How Writing a 'Great' Resume Can Cost You the Job

A resume is just an outline for the story you want to tell prospective employers, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job. For more information, see

Ask five people how to write a great resume and you’ll get 15 different responses—there’s no lack of opinion on this topic. That deluge of information – one page vs. two, Calibri vs. Times Roman, keywords, bullet points – can frustrate you to the point you give up or just slap something together. If that happens, the pursuit of a “great” resume has just cost you the job!

So, if updating your resume as part of a new year’s job search is one of your resolutions—relax! You’re not trying to cram your entire career or autobiography into two pages. Your resume is really an outline for the story you want to tell prospective employers.

Think before you write, so you can hone your message for the greatest impact:

It’s all about the stories you want to tell: The purpose of your resume is to help you get an interview and to showcase the stories you want to tell in that in-person meeting. Of course, you will first need to get through the HR screening process, which is not just “robots,” but also humans who are reviewing resumes. That requires a solid resume that summarizes your experiences, shows that you match the qualifications of the job you’re applying for, and gives a good indication of the quantifiable results you have achieved. Be concise, yet thorough—a crucial balance to achieve.

You only get a glance—make the most of it: Hiring managers spend only seconds in the initial screening of resumes. Once you make the cut, your resume will get a little longer look, but usually less than 5 minutes. These facts shock a lot of people who agonize over every adjective like they’re the Ernest Hemingway of resumes. Given how little time hiring managers spend with your resume, you must make those quick “glances” count. Prospective employers need to quickly see what value you would bring to the team and the organization. If they like what they see, they’ll want to meet with you.

Take the “TV interview” approach: Approach your resume writing like you’re preparing for a TV interview (even those who’ve never done one have certainly seen plenty). Imagine that, just as in a TV interview, you only have 20 to 40 seconds to make your point. Giving yourself a series of timed writing exercises will help you get to the point of your material quickly. Do this for your biggest accomplishments, the most salient points of your work experiences, and how you handled the most relevant challenges in your career. Remember, never lie, don’t inflate, and don’t fudge the time gaps.

There are plenty of resume guides and books to help you get the job you want (including why you have to “lose the resume” to land the job you want). In this column, the focus is on two sections: your Professional Summary at the top and your chronological listing of Professional Experience, which is the meat of your resume.

Professional summary—you in 1-2 sentences and a few bullet points: If a recruiter or hiring manager reads nothing else, your “Professional Summary” should be all they need to know about you. Use concise language in just a sentence or two and a handful of key bullet points to highlight: your knowledge (relevant degrees and industry or functional knowledge); your experience (what you’ve done that’s most relevant), your accomplishments (what qualifies you best for this position), and your personal qualities (what traits support your success).

Professional experience—the impact you made: You’re conveying one major message: how you’ve made things better for your employer during the time you’ve been in the job. Start with your most recent job and list every position, with the most detail for your current job and the previous one or two. Give a brief description of where you work(ed), your position, and the contribution you’ve made.  Don’t cram in too much – this is not your job description! Make sure it’s attractive with fonts, boldface headings, and enough white space. Be specific—e.g., if your marketing plan contributed to a 34% increase in sales, say so. One way to approach your key accomplishments is to think about three stories you will want to tell an interviewer to highlight your skills, capabilities, and contributions.

Don’t pretend to be a superhero. Remember, you did not accomplish everything by yourself. You were part of a team, whether as a team leader or a team member. Saying “we” or “our team” does not dilute your accomplishments; rather, it strengthens your impact. The recruiter or hiring manager reading your resume will know you are truly a team player, far more effectively than if you merely use that resume cliché, “I am a team player.”

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