Anyone that has ever found themself job hunting has probably experienced at least a brief period of resume obsession. It’s natural to over analyze the tiniest details, wanting to make sure we don’t overlook some error or miss out on a great opportunity due to a silly mistake. While this instinct can be helpful, almost everyone takes it too far. It’s easy to become neurotic about the state of your resume, and to worry too much about minor details.
Some resume questions I’ve answered many times are:
- What font face/size should I use?
- Should my bulletpoints end with a period or not?
- What size should the margins be?
- Should I say “References available upon request”?
The correct answer to most of these questions is… it doesn’t matter. The reason it doesn’t matter is because it’s just a tiny part of your resume, and your resume doesn’t matter either.
This may seem like blasphemy, especially written on a website that is supposedly here to help you find a job you love. But again, I’ll ask you to bear with me as we walk through what might seem unintuitive.
When I say your resume doesn’t matter, what I really mean is that hiring managers are not using your resume the way you think we are, and we certainly aren’t deciding who to hire based solely on your resume. The truth is a lot more complicated.
What Is a Resume For?
Hiring managers need a way to find qualified people to interview and hire. Crazy, right?
There are too many people out there to say “Let’s just interview everyone.” Instead, we use a series of tools throughout the screening process to figure out who we should hire. You can think of this as a series of filters, and at each stage a smaller set of candidates passes through. Hundreds of people apply online, dozens get phone screened, a handful are brought on-site, and one gets the job.
The resume is the first of these filtering tools. But again, it’s basically used as a gut check for “Should we talk to this person?” The point of the resume is to get you into the room to have a conversation with me (or, more likely, onto the phone with someone for a phone screen first.) Once I’ve decided that we should have a conversation, your resume becomes much, much less important. In all likelihood I won’t really look at it again until I’m using it to drive the basic line of questioning about recent/relevant experience in our interview together.
Put more succinctly: I hire people, not resumes.
Things That Never* Happen
For this section, let’s treat never as meaning 99.999% unlikely. I am sure you could come up with some very extreme examples or anecdotes, but the reality is that most hiring managers and companies use a sensible framework for hiring decisions. If nothing else, I would advise you to run away as fast as you can if you observe a company utilizing the hiring patterns described below, because they’re sure signs of incompetent leadership.
A hiring manager desperately needs to find a lead developer for a project. The team is trying to build a new piece of developer infrastructure, and is really struggling to make it work at the scale required for the task. The HM begins to consider candidates for the tech lead role on the project.
Scenario 1 – The Nitpick
The HM is reviewing resumes in the candidate system, and comes across one that looks promising. The candidate, let’s call her Sarah, is currently a Senior Engineer at Facebook, where she has helped to grow and scale the developer platform. Prior to her current role, she has other similarly impressive and relevant work experience. Before entering the workforce, she completed a Masters in Computer Science from a top engineering school.
The HM calls one of the team members over to his desk. “Hey, check out this resume. Do you think Sarah would make a good lead for this project?”
The team member glances over the resume and notes the impressive list of accomplishments and relevant background. “Wow, definitely. I think she’d rea-“
“I’m just kidding,” the HM interjects. “I mean, ugh, can you believe she used Times New Roman on her resume? What year is it? 2002? And also, look how she forgot a period at the end of these list items. What kind of a joke is this? Pass.”
This seems like a ridiculous example, but given how much people obsess over these small details, it really does seem that many candidates think managers are just looking for any tiny thing to criticize in order justify not interviewing them. This is not the case.
A hiring manager has never* decided not to hire someone because they used Times New Roman instead of Helvetica on their resume, or because they felt strongly that every bulletpoint should end with a period. Good, rational HMs are just not going to nitpick this much. The goal is to identify the person with the skills and background to help the team succeed and to hire them.
That being said, there may be some special cases. For example, you should pay close attention to ensure no typos appear in your resume if you’re applying for a job doing copyediting. Similarly, a really bad font choice might reflect more negatively on someone in a design-oriented role. Lastly, there are outliers that will trigger a negative result. If you submit your resume with red or neon green text, or use Curlz or Comic Sans, I’m probably not going to interview you. But within reasonable boundaries, none of these choices will have any effect on your success.
Scenario 2 – The Golden Resume
The next day, our hiring manager is back to reviewing applicants, when he comes across Bill’s resume. Bill seems perfect. Similar to Sarah, he graduated from a top engineering school, and lately has been working on scaled infrastructure at Google. The hiring manager is so excited. “Bill is going to be amazing! He’s going to solve all of our problems!” Bill handily passes the initial phone screen (you can read more about the overall hiring process here), and he is brought on site to interview with the team.
Then, everything goes sideways.
Bill shows up wearing sweatpants even though the company has a business-formal culture. He is rude to the receptionist. In fact, he’s rude to everyone he interacts with. At one point, during a coding interview, he throws the whiteboard marker he is gripping into the trash, pulls out a pack of cigarettes, and lights up right there in the conference room.
Just as bad, he demonstrates amazing incompetence throughout the day of on-site interviews, not just failing to provide thoughtful or well-informed answers, but seeming to go out of his way to be actively wrong. It’s like he’s teaching a class on Worst Practices.
After a day of annoying the team, upsetting other staff, illegally chain smoking in a non-smoking building, and doing everything within his power to show how poor of a fit he is for the organization.. the hiring manager decides to make Bill an offer.
Why? “Because his resume is so damn amazing,” he tells the team. “Didn’t you see it? No typos! Great font!”
I… This just won’t ever happen, okay?
Take my word for it. As I said at the onset, if you see your manager make a hiring decision like this, run.
Sarah vs. Bill
The reason you won’t see someone like Bill get hired is because interview feedback is weighted much more heavily than the contents of your resume.
As an HM, I’m going to forgive the small mistakes that Sarah made, because she seems like a great candidate. I definitely want to take the opportunity to talk to her and see if she can help solve some of the tough problems my team is dealing with.
Bill, on the other hand, is a nightmare. He seemed great on paper, but when he came to the office, everything went wrong. A competent HM is not going to refer back to his great resume and decide to hire him. Instead, they are going to look at the much richer data provided by the interview experience and decide this person is obviously a bad fit for the organization.
As a candidate, you should rest easy knowing that as long as your resume demonstrates why you’re a reasonably good fit for a role I am going to be interested in talking to you. I don’t care what font you use (as long as I can read your resume.) You don’t need to torture yourself mulling over tiny stylistic choices.
It may be a bit extreme to say that your resume doesn’t matter, but many people think that a great resume is the deciding factor behind getting hired.
You get hired by interviewing well. The resume is just a tool used to do some basic filtering of candidates. For you, it’s your chance to make a case for why we should get in a room together and have a discussion. While there are certainly things you can do on your resume that will hurt your odds of getting interviewed, there is basically nothing you could do on your resume that would make an HM hire you without conducting an interview first.
Don’t obsess over tiny choices. If anything, put that energy into preparing for interviews and getting good at telling your story. Instead of testing out new fonts or tweaking the spacing of your bulletpoints, think about what kinds of questions you’re likely to be asked during an on-site interview. Start to write some notes about how you’ll answer them and what examples from your work history show your abilities. Practice actually answering them out loud with a friend in a mock interview setting. These activities will dramatically improve your chance of getting hired by increasing your confidence and ability to explain why you’re the right person for the job.