Most recent revision of this article was led by Communication Fellow Linda Seymour.
Criteria for Success
- Convincing. Quickly convince them that you are qualified for the target job. Tailor the resume to showcase your skills and experiences that match those required for the job.
- Brief. Typically, a recruiter spends less than 60 seconds skimming a resume. A resume is no more than 2 pages (1 sheet of paper).
- Visually Clear. The organization and formatting help the reader find the information that shows you are qualified and driven.
- Specific and Quantified. Your experiences should be concrete and outcome-oriented.
- Error-Free. There are no typos or errors, and formatting is consistent.
Resumes must quickly convince readers that you are qualified
Your resume and cover letter are the gateway to move forward in the recruiting process. Your resume needs to concisely demonstrate to a potential employer that you are well-qualified for the specific job to which you applied. Once you get the interview, your resume further serves to direct the conversation, so you should include interesting talking points that are relevant for you as a candidate and as a person.
Just to clarify: A CV is a kind of resume
A curriculum vitae (CV) is a special kind of resume intended for academic or research positions. In this article, we say “resume” to mean “resume or CV,” except when we contrast the two, as below.
|Goal||Demonstrates that your experiences and skills qualify you for the target job||Shows your academic achievements and research qualifications for the position|
|Length||Strict 2-page (1 sheet of paper) limit; Preferably 1 page||2-3 pages for a graduate student; gets longer through a career|
|Typical sections include…||
Analyze your audience
You may wish to keep a “master resume” detailing all of your experiences and skills; however, when it comes time to submit an application you will want to edit this master copy and tailor it for the specific job to which you are applying. Start by using the job description and any listed requirements to emphasize your corresponding experiences and skills. Then, research who will be reading your resume and what they will be looking for in the document, such as industry-specific language, leadership skills, or certifications. Design your resume to pique the interest of the specific reader(s) receiving it.
Be memorable, but sharp. You don’t need to tell your entire story (in fact, you shouldn’t). Remember that the people reading your resume will be reading stacks of resumes from qualified candidates and you have less than 60 seconds to convince them that you are worth putting in the “yes” pile. Save the details of your life story for the interview.
Make a custom resume for every application
For each position, read the job posting carefully. Make a list of what qualifications are required for the specific role you are applying for. For example, a job posting that says you will “drive independent research” might require very different skills from one that says you will “work closely with an interdisciplinary team”.
Next, highlight the skills and accomplishments that demonstrate that you have those qualifications or that show you can excel in the position. To do this, you can
- include different experiences in your resume
- put more bullet points under the most relevant experiences
- move important experiences earlier in the document
- emphasize different outcomes from your experiences
Resumes in particular have limited space, so you should be critical about what experiences you should include and which you should leave out.
Concretize, Quantify, and Demonstrate Impact
Give concrete – preferably quantitative – evidence that you are a qualified match for the organization you want to work in and the specific role to which you’re applying. If possible, also showcase the impact of your work.
A general formula for highlighting your experiences is:
(Appropriate-tense action verb) + (Concrete, quantitative object) + (Outcome or impact)
|Vaguely-worded experience||Concrete, quantified experience|
|Researched mechanics of construction materials in Laboratory for Materials Mechanics and Characterization||
|Teaching Assistant for Environmental Chemistry (1.080)||
|CEESA Social Chair||
|Mentor for introductory design class (1.101)||
|Helped sailing team on weekends||
When it’s accurate, use verbs that illustrate impact over verbs that make you sound passive. Aim for verbs that are more specific to the actual contribution you made. For examples of strong verbs to describe different responsibilities, check out this page from MIT GECD, and this page from The Muse.
|Weak verbs||Action verbs|
When describing research experiences, it’s OK to include a brief overview of the lab, but it’s critical to characterize your individual contributions. Also, be careful to limit the use of jargon.
If you are applying for a research position, include your PI’s name and potentially even your thesis title. Your academic pedigree is important currency in the scientific community.
Designing the Document
Make your document easy to skim
Recruiters will skim your resume in 30 to 60 seconds. You need to use formatting they’ll expect, and design your document to make relevant information jump out.
- Use headers that package your experiences in a way that best shows you are qualified for the job. For example, if the job involves teaching or entrepreneurship, make sure to include the relevant header to highlight your experience in these areas.
- Order your headers so that the sections that have the experiences that are most relevant to this job come first.
- Use white space to make it easy for a hiring manager to read your resume. Use indentation and bullet points to partition information. A dense resume has more information but is hard to read. A spacious resume might have less information, but the reader will understand more of it.
- Bold important words so the reader can quickly find the important content.
- Use numbers to make quantitative deliverables stand out
Standard Formatting Tips
- Don’t use fonts smaller than 11 point to try to fit more info into your resume. Curate your skills and experience instead.
- Stick to a standard font — e.g. Times New Roman for serif, or Helvetica for sans-serif.
- Don’t make headers too much larger than the content font size. Bold and a few points larger will be enough to distinguish headers.
Proofread! Spell check!
A single mistake can be enough to get you put in the “no” pile. Have a detail-oriented friend help you catch spelling, grammar, and phrasing errors you missed.