3 Reasons To Simplify Your Resume Format and Layout (Plus 10 Resume Formatting Mistakes To Avoid)
When evaluating candidates, what do you think recruiters care the most about?
Is it how long your resume is? Where you live? How about your relevant work experience?
That last one could be a good answer, but it’s not quite there.
What recruiters care about most is how much money you make them (or more specifically, their firm).
So, when clients come to me about choosing a resume format/layout, my response is always the same: Choose a resume format/layout that makes it easy for the recruiter to understand how profitable you’ll be.
Frequently, this feedback results in tears of disappointment, so in this article, I want to cover the reasons why keeping your resume format as simple as possible just makes sense and provide several examples of the most common quirky, erroneous formatting that I’ve come across (and why not to use them).
Let’s get started!
Why Keeping Your Resume Format / Layout As Simple As Possible Just Makes Sense
Businesses operate efficiently because of repeatable, standardized systems.
These systems pervade all areas of a business, including recruiting.
So, when a recruiter views your resume, they’re operating within a system as well. The system works as follows:
In this system, when reviewing applications, the recruiter expects a standardized resume format, which comes in the following form:
- Work Experience
- Personal Interests / Skills / Etc.
Any deviation from this format causes the great recruiting machine to slow down.
And recruiters hate it when the machine slows down.
This increases the chance that they’ll spend less time reviewing your resume, which results in a higher rejection rate.
So, while your fancy resume format might temporarily catch the recruiter’s attention, you’ll lose it within a few short seconds after frustrating the recruiter when he/she can’t find relevant information on your resume.
I’ll address three points that typically come up in client conversations around resume formats:
- Making Your Recruiter’s Life Easier Without The Fancy Resume Format
- Saving Yourself Time That You Could Use For Higher-impact Job Search Activities
- But What If I’m In A Creative Field?
Making Your Recruiter’s Life Easier Without The Fancy Resume Formatting
At the job application stage, your goal is to make your recruiter’s life as easy as possible by handing your relevant experience and key accomplishments over on a silver platter.
As I just mentioned, the fancy resume format slows the recruiter down because they can’t find information where they normally find it on your resume.
This is incredibly frustrating. If you work in an office, imagine going into work one day to find that someone had switched all the letters on your keyboard. You’d be irritated too.
But to really drive the point home on how frustrating this is for the recruiter and why you shouldn’t do this, let’s do the math.
Suppose that a typical job posting gets 500 applications that the recruiter must review. Let’s assume that each application, at the minimum, gets the famous 6 second review. That’s 500 * 6 = 3000 seconds / 60 = 50 minutes.
But of course, that’s the bare minimum amount of time that the recruiter has to invest in reviewing applications. Next, the recruiter has to shortlist potential applications and spend more time doing an in-depth review. Suppose that of the 500 applications, the recruiter shortlists 100 applications and spends an incremental 60 seconds reviewing them. That’s 1 minute * 100 applications = 100 minutes.
Next, the recruiter will do a final shortlist with 25–50 applications to potentially advance them to the recruiter screening phone call. This step involves spending another 5 minutes or so doing a deep dive on each application to stack-rank them. Let’s be conservative and assume 50 applications * 5 minutes = 250 minutes.
Summing the total time the recruiter spends on screening the 500 applications and advancing 25–50 applicants onto the recruiter screening round, we’re looking at:
- 6-second quick screen for 500 applications: 50 minutes
- In-depth review to shortlist 100 applications: 100 minutes
- Final shortlist for 25–50 applications: 250 minutes
Grand total: 400 minutes or ~6.5 hours.
That’s 6.5 hours reviewing resumes, and we haven’t even talked about the time invested for interviewing yet.
All this to say that if you can make your recruiter’s life easier by standardizing your resume such that important information is easy to find, it will only help you stand out from the crowd.
Because what makes you stand out is not an eye-catching resume that fails to promptly deliver relevant information.
It’s a “boring” resume that looks the recruiter in the eye and tells him or her, “I can do this job because I have ‘x’ relevant experience and have moved ‘y’ metrics.”
Not only does using a simple resume format make your recruiter’s life easier by saving him or her time but it also saves you time as well.
Saving Yourself Time That You Could Use For Higher-impact Job Search Activities
In the job search, what do you think is a higher return on your time:
- Editing your resume’s format on the 56th iteration, or…
- Sending out 10 job applications.
If you couldn’t tell (which hopefully from the tone of the article you could), the correct answer is (2) sending out 10 job applications.
