With the unemployment rate hovering around 9.6 percent, job seekers must work hard to stand out. Even if you're not looking now, it still pays to have a résumé ready. "I suggest updating three or four times per year," says Richard McDonald, president of A Advanced Resume Service in suburban Chicago. In an era of rolling layoffs, he notes, you don't want to be caught unprepared. Here's some advice from McDonald and others on how to ensure that your résumé makes the best case for you.
Highlight your accomplishments. "Lead with the results of your work, rather than the work itself," says Pat Goodwin, an Austin-based résumé consultant with 20 years of experience. For example, did you find a way to increase sales, streamline operations, or create a new business opportunity? You want to make clear that you weren't just an average employee, so look for ways to show how you excelled, Goodwin says. Wherever possible, lead with the benefit for the company. For instance, "The ABC Company saved $2 million after implementing my new expense tracking system" probably catches the eye of hiring managers more than: "My expense tracking system saved the ABC Company $2 million."
If you have held positions that don't provide easily translatable achievements, like a textbook editor, then try rephrasing your job descriptions in the form of accomplishments, Goodwin suggests. For instance, say how many chapters of a given book you've edited, rather than simply saying your job is to edit.
Focus on the numbers. John Nicholson, the proprietor of Resumes That Jump in Washington, D.C., advises applicants to use numbers to catalog their accomplishments. When scanning a sentence, the human eye naturally halts when it encounters a number. "You can use that to your advantage," Nicholson says. It will demonstrate "your appreciation for the types of metrics that businesses use to evaluate both their own performance and that of their employees."
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Incorporate key words. Many corporations require applicants to submit digitized résumés. Special software then scans each submission, looking for key words, and screens out those documents that don't reflect the specified job experience. According to Jack Wolf of JWC Professional Resume Services in Los Angeles, it's best to keep these résumés as simple as possible, using the words that a computer may search for, while still honestly reflecting your background. Nicholson adds that the job postings themselves are a good place to find the language you'll want to incorporate. A plumbing candidate, for example, might want to include "sump pumps," "HVAC systems," and "drinking fountains"; an economist, proficiency in SAS/FAME programming and statistical analysis.
Don't exaggerate. As often as applicants are warned to avoid making false claims about their experience or accomplishments, many still fall into this trap. "The job scene is so competitive" that résumés which previously "may have passed without as much scrutiny are now being more closely examined, and anything that you can't explain is going to get caught," says Roleta Fowler Vasquez, a certified professional résumé writer in Fillmore, Calif.
Review your work. "Spell-check is your friend, but it can also betray you with words like manger and manager," says Irene Marshall, a Fremont, Calif., résumé coach. "Reading your résumé aloud word-for-word to someone else is the best way to catch those types of errors."
Leave something for the interview. If you're having trouble describing your accomplishments, experts advise thinking of your résumé as a set of talking points to use should you be invited for an interview. If the résumé conveys what you've done and what you've accomplished, then face-to-face meetings are the place to show how you think and what type of coworker you're likely to be.