When you see a job posting that gets your heart racing, what do you do?
Do you immediately hit apply, sending your most recent resume as quickly as possible? Are you submitting the same generic resume to every job posting that catches your eye? Some job seekers treat their job search like a numbers game. They apply to as many jobs as possible in the hopes that one of their applications will be successful, without accounting for whether or not their resume is well-suited for that particular position.
There is a certain logic to this—the more companies you send your resume to, the more employers there are who can call you, right?—but taking this approach could actually be hurting your chances of finding your dream role. It doesn’t leave enough time for you to tailor your resume for each position, which is what gives you the best chance of catching a hiring manager’s eye.
In this guide, we will walk you through why you need to customize your resume and give all the inside details on how to do it right.
You may already know that customizing your resume is critical to scoring an interview, but do you know why? Understanding how customization increases your odds of success will not only motivate you to introduce this practice to your job search, it will also help you develop a strategy for tailoring your resume effectively. Customizing your resume will help you get past the two major obstacles that stand between you and that all-important interview: the Applicant Tracking System (ATS) and the person who reviews your resume.
An ATS—also known as a talent management system—is software that employers use to help streamline recruitment. Most companies' recruiters don't have that much time to go through hundreds or even thousands of resumes. Using an ATS to automate their hiring processes, including filtering applications and keeping track of candidates. This is an increasingly common practice for many companies and among large enterprises, it is almost universal. Employers like using an ATS because it is a quick and easy way to manage the large number of applications they receive for any one job posting.
Essentially, companies use Applicant Tracking Systems to screen out applicants who don’t fit their requirements. Using keywords, they search for resumes that match their needs, and anything that doesn’t match those keywords is automatically rejected. Without the right words, your resume will never reach a human being for consideration. According to The Balance Careers, Applicant Tracking Systems reject approximately 70% of resumes they receive.
If you want to be in the 30% that make it through to the next round for further consideration, read our in-depth tips on how to beat an applicant tracking system.
Yes. Scott Bacon, a former recruiter for Google, lists generic resumes as one of the top mistakes applicants make and advises that the same resume should not be sent to multiple employers.
Remember: your resume is a marketing document, designed to sell you to a specific employer. Your resume should convince the hiring manager that you are the best candidate for that particular job. With a generic resume, it will be hard to make the case that you are the right fit. Your resume may be light on the skills that matter most to the employer and spend a lot of space highlighting things that the hiring manager doesn’t care about at all. Why would they choose you over someone who has taken the time to highlight exactly how their experience makes them a great fit for the job in question?
At the application stage, getting a recruiter or hiring manager to notice you requires standing out and impressing them. Customizing your resume is the best way to do this; it shows that you really care about the job.
Now that we have laid out why you need to customize your resume, let’s dive into the specifics of how to craft a stand-out document for each job application.
Given that we just explained why customizing your resume is important, and why you should never use a general resume, you might be confused by this advice. Bear with us—you will save time customizing your resume when you start with a general or master document. Though it is true that you should never use one to apply for a job, a general resume is a good starting point for the customized resumes that you do use.
The idea of putting together a customized resume for each application is intimidating for many job seekers. It seems like a lot of extra work. “A new resume from scratch, each time I want to apply for a new job? I don’t have time for that!”
But savvy job seekers don't have to completely rewrite their resumes for every application, they’re working from a general resume and reworking it to target the specific job they are applying for.
There are many ways to do this. Recruitment experts at Talent Egg recommend using a spreadsheet to keep track of your skills and experience. Other job seekers create a full master resume template that lists all of their jobs in one file. If you have experience in multiple fields, you might create a couple of generic resumes that you can use depending on the position.
For example, if you have worked in both customer service and administration, you can maintain one resume that highlights your customer service work and another that focuses on your administrative skills.
You won’t be submitting your general resume, but you will be using it as a template to build all of your applications. This resume will serve as a detailed history of your skills and experience that you can draw relevant details from for each application. Spending time getting this right will save you time in the future and increase your chances of landing an interview.
You can start putting together your master resume right away, even if no position has caught your eye yet. When you are ready to build a strong foundation for your future applications, check out our Ultimate Guide to CV Writing.
