On Our Minds
A clear resume can be the key to landing an interview—but knowing what to include, what to leave out, and how to format it can be challenging. As a Principal at On-Ramps and the former Executive Director of two nonprofit organizations, Cindy Menz-Erb has hired for dozens of positions and reviewed hundreds of resumes. Here’s what she looks for:
Clear, concise formatting is the foundation of a strong resume. Candidates are sometimes tempted to try to make their resumes stand out by adding graphics or bright colors. But, these elements can be distracting to recruiters and hiring managers who are often reviewing hundreds of resumes for a single position. Instead of trying to use bold colors or graphics to stand out, focus on highlighting your experiences and accomplishments in a straightforward way that recruiters will be able to quickly understand.
Recently, I’ve seen candidates listing key competencies at the top of their resume. Personally, I find this section unnecessary because it doesn’t provide enough context for me to really assess a candidate’s experience and it takes up valuable space. I appreciate that these competencies enable some keyword searching, but they can also distract from the main content. I suggest keeping them to a minimum, if you decide to include them.
I prefer a standard resume format that begins with the candidate’s current role and moves through their previous roles and responsibilities chronologically.This gives me a clearer sense of their career progression and accomplishments.
If a candidate is transitioning between sectors or if the application does not ask for a cover letter, it may be helpful to add a quick career summary at the top of your resume, and then begin listing career experience. Unlike a list of competencies, this summary helps contextualize your experiences and interest in the role.
Use as many numbers and statistics as possible to add detail to your accomplishments and experiences. For example, if you managed a team, I want to know how many people you managed and at what level or if you managed a budget, I want to know the size of that budget.
Rather than stating that you transformed an organization, use numbers to illustrate that transformation and to represent the scale of your work. How many staff members did you start with and how many staff members do you have now? How much did your operating budget or fundraising goal increase during your tenure? Use numbers and statistics to paint a clear, detailed picture of the scope of your responsibilities and impact on an organization.
Whole numbers (not percentages)
Percentages lack context. For example, if an applicant says they increased the size of the staff at an organization by one-hundred percent, that could mean that the organization went from two-hundred employees to four-hundred employees or that the organization went from one employee to two employees. Those two sets of numbers paint very different pictures of the organization and the applicant’s roles.
When I see a percentage on a resume, I then have to dig for context, like the size of the organization or its current operating budget. Without that additional information, I can’t assess whether that experience is actually relevant and comparable to the organization and position for which I’m hiring.
Remember, recruiters and hiring managers are looking at hundreds of resumes. You don’t want them to have to do additional research (or math) to assess your qualifications.
Be selective about what details you include. Although you should include relevant details and numbers to illustrate your accomplishments and responsibilities, you should also avoid including extraneous information.
The most detail should be given to your current role and any roles that you’ve held in the last ten years that have provided you with directly relevant experience. Older experiences are a valuable way to demonstrate your career growth, but don’t let them take up more than one to two bullet points.
It’s also important to avoid being too wordy. Remember, recruiters and hiring managers are reviewing hundreds of applications, so you want your bullet points to be clear, concise, and easy to read.
If you have under ten years of experience, your resume should be less than one page. As you gain more experience, your resume may become longer, but try to keep it to two pages for most roles, though this advice likely doesn’t apply to academic and research roles.
Career growth over time
Recruiters and hiring managers want to see the overarching narrative of your career. Show how you’ve grown over time by including any promotions you’ve received within an organization, even if your responsibilities were unchanged.
If you’re trying to move from the private sector to a mission-driven organization, you may want to include relevant volunteer experiences that show that you’re committed to the organization’s mission and have developed relevant skills outside of your professional career.
You may also consider including a short career summary at the top of your resume. This can be especially useful if the position doesn’t require a cover letter or you’re switching sectors and want to briefly explain how this role will fit into your career trajectory.
Submit your resume as a PDF if possible—not a Word document. Downloading a Word document can cause the formatting to become jumbled. By always submitting a PDF—whether via email or an online system—you can ensure that your resume will remain clear and easy to read.
Ultimately, your relevant experiences and qualifications are going to be the most important factor in determining whether you get the interview. By making your resume easy to access, navigate, and read, you’re allowing recruiters and hiring managers to see and understand those experiences and qualifications that really make you stand out as a candidate.