How to Wow Recruiters With Your Resume
Insider tips for people applying to jobs online
In this guide, I take a deep dive into my experience as a recruiter and share the inside scoop on my role and pro tips that I’ve learned.
I have reviewed 10,000+ resumes, screened/interviewed thousands of candidates, and have experience recruiting in agency, startup, and internal environments (my LinkedIn). I’ve personally helped at least 100 people find jobs in the past 5 years. People often tell me to write my advice down, so here it goes. I’m not a guru, mentor, or coach, and have nothing to sell. I’m just a recruiter hoping to demystify some parts of the hiring process and help a few people out.
For a TL;DR summary of tips scroll straight to the bottom
Part I: Finding the Right Job — Fit & Timing
- Interviewing yourself for the role
Part II: Editing the Resume
- Most Common Questions
- 6 Key Elements of Your Resume
Part III: Applying for the job
- Cover Letter, Applying Online, Reaching Out, Referrals
Part I: Finding the Right Job — Fit & Timing.
If you’re a fan of the 20/80 rule then listen closely. Focusing on job fit & timing will generate about 80% of your results during the job seeking process. One of the many keys to finding a job and landing an interview is being extremely selective in which jobs you apply for and how quickly you apply after the job has been posted.
I can tell you with first hand experience that the majority of applicants give themselves the benefit of the doubt when applying. A large majority are either too junior or have not read the job description carefully enough.
Inside Scoop: Because people tend to apply for roles for which they may not be a great fit, many recruiters loathe searching through application pools and would rather source passive candidates online, contact referrals, or use key words to find people in their ATS (Applicant Tracking System).
The best and most sought after candidates I‘ve spoken with have a very good sense of what their strengths and weaknesses are, and will actually turn down opportunities if they sense a mismatch in a position that’s been offered.
Before continuing, it’s important to note the old adage: Rome wasn’t built in a day — be prepared to be patient!
Pro tip: Being patient does not mean waiting for the right opportunities to come your way. You should be actively looking for new opportunities every day, but only applying to positions that are a great fit.
Interviewing Yourself for the Role
How to determine fit, you ask? Ask yourself the following questions to see if a position is a fit or too much of a stretch.
Imagine you are the hiring manager for a position you’ve found online, and you see your resume come across your desk for review. Would you feel excited to set up a phone screen with yourself or would you be “taking a chance” to “see what you’ve got”?
If you would feel excited to interview yourself for a particular position then ask yourself why (be honest), and if you have good reasons then emphasize those in your resume. If you wouldn’t feel excited, then reflect and understand why, but don’t apply for the position. If you do apply, you’ll be a part of the majority I mentioned above that doesn’t take the time to screen themselves out. You’ll inevitably be wasting your time and the recruiter/hiring managers’ time as well.
Can you answer in-depth interview questions with nitty gritty answers for all of the job duties (excluding the use of company specific systems and tools)?
If yes, that’s a good sign and you should consider applying. If not, which of the job requirements are you shaky on? If it’s anything serious (like one of the first 4 bullet points) than you should rethink applying.
How does the day-to-day of your current situation (employed or unemployed) match up with the job description?
If you’re currently a painter and the job description is asking for a Product Manager, please don’t apply. However, if it’s something closer like a Product Owner or Customer Specialist then find out which parts of the job you’re missing from your current day-to-day and make up the difference. Raghav Haran, a popular Medium writer with 10k+ followers, wrote a fantastic article shedding light on how to bridge that gap.
Do the job before you get the job.
I call this the “pre-interview project”.
For example, if you’re applying for a sales/marketing role, a good pre-interview project could be selling some of the company’s products and writing a document about it. If you’re applying for a design related role, you can mockup some new designs for the company and tell them why you made those decisions.
Why do I have to be sooo picky when applying to jobs?
- You will maximize your rate of response from recruiters/hiring managers because you’ve properly evaluated your fit.
- Make life easier for the person reviewing your application, paving the way for building a great relationship with the hiring manager.
