Applying for a Job

23 Writing the Résumé

A résumé is a document that summarizes your education, skills, talents, employment history, and experiences in a clear and concise format for potential employers. All of us want our résumés to stand out from the stack. However, the best way to create an eye-catching one is not through gimmicks or flash, but rather through substance and customization.

The word résumé is a French word that means “a summary.” You may find it is more commonly spelled without the French accents, though this creates some confusion, as the word “resume” has a homophone with an unrelated meaning.

Résumés and cover letters work together to represent you in the most positive light to prospective employers. With a well-composed résumé and cover letter, you stand out to the employer—who may give you an interview and then an opportunity to win the job.

The résumé serves three distinct purposes that define its format, design, and presentation:

  1. To represent your professional information in writing
  2. To demonstrate the relationship between your professional information and the need the potential employer hopes to address
  3. To get you an interview by clearly demonstrating you meet the minimum qualifications and have the professional background to help the organization meet its goals

An online profile page is similar to a résumé in that it represents you, your background, and qualifications. People network, link, and connect in new ways via online profiles or professional sites such as LinkedIn. In many ways, your online profile is an online version of your résumé, with connections and friends on public display. Your social media is often accessible to the public, so never post anything you wouldn’t want your employer (current or future) to read, see, or hear.

This chapter covers a traditional résumé, as well as the more popular scannable features, but the elements and tips could equally apply to your online profile.

Types of résumés

Photo #1: A workspace

Your résumé is an inventory of your education, work experience, job-related skills, accomplishments, volunteer history, internships, and more. It’s a professional autobiography in outline form to give the person who reads it a quick, general idea of who you are and what skills, abilities, and experiences you have to offer. With a better idea of who you are, prospective employers can see how well you might contribute to their workplace.

As a college student or recent graduate, though, you may be unsure about what to put in your résumé, especially if you don’t have much employment history. Still, employers don’t expect recent graduates to have significant work experience. Even with little work experience, you may still have a host of worthy accomplishments to include. How you present yourself is key.

Work histories come in a variety of forms, as do résumés. Although career experts enjoy debating which style of résumé is the best, ultimately you must consider which fits your current situation. Which style will allow you to best package your work history, and convey your unique qualifications?

There are three different formats that we will discuss in this chapter: a chronological resume, a functional (skills) resume, and a targeted (hybrid) resume.

The chronological résumé is a traditional format whose principal section is the “Employment Experience” section. In a chronological résumé, the “Employment Experience” section lists jobs in reverse chronological order (newest at the top, oldest at the end) and achievements/skills are detailed underneath each position.

In contrast, a functional (skills) résumé features a well-developed “Skills & Achievements” section, in which skills are organized into categories. The functional résumé still includes an “Employment Experience” section, but it is streamlined to include only the basic information about each position held.

A targeted (or hybrid) résumé includes a well-developed “Skills & Achievements” section that highlights the candidate’s most important and relevant skills, but it also includes select bullets under each job in the “Employment Experience” section.

There are many reasons to choose one format over another. In brief, the chronological résumé serves candidates with a long/uninterrupted work history, in fields where the company worked for is of paramount importance. On the other hand, the functional résumé serves candidates who are transitioning between fields, such as candidates shifting from a military to a civilian career or candidates who have gained skills in a variety of different settings (workplace, academic, volunteer). The targeted résumé offers the best of both worlds and is increasingly popular, as the contemporary labour market includes more variety in the pathways from education through to employment. Traditional approaches best represent the increasingly rare traditional candidate. A dynamic approach best represents a dynamic candidate.

Here are some examples of chronological, functional (skills), and hybrid résumé formats:

Chronological résumé

A chronological résumé lists your job experiences in reverse chronological order—that is, starting with the most recent job and working backward toward your first job. It includes starting and ending dates. Also included is a brief description of the work duties you performed for each job and highlights of your formal education.

The reverse chronological résumé may be the most common and perhaps the most conservative résumé format. It is most suitable for demonstrating a solid work history and growth and development in your skills. However, this format may not suit you if you are light on skills in the area you are pursuing, if you’ve changed employers frequently, or if you are looking for your first job.

