You’ve submitted your resume for dozens of positions, maybe more. With each instance you discover you are not offered an interview, the frustration mounts. In my experience on search committees and working with students to critique resumes, I have noticed that the role of the resume is often misunderstood. It is commonly either (1) dismissed as a listing of work history and reference contacts, or (2) approached as though it is the only opportunity to display their interest.

In reality, the resume serves as an attractive “teaser,” almost like a movie trailer, that should be intended to reel the viewer in for more; in this case, further opportunity to discuss the position and your qualifications.

Not understanding the role of a resume is a surefire way for it to find its way to the bottom of a stack, or even worse, discarded. The resume, cover letter, and interview each play important roles in the application process. Failure to understand those roles may be the cause for your continued job search.

Before you submit your resume, take a few moments to reflect on what it is, and perhaps more important, what it isn’t, to better understand its function in the application process.

What it is: Focused

Before you do anything else, be sure that your resume matches the position you are applying for. The only thing more glaring than a generic objective is one that was clearly intended for another position. Take special care to tweak each resume to appear as though it was designed for that position, and that position only.

What it isn’t: A complete work history

There is seldom the need to list irrelevant work experience, especially several pages of it, unless there is a clear demand to explain gaps in employment history. Especially if you are challenged to limit your resume to one page, you shouldn’t feel obligated to list your fast food experience from high school for your professional position.

Pro tip: If you are having trouble paring items down, try applying the 1 page per 10 years of experience rule.


What it is: A demonstration of your qualifications

First ask yourself what qualifications the job requires. Be absolutely sure that your resume demonstrates you are competent in each. This is likely the first thing a hiring manager or supervisor is going to look for to narrow down the search. If you mistakenly omit a requirement like your education or an important certification that you’ve obtained, you may not be contacted for an interview.

What it isn’t: A list of your awards or every conference you attended

Graduating students tend to view resumes in the context of what they are used to (namely, scholarship applications), listing every award they’ve earned. Seasoned professionals often make the mistake of including every certification or training they’ve had.

In a recent example, an applicant had multiple pages including every webinar, workshop, and conference they had attended over the last several years. Although awards and professional development are important, a lot of those included weren’t immediately pertinent to the position they were pursuing. This extraneous information distracts from the most important points on the resume.

Pro tip: Instead, hand pick a few for further discussion in your cover letter, but only if they are directly relevant.

What it is: A chance to earn an interview

The general consensus is that your resume will likely only get a few seconds of attention initially, so be sure that the layout is simple, easy to read, and is organized in such a way that the most pertinent or unique information is at the top. Remember, you are trying to earn an interview with a one page document, not land a job with it.

What it isn’t: A distraction from your skills

Unfortunately, many spend inordinate amounts of time experimenting with different fonts, sizes, italics, and bolding to get things to stand out. A few even go so far as to print with color ink or on stylized paper. The fact is, this may only serve to distract the reader from what they are looking for. Instead, let your creativity shine through in your cover letter, or better yet, in the interview.

Pro tip: Create two versions of your resume with the same information that are stylistically different and put it to the test on peers or other professionals for feedback on which they prefer.

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