How do I write a great resume?

Use the magic bullet point formula

This post has been on the back burner for quite some time. I’m excited to share my thoughts on crafting an elite resume with you all.

Was this post forwarded to you? Why not get Gridology delivered to your inbox every Sunday morning? The subscribe button is just below.

Let’s jump in:


One of my favorite things to do outside of work is to help my friends with their resumes. A buddy of mine calls me “The Walking Career Office: Open 24/7.” While I consider it an overly nice compliment, I don’t consider myself the de facto authority on what makes the perfect resume. That said, I’ve seen enough examples to know when a resume does an excellent job. I’m eager to share that wisdom with you all today. Please use this guide as an input in a sea of resources available to you online.

At its core, a resume is supposed to prove one thing: That you have professional abilities well-beyond your current job title.

Your resume should demonstrate to a recruiter that you’re an all-star candidate. On just one page, you need to prove to someone (without speaking to them) that your work experience has offered you opportunities to be a leader, stretch outside of your comfort zone (and succeed), and make a big impact on your team, business line, or company.

Easier said than done.

Writing an elite resume takes time. You need to reflect on your unique experiences in your role. What makes you different than every other marketer or investment banker? What can you bring to the table that no one else with a similar profile can bring?

You need to calculate the impact of your work. It’s not enough to share all of your completed projects. What impact did they have on the business? Once you master the formula of how to write a great resume bullet point, the process of writing your resume simplifies.

Here’s the formula:

Bullet Point = Your Contribution + Impact on the Business

That’s it. If you follow this formula, your resume will shine. Sure, there are other components around style, formatting, length, quantity, and what jobs to actually include. However, for the sake of this post, I want to focus on how to write good content for each job on your resume.

On the x-axis, we have how you explain your contribution. The trick to creating an eye-popping resume is being action-oriented. You want to frame your work as being self-driven and autonomous. Let’s say, for example, you want to include a line on your resume about creating a new sales strategy for WidgetProduct. Which way sounds more exciting to read?

  1. Implemented news sales strategy

  2. Scoped, designed, tested, and launched a new sales strategy to a team of 10 sales reps for WidgetProduct.

Clearly, it’s the second option. While the first option isn’t wrong, it reads more like a completed checklist item than resume text. The second option provides the necessary context for your contribution:

  • What did you do, specifically?

  • Why did you do it?

  • Who/what was impacted?

On the y-axis, we have how specific you are about the impact of your contribution. The more precise you can be with impact, the stronger your resume gets. Of course, we can’t always have access to hard dollar figures, growth rates, or efficiency gain metrics for your projects… but we can do our best. Continuing from our example earlier, let’s finish the bullet point equation with the resulting impact. Which option sounds more impressive?

  1. Scoped, designed, tested, and launched a new sales strategy to a team of 10 sales reps for WidgetProduct to drive new client relationships.

  2. Scoped, designed, tested, and launched a new sales strategy to a team of 10 sales reps for WidgetProduct, leading to $500k+ new business in the six months after launch.

Again, the second option is clearly the better choice. With option one, we don’t have a strong understanding of how successful this new initiative was in the marketplace. With option two, we do.

So, before we jump into the quadrants, we just transformed a bullet that could have read, “Implemented news sales strategy to drive new client relationships,” to “Scoped, designed, tested, and launched a new sales strategy to a team of 10 sales reps for WidgetProduct, leading to $500k+ new business in the following 6 months after launch.”

Specificity matters. We’ve now framed the work in a way such that it’s more marketable, impressive, and accurate.

Understanding the Grid

As you could have guessed, the goal of this grid is to write bullet points that land in the top right quadrant. That means you’re following the bullet point formula. However, based on the information available to you, ensuring every bullet point is in the Elite quadrant isn’t always possible. Sometimes we have to settle for the Searching or Checklist quadrant.

In the sections below, you’ll find examples of what bullet points sound like in each quadrant so you know what to emulate and what to avoid.

Elite

Your bullet point is action-oriented and specific. Here, you follow the formula. When you have data, metrics, and estimated gains for the projects you’ve worked on, include them. They make your experience come to life and feel more tangible. If you’re a salesperson, you didn’t just “hit quota” you “achieved 102% of your quota by selling $1.4m in new business deals.” Elite bullet points pop. When a recruiter reads what you wrote, they pause, say “wow,” and eagerly move onto the next bullet point. That’s important. They keep reading. There are times where a recruiter or hiring manager will stop reading a resume if it isn’t strong. There’s a stack of dozens to get through. It’s your job as the writer to keep your reader engaged throughout. Every bullet point should have the reader think, “Wow… what else has this person done?!”

Some examples of Elite bullet points:

  • Wrote, tested, and shipped 2,000 lines of Python code to launch Groups feature, leading to a 20% increase in user engagement.

  • Designed new brand identity (logo, color pallet, typeface) for a local sports retailer, leading to a 15% increase in ad effectiveness and ~5% increase in site-wide traffic.

  • Collaborated and led team of four in launching new learning and development course for unconscious bias training, resulting in a course completion rate that was 10-points higher than the average course.

