How to Tell Your Best Stories in a Resume

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The summer before my senior year of college, I helped edit a paper phone book. My supervisor Mike, a technical writer, worked on the design and content strategy. I proofread and checked numbers, dialing phone numbers ranging between five and 15 digits. When a person answered, I repeated their number back and said, “Do I have your right name and phone number?” Given that I had already dialed the number, the voices on the other end of the phone rarely corrected me.

The temperature never dropped below 70 degrees. As my internship came to a close, I felt that my primary accomplishment was maintaining a can-do attitude. But when I asked Mike how to describe my work, he surprised me, “You were one of two people to edit the Global Telecommunications Directory of a Fortune 50 company. You gathered and verified proprietary information on subsidiary locations, ensuring data accuracy and enabling senior company executives to efficiently connect with colleagues.” I said thanks and updated my resume using these recommendations.

When I showed my revised resume to my roommates, they said “Wow, he made what you did sound impressive.” After graduation, it paid off: three weeks after applying to four classified ads in The Washington Post, I accepted a job offer to work as an Editorial Assistant with a professional association located within walking distance of the Washington Monument. After I started, I learned that I was chosen over 125 applicants.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, Mike gave me a gift larger than a job description: He taught me how to use my resume as a means to tell a story that left readers with evidence of both what I had done and what I could do.

Just as you need to write an essay to apply for college, the process of applying for internships and jobs requires a resume.

Similar to essays, strong resumes are written for a specific audience and include elements of storytelling – describing experiences with a beginning (where you were), middle (what you did) and an end (how your work was used). There are different rules with resumes, however.

  • Most employers don’t want entry-level resumes longer than a page.
  • There’s an unwritten rule never to use first-person tense.
  • Even your best story should not exceed three bullets in a single position description.

Here are two ways you can use your resume as a means to tell a story as evidence of both what you’ve done and what you could do regardless of current skills and experience.

1. Share Background Detail

Include details in your resume that help your readers set a scene in their own minds – just like a story does. Let’s say you joined the Varsity Volleyball team in your sophomore year of high school and your team never had a winning season. If you simply list the team on your resume, your reader will be left with the impression that you participated. Add that you practiced 20 hours a week, won a “Most Improved Player for the Month” award and your description tells a story of hard work and dedication.

The best way to include background details in a resume is to think about what you want your reader to see in your resume. In every experience that you list ask yourself: “What should my reader know about this experience that you can’t tell from the name of the activity?”

Details can include:
· Information on organization/ team sizes, description of group mission/target audience and number of people served by organization’s mission, work or outreach.
· Hours spent on an activity and – if relevant – the money you earned to do the experience. (For example, if you participated in a fundraiser or did yard work to raise the money you needed to do a service trip, share the amount you earned.)

2. Share Outcomes

While background details can help your reader understand your work environment, use outcome information to show what you have done - and can potentially do if hired. You can structure this information to be presented as a story, with a beginning and end. Examples*:

  • Member of Volleyball team moving from last in the Division to 9th out of 30 teams (demonstrates improvement)
  • Successful submission of idea to Operations Committee, resulting in independent project to create instructions to use office scanner (shows initiative, communication skills, collaboration)
  • __ of __ staff working on [insert project name]. (conveys understanding of organizational contribution)

(*Do not include skills/competencies listed in italics, let experience speak for itself)

Need help getting started? Story2 can help you think about how what you’ve done relates to what you hope to do. If in doubt, focus first on the experiences you have had that are most relevant to your goal or highlight your capabilities.

Share Your Story

Chandlee Bryan is a writer, career coach and educator helping job seekers put their best career fit forward. For more information visit bestfitforward.com.

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