Writing a resume can be one of the biggest hurdles to actually getting started with your job search. A resume is a document that summarizes who you are, what you’ve done, and what skills you have in a way that shows the person reading it why you’re the right person for a certain job. It’s also often the first—and possibly the only—impression that somebody will have of you before they decide whether or not to interview you. That’s a lot of pressure!
Using a resume outline can help you get started on creating (or revising) this all-important document. A resume outline is just a document where you’ve listed anything that could possibly go on your resume—before dealing with formatting or anything else. Making a resume outline can be “a great exercise to get everything out,” says Muse career coach Jenn Smith, founder of Flourish Careers. Once you have all the information in front of you, “it’s easier to pull out what you need...for different job descriptions and organizations.”
Muse career coach Jennifer Fink, founder of Fink Development, recommends starting with an outline before you decide anything else about your resume, including how you’ll arrange the sections on the page or what resume template you might use. When we start with predetermined resume formatting, “we remove essential content because we feel like we need to keep ourselves in the box that we started with,” Fink says. “It's more important to me that you identify the right content and then select the best format, versus choosing a beautiful format that your content doesn't fit in.”
So what information goes in a resume outline? And what do you do once you have one?
What Belongs in a Resume Outline?
To make a resume outline—sometimes called a master resume—open up a blank document and write down relevant information for any or all of the following sections that apply to you:
Name and Contact Information
The first thing on your resume should be your name and contact information. This always includes your phone number and email address, and Smith urges her clients to just put one of each. Putting multiple phone numbers or email addresses will just confuse the people looking to contact you.
You might also want to include the URL for your LinkedIn profile and/or your personal website or online portfolio. Including your website makes most sense if you’re applying to jobs in creative fields like design or writing where samples of your work will help boost your application.
If you’re applying to a job local to you, you might also want to include your location at the top of your resume, especially if the industry you work in is primarily or entirely based in that location, says Smith. There’s no need to write out your street address: Just city and state will suffice. If you’re willing or planning to relocate or are applying for remote jobs, you can skip listing a location or write “open to relocating.”
Resume Headline (Optional)
You can also include a resume headline which sums up who you are in a few words, often a job position. This usually goes right next to or below your name. For example, you might say “Maria Reyes, CPA” or “Tom Dillon, Primary School Teacher.” Or you might consider a longer resume headline that’s still concise but gives some more detail about who you are as an applicant. For example, “Erica Powell, Social Media Manager Gaining More Than 6 Million Twitter Followers for Brand Accounts.”
Resume Summary (Optional)
You may have heard of a “resume objective,” but those are quickly becoming obsolete. Instead, consider writing out a resume summary—a statement of one to three sentences that quickly summarizes who you are as a candidate and typically goes right below your contact information.
You can and should tweak your resume summary for each job application that you submit, but doing a quick sketch of it on your outline will help you think about your most important experience, accomplishments, and skills. Smith suggests that your summary statement always be forward thinking and indicate where you hope to go next with your career.
Work or Professional Experience
“Your resume will always have a professional experience section, as your resume is [primarily] used for communicating how your experience fits into the job you’re applying to,” Fink says. And that professional experience will likely take up the bulk of your resume.
For your resume outline, write out all of your past jobs—yes, all of them!—including your title, the company, the location, and the dates you worked there. Under that, write out a list of bullet points summarizing your job duties and major achievements while you worked there. Like your summary statement, you’ll adjust depending on what jobs you apply for, but for now, write out as much as you remember—you never know which past jobs and specific accomplishments might line up well with a position you want to apply for.
List your degree and major or concentration for every school you’ve attended, including graduate schools and online programs. If you graduated recently, you should also list the year you received your degree(s), but you may decide to leave them off as you get older and further along in your career. If you have a college degree (associate’s or bachelor’s) it’s not necessary to list your high school unless it’s especially relevant to the specific job you’re applying for. However, if you have a master’s degree or higher, you should still list your undergrad degree.
If you’re early in your career, you can also list your GPA (if it’s impressive), honors or awards, key courses that you took, theses, and/or bullet points summarizing major achievements or projects.
The skills you list on your resume might vary depending on the types of jobs you’re going after. So for your resume outline list everything that you think could be relevant in your job search.
If you need help figuring out what skills might matter, pull up a few job descriptions for positions you might be interested in and look at the requirements they list. Write down any skills you have and any related skills you’re reminded of. Think about your past job duties and what skills you developed (or already had) to help you do your job. It might be helpful to divide your skills into categories such as “technical skills,” “languages,” or even more specific categories like “accounting software” or “design skills.”
Make sure you’re honest about what skills you have. Don’t just list skills you think you should have or you think will impress a hiring manager. If you can describe how you’ve used the skill and/or how you learned it, you’re probably good listing it on your resume. Otherwise, leave it off.
Professional Certifications (Optional)
This one is pretty straightforward. List out any professional certifications you have and the dates you received them, if relevant. Not all careers have certifications, so skip this section if it doesn’t apply to you.
Volunteer Experience (Optional)
Just because you didn’t get paid doesn’t mean the skills and experience you picked up volunteering don’t count! List out any volunteering you’ve done, along with the name of the organization or group you did it with and where, when, and what you did. If you know any of the results of your volunteer work (whether that’s something like money raised or the effect the project had on people) put that on your resume outline as well.
Other Projects (Optional)
If you’ve done projects outside of your formal work experience that are relevant to the types of jobs you want, you can list them on your resume. This might include things like personal coding projects if you’re seeking jobs in software development, or starting a YouTube channel if you're looking to get into video editing or marketing.
