Building a Better Resume: Why One Size Never Fits All

Building a Better Resume: Why One Size Never Fits All
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Servicemembers past and present aren’t strangers to following orders. And if you’re looking for résumé advice online, you’ll find plenty of people telling you what to do.

The advice takes many forms, from templates to tip sheets to essays. And there certainly are hard and fast rules all applicants should take to heart: Proofreading, following any prescribed formatting, and avoiding military acronyms and jargon, for instance. These basics, and many others, are available throughout MOAA’s website.


But not all rules apply in all situations. The process, according to Capt. Patricia Cole, USN (Ret), MOAA’s program director for Career Transition Services, “is more art than science.”


“A person can do whatever they want with their résumé, and they are not ‘wrong’ for what they choose,” Cole said. “However, it is incumbent on them to understand how their choices may affect the way they are viewed by their target audience.”


MOAA Premium and Life members can get a personalized résumé review to address their specific needs and concerns. Cole offered three examples of areas where online advice may fall short:


Keyword Crazy

Yes, many large employers use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to sort application materials by key words or phrases. But tailoring your résumé to “beat” or “outsmart” these systems means you’re “already behind the power curve,” Cole said. Instead, spend your time trying to make connections with the people who’ll be part of the hiring process.


[RELATED: 5 Resume Tips for Federal Job Seekers]


“Networking is the best way to come to the employer’s attention and allows the candidate to neatly leapfrog over all of the other competitors who are simply sending in their résumés and hoping to get noticed,” Cole said.


“I’m not saying that keywords are not important, but candidates who network their way in have both a tangible and sizeable advantage over the candidates who do not. It’s the difference between being proactive vice reactive.”


Going Long

How many pages should your résumé take up? One, maybe two. Or definitely one. Or maybe three, or more. Or … you get the idea.


Unless your prospective employer has a rule regarding résumé length, your application materials should match your experience level, Cole said – and for military retirees, a single page doesn’t work very well.


“It’s tough to convey the full scope and scale of their experience into such a small amount of real estate,” she said. “I’ve not seen a senior officer do it successfully, and they were only trying to do it because someone told them their résumé could only be one page. There is no 'résumé bible' that dictates the length of your résumé, only common practice. And common practice limits it to no more than two pages.”


Answer Before Asked

Whatever the length or the format, your résumé should answer as many of your employer’s questions as possible, not bring up new ones. Dealing with “gaps” in your résumé is a common online topic, and approaches may vary by individual circumstances.


[RELATED: 5 Transition Tips From an Executive Corporate Recruiter]


However, “Don’t assume you’ll get the chance to ‘explain it in the interview,’” Cole said. “Questions in a résumé seldom work in the candidate’s favor, so I always advise full transparency about where you were when.”


Download Marketing Yourself for a Second Career


Newly updated! Learn what you can do to prepare yourself for a successful transition from military career to civilian career. This handbook shows you how to create an attention-getting resume, cover letter, and more. Get tips on self-marketing, job search, interviews, and interviewing. (Available to Premium and Life members)

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About the Author

Kevin Lilley
Kevin Lilley

Lilley serves as MOAA's digital content manager. His duties include producing, editing, and managing content for a variety of platforms, with a concentration on The MOAA Newsletter and Follow him on X: @KRLilley