How I Look at Resumes

“Life,” William James once said, “is in the transitions.” He wasn’t talking about weddings and graduations, but the lonely moments before, when a decision still hangs in the balance, and irrelevant details are so vivid that they’ll stick in your mind for years to come: the melted-plastic smell of a U-Haul cab; the iron sound of a public mailbox swinging shut; a paper hospital cup; a flight of stairs; a metal door-knob; a sealed envelope.

“What Are You Typing There, Wes?”

Perhaps the most terrifying transition is the one between jobs. It embarrasses us all. I still remember, at 22, printing my resume in Kinko’s after midnight so no one would see me doing it. The resume felt like a letter to Kafka’s Castle: What is it, I always wondered, that these people want?

The answer, I fervently believed, was parchment-colored stock. While I picked out resume paper that was probably designed for D&D scrolls, my twin brother Wes – our mom told him to go with me for moral support — got on a clacky IBM Selectric and filled a page with the sentence “I am the Anti-Christ.”

We were caught out by a lovely, deeply Christian high-school classmate who had once asked me to a dance but was now coming into Kinko’s to get last-minute brunch inserts printed for her wedding. She learned I was unemployed & living with my parents. Then she changed the subject: “What are you typing there Wes?”

Premature Obituaries

Now when a friend sends over a resume for proofreading, which happens nearly every week these days, I remember how completely defenseless I felt at that moment.

Resumes are horrible documents, premature and unsentimental obituaries: our lives are rarely reduced to such a small number of facts. And writing a resume is a balancing act between feeling outrageously boastful and unimpressive. Some, like Seth Godin, have questioned whether you should even have a resume. I know many people who take whatever dreadful job happens their way just to avoid writing one.

That’s silly. No one has much experience preparing a resume, but it isn’t that hard: you just have to get out of the way of yourself so your accomplishments can speak for themselves. Having reviewed thousands of resumes, I now have a better idea of what the folks in Kafka’s Castle like to see:

Here’s What I Like:

  1. A direct style: use blunt, short words. Most resumes are scanned, not read.
  2. Looks: like a middle-aged man’s apartment. Nice and tidy.
  3. Objective: be direct; your objective is the job you’re applying for.
  4. Verbs ending in “d”: shipped, launched, built, sold.
  5. Results: not responsibilities or experience — but what responsibilities and experience helped you accomplish.
  6. Bullets: 3 – 4 results per job.
  7. Numbers: ­ increased traffic from Google 230%, decreased ad spending 40%.
  8. Grades: your GPA, even if it was ten years ago, if it’s over 3.5.
  9. Reviews: ratings from your last review, especially useful for Microsofties.
  10. Honors: we’ll interview an employee-of-the-quarter, every time.
  11. Promotions: if your role changes, highlight that as two jobs.
  12. LinkedIn endorsements: persuasive, even from your friends.
  13. A Link to Your Blog: a blog gives you online street cred. For some, it is your resume.
  14. Themes: whether you care about customer service or agile software, tell a consistent story from job to job.
  15. Hobbies: I always want to meet people with fun hobbies. And that’s all a resume is: a request for a meeting. At Plumtree, we received a resume from a Playboy model. A colleague forwarded it to me with a note reading, “I’ve never asked you for anything before…” I feel the same way about cyclists.
  16. Two page-max: if you’re under 30, one page.
  17. Anything you did that showed initiative or passion. Eagle Scout. Math Olympics.
  18. Email to the CEO: it takes chutzpah & resourcefulness to go straight to the top.
  19. Customization: tailor your resume & especially the cover letter to the job.
  20. Completed degrees: I’ve hired plenty of folks a few credits shy of a degree. Some were great; many couldn’t finish what they started. If you have time now, finish your degree.
  21. Gmail address: or your own domain. Nothing says “totally out of it” like an AOL address.

