I’m going to say something that has made me very unpopular with my creative students and something that may get pushback from other résumé writers, even though they know it’s true.
Even though conventional résumé formats are unexciting, they are still necessary if you are going to apply online.
Admittedly, I have been using the same template/format for 10 years, and it’s not without its own headaches at times. It’s battle-tested, however, and it’s proven that content is still king.
In 2019/2020 when I was teaching senior Communication majors at Cabrini University, I got a lot of pushback from students (and some faculty) to allow the students to apply their own “flare” and highlight their graphic design skills. They were free to do so, but not for the class’s résumé assignment, due to my priority – to make sure the students graduated with powerful, usable tools that will help them own their own career paths. I knew many of them would face formatting specifications with which they would need to comply in the careers they chose, anyway.
The Word document requirement didn’t make me popular, but it was one of those things I felt, one day, they would appreciate. Much like when I, at first, was disappointed by my college poetry professor’s strict rules about applying various poem style rules. I had an expectation that I would have the freedom to let my creativity flow, but later, when working in radio where content had to be exactly timed, and then in recruiting when following the firm’s formatting and branding rules, I realized that it was actually an enjoyable (though sometimes frustrating) creative challenge to find the best way to convey something when there are character limits – like a word game. I invited my students to reframe and welcome the challenge. Let’s just say it’s a very good thing we did the résumé early in the semester, as challenges were abundant shortly thereafter.
I found in the first two semesters at Cabrini University, no matter what software or apps my students before were using, we were all spending far too much time resolving technical formatting issues rather than focusing on the content, and I could not help them very much with other word processing tools. Many had ignored the ATS compatibility rules I gave them, like – no text boxes or tables (text-only ATSs exclude this content, and that can sometimes mean their name and contact information doesn’t make the cut), no borders (they cause printing issues when printer margins differ from Word settings), and stick to a bullet/symbol menu that translates across Word versions (otherwise they show up as any variety of non-aesthetic non-sense). They were also learning how to relay their unique brand by including details that spoke to how students accomplished, not just what they accomplished. This helped them resonate culturally with employers-of-choice. These details were often sacrificed for format. Again, between format and content, content is king – always.
In my last semester, I supplied them with my own Word template and required them to use it. This didn’t solve all formatting issues (if you work in Word, you know it’s quirky sometimes), but at least I could show them how to fix them. The template uses formatting that is (supposed to be, and mostly is) compatible and similar across versions of Word.
Many of them didn’t even have Microsoft installed on their computers, so we had to find a way for them to download Word at no additional cost to them.
With pressure from students and my faculty supervisor to be more flexible to make it easier and more enjoyable, I wanted to validate that a Word/text-based résumé was still required for ATS (Applicant Tracking System) compatibility. After all, technology had come a long way.
I invited Melissa Burke of Blue Plate Minds, a staffing and placement firm specializing in creative careers, to hop on a Zoom call with one of my students who gave me the strongest pushback. I told this student that if Melissa said that it’s no longer required to have a Word/text-based version of your résumé, I would completely waive the requirement and accept any format.
It’s unfortunate, but with over 250 different applicant systems and far better technology available than was available 15 years ago when I was a daily ATS user, some ATS systems used by employers still require a Word or .txt document. In order for my students to be as marketable as possible for opportunities, even though a firm like hers specializes in creative jobs, they still needed a Word document. We all sighed. Creative agencies hardly touch Word, but smaller, family-owned companies and even larger Fortune 500 companies still used ATS and backup storage systems with file size limits or ATS that lack the ability to parse (analyze for keywords) résumés in formats other than Word.
Even though I was teaching them how to build and leverage a professional support network to generate opportunities and momentum that afforded them top-notch choices, applying online remained their default job search activity.
With my visually creative clients, we forge a partnership where I focused on content and they owned the format, with the agreement that they would have a text-only Word version where PDFs were not an accepted format for online applications.
