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Career Hacker: How to get your resume past the initial screening

June 30, 2014

Does this sound familiar? A few years ago I got stuck in job search limbo, sending out dozens of carefully crafted resumes but getting little response and not knowing why. But then I worked on the other side—screening resumes—and saw exactly what was wrong with most people's resumes, including mine. Hint: It’s not about the usual suspects like choosing the perfect format or keywords, or striking that oh-so-delicate balance between humility and confidence.

A resume epiphany

My “aha” moment came when I was screening dozens of resumes a day for a political staffing firm. At least half the candidates applying were exceptionally accomplished people, but I had to reject their resumes because I simply couldn't make sense of them. Resumes listed jobs that seemed to have little in common with each other, a mish-mash of impressive skills that didn't relate to the job applied for, and a summary that tried to be all things to all hiring managers. My head literally hurt trying to figure out what these candidates were about. No matter how well-written or impressive the skills, I simply couldn't hand unclear resumes to the hiring manager.  

Without a clear resume narrative, a screener will have a hard time understanding your abilities, traits and career goals—and will probably move on to the next resume pretty quickly. After all, who would take the time to interview a candidate who may not be a good fit for the job when there are so many candidates who obviously are?  

A simple test for your resume

Want to know if you have a cohesive resume that will please a hiring manager or a confusing one that will confound him? Here’s a simple test: Have a friend read your resume and sum it up in one clear sentence. It should sound something like this: “Jordan is senior-level .Net developer who specializes in corporate Web development.” Can your friend summarize it in one clear sentence? Does that sentence sound accurate? If so, your resume tells a clear story. But if your friend finds the exercise frustrating or the person she’s describing simply is not you, you have some editing to do.

How to make your resume tell a story

Of course, shaping a random set of skills, job titles and accomplishments into a clear narrative is challenging. And this is especially true for many IT pros, who frequently change skills and positions. But you can take two steps to make this task easier.

1. Write and edit for your job posting. Are you looking for an IT business analyst consulting position with a large corporation? Focus every part of your resume on the skills, duties, achievements and certifications that directly apply to this position. Weed out everything else, and be ruthless. You may have gotten some cool mobile apps off the ground, but if those achievements don’t apply to your desired job, remove them. Use that reclaimed space to emphasize times where you re-engineered processes to save time or built a business case for an initiative that paid off.

2. Enlist feedback from a friend. Your peer networks will be your best bet because they understand your professional world. In addition, people you’re less comfortable with will probably give you sharper feedback than your closest companions. Ask your friends if your resume tells a clear story—and what they think that story is. Your readers should compare it to your job posting and suggest details you can delete.

These exercises will help you see your resumes through someone else’s eyes. Once you have that clarity, the changes you need to make will become obvious. Now go read up on interviewing tips from a long-time IT recruiter—you're probably going to need them!

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.

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