August 5, 2014

The Wrong Way to Make Your Resumé Stand Out

ChooseDuring my final year of undergrad, in the heat of senioritis, I took a class on theater appreciation (it actually ruled, but that’s beside the point). The professor was a theater-industry veteran, a jovial old guy who wanted everyone to love plays and get an A. Classes generally consisted of him standing in front of the room and riffing for 90 minutes according to however the spirit moved him that day.

In one class, our professor addressed the struggles of being an actor: the constant competition; the lack of job security; the rejections; the past-due rent; etc., etc. The moral of the story: it’s really hard to get noticed as an actor when there are thousands of other people trying to get noticed right alongside you.

Now, you may not know this, but actors do have resumés. They’re slightly different than the resumés we generally think of when we hear the word, but they do exist, and actors often send them out to all the directors, agents, and other important theater figures they can find, in the hopes of making connections and being cast in upcoming shows.

Our professor, a fairly well-established director himself, had plenty of experience with receiving stacks and stacks of resumés from aspiring actors almost daily. He told us of one actor’s attempt to stand out from the scores of other resumés: whereas most resumés are printed on 8.5” x 11” letter-size paper, this enterprising young actor would print his resumé on 8.5” × 14” legal-size paper. This young actor thought that having a physically larger resumé would make him stand out — it would draw the director’s eyes his way.

The reasoning may seem sound, but unfortunately for our poor actor, the ploy to stand out backfired entirely. As our professor explained, this guy’s larger-than-normal resumés were just annoying. They stuck awkwardly out of piles. They didn’t fit into the file folders our professor kept resumés in. And so, every time our professor received one of this guy’s legal-size resumés, he would just toss it.

“Stand out on the stage,” our professor said, “not in my desk drawers.”

Against “Creative” Resumés

Whether we’re actors or actuaries, teachers or tellers, I think my theater appreciation professor’s words are ones we should take to heart: when it comes to standing out on the job hunt, we need to stand out as people and professionals. It is the achievements listed on our resumés that should catch the eye — not our resumés themselves.

Now, I think, is as good a time as any to revisit what a resumé should look like, for two reasons. Firstly, thanks to ATSs and other digital applicant tracking platforms, our resumés are often turned into system data, where flashy formatting really doesn’t matter; secondly, millennials are almost unanimously considered the most creative generation to date. One could easily see that creative drive turning into ridiculously formatted resumés for the sake of creative expression.

And, indeed, this has happened already. Design blog recently posted “50 Awesome Resumé Designs that Will Bag the Job,” and while the resumé designs in question certainly do look nice, I’m not sure what jobs they’re supposed to bag. Commenters on the post express all sorts of valid reservations about the designs:

“I think these can be good concepts, but ONLY [sic] for design jobs and also taking into consideration the type of firm. However, I think the ones where the attempt is to be clever really just come off cocky, and while potential supervisors want to see confidence, the former is a huge turn-off,” writes Shayla.

“They’re all very visual appealing, but I feel like a lot of them are much too complicated. I don’t think they’re likely to be hired if the resumé is not easy to follow,” Bee suggests.

The author of the post does note that “creative CV design may not work with an economist or a lawyer,” but then she goes on to say that “it is ideal for designers and artists.” Even there, I’m not so sure: better, I think, to have a separate online portfolio and keep the resumé clean, clear, and professional, no matter what position you’re applying for. If not, you run the danger of ending up like the actor my professor spoke of, and your plan to get noticed may be the very reason your resumé gets trashed.

So — What Should a Resumé Look Like?

You want a resumé to be clean, professional, accurate, easy-to-read, and relevant. You want it to look like this. Or this. Note how similar those designs are, how the differentiating material is all located in content, not form. That’s where you want to shine — on the stage, not in the desk drawer.

And if you are applying for a creative gig? Err on the side of caution and dazzle your potential employer with your portfolio; let your resumé be the put-together Clark Kent to your portfolio’s caped-and-spandexed Superman.

Unless, of course, you know for a fact that your potential employer wants to see a “creative” resumé design — in which case, go nuts! There are always times when rules must be broken. Just make sure you have the go-ahead to break the rules before you do.

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Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of