Selecting the best resume format is about more than checkboxes
In the challenging job search environment of 2020, there is far more nuance to selecting the right resume format than consulting a simplistic tick box or flow chart (apologies to lovers of checkboxes and flow charts) and opting for the normality of a two-page reverse- chronological resume with 5-6 lines of text allotted to each position. The vast majority of job seekers will consider this a good resume without thinking.
For most, the lack of thought won’t harm their chances. However, if this isn’t the right format unique situation, your message will be lost. Slavishly following the checkboxes works for the masses in a candidate-led market, but when you need to squeeze every bit of potential out of your job search in tougher times, nuanced resume layout choices that can make all the difference to help your work experience shine.
Choosing a CV format is one of the most critical decisions that you make in your search.
You do have a choice of which type of resume to use. For every role that you consider. This blog offers a framework for making nuanced choices around the three common resume formats: reverse chronological, functional and combined (hybrid), and we will also explore the seismic industry and skills-based shifts that are making job seekers think twice about which format might genuinely be most useful for them.
This is not advice for “playing it safe”, which is an approach that often ignores nuance and personal circumstances. We want to make you think, challenge any preconceived ideas and ensure that you present your relevant work experience in exactly the way that any given employer might want to read it.
The 3 main types of resume formats
Any framework for making a decision does require a broader outline. So, while we will get to the finer nuances of certain situations and choices later in the blog, to start with, it is important to consider the practicalities and merits of the three main CV formats: reverse-chronological, functional and combined (or hybrid).
Reverse chronological format
The reverse-chronological resume format (or simply chronological) entails listing your professional experience in order, with the most recent work experience section at the top of the list.
This has been the standard approach for resume writing for the past few decades as most recent experience has been deemed to be most relevant for a potential employer, but just because 90% of resumes are still written in this style doesn’t mean that it always makes sense for you to do it.
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Functional resume format
Jobs are getting increasingly more specialized as people use technology to help them concentrate on the most niche aspects of their roles. A marketing manager in one company might be doing something vastly different to a marketing manager in another industry.
Traditional chronological resumes do not allow for a full exploration of these niche skill-sets as the work experience is generally dotted around a number of jobs. The hybrid resume (and accompanying portfolio or website) was conceived for the more creative and technology-based professions, but other professions are also currently finding that it is a great way of showcasing their deep experience.
Combination resume format
As with many things in life, the best results are achieved with an element of balance. There is still a slightly irrational bias towards the chronological variant, but when an employer only wants to discuss the relevant job skills during an interview, there is a significant argument that the “combined” mix of chronological and functional can be incredibly effective in a competitive job market where people need to stand out from the crowd.
You will still list your employment history in reverse-chronological order with a few details about roles, responsibilities and quantifiable achievements (they are important), but you will preface it with an increased section around functional excellence that will blow away any prospective employer. The resume variant is going to be on the rise in the coming years.
So, what do I choose? Combination resume format? Reverse chronological?
The information shared above may start to nudge you towards a resume format, but we will refrain from giving direct suggestions about which one a specific type of employee in a specific industry should use. That is your choice, not ours.
Are chronological resumes really always a great option for people just starting out and who maybe lack all the relevant skills?
- Functional resumes will not be a perfect fit for everyone working in the creative industry.
- Combined resumes can sometimes serve to muddy the waters if you have had ongoing career issues.
The list of exceptions is endless, so we feel that it is best not to give tightly-defined rules.
We would, however, definitely like to offer some more food for thought. In addition to the framework above, we think that it would be useful to cover a few job and skills trends over the coming years which may, or may not, impact your choice of which variant to use. Work experiences are changing and resumes need to reflect your work history.
Which resume format templates to consider in light of 2020 job trends
There are seismic changes afoot in the job market. Something that worked a few years ago in a period of record employment won’t impress recruiters now. Job seekers in certain circumstances are starting to do things differently. They have to. Here, we share five job trends (amongst others) that are making people think twice about how to structure the format of their resumes:
Freelancers moving to perm jobs
The gig economy and freelance revolution has seen millions of people flitting from job to job and working for multiple employers simultaneously. This is great when the taps of opportunity are gushing, but when companies start to retrench, only the best freelancers will be able to continue their happily nomadic existence.
