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How Do I Make My Resume Stick?

Q: For the last 7 years, I've been working for a consulting firm—that is, until last week, when I was given my walking papers. This was basically my first "real" job since graduating from college. I am putting together a resume for the first time since the days when I listed student-club memberships and honor rolls on it. Any advice for making a resume stick?
- CV.v2

criscoDear CV.v2, the first thing to realize is this: Resumes are the kryptonite of stickiness. (The Pam of stickiness? The Crisco of stickiness? Whatever, you get it.) To advertise yourself with a resume is like trying to advertise a box of cereal with its UPC code.

Resumes play only one role: They establish credibility. You either clear the bar or you don't. You've looked at resumes before; you know the drill—we look for keywords. We look for organizations that we recognize: "Stanford," "Nike," "Bain," "Apple," "Teach For America," etc. Then, we look for keywords that match our job descriptions: "product development," "retail consulting," etc. If I'm advertising a job in my group for a "mar/com director," it reassures me to see the keyword "mar/com" on your resume. If you call it "marketing communications," you're making me do too much work.

One corollary of this is that if you're broadcasting 1 resume around to 12 different jobs, you're almost certainly failing the keyword test. There are lazy people like me reading your resume. So tailor it to me. Play back my own language—it is beautiful to me.

Meanwhile, the cover letter is the hero of our story. It's the place where you can make yourself memorable. Ideas stick because they are full of concrete details, emotion, surprises, etc. All of these traits are impossible to deliver in the bulleted resume format, where you'll find yourself unwittingly writing captions for Dilbert cartoons: "Managed 17% increased in administrative responsiveness while actionalizing key strategic initiatives."

Make it your goal, in the cover letter, to do two things: (1) Give headlines; and (2) Defend the headlines with stories. For instance, if you're applying for a job in retail consulting, a headline might be: I'm the right guy because I have experience mining data to find useful insights. But don't stop there. Support the claim by telling a story from one of your past clients: "In a recent engagement, my team worked for a major supermarket chain that had issued 'loyalty cards' to its customers. It worried that these loyalty cards were not improving profits—that they were simply giving away discounts to customers who would have shopped there anyway. They wanted us to study whether they should drop the discount cards. It was my job to explore the data in a systematic way—I'd love to discuss the process with you—and what I found, in short, is that discontinuing them would have been a $100 million disaster."

Now you've got their attention. And meanwhile, your competitors for the job will be wasting their cover letters on a bunch of bland points, concluding that they're "very interested in pursuing a career in retail consulting with your firm." You'll beat them every time. Good luck with your search!

Ask Dan is a weekly column. Read last week's entry: How Many Slides Should I Put in a Presentation?.

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