One of my Five Foundations of Applying with Sanity is to “be a person, not a résumé.” By that I mean to remember to think of yourself as an authentic person with complexity and contradictions, not just a list of achievements and statistics. That’s really important as a metaphor. But often you need a literal résumé. Scholarship applications may ask for a résumé. College applications sometimes (but not too often) ask for a résumé. Teachers and counselors may want a résumé to help them compose a recommendation letter. Potential employers very often ask for a résumé—that’s what résumés were created for. On top of that, it can be a useful exercise to go through and organize your thoughts about yourself and what you want to say about yourself. So with all that in mind, here are some things to consider when putting together, or revising, your résumé.

It’s strangely difficult to explain how to draft a résumé. The first thing I’d tell you to do is simply to do an image search for “resume samples” and notice the basic patterns. They’re just lists, but highly structured lists. The basic categories of things you would list are education, experience, and achievements. That’s where you begin your drafting, by listing the major facts of your education, like the high school(s) you’ve attended, your work experience, including volunteer work, and your awards and achievements. There are hundreds of guides and templates out there, but the best one I’ve come across recently is from the career center at Pomona College. It gives the basics, the reasoning for what goes there, and templates for different ways of organizing the résumé. Résumés are easier to revise than draft, so just get something written down, and then you can shape it from there.

There are also lots of fill-in-the-blank templates and résumé generators. Don’t use them. It’s important that you build your own from scratch, even if you’re looking at samples or templates as you do it. For one, you need to understand why you’re writing what you are, and why you’re placing it where you are. It’s easy to lose track of that when you’re just filling in information for a program to format for you. Revising and changing your résumé will be much easier and more intuitive if you make your own.

You’ll want to use a simple design. Keep it basic for your first résumé. Yes, there are some pretty good looking and clever templates out there to help you fit more information into the space or add photos or charts. But please understand that when most readers see this from a high school student, they’re not thinking “wow, this high school student made a really impressive design for their résumé!” They’re probably thinking “this kid expects me to believe they made this? They just used a fancy template. I wonder if they know how to write their own.”

Your résumé doesn’t need to have everything! It’s meant to begin a conversation, not be the conversation, so you want it to be concise and short. You’re trying to show off the things that speak to your finest abilities, and that’s different for everybody. Some students ask “should I have my GPA on my résumé?'“ If you’re proud of it, yes. Should you put your SAT or ACT scores on it? If you’re proud of them, sure. Should you list AP exams you’ve taken? If there’s more than one, absolutely. Should you list every class you’ve taken? No.

Similarly, you may decide not to list every tiny volunteer project you’ve ever done, especially if they were only a few hours total. If you house-sit for a number of families every year and it shows off your responsibility, then put it in the experience section. If you house-sat once for your aunt, there’s no need to put it on there. Everybody’s résumé will be different and list different things. There’s no precise formula. Make sure you’re listing, as concisely as possible, the broad outlines of your education, your experience in the world, and the achievements you’re proud of.

Two pages are fine if you need two pages. Many people will tell you that your résumé should never be more than a page, and they’re not completely wrong. Many readers—essentially the same ones who say a résumé should never be over a page—will not read past the first page. And if your résumé is over a page because you’ve failed to prioritize the important things or have weird formatting, then that’s a problem. But if you’ve got a reason to go onto the second page, it will be ok. Several studies have now shown that a second page doesn’t make you less likely to get hired. Watch out, though, for waste or sloppiness. If your résumé only goes a few lines into the second page, that looks odd. A second page should be at least half of the page. Otherwise, find ways to cut and condense.

But if it’s only a page, that’s great! Don’t feel like you need two.

People tend to read résumés (and most things, on the page or on the screen) in an F pattern. They spend most of their time looking at the top, along the left margin, and at headings as they work down. Knowing this, make sure you put the most important section of your résumé at the top. Which section is going to be the most important for your audience? Put it first, even if your templates or examples don’t show it first.

Likewise, make sure the most important information in your lists is along the left. Say for example that you were on the swim team all four years of high school, and you were the team captain your senior year. If you write

2015-2019: high school swim team. 2019 team captain.

then you’ve got the least important information (dates) along the left margin and the most important part (captain, which demonstrates leadership and responsibility) all the way over to the right. Organize the section so that you can instead write

Captain, high school swim team, 2019. Team member 2015-2019.

There can be more than one version of your résumé. The information is going to be the same for all versions, but there are reasons to make changes. The most important thing for one audience may not be the most important thing for another audience. A résumé for a college may need to emphasize your academic credentials, so the education section will be at the top. But if you’re supplying a résumé to a teacher who is going to write a rec letter, then you may want to emphasize experiences that demonstrate your character. Besides, the teacher is already likely to know about your grades and obviously knows what school you attend. So for that version, the experience section will go higher and the education section will go lower.

I’d also advise using slightly different fonts for your résumé depending on whether or not you expect it to be read on a screen or on paper. Graphic designers and font nerds will debate these things for days and days, but for our purposes: san-serif fonts are generally more readable on a screen. However, even if they’re not less legible on paper, sans-serif fonts often look strange when printed, because we’re so used to seeing serif fonts used for printed materials. So make a sans-serif version for the screen and a serif version for printing. And please don’t use Times New Roman or Calibri—no matter how good they are, they’re associated with “default” and therefore “didn’t really bother.”

It has to be perfect. Not a single typo. As someone who is very successful told me recently: “If you can’t make even one page perfect, when you’ve had lots of time to work on it and it’s all about you, then I don’t want to see you for an interview. You’re done.” She’s right. This one needs to be perfect.

Don’t give or send someone a résumé unless they ask for it. Remember that the point of your résumé is to provide a concise summary of your past four years. It’s meant to start a conversation or get someone to notice you. But if they’ve already noticed you or already started a conversation, then to hand them a résumé can be very limiting. It signals that you want to talk about what’s on the paper, when you have much more interesting things to talk about. Like your complexity and contradictions.

Photo by Zoe Herring.

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