Resumes are a Response

photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

You linguists know what I’m talking about – they are a pair part. Remember adjacency pairs?

From conversations I have been having lately (including among the post-Ac community), I have been hearing a lot about “turning one’s CV into a resume.” And “turning” strikes me not only as the wrong conceptual frame, but also as extremely unhelpful because the resume and the CV are simply two different things. The task shouldn’t be approached as turning one into the other.

Now if I have managed to convince you of that, I now want to ask you to accept one more radical idea: there is no such thing as THE resume. Resumes don’t exist on their own. They exist in direct conversation with a particular job announcement, or responding to a particular opportunity. You write a resume with a specific set of ideas in your mind about what the tasks, duties, and responsibilities will be. You write a resume with an idea of who is going to be reading it and what they value. This is how you know what to include, and how to prioritize.

Resumes are a response.
Any resume is (just one part of) a conversation.

Now, you may be already hearing the “who”s and “what”s and “how”s in how I am approaching things, so you may not be surprised to learn that I’m now going to take you through the content curation task involved in building a resume using the Work Interrogatives (an idea I have been exploring here on Career Linguist for some time now.  

You’ll notice that I used the term “content creation” just now.

If resumes do exist, they are giant repositorites of lists of descriptive information of your past work experiences.  Forget one page, these might be dozens of pages long, or even – as in my case – multiple sets of documents in sets of folders. Since writing my dissertation, I have been working with the idea of idea nuggets, each and every idea gets its own page.  In the case of the resume collection of ideas, some of them are written down in fully developed story form while others are descriptive lists and others are just free-writing. Every job gets a folder, and there are a collection (sometimes dozens ) of documents describing projects worked on, skills utilized, experiences gained. And I can hear the comment already: yes, I am sure there is a more tech-savvy way to capture all of this information –and for the record, I have tried Evernote – but the point is, the information is contained and stored somewhere other than on any one resume. You pick and choose which ideas to select. I’ll never be able to describe everything, and I wouldn’t want to.

Only mention things on your resume that you want to be asked to do again.   

OK so now let’s go through the Work Interrogatives to see how they help in the process of curating content for a resume.

WHO: you might know the person / people who are going to be looking at this (version of your) resume. If you don’t, see what you can learn from how they talk about themselves on LinkedIn. Can you glean any information about what they particularly value? 

To engineer the shift in perspective,  that of putting yourself in their shoes, you might want to ask friends to look at your resume – have them tell you what jumps out for them. If they are up for some storytelling, have them tell you what story they get from looking at this (version of) yours. 

For years in my Bringing Linguistics to Work(shop) I have done an activity that involves looking at resumes from a distance. I put two resumes up on a slide, too small ad far away to be able to actually read the content, but still legible enough to be able to discern the information architecture. You can still see how the ideas are presented and organized. I then ask workshop participants which resume they prefer and it’s always the same. It’s the one that has symmetry under each section heading, it’s the one that has more white space. You look at it and you almost relax because you can tell that someone was thinking about you – the reader – when they designed it.

Which brings us to WHAT, something I have written about using the metaphor of the suitcase, that you should pack your resume with your destination in mind. Select only the essential, versatile, favorite pieces. We’ve all had the experience of packing so much in our suitcases that you can’t find anything. And that because you have tried to cram in so much, everything that is in there gets crushed and wrinkled, and keeps falling out all over the floor.

Lately, I have started doing an activity with job advertisements at workshops which has participants go through and pick three WHATs. Three and only three. To start anyways. What are the top three things that you will be asked to do as part of this job (and you get to create the scale: like it could be “conduct research,” or it could be “conduct evaluation research,” or it could be conduct an evaluation of this particular program or project). The work of selecting the three is about picturing yourself at the job, and it gets you imagining how you will prioritize your time, which helps your select and prioritize the selection of details from your stockpile to present in this resume. Which three WHATs will you select? And then don’t forget to put the SOQs on them!

Some thoughts about WHEN, which also have to do with WHERE you are in your career.

  • If you are just starting off, it makes sense to put your education section first. If you’ve been out of school for a while, put the education after work experience.
  • Re: work Experience: Depending on how many years of experience you are drawing from (and how long you spent in each position), you may want to consider a chronological or a skills-based resume (or a combination). Again, it will depend on what the person to whom you are sending this resume needs /seems to be asking for.
  • The timing of submission is also something to consider. It’s a constant balance between spending the time to think and carefully format and getting the thing in quickly. Another factor to consider is making time to reach out to anyone you might know who might be able to put in a word for you at an organization.  But as with anything, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Which is to say sooner may be better. Submitting an imperfect resume is better than missing the application window (which now that things are being posted on LinkedIn is sometimes not a thing which may be known in advance – employers may simply decide to close the search when they have received a handful of applications that look good to them).

WHY. Creating a resume is a great time to spend some time thinking about your WHY. Why do you want this particular job? How does it fit in with your career trajectory?  My favorite tool these days for thinking about the why is the VIA Values in Action inventory. 

You take a 10 minute quiz, and then you’ll have a list of your top 10 work values.

Ideally, at this stage, you would then do a pocket full of stories session, or use some other story finding activities to find a handful of stories that show these values in action. Stories are the best way to demonstrate HOW you work. They help a would-be employer see why they need you! 

Recently, I found a work opportunity that I really wanted to apply for, so I had the chance to put my momey where my mouth is put these recommendations to practice. I did my VIA inventory, and pocket full of stories to match moments with ideas to show how I embody things like Love of Learning, Social Intelligence, and Kindness. I went to Canva   and downloaded one of their resume and cover letter templates. And I built them from scratch. I have been telling people to do this for years, and finally was able to wean myself away from my bad habits and not start from a different resume and adapt. I built it from scratch. And in response to the job ad. I had done the work to identify the top three things that they were looking for. And I had done the work to find my stories to share in response. It felt dynamic. It was a conversation. It was – dare I say it? – fun!  And I got an interview, so I must have done something right!

Try it – and let me know how it goes!

To read more about what I have said about resumes over the years, see the About Resumes page here on Career Linguist.