Put yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager for a brief moment (this should be easy if you’ve ever hired anyone):
- They have a gap that they need filled. Every day they may have to do two jobs and would love to have another person take over existing work and/or expand their teams capabilities. Being a “quick learner” doesn’t always fill the gap, especially if they want someone to hit the ground running.
- There is a lot of weight riding on this choice and any indication that hiring you is a risk will make them choose someone else. Choosing the wrong person is more costly than just waiting for the right person.
So how many jobs should you apply for?
There is no magic number. Just be honest with yourself and answer a few more questions before you decide to apply:
(If the job isn’t local) Would I actually relocate for the job or am I just applying “to see what happens?”
Please, please, please do not apply just “for kicks”. You don’t have to be 100% ready and/or sure you would move and it can be contingent on an offer, but be realistic and try your best not to waste the companies time and more importantly, your own time. If you’ve taken the time to self-select only the best opportunities your ratio of [jobs applied to: initial interviews] will sky rocket.
Do I actually want to be doing what’s described in the job description on a day-to-day basis?
If you dislike your current job duties, applying to another company that has the promise of better perks or a better manager won’t change the duties as described. Some people are just free spirits or entrepreneurs and regardless of where they go, they’ll never be content unless they start something of their own.
Do I meet the current requirements? Again, Raghav explains it best:
It’s OK if you’re a few years below the minimum experience level, but not TOO far below. If you’re just a college grad, don’t go for senior level jobs that require 7–10+ years of experience. But you CAN go for jobs that require, say, 3–5 years of experience even if you only have 1.
It’s OK if your education level is a little below the required amount, but again, not too much below. For example — even though I never went to grad school, I’ve been able to get interviews for internships that required an MBA, and full time jobs that required a masters, but jobs that require PhDs are out of my league.
Make sure that you can actually DO the job. You might not need credentials, but you do need the skills to get results.
To his point, I recently reviewed resumes with a manager and the job description for this particular role required 3–5 years of experience. However, a candidate with only 18 months of experience got an interview because he was doing the exact responsibilities needed for this job at his current job. The hiring manager had the utmost of confidence that the candidate could do the role without question.
If you’ve answered the above questions and still think you’re a fit, then only apply to jobs where you can edit your resume specifically for that job. This brings me to the next stage of getting any interview you want… the resume.
Part II: Editing the Resume
You’ve probably heard that you have 6 seconds to capture a recruiter’s attention.
I can tell you that it’s sometimes even less then that. I once shared my friend’s resume to a colleague on a different team for review. I stood over her shoulder as she reviewed her resume in less than 5 seconds. In that amount of time, she had determined — with confidence — that my friend was not a fit for the position. I share this brief story only to say that no one is exempt from having this happen to them. Let’s explore why this happens, starting with the basics of formatting. We’ll use our trusty friend and Pokémon trainer, Ash Ketchum, as an example throughout this section.
Your resume’s format should closely resemble at least one of the formats in the links above. Recruiters review hundreds (maybe even thousands) of resumes per week. If your resume is in a format completely different than what I’ve shared, it makes it harder for the recruiter to find where the most crucial information on your resume is located.
Inside Scoop: Make the recruiter/hiring manager try too hard and your resume could be in the rejection pile before you even get a fair chance. In addition, please don’t put your picture on your resume! It’s distracting and stands out too much to be of any help to you.
If you’re thinking “well, recruiters should just try harder to review every resume regardless of the format”, then you may be right, but that’s simply not the reality. Trust me when I say that I used to be a big fan of colorful/well designed resumes. I thought the standard format was lame, bland, and made me seem like everyone else. Then I became a recruiter and had to look through hundreds of resumes myself.
Pro Tip: Like my mom used to say “your resume format can’t get you a job, but it can surely cost you an opportunity.” Designers and creatives have a license to make cool looking resumes. If non-designer recruiters will be reviewing your resume first, however, then I think my advice still stands (especially if you’ve attached your portfolio). Only if you know that your application will go directly to the hiring manager than perhaps some creativity will be welcome.
