How to write a killer resume
A modern resume needs to show you have kept up with the times, and it’s senior CAs who most need to change their approach.
- Effective resumes have a simple layout, basic fonts and bold titles supported by bullet points
- The information presented should be impressive, not overwhelming.
- A resume and LinkedIn profile should work together, with the LinkedIn profile providing evidence of achievements mentioned in your resume.
Story John Burfitt
Illustrations Neil Webb
The resume’s role in recruitment seems to mean different things to different people. Some see it as an extended biography, others consider it a career snapshot, while there is a growing belief that the resume has been replaced by online platforms.
Yet many insist a strong resume remains the most powerful tool for getting your foot inside the door.
HPR Consulting’s Richard Holmes, who has been working in financial recruitment for almost 20 years, has clear views about the quality of resumes that cross his desk.
“The resumes I see from chartered accountants are as bad today as they were at the start of my career, and that’s across the board,” Holmes says.
“The resumes of newly qualified CAs are often too short while those of more experienced candidates are way too long. CFO resumes tend to be the worst, and you’d think people at that level would know better. With so many good resume templates available, there’s no excuse for the standard we continue to see.”
“With so many free and good resume templates available online, there’s no excuse for the standard we continue to see.”
Resumes must impress in seven seconds
A 2018 study by US executive research company Ladders found that most recruiters only skim resumes, with an average reading time of just 7.4 seconds.
“Resumes can be the first, and possibly only, impression you provide for a talent acquisition professional and hiring manager,” says Belinda Willis, talent acquisition director at Deloitte.
“While it covers your experience and skills, the resume is your opportunity to showcase the best of yourself.”
The Ladders study concluded that an effective resume needs to use a simple layout, basic fonts and bold titles supported by bullet points.
A career overview should be positioned at the top of the front page. Less effective resumes are those with a cluttered or complicated layout and long, rambling sentences.
“The most common issue is including too much information,” Holmes says. “Less is more, so what you present should be impressive, not overwhelming to the reader.”
How to structure an effective resume
Leah Lambart, career coach with Melbourne consultancy Relaunch Me, says it’s crucial to get the first page of a resume into winning shape. “Consider the first page as prime real estate, and if there’s not good information on that, they’re going to move on pretty quickly,” says Lambart, a former tax consultant with KPMG.
The first page should be in three parts: a career summary tailored for the job being applied for; a skills section outlining both core and soft skills; and a snapshot of your career history, detailing the roles you have held.
“That’s a lot to include so it’s a matter of writing succinctly, using bold headlines and bullet points, and allowing for enough white space so it looks smart,” Lambart says.
The second and third pages should expand on your career history, highlighting previous roles, achievements, education, training and extracurricular activities such as volunteering. The total number of pages should be between three and five.
“It’s important to show what you’re made of,” Deloitte’s Willis adds. “Not only what you have achieved, but how you have delivered those outcomes, results and solutions.”
Pay attention to the details
Poor spelling, grammar and the use of overly complicated jargon can make a bad impression, Holmes says.
“I see many resumes where a candidate states they have a fine eye for detail and yet there are spelling mistakes,” he says.
“When everyone has access to spell and grammar check functions, there’s no excuse for that.”
Content should be written in the third person removing all personal pronouns (try using your name rather than writing ‘I’), and the contact email should be a professional personal account, not one with a funny nickname.
Exclude details such as age, marital status, number of children and religion; don’t include photographs and irrelevant qualifications such as holding a diploma in interior design.
“Remember, you are dealing with perceptions and it can be a judgemental world,” Holmes says. He adds it’s important to address any timeline gaps.
“There might be a two-year gap because the candidate was on maternity or study leave, or travelling,” he says. “Be upfront about it. I often read resumes so full of gaps, I wonder what the candidate has really been up to.”
A resume should focus on recent experience
When you’re considering a wealth of career experience, it’s crucial to keep the recent past in focus.
“Emphasise your three or four most recent roles and anything you’ve done over the past 10 years,” advises Andy Hickey, principal finance recruitment consultant at Robert Walters, Auckland.
“Recruiters want to see what you have been working on recently to see you are a highly skilled, commercially minded accountant of today,” he says.
