A lot of resume advice is good, some of it is bad, but it’s difficult to know which is which.
So I wanted to share what we’ve learned at Ladders from reviewing millions of resumes over the years and seeing how those resumes did in over 1 billion applications. I’ve written several bestsellers on Amazon covering resumes and interviews, and will provide some of my best resume help in this post, and link to others.
The best format for your resume is the High Score Resume
The High Score Resume focuses your resume on sharing the “high scores” you’ve reached and the achievements you’ve unlocked throughout your career. It is a format that enables you to present yourself in the most effective way possible without worrying about bragging. And it provides hiring managers and recruiters concrete proof of what you’re capable of.
The High Score Resume also is very clear to people reading your resume about what you’d like to do next, i.e., what your next level is going to be. By showing what you’ve already achieved, it’s easy to explain what you’re capable of next. So while there are other parts of your resume that will deserve attention, the High Score Resume focuses most of your time and effort on the two most important sections of your resume: your work experience and your professional summary.
Work experience: Show your high scores
From our experience at Ladders, the most successful resumes all have one thing in common: they display the past successes of the professional. Some common resume errors of less effective resumes are to simply list job descriptions, duties, or staff size.
The High Score Resume approach to resume writing is to make each bullet a High Score. That means sharing, with numbers, how well you did at that part of your job. And it means bringing a player’s enthusiasm to how to you retell it.
A bit tongue-in-cheek, but when you’re telling your friends, or if you were trying to join a team, you wouldn’t say this:
But you might say this:
All high scores have numbers — it’s easier that way for people to understand how good you were at Tetris, tennis, or … tax strategies. Same for your past experience — let your future boss know how good you were at the role, by providing your score. The High Score Resume constructs each bullet of your work experience with a success verb and a number — whether it be units, a dollar sign or a percentage. That’s the most effective way to convey your past successes.
Most recent jobs first
The High Score Resume always shows the most recent jobs first. When people ask about your golf game, vacation travel, or books read, they’re not looking for you to go all the way back to the beginning and tell you about your first one first. They typically want to know about the latest.
Same thing on your resume. If your last job was working as an IT security engineer, don’t list your college role as a sales representative first. Your most recent experience is the most relevant in the same way that your most recent high score is most relevant to the games you play.
This is your chance to detail your successes and achievements.
And, in the same way that your high score doesn’t say “Well, first I did level 1, where there were challenges and many obstacles. Then I did level 2 … ”, your resume should not simply list past job titles and duties, and shouldn’t provide an inventory of your staff or budget size.
The purpose of the High Score Resume is to display for your future boss the specific achievements that made you a valued contributor to past bosses.
For each job you’ve had, you’ll have an entry including the company name, title, description, and dates.
Company name seems straightforward and typically is. There is some leeway in whether or not you use the company’s formal name — Schwab, Charles Schwab, or Charles Schwab Corporation — and whether or not to use the abbreviation. Because there’s no standard rule, use the formal company name in industries with a tendency towards formality, and the more casual version in casual industries.
For example, if applying to a prestigious law firm, I’d be inclined to call it “Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP”, not “Pillsbury”, whereas I’d recommend using “Google” not “Alphabet, Inc.” if you’re a mid-level manager in the internet industry.
Whichever way you choose, stay consistent throughout your resume in how you treat company names.
In the case of mergers, bankruptcies, or name changes that occurred after your departure, there is, again, no hard and fast rule. Use whatever feels most effective from a marketing standpoint. In my own case, I worked at HotJobs.com from 2000 to 2002, when I helped sell it to Yahoo! for a half-billion dollars.
Over the past 16 years, it has appeared on my resume in various forms:
- Hotjobs.com, Ltd. (NASD: HOTJ), and then …
- Hotjobs.com, a Yahoo! Company, and then …
- Hotjobs (after it was sold to Monster), and then back to …
- Hotjobs.com (NASD: HOTJ), when it was closed down by Monster, and I wanted to highlight my role at a public company 18 years ago.
