Why a successful résumé depends on the reader’s experience more than you realize

Rather than tinkering with the format for hours, try evaluating the general feeling you get when reviewing your résumé.

Why a successful résumé depends on the reader’s experience more than you realize
[Source images: Jonathan Francisca/Unsplash; ShariJo/Pixabay]

As an executive résumé writer and a former retained search consultant, I see some interesting (and at times cringeworthy) résumés. Interestingly, almost every job seeker makes the biggest mistake, and hardly anyone talks about one particular idea around résumé success.


To elaborate, most people start writing their résumé by looking for a template to use.

Google gets 450,000 searches per month on the term “résumé template,” 50,000 more for “résumé format,” and hundreds of thousands more for similar keywords.

Sadly, letting format drive your résumé almost guarantees you a dull, annoying result that gets tossed onto the reject pile. This is because starting with a template emphasizes form over function, which works against your reader.

Start with reader experience and content

Rather than starting with form, which most people do, let’s consider your reader’s experience, or the motivations and feelings elicited when a hiring manager goes through your résumé.

Because I recruited for 25-plus years and have been writing résumés professionally for 10-plus years, I want to speak to you from my experience helping clients hired at desirable companies.


When I write a résumé, I put distinct emphasis on prioritizing the reader’s experience.

To do that, I start with content résumé reviewers want to see. Then, I work on format. If you use this formula, you’ll create a résumé that motivates recruiters and hiring managers to meet you.

So, how do you do this for yourself?

First, I look for my client’s story. Before I start writing, I take time to contemplate a few questions, including, What is my client’s storyline? What’s the thread that ties everything in their career together? Are there any plot twists?

And finally I ask, What will make their résumé the most compelling?

By “compelling,” I mean, “What will motivate the right recruiters and hiring managers to want to meet my client?


Once I have a storyline, I think about which elements of my client’s background I want to feature in their résumé. Because we have already determined what they want to do next, and carefully analyzed a few target job postings, this step goes quickly.

From there, I prioritize my client’s high-impact experience and accomplishments I know our readers will find relevant to their opportunities and challenges.

I know nothing excites recruiters and hiring managers more than finding candidates with relevant experience and a record of performance (industry insiders call this a “no learning curve”).  When a résumé makes the case, the reader has a great experience and wants to meet my client.

Let the experience drive format

After I define content, I think about how to structure and format my client’s résumé. But I don’t do it by Googling “résumé template.” Instead, I envision how simply and elegantly I can tell my client’s story.

I don’t do it by Googling “résumé template.” Instead, I envision how simply and elegantly I can tell my client’s story.

I want a résume format that invites my reader’s mind and eye because the content is comparatively easier to read and understand. And out of a group of otherwise cluttered résumés, you can guess which résumé gets read first.


So again, reader experience, it’s the only formatting standard that matters. Think “decision memo” over “graphic design contest.” Recruiters don’t want something that is strictly pretty—they want something that is easy.

Tips to optimize reader experience

However, it’s one thing to lure a reader with the promise of an easy read and another to deliver it. To leave them feeling happy and motivated to meet you, learn these rules:

  • Use a clear visual hierarchy that makes it easy for readers to find the information they want. Eliminate columns and graphs. They muck up the hierarchy.
  • Separate your job responsibilities from your accomplishments. I like a narrative scope paragraph followed by a bulleted list of high-impact, reader-relevant achievements.
  • Lift words from target job postings. A 2018 Stanford study found that applicants who demonstrated “linguistic fit” significantly increased their likelihood of being hired.
  • Eliminate dense blocks of text. They exhaust readers’ eyes and minds. Implement a two to four-line limit.
  • Provide white space. Visual gaps let people digest what they’ve just read. They also message your confidence and ability to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant.
  • Check readability on a mobile phone. It’s the smallest device anyone will use to read your résumé. If your résumé works there, it will also work on notebooks, laptops, and desktops.

So, in order to let your content precede form, follow these rules. Doing so will differentiate your resume from the 250 others in the stack, create a great reader experience, and get you more interviews.

Donna Svei is an executive resume writer and former retained search consultant and C-level executive.
Donna will be speaking at the Fast Company Innovation Festival on “Common Résumé Mistakes and How to Fix Them.”