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Career Hacker: Does your IT resume pass the six-second test?

June 16, 2014 | By Lisa Dare, TEKsystems Digital Content Strategist

modern professional resume snapshot

As a former screener for a popular staffing firm, I've read hundreds of resumes, sometimes dozens in a single day. As the first step in the screening process, my job was to decide if your resume made it to the manager. This is pretty much how every job screening in the world works: If you don't pass the initial review, you never make it to the second step. 

And like most screeners, I didn't give your document lots of time to reveal your qualifications. In fact, the reported average time a hiring manager spends reading a resume is six seconds.

I’d guess my average was closer to 15 or 20, but job seekers applying for highly competitive positions shouldn't count on such a generous allowance.

What do recruiters look for?

  • Relevant skills. Really, this is pretty much all screeners care about. The best resumes list skills right at the top instead of burying them in the body. And they keep their list focused, leaving out skills that don’t apply and vague interpersonal abilities.
  • A work history that makes sense and shows progress. If your work history is all over the place, try expressing a theme through the achievements you list under each position. For example, say you started in the help desk, worked up to database admin and then moved to an InfoSec role. That likely didn't happen by accident. You probably found ways to learn about and contribute to IT security in your earlier positions—if so, highlight that. And minimize jobs that don’t pertain to the one you’re seeking by giving them less physical space on your resume.
  • Education and certifications. Just the facts, ma’am: Leave out the details of study unless you're positive they're relevant. A list usually works best.

What negatives get your resume tossed?

  • A resume that tells a confusing or vague story. My main complaint about resumes was that I couldn't understand many of them. Sometimes my head actually hurt from trying to figure out how the skills, experience, achievements and position applied for fit together. For tips on how to shape your resume into a coherent story, read next week’s Career Hacker post.
  • Large blocks of text. They’re not so much a red flag as a section recruiters simply don’t read (see some compelling heat maps that illustrate the point here). It’s not that we don’t try. With the best of intentions, we force our eyes into that imposing chunk of text under your most recent job, but quickly give up and head for the coffeepot (resumes are a real snooze after reading a dozen or two). And the lower on the page a job is, the less likely we are to even glance at a block of text underneath. If a recruiter can’t find what he or she needs quickly from your skills, job titles and bolded areas, they’ll probably move on to the next resume.
  • Inflated job descriptions. An IT hiring manager knows what a systems admin does, so don’t bother detailing every duty or trying to make it sound more important than it is. All that matters is what made your contribution special or that you learned something that pertains to the job you're applying for. So that’s all that should be in this spot. (Which screeners probably won't read anyway).
  • Skills with no business on a resume. Know Excel and PowerPoint? Yup, so does everyone else in the working population. Leave them off unless you want to look less qualified than you are. The same goes for those of you with video editing skills that you are never, ever (not ever!) going to use in your career as a business analyst. I know, it stinks. But maybe you can put those junior Spielberg skills to good work if your off-time like this guy did.
  • Buzzwords. I’m talking to you, "proactive," "strategic," "detail-oriented" "self-starters" who "leverage" tools and "create synergy" and then stuff all that verbiage into your poor little resume. Include these over-used terms and you’re pretty much guaranteeing some heavy eye-rolling from the hiring manager. Not the reaction you were going for? Try straightforward, unpretentious language to convey your message.
  • Finally, a note to the junior statisticians. Look, I know passing advanced stats courses and learning SPSS was an achievement. But unless it directly impacts the position you're applying for, the screener doesn't care, and you wasted one of your six seconds on it.

Interested in learning more about advancing your IT career? Read our recent posts, Fresh tips for preparing for your next IT job interview or Starting out in IT.

Lisa Dare is a marketing writer for TEKsystems who enjoys learning about IT from some of the smartest folks in tech. A former HR staffer, Lisa frequently blogs about work-life balance and career advice.