There’s no set answer for how to handle company names through these transitions and very little negative risk. So your choice should be consistent and feel comfortable to you.
In unfortunate cases where your employer was involved in a notorious scandal — Bernard L. Madoff Securities, Enron, Global Crossing, CountryWide Financial — there’s little you can do other than list the company accurately and address the subject head-on in your achievements (“Survived corporate scandal impacting a separate division — no person in our group was accused of or found to have been involved in unethical behavior”), in person, or on the phone with the recruiter. Some have reported success in handling the matter head-on in the company description: “Worked in separate entity from the infamous investment management business” or “Blind-sided professional at disgraced energy trading company.”
It’s worth remembering that some employers do appreciate the type of grit and determination that goes along with overcoming this kind of adversity. Should you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, do not presume that everybody is snickering — some may be more intrigued than put off.
Titles and employment dates
Now’s the time to be precise. No tall tales, fibbing, or fish-that-got-away stories allowed. Because you’re dealing with history, you need to be rigorous with your presentation of the facts.
For each job, list your actual title, as it appeared in your offer letter or subsequent company promotion. It is quite important to be precise, as you are representing that you held this title at this company at this time. Small inflations can come back to bite you — promoting yourself to regional sales manager when you were, in fact, an account executive. Among the few things that companies review during background checks are titles, so it is both ethically and procedurally necessary to ensure that your resume matches the company’s records precisely.
The common practice remains to include both month and year in the date. Personally, I’ve long felt that year is enough, and we ought to drop the practice of including the month of your start and end dates on resumes. But the industry practice does not agree with my personal feelings on this, so you should stick with writing both the month and year for start and end dates. So January 2017 – December 2020, for example, or Feb 2016 – Apr 2020, both work.
Multiple jobs and promotions at one company require a careful presentation, both for the understanding of the people who will read your resume, as well as the software systems that will translate your resume into a storable version in the company’s database.
In the case of multiple jobs over the years at the same company, the best approach is to put the total years served next to the company name, and then the actual years for each role, as expressed by month-date, month-date, next to each position title. You can see our free resume templates and resume examples for specific guidance.
Company or role description
Increasingly popular in recent years is the trend towards describing the company and or the responsibilities of the role in a line underneath the company name. This succinct summary of important background information is quite an effective way to convey the facts about your role or the company. Staff size, budget and hiring circumstances can be shared on this line.
For example, you might write any of the following as a description of the employer:
- “A global water transport company”
- “A national fast-food chain”
- “A leading professional services firm”
- “A Fortune 50 diversified industrial company”
You may also choose to address your staffing or responsibility:
- “Responsible for Western Region Sales at regional machine tools manufacturer”
- “Managed $30 mm ad budget for national hotel chain”
- “Held P&L responsibility for $310 mm engine division”
Or the circumstances that led you to the role:
- “Recruited by CEO to take over all HR operations in Atlanta”
- “Promoted multiple times over decade at this leading software integration firm”
- “Selected to lead post-merger leading CPG firm by combined Board”
This line can briefly and brilliantly communicate the size, shape, or circumstances of your role or employer. It’s not required, but it can greatly help you increase the amount of information you get across without taking up more valuable bullet points.
Handling gaps — sired, fired, retired
Handling gaps in employment history is distressing for any professional. I’m being a bit flippant in describing this as sired, fired, or retired, but those are the most common gap causes.
Sired: You or your spouse gave birth and you decided to stay at home for some number of years. That time period is up and you’re looking to get back into the workplace.
Fired: You picked the wrong job, wrong boss, or wrong industry, and you ended up being shown the door. Landing the next role has not happened as quickly as you would’ve liked and you have a gap longer than 12 months to explain.
Retired: You decided to downshift and seek out the finer things in life, you took a gap year, or simply traveled for a year or two because circumstances afforded you the opportunity. But now it’s time to get back to having a work family, or a paycheck, or a career.
