Your Resume Should Tell A Story

Chronological order. Sections for education and work experience. Name and address at the top. Fits on one page.

I don’t know about you, but for many years these were the rules I was told about what a resume should look like. There was a very narrow set of acceptable layouts and content structures. It was all about showing you could conform to the professional standards.

For a number of years, I followed these guidelines. The resume that resulted helped me land internships. Even my first job. It was great for showing the path I’d been walking since I first decided I wanted to work in the federal government. Well, somewhere around 2012, I realized I had a problem. I hated my job! And I hated it in part because it felt like I wasn’t doing the type of work I wanted to.

Somewhere around 2012, I realized I had a problem. I hated my job!

That sounds like an easy problem to solve. But you see, there is something unspoken that they don’t tell you. The first job you have, the work you do there, that sets you on a trajectory. That role often has far more weight on a resume than what you study in school or side projects you’ve been working on. And if you’re looking for a role that deviates from that experience it’s easier said than done.

Why is this the case? A whole bunch of reasons. But one of them has to do with your resume. Based on those standards we discussed, your current job goes first. Under the big header with job experience. It should be full of bullet points that describe all you do and have accomplished in that role. As a result, this job has an outsized influence on your next because that section takes a prominent spot on your resume.

We know recruiters and hiring managers only have so much time to scan applications; so it makes sense that a candidate who shows a whole different skill set will be a quick toss in the rejection pile before they even read all the other supporting sections.

The answer is to break the rules.

The answer is to break the rules. Use your resume to tell a story. When I went job searching in 2012, I had technical program management job experience – lots of cost, schedule performance stuff. I had a partially complete Masters in Computer Science with a lot of management coursework, an undergraduate degree in Mathematics, some internships for federal agency website teams. As I spoke to people I knew in the private sector tech industry, the advice I received was that I needed to be able to show how all those pieces would make me a great developer. So I got to work.

I removed every heading in my resume. No need to distinguish between job experience, academic experience and volunteer experience, it was all me. I went in chronological order, but only to show how my knowledge had built on itself through these various means. I wrote an objective at the top saying what I was looking for and why I felt I was qualified. I removed some of my work experience bullets! Shocking I know, but it wasn’t going to help in my search and it would draw the attention away from the experiences that did. I also added bullets to my academic experience to make sure the appropriate coursework was highlighted. And I kept it digestible at one page!

No need to distinguish between job experience, academic experience and volunteer experience, it was all me.

Finally, I pulled every single key skill from all of those areas into an applicable skills section focused on computer skills. I needed employers to see how much I’d learned, despite being on a different path at the moment. I used language in this section to show what I was learning, “Interest and experimentation with…”. I showed what I knew “Programming experience in…”, “Familiar with…”. And I wrapped it up in a nice bow, “Base knowledge of programming, networks, machine learning, web development, mathematics”.

Reading this resume, it was clear what type of job I was looking for. And it wasn’t immediately clear that I’d been doing a different type of work because I highlighted the experiences that could crossover between that job and the one I wanted. Doing this proved to be highly effective.

Reading this resume, it was clear what type of job I was looking for.

I applied to 9 roles, had initial calls with 7 companies, had final interviews at 3 and picked a great first development job with a fantastic senior engineer as my mentor there. I don’t expect everyone to have quite that level of success. However, a resume shouldn’t disqualify you. If you think you have the skill set to succeed, then you learned those skills somewhere. Figure out a way to make that come across, even if you have to break the rules!

Laurie Barth
Laurie Barth

Laurie is a software developer, conference speaker, and frequent blogger. During normal business hours she is a consultant at Ten Mile Square. Depending on the day she can be found using any number of technologies from different languages to frameworks and other support tools. When she isn't writing code you can find her playing board games and eating cupcakes.

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