The perfect professional summary for your resume

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In High Score Resume Format, I explained the power of using your resume to trumpet the “high scores” you’ve achieved throughout your career.  The High Score Resume showcases, with specificity and detail, your consistent ability to reach new heights. This impresses your next boss with your ability to achieve great things for them in the future.  And that is what gets you hired.

In this article, we’ll explore the High Score Professional Summary, which helps your future employer know what to expect from you on the rest of your resume and in the rest of your career.  Your professional summary is the first substantial section of your resume after your contact information. That makes it the most effective place on your resume to communicate to future employers what roles you’re skilled in, your expectations about your next job, and what expertise you bring to the task.

While the professional summary only takes up about 10% of the space for someone reading your resume, it should be where you spend 33% of your time when writing your resume.  Using effective words and phrases that best position your experience and background, this is where you frame the rest of your experience in the most persuasive way possible.

The biggest differentiator of the High Score Professional Summary is that it focuses your audience on what your next level will be.  It concentrates attention on your most notable strengths and capabilities for your future role.  The High Score Professional Summary doesn’t spend time or waste valuable space in cataloging all the past levels you’ve gone through to get here, nor does it loiter on minor, less important facets of your past work experience.  

The High Score Professional Summary is the resume equivalent of dressing for the job you want, not the job you have.

Your High Score 

Whether you’ve played Tetris or tennis, soccer or Sudoku, Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, you know what it’s like to try and beat your personal best.  The striving, the sense of achievement, the hunger to get to that Impossible. Next. Level.

The High Score Professional Summary brings the logic of your gaming or sports experience to your career.  It focuses the narrative about your professional life on your next level, your high scores, your badges and achievements, and the superpowers you used to get here.  In the same way that gaming or sports is about always getting a little bit further, so is your career.

For your future boss, the same as for a sports coach or a fantasy sports enthusiast, advertising your capabilities to reach the next level is what attracts attention.  Importantly, the High Score Professional Summary sets expectations for the types of roles and work for which you are most appropriate.

The High Score Professional Summary shines a spotlight on where you are going next.  It is not a laundry list of every skill, attribute, and capability you’ve ever developed, but instead focuses on what differentiates you from the average performer at your level, and hints at the achievements that lie ahead in your future.  It is important to focus on your superpowers, not mere powers — the routine skills that are expected for anybody at your level — as the purpose of the Professional Summary is to summarize what sets you apart.

The High Score Professional Summary shares and shows the extraordinary awards and achievements you’ve bagged along the way.  Recognition, prizes, and acclaim are emphasized in your professional summary to show how you used your superpowers to achieve your current level of success, and how you were recognized and rewarded by past bosses for your performance.

The High Score Professional Summary also indicates which playing field or game you’re best suited for.  By sharing the roles, situations, and industries in which you do best, readers of your resume are better able to understand your value.  You don’t want to be offered games of chess if your specialty is chainsaw juggling.

The headline of your High Score Professional Summary is a three or four word advertisement that summarizes everything about you for the audience.  Ideally, what it communicates is that when hiring managers and recruiters say to each other “We’re looking for _____”, they should call you. It’s important that you effectively convey your future desires in that space, and that you spend a good amount of time considering what the right headline will be.  At a glance, this will keep your audience reading.

The structure of your High Score Professional Summary

Your High Score Professional Summary is your most effective, most concise, most powerful pitch for the job you want.  Using short words and brief phrases, the professional summary stands apart from the rest of the resume in a dramatic and compelling way.  Its location, formatting, brevity, and terseness underscore its importance and its power. We will use that power to convey precisely the message we want your High Score Professional Summary to deliver.

Let’s touch on the Headline here briefly, before returning to the subject at length at the end of this article.  Your professional summary begins with a brief three or four-word professional description of who you are.  You only want to include the three or four most important words that capture the essence of your professional career to this point.  It should convey your “High Score”, your next “highest level”, and the role for which you are best suited next.

Our example here 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.

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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 High Score.  It’s worth spending several hours getting this exactly right. We’ll return to your headline after we’ve walked through all of the other parts of your resume.

After your headline, your High Score Professional Summary is another three or four lines long.  In total, your professional summary will include 12 to 16 phrases spread across those 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/superpowers you have.  The third is a list of achievements that you have or levels you’ve reached.  And 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.

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Speaking of superpowers, you’re going to borrow one from the famous jazzman Miles Davis in your High Score Professional Summary.  Specifically, you’re going to spend as much time on what you leave out, as what you put in.  To quote Miles, “Music is the space between the notes. It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”  Same thing for you and your High Score Professional Summary — it’s the words and titles and achievements that you leave out that will reinforce for your audiences who you are and what you’ll do next.

