Resume Writing – Basic Checklist

As a resume reviewer I don’t usually get to start with a “blank sheet”, I’m instead put in the position of critiquing an existing resume—one that the job seeker has often worked diligently on for days or weeks or months.  Sometimes the resume is so pitiful I can’t bring myself to mark everything that’s wrong with it…it could discourage them beyond the point of getting them to fix their resume.

While I need to recognize and commend the efforts that the job seekers have put into writing and formatting their resumes, I still need to guide them to writing better ones. For the really bad situations it’s easier for me to just put a resume “checklist” in their hand. So after I’ve marked a few key items on the resume, I flip it over and start writing a “resume essentials” checklist that they need to implement. While the list I write for them might vary depending on what I see wrong with their resume, I usually draw my remarks from a small set of core essentials that every resume should address.

So, here’s my “Basic Checklist” for guidance I give for writing a resume:

  • Plan to write 2 resumes to start with. First a “journal” resume of your entire life with everything that you’ve ever done all the way back to High School jobs. Second, from that first resume draw only the points relevant to your current job search and create a “job” resume…this is the one you hand out.
  • Avoid the Functional resume format unless you really need to use it. Focus instead on a Chronological or even a Hybrid (1/2 functional & 1/2 chronological) resume.
  • Use Times New Roman at either 11 or 12 font size.  Your contact info and section headers can be a larger font, but all the rest of the text is the same size.
  • If you choose to use an Objective line, make it engaging. Something like “Certified Project Manager with 10 years of experience leading IT integration projects looking to lead a small IT project team.”
  • Try to get your resume to fit on 1 page… if it’s 2 pages, that’s OK. But no more, unless you have professional credentials (author, professor, etc.) and need the next pages for listing your publications or other works.
  • Across the top put your name (First and Last only), address (at least City, State, & Zip), phone number (cell is preferable), and e-mail (one specifically for the job hunt) in any reasonable, clear layout of your contact info.
  • Stick with 1 inch margins (or very close).  White space is needed between the main sections of the resume…so put a blank line between major sections.
  • Use “generic” job titles if your current company-specific job title is not fully descriptive. For example, be a “Sr. Java Programmer” rather than a “Technology Specialist III”.
  • Pick one date format and stick with it! I suggest using either a “12/2009” format or a “December 2009” format. Yes, you can list only years if you choose to (I do on my resume), but be aware it sometimes raises questions.
  • List your college degrees, the university name and year obtained, starting from the highest level degree (or most recent degree if you’re changing fields) and put these at the end of the resume, just past your work history.  If you’re a new graduate and don’t have a work history relative to your desired industry, then Education goes at the top of the resume just below your contact information.
  • Industry recognized certificates or current certifications should be listed behind your degrees. Professional organizations where you are a leader (not just a member) relative to your job search should also be listed here.
  • Keyword or Skills section with about 6-10 words/phrases that lists both soft skills (Leadership, Sales & Marketing, etc.) as well as significant industry terms that might be relevant (Published Author, Certified Project Manager).  I usually put this brief section just before work history, but after the Career Summary.
  • Leave off the obvious, such as “References Available Upon Request”. Statements like this just clutter the resume–of course they’re available. Don’t put your references on your resume–bring a nicely printed reference page (with your contact info at the top) with you to the interview.

And there are a few items that might fit your specific needs:

  • If you have a unique first name, consider using a simple, safe nick-name. A acquaintance of mine goes by “Don” on his resume…his real first name, “Donagh”, of Irish descent, causes issues. This is also useful for interviewing so the interviewer or recruiter isn’t stumbling over your name.
  • If your first and/or last name is not a common name in the U.S. (in other words it sounds “foreign”), consider a section at the end of your resume after your Education that says “Citizenship: U.S. Citizen – born in U.S.” or something similar. This helps to keep your challenging name from eliminating you from selection (which does happen).
  • Degree info should not be misleading…Saying “MBA, Georgetown U., 2008-2009” might be your way of saying you attended the program during those years, and you didn’t graduate…but that’s not how it’s perceived. You should state something like “MBA courses, Georgetown U., 2008-2009” or “MBA, Georgetown U., 2008-2009 (in progress)”

And make absolutely sure that:

  • Everything is accurate, truthful, and honest. Resumes do tend to “exaggerate” a bit, for instance saying “led” rather than “co-led”, but the truth is that you did lead, so this is OK.
  • Make sure that there are NO typos, NO format errors, NO grammar issues, NO lies.

