kupicoo/Getty Images
kupicoo/Getty Images

What prompts you to click into an article when you’re browsing online? I’ll bet I know your answer: the headline. As consumers of media—all types of media—we gravitate toward a compelling headline. That’s what prompts us to give something our attention, right?

The same principle applies when it comes to your resume: A great resume headline will draw recruiters and hiring managers into the story of you and entice them to keep reading.

If you don’t already have a headline on your resume, you may have just thought, “What is she talking about?” And even if you do have one, you may be underutilizing this incredibly valuable real estate. So let’s talk.

As a certified professional resume writer (who has written hundreds upon hundreds of resumes), I strongly recommend using a headline. Whether you’re fresh out of college and looking for your first “real” job, or hoping to snag a CFO role 20+ years into your career, a brilliant headline can make a big difference when it comes to landing an interview.

Here’s everything you need to know about what resume headlines are, why they work, and how to add one to that stellar resume you’ll use to land your next job.

What Is a Resume Headline?

A resume headline is a concise description of yourself right at the top of your resume. It consists of job titles and/or a brief phrase that announce to the reader who you are in relation to the role you’re pursuing. It’s where you tell a decision maker—who is most likely skimming quickly through a hefty pile of applications—that you’re a great fit for that job.

When writing resumes for my clients, I typically use this formula:

One to Three Commonly Used Job Titles That Describe You (In Plain English)
Keyword-Rich Subhead Showcasing Something That Makes You a Standout for That Role

You might also consider a one-line headline that combines your title with an attention-grabbing phrase, something like this:

Job Title with X Years’ Experience Doing This Directly Relevant Thing

Job Title Who Achieved This Very Impressive Result

And, certainly, you could go with just one to three titles without the subhead or phrase. That’s better than having no headline at all but I’d argue it’s a missed opportunity to share something specific that ties your capabilities to the requirements of that job.

Your headline should go right below your name and contact information, and right above your summary, if you choose to use a summary (otherwise it would go right before your work experience or whatever section you start with). It might look something like this:

Sharlene Sample
Portland, OR | 971-567-8910 | sharsample@email.com

Technical Writer | Trainer & Instructor
Transforming Complex Technical Information Into Compelling and Actionable Content, Lessons, & Documentation

[Resume Summary or Work Experience section here]

Why Should I Use a Resume Headline?

Resume headlines (and subheadings) work because they allow you to frame who you are and what your core value proposition is to the recruiter or hiring manager you’re trying to reel in, right at the top of the document. Simply put, this is your single best—and most immediate—chance to signal that you’re just what they’re looking for and prompt them to keep reading, which is exactly what you want them to do.

Your headline also makes it more likely the recruiter or hiring manager will see your application in the first place, by giving you an opportunity to embed relevant keywords into your resume. Keywords—words and phrases (e.g. job titles, skills, educational credentials, etc.) that align with the job description—can increase the odds that your resume passes through an applicant tracking system (ATS) and gets in front of human reviewers who will ultimately make the hiring decisions.

6 Tips for Writing a Great Resume Headline

So what makes for a great headline? A great headline will be both keyword-rich and provide a short and snappy elevator pitch of sorts—something that summarizes what you’re all about in relation to the job or jobs you’re pursuing. Here’s what I recommend:

1. Position Yourself for the Job You Want (But Don’t Lie)

Again, your goal is to set the stage with recruiters and hiring managers that you’re exactly what they’re looking for. Given this, the more closely you can align your resume to the job or jobs you want next—without being dishonest, of course—the better.

For instance, if you’re a marketing manager who’s built a successful e-commerce platform for your current employer and you’re applying for jobs at companies looking for a marketing leader with e-commerce experience, you’d be wise to announce that you’re a marketing leader with that specific experience in your headline.

2. Tailor Your Headline for Each Role You Pursue

Building on tip number one, keep in mind that your resume headline is not a tattoo. You can, and should, modify your headline as needed if you’re applying for jobs with varying requirements.

