This question originally appeared on Quora: What do recruiters look for in a resume at first glance?
Answer by Ambra Benjamin, Engineering Recruiter.
I don’t look through stacks of resumes anymore. I hate paper. I do everything online.
There has been for many decades, a mysterious Wizard of Oz-type viewpoint of the recruiting world that I think is somewhat misappropriated. People seem to be truly fascinated by what goes on behind the curtain, when in reality, recruiters aren’t running the covert operation many think. “Does this candidate seem like they stand a chance of being a good match for this role? If yes, proceed to next step. If no, reject.”
I’ll highlight how I personally absorb a resume. I should preface this by saying that currently I primarily recruit for senior-level software engineers. In my past life I recruited for PMs, MBAs, finance, sales, and pretty much all of it. Everything I’m about to say broadly applies to all of these fields. I also was a campus recruiter, and you read resumes of new grads a bit differently since experience is less meaty. So for non-new grads, here’s how it goes in my brain:
- Most recent role. I’m generally trying to figure out what this person’s current status is, and why/if they might even be interested in a new role. Have they only been in their last position for three months? If so, probably not the best time for me to reach out, right? Unless they work for Zynga, or somewhere tragic like that (said with great respect for Farmville, the app that put Facebook apps on the map). If it’s an incoming resume, I’m wondering why the candidate is looking now. Are they laid off? Did they get fired? Have they only been in their role for a few months and they’re possibly hating it? But most importantly, is their most recent experience relevant to the position for which I’m hiring?
- Company recognition. Not even gonna lie. I am a company snob. Now don’t get all Judgy McJudgerson about my judgy-ness. Hear me out. It’s not even that I think certain companies are better than others (although some most certainly are). It’s purely a matter of how quickly can I assign a frame of reference. This is also known as “credibility.” Oh you worked at Amazon? Then you’re probably accustomed to working on projects at scale. You’re at a well known crash-and-burn start-up? You have probably worn many hats and have been running at a sprinter’s pace. There are some pretty blatant if/then associations I can make simply by recognizing a company name. Because recruiters have generally been doing this job for awhile, we notice patterns and trends among candidates from certain companies and we formulate assumptions as a result. There are edge cases and our assumptions can fail us, but again, this is a resume review; we’re talking a less than 20-second analysis. Assigning frame of reference is often more difficult to do when a candidate has only worked for obscure companies I’ve never heard of. When I can’t assign company recognition, it just means I have to read the resume a little deeper, which usually isn’t an issue, unless it’s poorly formatted, poorly written, uninformative, and wrought with spelling errors—in which case, you might have lost my interest.
- Overall experience. Is there a career progression? Does the person have increasing levels of responsibility? Do the titles make sense? (You’re a VP of Marketing for a five-person company? Heck, I would be too.) Do the responsibilities listed therein match what I’m looking for?
- Gaps. I don’t mind gaps so long as there’s a sufficient explanation. Oh you took three years off to raise your children? Fine by me, and might I add: #respect. You tried your hand at starting your own company and failed miserably? Very impressive! Gap sufficiently explained. Whatever it is, just say it. It’s the absence of an explanation that makes me wonder. Still, I understand that sometimes people feel uncomfortable sharing certain things in a professional context. If you had a gap, surely you were busy doing something during that time, right? Get creatively honest and just name that period of your life in a way that shows you acknowledge that it might raise an eyebrow.
- Personal online footprint. This is not required. But if you have an online footprint, and you’ve bothered to include it in your resume, I’m gonna click. This includes personal domains, Quora profiles, Twitter handles, GitHub contributions, Dribbble accounts, or anything a candidate has chosen to list. Two out of three times, I almost always click through to a candidate’s website or Twitter account. It’s one of my favorite parts of recruiting. You never know what you’re gonna get.
- General logistics. Location, eligibility to work in the US. I try to make some raw guesses here, but this is not a place of weeding someone out, more just trying to figure out their story.
- Overall organization. This includes spelling, grammar, ease of use, ability to clearly present ideas. If you’re in marketing and you’ve lost me in the first three bullets, I have concerns.
Total time it takes me to do all of above: < 25 seconds.*
Note: I will likely later read the resume far more in-depth, but only if I already know I like the candidate. It takes me way less than a minute to fully digest a resume and flag that person for follow-up. I read a resume pretty thoroughly once I know I will be speaking to that person on the phone or reaching out via email. But I will not thoroughly read a resume of someone who did not pass the above categories. Recruiters move quickly. I’m trying to remove the barrier for people who might struggle with getting their resume properly acknowledged.
Things I rarely pay as much attention to:
- Education. There have been times in my career where I could go a month reviewing hundreds of resumes and not recall looking at that section even once. However, I will say that as a university recruiter, I almost always looked at education first because experience is often lacking with new graduates. But if you are not a new graduate, experience is king. I can think of a few exceptions where perhaps a hiring manager wanted a certain pedigree (Wharton or HBS MBA, for example), but even that’s being de-prioritized more and more. I will also add that this changes drastically by industry and company. I currently work in tech, but I’ve also worked in management consulting, and education is huge in consulting. I’ll also add that some tech companies care more about education than others, for example, Facebook definitely more heavily favors engineering candidates who have demonstrated core CS fundamentals by obtaining a computer science degree. However, Facebook employs many engineers who never finished college.