You have created a general resume and you are in the middle of a job search. You have found a job you think would be perfect for you, and you want to put in an application. You are ready to customize your resume, but how do you tailor your approach for this particular employer? We mentioned keywords earlier, but that’s not the only thing to consider.
It’s time to do some research. Luckily, you won’t have to look far to find the information you need.
The job description should be your starting point every time you customize your resume. After all, this is where employers explicitly tell you what they are seeking.
The Undercover Recruiter suggests paying careful attention to the job description, noting that the “most important qualifications will often be listed first”. Here are some key elements to look out for:
This is the section that highlights an ideal candidate’s skills and attributes. This may include education, work experience, skills, and any necessary licenses. Job qualifications will often be separated into “Required” and “Preferred” criteria, with the more important requirements at the top.
As you read through the list of qualifications, highlight any keywords that apply to you. These can be used in your application. You may also want to brainstorm related examples of accomplishments from your work history that demonstrate how you meet the employer’s requirements.
This section of the job description tells you what you will be doing if you land the position. Employers want to find candidates who are able to take on these responsibilities, so your resume should highlight where you already have experience handling similar tasks. As you read through, try to think of any examples from your work experience are relevant to the job duties. You can use these later when customizing your resume.
When studying job descriptions, you may find that even jobs that seem perfect for you have requirements that you do not meet. Don’t panic! According to career coach Melody Wilding, job descriptions aren’t set in stone. If you meet at least 75% of the requirements you should still consider applying.
However, do your best to figure out which expectations are preferred and which ones are truly non-negotiable. For example, if the employer says they require a specific license or qualification that you don’t have, you may need to pass on that opportunity.
Another helpful resource for your research is the company’s website. Browsing the employer’s site is a great way to discover the values and qualities they look for in employees.
When researching the company, focus on:
This information can be found in different locations throughout the site depending on the company. The “About Us” section will often contain the company’s mission statement, and may also link you to their annual reports, information about their company culture, and so on. If the company has a dedicated careers section or careers mini-site, you may also find useful information there. Pay close attention to any key phrases you see repeated across the website.
After thoroughly reading the job description and company site, you should be able to picture the type of person this employer wants to hire. Your next step is to convince the hiring manager you are that person.
Once you have spent some time getting familiar with the job description and the company, it’s time to put your research into action. You will now customize your general resume so it sells you as the ideal candidate for a specific role.
Note: Customizing your resume doesn’t mean making things up. Your resume should always be truthful, and any customization shouldn’t inflate your experience and qualifications. Your goal is to present the facts about your qualifications in a way that is relevant and appealing to the hiring manager, not to trick them into hiring you.
So, you’ve read the job description and noted the employer’s desired skills and qualifications, you can start customizing your resume. However, before you start customizing your resume, consider the fact that there are likely directly linked to the important keywords employers use to filter applications through their applicant tracking system (ATS).
The closer your words match, the more likely it is you will get through that initial screening phase. Plus, once you reach a recruiter or hiring manager, using their language can indicate a culture fit right away.
If you still aren’t sure of the appropriate keywords to focus on, experts at recruitment firm Randstad have a handy tip: try running the job description through a word cloud app (such as Wordle). This will give you a visual representation of the words that appear most often in the job description.
Let’s consider how you might put this into action. Imagine you’re applying for an administrative position, and the job description includes the following requirements:
(These examples were taken from Indeed.com’s sample administrative assistant job description)
If your skill statement says “Advanced skills in Microsoft Office” you may want to change this to “Proficiency in MS Office, including expertise in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.” This mirrors the language used in the job description and is more likely to make it through the ATS.
Include these keywords throughout your resume. Pay attention to the following in particular:
Your summary or profile (if you’re using one)
Your work experience
As an example, let’s use the admin role we mentioned earlier. Say you revised an invoicing process at a former job. Beneath that role, you might write: “Analyzed ongoing issues with invoicing practices and implemented a process that increased efficiency by X%”.
Repeat this process with each keyword you identify in the job qualifications, finding ways to highlight how your experiences match the job description and referring back to the employer’s language throughout. Your resume should consistently show how your experience qualifies you for the position.