Your resume’s first impression

The High Score Professional Summary makes your first impression to the four audiences for your resume: the junior screener, the recruiter, the hiring manager, and the computer software that reads resumes.  Like all first impressions, it is important and can be defining. The same resume with the same accomplishments reads very differently with these bland, 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”.

The High Score Professional Summary also forces you to focus and sharply define what you’d like to do next.  While it may seem obvious to you what someone with your skills, experience, and background would want to do next, how can you be certain it’s obvious to your audience?

In fact, given how different people are, it’s actually certain that someone just like you spoke to the recruiter, or screener, or hiring manager just last week, and, despite having a background very similar to yours, that person told them of a completely different career path.  I’ve seen it enough to know that I can never guess. In fact, that’s exactly why one of the first things I ask in interviews is, “So what are you looking to do next?”  

So while it might seem obvious to you what someone like you would want to do next, it’s not.  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, so it’s best to be very explicit and concrete in your professional summary, to make sure the point is delivered.

In our example, our Professional Summary 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 specific titles 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 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 it 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 they should consider you for, the types of activities at which you excel and your key capabilities.

Job titles

The first line of your High Score Professional Summary is where you share the three to five titles that are most appropriate for your “next level.”  That is, these should be job titles that you would actually accept as your next job.  

Some professionals make the error of using this scarce space to list past titles, or the jobs they’ve had most recently.  That is a mistake and a lost opportunity. You don’t need to use your Professional Summary to do this — all of your past titles will be contained in your work experience, which makes up the bulk of your resume.  Instead, you need to think of the professional summary as a “role wanted” advertisement — the place where you inform your audience of recruiters and hiring managers of the job you desire, and believe you’re a good fit for.

Your High Score Professional Summary focuses on your next level, not the past.  It sets expectations for your conversations with employers.  

Which titles should you target?  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 small start-ups does not make it likely that you’d be considered for a role with that title at a Fortune 500 company.  This is where your business judgement, personal desires, and company size target come into play, and you’ll need to understand where downshifting or up shifting your targeted title is in line with your ambition and background.

Now it’s important to note that it does not matter that you have never actually had this job title in the past.   In the same way that your high score in a game is not about hoping you can go back and achieve exactly that same score again, your professional summary is not about repeating the past.  Instead, it is about getting to the next level of your game.  So the titles you share on this first line of your professional summary should be plausible next steps in your professional career.  It’s a means for you to showcase your ambition to the screener, the recruiter, or the hiring manager looking to hire someone for that particular role and title.

Because there are no hard and fast rules that make it easy, you’ll need to 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, MarketingDirector, Marketing • Brand Marketing Leader • CMO

or

Sales Representative | Business Development Executive | Account Executive

or

Logistics Manager * Logistics Senior Manager * Operations Manager * Plant Supervisor

or

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.

Having typed out your future job titles, you may perhaps come to a crossroads where you ask yourself: “Isn’t a resume a strictly historical document?  If I put a title on my resume that I haven’t had yet, is that lying or fabrication?”  

These are valid questions, so let’s review them. 

A resume is a marketing document.  It is not a transcript, a work history, or a sworn affidavit claiming to represent your past in precisely legal terms.  It is a marketing document, and you are marketing your skills, capabilities and objectives in a positive light in order to communicate a message to future employers regarding the next role for which you’d like to be considered.  

While it would not be truthful to indicate that you possessed a specific title, during a specific historical time period, at a specific company in the past, if you did not, in fact, have that title and role, it is truthful to indicate that your own professional assessment is that you are now at the professional level where the titles you have indicated are appropriate for your skill set and experience.  Someone else may quibble as to whether or not you’re ready to make that step, but your professional summary is merely a sensible statement of your appropriate future goals.

We are seeing this more and more widely in common practice throughout the millions of resumes at Ladders each year; it is the sensible distinction between a marketing document (your resume) and a factual transcription (your employment history record).  I think the Baby Boomers inherited from their parents and generations past an understanding of the resume as a historical testament, rather than a marketing document, leading them to feel that resumes must be transcripts. Modern practice has varied considerably towards resumes being a place to promote one’s career interests, and my strong advice is that you treat your High Score Resume as a marketing document, not a bona fide historical testament.

To recap, it’s fine to display your enthusiasm and ambition for specific roles, but not acceptable to have outright falsehoods or claim accomplishments that are objectively not true.

Professional skills

The second line of your High Score Professional Summary focuses on your professional skills or superpowers: the capabilities that are important to your achieving success in your career.  These should be skills that you currently possess, which set you apart from the typical person at your level, and should be “next level” appropriate.

