How your resume is screened
While many engineers can be rather qualified for the role they are applying for, they miss out on getting a shot at the interview as they might never get past resume screening. The main issue was that they do not understand how recruiters worked.
Before writing your resume, it is important to understand the recruiting structure and how recruiting is done.
The skill set checklist
Before opening up a position/starting the search for candidates, I usually consult very closely with the team manager/decision maker to find out the specific skill sets that are relevant for the position. These skill sets are typically grouped into "Must have", "Good to have", and "Special bonus".
- "Must have" — Typically, most of the must-haves include a degree (or not) in a relevant technical field, some years (or not) of experience in a particular programming language or technology
- "Good to have" — Includes experience/familiarity with secondary languages/technologies which may not be directly relevant to what the candidate would be working on, but could be required due to some interfacing with other components of the project. It could also include softer skills such as being a good team player, clear communication, etc
- "Special bonus" — Recognized skill sets/experiences which are difficult to come by. Probably not a requirement, but would definitely be useful for the position
Now that I am armed with this list, the search for candidates begin.
Typically, I do not seek that "one perfect candidate". What I seek for is the "best fit candidate". The search is essentially a numbers game. I know that for a specific job posting, there would perhaps be X applicants. At each stage of the interview process, some percentage of the candidates will be eliminated, leaving only a final Y% of the initial pool to choose from. Since Y tends to be a rather small number, recruiters will try to maximize X.
The 10 seconds glance
When I am looking at your resume, I am doing a keyword match against the skill set checklist. If I see a good amount of the right keywords in your resume, it is a pass. If I need to spend more than 10 seconds trying to figure out what you are writing about, it is a fail. If I see an excessive amount of keywords (much looking like spam), it signals a red flag and goes into the "maybe". Depending on whether I think I have enough candidates for the day, you could eventually go into the pass or fail stack.
There are lots of articles writing about how recruiters only spend an average of about 10 seconds to screen each resume. The news is, this is true because resume screening is such a menial, robotic and repetitive task. In fact, many applicant tracking systems (ATS) now are so advanced that they can parse your resume automatically, search for specific keywords in your resume, and score your resume based on the weights pre-assigned to each keyword.
Finding a job is a two-way fit — the company wants someone with the relevant skills required, but it is also important for the applicant to fit in the company culture, and be able to gain something out of their stint. Hence, honesty is the single most important criteria in a resume.
There is a delicate balance between finding the right job vs. finding a job. Getting rejected does not always mean you are not good enough. Sometimes, it just means you are not a right fit for what the company is looking for.
When hiring fresh grads, I know that many of them will not have as much experience as someone who has years of industry experience. Hence, I would look out more for soft skills, such as attention to detail, initiative, passion, ability to get things done, etc. Note: this applies only if you have met the minimum threshold of proficiency/competency in the skill set checklist.
Ways to improve your resume
Now that you are aware of how recruiters screen your resume, here are some actionable ways you can apply to instantly improve your resume.
1. Include a cover letter
I've often received resumes with no cover letters, and I am perfectly fine with it. If you ask me, it is better to have no cover letter than to have a bad cover letter, especially if your cover letter is a "templated" content. An effective cover letter needs to highlight the fit between the job requirements and your skills/experiences. Do not just tell me what you have done in your cover letter; Tell me how it is a fit for what I am looking for.
Some small nitpicks:
- Make sure that the cover letter is addressed to the right person (either the name of the recruiter if it is known, or to a generic hiring manager) and company
- Run a spell check
2. Keep your resume under a page
Your resume should be kept to 1 page or a MAXIMUM of 2 pages. Include only your most recent and relevant experiences.
Information that a recruiter wants to know:
- Name, email, contact number
- Objective statement
- Education details: College, Major, GPA, Sample classes (optional, but if you list, make sure its classes that you scored well in and are relevant to your area of interest), academic awards, availability
- If you have studied abroad, you can list that too
- Projects that you have worked on
- Work experience/co-curricular activities
- Skills/other interests
- Street cred - GitHub/Stack Overflow/LinkedIn profile (optional, but highly recommended)
Information nobody needs to know:
- Your profile picture. In the US, it is illegal to discriminate based on age, gender, race, or appearance
- Address, home phone number, gender, religion, race, marital status, etc etc
- Elementary, middle, high school
- Your low GPA
- Anything less recent than 3-4 years unless they are valid job experiences
- Anything about your parents/siblings, their names, occupation, etc
- Your life story
- Anything not relevant to the job you are applying for (e.g. that you have a driving license when you are applying to be a programmer)
Ideally, keep it short, concise, but as detailed as possible.
3. Include your GPA if it's good
Everyone wants the cream of the crop. In the absence of a standardized test, GPA serves as that indicator. While GPA may not necessarily be a good indication of how well you can code, a high GPA would definitely put you in a more favorable position to the recruiter.
If your GPA is rather low, but you have loads of technical experiences, you can try not listing your GPA in the resume. This kinda "forces" the recruiter to read through your projects/job experience, and perhaps grant you a first interview. If you manage to impress them, who cares about your GPA? But if your GPA is low and you do not have skills for the job... maybe you should work on one of them and revisit job applications later.
In a different scenario, some students have low GPA, but it might be due to some irrelevant classes which they did badly in. E.g. Student X is scoring A for all his programming classes, but did not do well for his language classes. If I am hiring a developer, Student X would still be a suitable candidate despite his low GPA. In such cases, it might even be recommended to attach a transcript along with the resume.
Also, when you list your GPA/results, try to benchmark it. Instead of simply listing 4.6, write 4.6/5.0 (First Class Honors or Summa Cum Laude). To the recruiter, 4.6 does not mean anything if he/she is not familiar with your grading system.
