Making Your Resume Stand Out From the Crowd

The team that I work on has been trying to hire for a while now, so I've been going through a lot of resumes. I've seen hundreds of resumes in the past few months and I can't think of a single one that stood out. Out of those hundreds of resumes, we talked to a few people on the phone, brought two candidates in for an interview, and made one offer of employment, which was, sadly, declined in favour of another offer. I'm sure there were talented people that we did not identify somewhere within those hundreds of resumes, but generally, people do nothing to make themselves stand out from the crowd. It is easy, therefore, to be passed over.

The landscape may be changing with the emergence of match-making services that allow candidates and employers to screen each other, somewhat anonymously, and certainly a lot of people are hired through the relationships they've developed through internships, meet-ups, or open-source software contributions. But it is probably fair to say that the majority of people are still screened based on their resume, at least at big companies, and this probably won't change dramatically over the next few years.

In other articles, I've related my experiences as both an interviewer and an interviewee and proposed an experiment for making technical interviews more effective. In this article, I will describe a few things that I wish people would do to make their resume stand out, ultimately making the process of screening resumes more enjoyable and mutually beneficial for the job seeker and the potential employer.

How I Will Encounter Your Resume

Recently, I was trying to estimate the number of interviews that I've conducted over my career. I figured it is somewhere between 500 and 1000. I've probably screened an order-of-magnitude more resumes than that. It is worth understanding how I will encounter your resume. A technical or non-technical recruiter has likely screened an enormous pile of resumes and selected the ones most likely to match a job description based on matching a bunch of keywords (e.g., systems programming, software security, Java, C#, etc.), or a vague understanding of what we are looking for. I'm going to get a batch of these resumes sent to me to evaluate. Like everyone else, I'm busy. I do really enjoy interviewing, but I also really want to work with my teammates to tackle the engineering challenges that we are working on. So, imagine, it's Thursday afternoon. I'm halfway through a really interesting problem. I'm sent a batch of resumes. I know I should get through them by the end of the day, but I also really want to get back to the problem I'm working on. If your resume doesn't stand out, I'm not going to spend much time on it, and I'm going to quickly pass it over.


Your resume is a representation of the quality of your work. When I look at your resume, the first thing I do is evaluate the aesthetic appeal. I ask myself, is it laid out nicely? Is it formatted nicely? Is it formatted consistently? If this resume were a program or documentation delivered by our team, would we be proud of it? If the answer to any of these questions is no, I will immediately discard your resume, even if it has relevant experience in terms of the skills that we are looking for.

I very much agree with Aline Lerner's thesis that the strongest correlation between resumes and successful hires is not measured by grades, or school, or degree, or work experience, but rather with the presence of typos, grammatical errors, or syntactic inconsistencies on the resume. If you have a bulleted list on your resume and some of the sentences end with periods and others do not, I'm likely going to pass over your resume. The same is true if you refer inconsistently to both Scala and scala, or C++ and c++. Seemingly randomly Capitalizing Words or using a Bold Font will make me pass on your resume. Providing your resume as a Microsoft Word document will also make me skeptical. Word is a document format for editing, not just reading. I don't want to edit your resume. When I open your resume in Word and it lights up like a Christmas tree with words underlined in red and green to indicate spelling and grammatical errors, I will almost certainly discard your resume. Even if nothing is wrong—many technical terms are not in the default dictionary and will be highlighted as errors, distracting me from reading your resume.

Say What You Want To Do

One of the most difficult things when screening resumes is figuring out what the person wants to do. Most of the resumes I see are people straight out of school. The resumes are pretty generic, quoting coursework and perhaps the odd internship. Providing a cover letter or an objective on the resume is very rare, even for people that have worked in the industry for some time and should have some idea of what they want to do. Something like the following would help me a lot:

My objective is to expand my experience with functional programming, as well as become an expert in software security.

That is an easy objective for me to evaluate and determine if we can provide that opportunity for you on our team. Even if you don't really know what you want to do and are open to a number of opportunities, saying so will distinguish you:

I'm just finishing school and, without having worked professionally, I don't yet know what I want the focus of my career to be. I'm interested in developing web and mobile applications, automated software testing, platforms for big-data analysis, sales, and product management. I would like a job where I'm not focused on just one thing, but can explore a number of different domains, improve and expand my skills, and find my true passion.


I can also imagine a resume with lots of leadership and great experience in software testing—someone that I might think would be the perfect fit to run our quality assurance team—where the objective is as follows:

I have a lot of experience with software testing and leading teams. I have really enjoyed this part of my career, but now I want to translate that experience into being an effective product manager.

Your resume is generally a list of skills and experiences, but it doesn't give a sense of what you want to do or where you want to go, especially if it is something different from what you have been doing. Providing a brief cover letter, or a one-paragraph objective on your resume, will give me a much better idea of what you want to do and it will help establish mutual fit. Even if your objective is simple:

I just want to solve hard problems.

Your Online Presence

With so many outlets to share a bit more of yourself online, surprisingly few people provide links on their resume to their online presence. To be honest, I'm fine with this. The fact that school has kept you very busy and that you haven't had time to start a blog is totally fine with me. However, if you do link to your online profile, make sure that it represents you in a good light. If you provide a link to your LinkedIn account and it is just a sloppier and less-refined version of your resume, this will not leave me with a good impression. A lot of candidates, especially ones straight out of school, provide a link to a GitHub account. When I go there, it is usually just three or four school projects, seemingly half finished, and it's difficult for me to figure out what their purpose is. If you would provide a README for one of these projects that communicated the problem you are trying to solve, the value of the software, the structure of the software, and how to run it, you would instantly differentiate yourself from everyone else.

Use a Few Hyphens

Lastly, use a few hyphens. The appropriate use of hyphens will not only make your resume more polished and appealing, it will make it much easier for me to read. Remember that I may not be familiar with everything that you are describing on your resume. Often the wording on a resume in necessarily dense, as you are trying to briefly describe technical subject matter. So describing the time series database for an Internet of Things streaming data application might read well to you, the time-series database for an Internet-of-Things streaming-data application reads a lot better to me. Virtually no resume I screen makes use of hyphens to make it easier to read. The appropriate use of hyphens alone will make your resume stand out.


When you prepare your resume, you understand what things mean. You understand what you want to do. You understand who you really are. Do not assume that anyone else does. Make it easy for someone screening your resume to figure these things out. You will stand out from the crowd and have much better opportunities because of it.