For many career professionals, writing a great resume will involve several stages. There’s the original planning, writing down achievements, identifying great keywords, deciding on a format, honing the narrative, and putting the finishing touches on style and design elements. Each step is important, but the order in which you approach them can greatly increase your efficiency and the quality of your final product.
The first big decision to make with any great resume is determining the structure or format. There are a few common types of resumes, and we’re going to evaluate when (or if) you should use each of them. The three main types of resumes are:
Before evaluating a format, it’s important to understand the end goal of your new resume. In a time when recruiters are often expected to sort through hundreds of resumes for each open position, the need to deliver stage-appropriate information quickly and efficiently is vital.
This means the best resumes can deliver the right information to a recruiter or hiring manager without excess verbiage, extraneous sections, or information clutter. You should always strive for a clear layout and a simple, direct narrative style that paints a cohesive picture of your career progression and current qualifications.
With that in mind, let’s evaluate a few of the most popular resume formats.
These documents eschew the classic timeline-oriented layout in favor of skill and experience grouping. Functional resumes split a professional’s experience into domains of knowledge and ability. For example, a functional resume for a Director of IT might have the following sections: Leadership/Management Experience, Key Projects, Information Technology Experience. I’d also expect this resume to include a Technical Skills section, along with the classic Education and Summary sections.
Functional resumes group these skills in categories that paint an overall picture of present-tense ability. Because these groups don’t explicitly mention a timeline or company, most functional resumes end with a rundown of the dates, company names, and positions held.
The strength of this resume style is organization. Instead of skills, achievements, and abilities strewn about the resume, this style lets a recruiter evaluate a complex career history in a way that is more structured and sectioned. Functional resumes can be good for people who have extensive experience in a few different career paths, or executives who started in technical positions like engineering and IT, but later moved into leadership roles.
The truth is that functional resumes don’t perform well across most positions and industries. In fact, the average person should actively look for reasons NOT to use a functional style. The biggest drawback of a functional resume is that it muddies the timeline, showing a long list of great skills and attributes, but not outlining exactly where those skills came from.
Talking about your leadership skills and your sales success is great, but a recruiter can’t get a clear sense of your potential if he doesn’t understand where you gained those skills and how long it’s been since you’ve used them. Many of the recruiters we work with on a regular basis have told us a functional resume feels deceptive (whether intentional or not), and in some cases, it raises more questions than it answers.
There is a time and a place for functional resumes, but the average professional should look to avoid this layout unless it’s the only way to make sense of an otherwise complicated and long career.
While a bit of a misnomer, a chronological resume will actually be written in reverse-chronological order (with the most recent position appearing at the top of the page). This is, and has been, the gold standard for resume writing. Chronological resumes paint a very clear picture of the career trajectory, letting recruiters understand your path of promotions and job movement over the course of time. They often include the first career-oriented job after college, and describe every position held since then.
However, if your career is especially long, we recommend focusing on the most recent 10 years of experience, then omitting or severely truncating the older experience. Stylistically, chronological resumes are a great way to show career movement, but they’re also the most popular style. This means recruiters are accustomed to seeing them, they understand and anticipate them, and they can easily skim and draw intelligent conclusions from a good chronological resume in only a few seconds. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, a chronological resume is the best choice for almost all career professionals.
Chronological resumes have a little trouble organizing diverse skills and experience. If you were a software developer in your earlier career and have moved on to senior-level project management, a recruiter might have to dig a bit to understand the full range of your skills. Diverse careers that have spanned multiple disciplines can sometimes struggle with relaying that identity in the confines of a chronological resume.
It’s also important to note that employment gaps and job-hopping will be easier to spot in a chronological format. Most recruiters actively look for those things anyway, and we believe you’re better off showing that information unapologetically, rather than burying it with an alternate resume style.
As the name implies, these resumes offer a combination of functional “grouping” of skills, but still make use of an easy-to-understand timeline. Some combination resumes can be very effective for the right career.
For example, we recently worked with a State Senator for his resume, which included a long and decorated career not only as a legislator, but a successful businessman and former CEO. Our approach was to provide a classic chronological timeline that focused on his business contributions and accounted for his legislative career, while using some functional elements to call attention to his legislative experience in various sectors.
Another popular combination resume style is to simply list chronological job entries, but break the experience bullets into section. For example, I might list my most recent company, job title, and dates, then group my experience into a few sections (Management, Consulting Experience, and Operations). This structure would clearly show my timeline, but help bring a bit of organization to my experience at each job. These are both very different, but perfectly viable examples of combination resumes.
The primary drawback of a combination resume is length: If you’re including both of these elements in the same document, you’re likely creating a longer resume (2 pages at minimum). Since recruiters overwhelmingly prefer one-page resumes, this means you’re choosing to disregard their strong preference so you can tell your story in your own way.
There are times when this is appropriate, but a complex, multi-page resume can often be a liability. These resumes are best left to top executives and powerful professionals who are certain a recruiter will be carefully considering their resumes. If you’re a former district attorney who has run for office and has several companies actively recruiting you for a consulting position, you can be sure your resume is getting the proper attention and can make good use of a combination style. If you’re fresh out of college, a recruiter is looking to make a snap judgment on your resume and this particular style probably isn’t for you.
Regardless of which format you choose, you’ll need to carefully plan which sections to include, which keywords should have top priority, your overall design and style, and of course, writing great narrative.