4. Be clear about your objectives
Are you looking for a summer internship/full-time employment? What position are you applying for? Read the job description and know the job you are applying for!
"Work experience" does not mean any work experience; it means relevant work experience. If you are applying for a developer position, the recruiter is not interested to know that you were a student escort for girls walking back to their apartments at night, nor that you were a cashier at Starbucks. You would be better off writing about the project you did for some programming class - yes, even if it was just a school project. Tailor your experiences and projects according to the job you are applying for. Pick relevant details to emphasize on and do not be hesitant to drop stuff completely if they are totally irrelevant. Quality over quantity.
- Make sure the description is comprehensive. Avoid writing "Software engineering intern - write code". You are better off not writing anything
- Based on my experience, most fresh grads do not have extremely relevant job experience (unless you are lucky to have scored a really rewarding internship). For developer positions, I think it is ok to not have any job experience and just list projects
5. Use reverse chronological order
Always list your resume in reverse chronological order - the most recent at the top. Recruiters are more interested in what you have worked on recently than what you worked on 3 years ago. Chances are, you probably forgot the details too anyway.
6. Make sure you are contactable
- Get a proper email account with ideally your first name and last name, eg. "email@example.com" instead of "firstname.lastname@example.org"
- If you are using your school's .edu email, try to have an alias like "email@example.com" instead of "firstname.lastname@example.org"
- Avoid emails like "email@example.com" or "admin@[mycooldomain].com" -- because it is very prone to typo errors
- Make sure the number you have listed is the best way to reach you. The last thing you want is to miss the call from the recruiter because you typed the wrong number, or you are not available on that number during office hours (most probably the times the recruiter will call)
7. Pay attention to the layout, formatting, and design
- Be consistent about the way you format your resume. Italics, underline, bold, and how they are used
- Keep to a single standard font (avoid fancy fonts like Comic Sans or whatever) and do not have too many varying styles/font sizes/color
- Be consistent about the way you list your dates (eg. May 2011 - Aug 2011). Avoid using numerals for both month and date due to the difference in style for MMDD and DDMM in different countries. Dates like "Aug 2011 - June 12" just show that you have zero attention to detail
- Unless you are applying for a design job, just stick to the standard "table" style for the resume. There is nothing wrong with the standard style, and it helps the recruiter screen your resume more efficiently since they are trained through experience to read that format. It would also help in the automatic scoring by the ATS. The last thing you want is for your application to be rejected because the system could not parse your resume for it to be scored. That said, I am not discouraging you from coming up with your own design. It is nice to read something different. Just be aware of the risks you could be taking
- Name your file
resume.pdf- it is easier for recruiters to search/forward
- PDF preferred over Word doc
- Be consistent about bullet points
- Your resume should not look sparse. (Come on, it is only 1 page!) If you really have trouble filling it up, you are either not thinking hard enough, or not doing enough. In the case of the latter, consider working on your personal projects (i.e. stuff you can post on GitHub). That said, do not write stuff just to fill space. Read point 4
- This should be common sense, but do not commit fraud, i.e. apply for the same job using a different name, or using your friend's resume to apply for the same job. Some ATS issues an indicator if they suspect the application to be a duplicate
- It's important to note the layout of your resume. If you choose to quickly upload your resume via an auto-fill program, understand that the program will read your resume from top to bottom, left to right. This is good to keep in mind when developing the layout of your resume
- Try to keep white space down to a minimum. This will also help reduce the length of your resume to one page. Reduce margins and paddings reasonably
8. Listing your skills
It is useful to list your relevant skills in a quick summary section for easy reading/matching. However, many people make the mistake of listing as many skills/programming languages in the resume as possible. This may get you through the ATS scoring, but it definitely would not leave a good impression on the recruiter - the actual human reading your resume and deciding whether to call you up for an interview!
Ideally, if your resume is good enough, the recruiter should already know what you are proficient in. The skills section is just a quick summary/reiteration. Listing a bunch of technologies you claim you know without actually showing how you have worked with them is pointless.
9. Include your projects
- Ideally, 1-2 lines about the project, 2-3 lines about your role, what technologies you used, what you did, your learning, etc etc. These can be Final Year Projects, Research projects, projects for a particular class, freelance projects, or just personal projects (ie. GitHub stuff)
- Ideally, 2 to 3 projects that align with your interests/position you are applying for
- Avoid using titles such as "Project for [module code]". Sorry, the recruiter has no idea what class is represented by the module code. Ideally, you want the project section to demonstrate your personality and skills, and be the talking point during the interview
10. Include your online profile/other interests
Here's the news - Recruiters do search for your name! Definitely pre-empt that by Googling/Facebook-ing/searching yourself on all forms of social media to see what turns up. Make sure your privacy settings are restricted so your online profile shows only the image you are trying to project.
If you have some space on your resume, it is good to list additional interests outside of coding. Eg. skiing, water sports, soccer, etc etc. Gives the interviewer something to talk to you about. It also shows that you are a well-rounded individual/cool person to hang out with.
11. Bonus: Country-specific customization
If you are applying to foreign countries, it'd help to customize your resume to make it easier for recruiters of that country to understand your resume. For example, you can do the following for US roles:
- If you're interning, expected year of graduation (month as well if you know) because some places only want to hire interns who are graduating soon
- Mention work eligibility. This is straightforward for Singaporeans (mention eligibility for H-1B1 visa)
- Convert your grades to a GPA out of 5 and mention whether it's First Class Honors/Summa Cum Laude