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Resume Formats: Which One is Right for You?

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When it comes to resume impact, content is only part of the story. The way you organize your resume is every bit as important as what you put in it.

Over the years, two basic types of resume organization have emerged: the chronological format and the functional format. Let's examine each and talk about which is best for you.

The Chronological Format



The traditional and most commonly used resume format is the chronological format—so named because the core component of the resume is a chronologically sorted review of your employment history. You detail the various jobs you have held over the years, beginning with your most recent position and working backwards.

For each position, you provide the following information:
 
  • The employer's name and location.
  • The dates of your employment.
  • Your position.
  • Your responsibilities and accomplishments.

Typically, this experience profile makes up about 70 percent of the resume. In most cases, it appears first on the resume, immediately after the job objective or skills summary, if those are used. However, this order is not cast in stone; you would put education and training first, for example, if they were the most important qualifications for the job you seek. (More about resume order at the end of this article).

It's important to note that you can also use this format successfully to chronicle volunteer experience. You can list volunteer positions in the same manner as you would list paid jobs, detailing the name of the organization, the years of your involvement, your position (member, committee chair, board member, etc.), and your responsibilities and accomplishments.

As you can see from the following sample resume, the chronological format makes it easy for employers to see where you've been and what you've done. Most employers prefer the chronological format, in part because it's what they know best. They expect this kind of resume; they understand it and can easily follow the flow of information. However, this does not mean that a chronological resume should automatically be your choice.

The chronological format works best when all or most of the following conditions apply:
 
  1. You have a stable history of employment (or of relevant volunteer experience).
  2. You've worked in the same general field for several years and are pursuing employment in that area.
  3. You have advanced steadily throughout your career, in terms of titles and/or level of responsibility.
  4. You have had few career changes and have spent a year or more in each of your jobs (as opposed to job-hopping or switching fields every six months).

An Alternative Choice: The Functional Resume

The chronological format allows prospective employers to discern a stable, steady work history at a glance; that is great, if you have a stable, steady work history. But what if your career path hasn't followed a storybook trail?

Perhaps you got off on a few rocky roads—your job history is spotted with short-term stints. Maybe your original career compass led you to a dead end, and you wound up backtracking. You may have gone back to school to get a degree to start off in a new direction. Maybe you've taken time out from the journey to raise kids. Or maybe you've never held a job outside the home.

A chronological resume will put unflattering emphasis on your erratic or minimal work history-just as surely as a two-piece swimsuit draws unwanted attention to a pudgy waistline. You may be better off with a functional resume.

In a functional resume, your accomplishments, qualifications and experience are grouped together and presented according to areas highlighted below.

Sample: Functional Resume

Skill, rather than with specific jobs or volunteer positions. Depending upon your career direction and the qualifications you want to highlight, function groupings might include:
 
  • Management experience.
  • Communication experience.
  • Technical experience.
  • Sales experience.
  • Financial experience.
  • Customer service experience.
  • Leadership experience.
  • Computer experience.
  • Teaching experience.

In a functional resume, less emphasis is put on when and where you worked. You don't have to attach years to your accomplishments, nor do you have to link experience to specific employers or organizations. Because a functional format de-emphasizes time, it also underplays your age—something to consider if you fear you will be perceived as too old or too young.

There's no doubt that employers prefer chronological resumes over functional resumes. Still, it may be in your best interest to use the functional format if:
 
  1. Your work history is out of sync with new career goals.
  2. You do not have a great deal of experience (volunteer or paid) related to the position you seek.
  3. You have noticeable gaps in work history.

Take Doreen, for example. After sending her youngest child to college, she's decided to return to the work force and is applying for a position as a telephone sales representative. Although she hasn't held a paid job for 12 years, she's accumulated quite a bit of sales experience through her volunteer activities.

If Doreen were to use a chronological format, not only would the gap in her employment history be emphasized, but her sales experience would be less obvious because it would be hidden amid the other details of her paid and volunteer jobs. Grouped together and positioned first on her resume, Doreen's accomplishments and qualifications as a salesperson become much more evident. The skills summary emphasizes sales experience, especially in the area of telephone sales, lending additional power to Doreen's presentation.

The biggest drawback of a functional resume is that employers may suspect you are trying to hide something if your work history isn't sketched out, if dates aren't attached to experiences. Adding a brief chronological summary of your work and volunteer positions helps combat this reaction.

A hybrid format

It's perfectly okay to incorporate elements of both functional and chronological formats into your resume. For example, if you're applying for a position that requires very specific computer knowledge, you may want to lead off your resume with a functional-style listing of your relevant computer skills and follow that with a traditional chronological listing of your work history. Just don't get too schizophrenic, or you'll wind up with a crazy patchwork that confuses rather than enlightens.

Put your best foot forward

Whether you use a functional or chronological format—or combine elements of both into a hybrid format—remember one very important rule: open with your strongest card. Because most employers spend only 30 seconds reviewing a resume, you must grab their attention immediately. And the way to do that is to present your most important qualifications for the job first.

Ask yourself these two questions:
 
  1. If I were the employer, what would I want from the person I hired? What would be the first thing I'd look for in a resume? A special degree or license? A specific type of experience? Or a broad background in one general area?
  2. What would an employer consider to be my strongest qualifications for this position?

The answers will help you determine the most effective way to organize the information in your resume.
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