Once you’ve included the 4 essential parts of a great resume and followed best cover letter practices involving formatting, introductions, stories, and conclusions, your job application should be in good shape.
Yes, you might need to make some tweaks here and there as you customize your resume and cover letter for different industries or functional roles, but by and large, you’ve done most of the necessary work.
What’s interesting to me is that instead of leaving their already good resume and cover letter be, some clients will continue to invest hours and hours making dozens of incremental, unnecessary resume and cover letter drafts.
And they’ll do this when their time could be better spent networking, interview prepping, or sending out more job applications.
It’s still somewhat unclear to me why these clients do this, but my best guess is that they’re afraid.
Namely, they’re afraid of rejection. They’re afraid of the efforts they’ve invested into their resume and cover letter not generating results. They’re afraid of staring into the job search abyss when they’re on month 3 and still haven’t found a job yet.
And so, they hide behind additional resume and cover letter edits that over-index on useless formatting (and not content) tweaks that don’t convey any additional value.
In fact, as discussed above, these incremental edits are frequently value destructive as they obscure relevant information that the recruiter needs to find quickly.
So, how do you prevent this situation from happening to you?
First, begin by structuring your resume to follow a standard, non-creative format. The initial resume format / layout you use will set the stage for how you build the rest of your resume. Picking a standard, non-creative format will guide you toward making more substantiative, content edits and less non-substantive, formatting edits.
Second, set a hard limit on the number of resume editing rounds you do. To give you an idea of a ballpark range, for our resume and cover letter client packages, we offer 3 additional edits over and above the initial draft that we produce. If you’re editing your resume on your own, you might push that number to 5–8 edits.
From working with my clients, I find that the initial draft we produce gets the client 70–80% of the way to an optimized resume. The 1st and 2nd rounds of editing gets us to 100% with the 3rd round producing minimal incremental results.
You might be surprised by how few rounds of editing it takes to produce an optimized resume. So long as you’re following resume best practices, once you weave all your relevant experience and key accomplishments into your resume and have a solid, basic format, there’s actually very little that you can tweak (or even need to tweak) beyond rephrasing resume bullets.
Lastly, get 2–3 unbiased opinions on your resume. It’s best if these opinions come from recruiters or professional resume writers, but at the very least, they should be from professionals in the field you’re targeting. Listen to their feedback. If they think your resume is good to go, then that’s a sign that you should stop editing versions of your resume. Move on to higher value activities in your job search.
At this point, we’ve talked about why recruiters hate fancy resume formatting and layouts and how your time could be better spent elsewhere (vs. tweaking your resume formatting), but a small holdout group of clients will frequently bring up the “creative field” argument.
But What If I’m In A Creative Field?
Ah yes, the classic “creative field” argument.
At the risk of offending everyone who’s in a creative field reading this article, creative folks usually think that since their work revolves around making something stand out, they need to do the same for their job applications.
And they’re not wrong.
But wait, didn’t I just spend 500 words arguing that you should make your resume format standardized and non-fancy?
You’re right. What I meant is that creative folks should inject creativity into their job applications, but they should do so in the portfolio section of their job application and leave their resume and cover letter standardized.
For those who don’t know, in addition to the standard resume and cover letter, creative folks (marketers, designers, etc.) usually have to submit a portfolio that includes samples of their prior work.
Since the requirements for portfolio submission are usually flexible, the portfolio submission gives them an excellent chance to demonstrate their creativity and design skills.
Furthermore, recruiters for these positions are expecting the portfolio submission to be non-standardized and are prepared to invest additional time into reviewing these submissions. Therefore, there’s no need for concern over slowing the recruiter down.
However, for these positions, recruiters are still expecting a standardized resume and cover letter format because the purpose of these documents hasn’t changed — to show your recruiter your relevant experience and key accomplishments. Fancy formatting still impairs your resume’s ability to communicate this crucial information.
In sum, readers in creative fields should still express their creativity in the portfolio submission portions of their job applications and use a standard resume format / layout.
Now that you know the reasons for keeping things simple, stupid (KISS!) for resume formats and layouts, let’s talk about some common resume formatting oddities that you should avoid.
Common Quirky Resume Formatting Oddities That I’ve Come Across And Why You Shouldn’t Use Them
Much like fashion trends, resume formatting also has trends that have come and gone over the years. Poor resume formatting advice touted by gurus who claim that certain formats are guaranteed to grab the recruiter’s attention perpetuates the internet.
