Spit-Shining Your Resume

So here I am in the middle of recruiting an Industrial Engineer, doing the last thing that I really want to do: reviewing resumes. Let me step back a few paces. I began my search using technical outplacement firms, you know, these shops that find you qualified candidates for about a 25% slice of the first year’s salary pie. They take care of everything, soup to nuts. I won’t have to run a classified ad or anything else, right? Problem: I got slim pickings early on from the headhunters. Since I had a time limit on my position, I ended up running the ad anyway. That brings us up to the present, with me sitting behind my desk wading through the career histories of every jabrone who ever said the word engineer. It’s actually not that bad. In fact, I’m seeing some pretty good resumes. If the candidates are as good as their dossiers, I’ll have the success problem of picking the best of the best. Between this experience, being on the other side of the application desk, so to speak, my past experience in concocting my resume, and the couple of books I’ve read on the subject, here’s my quick two cents on what separates the winners from the losers.

Focus. When it comes to resumes, it’s not a one size fits all world. Employers have specific requirements and expect you to tailor your resume to them. There was a time when this was a genuine pain in the neck, but word processors and mega-megabytes of hard drive space have made it a technical snap. For example, as a consultant I am heavily involved in sales, project management, and my technical field. If the position I am applying for is in technical sales, I’d minimize the engineering and project management stuff, just enough to show I’m a well-rounded guy, and concentrate on sales accomplishments.

Positioning. Think of your resume like a professional baseball line-up. There’s a reason that the number 9 hitter hits number 9. He’s the weakest link in the chain. Don’t put your weak points first, lead off with your strengths, just like those first four or five hitters in the line-up. This is particular to the age old resume-writing question, What comes first, education or experience? If you’ve got tons of experience but little in the way of degrees, highlight the experience up front. Most employers will place a premium on your real-world history anyway. If, however, you have achieved tremendous things in the world of higher education and don’t have so many good years in the working world, place education first. Your objective is to impress enough to get an interview. I’m not saying to leave out one section or the other, because both are important. If you’re right out of school, you still list your co-op and part-time jobs as experience. Conversely, if you’ve got twenty years of great experience and no degree, list courses that you have taken or CEUs (continuing education units) that you’ve acquired.

Impact. In the case of the Industrial Engineer I was looking for, the winning resumes that I received told me specifically what the results were of the things the candidates did at each position, not just their job responsibilities. The difference between reduced design department expenses by 12% annually over three years and responsible for managing design department is the difference between Godzilla and a Gecko. Be specific as to what you accomplished in each task (provided it is accurate and verifiable) over simply what you did. Bottom line: How did you help the company make or save money? This points to another tip to use for your entire career. In order for you to make these claims about your work experience in the future, it’s critical that you document the results of what you are doing today.

Professionalism. I feel guilty even mentioning this one. There are a million resume formats that you can use what comes first, do you include personal hobbies, etc. but whatever you do, make sure your copy is neat, clean, and free of typographical errors. Insulted? Don’t be. In the hurry to curry-comb the job market, this is the first place that professionals will demonstrate negligence. I just received a resume that was an obvious photocopy, and a bad one at that. If it was from a headhunter I’d be forgiving, but it was from a direct respondent to my advertisement. Where do you think it ended up? If you said the circular file, you win a prize. Oh Karl, don’t be ridiculous! How can you tell anything about a person from a simple mistake like that. Well, I can tell this if that person didn’t have enough common sense and respect for me to get me a clean copy of his resume, there’s a good chance that he may impress a client the same way, and that would cost my company money. Cyanara, Amigo! It’s a very competitive job market out there, people. Don’t automatically disqualify yourself by being careless.

You. Prospective employers will see hundreds of resumes, all from people who may have read this article and know the first four points. Everybody’s copy is tailored and seems a match for the job. What are you going to do to distinguish yourself from the pile? This is where I look for little tidbits in the so-called less-important resume headings. How can I learn about the candidate’s character and work ethic? Your job is to mention these differentiators. Do you have military service? Eagle Scout? Haven’t missed a day of work in eleven years? Do you sit on the board of directors of any charities? Maybe it’s the interviewer’s favorite one. If it says something positive about you, the person, mention it somewhere! Hell, even mention in your opening statement, usually headlined Career Goal or something similar, that you are a hardworking, conscientious person who wants to use your skills to help your employer succeed. Remember, they’re considering hiring you for their benefit, not yours. Show that you know it.

Review. OK. Back to basics again. Make sure that you review the finished copy of the resume, not only for grammatical errors but for flow. Does it move smoothly from one item to the next? Does it tell a positive and accurate story about you? If you can’t answer Yes to these questions, regenerate your copy until you can. Most importantly, get one or two other people to review it for you to see if they get the warm fuzzies too. Your spouse or sweetheart is acceptable. Even better is a work associate in your field who’s had some hiring responsibility in her lifetime. Best is a human resources professional who has seen hundreds of resumes and can tell the ripe from the rotten whether it gets picked or composted.

The rocket scientists in the crowd may recognize that the Walinskas resume method outlined above Focus, Position, Impact, Professionalism, You, and Review, forms the memory pneumonic F-P-I-P-Y-R. This of course stands for, For Professional Improvement Polish Your Resume.

There are plenty of handbooks to tell you the appropriate style of resume, some even by industry. The points above are to help you spit-shine your copy so that you communicate your history to prospective employers in a positive light. The job you do will affect your marketability, your self-esteem, and ultimately your income. Seems to me that that’s a job worth doing right.


Karl Walinskas is a professional engineer, speaker and freelance writer in Pennsylvania who owns and operates a communications development company called The Speaking Connection. He is a frequent contributor to business publications across the country. He can be reached for questions or suggestions at 570-675-8956 or by email at topspeaker@pobox.com.