The 10-Second Résumé

You’re not a homogenous list of boring bullet points

My theory* is you have 10 seconds to make an impact with your résumé. I’ll explain why and provide some tips to pass the “10 second test”.

Talented people, bad résumés

Countless books and articles explain how to create a résumé, but there’s room for one more. How do I know? Because I see a LOT of terrible résumés when I interview people. The candidates are often brilliant and creative, passionate and successful, but their résumés simply suck. This is sad. I don’t like seeing such amazing people fail.

I occasionally do career mentoring and the people I speak with tell me that the résumé tips below are very helpful. So I decided to share this more broadly. I hope it helps you, too.

résumé: a short document that turns a creative, intelligent person into a homogenous list of boring bullet points.

What we’ll cover

  1. Evaluate your résumé through the eyes of the person who will read it
  2. Test your résumé with a friend
  3. Fix your résumé to make it pop

Evaluate your résumé

I used to assume that people who read résumés carefully read every word. This was naive. It’s critical you understand the reality: they don’t! The process is more similar to how you scan a menu at a restaurant.

Have empathy for the reader
Do you know who is reading your résumé when you apply for a job? Sometimes it’s a recruiter and sometimes it’s a regular employee who wishes he or she could get back to their normal job. They are going through a stack of résumés from people with many of the same talents and experiences that you have. They are thinking about their job, their family, their next vacation, or what they’ll eat for lunch (mmm, grilled cheese).

This person cares, but they’ve got other things to do too. Put yourself in their shoes. Please. Now let’s continue…

Why you?
If there are a lot of applicants for this position, you can assume plenty of them will be just like you in most ways. Especially on paper. Great experience, proven leadership skills, strong academic background, blah blah blah. So, what makes you stand out amongst the other highly qualified candidates? Often, sadly, there’s not much.

So, here’s my theory…

“The 10-second test”

My theory is that your résumé has just 10 seconds to get across the most important points. If it does, it’ll buy you 20 more seconds. These are the 30 critical seconds that determine if your résumé gets tossed aside or considered for the next round.

Your résumé is your elevator pitch, not your life story. You just need to get to the next stage of the interview process. Period. Now, remember the busy person reading your résumé? Make absolutely sure they see your most important accomplishments first. Make them jump off the page.

Test your résumé

Find someone who doesn’t know your work very well. Let’s call him “Jim”.

Hand Jim a printout of your résumé and tell him he has 30 seconds to read it. But, after just 10 seconds, grab the paper back. Ask Jim what he knows about you from this.

If what Jim says about you is how you’d pitch yourself to the hiring manager, then give Jim back the paper so he can spend 20 more seconds reviewing it. Now, ask Jim to tell you what else he’s learned.

If you like what you hear from Jim, you’ve passed this first test and are way, way ahead of most people. If at either stopping point he doesn’t cover your most important points, then you need to fix your résumé. After you fix it, repeat this process until you pass the test.

Fix your résumé

Let’s fix your résumé starting at the top with the Objective Statement.

“Start with why”
I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek, who wrote the book “Start With Why” (watch his TED talk). His simple but powerful idea is, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. Once you understand someone’s motivation and their personal story, then what they’ve done (their “Experience”) becomes evidence of their determination to execute on their passions and principles.

If you begin your résumé with a strong objective statement, you create a framework for the reader to understand WHY you worked at Company X on Widget Y. Make this statement really powerful. Never ever say that your objective is “To get a position as a Blah Blah Blah…”. You’re applying for the job, so everyone already knows that.

If you don’t know how to write a great Objective Statement, ask yourself why you’re applying to this specific job at this specific company. Ask your friends and family why they think you’d be great at this position. I hope you’re passionate about the work you’ll do there and I’ll assume you really want this job (no?). So make sure your résumé expresses WHY you want the position and how it helps you achieve your personal goals.

Resist the list
Everybody sadly organizes their résumé in reverse chronological order of their previous jobs or projects. Within each section, there’s a set of bullets that are the projects, responsibilities, accomplishments, and skills developed. It’s a list. And it’s tedious to read because there’s no information hierarchy. Nothing looks important. In an attempt to be comprehensive, people dilute their most significant achievements.

Don’t do this! Organize things in a way that makes sense thematically.

I invented a time machine… and did some other stuff too.
As I said before, you want to front-load your résumé with your most important accomplishments. One or two significant accomplishments, given proper context and explanation, should be enough to get the recruiter’s attention. If you’ve done something really impressive, make sure it shines and don’t let anything else risk being a distraction. This needs to pass the 10-second test.

One great accomplishment can get you to the next stage. Don’t let your part-time job at a coffee shop distract the reader from seeing what matters most. I see new college grads make this mistake too often. It’s unlikely that anything you did in your fraternity or club matters to the hiring manager (unless it’s really relevant to the position).

Drop the B.S.
Avoid statements that have no backing to them. Here are some examples of useless sentences and how I’d interpret them if I read them in your résumé. You’ll see they’re now wasted words.

“Brainstormed new ideas for Product X” becomes:
“Sat in a room for a few hours and talked with my co-workers”

“Helped with research on new methods for doing Process Y” becomes:
“Did miscellaneous things in proximity to someone impressive”

Be specific about what you did and what you accomplished. Numbers help demonstrate this. If you can’t do that, then don’t include the sentence. It makes everything else you say look weaker. And it makes me skeptical of all your other accomplishments.

Customize it for each company
If you’re applying to many companies, I doubt you have the exact same reason for wanting each of these positions. So, don’t use the same objective statement for each company. You might even want an entirely different résumé for different companies and different roles.

If this sounds like too much work, then perhaps you don’t want the job badly enough. Beware, someone else will. Spend the extra time if you care. If you do this properly, and show some enthusiasm for the specific role, this will separate you from most people and give you a fighting shot.

Make it pop

Now that you’ve deleted all the excess and irrelevant details, you should have some extra space to make the important parts really pop off the page visually. You might not be a designer, but with a few simple adjustments in font sizes and text alignment, you can make sure the person reading your résumé sees what you want them to see. Make the important items slightly bigger than you’re comfortable with. Explore creative layouts only if you’ve got a good eye for design

Once you have something you like, squint your eyes (yes, literally) and you’ll see if the right things pop. This is really helpful.

I love seeing photos, graphics, screenshots, etc. in résumés, but only do it if this makes sense for your position. Don’t put in anything just for eye candy.

Bring it all together

You should now have a résumé that:

  • passes the 10-second test
  • keeps everything else short and sweet
  • starts with why you’re excited about this position

These tips have helped several people already, so I hope you find it useful as well. Please let me know if this makes a difference for you. Find me on Twitter and Google+.

Good luck!

Note: These are my personal opinions and not those of my employer (Google). This is not a how-to guide to get a job at Google. My strategies may not be as relevant for companies that don’t value the same things as me. I’m not a professional career advisor; use my advice at your own discretion.

Photo credit: Rick Miller