Over the years, I’ve seen all sorts of resume formatting oddities from clients. But the one constant is that the tried-and-true standard resume format that includes the 3 simple sections (work experience, education, and personal skills / interests / other) continues to consistently produce superior results.
Check out a resume from the early 2000s and compare it against a resume today. Not much difference, right?
So, to help you avoid the trap of being seduced by the siren call of fancy resume formatting, I’m going to call out several common examples of resume formatting oddities you should avoid and provide actionable recommendations on how to correct them:
- Fancy Colors On Resumes
- Fancy Icons On Resumes
- Fancy Fonts On Resumes
- Fancy Headers on Resumes
- Fancy Font Formatting on Resumes
- Photos On Resumes
- Two-column (Or More) Resume Formats
- Graphical Resume Skill Sections
- Not Combining All Other Sections Besides Your Work Experience And Education Into One Section
- Adding Resume Leadership Or Club Sections
Fancy Colors On Resumes
Recommendation: Convert all non-black colors on your resume to black.
Your resume should only be in one color: black.
Anything else is a distraction to the recruiter.
It’s bad enough that some resumes will use a monotone color scheme to add emphasis to a resume instead of using bold or a larger font size, but what’s especially egregious is the use of multiple color schemes on a resume.
At that point, you’ve turned your resume into a 5th grader’s watercolor painting, and last time I checked, we’re not in art class.
What adding color to your resume does is compel the recruiter to focus on your resume’s color vs. the actual substantive content in your resume. So, for the entire 6-second duration your recruiter spends screening your resume, they’re thinking, “Oh, pretty colors, wait, I can’t seem to find his relevant job experience. Well, I quit. On to the next resume!”
And adding multiple colors magnifies the negative effects of this distraction.
Just don’t do it. Take the 3 seconds to change everything back to black.
Fancy Icons On Resumes
Recommendation: Delete all of them.
One trend I’ve seen rising in the past couple years is the use of icons in resumes.
Specifically, icons to indicate certain sections of the resume, such as:
- Map pin icons to indicate job locations
- Factory icons to indicate jobs
- Rocket ship icons to indicate projects
- Degree icons to indicate education
These are completely and utterly useless because they deliver information to the recruiter that they already know.
The purpose of icons is to indicate to the user the intended purpose of a feature. For example, in a mobile app, you might see the hamburger icon that indicates a menu.
But on a resume, there’s no need to do this because the recruiter is already familiar with every single section on a resume.
If you add icons for these sections, it’s redundant information that takes up valuable resume real estate and breaks the flow of your resume.
And if you really do need to add icons to help the recruiter understand the purpose of a resume section, you probably need to delete or merge the section with another section because the section that needs the icon is likely non-standard.
Delete them all.
Fancy Fonts On Resumes
Recommendation: Use a standard, easy-to-read font like Calibri, Times New Roman, or Book Antiqua.
Using a fancy font on a resume is like pressing the big red button that we all know is going to do something really bad.
In this case, it’s going to destroy your resume (told you it was really bad).
If you change your resume font into something fancy your recruiter can’t read, you’re screwed.
There’s utterly no point in spending hours and hours crafting the ideal resume and cover letter if no one can read it.
A simple litmus test is to hand your resume to a friend. If your friend shows any indication that he or she is having trouble reading your resume, then you need to pick a more readable font.
Please, for the love of everything resume-related, pick a readable, standard font.
It’s a simple thing to get right but terrible to get wrong.
Fancy Headers On Resumes
Recommendation: Go with a standard resume header (yes, even for folks in creative fields).
I’m not going to lie — I’ve seen some really cool resume headers.
I’m not going to share any images (out of respect for those who made such resumes), but here’s a brief list of what I’ve seen:
- Candidate designed a cartoon version of herself hanging down from the top of the resume and pointing to her name.
- Candidate designed her header to be in fancy cursive font with rainbow colors.
- Candidate used a solid color block as a background for her header.
- Candidate included several pictures of herself without her name or contact information in her header.
It’s a shame too because for the first one, I thought the design was quite good.
But, as I will call attention to again and again, what is the purpose of your resume?
To communicate clearly and concisely your relevant experience and key accomplishments.
And a fancy resume header does none of that.
All the resume header needs to tell the recruiter is your name and contact information (address, email, phone number, LinkedIn (optional), personal website (optional)).
And frequently, the recruiter will skip the header and go directly to your work experience, then go back to your header and grab your name and contact information if and only if your work experience and key accomplishments are attractive enough.
