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Careers Café

What to do when “no one reads resumés”


If you’ve had the experience of carefully crafting and revising a resumé and cover letter, you’ve likely also had the experience of wondering whether anyone actually reads the documents you so carefully research and write.

The bad news first

Blogs by recruiters suggest that recruiters skim resumés in 5 to 20 seconds. That’s not a lot of time for a job seeker to make a positive impression, and it just feels crappy to think that a document you spent a long time writing could be reviewed so quickly.

Granted, recruiters may be a special breed. They need to have resumé skimming down to an art, since they review far more resumés than the average hiring manager will. Due to workload, though, hiring managers also may not have time to read resumés as carefully as they’d like to.

Making the first cut

It’s useful to imagine the job search from the employer’s perspective. If you had 200 resumés to sort through, you’d probably start by screening out the obvious no’s, such as resumés that are generic rather than focused on the job in question, that focus on a different job than the one in question, that use non-standard formatting (say, a CV format for a non-academic job), or that have obvious errors.

Getting read

Once you have jumped the first hurdle and have been screened in, you want employers to read your resumé. Despite all the rapid reading taking place, resumés and cover letters do give employers information that they’re looking for. The more you know about your potential employers’ wants, the better you can highlight that information so it will stand out when the employer is skimming your documents.

To help make that happen, use keywords liberally. You’ll find these in job descriptions, the “Skills” section of LinkedIn, and well-written LinkedIn profiles of people in your field. You may even find good keywords in descriptions of profession-specific training opportunities and conference paper abstracts. Keywords are especially important if you apply to organizations that use computer-based applicant tracking systems to search resumés for specific words and phrases.

Since the goal is to get to a human reader, though, organize your information so that it’s easy to find, with the most important information close to the top of your resumé and as far left as possible, so it stands out to people who are skimming. (I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating!)

Start your resumé with a summary that’s designed to keep the employer reading, rather than give a comprehensive overview of all of your experience.

What about cover letters?

Whether employers read cover letters is hotly contested by job seekers. Employers who recruit from the university where I work often say that cover letters help candidates stand out. But don’t expect that the letter will be read first. Resumés can be scanned more quickly, so it’s likely that your cover letter will be read only after the first cut.

If you’ve been involved in hiring decisions, please share your comments on what you’ve looked for in candidates.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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