As lots of freelancers start to search for the (relative) security and consistent salary of a perm role, the question of how to structure their resume looms large. A (truthful) chronological resume format in this case would be long-winded and devoid of significant substance as there would be too much professional experience to list, so the best option may be to focus on a combined variant with the first section devoted to the potential fit with the role and industry in question. Any employer will understand this choice.
Creatives looking for other work
Just because you have a creative work history doesn’t mean that you don’t have significant skills to contribute in a more traditional setting. You simply have to communicate your transferable skills in a more detailed way. Game designers can be IT managers , writers can be marketing assistants and musicians can be event planners.
If you are a creative who wants to transfer into a more corporate environment, simply sharing your experience in a functional resume format won’t suffice. You have to make the most of any previous corporate experience while at the same time showing how your transferable skills are relevant. Again, a combination resume format might work best as you can’t afford to leave out your corporate past, no matter how long ago it might have been, or how fleeting.
People changing careers
Many of us have experienced the feeling that the writing is on the wall. Certain career paths are seemingly not now the best choice, and many are considering changing lanes. While this might involve a step down in seniority to allow yourself to get back up to speed, you have to convince your new employer that you are worthy in the first place.
A chronological resume which (naturally) focuses on your “old” career where a resume summary leave little space for persuasion is again maybe not the best option. Rather than focus on your experience section in an unimpressive procession, it makes sense to explain how your previous skills would fit into your future activity with a hybrid resume. People change careers all the time – there is nothing unorthodox here. You simply have to make your case persuasively.
People changing job functions
Changing job function is even more challenging than changing careers. If you have only ever worked in marketing, someone scanning your resume wouldn’t immediately conclude that you could work in sales. There is a certain risk in showing a resume of a potential hire to your boss when there is no mention of that role in question in the employment history.
The resume has to be a persuasive work of art for any hiring manager to take this risk. The nature of the chronological resume (again) makes it difficult to make your case for a functional change within the confines of previous roles, so you need to take the plunge and make your case outside of this rigid structure. Your arguments had better be watertight.
Graduates not on grad schemes
Lastly, it is often overlooked that graduate schemes are often abandoned or significantly reduced in tougher economic times. The admission process into such schemes is incredibly thorough and grads do not find it hard to prove their potential in the tried-and-tested framework. However, when grads have to compete in the “normal” job market with more experienced people, they often have problems with how to structure their approach as a stellar education section will not be enough.
The standard advice of “go with a reverse chronological resume as employers will understand your lack of experience” is missing the point. Why would you choose to lead with your year of experience at Muffin’s bakery and summer internship at somewhere else entirely unrelated to the job that you are applying for? No, no, and no again.
Choose to be brave and take the combined approach. Show that you understand what the job entails, demonstrate that you have the skills and potential to deliver and only then detail your track record of delivery and achievement in whatever work you have done to date. Achievement doing something else does matter, but your resume should be as role specific as possible. That is why you will need to get creative with your work experience section.
How 2020 skills trends impact best format decisions
If the job in question has a strong focus on one or more of these three mega-skills (amongst others that you may consider critical in your situation), you might consider tweaking your resume in the combined direction and giving yourself more initial space to focus on these skills rather than leave them in your employment history.
Only do this if they are the overwhelming focus of your role. If there are many other considerations, then you may not want to have such a singular approach.
Change management is an immensely complicated beast as you need to prove how your contribution shifted things in a positive direction. A one-line sentence hidden within the experience section three jobs ago will not be noticed, even if this was the greatest achievement in the history of change.
If you lead with a quarter-page on your change management experience, you give yourself the opportunity to shine. It might not be traditional, but it isn’t half effective. Indulge the reader in the details, talk about a surprising story, wow them with the detail of the financials. Don’t be shy and seize the day.
You need your future employer to have confidence that their change is safe in your hands. Without talking about it in detail at the start of a combined resume, question marks will remain until the interview (if they decide to interview you, that is).
