What Are You Looking For in a Resume?

Recruiters and hiring managers are busy people, especially when trying to select candidates for many jobs or many candidates for one job opening. Often, there is a rush and a sense of immediacy to find and select the right candidate for a critical position.

Even if there is no rush, it can be a daunting effort to work through a pile of resumes to select those that offer any correlation between skills owned by the candidate versus skills needed by the company. Most leaders wish for an easy way to quickly identify the most promising resumes, and easily identify those to disregard. But, how do you do that? How do you recognize when a resume indicates promise and justifies interviewing the candidate and probing deeper into the candidate’s personality, knowledge, and abilities. Likewise, how do you decide that a resume does not warrant any further investigation and consideration?

Here are some guidelines that are used to decide “yea” or “nay” about a resume. Additionally, many of the items may not immediately disqualify a resume, but they should raise questions for you to ask candidates if they are invited to an interview.

Look First for Gatekeepers

Gatekeepers are those criteria that a candidate must have to be considered for a position. For example, if one of the requirements for the job in question states that the candidate must have a college degree in a particular field, examine the education portion of the resume to see whether or not that qualification exists. Another example is the eligibility to work in the United States. By the way, I hope you listed these requirements in the job posting you created and published!

Evaluate Career Progression

Regardless if the applicants are from the same firm or have experience in many different firms, look for a progression in job responsibilities and skills. In addition, assess the level of responsibilities and how the candidate contributed to the organization meeting its goals. The candidates you want to interview are those that have demonstrated growth and increasing levels of responsibility. Note: In today’s turbulent economy, some candidates that have demonstrated growth may have taken a step back to stay employed. Don’t overlook these candidates because they demonstrate the ability to adapt and the courage to keep going, as well as the ethical perspective to not rely on the government for handouts.

Caveat: Many job seekers submit resumes that are functional in nature and not chronological. Since the functional resumes do not list current and previous jobs in chronological order, look for the same clues on the job application.

Examine Resume Construction

The resume tells a lot about a person beyond the information listed. Resumes give insight into levels of professionalism, quality orientation, and thoroughness.

How well is the resume constructed? Are there spelling errors? Is the resume neat and clean? Is it easy to read and understand? How well does the candidate express ideas or portray information? Is the resume formatted in a way that appears professional? Do the sentences make sense? How well does the candidate use grammar and vocabulary? Is the use of tense consistent? Does the candidate jump between first and third person? Often these errors are grounds for quick rejection.

Since many candidates use professional resume services, you may not see such errors, but many candidates still create their own resumes and these errors can appear. Whether professionally prepared or not, poor spelling and grammar are no excuse especially with the capabilities of text processors and publishing software available today.

These same principles apply to cover letters. Evaluate cover letters with the same standards as the content of the resume.

The resume should be easy to read and easy to find names of companies, positions held (or better yet, responsibilities), and dates employed. Hiring managers spend only a maximum of 20 seconds to determine whether they want to interview the candidate or put their resume in the “Not Considered” pile.

Assess Relevant Skills and Experience

Does the candidate have the relevant skills and experience? Basically, can the candidate solve the problems that will be encountered in the job? Identify the most qualified candidates based on skills and quantified positive results. Look for recent experience that reflects skills being sought. Does the candidate have experience in the same industry as the job? Are measurable accomplishments listed? Can training quickly provide any missing skills?

The skills that most hiring managers look for include:


  • Effective communications
  • Intermediate level user skills with computers and common software
  • Analysis, problem-solving, decision-making, and implementation experience
  • Strong work ethic and tenacity
  • Relationship, interpersonal, teamwork, and collaboration skills

Most Recent Role

What is the current status of the candidate?

  • Is the candidate employed or unemployed and why?
  • Laid off or terminated? Why?
  • How long has the candidate been in the current role? Sufficient time to gain the skills needed for the open position?
  • Is his/her most recent experience relevant to the open position?


How well does the candidate’s resume and cover letter “sell him or herself to you? Has the candidate indicated a higher level of understanding about job searching by supplying sufficiently interesting information to get your attention, or has the candidate just listed job titles and dates? Look for resumes that answer these questions:

  • What is our return on investment if we hire you?
  • How can you make our company and results better?
  • How can you make the company more profitable?
  • How will you fit into the company’s culture?
  • Are you familiar with industry-specific language?
  • What well-known companies did you work for?
  • What educational credentials do you have?
  • What training are you bringing with you to the job?

Assess Keywords

Look for specific words, technologies, or company associations that are pertinent to the position or that are contrary to what the company is looking for. For example “was an Executive at Enron” or only knows the technology that your company doesn’t use, or has no mention of software knowledge required to perform the work. Keywords can be technical in nature, educational, or actually, anything you can think of. Examples include MBA, networks, foreign languages, software name like Visual Basic or Java, or.NET to mention a few.

Stability and Tenure

Examine the work history to quantify the candidate’s length of service at the companies listed. Are there any gaps? Does the work history indicate frequent change of jobs/companies? I had one candidate explain in his cover letter that I should, “… not label my 9 jobs in three years as job-hopping. I have never quit a job!” So, you’ve been fired from each job?

There may be valid reasons for frequent job changes in small numbers like 2 or 3 in a row, but a large number should send up a red flag.


Here are few things that may or may not cause a resume to be rejected, but I personally find them to be irritating:

  • The use of “cutie” resume templates – I hope that people would be more focused on presenting and selling capabilities rather than using a cute method of gaining attention.
  • Resumes written in the “First Person.”
  • Including “Career Objectives” at the top of the resume. It’s nice, but it doesn’t really tell me anything other than, “I want the job!”
  • Exaggeration of titles, experience, and skills. Like my kids already know, I get to the bottom of things, usually through properly designed interview questions to bring out the facts. If I discover any exaggerations, misinformation, or outright lies, the candidate is written off. By the way, if I find out the truth after I’ve hired someone, I immediately have grounds to fire that person for dishonesty on the application or resume, or lying during the interview.
  • Using colored paper or odd-sized paper to make a resume stand out from the others, or anything other than “normal” type fonts like Arial, Helvetica, and Times New Roman do not impress me. They strike me as being more manipulative than adding to the candidate’s abilities.
  • Listing personal/private interests and activities if they have nothing to do with the job. I don’t care if you take in stray cats.

Extra Credit

I’ve taken the liberty to include some items that frequently make a positive impression, at least to me. You may have some other preferences or find fault with some of mine – use whatever works best for you and gives you good results.

  • E-mailing resumes rather than faxing, mailing, or personally delivering more paper. Also, I prefer resumes in pdf file format, because I don’t have to deal with differences in software versions, and they are easier to pass on to others. However, many companies today want resumes in MS Word or text so their software can scan, store, score, and prioritize resumes.
  • Well-organized and professional appearance – I don’t include correct spelling and proper use of grammar here, because if the candidate did not use them, I probably already bypassed his/her resume.
  • Short and concise cover letter – less is more. Again, many companies require cover letters now to evaluate communication and writing skills.
  • Specific skills that match the job posting – It shows that the candidate read the posting carefully and matched his/her skills to what is being sought.
  • Skills listed in the same order as the posting listed them, in priority order – You did list desired skills in priority order on the job posting, right?
  • Complete and correct web addresses if used and applicable – they make research easier.

Bottom Line

You and I spend enough time in completing the hiring processes. There are criteria that help us screen resumes quickly, and isolate the better candidates more effectively. Failure by a candidate to properly represent him/herself helps to determine that the candidate isn’t worthy of an interview. Resumes are actually “sales literature” for candidates. If they did not take proper care in building their resumes, they do not reflect expected work ethics, habits, and processes.

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