Here’s What I Don’t Like:

  1. Churn: stints at 2 or more employers of less than 2 years.
  2. List of generic skills: just show what you actually accomplished at each job.
  3. Typos or misspellings: About half the resumes I get are addressed to “RedFin.” For the other words, spell-check!
  4. Photos: my favorite was of a candidate in tennis whites with a racket.
  5. “Proven”: as in “proven leadership.” We all still have something to prove.
  6. Printed resumes: email a Word document, web page or PDF.
  7. Buzzwords: search bots love it, actual people don’t.
  8. Wordiness: yes, this is the pot calling the kettle black…

But this is just one person’s (very opinionated) opinion. There are plenty of people who have more experience than I do reviewing resumes. What do you like to see?


  • JanelleS

    One guy sent in a bunch of king sized candy bars, a glossy black & white studio shot of him and his girlfriend (they’re both so tan!) and his resume. I don’t recall what position he applied for, but that picture is forever seared into my brain like a cattle mark.

  • Greg Swann

    > Resumes are horrible documents, premature and unsentimental obituaries

    Gorgeous. I look forward to the days when you have time just to write.

  • Glenn Kelman

    Too kind Greg, too kind!

    I don’t look forward to being unemployed with quite the same zeal, but I understand the sentiment and it means a lot coming from you…

  • Michael White

    As a Public Relations student this information is really useful. Glad to see William James mentioned at the beginning of the article. He seemed like such an understanding and intelligent man.


  • Louise Fletcher

    Thanks for this excellent post.

    As a professional resume writer, I read it through half-closed eyes just in case you told me everything I’m doing is wrong! Luckily it seems not :)

    I do tend to use ‘proven’ a lot though. Hmmm ….

  • Charles Thrasher

    I especially liked “I am the anti-Christ.” Priceless.

  • Michael

    Over my career I’ve struggled with my resume. How often do any of us see he resume of someone who successfully landed a job, or get feedback from a job we did or didn’t get about our resume? Resume “specialist” are only so good. How well do they grasp your skills and talent, and how well do they know the inner mental workings of those hiring in your industry?
    So far I agree with most of what is in this post, after all I have:

    A Gmail address (and also my own domain but find Gmail is more friendly)

    My resume is in multiple digital formats as well as on my blog (see link)

    A blog

    No bullets, but brief lists of accomplishments arranged as Creative, Business and Client highlights

    Numbers from successes

    Honors (rewards)

    A few words that end in a past tense

    And of course I’m posting this all to a blog by the CEO of Redfin…

  • dean guadagni


    I am a career strategist, Real Estate blogger, and social media consultant in the Bay Area.

    You are a Web 2.0 maverick so this entire piece puzzles me. Your company thrives on social media and Web 2.0 concepts yet nothing is mentioned about those tools. I get that it’s a resume piece; I just thought you would make mention of all the great tools job seekers should be using.

    The resume, a self contained document and 50+ year old technology-less concept, is not a marketing tool for today’s job search. Do you require people to have an online presence?

    Many employers are going directly to Linkedin, job seeker’s blogs, and Twitter to find their human capital.

    The resume is not dead but it’s on life support and being wheeled into the operating room.

  • David Sandusky

    Rock solid list that anyone who follows could not go wrong. Especially on point of customization. We can get two pages of pithy results when in line with the reader. The key is doing the homework required to customize – that is the difference maker.

    I will add that I scan resumes backwords. I am happy when I can see the story I want to learn more about.

  • Barbara Hart

    Wonderful blog post. I could not agree more. I help small companies fill key positions and am stunned by the poorly written resumes and cover letters being sent today. The resume is not dead because the majority of small and medium sized businesses and their clients are not up to speed at Web 2.0. It will be some years for all markets to reach that level. In the meantime, job seekers should heed the wise advice posted here.

  • Glenn Kelman

    @dean: excellent point: I do encourage folks to include a link to their blog and to use LinkedIn recommendations — and I wasn’t explaining how to find a job generally, only how to write a resume — but could have discussed new media more.

