Does Your Resume Employ the Right Structure?

Does Your Resume Employ the Right Structure?Every resume has a structure. Question is, is it the right one, the one that will help the resume to get results?

The right structure is one which communicates your career story in a way that works to your advantage, while the wrong structure sabotages your candidacy by inadvertently disguising your brand and showcasing your career liabilities.

Let me clarify a bit more what I mean by “resume structure”. Typically, your resume’s structure includes these elements:

  • The sections and sub-sections your resume contains. Most resumes these days need a summary, a work history section, and an education or credentials section at a minimum, with supplemental sections added when necessary (presentations, publications, military experience, thought leadership, affiliations, and leadership philosophy, to name but a few).
  • The order in which these sections/sub-sections are presented and the order in which the information they contain is presented. It’s imperative that your resume places the right information in the right location in your document for 3 reasons. First, as Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) parse your resume, they will expect to find certain details in specific locations. If those details are not listed where they are expected, the ATS will load your resume details into the wrong spot in the employer’s application form, which will likely cause garbage text and/or inaccurate information to be placed into the form’s experience section. Second, recruiters and hiring managers also expect your document to be organized in an easy-to-follow manner. If your document is organized differently than expected, they may fail to see the critical details you want them to read. Third, the order information is presented in a resume should reflect the its order of importance, with the most critical elements placed first. This not only impacts the order in which information may be read, it also influences your readers’ perceptions of your candidacy.
  • The order and presentation of your work history. Most candidates know that work experience on a resume should be listed in reverse chronological order with your most recent roles listed first. Many do not know that generally most jobs should be included from the present back to the year 2000 (though not always). This means that if you held numerous promotions or positions within the same employer, most should be described fully and not omitted. The situation grows more complicated if you held multiple jobs at the same time or moved back and forth between self-employment or consulting roles and paid employment – these situations must be evaluated on their own merits so the pros and cons of different solutions can be analyzed.

Common Structural Flaws

To see the danger these issues create, let’s examine 4 primary structural flaws:

Education Up Front
One of the most common structural mistakes made by executives is that they don’t update their resume’s structure after they gain early career experience in their chosen fields. This means they end up leaving their education section at the top of the resume or right after their summary.

  • If you are a new college or grad school graduate with zero relevant work experience, then listing your education information immediately after your resume’s career summary may be wise.
  • If you’re not a recent graduate, however, or you do possess relevant work experience, then elevating your education to this spot in the resume will undersell you, since it will make you appear to be less qualified than you actually are.
  • Note, however, that this is not the same thing as mentioning your degrees as key brand elements in your summary.

Conflated Job Listings
Combining multiple job listings into one is sometimes a very smart resume structural strategy, but you have to know when to use it to leverage it fully.

  • If the jobs you wish to combine were all held within the same department such a strategy may work well so long as you ensure the multiple promotions are made clear.
  • In other cases your experience may be better served by breaking out each role separately. If, for example, you worked for the same company for a long period of time but held different roles, listing each of them separately may help overcome the resistance recruiters sometimes have to hiring candidates who have worked with one employer for too long.

Confusing Work Chronology
Have you held more than one job at a time? Or has your career moved back and forth between consulting, self-employment, and employment? You must make sure you help your readers to understand your career chronology without sacrificing your brand.

  • If you’re in IT consulting, for example, and change consulting roles every few months or every year or two, then your resume may need a structural overhaul. Listing each of these roles as separate jobs will make you appear to be a job hopper. Rather, combining them into one listing while balancing this with key details about the most strategic roles will likely serve your career better.
  • If you launched a business while working full-time, including that business on your resume may or may not be advantageous – it depends on your job search targets and your long-term career goals. If you determine that it should be included, listing it in your work history section may confuse your chronology. In this case, it may work best if you separate this experience and profile it in an additional section.
  • If you experimented in your career by trying out a new industry or type of role and then returned to your prior industry/type of role, this may cause your experience to skew. Or, if you deliberately took roles to gain experience in diverse functions, this may make your experience look scattered.

