Ladders 2020 Resume Guide: How to write the perfect professional summary

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Hi Readers,

The 2020 update for my best-selling Ladders Resume Guide is now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.  I’ve included a brief excerpt below.

This updated version is designed to make your resume writing go smoothly.  In about 90 minutes, I provide the basics on how to create a professional two-page resume, share templates to help you do so quickly, and provide specific step-by-step advice on writing bullet points and a professional summary that will make you stand out.

Ladders Resume Guide is based on the millions of $100K+ to $500K professionals we’ve helped over the past 17 years, and the success of their millions of applications with our employers. I provide you with the tools, tactics, and tricks you need to transform your past experience into an effective resume.  I review the right format for structuring your past jobs into a job history, and tackle the best wording and phrases for your past achievements.

Here’s that excerpt I promised you…

The professional summary is the most effective way to deliver your message

In your professional summary, you will make your most effective, most concise, most powerful pitch for the job you want.  Using short words and brief phrases, this section stands out from the rest of your resume in a dramatic and compelling way. We will use that power to convey precisely the message we want your professional ad to deliver.  

While it represents only about 10 percent of the space on your resume, the professional summary should be where you spend 33 percent of your time while writing your resume.

Your professional summary begins with a three or four word professional description of who you are.  You’ll want to include only the three or four words that capture the essence of your professional career at this point.  Our example below is a General & Operations Manager, but you may be an Innovative Financial Executive, a Senior Leader in CPG Marketing, a Gaming Technology CTO, an Accomplished VP Enterprise Sales, or a Leading Biotech Research Scientist.

Whichever it is, this bold, ALL CAPS, description of your professional standing at the top of your resume is your calling card, your summary, and the marketing pitch for your candidacy.  It’s worth spending several hours getting this exactly right.

After this professional description, your professional summary is another three or four lines long.  Each line is a list of words or phrases that, in combination, support the compelling picture of the professional description above, and the role you’d like next.  The jobs or roles you are seeking should flow logically from the achievements, capabilities, and characteristics you display here.

You’ll spend as much time on what to leave out, as what to include.  Miles Davis said: “Music is the space between the notes. It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”  For you, it’s the words and achievements and titles that you leave out that reinforce for your audience who you are and what you’ll do next.

In total, your professional summary will include 12 to 16 phrases spread across three to four lines.  The first of the four lines is a list of job titles you want.  The next line is a list of professional skills you have.  The third is a list of achievement categories that you excel in.  The optional fourth line is a further illumination of skills or achievements, or a more explicit indication of the kind of company, role or industry you’re targeting.

This specific ordering suggests a pattern to follow.  If it makes more sense to you to change the order or the themes, you have the flexibility to do that.  So while it makes more sense to group skills on one line and achievements on another, if the specific order of job title – skills – achievements – awards does not work for your situation, you should change it as you see fit, and as reads best for you.

The professional summary encapsulates your first impression to your four audiences.  Like all first impressions, it is important and can be defining. The same resume with the same accomplishments reads very differently with these anodyne, generic terms: “Seasoned Executive – Manager – P&L Responsibility – Industry Expert” versus the more direct and specific “COO – SVP, Operations – Turn-around Expert – Delivered $2 bn Shareholder Value”.

Again, while it might seem obvious to you what someone like you would want to do next, for your four audiences, it’s not.  After all, it’s what you want to do, and with all the various paths open to professionals, it is very difficult for someone outside of yourself to know what you’re thinking about doing for your next gig.

In fact, given how different people are, you can be assured that someone just like you spoke to the recruiter, or screener, or hiring manager last month, last week, or even yesterday; and, despite having the precise background that you have, that person told them of a completely different career plan.  I’ve seen it often enough to know that I can never guess – in fact, that’s exactly why one of the first things I ask in hiring is, “So what are you looking to do next?”  

You’d be surprised at the answers!

In our example, our professional summary is for a General & Operations Manager, who is looking for roles with the titles COO, VP, Operations and Administration, Country Manager, and so forth.  Listing those titles specifically make it easy for Audience #1, the screener, to understand which roles to select you for.  It makes it easy for Audience #2, the recruiting professional, to understand that you’re looking to continue your successful trajectory in your field.  It makes it easy for Audience #3, your future boss, to know who you are and where you’re headed. And it makes easy for Audience #4, the ATS, to understand what titles to associate your candidacy with.

As always on resumes, the more specific you can be, the better.  You’d like for your four audiences to come away with an explicit understanding of the type of job in which you’re interested, the titles they should consider you for, the types of activities at which you excel, and your key capabilities.

Formatting considerations for this section are to ensure that you keep the descriptive lines to four lines only.  Don’t go over the line ends and cause gaps in spacing as the software tries to deal with a word or two extra on the next line.  And keep the entire section centered