Writing the Conventional Résumé

I learned about résumé writing from my students. The students with the best résumés, I found, were those who understood that a résumé is principally an objective summary of your skills and achievements, secondly a subtly clever argument that you are worth hiring, and finally a reflection of your individuality. The key is to work within the conventions while building a résumé that only you could have written. The best way to begin is to study the conventions, then mimic the qualities of a good model, with an eye for places where your individuality can emerge. Finally, I should note here that employers sometimes use the terms “résumé” and “curriculum vitae” (or CV)  interchangeably, and both terms loosely mean “life summary.”

The conventional résumé is organized according to the sections that follow, moving from the top of the résumé to the bottom.

The Heading

There is no title for this section; it’s simply your name and contact information at the top of the page. This section is always presented at the top of the résumé, taking up anywhere from two to five lines.  Think of this section as highly readable data about yourself, and format and efficiently word accordingly, following these principles:

  • Do not title this section; simply provide your legal name, addresses, and phone numbers as shown in the examples. No matter how attached you are to it, do not use your nickname—use the formal name under which you will be cashing your paychecks.  
  • Either beneath your name or address, provide relevant e-mail addresses.
  • Boldfacing and capitalizing your name is reasonably standard, though not required, and making your name stand out with a larger or fancier font is acceptable, but beware of graphic overkill.
  • Never use titles such as “Résumé” or “Personal Data Sheet” on the top of the page—redundant and silly; your name centered at the top automatically tells readers that the document is a resume.
  • If the phone number you provide for contact information is a cell phone, note that information efficiently as you present the number.  It's useful for readers to know whether or not they're calling a cell phone, because that fact can change their expectations slightly.
  • If you’ve created a personal webpage or online portfolio, you might offer the URL so that readers can visit it for further information. The material at that URL should go beyond the résumé and be professionally presented, of course.

Objective

Some résumé writers do not include an objective, either for reasons of space, personal taste, or because they want to hand out a lot of résumés at a career fair and think that an objective might not allow them to cast as wide a net.  But most undergraduate résumés do include an objective, embracing these principles:

  • As a rule of thumb, include a job objective on an undergraduate résumé. Keep it as short as is practical, with the goal of taking up no more than two lines of text.
  • If possible, use an actual job title (“forecaster,” “engineering intern”) and provide the specific type of employer or type of position that you are seeking (“internship at a research facility,” “entry-level position with a consulting firm”).
  • Avoid the overuse of phrases such as “a challenging position,” “a progressive company,” “an established firm”—you need not preach to the employer about its status or sound too picky. Your aim here is to categorize the role that you can fulfill.
  • Your job objective can be tailored a bit to the position that you are applying for, but avoid mentioning a company's actual name in your job objective—the objective is intended to define a role, not a specific job at a specific place.

Education

In this section, be at your most objective on the resume—simply report the facts. The order of information is up to you, but most writers begin by providing the title and address of their school. On the next line, provide your exact degree title, including a minor or program emphasis if relevant. Include your projected graduation date even if it is years away. Other material that might be included under “Education”:

  • GPA. Generally, include if it is a 3.0 or better; include GPA in major if impressive. Recognize that opinions vary about whether or not your GPA. should be included on the resume, and that even if it is excluded you may be expected to reveal it at some point to a potential employer anyway.
  • Dean’s List. Provide actual semesters or years.
  • Relevant Coursework. List actual course titles or offer appropriately worded categories. You could combine courses for efficiency (i.e., Statistical Analysis I and II). Typically, you only include courses that you’ve actually completed or are currently enrolled in, although you might include projected courses followed by their target semester of completion in parentheses.
  • Curriculum Description. This could be included to describe your background concretely. Turn to your school’s descriptions of course curricula to help you with wording.
  • Study Abroad. Always include it and provide the college’s name and location. Most writers include the dates or semesters of attendance as well.
  • Honor’s Program. Always include it as a representation of academic accomplishment.
  • Thesis. Always include it and list it by title. In place of or in addition to the actual title, even a working title or a summary of the thesis contents or objective is useful.
  • Certifications / Training. Consider a subheading under “Education” to reflect formal education that resulted in specialized knowledge or skills. Typical examples include CPR certification, OSHA HAZWOPER training, scuba diving instruction, and the completion of short courses.
  • ROTC / Military Training. Especially if military training involved short courses and took place on college campuses, include it and give vital details such as course names, number of hours involved, times of completion, and certifications earned.

