The resumé is the first step in virtually all interview pipelines for tech (and other) jobs, but it's often one of the most frustrating. Assembling a resumé can be tedious, the review process is opaque, and often you'll just end up ghosted by a company with no feedback on what you can do to improve your chances at moving down the funnel next time.
In this post I'm going to describe the advice I give to folks who are trying to get their foot in the door of the tech industry to help maximize their chances of getting past the resumé screen. I hope this information gives you concrete steps you can take to assemble a resumé that stands out and shows potential companies what you're capable of. Note that when I refer to "tech" I'm typically talking about software engineering positions, although most of this advice should apply to any highly competitive industry.
I'm not going to list boilerplate tips like how much you can fudge the page margins to get your resumé to one page or which format is most friendly for OCR scanners. That information is widely available and, in my opinion, of dubious value. Everyone is doing those hacks, they're not going to make your resumé stand out. Instead I'm going to focus on philosophy - what's the most effective way to think about your resumé's purpose? - and implementation - what concrete steps can you take today to improve your chances of getting a job in tech?
A Mental Model for Resumés
Before you dive into writing or updating your resumé it's important to have a complete and accurate mental model of the role that your resumé will play in the tech interview process. This will help inform your approach to building your resumé in a way that maximizes the chance that you move past the "screening" phase and get the opportunity to interview.
There are two axioms about resumés that I believe are generally true for most tech interview pipelines (and likely other highly competitive industries):
- Your resumé gets you in the door, nothing more. The primary purpose of the resumé is screening candidates. From the company's perspective, the interview process is an investment - they want to interview candidates whom they are likely to hire. Everything past the resumé is expensive because it costs company time (to interview you, evaluate results, build an offer...). Thus the company wants to screen out candidates who are not a good fit as early in the recruiting funnel as possible. It's often said that the cost of not hiring a good candidate is much less than hiring a bad one. Although some items in your resumé may come up as discussion anchors during face-to-face interviews, it's is mostly about getting through this initial screening step.
- Recruiters are going to spend very little time reading your resumé. Some research indicates that recruiters and hiring managers may spend as few as 7 seconds reading your resumé. I think that's a little extreme, but it's definitely true that tech recruiters receive a huge volume of resumés for job postings and limited time to read them. The bar for submitting a resumé is very low, so the screening step is the first opportunity for companies to filter out candidates who are unlikely to succeed in the interview process. Their goal is to quickly make a decision whether or not it's worth the company's time to move you further down the pipeline. In general, the larger the company, the less time on average recruiters will spend looking at your resumé.
Given these two axioms, there are a few general guidelines to use when thinking about how to structure your resumé:
- Information density is key. You want to say as much about yourself in as little space as possible. This is especially true early in your career, when you likely have fewer ways to differentiate yourself from other candidates with similar experience. Your goal is to ensure the recruiter gets all the (positive) information they need about you in the short time they spend reading your resumé.
- Your resumé is your opportunity to brag about yourself. You should use your resumé as an opportunity to highlight a personal narrative that demonstrates your experience and skills in a positive way. Many folks feel uncomfortable hyping themselves up. It might feel a little weird to think about "selling" yourself to potential employers. However it's very important to frame your resumé such that all the most positive aspects of your prior experience and current skills are clear, so that recruiters can see that you're a candidate worth interviewing!
- Quantify whenever possible. Numbers stand out and convey information very quickly. You should try to attach quantities to all the work you do. They help describe the context and scope of your work and make your resumé less generic.
Concrete Ways to Improve Your Resumé
Following the guidelines from the previous section, here's how you can approach your resumé to make it really stand out.
A Quick Note about Formatting
I don't think it's worth your time to spend a lot of effort on nitty-gritty formatting details. There are a lot of resources out there with suggestions about how to format your resumé, whether to include grade details from school, how to setup margins, etc. I don't want to spend much time on those in this section, and frankly I think their importance is overstated. Just pick a template that looks decent and focus on content! It is probably best to try to stick to one page earlier on in your career, but I think formatting details become less important as you get more experience.
Convey Quality Information, Quickly
7 seconds is a pretty unrealistic bar for your resumé comprehension time, but you do want to convey information about yourself as quickly as possible. Your goal here is to increase both the information density and quality of your resumé.
You should strive to ensure each resumé point describes something you accomplished or an experience that will be relevant to potential employers. Any sentences that aren't saying anything important about your work or achievements should be cut. Remove "fluff" and ensure that everything in your resumé contains useful information about what you've done and why your future employer should know. Set a high bar for resumé content and get rid of out anything that doesn't meet it.
Narrate Your Experience and Skills Positively and Honestly
Think of your resumé as a personal narrative of your work history and accomplishments rather than merely a bulleted list of things you did. Recruiters will find it much easier to consume your resumé content if it conveys a "story" about your career. You want to tell this "story" quickly but try to make individual items within each section flow together and describe not just what you did at a particular job or on a specific project, but the role that you played in the job or project, the impact you had on the company or team, things you accomplished, and/or why it was an important milestone in your career.
Resumé content should be applicable directly to you and describe what you did and accomplished, not what happened around you. For example, this section doesn't contain much information that will be useful to recruiters:
- Worked on a small team rebuilding a signup form for existing customer-facing website.