Note that the chronological résumé does the following:

  • Lists both work and education in reverse chronological order (starting with the most recent positions/schools and working backward)
  • Lists job achievements and skills under each position
  • Presents experience under headings by job title, company, location, and dates of employment
  • Allows employers to easily determine work performed at each company

Functional (skills) résumé

A functional résumé—also known as a skills résumé—is organized around your talents, skills, and abilities more so than work duties and job titles, as with the chronological résumé. It emphasizes specific professional capabilities, including what you have done or what you can do. Specific dates may be included, but are not as important.

This means that if you are a new graduate entering your field with little or no actual work experience, the functional résumé may be a good format for you. It can also be useful when you are seeking work in a field that differs from what you have done in the past. It’s also well suited for people in unconventional careers.

Note that the functional résumé does the following:

  • Focuses on skills and experience, rather than on chronological work history
  • Groups functions or skills under categories
  • Describes responsibilities, accomplishments, and quantifiable achievements under categories in the skills section
  • Typically opens with a brief summary/profile detailing strengths (one-three sentences)
  • Demonstrates how you match the requirements of your potential job by including relevant achievements and accomplishments

Targeted (hybrid) résumé format

The targeted résumé—also known as the hybrid résumé—is a format reflecting both the functional and chronological approaches. It’s also called a combination résumé. It highlights relevant skills, but it still provides information about your work experience. With a targeted résumé, you may list your job skills as most prominent and then follow with a chronological (or reverse chronological) list of employers.

This résumé format is most effective when your specific skills and job experience need to be emphasized.

The main parts of a résumé

An important note about formatting is that, initially, employers may spend only a few seconds reviewing each résumé—especially if there is a big stack of them or they seem tedious to read. That’s why choosing your format carefully is so important. Your choice will help you stand out and make the first cut (or not).

Exercise #1: What Do Employers Expect From A Résumé?

Take a moment to reflect on the following questions:

  • What do you think employers want to see in your résumé?
  • What elements are the most important to them?

When you have an answer to both questions, watch the video below. In the video, several employers are asked those questions. Do their answers surprise you at all? If so, why? Is there anything that you didn’t expect?

Format is definitely an important component of a résumé. However, employers also have expectations for the content in your résumé. They expect it to be clear, accurate, and up to date (Bennet, 2005). This document represents you in your absence and you want it to do the best job possible. You don’t want to be represented by spelling or grammatical errors, as they may raise questions about your education and/or attention to detail. Someone reading a résumé with errors will only wonder what kind of work that candidate might produce that will poorly reflect on their company. There is going to be enough competition that you don’t want to provide an easy excuse to toss your résumé at the start of the process. Do your best work the first time.

Résumés have several basic elements that employers look for, including your contact information, objective or goal, education, work experience, and so on. Each résumé format may organize the information in distinct ways based on the overall design strategy, but all information should be clear, concise, and accurate (Simons & Curtis, 2004).

Contact information

Create a header that includes your address, telephone number, professional email address, and possibly a LinkedIn page. I recommend using your student email account (which you’ll need to be checking daily so that you don’t miss an email from an employer), as that shows your commitment to education and self-improvement. After you’ve finished school, consider getting your own web domain and creating an online portfolio of your work; this will help you stand out and will also allow you to use an email address with your own domain name, instead of a free corporate email address, which doesn’t look as good.

Headline (also called summary, profile, or highlights of qualifications)

Many résumés include a brief summary of your professional self to grab your reader’s attention. Think of this section as your “elevator pitch,” offering a quick impression of your personal brand. Include a few key (relevant) achievements/strengths (in bullets or sentences). Headline sections are especially useful for candidates with a long work history or who have experienced job transitions.

Have you been starting your résumé with an objective statement? These days, most experts recommend leaving the objective off your résumé entirely. Objectives too often emphasize what you want from a job, rather than what you can offer an employer, and are generally seen as a waste of space.


Place your education section after the headline/summary section if it is recent and relevant or after the experience section if your stronger qualification is more recent employment experience.

List the most current degree/school attended first and proceed in reverse chronological order. Include the following information for each educational item:

  • The name of the school
  • The school’s location
  • Your graduation date or anticipated graduation date
  • The credential earned or being pursued (and major if appropriate)

DO NOT include high school if you are in college unless your high school work was outstanding or unique (such as if you were valedictorian, won a special scholarship or award, or went to a trade/technology/arts high school). A good example would be to include high school athletics if you’re applying for a job as a sports coach or trainer.