I’ll tackle a few high level concepts before getting into the specifics of editing a resume for the job.
Most Common Questions
If you are 1–2 years out of college, keep your resume limited to 1 page. If you have more experience, then feel free go over 1 page as needed. There’s nothing worse than a 17 page resume (you think I’m kidding, but I’m not) and 2–3 pages is absolutely fine, especially if you’ve been in the workforce for a while.
Should education be at the top or bottom? What about the date of graduation?
Your education should go at the top of your resume under three conditions: 1) If you know the hiring manager/recruiter will recognize the name of your college and be impressed, 2) you graduated within the past 3–5 years, 3) your degree is particularly relevant to the position.
Include the date of graduation if you’ve graduated within the 2000s. Otherwise, feel free to drop the date since it’s no longer relevant.
The skills laundry list (less is more)
Have you ever taken a beautiful palette of paint and mixed every color together? Or combined every drink from a soda fountain? These things sound childish right? So does a laundry list of skills on your resume. I’ve actually been in meetings with hiring managers where they comment on not knowing what a candidate is actually good at because they list out so many things on their resume and it’s cost them an interview. Be specific and choose a handful (4–5) of relevant skills that are highlighted in the job description already.
Should I order jobs chronologically or by relevance?
Hiring managers (for the most part) are particularly interested in what you’ve been doing in the past 2–3 years and how it relates to the position they’re trying to fill. If, for some reason, you’ve been working in retail recently but you used to be a six sigma black belt, your best bet is to begin working on relevant side projects to put at the top of your resume and/or to get a personal referral of someone who can speak to how much of a champion you once were.
What should I do about job hoppy-ness?
Not all hiring managers care about your job-hopping history. For ones who do, you can write a quick blurb beside each short job explaining your reasons for leaving. Sometimes there are legitimate cases where hiring managers and recruiters can overlook a candidate’s hoppy job history.
The best cure for a job-hoppy resume, however, is some stability. It might pay dividends down the line to just “stick it out” at your current job for at least a year or two before looking for something else.
6 Key Elements of Your Resume
Now that we’ve covered some common questions, I can get into the specifics of editing your resume. The following is a list of 6 key elements that recruiters will be scanning your resume for during review.
- Your current job title
- Current employer/Tenure
- The first bullet of your current job
- Previous job title
- Previous employer/Tenure
Your current job title — Let’s start at the beginning. People will disagree with me on this point, but I think this is the single most important element of your resume.
So important, in fact, that it’s worth editing when appropriate.
Let’s say you want to apply for a “Product Manager” role and your current job is “Product Owner III”. If you’ve read the description and you know (with 100% certainty) that you can do and have done what the position ask for and you genuinely feel the difference in title is semantics, then I advocate you change the title on your resume to “Product Manager.” Now this advice will obviously ruffle feathers, and for good reason. There are people who will read this article, misuse my suggestion, go into an interview, and waste everyone’s time just to never to be invited back again.
Let me be clear: please do not lie on your resume. It’s just the wrong thing to do. However, companies sometimes have certain titles for positions because “that’s what it’s always been called here.” If you fall into this category, and you’ll know if you do, then I think you should change your title so the people reviewing your resume don’t overlook your skills and experience for semantic reasons. If you make it to an onsite interview, then make sure to put your actual work title in the formal application, so when HR does an employment check, things pan out.
Current employer/Tenure — If the recruiter/hiring manager reviewing your resume will recognize the name of your current employer, than it should be above your job title. Similar to the point that having an Ivy League school on your resume matters more than what your degree title, your company can provide more credibility than your job title because — unlike your role title — it’s un-editable.
The first bullet of your current job — This is where most people drop the ball because it take a certain finesse.
Applying to a job is not about you, it’s about the company. Your view of your most important skills is not necessarily relevant. What is relevant is what the company says they need in a job description.
Let’s refer back to Ash Ketchum:
To illustrate this point, take a look at the sample job description below. Pay close attention to what’s highlighted in yellow.