Functional or Combination Resume Layouts
A functional resume presents your work experience within a skills section and omits a formal work history section. A hybrid or combination resume also presents your work experience within a skills section but does include a formal work history section. Both of these resume layouts have their purposes, but neither is widely respected by recruiters or employers.

  • Functional resumes mask your work history, which makes them the resume layout of choice for career changers and those with troublesome employment gaps. The problem, though, is that the suspicion this layout creates in your readers’ minds may far outweigh their reaction to whatever it is you are trying to hide. In my 30-year career management career I have written resumes for folks in all kinds of circumstances, including those emerging from prison or rehab, career changers of all kinds, and those with gaps of several years in their employment histories, yet I have never found it necessary to use a true functional resume layout to tell their career stories.
  • Combination resumes are slightly better because they include a work history section, but because they separate achievements from their respective jobs they make your career story hard to digest. I rarely recommend using this format, especially for those located in or desiring to work in the US Midwest, where this layout is less accepted. Though this layout is more accepted on the US East or West Coast, it will be rare indeed that a self-written combination resume can compete well against a self-written non-combination resume or a professionally written document.
  • A thorough analysis of your brand, your career story, and your career goals will reveal other, more strategic ways to structure your resume that will not risk losing you readers within seconds of their picking up your document.

Resume Structure Fixes Mini Case Studies

To understand the impact that the right structure can have on a resume, let’s consider 2 specific case study snippets.

  • A client came to me with a history of full-time IT experience mixed with a long series of IT consulting roles. He had listed each consulting role separately which caused his resume to stretch to 7 pages. In addition, he took a tactical approach to describing each consulting role, which caused his resume to read like that of a much less experienced candidate.
  • I revamped his resume structure by combining his consulting roles into one employment listing. Within that listing I bulleted key projects and highlighted the types of employers, industries, and solutions he had consulted with; I did not list each and every assignment. Rather, I strategically chose what to include and what to omit. I also restructured his achievements to provide higher-level impacts and reveal his experience in designing and executing technology strategies to solve mission-critical business problems while restricting the resume’s length to 2 pages.
  • The result? Prior to having his resume rewritten, this client had been unable to get interviews for the full-time permanent roles he was now pursuing; he was consequently unable to land the managerial role he was seeking. With his new resume in hand, this gentleman’s search kicked into high gear and he began winning interviews for the types of roles he wanted; he was offered a managerial IT role within 2 months of relaunching his job search.

In this first case study, it’s clear that having the wrong resume structure had a negative impact on this gentleman’s career. The right structure, however, enabled him to leverage the experience he had gained in IT consulting within a company seeking someone of his caliber.

In this next case study, a client presented with a long work history within the same role within the same company.

  • Her resume focused predominantly on responsibilities rather than achievements and listed her one job, which she had held for close to 20 years. She wore many hats in her role, but this fact was buried along with her many diverse achievements which revealed the cross-functional nature of her experience.
  • I redesigned this client’s resume by retaining her single employment listing but breaking that listing up into functional sub-categories. Because she worked for a smaller company and held varied responsibilities, it was imperative to make her cross-functional experience evident. We selected the sub-categories based on her career goals, which meant that we highlighted her sales, marketing, and business development experience rather than the legal, HR, and IT functions she also managed.
  • The new resume helped this candidate overcome the perception that she had languished in the same role for 20 years. It highlighted the cross-functional nature of her work while emphasizing her operational impacts and ability to drive execution. The result? She landed the senior business development role she wanted in a new company within 3 months.

A stellar resume possesses not just stellar content, but a stellar structure. If your resume isn’t helping you get traction in your search, check its structure to see where strategic revamps may be needed to better call attention to your brand.

If your resume is suffering from structural issues, you may need help figuring out the right resume writing solution. Schedule a no-cost-, no-obligation career consultation here.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn; it has been updated with 2018 resume writing best practices.