If your fancy resume header holds the recruiter’s attention before he or she gets to your work experience and key accomplishments, then you’re wasting the precious seconds the recruiter has allotted towards reviewing your resume.
Let the recruiter decide whether your resume header is worth reviewing.
Fancy Font Formatting on Resumes
Recommendation: Use only bold and italics for emphasis, and use sparingly!
At times, you will need to call attention to specific items on your resume, which may include:
- Section Headers
- Job Titles
- Company Names
- Key Metrics (in summaries or within bullets)
- Job Summaries
When doing so, the only formatting you should use are bold and italics.
Do not use anything else.
Here are some alternatives that you should not be using:
- Underline formatting is difficult to read because the line underneath the emphasized word is close enough to possibly merge with the letters depending on the resolution of the device the recruiter is viewing your resume from. It also doesn’t actually call much as much attention to the words as bold or italics does.
- Highlight formatting is utterly useless because it doesn’t accomplish anything above and beyond what bold and italics can. It also adds color to your resume, which we just discussed is a big no-no.
- UPPER CASE formatting is something that you should reserve solely for section headers (if you choose to do so) or for acronyms. It should never be used to emphasize in-line words in a resume bullet.
- Strikethrough and double strikethrough formatting are formatting types you should never use. Ever. There isn’t a single use case for either.
It’s also important to note that you should use bold and italics sparingly in your resume. You should use your best judgement as to what that specifically means. Just know that the more you use bold and italics:
- The less effective they are at calling out items of interest.
- The more of a distraction they become, which actually starts hurting your resume’s performance.
All-in-all stick with simple bold and italics formatting, and don’t go overboard with them.
Photos On Resumes
Recommendation: If you’re in the USA, remove it. If you’re in other countries, go with the standard practice.
In the USA, it’s standard not to include a photo in your resume.
Besides going against convention, it also takes up quite a bit of resume real estate and adds unwanted color.
A few countries actually do expect you to include a photo, so if you’re outside the US, you should follow whatever is standard practice in your job market.
Two-column (Or More) Resume Formats
Recommendation: Turn everything into a single-column resume format.
It appears more and more so that 2-column resume formats have started becoming trendy.
Sometimes I’ve even seen 3- or 4-column formats, although at that point your resume starts looking more like a bizarre newsletter.
Here’s why you want to merge everything into a single column.
First, multiple columns break the flow of the resume, which distracts the recruiter. Recruiters are expecting to scan down your resume and absorb all relevant information in a single pass. They obviously can’t do that if your resume has multiple columns since they now have to move their eyes back up to the top of your resume, then subsequently scan back down again.
Every time you make the recruiter do this, it slows them down and wastes the precious few seconds the recruiter allots to your resume.
Second, it wastes precious resume real estate because the incremental column formatting takes up space. Additional line breaks and spacing introduced by multiple columns pushes content to the next line, which ultimately forces you to cut content to ensure your resume sticks to the “1 page per 10 years of experience” rule-of-thumb.
Third, it doesn’t help you organize your information any better than a single column does. From talking with clients, my understanding is that many use multi-column resume formats because they think that it helps recruiters absorb their resume better. The truth is that it doesn’t do so any better than the single column format does. If you feel the need to use multiple columns because of organization issues, you probably have an issue with the underlying sections of your resume and should fix that rather than formatting your resume with multiple columns.
Graphical Resume Skill Sections
Recommendation: Remove all graphics from your resume skills section.
I talked about why adding graphics or skills indicators to your resume skills section are no-gos, but for completeness, I wanted to add a brief touchpoint into this article as well.
Here’s why you should remove them:
- They draw unnecessary attention to your skills section. You want the recruiter to focus on your relevant work experience and key accomplishments in your resume’s professional experience section. Your skills section should not be attracting significant attention, especially in the first 6 seconds of the recruiter scanning your resume.
- They take up an enormous amount of resume real estate. I’ve seen resume skills section indicators take up 1/8th of a resume or more. That’s a whole lot of space that could be better spent elaborating on relevant experience or key accomplishments.
- They provide no value to your resume because they lack context. What does a 5/5 on SQL actually mean? It means nothing since the recruiter’s perception of 5/5 is different from your perception of 5/5. Additionally, you’re going to give a biased assessment since you’re rating yourself.
- They encourage larger, separate resume skills sections which ultimately are less valuable than the other sections of your resume. Ideally, your resume skills are either completely weaved into your professional experience resume bullet points or exist in a single line as part of an overarching “Personal Interest, Languages, and Skills” section. Remember that recruiters care more about you showing that you can make them money vs. you telling them that you can.
