Career Doctor: Using the Right Resume Format

By Katherine Spencer Lee | March 2008


Dice is pleased to introduce a new monthly IT career column, Ask the IT Career Doctor, with Katherine Spencer Lee, Executive Director of Robert Half Technology. Robert Half Technology is a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Once per month, Katherine will respond to an IT career-related question from a Dice reader. This month, she responds to an IT professional who supports an ERP system that is being phased out.

Question:
I’ve been job hunting for several months and have spent considerable time reading about resumes. Every expert seems to have a different preference when it comes to resume structure. Since employers rarely specify the structure they want, how does an applicant decide which one to use? When is a functional resume more appropriate than a chronological one? When should a combination resume be used?

Katherine Lee Spencer responds:
Rather than guessing an employer’s preferred resume structure, base the choice on your experience, work history and the specific position you’re seeking. A chronological resume may land you an interview for one position but get quickly passed over in a different set of circumstances.

Remember that a resume is a deliberately targeted self-portrait, not just a list of facts and skills. Every resume represents a collection of decisions, each of which should be informed by the specific position you’re seeking as well as how you see yourself filling it.

Chronological: The facts take center stage
Chronological resumes, the most familiar type, show your most recent employer first, along with your duties and accomplishments at each job. Choose a chronological format if your experience matches up fairly clearly with the position you’re seeking and your most recent work is also your most impressive. For example, if you’ve moved up from help desk support to help desk management, and you’re applying for another support-related leadership position, the facts will largely speak for themselves.

On the other hand, if your career hasn¿t followed such a linear progression, or if you want to break into a new area of IT, a chronological resume might not give an employer a clear picture of how you can benefit the firm in the position at hand.

Functional: Spotlighting your skills
Arranged by capabilities rather than specific positions you’ve held, functional resumes can sometimes be viewed as a way to camouflage potentially negative factors such as gaps in employment, industry-hopping or job titles that don’t reflect responsibilities. The format can suggest to hiring managers that your work experience may not make you an obvious fit for the job.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider a functional resume, however. In fact, it may be the best choice if your work history doesn’t make its own argument for the position you’re seeking. The format often makes sense for entry-level job seekers with limited experience, for example, or for people re-entering the IT workforce after a long absence.

If you’ve frequently jumped from position to position or haven’t advanced much in your recent jobs, a functional resume might help the employer recognize skills or attributes that a chronological resume would obscure.

If you choose a functional resume, make sure you’re using it to amplify clearly defined strengths, not just to muffle weaknesses. A forthright, carefully targeted cover letter is an indispensable companion to any functional resume. Mention the names of companies you’ve worked for and your total years of industry experience.

Combination: Your skills in context
The increasingly popular combination format – in effect a short functional resume followed by a short chronological one – lets you emphasize your skills without obscuring your work history.

If the connection between your employment history and the job you’re seeking isn’t obvious, a combination resume may be the best choice. For example, say you want to showcase your management skills but your only management positions are outside of IT.

The combination format may also work well if you want to highlight technical skills that exceed your work history, such as self-taught programming skills that you haven’t been able to use in your current or previous positions.

Combination resumes may tell the most complete story, but they can also be the most difficult to digest. Hiring managers usually spend only a few minutes reviewing each resume, so be sure to keep your resume, whatever the format, as concise as possible.

Stay on target
Above all, remember that your resume should be designed not to impress employers in general but to convey a particular employer that you are the strongest candidate for a specific role. Every element of your resume, from its overall structure to the way you describe your accomplishments, should contribute to that goal. You might start by making sure your resume includes keywords from the job description, or by having a friend read your resume from the employer’s point of view. Most employers may not indicate a preference in resume format, but they all appreciate – and respond to – resumes that address their unique needs.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.

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