Now let’s take a look at the first bullet of Ash’s resume:
See how in the first bullet of his first job he does a great job at matching the most important bullet in the job responsibilities to his experience? Obviously, this is a fun example but it’s your job as a candidate to find the most important bullet point(s) of a job description and explain with a brief, data-driven, and concrete example of how you’ve done exactly what they need.
Your competition is blasting resumes out and not taking the time to do this extra step. This might take an extra bit of time, but will set you apart from others applying for the role.
Pro Tip: If there are industry keywords (like tools, softwares, buzzwords, or methodologies), that the company mentions in their job description, then include 2–3 of these in the first bullet of your current job and bold them. This is the epitome of making life easy for the recruiters and hiring managers reviewing your resume.
Keywords are extremely important in a resume and oftentimes recruiters and hiring managers will simply CTRL+F to find them. If you can beat them to the punch by simply bolding them in your resume, you’ll be ahead of the curve. It’s also important to note that including a skill in your resume is not enough, particularly if it’s highlighted in the job description. You must take the time to actually write out how you used this skill/tool/methodology.
Education — Be honest and completely transparent about your education. If you didn’t graduate, don’t make it seem like you did. In addition, if you have a GPA below 3.7 and you graduated more than 3 years ago, then it’s best that you remove it from your resume. It’s probable that the hiring manager doesn’t care and it’s best not to draw attention to it if it’s not extremely high.
Previous job title — The previous job title can do two things for you. It can either show your progression up the ranks in a given field, or it can illustrate your tenure and experience. If your title is the same at two different companies it starts to build credibility that you can do the job, especially if the job title is the same as the one in the job description. If your previous job title is a more junior title it can show that you’re a hard worker that takes initiative. Both are impressive, but make sure to craft a purposeful and meaningful story when it comes to your current and previous job titles because it matters.
Previous employer/Tenure — Last but not least, list your employer previous to your current one and the length of time you were in that role. Try and stick to a consistent format to showcase this as well. So whether that’s [employer/title/tenure], [title/employer/tenure], or any other combination, keep it consistent.
If you’re in a situation where you’ve had multiple roles at the same company, I’d suggest having one tenure at the top with different titles and summaries underneath. However, if you were there for a significant amount of time (5+ years) it’s definitely worth it to label your tenure in each role so it doesn’t leave the hiring manager guessing.
For those of you who’ve been looking for a job or generally unemployed for over a year take a look at these articles (here, here, and here) for some motivation and tips. You might be at a disadvantage, but don’t give up, winners never quit!
Part III: Applying for the Job
After you’ve picked the perfect job and edited your resume to perfection, there’s only one thing left to do. Apply!
Let’s dive into 4 crucial elements of applying for a job.
- The Cover Letter
I’m in the school of thought that a traditional cover letter is completely unnecessary. As a recruiter I rarely read cover letters because they are typically never specific enough to matter. I wouldn’t write a cover letter if it isn’t required. However, if it is required this article does a great job of explaining how you should write it.
A cover letter alone can’t get you an interview, but a resume can. I’ve never heard of a hiring manager not wanting to interview a candidate because s/he didn’t write a cover letter.
2. Applying Online (Major Key Alert)
The moment you see a job posted you should spring into action. The sooner the job has been posted, the better your chance of securing an interview and landing an offer. I’ve seen too many candidates apply late in the game only to complete a full set of interviews without knowing that there’s already a first choice candidate in the pipeline. Recruiters usually aren’t at liberty to disclose how you fare among other candidates, but know that our motto is “a role isn’t filled, until it’s filled”. This means that we’ll continue to source candidates and set up interviews even if there are candidates at the final stage of the interview process.
In addition, do not apply for too many jobs at one company in one time frame. Recruiters can typically see all the jobs you’ve applied for at their company. If they notice you’ve applied to a laundry list of irrelevant roles it will reflect poorly upon you. It shows that you’re not being selective and therefore don’t know where your skills match up with what the company needs.
