Getting Your Résumé to the Top of the Pile

Recruiters say a well-written résumé can trump credentials

7 May 2014

In a job market where the most talented high-tech workers are competing against others with equal skills, one way job seekers can set themselves apart is with a great résumé.

“It's not always the most qualified candidates who get hired,” says Lauren Milligan, founder and CEO of ResuMayDay, a job-search strategy service, in Warrenville, Ill. “It's the candidates who present themselves the most effectively.”


So how do you compile an eye-catching résumé? Milligan says to include two things: the problems you love to solve and what someone would miss out on if they didn't work with you. She suggests first writing a description based on what you’d say if you were introducing yourself to someone at a party. “In that scenario, you’re more likely to tell people things from your heart. That’s when people get interested in your story, and that’s also what’s going to grab an employer's attention.”

Next, analyze your career and find ways to help prevent your résumé from reading like a simple job description. “Go through every bullet point and ask, ‘What were the results of this work?’ and ‘Why was it important?’” Milligan suggests.

She uses the example of a software developer who created a custom program for clients. The results weren’t just that the company could sell the program or that it helped solve quality issues. It really boiled down to the fact that clients were able to shave off 18 hours of quality assurance work a week, which meant the programmer saved her clients a total of US $240 000 over the course of a year.

Don't forget the obvious information, of course, and state it as clearly as possible. Make sure your work history is all there, you’ve described your responsibilities adequately, and you’re not vague in describing your current employer’s business, says Stacy Doty, director of human resources at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, in Pullman, Wash. “If someone in human resources has to take an extra step to get more information, that’s a disadvantage that could put other applicants ahead of you,” she says. Last year Schweitzer hired almost 600 people worldwide out of about 60 000 applicants. With competition that fierce, not including such information means your résumé most likely goes to the bottom of the pile.


Many job descriptions in high-tech fields list very specific skills and expertise with programs or technologies. Shelley Wick, talent acquisition recruiter at Rockwell Automation, an industrial automation company, in Milwaukee, says that while it’s important to list your experience, you need to go beyond that.

“A long list of the technologies you’ve worked on is kind of useless,” she says. Instead, Wick looks for examples of projects in which you applied those technologies. “Explain to me the product you worked on, the technologies it involved, how you used them, and your impact,” she suggests. Using this approach helps applicants focus on their achievements, not just their skills.

It’s also important to tailor your experiences to the job opening. “It’s about honing in on the position you’d like,” Doty says. “Spend time researching the company you’re interested in, the types of positions it offers, and make a case for why you think you’re a great fit.”

Something else that stands out on a résumé is “anything that demonstrates your passion or energy,” Wick says. Volunteering with something such as FIRST Robotics, the international robotics competition for elementary through high school students, or holding a leadership position in an IEEE society or section not only shows your passion but also displays your nontechnical “soft” skills.


Aside from the résumé itself, Doty says, a well-written cover letter is a must; it can set you apart from other candidates. “The cover letter is your opportunity to connect to the company’s values, talk about the job specifically and why it interests you, and give the reader the sense that you’ve done your homework,” she says.

Cover letters can also help answer questions that your résumé can’t. If you’re applying for a job in a different city or applying for a position that would be a shift from your current one, explain that in your letter so it won’t be a concern to a recruiter. “It helps increase the odds that you’re going to be brought in for an interview,” Wick says.


Check out the IEEE RésuméLab, a free online program for IEEE members, if you need help pulling together what you need to apply for a job. The site includes tips for writing résumés and cover letters, creating a video résumé, and ways to improve your interviewing skills.

“Whether you’re writing your first résumé or improving an existing one, RésuméLab’s resources can help,” says Rory McCorkle, the global career resources product manager in IEEE’s Member and Geographic Activities group, in Piscataway, N.J. 

Developing a great résumé does take time, but don't be daunted by the effort. “It’s an investment in your career, and the payoff can be immense,” says Milligan.

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