You do not want to include mere “powers” here — the types of skills that are absolutely expected at your current or past level, and that do not set you apart from the crowd.  You may be tempted to laundry list every conceivable skill you’ve come across in your professional career path. But then, remembering Miles’ advice, you’ll avoid this temptation.

For your superpowers, you should showcase those skills that set you apart from the average professional at your level, and those that are most relevant to your next level.  Understanding what your future boss will be looking for, highlight those capabilities that are most clearly relevant to the types of achievements and accomplishments that offer value for the role you’re pursuing.

Remember, just as levels in a game get more difficult, and the actions you need to take become more complex, so too do the skills required for success in your professional career.  The skills you are currently using in your present role will be one notch less relevant for your next job. The basic skills for your current role or level are not relevant at all. The advanced skills for your current level will be the basic, expected skills in your next role.  And the skills you are currently stretching yourself to acquire — those that are at the very fingertips of your reach — will be the ones that you’re expected to develop and put into practice day after day for your next employer.

So if you’re currently an individual contributor 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, team member level tasks and productivity.

Do not list skills that are obvious or would be assumed for someone at your level.  These are another type of “mere” power, that are best left out of your professional summary.  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 include:

Agile Development • Software Architecture • Engineer Recruiting • Technology Innovation

or

Payroll & Benefits | Employee Training & Development | Culture | Employee Relations

or

Litigation * Corporate Counsel * Contracts Negotiation * Risk Mitigation

or

Cost Containment – Project Leadership – General Contracting – Government Relations

Achievements, Badges, Power-Ups

The third line of your High Score Professional Summary lists 3 to 5 phrases that describe achievements most relevant to your future role.  You want to show that you’re already able to perform at the next level by featuring accomplishments from your recent past. Any type of achievement, attribute or reward that indicates you “are ready” is appropriate for this line.

Using your High Score Resume as a source, scour through your chronological work history for achievements that make sense to highlight.  Then summarize the three to five most important achievements for this third line.  

What’s most important for your future role is dependent on the role, level, and size of the company you’re seeking to join.  So, similar to the professional skills line, you should carefully consider which achievements best frame your ability to succeed at that next level.

Examples:

President’s Club • Top Producing Saleswoman • Exceeds Quota • Consultative Selling Expert

or

Launched New Brands | Clio Award-Winning Campaigns | Increased Efficiency

or

Increased Team Velocity * Shipped New Products * Excellent Recruiter * AWS Migration

or

FDA Review Expert – Acquisition Identification – Received 17 Patents

Situational, recognition or industry considerations

On the optional fourth line of your High Score Professional Summary, you can include additional skills, capabilities and achievements.  You can also 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.  

Just as you might indicate your preference for Sudoku and chess, or let a coach know that you’re better at playing defense, think of this as an opportunity to indicate the type of role, position or game at which you excel the most.

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 four-line structure for your High Score Professional Resume is the best default choice for your Professional Summary.  By ordering your Professional Summary from the job titles you’re appropriate for, to the skills required to succeed in them, to the accomplishments and achievements that show you’re ready, this format has a logical flow that leads the audience to understand your ability to achieve new High Scores.

It is important to keep this section to four lines only.  Beyond four lines, the words and phrases can begin to look like a word salad, and more words at that point reduce the power of your professional summary rather than improve it.  Miles Davis would agree.

miles davis
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It’s also critical that you keep each line to a single line only and not have any stray words.  Do not 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.  Finally, keep the entire section centered.

With all that said, while this format is the best format for your professional summary, this particular order is only a suggested default.  If you have a strong sense that a different order would be more effective in telling your story, then feel free to alter the sequence. But unless there’s a strong reason, it’s best to keep this default ordering.  That way you’ll save yourself the time and aggravation of experimentation, and be able to use your limited hours to make progress on other parts of your career search.

Headline revisited

Now that you’ve been through the struggle of fitting all of your career summary into just four lines, and 12 to 16 phrases (good for you!) you’re at the best point to revisit your headline.

Your High Score Professional Summary should have a three to four-word phrase that sums up the answer of who you are professionally.  It should be the Jeopardy answer to your future boss’ question, “Who do I need to hire for this role?” Each of the three or four words are very, very precious, so you should choose wisely.

Reviewing the four lines, what do you believe will most stand out to the hiring manager and recruiter looking for someone like you?

It can be any combination of industry, role, and descriptive that makes sense for you: “Expert Chemical Engineer”, “Dependable FP&A Director”, “Senior Software Engineer”, “Experienced School Administrator”, “Healthcare Project Manager”, “Story-telling CMO”, or a “Extraordinary Talent Acquisition Leader.”

Most important for your High Score Resume and your High Score Professional Summary, is that your headline stands out, sets you apart from the crowd, and announces your readiness for your next round of high scores!

Good luck, I’m rooting for you!