In each of these cases, it’s always better if you’ve had a plausible institutional connection during the gap period. Non-profit work is the obvious best and easiest one. Consulting roles, even at your own firm, count. Paid work done on a project basis for friends or former colleagues can also fit the bill. Any of these is better than a final date on your most recent employment that is twelve or more months in the past.
But in the case where that just wasn’t the situation — you’ve been the stay-at-home parent for the past seven years, as an example — your goal is to minimize the amount of space you spend describing what is not, after all, a business High Score.
Ideally, you summarize it in one optimistic, forward-looking, positive line of text:
- Stay-at-home parent, for a family of four, energized to return to work. 2011- 2020
Or to cover a time of travel:
- Fortunate to travel 13 countries before returning to focus on professional career. 2015 – 2020
Or the unenviable, unwanted, employment gap:
- Returning to work after a period of personal exploration and growth. 2018 – 2020
In each of these cases, your best approach to managing a period of time when you were hitting professional High Scores is the same — positive, brief, crisp — and then move on.
How to write resume bullet points
For a typical, experienced professional with more than ten years experience, you’ll have twenty-five bullet points across two pages to make your case. If you’re earlier in your career, you may have only 10-15 bullet points across one page. In either case, the High Score Resume treats each bullet point as a scarce, precious resource to be optimized for your success.
The High Score Resume makes the most of each bullet by demonstrating your success with numbers. Each bullet is constructed of a success verb and a specific numerical accomplishment in your field or role. This entices potential interviewers by providing quantified, proven results that detail your successes.
The High Score Resume allocates bullets to jobs according to its importance in landing your next gig. Your most recent jobs are the most important, so the last five years get 10 to 15 bullets. The next five get five to 10. The next five get five in total. Anything beyond 15 years ago gets zero bullets. “One of the reasons to hire me is the experience I had in 2002 with … ” is simply not persuasive to bosses looking to hire in 2020.
As you’re writing each bullet point, craft it to persuade an employer to hire you because of the benefits you can deliver. You might practice reading it out loud with the phrase “You should hire me in 2020 for this role because I … ” followed by the text of each bullet. Bullets are written to support your argument that you can bring new High Scores to your potential boss right now.
“Show, don’t tell” is the motto of the High Score Resume. Within the confines of confidentiality, bullets provide specific proof to support the skills and accomplishments you claim in your Professional Summary. Simply asserting you’re good at this or capable at that isn’t persuasive. For each bullet, describe the accomplishment with specific details. It is those specific results, specific stories and specific successes that resonate most with future bosses.
Should I use action verbs on my resume?
In the High Score Resume, the structure for each bullet points is a success verb plus specific numerical data regarding an accomplishment in your field or role.
That means you need about 25 magic resume words for your bullet points. Rather than make you guess, I’ve provided you with 25 great success verbs in the box below that can serve effectively on any resume.
Typical resume advice says to use active verbs, which the High Score Resume says aren’t good enough, aren’t powerful enough, and aren’t persuasive enough. Some active verbs are very bland and do nothing to help persuade a future employer. “Managed”, “established”, “defined”, and “performed” are all considered active verbs and are frequently used on resumes.
But these aren’t good verbs for communicating your High Score. You wouldn’t say “I managed a little character through a variety of levels” or “I performed various moves in the game.”
White-collar employees, by definition, establish, manage, define, and perform a wide variety of tasks. But what the High Score Resume wants you to share is “were you any good at them?” And that’s an important fact a hiring manager or recruiter wants to know.
That is why the High Score Resume says it’s important to use a success verb in every bullet point. As you can see above, success verbs demonstrate success — because you were there, something got better, something improved, something progressed. Spread across the two pages of a resume, these 25 verbs won’t repeat, they’ll convey action, and they’ll serve to jog your memory about those things you did that were successful — when you increased, delivered, improved, or optimized your company’s business.
