Polish Your Resume and Stand Out from the Competition

Resumes have come a long way. Although many aspects haven’t changed, several key things have. Before we dive into the tips, though, let’s consider a resume’s purpose.

What’s It For?

I know what you’re thinking–I already know what a resume is for. While that’s likely true, you may not have thought about its purpose in great detail. Imagine you’re applying for a job, and your competitor pool includes 100 other applicants. Let’s assume 50 of those applicants have qualifications similar to yours–education level, years of experience, and professional achievements.

Now imagine you’re the recruiter filling this one position. Even if we throw out the other 50 applicants that weren’t as qualified as you, that still leaves 50 people for this recruiter to analyze. Maybe 50 doesn’t seem like a lot to you, but to a busy recruiter with a heap of tasks on their plate, it’s a ton! They’re certainly not going to call all 50 and schedule interviews.

To start, they’ll take a quick glance at your documents (your cover letter, your resume, and your references). When I say quick, I mean quick. They’ll skim your letter and read (if you’re lucky) the top half of the first page of your resume. What will they learn? From these quick glances, they’ll weed people out and toss them aside. When the stack of 50 is cut down considerably, then they’ll start making phone calls.

With all that in mind, how will your resume stack up to the competition? Will the top half of the first page tell the recruiter enough to keep you in the running? Does it show you’re the ideal candidate for the job? This is why it’s so important to “top load” our resumes. In other words, put the awesome stuff first.

Overall Formatting

First things first: use block style. Read this post for complete details on that. Even if you think you fully understand what block style is, Microsoft Word doesn’t help you at all. Take a few minutes to check your settings to ensure you’re doing it right.

I personally recommend you NOT use a Word-provided template. Why not? Everyone else does it, which means your resume will look like everyone else’s. Take time to format your resume in a style that is unique to you. If that’s not a skill in your wheelhouse, find someone to help you, but please don’t use a template. (It’s what I do, so if you need some help, contact me today!)

Your resume should be formatted attractively with easy-to-read and identify headings, simple fonts, and all black text. For individuals with minimal history (like fresh college grads, for example), it should be no longer than one page. For folks with relevant history and experience, it should be no longer than two pages. It would be rare and unusual to have a resume longer than two pages. Keep it brief.

Employment history should go back five years but no more than ten. High school information should not be included in any section. If the resume goes onto a second page, the individual’s name and preferred contact method (either email OR phone, but not both) should be included in the header section of the second page.

Finally, your resume should nowhere include the word resume, and you should never use personal pronouns (e.g. I, we, us) or complete sentences. Most of the text will be written in bullet lists (NOT numbered lists) with short phrases; periods should not be used at the ends of the lines.

The Personal Header

The top of the page will be your personal header with your name and contact info. Despite the name “header,” this should go on the actual page and not in the header section of your document. You’re probably wondering: How do I even make that interesting? It’s just my name and address. The simplest answer to that questions is to make it unique. Just be careful with your font choices. Remember to stick to a simple font, and keep all your text black.

First of all, ensure your name stands out. Second, remove the hyperlink from your email address, and format it with appropriate capital and lowercase letters to improve readability. Third, on that note of the email address, be sure it’s a professional one, and check it daily! Finally, be a little creative with the formatting. Maybe you put your name to one side with your contact info to the other rather than just centering it all.


The Summary of Qualifications

Directly below your personal header should be the summary of qualifications section. This section will identify your key skills that make you the ideal candidate for the position. *Note: the use of an objective is no longer required or even looked upon favorably. If your resume has an objective, delete it.

The summary section should be formatted as a bullet list of 5-8 things that are your strongest skills. Ideally, these 5-8 things will match the key skills sought by the employer as outlined in the job posting/description. That’s a hint: look at the job posting, and highlight things that match your skills. Each line should be no more than 15 words, and they should all be written with parallel structure (each beginning with the same type, e.g. action verb, of word). Since they won’t be complete sentences, periods should not be used at the end of each line.

What you title this section is up to you. I’ve seen many different titles including:

  • Summary of Qualifications
  • Key Skills
  • Key Skills Offered
  • Qualifications Summary
  • Professional Summary
  • Career Summary


Professional Experience

Following your summary section will be either your work experience section OR your education section. I recommend you pick whichever is most relevant and put that one first. For example, if you’re a recent college grad with little to no experience in your chosen field, your education will be more relevant to the employer. Put that section next. On the other hand, if you have years of experience in the field, that experience will likely be more relevant to the employer. Put that section next.

For your professional experience section, you’ll begin with your current or most recent employer and work in reverse chronological order. Go back five years but no more than ten. Keep in mind you may need to cut some stuff out to keep your resume shorter.

Use consistent formatting for each job. Highlight the job title and NOT the employer. What you did is typically more important than the company name. Provide the city and state of the employer; the address, superior’s name, and phone number are not necessary. For dates, include at least the beginning and ending year; you may also include the month. Separate years with the word to rather than a hyphen.

For each job, include a bullet list of responsibilities, highlighting achievements (e.g. employee of the month, sales numbers, etc.) whenever possible. Each item in the list should begin with an action verb. For current jobs, the action verb should be present tense. For past jobs, the action verb should be past tense.



The next section is your education section. As I mentioned earlier, this should NOT include anything from high school. Like your professional experience section, you’ll start with your current or most recent school and work in reverse chronological order. Format each school the same way as you did each employer. Your degree and major/concentration (like your job title) is what you want to highlight here. Bullet lists should be used if you have achievements to mention such as making the dean’s list or serving in student government. For the date, you only need to include the year in which you earned your degree. Include your GPA only if it is 3.5 or higher.



Your references should never be listed on your actual resume. They should be included on a separate page, formatted to match your resume. Use the same personal header at the top of the page. Type the word “References” just like you did for your other resume sections next, and then list your references. Include three to five professional references. For each person, include their name, job title, company, phone, and email address. A full address is not needed.

Always be sure to ask people first to be a reference for you. When you’re applying for a job, send each of your references the job description and your current resume, so they can be adequately prepared to speak on your behalf.


One thought on “Polish Your Resume and Stand Out from the Competition

  1. Pingback: The Cover Letter: The First Piece of Your Employment Portfolio | Jot | Content Specialist Jodi Hoyt | Sioux Falls

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