So if you’re that same marketing manager and you’re applying for another job that emphasizes social media marketing—and you also have experience doing that—you shouldn’t hesitate to swap out the e-commerce mention for something more specific to social media.

3. Keep It Concise

Brevity and strategy are key with your headline. It should be a succinct one-liner if you’re combining title(s) with a powerful phrase about your fitness for this job. Or if you’re using title(s) and a subhead—like my team typically does—make sure you limit the subhead to no more than one line.

4. Avoid Clichés

Don’t waste your valuable real estate with fluff words and cliché phrases like “detail-oriented” and “outside-the-box.” Recruiters see these lines so often that their eyes will likely slide right past, and that’s the exact opposite of your goal here.

5. Use Common Job Titles

If you’re looking for a job as a chief of staff and are basically working as one now, but have an oddball title that doesn’t immediately or clearly convey what you do, introduce yourself as a chief of staff in that headline. It all comes back to the keywords both the ATS and the people reading your resume are looking for. You don’t want to miss the chance to be considered for a full-stack engineering role because your current company uses the title “full-stack magician” or be overlooked for a customer support role because your last company insisted on the title “weekend happiness concierge” (yes, those are real examples).

6. Highlight Accomplishments

If you’re a high performer (pfffft, of course you are) with impressive, quantifiable results that you can share, this is a great place for you to do so. Take a look at the examples below to see what this could look like in action.

What Does a Resume Headline Actually Look Like?

OK, so how does this all come together? Let’s run through a few examples.

Say you’re a project and program manager who just earned your Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. You’ve selected a few project and program management jobs that you want to apply for and notice that this certification is consistently listed as a preferred qualification. (Hooray, you have it!) You’re also seeing a common theme among the job descriptions that got you excited—they all call for someone who has worked with SaaS (or software as a service) companies. Great news, you have.

Your headline and subhead, then, may look like this:

PMP-Certified Project Manager | Senior Program Manager
Delivering Complex Projects—On Time & Within Budget—for Global SaaS Providers

This keyword-rich headline tells the reviewer right away that you are a project manager and a program manager and that you have the valuable PMP certification. And then the subhead makes it clear that you have experience in a SaaS environment and know how to successfully deliver projects on deadline and within budget. You’ll also notice that every word in the headline and subhead earns its spot on the page. There is no fluff. There are no clichés.

Everything works together to bring the reader into your story and make them eager to continue on into your summary section (which, by the way, is where you expound a bit on who you are as a professional, with the job you want in mind).

Let’s do another. This one is for a new mechanical engineering graduate looking for engineering jobs in the robotics industry. This time, we’ll go with a headline that combines title and power phrase in a single line:

Purdue University BSME Honors Graduate With Robot Programming Experience

This one capitalizes on the prestige of a Purdue University engineering degree and showcases the candidate’s experience with a specific requirement of many robotics engineering jobs—the ability to program a robot.

Here are a few more headline examples, for a variety of industries and roles:

Nonprofit Leader | Executive Director | Director of Development
Driving Transformative Performance on Behalf of Global Humanitarian Agencies

Supply Chain Manager | Logistics Team Lead
Optimizing Operational Performance in Global Manufacturing Environments

Executive Assistant | Office Manager
Enabling Business Leaders to Thrive by Delivering World-Class Administrative Support

Or we could take those same three people and create one-line headlines for them:

Nonprofit Director Who Has Successfully Raised $5M for Children’s Charities

Supply Chain Leader With 15 Years’ Experience Managing End-to-End Global Supply Chains

Executive Assistant—an Indispensable Partner to Senior Business Leaders

Whether you choose to give your resume headline a subhead or keep it to just one line is really a matter of personal preference. What’s important is that you have one in the first place and use it to your advantage.

Always remember that no one is going to magically deduce how or why you’d make a great fit for any particular role—neither the ATS nor the human reviewer. It’s your job to ensure that the “you on paper” makes sense as the very best candidate to the decision makers at the helm. And it all starts with the headline.

Updated 8/5/2020