The simplest thing to do would be to use these 25 verbs and only these verbs. Unless you have a good reason to expand your variety, the above success verbs can cover most bullets you can think of. Limiting your choices will save plenty of time and headache while ensuring a higher quality resume.
This might seem boring, but unless you are applying to be a thesaurus writer, none of your four audiences care how clever your success verbs are. The millions of hours lost each year to professionals like you looking up synonyms for “improved” is a complete waste of time.
In the example above, we’ve stuck to precisely eight of the verbs from the success verbs list.
On the other hand, a great example of how stating the obvious in your bullet points can set you back is the classic filler “Hired to be Vice President, Western Region”. Look, we live in the United States of America in the 21st century. Of course you were hired for your current role! I wasn’t assuming that you had inherited it from your father, the Duke of Sales, Western Region. This isn’t Game of Thrones. So why are your wasting valuable space in your resume telling your audience something they already know based on your title?
And given the nature of the modern organization, if you’re a manager, of course you’ve managed some number of fellow human beings. And of course you were given a budget with which to do something interesting with those human beings in the service of the organization’s greater goals.
So when you begin a bullet point with empty non-achievements such as “I was hired, I managed and I was responsible for … ” you are squandering the opportunity to showcase the benefits you brought to your boss and your company in your prior role.
It’s not enough to just have the verb, you need a specific numerical accomplishment, too.
The professional summary explains what your next job is
In the High Score Resume, the professional summary communicates your Next Level — the job you want next. Very significantly, it is not a summary of your past professional experience, but a summary of where you will be next.
In the professional summary, you 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 the High Score Resume in a dramatic and compelling way. You’ll use that power to make clear to your future boss your capabilities and your expectations for your next role.
While it represents only 10% of the space on your resume, the professional summary should be where you spend a third or more of your resume writing time.
In total, your professional summary includes 12-16 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 achievements that show how you excel. The optional fourth line can be used for more skills and achievements or can be used to explicitly indicate the kind of company, role or industry you’re targeting.
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.
Your professional summary begins with a Professional Headline that summarizes 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, Professional Headline is the marketing pitch for you. It’s worth spending several hours getting this exactly right.
Your Professional Summary is your first impression to 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 lame, 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”.
While it might seem obvious to you what your Next Level is, it is not obvious at all to the people reading your resume.
In fact, given how different people are, you can be assured that someone just like you spoke to the recruiter 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 enough to know that I can never guess what someone wants to do next. To be honest, that’s why one of the first questions I ask in hiring is “so what are you looking to do next?”
You’d be surprised at the answers!
In our example here, we’ve clarified that our resume is for a General & Operations Manager, who is looking for roles with the title COO, VP, Operations and Administration, Country Manager, and so forth. Listing those titles specifically makes 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 what your Next Level is. 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. Your four audiences must come away with an explicit understanding of the type of job in which you’re interested, the titles to consider you for, and your High Score achievements and capabilities.
As for formatting, you must keep the Professional Summary to four lines. 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.
Job titles in your Professional Summary
The first line of your Professional Summary is the most effective area for communicating your expectations, so here you will list 3 to 5 job titles of jobs you would actually accept as your next job. It’s important to note that these are the titles of the job you want next, not of the jobs you have had in the past, or the job you currently have. This is the “Next Level” section of your High Score Resume. It’s where you inform recruiters and hiring managers of the job you desire and believe you’re a good fit for.
Now it’s important to note that it does not matter that you have never actually had this job title in the past, but it ought to be a plausible Next Level in your professional career. Rather, you’re advertising your ambition to the screener, the recruiter, or hiring manager looking to hire someone for that particular role and title.