Experience / Work Experience / Employment

This section is the heart of the résumé—the place where readers are likely to spend most of their time. Readers here expect concrete detail, an accessible format, and selective interpretation of detail. Methods used to achieve these goals include the following:

  • Any of the above three titles is acceptable, though “Experience” is the most standard.
  • The convention is to use past tense throughout this section, even to describe jobs that you currently hold. Some writers elect to discuss current jobs in the present tense.
  • As a rule, list your work experience in reverse chronological order—most recent first—and provide the actual dates of employment. Go back several years, even early into high school if necessary. Provide exact job titles (invent them honestly if no actual titles were used), and give the locations of your employers. All jobs need not be directly relevant to the position you are applying for, but be sure that the descriptions of your job duties are worded such that they enhance your accomplishments and responsibilities.
  • Use action words to describe your job skills and make each job description specific and efficient. Especially if you favor the present tense in your descriptions, you might using the “-ing” form of active verbs (“performing” rather than “perform”).
  • Do not feel compelled to describe every job duty (“waitstaff” and “newspaper carrier,” for example, can be self-explanatory).
  • As a rule, do not include your supervisor’s name or phone number, unless you are seeking an internship (where formal applications are rare) and have express permission to do so.
  • Including job salaries is rarely a good idea, but providing the number of hours you worked per week can be helpful.
  • If computer skills were linked to your job duties, connect the work with them directly, even including software package names or describing what you used the computer programs for.
  • Use identical margins and format for parallel items (e.g., line up all of your job titles with each other, and if you boldface one then boldface them all).
  • As you describe your experience, be certain to answer these two fundamental questions: “What was done?” and “How was it valuable?”

Computer Skills

Computer Skills is not a mandatory résumé section, although many students include it, knowing that employers are typically interested in your computer expertise. Present the material efficiently, as follows:

  • Consider an overall approach that suits your skill level. Some students discuss computer skills in narrative form, others simply list their experience with specific hardware and software packages, and others combine computer skills and other types of skills into one section.
  • If relevant, include the version number of software packages, programming languages, and operating systems you’ve used.
  • If you worked on websites as part of your job or as a hobby, consider including the specific URLs so that the reader can access them. If you created an online portfolio that you’re proud of, certainly offer that URL, perhaps even in the heading.
  • Computer skills might be presented in a simple list or in the form of an informal table, depending on your level of expertise and space constraints.

Activities / Honors / Volunteer Work

For this section, choose whichever title or combination of titles above best fits your examples. “Activities” is the most commonly used. Honors could be presented separately if they are impressive enough or if there are simply too many to include within the “Activities” section. In addition, follow these tips:

  • Dates are highly recommended, in that they illustrate your level of participation in activities, but some writers do exclude the dates and favor a simpler approach. Be consistent within the category in relation to whether or not dates are included.
  • List the most noteworthy extracurricular activities and include offices that you have held. Include any honors you have received, especially scholarships, but do not repeat items that were included in other sections of the resume.
  • Choose descriptions of your leisure activities wisely and sparingly, even to the point of presenting them all on one final line for the sake of efficiency.
  • Try to include a conversation piece. I know students who have gotten into great discussions in interviews because they listed beekeeping or piano playing or their golf handicap under “Activities.”
  • Use high school activities if needed, but avoid letting them sound too “high schoolish” as you present them (better to name your school sports team than to simply list “high school basketball”). Where possible, link your activities to a community or business (“Volunteer, Bear Creek Nursing Home”) more so than to a high school, even if those activities took place when you were still in high school.
  • The bottom line in this section: Provide a window into your uniqueness, whatever that uniqueness is. A volunteer firefighter, Eagle Scout, or licensed pilot can stand out as much as a scholarship recipient or professional sorority officer.

References

Employers generally like to see this section included as a convention and a courtesy, but in truth it is optional because employers already know that you can provide them with references. When you do include a References section, heed this advice:

  • Keep the section highly efficient, perhaps just one line long, i.e., “References available upon request.”
  • As a rule, do not include the actual names of your references on your résumé unless you have their permission to do so and are simply seeking an internship or scholarship; for a full-time permanent position you want your resume to inspire the employer to contact you and specifically request your references. Employers are often looking for specific kinds of references, and you do not want to hurt your chances by listing references who might not be quite right for their needs, or giving an employer the opportunity to call or write one of your references without your knowing about it.
  • When references are formally requested, type up their full contact information, including address, phone, fax, and e-mail, on a page separate from your résumé.

 


"Writing the Conventional Resume" was written by Joe Schall, The Pennsylvania State University, as a part of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' OER initiative and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.