Include trainings and certifications (e.g. first aid certifications, sales seminars, writing groups) at the end of the education section.

Further develop the education section by adding accomplishments:

  • Relevant courses (if they prepared you for the job)
  • Special accomplishments (conferences, special papers/projects, clubs, offices held, service to the school)
  • Awards and scholarships (could also be separate section)

Employment experience

List positions in reverse chronological order (most recent first).

Include basic information for each job:

  • Job title
  • Employer
  • Dates employed (may be only month and year or even only the year)
  • City/state (and country if outside of Canada) of employment

Include internships and skilled volunteer positions (but, if you do, title the section “Experience” rather than “Employment”). You can also have a separate volunteer experience section, too.

Consider filtering work experience into “Related Experience” or “Relevant Experience” instead of one employment section to highlight most relevant jobs (and downplay less significant experience). This also allows you to include volunteer experience, though that’s really best pushed into a later section.


Use sub-headers to group skills into skill set headings (management skills, customer service skills, laboratory skills, communication skills). Use targeted headings based on the qualifications your potential employer is seeking.

Include only the most relevant, targeted skills and achievements.

Emphasize quantifiable achievements and results: skills, equipment, money, documents, personnel, clients,  and so on. Use the active voice (supervised 16 employees, increased profits, built websites) instead of the passive voice (was responsible for supervising or duties included the following).

Optional sections

Volunteer work

List skilled volunteer work (building websites, teaching classes) under skills, along with your other qualifications, but include general volunteer work (making meals for a soup kitchen, and so on) toward the end of your résumé in its own section or under activities.

Activities and interests

Include interests that may be relevant to the position, but aren’t professional skills (sports for an opportunity at Nike, student groups for leadership, golfing for business jobs, game design/play for game design jobs, blogging for PR jobs). Market yourself in the best light.

Include honours, awards, publications, conferences attended, languages known (including both written and oral fluency levels), and other features that could be valuable to an employer.


Do not write “references available upon request” on your résumé. Either include a section that lists your references, noting their name, title, employer, and best contact information, or don’t list references at all. Employers know they can ask for references if they’re considering hiring you. Generally, three references are sufficient, though you may find you want to include more as your career advances to higher levels. The most important references are your superiors, but you can also use co-workers, clients, or instructors. Contact each person to verify their willingness to act as a reference for you. Your reference sheet should match the look of your cover letter and your résumé.

Résumé guidelines

Photo #2: A conference call

The following tips will help you write a résumé that adheres to the conventions employers expect while ditching fluff in favor of expertise.

Using “me” and “I”

The convention in a résumé is to write in sentence fragments that begin with active verbs. Therefore, you can leave out the subjects of sentences. Example: “I eliminated the duplication of paperwork in my department by streamlining procedures” would become “Eliminated paperwork duplication in a struggling department by streamlining procedures.”

Quantifiable skills

The more you can present your skills and achievements in detail, especially quantifiable detail, the more authoritative you will sound. This means including references to technologies and equipment you have used, types of documents you have produced, procedures you have followed, languages you speak (noting both verbal and written fluency), numbers of employees you have supervised or trained, numbers of students you have taught, coding languages you know, types of clients you have worked with (cultural backgrounds, ages, disability status–demographic information that might be relevant in your new workplace), graphic design, blogging or social media skills, and so on.

Filler words (fluff)

Avoid generic filler words that can be found on many résumés and don’t suggest meaningful skills. These are examples of filler words:

  • Passionate
  • Strong work ethic
  • Duties include
  • Fast-paced
  • Self-motivated

If you MUST use these phrases, find concrete examples to back them up. For example, instead of using “team player,” include a time you collaborated with peers to earn a good grade on a project, save your company money, or put on a successful work event.


In at least one place in your résumé, preferably more, make mention of a positive impact (or result) of your skills/achievements. How did you create positive change for your employer, coworkers or customers? Did you resolve a customer complaint successfully? Did you make a change that saved your employer money? Did you build a website that increased traffic to your client? Did you follow procedures safely and reduce workplace injuries?