It was huge in the last recession and it will be huge again over the coming months and years. The problem with cost optimization in a job search context is that it only tends to be an active issue during a downturn. When the last downturn was 7-8 years and three jobs ago, the experience is easily buried in a resume and often even relegated to the second page.
It is time to relive those difficult memories and transport your future employer back to the future. Give yourself the space in a combined resume to detail just how you dealt with the issues and maybe also discuss how you see yourself handling things in the future. When you are talking about saving your employer multiple percentage points of their revenue, it is worth much more than a line or two in your employment history. Bring it front and centre.
It seems like everything is digital these days, but there are some roles that require an insane level of proficiency in the digital arts. You could likely dedicate countless pages to your digital success story, so if a few lines in the employment section seem inadequate, and if the job description has a strong focus on digital delivery, you should again consider a combined approach that leads with a super-sized digital story.
The whole idea of a resume is to excite your future employer. If you don’t lead with your big guns and your competition does, where does that leave you? Not in a good place. In the digital industry, you have to shout loud and be visible. Don’t hide your digital achievements in a corner just because you want to go with the safety of a chronological resume.
Consider the visual “look” of your resume template
Research at 3M found that people process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, so when you are considering which format to choose, you have to think about how it looks to a hiring manager or recruiter. Each of the three formats will have a subtly different look and impact.
We discussed the importance of visuals in our blog “Resume Templates: Visuals vs Content” and our resume templates and resume examples themselves are carefully designed with the impact on the reader in mind. If you want someone to get through to the end of the resume paying the same amount of attention to your words as they did at the start, the resume layout matters.
Before we get into the details of each variant, there is a golden rule to bear in mind: as many common resume formats are two pages, ensure that you pack the first page and summary statement with as much job-critical detail as possible. You have to show the reader that you know what the priorities are. If the format allows, make the first page as exciting as possible. You need to hook the reader before the decide to consider the detail of your skills section.
Reverse Chronological resume format visual considerations
Many chronological resumes contain chunks of text (with some bullet points, etc) that are uniform in nature. Because there is so much to say about each role, many people decide to include 4-5 lines per role. From a visual perspective, this makes it harder for the reader to find a focus point for the document, although it will make your career seem impressive.
A subtle way of prioritising the most relevant bits of experience (even if they aren’t in your most recent job) is to give them more space on the page. If your penultimate role contained the most relevant experience, don’t be afraid to dedicate 6-7 lines to it and maybe only 3-4 lines for the most recent one. Especially if that means that the penultimate job is prominent on the first page.
Functional resume format visual considerations
Let’s talk honestly. The elephant in the room with a functional resume lies in the fact that the reader does not know where to look to find certain information. If much of the information is functionally oriented, recruiters and hiring managers will still be scanning the document for the previous employers and job details that are so prominent in the chronological variant. The risk of confusion and distraction is worryingly high.
A functional resume can be incredibly visually impressive as the format allows for significant creative licence in how the information is presented, but you have to ensure that your functional experience is impressive enough that it doesn’t matter that important practical details are less visible.
Combination resume format visual considerations
If you have opted for a combined variant (and you should have a very good reason to choose this over chronological), this option offers the perfect blend of visual appeal and practical utility. This is because you can make the first and second pages serve different purposes. In essence, the first page could take the functional approach and the second page might focus on the chronological career details.
It takes some doing; but giving yourself the space on the first page to accent exactly what you want to before you get into the more rigid structure of the employment details can be a visual show stopper. You are talking to the hiring manager about exactly what matters to them. Don’t pack the page too densely with text, make sure that the white space serves a purpose, and ram your points home with bullet points and indented sections. The first page of any combined resume has the potential to be a job search work of art.
The visual impact of resume length
A resume should typically be one page per decade of work experience, but you have to have a very good reason (academic position or certain scientific roles) to make it three pages. If you have less than a decade’s experience with a wealth of experience, do not hesitate to increase it to two pages. That is the length that hiring managers are used to reading and, in our opinion, one-page resumes always seem a little visually lacking in depth.