Top 10 Things to Look for in a Resume or Application

Here are the most important things you should look for in a resume when hiring new talent.

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Top Ten Things to Look For on a Resume or Application
Looking to hire the best talent for your company?

Here's what you need to know:

  • A resume should represent the candidate, not tell their life story
  • A resume that shows career growth is a good sign
  • Professional achievements show they are committed to their job
  • Significant gaps in employment can be a red flag
  • Most people embellish their resumes — too much is a red flag

Whether you’re getting deluged with too many resumes and applications or only getting a few, choosing the right candidate is critical. Hiring is expensive: hiring the wrong candidate for the job is even more costly. It’s never been more important to take a bit more time to review available talent and make the right choice. Knowing what to look for in a resume is key.

It’s estimated recruiters spend 10 seconds or less reviewing a resume or application before they move on to the next candidate. For some applicants, that’s more than enough time. Their application is sloppy or void of information. For others, 10 seconds is not enough time to review. If the first glance at a resume doesn’t put you off completely, instead of taking 10 seconds, look for 10 areas every good resume should include to find the best talent for your role.

1. Format

The resume looks good and covers all the bases. There are enough resume templates and formats online available for job seekers to come up with a style and format that works for them. Included should be main points every recruiter needs to see:

  • Contact information
  • Work history
  • Education
  • Skills, licenses, certifications
  • Optional: Objective

Unless you’re hiring someone for a creative position—like a graphic artist—standard formats are the best option. Very showy or over-the-top may get your attention, but you might wonder where their passion and priorities really lie.

2. An error-free resume

Resumes with several errors can mean they will also make mistakes in their actual work.

Candidates have all the time in the world to get their resume right, so it must be free of typographical and grammatical errors. This is when a job seeker is putting their best foot forward, it should really be their best foot. It can be difficult to edit your own work, but asking a friend to review the resume, or running it through free grammar software is an easy, accessible option. When a resume is riddled with typos, you can expect their work will be full of errors, as well.

3. Concise

A resume should represent the candidate, not tell their life story. Look for straight talk that doesn’t overly embellish. The details of a retail cashier’s responsibilities will be finite, there’s only so much they perform. Six paragraphs on how they served customers is excessive.

Unless the position is high up on the corporate chain, a 1-page resume is sufficient. Look for language that’s not too flowery. You’ll want to see information on the most pertinent duties, like customer care. Think of a resume like a movie trailer — it should entice you to buy a ticket, not tell you the story from beginning to end. In this case, it should entice you to call in the candidate to talk more about their background and skills.

4. Progressive career growth

A resume or application should show growth in the job seeker’s career, not stagnation or regression. If you’re looking for someone who will learn and grow with the company, you’ll want to see they’ve done so in the past. When employees master skills, they should move up within the role or the company. If a resume doesn’t show growth, even if the candidate moved from one company to another, it’s not hard to assume they weren’t able to learn their position sufficiently enough to take on more responsibility.

Progressive career growth on resumes is a good sign, showing the candidate was successful in their previous positions.

For some candidates, growth is not built into the system. Depending on the role, you may be looking for someone who is perfectly suited to and satisfied with staying in place. For those jobs, make sure to verify they’re happiest where they land. If you’re looking for someone who will take on more responsibilities, see how they’ve done so in the past.

5. Outlines professional achievements

In addition to listing work experience and duties, look for areas that highlight at least one professional achievement. These can be as basic as ‘Employee of the Month’ to sales achievements, innovations, and beyond. Achievements not only indicate where the employee shone in their past position, but they also illustrate where the candidate’s talents and passions lie.

An applicant with a long list of sales achievements demonstrates their commitment to generating revenue. Another that highlights how often they received comments on their compassion or problem-solving skills indicates professional skills and priorities you can build on. Most resume templates suggest including achievements: today they should be the norm, rather than the exception.

6. Includes education and skills

In addition to listing degrees, look for skills on a resume. You won’t want to scour through every job listed to see the candidate is fluent in Excel. A brief listing of competencies, including relevant or additional licenses and certifications should be easy to find. As you compare what skills are needed, you’ll be able to check off whether or not the applicant is a perfect fit or will require training.

7. No significant gaps in employment

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging for recruiters not to hone in on gaps in employment. Once an easy way to assess a job seeker, gaps in employment for 2020 and 2021may be the norm, rather than the exception, depending on the industry. When hospitality shut down, workers were left without options. When schools and daycare facilities were shuttered, working parents had no choice but to opt-out.

Repeated gaps in employment can be a red flag, signalling they underperform or are just out to collect unemployment benefits.

If they were able to find work outside their field during the pandemic, you may be looking at an applicant with a strong work ethic. If they weren’t able to, don’t hold it against them. Large gaps in employment outside the pandemic date range might be a red flag, but don’t pass these candidates by out-of-hand. Some job seekers are returning to work after spending time caregiving. If they have strong skills, make an effort to find out why they were out of the market for so long. You may find an excellent candidate.

If you see a repeated pattern of employment and then gaps, be wary. You may be looking at an applicant who spends enough time on the job to be eligible for unemployment insurance, then quits or gets themselves fired. You won’t want to be part of that cycle.

8. Believable

A Checkster survey found nearly 80% of job seekers embellish their resume/application. It can be as innocuous as giving yourself a better title than you held, or as significant as lying about degrees. About 60% of candidates lied about their skills; half extended the time they spent in a past position and about 40% lie to some extent about their degree or university. As you read through resumes, watch for exaggerations. A little bit of self-aggrandizement is expected: too much is a red flag.

If the resume doesn’t make sense, if it looks like a meteoric rise in responsibilities, or if the candidate lists every skill you require on your posting, even when they don’t apply to any of their work histories, it probably has a bit of puffery. Pre-pandemic, no one went from entry-level sales clerk to store manager in less than 2 months. Although the shortage of workers may have forced some retailers to move up promotion rates, generally there’s a longer timeline between advancement opportunities. If it looks too good, it might be fiction.

9. Industry/job specific

Look for candidates looking for a job specific to the role or industry. Some job seekers create generic resumes and let bots do the work for them, sending them out to any position in their geographical location or salary range. You’ll want to eliminate those and focus on the resumes that are targeted to the role you need to fill.

A great sales representative can sell anything: their application can cut across industries. For most other applicants, if they’re not staying in their lane they’re likely casting a wide net to see what offers they can get.

10. Professional, not personal

There are very few bits of personal information relevant to a recruiter. They can include volunteerism or an interest in building skills (like learning to code). Other types of personal information should not be on a resume. Unless you’re hiring someone to create video games, achievements in Minecraft are irrelevant. Although it can be revealing to find they create and photograph their cat in seasonal ensembles, unless you’re hiring a seamstress, you probably don’t want to know.

If someone puts too much personal information on their resume, they may be trying to make up for their lack of experience.

For some companies, seeing an applicant practices yoga is a plus — it may indicate they’re mindful and calm. For others, the reaction is TMI — too much information. Look for personal information that sells the candidate for the role or provides insight into their character. If it gets too personal or revealing you might want to move on.

The days of too many applicants for open positions may be behind us for now, but it’s still important to hire right. Take time to look for key indicators of work ethic and professionalism on the resumes and applications you do receive. These can help hire effectively and quickly.

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