Why you should customize your resume for each application

A custom resume can mean the difference between getting out your suit for that final interview, and never even getting a phone call. Here’s why you should customize your resume for each job application.

In conversation, we treat resumes like passports — something to be updated every ten years or if you change careers.

But of course, that’s not how it works anymore. Even the most comfortably employed professional knows to drag out their resume for some review and tweaking a couple times a year. But in the modern, frenetic job-hunting world, a recently-updated resume is far from enough. 

In reality, you should be creating a custom resume for each and every application you send out. You may think: “Ouch! That’s a lot of resume writing.” But, never fear, I have some tips and hacks to make it easier and I’m prepared to convince you that customization is key (that we’ll get into in a moment). If you take away one fact from this read, it’s that with uncertainty about how the job market will look in a post-COVID-19 future, you need to distinguish yourself from other candidates any way you can if you want to grab that new job.

Impress the hiring manager with extra effort

Hiring managers ought to be looking for the person who is the best fit for a particular job. But you can bet that a key quality in the “ideal” person is extremely enthusiastic about joining their company.

So, anyone who’s been to a few job interviews knows to pump a little extra exuberance into the conversation.

A custom resume is a great way to communicate excitement about joining a particular company. Fill it with plenty of references that tell the reader it was crafted specifically for their eyes, and they’re sure to pass you on to the next round. You’re not driving off to the print shop to order a batch of 50 resumes or typing cover letters on a manual typewriter  — the ease of updating your resume makes it an imperative. Otherwise, hiring managers will see you as lazy.

Don’t believe us? You should know that for every position you apply for, the company is likely to receive at least 250 other applications. Somewhere around 4-6 will be granted an interview. So standing out is always critical.

Plus it’s important when you consider that your resume will almost certainly be going through an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). These tricky little pieces of software are used by 75% of recruiters and hiring managers across all industries and business types. 

That’s important to know because ATS software automatically looks for keywords and phrases in your resume that recruiters find important. Tools like Jobscan will rate your resume for relevance to the job post before human eyes ever land on it. These systems overwhelmingly reward custom resumes with terminology that echoes the job description. Be careful, though. Hiring managers are savvy to job seekers who stuff their resumes with keywords.

But what does “custom resume” mean? How can you communicate that the one-pager any given human resources department is seeing was tailor-made for them?

Let’s use an example

For an extra-obvious example, consider adding a heading to the top of your resume that says something like “Seeking [Job Title X] at [Company Y]”.

This will attract the eye of a human reader. Plus it will tick some of the boxes that those ATSs are looking for.

But you can go more subtle too. Under your work experience bullet points, for example, emphasize the ways that a particular project taught you skills that will be useful in the new position you’re targeting.

For example, “Managed a team of seven accountants, which taught me the time-management skills I’ll need to meet and exceed your expectations for a project manager at Acme Corporation.”

Prevent downward resume creep

Like a new puppy, a resume demands love and attention — sending it out, unchanged, with an endless stream of applications is the best way to make sure that you’re passing around out-of-date information to all potential employers.

One major benefit of customizing your resume for each application is that it gives you a great excuse to give it a once-over a couple of times a week.

There are three great reasons to do this.

1. Continual resume review

First, I think you’ll find very quickly that you’ll have the chance to add items to your resume far more frequently than you might think. Every new class, certificate, volunteer role, freelance project, and personal learning exercise is an opportunity to strengthen your resume and add a new skill. Or, bump some of the less impressive elements off the bottom.

And don’t neglect your social media presence. Update your LinkedIn profile whenever you add or subtract from your resume.

It’s easy to miss these chances because, let’s be honest, the first thing you’re likely to think after finishing your final project for a new certificate course is “time for a nap,” not “let’s run home and add this to my resume!” 

2. Remove outdated information

You’ll also be much quicker to notice pieces of your resume that just don’t fit anymore. Far from having some monolithic set of rules, hiring manager’s preferences for resumes change over time.My bet is that you’ll find pretty much right away that your ancient resume is filled with old information and missing helpful experiences you’ve had since you wrote it, or, worse, contains spelling and grammar errors. Watch for chances to trim the passé pieces and you’ll always look like you’re a modern professional in-the-know.

3. Mistakes Mistakes

And unless you’re a top-tier copywriter, I promise you there is at least one typo on your resume right now. Maybe it’s something big like a misspelling, or small like a strange grammar tense, but reading and re-reading your resume will help you spot these.

 And while Natasha Bowman’s LinkedIn post alludes to a change in recruiters’ attitudes about perfection, 79% of recruiters and hiring managers will toss your resume in a second. 