    That said, I don’t understand the Web 2.0 argument against resumes, regardless of whether they’re posted on a blog, or as a LinkedIn profile. When assessing candidates, whether in an initial screen or during an interview, you need a simple summary of their education and work experience. The medium you use to post a resume — or even what you cal it — doesn’t change that you have to assemble a summary of your accomplishment somewhere, and that summary should be well-written…

  • AC

    Great post! As someone who has (presumably) hired a lot of people, your thoughts on resume are valuable to anyone who might ever look for a job.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Kirsten

    Great post, Glen, and thanks for sharing your views.

    It kindof makes me want to apply for a job there… just to see how far I’d get. What kind of a job would “I am the anti-christ” get me at Redfin, do you think?

  • Susan Ireland

    As a resume professional, I especially like these points:
    A direct style:: use blunt, short words.
    Given a choice between two words that mean the same – choose the one with fewer syllables.

    Looks:: like a middle-aged man’s apartment.
    It’s got to look quick and easy to read, or it might not get read.

    Objective: be direct; your objective is the job you’re applying for.
    I’m so glad you said this. There’s a big disagreement in the hiring world about whether or not to use a job objective. I’ve always contended one is necessary (unless you put a professional title near the top of your resume, which serves the same purpose). Now I have your post to back up my vote for an objective.

    Verbs ending in “d”: shipped, launched, built, sold.
    In other words, avoid using gerunds (“ing” words). Amen!

    Thank you for this insight, Glenn!

  • Glenn Kelman

    Kirsten, the AC position has unfortunately already been filled… but why stop at one? Please apply!

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  • CareerLab

    Nice piece of work, Glenn. Crisp, powerful, and exactly right. Since 1978 I’ve been hired by 348 brand-name corporations to provide career consulting, primarily to those in career transition [leaving the organization]. I’m a proponent of new technologies. I’ve got a 1,500-page website, LinkedIN profile, Twitter account, etc . . . the fact remains that resumes are “the language of employment.” They are expected, especially for high-level jobs. Try getting a job as Senior Vice President of IT for Dell Corporation [or most others] without a resume. Anyone who follows your advice word-for-word will have a real winner. See also:

  • larry battle

    Nice post, but does emailing the CEO really help you at getting the job? I would think that the person would be too busy to care.

    Anyhow, I like the online resume suggestion.
    Here’s my resume online. Any tips would be appreciated.

  • Glenn Kelman

    @larry battle: I love it when someone emails me directly, so long as it isn’t spam — in other words, if the email is written from a knowledge of who I am and what I care about, and if it doesn’t include a grotesque number of typographical errors and over-the-top sales bs.

    And it’s not just me: when I first showed up in Seattle in 05, I considered giving a big company a try, and so applied to Amazon by emailing Jeff Bezos (whom I didn’t know from Adam). He replied the same day; I interviewed for a job later that week (it turned out to be wrong for me, but still…)

    @careerlab: thanks for the kind words!

  • Mark A Dyson

    Jim, this is an awesome post. Short, sweet, simple and practical.

    Hobbies: Golf, Bowling, and Chess, yes. Basketball, Football no, unless the person played on a company championship team (priceless.

    Two page max (absolutely), under 30 one page (95% of the time yes).

    Anything: tough one. Simply, passions should be relevant and true, preferably a professional organization. Sports, College level yes for any age applicant, Eagle Scouts (under 25).

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  • Glenn Kelman

    Golf always says to me: I like country club sports that take all day and can be played somewhat drunk… but one of my best friends is a golfer so, and an amazing professional. So I guess I can’t make judgments.

    And I’m sticking with “Anything” as in anything you’re passionate about.

  • Cynthia

    How about when people send items? I recall a pizza, collage and a baseball bat etched with your name.

