11 expert tips to help you write a stronger résumé

These simple guidelines will help your résumé stand out from the pack.
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By Kerry Breen

Résumés are the starting line of the job search process.

Whether you're updating the same one you've been using since college or you're starting from scratch, it can be a daunting task to try fitting all of your experience onto one page.

A résumé should show off your best attributes and make you stand out from every other applicant — but how? We spoke to career experts about what works best, what to avoid and what really matters when it comes to catching an employer's eye.

1. Research the job and the company

Start by doing your homework about where you're applying. This might seem basic, but it can make the difference between a decent résumé and a great one, says Alison Sullivan, a career trends expert at the job site Glassdoor.

"Doing your research during the job search process is so critical today and it's something I think employers expect and want from great candidates," Sullivan says.

Tailoring your résumé based on what you've learned about the company and the target role can help get more eyes on it. "Employers expect you to more than just list off the experience you had," she explains.

2. Customize your résumé for the job itself

Customizing your résumé for each job you apply to may seem complicated and time-consuming, but experts agree it will pay off during your job search.

"Oftentimes, the first person to see your résumé is a recruiter and they're going to be looking at your resume in comparison to the job posting," says Sullivan. "They really want to see how close are you to what they put out there."

Paul Wolfe, the senior vice president of global human resources at Indeed, says job seekers don't need to create a whole new résumé for each job but should adjust the body of a résumé to make sure it really shows off the skills an employer is looking for.

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3. Include relevant keywords and phrases

"These days, many companies use software that scans your résumé for important keywords to determine if you make the first cut," explains Jeannie Kim, editorial director of The Muse. "If you're missing the right keywords, your résumé might not ever make it in front of a human being."

"Really look at that job description," says Sullivan. "What are the keywords that you're seeing pop up? Those keywords in the job listing are going to be skills and talents and experience that they're looking for in a candidate, so weaving those into your résumé is really important."

4. Use quantifiable data

Career coach Angela Lussier says that often the most important thing you can have on your résumé is quantifiable data that allows a recruiter, hiring manager or potential employer to immediately understand the impact you've had in previous jobs. Be specific: Are there numbers you can point to? Metrics you moved?

"We get really bogged down in the bullet points of what past work entailed instead of talking about what we did to make a difference," Lussier says. "That's really what it comes down to."

Sullivan also said that quantifying your information can be one of the make-or-break parts of your résumé.

5. Include your accomplishments!

Awards are another way to show your prowess in a field and give potential employers a sense of just how good you are at your job.

"If you've won any awards, those should definitely be on your resume, especially at the top," Lussier says. "If you can show that you stood out enough to actually be recognized by an award, that's worth paying attention to."

Lussier says it can also help to add how many people you won the award over, if you have that knowledge and it's impressive, and what the award was for — i.e. were you singled out among a team of 5 or 500? Is the award monthly, annual, or once-in-a-lifetime? Pointing out how special the accolade was can also help it stand out, and even act as a conversation starter.

"It's hard to dispute an award," she explains.

6. Try adding some fun design elements

Employers often only look at a résumé for about seven or eight seconds at a time, so having an eye-catching design might boost your chances of them spending more time on yours.

"One thing I did when I started out, and I recommend others do, is try to make your résumé look different than other people's," says Lussier. "You don't have to follow the old model of write your job and three bullet points of what the job entailed. You can add a little bit of design to your résumé. You can add logos for the companies you've worked for. You can add samples of the work you've done if it makes sense to show a picture of it. You can make your résumé look more like a portfolio that's visually interesting and colorful."

Sullivan says that having information that "draws the eye" can help keep an employer interested and Kim says simple visual cues can make a résumé instantly more readable.

"There should be plenty of white space," Kim notes. "The type shouldn't be so small or cramped that the recruiter or hiring manager is struggling to find the information they want."

7. But don't get too focused on appearances.

On the flip side, having an intricately designed résumé can backfire.

"People worry too much about making their résumé beautiful or overly designed," says Kim. "Of course you want it to be clear, organized, and readable ... but fancy design elements, infographics and complicated layouts often make it more difficult for the person reading your résumé to find the information they're looking for. And these design elements don't play well with résumé scanning software, either."

A too-busy résumé can be difficult for employers and recruiters to read.

"I often see things where people try to cram too much or the font is really small and weird," Sullivan says. "It just can make it really hard to really grab what you want from the résumé and understand the person."

8. Don't forget about editing

It might seem obvious, but don't forget to do the most basic of steps and proofread your résumé before submitting it.

"Run spell check!" says career expert and podcast host Angela Copeland. "We are often so bogged down in the details that we forget the basics. Be sure to run spell check so you can eliminate spelling and grammar errors."

9. And don't discount how helpful peer review can be

Sullivan recommends having friends, family and colleagues read over your résumé before submitting it. In addition to helping catch any typos or flaws, they might be able to offer you suggestions on the content of the résumé.

If you know someone in your field who can review your résumé, their advice can be extra helpful.

"Asking around to peers and friends who work in your industry and trying to look at their résumé can give you a sense for what's typical in your industry," Copeland says. She also recommends looking at templates online to see what people in your field are using.

10. Don't be afraid to cut information

Your résumé doesn't need to include every job you've ever had. Instead, it should just show off your most relevant experience.

"I've seen résumés where people try to cram in every single thing they've ever done in every job," says Kim. "Focus on including only the things that are most relevant to the job you're applying for. If something isn't relevant to the job, you can leave that bullet point out."

When it comes to résumés, Wolfe's motto is "Be bright and be brief." He encourages a focus on concise, clear information that makes it easy for an employer to see how the job applicant could help the company.

11. Make sure your contact information is easily visible

Including your name and basic contact information seems like it would be obvious, but multiple experts told us that it's something they've seen left off résumés.

"It's awful if an employer's really excited about connecting with you, but they don't know how to," says Sullivan. "Don't make them work for it, make sure it's really clear."