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It’s not easy to take years’ (or decades’!) worth of your work history, skills, and accomplishments and wrangle it into a one-page document that’s optimally organized to convince a stranger to give you a job and the salary and benefits that go with it. But it is possible.

While there are endless decisions you could make about your resume (font! colors! number of bullets!), the biggest one is simply: What format should you use? Here’s everything you need to know about the three most common resume formats and how to pick the right one for you.


The Chronological Resume

When someone says the word “resume,” the image that comes to mind is probably a chronological resume, since it’s the kind that job seekers use most frequently and therefore the one recruiters and hiring managers see most often. Also known as a reverse-chronological resume, which is a slightly more accurate label, it puts the spotlight on your work experience listed from most recent to least recent.


What Goes Into a Chronological Resume?

A chronological resume contains the following components, roughly in this order:


Should You Use a Chronological Resume Format?

Most job seekers could make good use of a chronological resume, from recent graduates to seasoned executives. It’s an especially natural fit for anyone who’s pursued a relatively linear and consistent path without any major pivots or big gaps.

There are two major advantages to this format. Because the chronological resume is so common, recruiters and hiring managers are familiar with the format and know how to read it. They can quickly and easily see how you built your career. This resume format also tends to pass through applicant tracking systems more smoothly than other formats. (An applicant tracking system, or ATS, is software that helps employers manage the hiring process, including scanning applications. More on resume formats and applicant tracking systems below.)

The downside is that if you’re changing careers, have had a complicated or varied path, or are returning from a long period away from the workforce, the chronological resume could highlight those gaps and make it difficult for those reading it to decipher what skills you bring to the table that would make you a strong candidate for this particular role.


Example of a Chronological Resume

What does this all actually look like? You can take a look at an example chronological resume below and click here to download a copy.


Chronological resume example (click for downloadable Google doc version)

Read more about the chronological resume


The Functional Resume

A functional resume, also known as a skills-based resume, takes a different tack. Instead of focusing on your work history, it gives the most space and attention to key skills and accomplishments that are relevant to the role you’re applying for. You’d still include a brief section about your work experience, but wouldn’t include any further description or detail.


What Goes Into a Functional Resume?

A functional resume contains the following components, roughly in this order:

  • Name and contact information
  • Summary statement (optional)
  • Skills/areas of expertise, typically grouped into a few subcategories relevant to the role, with related accomplishments and details below each skill or group of skills
  • Work history (or relevant work history) including the role, company, location, and dates
  • Education
  • Additional skills, hobbies, interests, activities, volunteer experience, awards, and/or any other relevant section (optional)


Should You Use a Functional Resume Format?

Functional resumes are sometimes recommended for job seekers who don’t have any recent work experience (or any traditional work experience at all), those who are making a major career change, and folks whose work history is all over the map.

But should you really use a functional resume? The answer in most cases is probably not, according to Muse writer Jaclyn Westlake, a recruiter and former HR manager. Recruiters are often suspicious of functional resumes, and might assume that an applicant using one is trying to hide something.

Recruiters and hiring managers are sifting through a lot of resumes, so your goal as a job seeker is to make it as easy as possible for them to read and understand yours. Since the functional resume is far less common than the typical chronological resume and includes only the bare bones of your work history toward the bottom of the page, it can be harder to parse.

Besides the fact that “recruiters and employers are distrustful of them,” functional resumes “become a garbled mess when they pass through the ATS,” says Amanda Augustine, career expert for TopResume. Augustine urges job seekers to avoid the functional resume even if they’re making a pivot. “You’re better off using the professional summary section of your combination resume to highlight your relevant skills, rather than resorting to a functional resume format.”


Example of a Functional Resume

You can take a look at an example functional resume below and click here to download a copy.


Functional resume example (click for downloadable Google doc version)

Read more about the functional resume


The Combination Resume

If the chronological and functional resume formats sit on two ends of a spectrum, the combination resume can be found somewhere in the middle. Sometimes referred to as a hybrid resume, it features relevant skills at the top and a section with your detailed work history listed in reverse-chronological order. In other words, it’s a format that allows you to emphasize both aspects on relatively footing.


What Goes Into a Combination Resume?

A combination resume contains the following components, roughly in this order:

  • Name and contact information
  • Summary statement (optional)
  • Relevant/key skills
  • Work history (or relevant work history) including the role, company, location, and dates as well as details about your accomplishments in that role
  • Education
  • Additional skills, hobbies, interests, activities, volunteer experience, awards, and/or any other relevant section (optional)


Should You Use a Combination Resume Format?

The combination resume might be a good choice if you’re not sure your work history alone would tell the right story about you as a candidate for the kinds of roles you’re interested in. If you’re a career changer, a veteran, or a recent graduate, the combination resume could serve you well. This format can also be helpful if you have a lot of experience, a multi-track job history, or big gaps in employment.

The combination resume carries some of the same risks as a functional resume in the sense that some employers might assume you’re trying to hide something. However, because it does include the chronological work history that recruiters and hiring managers expect to see, it’s less likely to feel cagey. It also lets you to take a little bit more control of the story you’d like to tell and highlight why you’d be a great fit for the job even if your past roles don’t immediately say so.

It “allows the recruiter, like me, to pay very close attention to skill sets first. What do they think they’re really good at?” recruiter Steven Davis, a Muse career coach, told The Muse.


Example of a Combination Resume

You can take a look at an example combination resume below and click here to download a copy.


Combination resume example (click for downloadable Google doc version)

Read more about the combination resume


What to Know About Resume Formats and Applicant Tracking Systems

Now you know all the basics about the big three resume formats—and perhaps have a sense of which one might be the best fit for you and your job search. But before you go off and craft the perfect document, there are a few other things you should know about your resume format.

We’ve talked a lot about how your resume will look and feel to recruiters and hiring managers. But in this day and age, your application might never reach a human hand if it doesn’t “impress” the applicant tracking system first. Companies often use this software to scan incoming resumes and surface ones that are more likely to be a good fit for the role. Using the right keywords, of course, is crucial, but it’s not enough on its own.

“ATS-parsing technology favors documents that have a clear hierarchy to their information, so combination and chronological resume formats work best,” says Augustine. She also recommends keeping your name and contact information (or any other pertinent details) out of the header and footer of the document so it doesn’t get lost. In other words, yes, put your name and contact info at the top of the page, but don’t literally double-click into the separate part of document that Word calls the “Header” and put it there.

And don’t go wild with the visuals! “When it comes to your format, less is often more,” says Augustine. “Stick to a simple, clean resume design without including charts, images, or unusual fonts. Save the creative design elements for your online profile or portfolio.” The same goes for fonts—stick to a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial rather than getting too fancy.

If you want to do a quick proxy test to see whether an ATS will be able to read your resume, Augustine suggests copying and pasting it into a plain text file. “If this version of your resume is missing details, includes odd characters, or looks disorganized, then you know your format will require some changes before it will pass safely through the ATS,” she says.