“What you were doing 15 years ago will not help land your next job, and should be left to discuss in the interview.”
“Recruiters want to see what you have been working on recently … what you were doing 15 years ago will not help land the job.”
Show what you achieved in a role
It’s one thing to have held a particular job title, but far more important to show what you achieved, Lambart stresses.
“Recruiters want to see the impact you had in your previous roles, not just a list of your responsibilities,” she says. “Detail your achievements and ensure they are quantifiable.”
How your performance in each role led to major achievements – improvements, innovation, cost reductions, increased revenue, for example – should be highlighted, adds Willis.
“A line as simple as, ‘I delivered x outcome ahead of the project timelines, which resulted in x savings for the company,’ is a clear way to demonstrate the value you can bring to a role.”
Keywords are key for the Applicant Tracking System
Many companies use an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) which detects relevant keywords in a resume, before ranking which candidates go through to the next stage.
Holmes explains there are two kinds of keywords that must be included. “The first are job-related keywords that are usually listed on the advertisement; words like ‘chartered accountant’, ‘analysis’ and ‘forecast’,” he says.
The other keywords are action words. “These show the work you have done: ‘managing’, ‘planning’, ‘leading’ and ‘partnering’ are important. And be sure to put keywords in context so they make sense in the overall picture.”
To negotiate the ATS, it’s also best to avoid graphics, charts and tables. “The computer system can distort those designs, so by the time the recruiter sees the resume, it can look like a dog’s dinner,” says Holmes.
Include your soft skills on a resume
A few years ago, there was little resume focus on soft skills: qualities such as interpersonal communication, time-management and critical thinking. Today, Willis states, they need to take an upfront role. “Showcase those skills through your achievements, with detail of how you went about getting those jobs done,” she says.
“You may have made significant financial impacts but you need to demonstrate how those gains [were accomplished] – maybe through managing difficult stakeholders or taking on a leadership role.”
Soft skills have become important, Hickey explains, because they can demonstrate if the candidate suits the company culture.
“It’s about making sure that person actually fits in and will build the right relationships,” he says. “Some people include soft skills in the summary, others under communication skills.
“Wherever you put them, be sure to list how you use them.”
Jacqui McKeown of EY Auckland agrees that soft skills on a resume can help bring a personality to life. But you need to strike a balance between professionalism and capturing attention.
“Avoid presenting a cookie-cutter version of yourself and bring your personality to the table. It’s vital we get to know you and not just your qualifications and experience,” she says. “Culture and diversity are important, so give us an idea of what makes you tick.”
“Avoid presenting a cookie-cutter version of yourself and bring your personality to the table … give us an idea of what makes you tick.”
A resume for any career stage
Whether the candidate is a new graduate, mid-level CA or senior with 25 years’ experience, the standard of resume should be the same.
“A resume needs to be relevant to the role you’re applying for,” Hickey says.
“The same principles apply – keep it easy to read, concise and packed with achievements.”
Newcomers should focus on the outcomes of their internship placements, while mid-level CAs should demonstrate achievements in the roles they’ve held.
It’s the senior CAs who are most in need of changing their approach, Lambart advises.
“Some senior CAs believe their previous big titles speak for themselves, and I explain that, just like everyone else, they need to focus on what they have achieved in recent years,” she says.
“A former CFO in his mid-50s sent me a 20-page resume which listed every job he ever had. That old-fashioned presentation alone would cut him out of most new jobs.”
LinkedIn and resumes work together
With the influence of online platform LinkedIn, some believe the career resume has become redundant. But Jillian Bullock, of LinkedIn Ninja Down Under, says a resume and a LinkedIn profile need to work together.
“Candidates should put content on LinkedIn that complements their resumes, offering material that provides evidence of the track record recorded on your resume,” she says. “The resume and the LinkedIn profile should be just as powerful as each other.”
And she adds the reach of LinkedIn should never be underestimated.
“Consider this: there’s more than 730 million people on LinkedIn and a lot of them are accountants. There’s a lot of people and opportunities out there, so pay attention to every aspect of your job search,” says Bullock.
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