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Find the winning format: how to structure a resume

Find the winning format: how to structure a resume

It's hard to overemphasize the relevance of a good resume. Your resume is your first and possibly only touchpoint with a potential employer. If your resume formatting isn't quite right, the document may hit the discard pile after just a glance. Understanding the proper structure will help you wrap a compelling resume around your top skills and experiences while minimizing details that detract from your message.

How to structure a resume

There are three standard ways to approach your resume. Each offers distinct strengths and weaknesses, so it's worth considering the options carefully before you settle on your approach.

Chronological resume format

If you've been reviewing standard resume examples, you've probably seen the chronological resume format. This is the most common and traditional way to structure a resume. As the name suggests, a chronological resume lists your work experience in order, going backward from your most recent job to your earlier achievements. Include your name and contact information in the header followed by a series of traditional sections that usually include your objective, a list of skills, your work history in reverse chronological order, and your education.

A chronological resume is a good fit if your work history shows steady growth along a clearly defined career path. If you're applying for a job as head chef and your career history progresses beautifully from chef de partie to sous chef to chef, then a chronological resume is an excellent choice. Likewise, if you've worked your way up in the same company and can show a progression from cashier to shift supervisor to store manager, then you have a compelling story to tell in a chronological format. A conventional career trajectory looks good on a traditional chronological resume.

To optimize your chronological resume:

  • You don't need to go back through everything if you have a long job history, particularly if your earlier days include irrelevant positions.
  • For your objective, provide a two to three-sentence summary of your work history that expresses your current goal for the next stage of your career.
  • Streamline the education section to highlight your highest academic credential and omit earlier accomplishments, especially if they reach back into high school.

Functional resume format

"A functional resume keeps the focus on what you know and what you can do."

A functional format highlights your skills, training, and experience as it pertains to the job in question. This resume puts more emphasis on your capabilities than your work history. This is the best format for anyone with gaps in their work history or a more haphazard career path. It's ok if you took a detour into waitressing on your way up the nursing ladder, but the time you spent serving isn't directly relevant to your healthcare career, so there's no reason to include this on your resume.

A functional resume keeps the focus on what you know and what you can do. This is a great choice if you're currently in school, participating in relevant volunteer opportunities, or completing an internship. Though none of these activities count as jobs, all of them contribute to your readiness for the career opportunity at hand. 

As with a chronological resume, a functional format includes your name and contact information in the header followed by your objective. However, the next section will feature your skills with work experience and education tucked beneath. In all sections, omit anything irrelevant, and dedicate more space to information directly applicable to the job you're applying for.

To enhance your functional resume:

  • List skills as subheadings and include a bulleted list beneath each one that gives specific examples of how you've utilized that skill.
  • Add relevant sections, such as certifications or industry memberships, to further demonstrate your integration into a particular line of work.
  • Include a small sidebar section with interests if you have hobbies that are directly related to the job.

Combination resume format

Can't decide how to format your resume? A combination resume may provide the perfect fit. This resume puts equal emphasis on your work history and skill set. Instead of downgrading skills to a short list as you would on a chronological resume, expand this section to include detailed examples of your competencies, as you did on the functional resume. In addition, highlight the top three or four positions in your job history that have relevance to the current application.

To create a stellar combination resume:

  • Include specific job duties beneath your job listings.
  • Emphasize measurable accomplishments within the skills section.
  • Eliminate any additional sections to keep the overall resume concise and digestible.

Resume formatting tips

The core features of a resume are the same across all formats. Review these guidelines before you upload your resume to make sure it's in top shape.

Stay clean and concise

Keep your resume to a single page if possible. The only instance where you should expand into two pages is if you have a minimum of 10 years' work experience and you've worked for three or more employers. Embrace the openness of white space. Include margins of at least 0.7 inches on either side of the page and 0.6 inches at the top and bottom. Include breaks between sections and use bullet points for details beneath skills or jobs. The entire page should be easy to absorb at a glance.

Use concise writing with short sentences or blurbs. Remember that the bullets beneath your jobs or skills don't need to be complete sentences and shouldn't include the word "I". Your resume should never include a large block of text.

Optimize the details

Cut directly to the chase at every point on your resume and emphasize hard-hitting facts. You don't need to explain the intricacies of how you landed a $500,000 deal — just mention how much money you brought in with a single client and leave the storytelling for the interview. Specifics always help. Saying that your new program improved efficiency is nice, but it makes an impression when you mention that your program reduced data entry times by 60% on average.

Feature only those responsibilities, accomplishments, and skills that are relevant and impactful. If you had an average GPA or attended an underwhelming conference, omit this information. Irrelevant details distract from those that matter.

Maintain consistency

Write in the present tense when discussing your current job, and use the past tense for all other jobs and skills. Focus on action verbs and avoid passive language. Say you "completed a project" not that the "project was completed" by you. Though it seems like a small difference, active language creates a more impactful reading experience. Proofread your resume carefully and make sure you're consistent across all your points. If some bullets are complete sentences while others are not or you shift between passive and active voice, then your resume will seem sloppy.

Following these key guidelines for resume formatting will help you build a strong submission. Not only will it help you get past automated resume checkers, but it will also help you impress the hiring manager at the other end of the process so you can get into the interview chair and land that job.

More tips for building a successful resume

Prepare for the next steps in your job search in advance and put together a references sheet so it's ready upon request.

Double and triple-check the length of your resume to make sure it's not too long or too short, but just right.

Incorporate your personal branding into your resume for an extra pop of intrigue that will help you stand out.