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Customizing Your Resume

In the past, I’ve written about ways to tailor your cover letters to a specific position. But what about resumes? Should they be tailored to each position you’re applying to, as well?

Yes - but it isn’t as difficult as it sounds. 

In order to make your resume appealing to search committees, you want to make it seem like you’d be a good fit for the position - you don’t want them to have to think too hard about why you might be able to do the job. So - here are ways you can customize your resume:

  • Highlight Relevant Experience. This is the key - and everything else follows. Even if you do not have directly related experience for a position, there are some transferable skills that can help. Your resume is about showing what you’ve done, yes, but also about telling the story of why you are the best candidate for the position. Job posting thoroughly - what are the key skills and experiences someone would need in order to be successful? Make sure you’re showing that you have them.
  • Reorganize. Your experiences should be in reverse chronological order (newest to oldest), right? But perhaps your most relevant experience isn’t the most recent. So - reorganize. The simplest way to do this is to split your experiences into sections - Relevant Experience and Additional Experience. These headings can be called many different things - I’ve seen “Internship Experience,” “Additional Higher Education Experience,” “Additional Student Affairs Experience,” and of course - “[Subfield name] Experience” (e.g., “Student Activities Experience”). Typically the order of sections on your resume should be: contact information/heading; education; most relevant experience; additional experience; then optional sections like presentations, publications, professional affiliations, honors, leadership and service. Of course - the thing about resumes is that there’s a general format, but you have many options. For example, if you’re a more experienced hire, perhaps you want to put your experience up front and your education further back.
  • Speak the Same Language. Particularly in the way you organize your sections, you want to be using the same vernacular as in the job posting. While you should always, always be truthful about your experiences, you can use different ways to describe them. It’s especially easy to change the way you title sections to reflect the job you’re seeking. For example, I have worked advising and managing student volunteer programs. Some jobs may call this Community Service Programs, Service-Learning (with or without a hyphen), Civic Engagement, Community Engagement, etc. While there are semantic arguments to be made about which is the best term (and I love having those conversations!), essentially we’re talking about the same set of skills. So if I’m applying for a job that includes “Civic Engagement” in the title of the office or job title, that section on my resume says, “Civic Engagement Experience.” If they prefer “Community Service,” that section’s called “Community Service Experience.” The information in each section stays the same - I just call them different things. (Clarification, though: I’d never change my job title on my resume - only the way I organize and describe things.)
  • Sometimes, Less is More. Most of us have pretty big jobs. From what I’ve observed, that’s part of how student affairs works. What this means for resume-writers is that as you write up bullet points describing your experiences, you may end up with some very long descriptions - I’ve seen one resume that had an entire page devoted to a single position. For an entry level job? That’s just too much. So - you may want to pick and choose a little bit what you include, and what you highlight. I tend to re-order my bullet points within a description in order to emphasize related experiences.
  • Focus on Accomplishments. Whenever possible, focus on your accomplishments in the descriptions of your experiences. Don’t just tell me what your job was, tell me what you did. Give a sense of scale - how big was that budget you managed? How many students participated in your programs?
  • Create Different Versions. To make things easier on yourself, create at least two versions of your resume to start with: a long, master version of your resume and one for submission. If you’re searching in two different subfields, you’ll want three versions - one for each subfield and your complete master resume. The “master resume” doesn’t need to be perfectly formatted, or stick to any length guidelines. The master resume is where you keep everything you’ve ever done - every presentation, that full-page description of your last job, positions all the way back to your high school volunteering (or the earliest position you might find useful). It’s just for your own reference, but a handy place to keep track of everything. The subfield-specific resumes should be organized for each field, with different aspects highlighted. Then, when you’re applying for a position, create a copy specific for that posting. For a handy file-type and naming tip, check out this older post.

What do you think? Have you done any of these things? What other resume tips would you offer?

Ready to write your cover letter? Check out this post from the archives - Writing a Cover Letter That Stands Out.