Resume Writing: It’s All About What You Leave Out

I’m taking an art class at the moment and one of the lessons being drummed into us is that what you leave out of a painting or drawing is just as important as what you include. Take the Van Gogh landscape to the left. There will have been all kinds of details that Van Gogh decided to leave out when he created this painting – trees he didn’t include, scrubby little bushes that didn’t add anything, colors that didn’t translate well onto canvas – and the result of omitting all those details is a stronger painting.

As I was working on a landscape sketch last night, and making the decision to ignore a whole line of trees, it struck me that the exact same principle applies to resume writing or creating online profiles on sites like LinkedIn. You could tell employers everything you have done and all the skills you have and you could even take pages and pages to do it. The result would be a very detailed and accurate picture of your entire career. But it wouldn’t be a Van Gogh.

To write a truly effective resume, you also need to know what to leave out.

Some Real Life Examples

  • Should you include details about your operations experience 15 years ago even though you’re now applying for sales jobs?
  • Should you detail all your extra curricular activities if you’re just finishing college?
  • How about that political campaign you worked on?
  • You have incredible writing skills, should you emphasize that?

As you may have guessed, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. After all, you’re not cookie cutter and neither should your resume be. But there is a general principle that can help you decide what to include and what to omit.

When you’re writing your resume, ask yourself one simple question: “Will that piece of information help to strengthen the impact of my resume on my target audience?”

Let\’s go through the specific examples I gave one-by-one and apply this test to them.

The job seeker with operations experience 15 years ago may decide to include that experience even though we generally advise clients to go no further back than 12 years on their resume. For example, if he’s interested in a sales job where he will be required to work closely with the operations team, employers might value that prior experience and it should be included.

A student just graduating has to decide whether or not to list details of all her extra-curricular activities. Again, it depends. First on whether she has lots of relevant internships and volunteer work experience (if she does, the extra-curricular stuff becomes less important). But if not, details of those activities may be just the thing to sway employers to give her an interview.

Generally, I tell people to stay away from mentioning politics on a resume. We live in a very polarized world and including this experience is destined to turn off some section of your target audience – except if you want to work in government, politics, or within a non-profit organization closely aligned with your candidate’s beliefs. In that case what may have been a negative becomes a huge positive and should be strongly highlighted.

And finally the person with excellent writing skills. Again (of course!) it depends. Will the target job require you to write? If it doesn’t, the inclusion of the information takes valuable space that could be used for something more relevant. In addition, the inclusion of too many unrelated skills can give the impression of an unfocused career, something that really deters employers from calling for an interview.

So how do you decide?

It’s important to get inside the head of your target employers as much as possible. Figure out what they care about. Imagine what skills and attributes will be most important. Often you can glean some of this from the job posting, but it’s also possible to go further. Check your social media connections to see if any of them know the company. Read trade publications to understand the industry. Work to learn as much as you can so that you know which parts of your experience will matter to employers in that industry or field (or to a specific company if you know it).

Then go over your whole career thinking about the aspects that are most applicable. It is these that should form the basis of your resume – a resume that can truly be called “a Van Gogh.”

To learn more about how to write a resume that will appeal directly to your target employers, take our free resume writing course . It’s easy to follow and takes less than 2 weeks. When it ends you’ll have a resume that will open many doors.

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