Pro Tip: If you’d like to put your resume on job boards like Monster and Careerbuilder so that recruiters can contact you, it’s best to change your address to the location you wish to work. For example if you’re in NYC currently, but you want to work in San Francisco, you should change your address to a local one in San Francisco. Recruiters often sort by zip code and “miles away” from a particular city. So if you change your zip code to that city, it does us a favor. It usually doesn’t matter if you currently live there, what matters is if you’re willing to relocate (especially on your dime for contract positions).
3. Reaching out to the recruiter/hiring manager
The best message I’ve ever received from a candidate went something like this:
I know you’re busy so I’ve created a short and long form of this email.
TL;DR: I’ve applied for XYZ position and my resume is attached. Would love your help in getting my application reviewed.
Long Form: I’m very interested in joining…
If you emailed a recruiter with this message, you’d have your resume reviewed at the very least. If they don’t respond, you can assume you’re not a fit for the position or that they’re not the right person to connect with. The reason this message is so powerful is because it shows that you understand we’re busy and don’t always have time to read cold emails, mainly ones that are long and don’t get to the point.
You’d absolutely be standing out if you kept it brief and polite with an understanding that the recruiter/hiring manager doesn’t owe you anything. It’s always off putting when people approach me with a sense of entitlement, and it does more harm then good. It’s best to be humble when approaching people who work at the company.
It’s common knowledge that referrals are the best and easiest way to break into a top tier company. However, many people don’t have the luxury of seeing what a referral looks like on the other side. I can say with confidence that asking someone to refer you who doesn’t know you personally, is going to help you very little, if at all.
Potential candidates obviously hope that the referrer wrote nice things about them, but this is near impossible if the referrer doesn’t know the candidate well. Imagine you met someone at a networking event and the next day s/he ask for you to refer them to an opening at their company. Your reputation is on the line, so while you might forward his/her resume to HR, it’s not going to benefit them much if you aren’t gushing with positive things to say about their role-related knowledge.
It’s safe to say that all referrals aren’t created equal.
The power of a good referral is worth its weight in gold and can put you ahead of the pack instantaneously.
Companies understand this and work hard to increase referrals because the stats speak for themselves. With that in mind, it’s wise to choose your referrer carefully and to ensure that s/he knows a good amount about your work life and not just personal life.
Wrapping Up: So if you’ve made it this far, I thank you for reading and hope you’ve gotten at least one useful tip that will help you in your job search.
Recruiters, I’d love to know your thoughts on whether you agree or disagree with this piece. It’s helpful for you to share your opinions on the topics discussed in this guide so readers and get a better look into our world.
Final note: Not everything is in your control. You could be the perfect candidate, at the perfect time, with the perfect skills, but not get the position for reasons you’ll never know. Be OK with that, and forge ahead despite setbacks. Good luck!
TL;DR Tip Summary
Questions to ask yourself for fit:
- Imagine you are the hiring manager for a position you’ve found online and you see your resume come across your desk for review. Would you feel excited to setup a phone screen with yourself or would you be “taking a chance” to “see what you’ve got”?
- Can you answer in-depth interview questions with nitty gritty answers for all of the job duties (excluding the use of company specific systems and tools)?
- How does the day-to-day of your current situation (employed or unemployed) match up with the job description?
- Be specific and choose a handful (4–5) of relevant skills to highlight (and literally bold in your resume) that have been mentioned in the job description already.
- Edit your job titles if appropriate (please see explanation).
- The first bullet point in your first job should match up with the most important bullet point in the “Job Duties” section of a job description.
Tips for applying
- Don’t worry about a cover letter, it’s not going to make or break you getting the interview if your resume is great.
- Recruiters usually aren’t at liberty to disclose how you fair amongst other candidates, but please know that it’s our motto that “a role isn’t filled, until it’s filled”. This means that we’ll continue to source candidates and setup interviews even if there are candidates at the final stage of the interview process.
- When sending messages to recruiters or employees of a company online create a one sentence TL;DR to increase your chances of response.
- Not all referrals are created equal, choose who refers you carefully.