Professional Affiliations (Optional)
If you’re part of any professional groups, note them on your resume outline along with the years you’ve been a member and if you’ve ever held any positions within the group. If you have, you can list the duties you took on as part of that position as well.
If you’re part of a group that isn’t quite a professional group, but you’ve done things with them that are relevant to the role or industry you’re pursuing, you might want to include an activities section (like if you’ve helped plan a fundraiser to benefit a local charity and you’re applying to work at a nonprofit). If you’re a current student or recent grad, think about extracurriculars you’ve participated in—particularly if they relate directly to your career (like if you’re trying to get a job in arts administration and you were a member of an improv troupe on campus). Include the years you’ve been a member, what you’ve done with the group, if you’ve ever held any positions or offices within the group, and the duties of that position or office.
Hobbies and Interests (Optional)
You might have heard that you should include your interests or hobbies on your resume. This isn’t always the case. Smith recommends including your interests and hobbies on your resume if they’re relevant and there’s space left on the page.
So if you compete in Ironman competitions and you’re applying to work in fitness, go ahead and list that. However, you shouldn’t be cutting relevant experience or skills to get your hobbies and interests to fit on your resume.
You should also be able to put your interests and hobbies into context. If you say you’re interested in robotics, that doesn’t mean much to a hiring manager, but if you write that you built your own robot for a competition, that shows a range of skills. Similarly, anyone who’s applying to work for a travel company can say that they’re interested in travel, but if you say that you’ve been to 20 countries and chronicled your trips in a blog, that shows that you’re really passionate.
How Do You Use a Resume Outline to Make Your Resume?
Once you’ve written out everything above, you’ll see that you still don’t have a resume. You’ll also notice that your “outline” is much longer than the document you originally set out to make. This is where resume formatting and tailoring comes in.
Here are a seven tips to help you translate the information in your outline into an actual resume:
1. Use a Template
One easy way to make your resume outline into a resume is to use a template. The Muse has a (free!) chronological template that will work for most job seekers. And if you’re a current student or recent graduate, you might consider using a template like this that places education first.
If you want to comb through a bigger selection, here are 41 free options.
2. But Don’t Be Afraid to Tweak It
Sometimes you find a template you like, but some of the details aren’t exactly right for you. For example, just because the recent grad template above lists three past positions with five bullet points each, doesn’t mean you can’t delete one position or subtract or add bullet points depending on what each past role warrants. Or maybe that “Activities” section would serve you better as a “Volunteer Experience” section. Whatever it is, don’t hesitate to adapt an existing template to fit your needs.
3. Consider the Order of Your Resume
While most people will want to list their professional experience first, in reverse chronological order, that’s not always the best way to communicate you’re most qualified for a job. “You want your resume to quickly and clearly communicate your fit for the specific role you're applying to,” Fink says. “This means that...you may need to restructure your content so that the most pertinent information is highlighted accordingly.”
So if you’re a recent graduate, your education might go ahead of your work history. Or if you’re looking for a position outside of your current field, you might consider listing your skills first (so that a hiring manager immediately sees what you bring to the table). You might even pull up and feature that volunteer experience that made you realize you wanted to change careers in the first place (so that whoever’s reading your resume knows why you want this job), Fink says.
4. Tailor the Content to the Job
Regardless of which template you use (or if you use one at all), you’ll want to think about how to best communicate who you are and why you’re right for the job.
First decide what information from your resume outline is most important for the job you’re applying to. Your contact information will always stay the same, but with everything else, pick out only what’s most relevant to the job you’re applying for.
For example, that job scooping ice cream in high school doesn’t need to be on your resume when you’re applying for project management positions. But that job just out of college where you ended up managing a large project that brought in tons of new revenue probably should be (with a description of that project and your related achievements in the bullet points below)—as long as you aren’t deleting more recent project management experience to make room for it. If you’re worried about creating long gaps on your resume, you can always list less-relevant positions without dedicating a lot of space to describing them.
You should also edit your resume to include keywords—the words a job description mentions multiple times that are especially important to the position. For example, don’t only say that you’re an Excel expert if the job description mentions “spreadsheets” multiple times. Smith also suggests editing your resume summary to match the tone of the company or job description.
Read More: What it Really Means to “Tailor Your Resume”
5. Write Strong, Descriptive, and Relevant Bullet Points
If you look at resume examples and templates, you’ll see that under each experience there’s often space for a few bullet points. Here is where you want to talk about your job duties and achievements, highlighting the aspects of your past jobs that are most relevant for the job you’re applying to. Whenever you can, include the results of the work you did and use numbers to describe how much work you did and the impact of that work.
6. Stay Away From Fancy Formatting
Many companies use an applicant tracking system (ATS)—computer software that sorts through resumes and identifies the most qualified applicants for recruiters and hiring managers. This software can’t read a lot of formatting—including text boxes and graphics—so a plain resume that sticks to using italics, bold font, underlining, and color to emphasize text is the way to go.
7. Get Your Resume Down to One Page
If you’re further along in your career, you can get away with a two-page resume, but otherwise, it’s a good practice to get your resume onto one page. Not only are recruiters more likely to read the entire resume, but it’s also a good way to make sure you’re only including the most relevant information.
Creating a resume outline won’t just help you with your current job search. Once you have that comprehensive document you can easily go back to it the next time you’re on the job hunt, add what you’ve done since you last looked, and tailor your content for your new target positions. That’s much less stressful than starting from scratch each time.