Q&A: Résumés that stand out from the crowd shine in both style and substance

Effective ways to make a résumé stand out

David F. Noble, the author of Gallery of Best Resumes, talks about what it takes for an IT professional's résumé to stand out from the crowd.

What are effective ways to make a résumé stand out?

Ensure that you present the most important information about you just below your contact information. Susan Whitcomb, a professional résumé writer, describes in her book Résumé Magic, an imaginary rectangle approximately 2-5/8 inches from the top of the first page down to about 4-5/8 inches from the top of the page. In this hot zone you will want to put the most important information about you that will make you irresistible beyond any other candidate in the eyes of readers. If you discovered before Einstein that E=mc 2, you should put that kind of information here. That is an overstatement, of course, but spend some time determining the most important information about you as a future employee and then express that information in this key zone in an exciting, readable way.

Things to consider for this box are what you do best, your strongest IT strengths that set you apart from your peers, your IT skills that outshine those of others, the most notable IT resources you bring to a company. This part of the résumé is your best shot at being noticed and chosen for an interview, so in this area make yourself look unquestionably the best possible candidate. There is no room for modesty here.

When you indicate areas of expertise, don't just list them -- cluster them. Put protocols, operating systems, hardware, software and programming languages in separate groups, with a small heading labeling the clusters.

Explain achievement results in a way that nontechnical readers can understand. Strive for a balance between language that IT readers will expect and information that non-IT readers will appreciate.

If you think that your résumé is weak in any way, such as a gap in your work experience, many short-term jobs, limited achievements or the absence of a degree, consider including one or more testimonials that attest to the quality of your work and to you as a valued employee. If you can't cull them from letters of reference, ask former employers and peers for a brief statement about you as a worker and for permission to include that statement in your résumé. Sample résumés in books that you can find in bookstores and libraries will show you how to present testimonials in your résumé. A professional résumé-writer can also be of help here.

What are common mistakes that IT professionals make on their résumés?

Misspelling product names is one -- using, for example, AS400 for AS/400, CPM for CP/M, dBase for dBASE, Hewlett Packard for Hewlett-Packard, PhotoShop for Photoshop, QuarkXpress for QuarkXPress and Quattro Pro for QuattroPro. You can't pass yourself off as being detail-oriented if your résumé has a misspelling.

Another common mistake is to include in a list of software proficiencies early software like Ami Pro, CP/M, DOS, Windows 3.1, WordStar and WordPerfect 5.1. Unless there is a particular reason for mentioning an old program, omit what is no longer relevant.

I've also seen people fail to quantify achievements in dollar amounts, percentages or other numbers. Achievements without numbers don't stack up well against those that are backed up with numbers in competitive résumés.

Little things matter in résumés. Distinguishing between written and verbal skills is a mistake, since all words, whether written or spoken, are verbal. The distinction you want to make is between written and oral skills.

Visually, it's a mistake to use ellipses to separate items such as software names or programming languages in a single block of text. Periods between items in a paragraph of items are visual noise and make the list busy and less readable. List the items.

You should demonstrate that you understand the difference between abbreviations and acronyms. An abbreviation consists of uppercase letters (without periods) that you can pronounce only as letters, such as PC, NT and TCP/IP. An acronym is a combination of letters making a word that you can pronounce as a word, such as Basic, Cobol and Fortran. Sometimes the acronym is formed from the initial letters of a group of words, as in Basic, for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. Other acronyms are derived from multiple letters from a group of words, as in Cobol, for Common Business- Oriented Language or Fortran, for Formula Translator. An acronym such as radar (from radio detecting and ranging) has become so common that it is no longer uppercase.

And it's redundant to put colons after headings. A heading indicates that information is to follow. A colon indicates the same thing.

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