    Back in the old days, advertising/marketing profs urged us to send resumes that show our creativity, as well as substance (we also hand-spliced footage on a reel-to-reel back then). I always thought sending items was cheeseball. Where does this fall on your list?

    And golf is therapeutic! You get fresh air while relieving stress. Carry your bag and it’s a workout.

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  • Jason

    I hate to disagree with your post here, as I see it largely as highly valuable to resume writers, but I consider the advice to keep to a one-page resume to be the worst sort of advice in this day and age.

    As you well know, the vast majority of resumes are parsed by machine, not by your skilled eyes.

    If someone were to follow your advice and have a single page resume, they’d get ignored by most of the people searching resumes because those people use software that ranks you by the number of times keywords appear on your resume and NOTHING ELSE.

    If you have C++ on your resume more than the inventor of C++, guess who gets the call first? It ain’t the inventor…

    As a skilled professional, I don’t like the reality of this one bit. I’d go so far as to call it a real shame… but that’s how the world of resumes really works today and having a one-page resume is a good way to stay unemployed for a long time.

  • Dustin

    Great ideas, however are you aware that “built” does not end with a “d”? I can vouch for explicit details (rewards, sales figures, any exact data) being very attractive, and misspellings as horrendously unattractive.

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  • Susan

    thanks for the degree advice – it’s what I needed to keep me going on my dissertation!

  • Glenn Kelman

    Hey Susan, that is just awesome to hear. You made my day. GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR DEGREE!!!
    Regards, Glenn

  • Barret

    Hey Glenn, have any time to sit in on a discussion about recreating the recruiting industry? Your insights could prove valuable to a lot of companies that are no longer in support of the bar that head-hunting agencies have set both financially and as Jason mentioned, resume parsers being what they are, agencies often screen very poorly for specific positions. Let me know. Not only do I wish to cause change, I think I can. Best regards, Barret

  • Klaus

    Good stuff G; I am going to make some tweaks.

  • Montgomery Emerson

    Nice List,

    I like to see leadership type of statements. It shows initiative, ambition and willingness to take on responsibility.

    Well done

  • Greg Paskill

    Resumes exemplify what is wrong with the world of employment and recruiting in general today.

    Like another commenter, I also live in the Bay Area. Yet one thing I have never understood about Silicon Valley companies, new and old, is their obsession with resumes. Silicon Valley is supposed to be about creating the future, right? Why then do companies insist that if I want to join them, I have to introduce myself by saying “Here’s what I’ve done for others”?

    You speak of transitions. That’s another problem with resumes. Perhaps I don’t want to do any more what I’ve been doing. I do want to change careers. However, resumes sentence you to only what you have done. (Heaven forbid you write anything less than tombstone chronological, which will cause red flags galore in the mind of some employers.)

    I have personally decided to stop accepting and stop sending resumes to companies. Robert Scoble says he doesn’t. When I’m in my hiring manager role the last thing I want to talk about is “what have you done for others?” Instead, what I offer candidates is the chance to address “What can you do for me?”

    Instead of writing resumes, submit business plans like entrepreneurs do. They’re all about the future! (And any employer who doesn’t want to talk to you about your future together gets screened out.)

  • Greg Paskill

    @Cynthia: The reception to sending items? It depends on your audience. It also depends on how much they want to hire you.

    If the place is one that’s open to creativity and its culture celebrates the novel, sending a “sardine that’s stuck in the mailroom” (of advertising agency lore) can delight and deliver. If it’s a place like so many others that values conformity above all else, it’s too risky.

    Of course, you may find out the hard way how many employers proclaim they want self-starter/self-motivated types when they really don’t. Like one recruiter told me, “If I actually presented an innovator like the kind they say they’re after, he’d be canned in 6 months.”

    If the company really wants you, they’ll forgive you about anything, from the unconventional to resume typos. If the company doesn’t, they’ll hold anything and everything against your candidacy.

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