Building a better bullet (two skill bullet formulas)

Each skill bullet may need to go through a few revisions before it shines. Here are two formulas to help you strengthen your bullets:

Formula 1: Verb + Details = Results

Start your bullet with an action verb describing a skill or achievement. Follow it with the details of that skill or achievement, and then describe the positive impact of your achievement. For example:

  • Developed (VERB) new paper flow procedure (DETAILS), resulting in improved staff accuracy and customer wait times (RESULT)
  • Provided (VERB) friendly customer-focused service (DETAILS), leading to customer satisfaction and loyalty (RESULT)
  • Organized (VERB) fundraising event (DETAILS) generating $xxx dollars for nonprofit (RESULT)
  • Provided (VERB) phone and in-person support for patients with various chronic and acute health issues (DETAILS & RESULT COMBINED)
  • Supported (VERB) 8-10 staff with scheduling, filing, and reception (DETAILS), increasing efficiency in workflow (RESULT)
Formula 2: Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]

Develop your bullets by going into detail about how you accomplished what you have accomplished and why it matters to your potential employer. Compare the following three versions of the same skill bullet:

  • First draft:  Participated in a leadership program
  • Second draft:  Selected as one of 125 for year-long professional development program for high-achieving business students
  • Final draft:  Selected as one of 125 participants nationwide for year-long professional development program for high-achieving business students based on leadership potential and academic success

Note how the third version is not only the most specific, but it is the one that most demonstrates the “so what” factor, conveying how the applicant’s skills will benefit the potential employer.


Remember, use keywords you gathered in your pre-writing phase (from the job description, research into your field, and the “action verb” list presented earlier). If your potential employer is using résumé-scanning software, these keywords may make the difference between getting an interview or a rejection.


Résumé length is a much-debated question and guidelines change as the genre changes with time. In general, the length of a résumé for entry-level or junior positions should be no longer than two pages (and each page should be full—do not have one page full and another page only half full). Some fields, however, may have different length conventions (academic résumés, for example, which include publications and conference attendance, tend to be longer; executive-level résumés for senior candidates toward the end of their career can be quite long, as they have a lot more to showcase to future employers). If your résumé is on the longer side, your work history should justify the length. Some experts recommend one page per ten years of work history; while that may be too minimal, it is better to cut weaker material than to add filler. You can also experiment with your formatting and design so that you finish with either one full page or two full pages.


Résumé design should enhance the content, helping the reader to quickly find the most significant and relevant information.

A few general guidelines:

  • Templates are convenient, but bear in mind that, if you use a common template, your résumé will look identical to a number of others. Some of them are laughably overused.
  • Use tables to align sections, then hide the borders to create a neat presentation.
  • Use 10.5-12 point font for body text. Headings can be as large as 14-16pt. Your name can be even larger.
  • Don’t use too many design features; be strategic and consistent in your use of capitalization, bold, italics, underlining, and colour.
  • To create visual groupings of information, always use more space between sections than within a section. This way your reader will be able to easily distinguish between the key sections of your résumé and between the items in each section.
  • Use the same design scheme in your résumé and your cover letter to maximize coherence and consistency.

Field-specific conventions

You may find that there are certain conventions in your field or industry that affect your choices in writing your résumé. Length, formality, design, delivery method, and key terms are just some of the factors that may vary across disciplines. As an example, people applying for acting jobs always include a headshot (photograph of their face). Ask faculty or professional contacts in your field about employers’ expectations and visit the career center at your post-secondary institution or conduct web research to make informed field-specific choices.


Bennett, S. (2005). The elements of resume style: Essential rules for writing resumes and cover letters that work. AMACOM.

Simons, W., & Curtis, R. (2004). The guide to writing unbeatable résumés. McGraw Hill Professional.


This chapter was adapted from Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach by Rebekah Bennetch, Corey Owen, and Zachary Keesey, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Bennetch, Owen, and Keesey adapted their chapter from “Technical Writing” by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva (on Open Oregon). It is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Bennetch, Owen, and Keesey also adapted their chapter from “Business Communication for Success” by the University of Minnesota (on University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Bennetch, Owen, and Keesey also adapted their chapter from “Blueprint for Success in College and Career” by Lumen Learning and Linda (Bruce) Hill (on Rebus Community). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Photo #1 by Julian Christian Anderson on Unsplash

Photo #2 by Sigmund on Unsplash




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