When you are tailoring your resume, remember the company’s values that you discovered in your research. Use your previous work to show how you have demonstrated these values in the past.
For example, a common one is ‘teamwork’. Think of a time when you were part of a successful team. Maybe you’re a software developer who designed an app for a client—you can frame this experience as: “Collaborated closely with marketing and product research teams to design a state-of-the-art app for a client, which exceeded expectations.”
Job seekers sometimes make the mistake of crowding their resume with details of every position they have ever had. Employers are only interested in information that is relevant to them. If you have held positions that don’t relate to the job at hand, get rid of them.
If you are worried that your resume now looks bare, try identifying aspects of previous positions that make the experience more relevant to the role that interests you. You can also use appropriate volunteer or internship experiences to enhance your resume.
Recruiters only spend a few seconds looking at each resume, which means it’s critical to make sure the most relevant information is front and centre, at the top of your resume. Career website The Muse recommends focusing on the “top third," as the top of your resume is what recruiters are more likely to read during their initial sweep. This should contain vital contact information, your current job title, a memorable resume summary statement, and relevant professional social media accounts in your name.
Employers have thousands of resumes to get through when they start the hiring process. More often than not, they're skimming instead of reading. That’s why it’s important to list your most relevant skills for each previous job to make sure that you get their attention. Again, use the most specific and appropriate keywords from the job description to figure out which skills would be most relevant to the job and highlight in your resume's skills section. Also, think about an employer’s priorities when selecting a candidate. Quickly reordering your skills to match the order on the job description can help a hiring manager or recruiter do a quick scan to locate the exact experience and they're looking for.
Resume design is sometimes overlooked. Customizing your resume template’s overall aesthetic and presentation based on the company culture or industry can give you a leg up on the competition. However, there is a huge difference in culture between a creative startup and a large established corporation, and your design should reflect those different expectations.
It's also a good idea to review the company website to get a feel for their overall aesthetic. If it reflects a creative, casual and modern design, you can match your resume to it. If the company seems conservative and professional, you should adopt a toned-down style and stick to a traditional resume format.
According to Forbes, only half of all job applications include a cover letter, and only a quarter of those are customized using keywords. A cover letter gives you another opportunity to sell yourself to an employer and to demonstrate why you are a perfect fit for the job.
For more help on writing a stellar cover letter, check out our article on How To Write a Cover Letter.
Before you submit your resume, double check that you are sending the right message. The Muse recommends enlisting the help of a friend. Having someone you trust read over your resume without looking at the job description or the role can bring a fresh perspective to whether or not your resume is working. Ask them to pick out the qualities and skills that stand out to them. See if they can guess what type of role you are applying for.
If your resume is highly targeted, the keywords your friend identifies should closely align with the job description—and they should be able to guess the role. If they’re wildly off the mark at this stage, it may indicate that you still have more work to do before sending in that application.
Using VisualCV removes a lot of the stress of customizing your resume for specific jobs. With the platform, you can customize a resume for each new job application in four easy steps.
Your general resume is what you created in lesson 1. Simply click “New Resume,” select the resume you would like to copy, then click “copy.”
This will take an exact copy of all that data, which can then be customized for the job application.
VisualCV includes a variety of designs. The design to use for your custom application depends on the company you are applying for. Are they more modern, trendy? Choose a design that suits.
Are they more traditional, and business-like? Choose a more toned-down design. You might want to delete the extras such as a portfolio and multi-media for a more traditional application.
A great resume is like a great suit - it is perfectly tailored to the position. Here are the most important steps to customizing your resume content.
Once you have customized your resume - click share. You can then send the employer one of the following: An email cover letter that includes a link to your private online resume (each resume has its own URL), as well as a PDF version of that resume.
A PDF export of the custom resume that can be submitted to applicant tracking systems.
Yes, customizing for every role can feel like a lot of work. It definitely takes more time than just shopping the same resume to every job listing. But if you’re serious about snagging that interview—and hopefully that dream job—customization will make all the difference.
Ben is a writer and customer support specialist with 5 years of experience helping job-seekers create their careers. He believes in the importance of a great resume and the power of coffee.
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