“Not me!” you might be saying, “My resume is perfect, Strunk & White themselves would fall to their knees in praise of such a flawless document.”

To that, I say you should let a couple of close friends take a read before proclaiming yourself the second coming of Shakespeare—they’re far more likely to spot mistakes that you’ve been missing for years.

Helps you prepare for the interview

The best advice I ever got on improving my performance in an interview (other than the hiring manager who needed to explain to me that white athletic socks don’t work with a suit and black loafers—19 was a fun age) was to turn every answer into a story.

Not only do interviewers prefer memorable stories as answers, but this tactic will also help you avoid rambling on and on.

But here’s the problem: if you’re a normal human, you’re probably feeling a bit stressed when you sit down for an interview. Science has shown that stress sabotages your memory and ability to think on your feet.

In other words, winging it is not a formula for success.

But if you take the time to go through your resume for each application and connect your work experience section to challenges you expect to face in the job you’re applying for, you’re giving yourself a great opportunity to run through potential answers ahead of time.

With practice, you might even find yourself lining out a dozen or so canned stories that you can tell for common questions based on the contents of your work experience section.

My advice? Keep a printed copy of your custom resume by your side for your next phone interview. When your interviewer asks you about a time that you overcame a difficult challenge at work, you’ll have a whole list of examples to pull from, with the connection to that particular role already thought out!

Maybe avoid the coffee mug smashing story!

The start of great organization

Marie Kondo  has made a one-person industry out of telling us how to declutter, get organized and stay organized. We really love reading about organizing and watching other people get organized! We’re really going to get organized! 

It seems strange, then, that so few professionals organize their job search in a serious way. Sure it’s a pain to set up a solid Google sheet, but you’ll be missing some serious opportunities if you’re firing off resumes left and right without any sort of record keeping.

For example, many hiring managers love follow up emails after applications and interviews. But, if you’re applying to a lot of jobs, it’s difficult to remember when you applied to each, what the name of the hiring manager was, and many more of the little details that could be the difference maker in your application.

That’s another reason that I strongly advocate building a custom resume for each job application — it’s the starting point to a good organization system.

Before you could have been sending out barrages of applications with a couple clicks and it’s temptingly easy to do so if you don’t personalize your resume. Now, you’re already sitting down to take the time to review your resume and create a separate file.

So why not take the extra five seconds to write down some of the details on the application into a spreadsheet?

Don’t like spreadsheets? That’s okay — there are a cartload of great ways to organize your job search. Just pick one!

Okay, but how?

Okay, you’re probably thinking, this all sounds great. But how do I customize a resume without spending all my time hunched over a keyboard?

I apply to literally hundreds of jobs a month, are you saying that I need to be building a resume from scratch for every single one?

Of course the answer is NO, although it is always worth underlining that famous maxim, “looking for a job is a full-time job.”

The good news is that there’s no need to commit three hours to each and every resume you build — at least not if you spend some time setting up a template to start. Your objective should be to have a few standard resumes that you can customize for a particular role in five minutes or so.

Building blocks

Another common tactic used by job-seekers who apply for many different kinds of jobs is to split a resume into building blocks that they can mix and match in different ways.

Rather than keeping a unified template resume, they have a page with the right heading, and then they paste in pre-written job experiences and certifications as they see fit. Think of it as a good way to avoid filling your resume with references to your time as an underwater welder when you’re applying for a job as a customer service agent.

One subcategory of the building blocks method is simply to match the skills listed in the job posting when you build your skills section. This down-and-dirty fix is great in a pinch and should always be a part of your tailoring, but I recommend more extensive personalization.

Or, there’s this…

Customizing your resume for each application may be a lot of work, but it will be worth it in the end. Duplicating resumes, making edits, testing designs, and staying organized is key. You can spend a lot of time doing this in a document builder or speed up your process with a tool like Resume.io. Either way the time you invest to customize your resume for each application has a huge impact on the outcome of your job search.

Whatever system you decide to use, I hope you’ll start thinking of each resume you use as a custom tool designed to do one job. At worst, you’ll save yourself from  aggressive hiring managers who will toss generic resumes straight out the window. You’ll also help to make sure that more humans read your resume when you pass the initial ATS screening . And you may even find yourself approaching the whole job application process in a new, more strategic way.

Once you put a little effort into making sure that your metaphorical wrench matches the size of the bolt you’re trying to loosen, you’ll find the whole process to be oh-so-much easier. Build your resume in 15 minutesUse professional field-tested resume templates that follow the exact ‘resume rules’ employers look for.

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