- They encourage you to waste time on formatting vs. engaging in higher value job search activities. More fancy graphics on your resume means more resume edits, which means less time submitting job applications or preparing for interviews.
Save yourself the time by removing resume skills indicators / graphics from your resume!
Not Combining All Other Sections Besides Your Work Experience And Education Into One Section
Recommendation: Have only three sections in your resume: work experience, education, and a “miscellaneous” section (suggested title — “personal interests, skills, and languages”).
Remember the simple adage, less is more.
The same applies to your resume. There are only three sections that matter in your resume:
- Work Experience: Where the recruiter will go to absorb your relevant experience and key accomplishments. Should be top priority in your resume (unless you’re a college or high school student).
- Education: Where the recruiter will go to make sure you check the education boxes. This is a “table stakes” section, and you will not differentiate yourself from other candidates by simply having more or fancier degrees. Minimize the amount of space here and only communicate the bare necessities.
- Miscellaneous (“Personal Interest, Skills, and Languages”): Where the recruiter will go if they’re bored and after they’ve finished absorbing your work experience and education sections. You should think of this section as the dessert and the other sections as the main course. While a good dessert can flesh out a meal, it doesn’t matter if the main course is terrible.
Anything additional is extraneous.
I’ve seen clients add in random, unnecessary sections like splitting out different types of work experience by function or industry, having a projects section, or having a separate section for internships they did in college.
If you believe the information is relevant, then it should be able to fit into one of the three above sections.
Do not add in any other sections because:
- They take up more space on your resume through additional formatting and headers.
- They confuse the recruiter who now has to figure out which abnormal sections contain what information.
- They encourage you to add extraneous information to your resume, such as internships in college if you already have several years of work experience.
Keep it simple and standard — just use the 3 normal sections in your resume.
Adding Resume Leadership Or Club Sections
Recommendation: Merge everything into your work experience section.
This one is more for college students.
Since college students have less professional experience than working professionals, they might find themselves with a rather lacking work experience section.
They might have 1 or 2 internships, but that’s not enough to really flesh out the work experience section.
So, they might feel inclined to add in a separate club section to showcase any relevant club experience: Maybe they’re the President of the Finance Club or VP of the Computer Science Club.
Here’s my advice. Since college students don’t have much formal work experience and companies expect them to not have much, adding in club experience / leadership roles is OK.
But there are some important caveats:
- They should not go into a separate club or leadership section. Going back to the previous point on having just 3 resume sections, college students should merge any club or leadership experience into the work experience section. They can rename the section “Work and Leadership Experience,” if necessary.
- They should only add in the experience if it’s relevant. For example, if the college student is applying for corporate finance roles, then he or she should only include clubs related to finance, such as the finance or investment club. It doesn’t make any sense to also include the underwater basket weaving club, unless the role they adopted or activities they performed in the club are financial in nature.
- They should only add in the experience if it’s substantial. Being only a member of a club is worth far less than being part of the club’s executive team. After all, you’re including “leadership” experience in your resume, not “membership” experience, right? That being said, there are only a finite number of leadership roles across all the clubs on campus; if you’re only a member of the clubs you belong to, then as long as your experience is substantial, you can also add that in. I define substantial as you having accomplished something other than just attending meetings, such as moving a club metric, placing high in a competition, or organizing a major event.
Overall, leadership experience is great to have on a college student’s resume in lieu of formal work experience if and only if the student is adding it into the resume in the right way and the experience is relevant and substantial.
Final Thoughts On Resume Formatting / Layout
We’ve covered quite a bit of information so far, but the gist is that you should keep your resume format / layout simple to clearly and concisely communicate to the recruiter your relevant experience and key accomplishments.
You should be using a standard template with three simple sections:
- Work Experience
- Personal Interests, Skills, and Languages (really a catch-all segment — you can change the name if you wish)
No need to do anything fancy to your resume’s formatting. It both wastes your time and harms your interview chances given the recruiter is more likely to be put-off by the fancy formatting (even for creative positions!).
What you define as fancy might be different from what a professional resume writer defines as fancy, so for reference, I covered a list of common resume formatting oddities ranging from color to excessively fancy resume headers. Double-check to make sure your resume doesn’t have any of these items.
By keeping your resume format / layout simple, you dramatically increase your chances to get an interview and ultimately more job offers.
Best of luck, and let us know if you need any help!
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