Job Advice for New College Grads

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How Long Should My Resume Be?

Posted by James M on October 31, 2009

I could have titled this post, “In Defense of the One Page Resume” because that´s really what I´ll be arguing here.  You might be surprised to know that while working with students, the length of their resume is one of the most contentious and difficult questions that arises.  I have had clients vehemently argue that they have to have more than one page to get across their vision.

This is understandable in some sense because recent graduates are always fighting to tell an employer as much as possible about why they are the right candidate for the job.  But in doing so, the impact of their resume is often diluted. 

Think Like A Manager

To put a finer point on the argument you need to put yourself in the position of a recruiter or hiring manager.  The first thing you need to understand is that reviewing resumes is often not that person´s primary job.  They already have a 40-hour-a-week “real” job and examining resumes is usually in addition to that workload.

For someone in the HR department this work might include dealing with benefits changes to current employees, updating manuals based on new federal and state employment regulations, planning recruiting and outreach events, etc.  If the one looking at resumes is the team manager herself (as it often is), she has her hands busy with the current team and project she is responsible for.  Hiring is a necessary component of running a healthy company, but the dirty truth is that it is rarely something anyone gets excited about.  It´s not that employers don´t like new talent, it is that often the personnel actually doing the hiring are so busy with their current workload (and of course it is against this performance that their own manager is grading them).  

So put yourself in this position:  Imagine it is 5 PM at the end of the day.  You want to go home and see your family or have a drink with your buddy, and you just remembered you have a stack (albeit in most cases these days a “virtual” stack) of 50 resumes to sort through for the interviews you have to conduct next week.  Now ask yourself if you are going to take the time to read the self-indulgent 3-page resume that reads like a life story, or the compact and powerful 1-pager. 

A loaded question?  Yes, but for a reason.  The time a manager takes to review your resume is, according to some studies, as short as 20 seconds.  At any rate, a resume is rarely reviewed in full unless it is in preparation for an interview.  More often a manager is skimming a set of resumes one-by-one looking for a certain skill or experience or perhaps just a “good vibe”, and uses this as the first-cut elimination process.

And this is why a carefully crafted and targed 1-page resume that uses as its foundation quantifiable examples of past sucess is one of the most powerful tools you can leverage in your job hunt.

The Good News

The general rule for resumes is that a candidate with less than 5 years of experience should keep their resume to 1 page.  And while rules are made to be broken, I have never encountered a resume from a new graduate that I thought should break this one. 

The good news is that I have worked with clients who literally had 3 overflowing pages and, together, we were able to trim their resume down to a single page we were both happy with.

Why One Page?

In addition to the rationale discussed above regarding the extreme time constraints of those reviewing your resume, there is another key reason to keep your resume to one page.  That reason is that it forces you to think about the most important aspects of yourself.  While this sounds cheesy and cliché, it is probably the most underappreciated part of the application process (including resumes, career fairs, interviews, etc.)

Having a one page resume forces you to weigh the relative benefits of your past experiences:  What is more important your past jobs and internships or your educational background?  Which particular job or internship is most inline with the position you are applying for, and what specific skills and projects are most important from that previous employment?  What is more important your foreign language proficiency or computer skills?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions will be different for everyone and will most likely even change depending on one application versus another.  But that´s the point.  You really need to take time and present not only the best, but the most relevent version of yourself to a potential employer, not present every meaningful thing you have ever done and hope that some of it happens to fall in line with the position´s qualifications.

In upcoming posts I will be flushing these ideas out to explain exactly what self-reflection you should consider.

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