Dear Lifehacker, I'm looking for work, but my resume is pretty bare. I've only worked in a few places, I'm not so sure about my referees, and I'm worried what I have won't stack up against other candidates. Can I still build a good resume that will help me stand out? Thanks, Underemployed
There are a few things you can do with your resume to beef it up, no matter what you've done -- or haven't done. If you're worried you don't have any referees, or the referees you do have might backfire on you, we can help you out with that, too. Let's turn that quarter-page resume into something that can help you get a job.
Start With Lists, Not A Resume
Since you're starting from scratch (or starting over) with your resume, let's put the resume format aside for a moment. We'll get back to it later, but right now, just make lists of your skills, talents, accomplishments and achievements. Don't worry about shoehorning them into the resume format; you can do that later.
First, think about all of your accomplishments, large and small. Depending on where you are in your career and the types of jobs you're applying for, even small wins can help you stand out, so don't be afraid to toot your own horn. If you're looking for your first job or an internship, well-received papers or relevant projects you worked on academically should definitely go in your list. If you're switching careers, think about any accomplishments in your previous jobs that reflect universal skills, like leading a project, juggling deadlines, or convincing people to work together. Even writing documentation is a big deal.
Don't be shy with your list. You can always whittle it down later, and it's better to have more items to choose from than fewer. Plus, having a big list of accomplishments and achievements will let you pick and choose which are most relevant to the job you want, and customise your resume for each. Then, before you move everything over to your resume, you can remove common phrases and overused cliches when it's time to put it in the right format.
Leverage All Of Your Experiences
If the only experiences and accomplishments on your resume are professional ones, that's fine, as long as it's all you need for the job you want. However, don't leave valuable accomplishments and experience off of your resume just because it wasn't in a professional setting. If you have other relevant experience, or you're worried about including academic, volunteer, or even personal work you've done, don't be! It's all valuable, and it could be the thing that sets you apart from other applicants, as long as it's useful and not outdated.
For example, volunteering is a great way to learn new skills, and shows potential employers that you're capable of learning on your own and have the drive to better yourself with side gigs and pet projects. Don't be afraid to note your volunteer or student work if, for example, it highlights your ability to research or your ability to coordinate large projects -- assuming both of those are required for the job you want. If your volunteering resulted in a big win or achievement, note it as well, like the number of houses you helped build, or the community website you helped design.
Get Great Referees (Or Check On Your Old Ones)
Your referees should be able to speak to the quality of your work or your character. Your referees should never speak ill of you (although they should be honest). If they do twist the knife, you need better referees. You should also make sure they know to be discreet about your job search (if you don't want your boss finding out just yet).
Other than that, try to build up a good cache of referees you can use at any time. It can be frustrating to get a call out of the blue saying that someone you haven't spoken to in years wants your recommendation. Your referees are part of your professional network. You should stay in touch with them, and there are plenty of tools to help you do it.
Don't Make It Too Long
Finally, one trap to avoid when you're starting with a short resume is to make it too long and filled with fluff. You have your list of achievements, accomplishments, relevant experience, and volunteer work -- leave it at that, and begin to work it all into the resume format. Don't force it to a single page with a vague or unnecessary "objective" statement, or pad the bottom with a detailed list of the courses you took. If that information is required, you'll be asked for it.
It may seem backwards to suggest you keep brevity in mind when your primary worry is not having enough to fill a resume, but it's important. Being concise and relevant is better than stretching to fill pages or include sections that don't need to be there. Play with some of the many resume builders to find a visual look that suits your skills as well. You can even use Google Doc templates, or try our own custom resume builder. Stick to the good stuff, make it look nice, and keep it brief. You'll have a resume that stands above the other applicants for the job.
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