I can’t possibly cover all the tips and hints in a single post, so this is just a ‘basic’ list. There are a LOT of good articles and books out there that cover these checklist ideas. You can see an-up-to-date resume book list at by clicking on The Books link on this blog. Also, cruise the web for current (within the last 5 years) articles on the Internet, such as this one about resume blunders I found on And feel free to post a comment here if you’ve found a real good checklist article.

Bottom Line: It’s the little things in the resume that gets the goat of a recruiter. Your resume’s “look” and basic info shouldn’t set them off. Start with these basic resume tips and you should have something that at least passes their “first glance” test. (Revised 9/26/11.)

Update: see my Advanced Checklist article.

. . . .

See the Index of all my Job Hunter articles on my Backlog tab.

4 Responses to Resume Writing – Basic Checklist

  1. writey says:

    Since you have talked about truthfulness and not misleading in your resume, I have question. I have an engineering degree in “Computer Systems”, however I believe that Electrical Engineering more aptly describes the course content of my degree. Do you think it would be misleading to say I have a “Bachelor in Electrical Engineering” as opposed to a “Bachelor in Computer Systems Engineering”? Ordinarily it might not matter too much for the average job applicant, but employers in my field tend to look at engineering education credentials, specifically, BSEE.

    My degree did not include the courses found in “Computer Engineering” like O/S programming, computer networking, and data structures. In a way I feel I am being more honest saying electrical, and being dishonest when I say computer systems, but is changing the title an absolute no-no?

  2. mrl8nite says:

    Good question and I understand your issue. I recommend against the Degree section of your resume listing anything but the formal name of your actual degree. But, it makes perfect sense to “clarify” it in the line just below it. For example:

    BSCSE, Big University, Big City, Big State 2008
    (The BSCSE is similar to BSEE at other universities)

    This gives the recruiters the information you want them to have and even gets the “BSEE” into your resume using a valid and truthful method. People with degrees from other countries often need to do this when trying to explain what their degrees mean when applying for jobs in the U.S. You can also choose to expand on this even further in your coverletter or your skill summary sections.

    Oh, be prepared to clarify/justify that the degrees are similar. Maybe find a course catalog from a university that shows the courses that a BSEE takes and put it in your briefcase along with your school’s catalog or transcript in case you need to provide evidence. It’s unlikely you’ll need to justify it, but consider it insurance.

  3. writey says:

    Thanks, I like your advice! I now feel more confident that I can legitimately put down BSEE in the comment line.

    I can support what you say about degrees from other countries, as I gained my degree in Australia (I now live in the United States). As a point of interest, in Australia, people who graduate with an Engineering degree get a “Bachelor of Engineering” (BE) as opposed to a “Bachelor of Science in Engineering”, yet another example of the subtle differences between countries. In fact, this is done with many disciplines, Bachelor of Information Technology, Bachelor of Architecture, and a Bachelor of Nursing is a BN, not a BSN.

  4. mrl8nite says:

    I had a person ask me about my Times New Roman (TNR) font choice. They liked others and wanted to use a different font and different font size. So, a little clarity here. TNR is a very standard font and prints/looks the same on everyone’s computer screen and printer. The size of 11 is ideal, 10 is a little small, requiring those with with modest eye-sight issues to rely on glasses (this can keep your resume from being read). Over 12 is too big — it looks like pages from a 1st grader. Yes, you can use other standard fonts (Arial, Tahoma, etc.) that are common, not frilly, not shaded, not swirly, etc. But visual character sizes vary…not all font sizes are the same visual size. So, whatever font you use, it should be visually between TNR 11 and 12 in size. Choose wisely!

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