All formats dictate character limits for reader-friendliness, so sometimes the format has to be decided first,
In truth, I would have abandoned this format long ago if my clients insisted on never applying online as a plan A. What they have found, however, is even when they follow the recommended Plans A-D, potential sponsors and network contacts who are not able to help (follow the link for 5 reasons that happens), will direct them right back to applying online, and crossing their fingers that someone responds. In these cases, they need to comply with the format requirements of whatever ATS their target companies use.
Of course, 2020 wasn’t the first time the desire to have a more modern-looking résumé came up, with students and clients alike. At Drexel, I taught business students, who already had Microsoft Word, and the requirement for the résumé being Word was established and enforced by Career Services. Even before that, though, most of my clientele had been tech professionals when I started my company in 2006, which was not surprising since I had been a Technical Recruiter in my past professional life. When I entrenched myself in the startup world in 2015, my tech clientele, which had been mostly Fortune 500 Information Technology professionals, started to include more entrepreneurial “full-stack” technical co-founders. They needed to do the opposite of comply – they needed to present themselves as revolutionaries on the bleeding edge of technology willing to take risks and break through barriers.
Infographics (not to be confused with infographic résumés, which are really just more visually appealing, still quite text-based, but short-form, modern formats) were the ideal solution for these clients, who were attracting partners, co-founders, investors, and talent more so than employers. They were generating meetings versus interviews, and they work very well for that aim.
In summary, have a modern résumé or some other showcase document like an infographic, especially if you want to present yourself as someone who:
- Is on the bleeding edge of trends (even though infographics have been around a while; they’re still newer than résumés)
- Presents data in visually compelling and memorable ways
- Has mastered branding
If you are conducting a conventional job search/career campaign that includes applying online, use a simple, yet clean format to:
- Be ATS-compatible
- Keep the focus on content vs. image, which is still king to recruiters and employers
- Avoid printing incompatibilities that make your printed résumé print weird
The Word formatting features I consistently use to enhance the visual aesthetic are the horizontal line (NOT the one that automatically generates when you use successive dashes – that one’s a nightmare to move/edit/delete), columns, and full justification. I avoid the paragraph settings that create spaces and instead opt to adjust the font size of a blank line to 6 to separate content within an entry. Believe it or not, I use Word 2008, because I can easily (mostly) drag columns to accommodate long titles or city names across from dates.
There are fun modern résumé writing contests and I have been tempted from time to time to enter, but believe it will attract people who want that to represent their brand, and then will be disappointed to learn that they will still need to invest in a content-rich, text-based résumé.
Remember that your brand isn’t just your image; it’s the content of who you are that is the foundation for sustainable success. By all means, present yourself visually; just don’t sacrifice the content.
Book a consultation to find out the best way to brand yourself for career optimization.
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Karen Huller, author of Laser-sharp Career Focus: Pinpoint your Purpose and Passion in 30 Days (bit.ly/GetFocusIn30), is founder of Epic Careering, a 13-year-old leadership and career development firm specializing in executive branding and conscious culture, as well as JoMo Rising, LLC, a workflow gamification company that turns work into productive play.
While the bulk of her 20 years of professional experience has been within the recruiting and employment industry, her publications, presentations, and coaching also draw from experience in personal development, performance, broadcasting, marketing, and sales.
Karen was one of the first LinkedIn trainers and is known widely for her ability to identify and develop new trends in hiring and careering. She is a Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Certified Career Transition Consultant, and Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist with a Bachelor of Art in Communication Studies and Theater from Ursinus College and a minor in Creative Writing. Her blog was recognized as a top 100 career blog worldwide by Feedspot.
She is an Adjunct Professor in Cabrini University’s Communications Department and previously was an Adjunct Professor of Career Management and Professional Development at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business She is also an Instructor for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy where some of her students won the 2018 national competition, were named America’s Next Top Young Entrepreneurs, and won the 2019 People’s Choice Award.