How Long – or Short – Should Your Resume Be?

My client was an engineer with a wealth of experience going back 15-years. But when I looked at the resume he’d prepared for himself, my brain nearly flatlined as I tried assimilate the information before me.

The margins were less than a quarter of an inch on all sides, the font was 9 points (oh, my aging eyes!), and the information was crammed together with no spaces and no indents. It was so difficult to read that I finally quit trying. And if I couldn’t read it, what do you think the odds are that a prospective employer with hundreds of resumes to review is going to stay with it?

When I asked him why he’d chosen that layout he said, “Someone told me all resumes should be one page, and I had to fit everything on there.” And he wondered why he wasn’t getting calls for interviews!

Fast forward a few months. I got a call from a journeyman boilermaker who’d been taking mostly short term positions through his union for more than 20-years. He asked me if I’d take a look at his resume. It was also crammed together, but rather than one page it was a grand total of eleven – yes, ELEVEN. I wanted to cry. He listed EVERY job he’d held throughout his career, some just a few months or even a few weeks.

These are extreme examples, but they illustrate a question people ask when they compose a resume: HOW LONG SHOULD IT BE?

The answer is surprisingly simple: A resume needs to be as long as it needs to be. It should include all the information that’s necessary to adequately sell you to a prospective employer in today’s competitive environment. It should NOT include redundant, personal, or extraneous information that is of no interest to HR and hiring managers.

In the case of the engineer, the final document I prepared for him was three pages. He balked at first, but his experience was extensive and he needed a readable resume. It began with a profile that summarized his very strong skillset and subsequently presented his work history, including highlights of some of the many projects he’d worked on over the years. The margins were nearly an inch on all sides, with lots of indents and white space, giving it a natural flow. He not only started getting his foot in the door for interviews, he landed a job within just a few months.

For the boilermaker, I also began with a summary, then his career history. But rather than show every short-term job, I described his overall responsibilities in working for the union on various assignments, followed by the line “Highlights of key projects include the following.” Then I bulleted longer and significant jobs, showcasing a wide range of responsibilities and achievements. I succinctly reduced his eleven pages to just one and he, also, began getting calls for interviews.

As these cases illustrate, there are two errors that people make when it comes to resume length. First, there is the “resume-must-be-one-page” mantra that so many job seekers mistakenly believe. In fact, I have actually had employers tell me that for some positions they don’t even look at one page resumes. As one executive explained it, “If a person only has a one page resume, then they don’t have enough experience for the positions I fill.”

Then there are those who believe they need to tell a prospective employer everything they’ve ever done. Trust me when I tell you, nobody wants to read everything you’ve ever done.

This is not your magnum opus. The word “resume” is a French term that, loosely translated, means “summary.” Its purpose is to summarize the skills, experience, and education that are relevant to the position you are seeking.

As with the boilermaker, sometimes that means consolidating an extensive but often redundant history by highlighting key projects and achievements. It can also mean eliminating personal information, going back just ten or fifteen years in your work history, and focusing on what is relevant to a prospective employer. If you are applying for a marketing position, for example, your experience in building a solid marketing business is relevant; the fact that you were also working as a substitute teacher while the business was growing isn’t even remotely relevant and can be left off entirely or just briefly referenced. If, on the other hand, you’re going for a teaching position, the teaching background is very important and the marketing can be downplayed.

At the same time, never sell yourself short. If you sacrifice crucial information in homage to the one-page rule or, worse yet, cram two or three pages onto one, you are hurting your chances of finding the right position. And please, please, please make sure to maintain a professional and readable appearance. Indent key information, put spaces between your headings and jobs, and keep the font to at least 10.5 to 11 points.

I reiterate: in response to the burning question “How long should my resume be?” the answer is quite simply: as long as it needs to be, no more and no less, depending on your background and career target.

An exception: this applies to resumes. In the case of curriculum vitae, usually prepared for people in medical and academic fields, the rules are a bit different. But that’s for another post.

~ Anne Follis, CPRW

© Copyright 2010, Anne Follis. All rights reserved.

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