Calibrating precisely the title you’re looking for is easier, of course, if you plan on staying in a similar-sized company. A VP, Marketing at one tiny startup can plausibly lay claim to the ability to fulfill the VP, Marketing role at another tiny startup. And a Finance Manager at one Fortune 1000 company is well within her rights to indicate that Senior Manager, Finance is her target for her next gig. Complications arise when you’re considering all company sizes — having been a CMO at three different five-person start-ups does not make it at all likely that you’d be considered for a role with a lower level, such as Director or VP, at a Fortune 500 company.
Because there are no hard and fast rules that make it easy, you’ll use your business judgment to determine what qualifies as a suitable title for which you ought to be considered.
Examples of the first line of your professional summary are:
- VP, Marketing • Director, Marketing • Brand Marketing Leader • CMO
- Sales Representative | Business Development Executive | Account Executive
- Logistics Manager * Logistics Senior Manager * Operations Manager * Plant Supervisor
- Financial Director – Director, FP&A – Credit Analyst – Director, Planning
You’ll notice the separators can be anything tasteful and understated — an asterisk, a dot, a vertical bar or a hyphen.
Professional skills in your Professional Summary
The second line of your professional summary focuses on professional skills — your skills and capabilities that will make you successful in the job titles listed above. These are the skills you currently possess and are “level-appropriate” for your Next Level.
Please consider that at your next job, the skills you are currently using will be one notch less relevant. After all, they are skills you used for a job at a lower level. The advanced skills at your current job will be the basic, expected skills in your next role. And the skills you are currently stretching yourself to acquire — those that are currently at the very fingertips of your reach — will be the ones that you’ll be expected to develop and put into practice day after day. The basic skills for your current role will not be relevant at all.
So if you’re an individual contributor at the moment, and want to move up to a team lead, or a senior individual contributor role, rather than highlight skills related to your individual practice, you want to call out those skills that show the elements of team leadership and accountability.
And if you’re a manager looking to step up and become a manager of managers, you’ll focus on your ability to manage output, process, accountability, and communication, more than your ability to manage individual team members, the work output, and team member level tasks and productivity.
Do not list skills that are obvious or would be assumed for someone at your level. For example, if you’re applying for C-suite jobs, listing “time management” or “presentation skills” would be far too junior to mention in your summary.
Examples for the second line could include:
- Agile Development • Software Architecture • Engineer Recruiting • Technology Innovation
- Payroll & Benefits | Employee Training & Development | Culture | Employee Relations
- Litigation * Corporate Counsel * Contracts Negotiation * Risk Mitigation
- Cost Containment – Project Leadership – General Contracting – Government Relations
Past achievements for your Professional Summary
On the third line of your Professional Summary, you will list three to five phrases that describe your demonstrated past success. No need for numbers here as you’ll dive into that in detail in your work experience section, so here you’re sharing the “how” of your High Scores. Any type of achievements or attributes for which you have received recognition are appropriate, and those that best demonstrate your mastery of your prior roles are best.
Summarize the three to five most important achievements of your recent career to make a concise case for why past success is indicative of future results.
- President’s Club • Top-producing Saleswoman • Exceeds Quota • Consultative Selling Expert
- Launched New Brands | Clio Award-Winning Campaigns | Increased Efficiency
- Increased Team Velocity * Shipped New Products * Excellent Recruiter * AWS Migration
- FDA Review Expert – Acquisition Identification – Received 17 Patents
Situational, recognition or industry considerations
On the optional fourth line, you can include additional skills, capabilities, and achievements; provide additional color around the types of situations you are looking for; internal, external, or industry awards and recognition; or indications of industry interest that may not be clear from other items in your professional summary.
Examples might include “Marketer of the Year 2018”, “Turnaround Expert”, “Growth Company Executive”, “Successful Public Speaker”, “Startup Leader”, “CPG Veteran”, or “Airline Expert.”
Your optional fourth line is a great place to add additional flavor to your overall initial presentation, and round out the picture of who you’d like to be next.
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.
To repeat, there’s no penalty for mixing and matching the themes on these various lines, but there’s no benefit either. Save yourself the time and aggravation by keeping it simple and following this outline.