- Wrote UI code and unit tests to ensure changes worked
These bullet points are ambiguous about what you, specifically, did on this project. They're also too generic; they could describe any software engineer working on a similar project. You could rewrite this like:
- Collaborated with small team of 4 engineers to implement new signup form for existing customer-facing website with ~50 new daily signups
- Implemented complex validation logic for React.js form with 100% unit test coverage
We've added details about both the project that you worked on and what you, specifically, did on that project. It's OK to include bullet points like the first one as long as they help contextualize the other points in the section that describe your work and accomplishments.
Lastly, adjust your diction to highlight your work and achievements in a positive and truthful way. Don't lie about what you did; but don't undersell yourself. Avoid wishy-washy non-descriptive/neutral verbs like worked or participated. Instead, choose verbs that are "active" and positive like collaborated, leveraged, or contributed. Even built or implemented are more descriptive than just worked. Whenever possible, if your work had impact, always use verbs that describe your impact such as reduced or improved. Cull any words from individual resumé points that aren't adding value. And lead with positive information! Don't make the reader get to the end of the sentence to see what you did, put it right up front at the beginning of the bullet point.
Focus on Impact
The absolute most effective type of information you can include in your resumé is quantifiable impact. You hear about this so much that it's practically a trope: increased sales by 7%, reduced costs by $10,000, etc etc. The reality is that it's going to be very difficult to come up with these neatly packaged impact nuggets early on in your career. Even later on it's rare that you'll be in a position where you can conveniently quantify direct business impact with an exact figure.
The trick is to realize that there are a lot of ways to describe impact, and to recognize that your work has positive effects in ways that aren't directly related to measurable business metrics. To see this you need to consider the work you do within the broader context of the business, team, or organization.
For example, say you shipped all your code with 100% unit test coverage. Why? Well, maybe the company mandated it, but the real reason is that your engineering organization probably believes that high unit test coverage reduces the risk of shipping bugs, which reduces the chance of impacting users when you roll out something that's broken.
So following from our previous example, instead of this:
- Implemented complex validation logic for React.js form with 100% unit test coverage
- Reduced chance of user errors on signup by adding complex validation logic for React.js signup form
- Ensured low risk of errors on rollout with 100% unit test coverage
Some folks might feel like this is a bit of a stretch, but it's a real and honest assessment of the impact of your work. You might not be able to quantify the exact reduction of user error chance or lowered risk, but it's absolutely reasonable to believe that your work had these impacts. Just be ready to talk about these points intelligently - don't make up arbitrary impacts, and have some clear reasoning about how a particular experience resulted in positive outcomes.
Remember that recruiters who are rapidly scanning through your resumé lack any context of your previous jobs. They just want to see that you do relevant, impactful work and will be a strong hire. When you list impacts, you convey your experience in a more personalized, relevant way. Don't get carried away attaching impact to every single bullet point, but there should be at least one impact-focused point within each section of your resumé.
Quantify Wherever Possible
Numbers make a statement. They are going to pop out as recruiters quickly glance over your resumé. At the risk of sounding like a clickbait "8 Tricks to Really Make Your Resumé Stand Out!" article, attaching quantities to things is actually a pretty simple and effective way to make your resumé memorable. Beyond aesthetics it's important to give recruiters a sense of the scope of your work. The best way to achieve that is to concretely quantify your work.
I'm not just talking about impact here. Obviously attaching a number to positive outcomes is great, but you should include quantities on contextual bullet points as well. Here are some easy ways to include numbers and get more concrete about your work:
- When working in an existing code base, how big is it? How many lines of code (No, really. Count them up with a script. This gives readers a sense of the order-of-magnitude scope of the projects you've worked in)? How many changes get shipped every week?
- For group projects, how many people in the group? For teams, how big are the teams/organizations?
- What's the scale of the projects you worked on? Rough number of users, traffic volume, etc? Make sure to check that these numbers are ok to share publicly; you can always include more inexact figures such as order-of-magnitude (e.g. tens, hundreds, thousands).
- How many bug tickets did you close?
You can (and should!) quantify non-tech related work if it's relevant to your project management skills, leadership, or general ability to thrive in a corporate environment. Even a job that seems mundane, like store clerk, has lots of impact that can be quantified (number of customers/transactions per day, number of items tracked in inventory, volume of sales, etc).
When you quantify previous experience that isn't otherwise remarkable or easy to make interesting, you make your resumé more descriptive, less generic, and help recruiters get a more complete understanding of your body of work. As you get further along in your career you will (hopefully!) have the opportunity to work on projects that have clearly defined impact and outcomes, and you can write about those instead of less interesting values like lines of code or bug tickets closed. But if your only experience is in an internship and maybe a few group projects, it's important to make your resumé less fuzzy and more concrete.
That was a lot of information! We can summarize it by remembering two fundamental truths about resumés: they are primarily a screening step to get you further along in the interview process, and recruiters are going to spend very little time reading them. Therefore, it's important to get information across quickly and efficiently, while ensuring that you provide a concrete narrative about your career that shows you will be a great candidate and future employee. It's worth spending the time to wordsmith and optimize your resumé because it can significantly improve your chances of getting past the initial screen.
Resumés can be a real drag, but if you can get yourself excited about it, I think you'll find it's pretty enjoyable to craft a resumé that narrates yourself. After all, it's like telling the story of your own career, and who doesn't enjoy a little creative writing once in a while? By the way, if you want an example, you can find my resumé here. It certainly doesn't follow all the guidance I've given and is far from perfect, but it does contain some examples that will hopefully ground this advice in reality.