There are certain resume rules everyone knows because they’re practically engraved in stone. But the interesting thing is that most people also have a list of reasons why they’re the exception. Maybe you’ve seen the algorithms that multiply the number of jobs you’ve have by your years of experience, to tell you how long your resume really should be. Or, maybe you just know that you can break them in this one, specific instance.
With all the rules, and the amendments to the rules, it’s hard to know whether you should stick to conventional wisdom—or ignore it.
Well, here’s what we recommend:
1. Does Your Resume Still Need to Be One Page?
Let’s start with the fact that there is a real-life exception for when a one-page resume will not work in your favor. Federal resumes typically run two to five pages!
Not applying to work in the federal government? Then one page should be just right. Many people think it’s impossible to put their best foot forward with such little space; after all, if you’ve worked multiple jobs, that means cutting down the number of bullets—and maybe even leaving off certain work experience altogether. But here’s the secret: Deleting extra information works in your favor.
Cutting your experience down to one page forces you to zero in on the most relevant experience. Too many people have bullets that don’t really add anything (think: a language section that includes high school Spanish or every aspect of your first two jobs). If you cut all of the extraneous, decent bullets and focus solely on your greatest achievements and most applicable information—everything on that page is suddenly more relevant, more impressive, and more skim-able.
And that “rule” you might have heard that you can add a page for every five years of experience? I’m not buying it. I’ve seen people with more than a decade of experience who can write a concise, kick-ass resume on one page. So, don’t use time as a get out of jail free card.
When you might consider a second page is when you’re applying for an executive position. It should still be entirely composed of applicable, diverse sets of experience, but in this case you probably just have a lot more of it. In other words, you’ve held multiple jobs, you want to include your research, publications, or awards, and you have tech skills, language skills, and volunteering experiences as well. In this case, just add a summary statement that ties it all together concisely at the top.
2. Does Your Resume Arrangement Actually Matter?
First comes education, then experience, then skills, then a line about how your references are available upon request. There was a time—probably when you were applying for your first job out of college—when you were told to organize it this way. But that does not mean that every resume you submit for the rest of your career has to follow suit.
Unless you’re a recent grad, your education should never be above your experience. First, it shouts “young!” even if you’re a seasoned professional. Second, do you really want hiring managers to see your alma mater before they see the impressive programs you manage on a day-to-day basis? (Hint: No.)
Beyond that, you should think what arrangement makes the most sense for you. When I made the jump from full-time nonprofit work to editorial, mine started with “Editorial Experience” followed by a section called “Nonprofit Experience.” Had I just arranged my past roles in chronological order under a single “Experience” category, my writing roles would’ve seemed peppered in. This way, I was able to highlight how long I’d been writing and editing first, and then touch on my broader workplace history.
Not quite sure if you should restructure it? Muse columnist Lily Zhang gives great advice in her article, “4 Better Ways to Organize Your Resume, Depending on Who You Are and Where You're Going.”
3. Does it Matter if Your Resume Is Pretty?
OK, I saved the most controversial for last. This one is subjective, and the visual appeal of your resume may be important to some hiring managers and unimportant to others. (And irrelevant to some applicant tracking systems because the design might prevent the resume from being being read. So, if you are not submitting the resume via email, keep this in mind.)
There are a few things to take into consideration here. To start, this is not the most important rule. It doesn’t matter how gorgeous it is if it’s not relevant to the job you’re applying for (more on that here), and the cover letter that accompanies it is a generic one that names the wrong organization. That said, a well-designed one can get you in the door. In a creative field, some level of ingenuity may be expected, and in a non-creative field, you’ll definitely stand out.
Finally, I think there’s something to be said for the confidence boost. I’d never considered the aesthetic design of my resume until I was offered a free redesign by an expert earlier this year. Suddenly, I wanted to find excuses to share it any way I could, attaching it to all kinds of networking emails. Even if the resume makes a marginal difference in your search, the newfound self-assurance could inspire you to apply for jobs you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Sure, it’d be easier to let your resume be as long as you’d like and stick with the same structure no matter what. But you’re not looking for easy—you’re looking for the approach that’ll move you forward in the process. So, as you’re preparing your application, keep these questions and answers in mind, because with resumes, following the rules may just help you land the interview.