Searching

Your bullet point is action-oriented but vague. As the quadrant name suggests, the resume reader is impressed, but still searching for more information. Bullet points that fall into this category often (and unfortunately) cannot be improved. There are no metrics to gather. The data for the project doesn’t exist. There’s no way to even begin to estimate the impact that your project had on your team or company. Every resume tends to have a handful (read: 1-5 total) bullet points that are in the Searching category. To compensate for the lack of specificity around the impact of your contribution, be sure to fully elaborate on your contribution.

Some examples of Searching bullet points:

  • Designed and launched a new sales strategy for WidgetCo’s WidgetBreaker, leading to adoption by 40+ employees to increase sales.

  • Built models to perform market and business forecasting for six different industries; model was used to consider 10+ potential deals.

  • Created user engagement dashboard using SQL, Python, and Tableau monitored by 15 senior leaders to track the daily health of the company.

Checklist

Your bullet point is task-oriented but specific. In some cases, when the impact of your contribution is so impressive, keeping your contribution short allows the impact to shine. This allows the impact to speak for itself. Over explaining your contribution could dilute the bullet point entirely. However, there are times where the Checklist-style bullet point is ineffective. That’s when the impact is small and the entire bullet point does barely makes it to half of a line on paper. Effective Checklist-style bullet points should be used sparingly, though. When used correctly, they act as a very short sentence in a sea of intense prose. It just works.

Some examples of great Checklist bullet points:

  • Managed enterprise sales team in achieving 180% of quota, outperforming by $2.4m+.
    (The numbers here are large and impressive. Keeping it simple allows them to shine)

  • Raised $4.3m in Series A funding for WidgetCo.
    (Raising a Series A is no easy feat in and of itself)

Some examples of not-so-great Checklist bullet points:

  • Achieved quota of 130%.
    (Leaves room for you to explain how you did it)

  • Redesigned marketing website leading to 15-point increase in conversion rate.
    (Leaves room for you to explain what was so novel about the redesign)

Lacking

Your bullet point is task-oriented and vague. These bullet points require a full rewrite. They act more like notes, helping you identify the projects you worked on that are worth highlighting on a resume. They lack the necessary detail in your contribution and impact to make a recruiter keep reading. Elaborating and searching for how your work impacted those around you are essential improvements needed. Using these bullet points can be useful to outline your resume. Elite bullet points are born from Lacking ones. It requires editing and revision to transform vague and task-oriented bullet points into specific and action-oriented ones.

Some examples of Lacking bullet points:

  • Managed team of five in generating company sales.

  • Modeled industry trends to better inform department employees.

  • Identified data inconsistencies and adjusted models to improve accuracy.

Grid Shortcomings

  1. This grid doesn’t talk about bullet point length. As a rule of thumb, I strive to have a 50-50 ratio of 1-liner bullet points to 2-liner bullet points (with the 1-liner bullet points primarily landing towards the bottom of the resume). When your bullet point is more than 2-lines, it becomes unreadable. The recruiter or hiring manager gets jumbled in the words and loses the impact of the bullet point. Any shorter than one full line suggests you didn’t actually do all that much (or your contribution was small).

  2. This grid doesn’t mention how many bullets you should have per role. The number of bullets per role varies on a few things: how much you did, how impressive your work was, how long you were in that role, and how long ago you were in that role. The oldest role on your resume typically should have two to three bullet points while your most recent role can have anywhere from three to five. When you have more than five bullet points for a role, you need to be certain that every bullet point shares something new about what you did in that job.

  3. This grid doesn’t talk about what roles to include. Depending on the job you’re applying for, you may want to tailor your resume differently. That may mean deciding between including skills or your volunteer experience or this previous role over that role. A resume is about arranging your professional experiences in a way that is most eye-popping to the reader for the role you are trying to get. Remember, recruiters have a job, too: They need to hire someone as fast as possible who will be as successful as possible and who will stay at the company for as long as possible. Write your resume such that the risk of a recruiter moving you to the interview round feels negligible.

  4. This grid doesn’t mention formatting or style. One big tip here: Allow your text room to breathe. When you zoom out from a resume, it’s all just text. Reading a single page covered in text from end to end can feel like trying to swim across a swimming pool without taking a breath. Use whitespace to your advantage. Don’t suffocate the reader. Whitespace affords the reader the chance to ultimately finish your resume without stopping after the first few bullets. So, when it comes to adding an extra bullet point but reducing your font size to 8.5… just don’t do it.

As we gear up towards the end of the year, the largest hiring season of the year is upon us. Sure, things will be different given COVID-19. I assume that it is even more important to put your best foot forward by creating the best resume you possibly can make.

My hope is this post can act as a resource for those of you or your friends who are getting ready to start looking for a new job. Feel free to forward this to them. I’m also more than happy to take a look at your resume if you’d like a second set of eyes on it. Just shoot me a note.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


If you enjoyed today’s post, please consider forwarding it to your friends, family, or colleagues. As always, please reply to this note or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback, have ideas for a post, or want to collaborate. Want more from Gridology? You can always access the entire archive here or you can check out the podcast.