I’ve read a lot of résumés over the years. I’ve read 35-page résumés from senior academics documenting every Rotary talk, guest lecture, and letter to the editor. I’ve read not-quite-one-page résumés from high school students giving their neighbors as references. In the process, I’ve come to think of résumé reading as an acquired literary taste, like flarf or fanfiction. And I’ve come to think of résumé writing as a unique genre with its own rhetorical nuances and conventions.
All of us will need to update a résumé periodically, whether for job-hunting, promotions in an organization, free-lance work, or service on a board of something-or-other. So we should be paying attention to those nuances.
Let’s start with audience, which is usually a hiring committee. Hiring committees read résumés in the context of a particular job and often have a scoring grid or rubric prepared by human resources. The rubric asks two questions. Do you meet the minimum qualifications in terms of degrees, types and length of experience, and skills and abilities related to the job? How do you measure up on the preferred qualifications?
However, each person on a hiring committee brings their own professional lens and experience to the process. Some look for conciseness, some for typos, some for gaps, some for exaggerations, some for fonts and graphic design; some analyze references, some focus on job titles and duties, some worry about longevity in a job, and some think about transferable skills. That’s why there are committees.
Does one résumé fit all situations? In the context of a particular job, hiring committees read résumés as a match for that job description. But résumés also tell a general story. Is the person primarily a writer, a designer, a manager, an editor, a researcher, et cetera? You will probably want to have different versions of your résumé that emphasize different skills, and you may want your résumé to be organized around those skills rather than as a simple chronology of past positions.
Should you start your résumé by listing your career objective? If you are applying for a specific position, you don’t need to sacrifice important space by announcing that your objective is “a challenging position in professional writing that enables you to use your skills as a communicator” or some such thing. The people doing the hiring can infer your objective from the job description and the fact that you applied. You usually do want to list an objective if you are sending a résumé to a professional contact who might circulate it to people in a company or a large organization that might save résumés and search them electronically when openings arise.
In fact, you might even want to have a separate version of your résumé for employers that rank applicants using software. Human readers prefer active verbs like manage and produce and write, but computers are often coded with key words from position descriptions, so a résumé may need to be tweaked to include nouns like management and production and documentation. There is no single list of magic words, of course, so you will want to develop your own set of key words based on an analysis of job postings in your field. Search engine optimization is not just for Google.
People read résumés differently than computers do, so you can also optimize your résumé for human readers. Find a focus group of people who can give you honest opinions and ask them “What is the first thing you notice about the résumé?” “What would you want to ask about if the person was in the room right now?” “What would the applicant be like as a colleague or employee?” “What are five personality characteristics that stand out about this person?” (If you get really ambitious, you can do this exercise with a list of key words but free style is okay too). Writing a résumé is part self-presentation and part self-analysis, so it’s useful to develop some strategies for analyzing your presentation of self.
One last thing. Should you call it a résumé, or resume, or resumé? Oxford Dictionaries gives résumé, with the acute accent over both of the e’s. So does Bryan Garner and the New York Times Style guide. That makes sense to me, since you want to distinguish résumé the noun from the (etymologically-related) verb resume. And of course, if you are going to put in one acute e, why not go all the way? Who knows what effect that might have.
Edwin L. Battistella teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has served as a dean and as interim provost. He is the author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology (OUP, 2014), Do You Make These Mistakes in English? (OUP, 2009), Bad Language (OUP, 2005), and The Logic of Markedness (OUP, 1996).