- Fancy formatting. There are exceptions here. I say this with the caveat that I LOVE a creatively formatted resume. However, no amount of fancy formatting is going to make up for a lack of experience. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that if you’re applying to a position online, whether it’s a PDF or not, many companies’ applicant tracking systems parse your resume for information and convert it to pure text as the most immediate viewing format. Recruiters don’t often see how awesome your resume is. The original file is usually there for us, but many recruiters aren’t clicking through. If you’re going to do something fun with your resume, I recommend keeping it PDF and also be sure it converts to text fairly cleanly so it doesn’t come through our system looking wonky. Or just email it to an actual person.
Uncomfortably personal details. In Europe for example, I’ve noted that it’s very common to list things like family status, citizenship, and sometimes even weight and height on CVs. It’s also common to include a photo. The US is a bit different, and by different I mean very litigious. Many employers are trying to avoid any type of discrimination, so often seeing that stuff on a resume can make recruiters feel uncomfortable. We just want to know about things that pertain to your work history. So please take your photo off your resume.
- Cover letters. There is a debate on this, but I’m sorry, I don’t read cover letters. I want to see the resume. Most of my recruiting colleagues agree, but I know there are still recruiters that do love and value cover letters. I find that a lot of candidates don’t even send them anymore. I’m of the mind that most companies that request cover letters only do so to weed out the people who haven’t bothered to read the directions.
Things I wish more people would do:
- Bring personality into the resume. We recruiters are staring at these missives all day long. Throw a joke in there somewhere for goodness’ sake. Very few of us are curing cancer. We should lighten up a bit. Know your industry, of course. An easter egg buried in a resume may not go over well if you’re in a very buttoned-up industry. I think it’s important to keep the work experience details as professional as possible, but trust me, there are ways to have fun with it. I absolutely LIVE for creatively written LinkedIn profiles. For example, this guy is boss. I have emailed his LinkedIn profile around to dozens of friends and co-workers over the years. (He knows his industry. Probably not a good play to talk about marijuana in your LinkedIn profile if you’re gunning for Director of Communications for Bank of America.)
- Include URLs for online footprints. I get it. We’ve overshared our way to a more private society, but if you’re looking to stand out, write some stuff on the Internet. Contribute to open-source repositories. Demonstrate some level of domain expertise/interest outside of your 9-5.
- List key personal projects. I ask this in almost every phone interview I do. “What kind of stuff are you working on in your free time?” I am always inspired by this. Also shows me that you have passion for your industry.
Things I wish people would stop doing:
- Using MS Word’s resume templates. Especially that one with the double horizontal lines above and beneath the candidate name.
Writing resumes in first person. Exceptions for people who do it cleverly. If no one has ever told you you’re clever, then you’re probably not that clever. Don’t do it.
Allowing their resume to be a ridiculous number of pages. Unless you are a tenured college professor noble laureate with multiple published works, you do not need an 8+ page resume. That is not impressive; that is obnoxious.
- Mixing up first person and third person or present tense and past tense. Pick a voice, pick a tense, and then stick with it. I suggest third person and past tense. If I were you, I’d eliminate pronouns (e.g. my, I, she, he) from your resume altogether. Instead of writing “I helped increase overall sales by 300% by breeding rabbits in my garage,” eliminate the “I” in that sentence. Go through your resume and remove all the pronouns and rewrite the sentence to make it sound like a bullet point. By “past tense” I mean that your resume should always be voiced from the perspective of something you already did, not something you’re currently doing.
- Listing an objective at the top of the resume. Dude, seriously? This isn’t 1992.
- Mailing, faxing, or hand-delivering paper resumes. Immediate disqualification. Do not pass go. While I have your attention though, let’s camp out on that last point for a moment: Hand-delivering paper resumes. Look, I get it. People are trying to stand out. I completely respect the hustle. But in 2015, HR professionals are swamped, anxious, and jumpy. When a random stranger shows up unannounced asking to speak to someone in HR or recruiting, we’re wondering if you have a gun and a vendetta, and we’ve probably alerted security. It’s really creepy. It’s also not really how the corporate world works any more, and oftentimes it can place an undue burden on people to rearrange their schedule to make time to talk to you, which makes them grumpy, which doesn’t exactly put you in a good spot as a potential candidate.
- Sending resumes addressed to the CEO that end up on some random recruiter’s desk unopened. This is a gross generalization here and exceptions are made for smaller companies, but um, CEOs don’t often read resumes. We sometimes laugh at people who do this.
- Exaggerating titles and responsibilities. The truth comes out.
If you take issue with anything I’ve said here, you’re well within your right. Recruiters are paid to be judgemental. I am nothing if not honest.
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