recommend keeping a Life Resume. This is a private document which you never show but one on which you should spend 30 minutes updating every 3 months. Your should use it to record everything that you accomplish both personally and professionally. This provides the raw material from which you pull together your resume.
The Life Resume helps you to remember all those things that tend to fade into memory over time. That fund-raising committee you chaired during Sophmore year that broke the school fund-raising record – that might be noteworthy if you are applying for a sales or business development position. The Resident assistant job you had that doesn’t seem important might be the perfect experience to add to your resume if you are trying to move into a role in Human Resources. And so on. You never know which experience or accomplishments will be relevant in the future, so capture them all on your life resume and selectively decide which ones fit for the position you are applying for.
Data rules. In a “Lake Wobegon” age where everyone is above average and grade inflation is rampant in colleges putting actual accomplishments on your resume stands out from the madding crowd of me-too resumes. Who would you rather hire -“I was on a cross-functional team focusing on improving operations, reducing costs and leveraging business synergies” or “Streamlined the lunch delivery process decreasing delivery times 17%, increased accuracy by 24% and reduced costs 37%”. Same job – delivering lunches – but presented in very different ways.
Data matters and is verifiable. If you have accomplished something, say so. If you didn’t, maybe the experience isn’t worth highlighting. And if you are working in a role where you never accomplish anything, maybe it’s time to move on – either to a new role or to a new company where you actually do more than collect a paycheck.
Objectives – these flowery intros seem to exist only to take up space on resumes for people who don’t have much experience. They read to most people as “blah, blah, blah – I want the coolest possible job – blah, blah, blah, – that pays me the most money possible – blah, blah, blah, – and gives me the best opportunity to be promoted as quickly as possibly – blah, blah, blah. Well, duh? Doesn’t everybody? Of course not everyone feels this way about objectives, but the objective seems to be a very poor substitute for the cover letter. Most job, or internship, seekers would be better served crafting a well-thought-out resume and spending as much time on an impactful cover letter tailored to the specific company and job opening.
Work. Don’t be afraid of it. I’ve seen too many students in school, or leaving school, reluctant to ask for and take an entry level job. Not sure why, but let’s face it – spending four years refining your partying skills and deconstructing English literature doesn’t prepare you to produce actual work and service customers. You aren’t ready to be a manager, really. You aren’t. If you are that talented your brilliance will be quickly noted and good things will come, more likely however your work ethic and ability to get things done will be the quickest route to interesting roles. If after a reasonable period of time (no set time, but it’s usually longer than a few months) your employer isn’t prepared to give you a new role, or at least new responsibilities, then it is time to look for a new job, but this time at least you’ll have new accomplishments to add your resume.
Education matters. Just like everybody is above average, everybody has a bachelor’s degree. Or at least it seems that way. Now that so many people go to college, a master’s degree today is roughly as exclusive as a Bachelor’s degree was 40 years ago. Now that everybody (or so it seems) has a Bachelor’s degree – try to do more in school and double major or minor in something useful. No matter your field of endeavor a second major, or minor, but preferably a major, in another language will set you apart especially if that language is Spanish, Chinese or Portuguese. Sorry Italian is a great language from a country with tremendous history, food and culture, but no one really cares all that much in today’s global marketplace. At least they don’t outside of Academia, Italy and the fashion industry. Really. (just to be clear, I’m exaggerating to make a point).
Sorry to offend you, but look at the GNP of Italy and compare that to Brazil or to the GNP of Spain and Latin America combined? Or compare France’s GNP to that of China, which is now the second largest economy in the world. If someone wants to work in business, you should probably be able to speak useful languages in business. And right now those languages are English, Spanish, and Chinese. Arabic, Japanese and Korean would also be useful as would Russian or Portuguese. Hindi would be a great conversation piece, but English is an official language in India and not all Indians speak Hindi, so unless you are prepared to learn Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, et al, your time might be better spent learning a useful skill.
Do something. Seriously. Join a club, organize a fundraiser, set a Guinness record in pogo-sticking, it really doesn’t matter. What those experiences will do is give you the opportunity to lead, problem solve and come up with a verifiable result. Too many people seem to be coming out of college with experiences like “studied abroad in Spain”. Interesting yes, but I don’t really care that you can order gambas al ajillo and a nice albarino. Did you have an internship while you were there? Did you teach English? Do you have a reference?
If you find yourself keeping up with 4 different reality TV shows – you are not spending your time wisely. While Pauly D may make $1.6 million per episode on Jersey Shore – you get paid exactly zero for watching and you might just lose a few IQ points in the process. Instead of vegging on the couch – volunteer somewhere, start a small business, learn a 3rd language – it really doesn’t matter what you do, just do something.
Major in sciences or engineering. Too many students avoid STEM majors (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) because they are hard and require lots of hours of studying and work. So instead of going the extra mile and majoring in Chemistry they instead major in Anthropology or any number of liberal arts majors. Now I like Anthropology, it’s fascinating to study but it is nowhere near as difficult as Electrical Engineering or Mechanical Engineering. If the liberal arts are important to you, double major. If you can write a coherent essay and handle inorganic chemistry your future is bright. If you understand the cultural significance of Don Quixote and you rank out Thermodynamics equations all day long, you are valuable to any number of companies.
There simply aren’t a lot of liberal arts majors who can handle high-level math and science, and there are all too few science and technology majors who can write an essay, or grant proposal worth reading. Push yourself. If a double-major isn’t in the cards, try a minor. Accomplish something. Getting good grades may be necessary, but it is no longer sufficient. You need to have both technical skills and communication skills – both written and in-person.
Some people would say that my viewpoint is entirely too practical and pragmatic. My response to that is if you just want to travel the world and think about things you don’t need to pay $50,ooo a year to some college for the privilege of doing so. You can get a low-level job at any retailer, work your 40 hours a week and still have 128 hours left to sleep, eat, read and think. If you save your money you can even travel. In fact a case could be made that if instead of parents investing $200,000 in their kids education, they instead put it in an IRA/trust fund that the kids couldn’t touch for 40 years, the kid would be in far better shape for retirement.
My view as you imagine is a minority one. But you can’t ignore the economics of college education. Spending that kind of money to graduate with no practical skills is ridiculous and to know that you’ll have to go to grad school in a few years where you’ll spend another $50,000 to $100,000 is even more of travesty. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to college – I’m saying that you should spend your time there wisely. Because if you take advantage of the phenomenal resources a college can offer, there is no limit to what you can accomplish. Corny and trite to be sure, but true nonetheless.