HOW TO SHOP (THE WEB IS YOUR FRIEND. THE PHONE IS YOUR ENEMY.)
THE ESSENTIAL FIRST STEP THAT NEARLY EVERYONE OMITS
The first step is to inform yourself.
There are many products and services for which careful shopping can often make the difference between wasting a lot of money and getting something exceptionally good. With most of these, the problem is just the public’s ignorance of a particular specialty. With resumés, it’s worse. There’s an exceptional amount of misinformation about resumés, and much of it is echoed by supposedly authoritative sources, not to mention your friends, relatives, and co-workers. If you’re inclined to rely on what you’ve heard about resumés, go to the TIPS & FAQ page, and read our “#1 Resumé Tip”, the “Killer Myths” section, and the “Other Resumé Myths.” You’ll probably be surprised.
If you spend some time on the Web looking carefully at resumé service websites, you’ll find that there are no general standards for anything in the resumé business. Resumé services vary widely in their range of service and the contents of their standard packages, and also in price and in value for money. (More on prices and value below.) Even the terminology will vary widely, and some of the professional-looking terminology is just hype.
And there are no credentials or affiliations that are guarantees of quality. The resumé business is wide open—there’s nothing to deter sleaze, and there’s no bureaucracy to get in the way of top performers.
So if you want to get your money’s worth, you’ll have to put some effort into shopping. You’re going to be spending at least several hundred dollars on something that could make or break your job prospects.
The rest of this page will tell you about what to look for. The Resumé Glossary page will give you thorough basic information about products and terminology—basic information that many resumé shoppers seem to have missed.
THE ESSENTIAL SECOND STEP THAT NEARLY EVERYONE OMITS
The second step is to keep your hands off the phone.
Before you call anyone, get on the Web and look through the sites of a number of resumé services, of various types. Since there’s so much variation, check at least a dozen sites.
What you see will bear out a lot of what you read on this page, and will probably change the way you think about resumés. I think you’ll also decide your time was well spent—an investment that will pay off for the rest of your life.
Then keep looking, until you have a short list of resumé services that really look like they can do the job you need. Knowing what you know now, you may have to look for a while. (Hint: Don’t limit yourself to local ones.) There’s a lot at stake. At least now you know what you’re looking for.
THE REST IS SIMPLE
This is where you pick up the phone.
Talk to the resumé services on your short list. Verify your impression of them, and what you’ve seen on each of their sites. Ask any questions you think will help.
Use your own judgment. Don’t wait for someone to tell you something that makes you feel right. If you do, you’re the natural prey of people who devote their efforts not to producing a good product, but to manipulating people.
If you don’t find someone you’re confident in, keep looking until you do.
If it looks suspicious, be suspicious—don’t make an exception for resumés.
Who would buy anything from a totally anonymous and untraceable business? From a cheesy website full of crude hype? From someone who offers a product so simple you should wonder why you can’t do it yourself? Apparently enough people do to keep many such operations in business, some of them for a long time. The Web is a great way to reach such people.
Here are some things to look out for:
NO NAME, NO ADDRESS
Somewhere in the website, most likely a Contact page or at the bottom of the first page, you should see the full name of an actual person (not a cartoon character) who is responsible for satisfying customers. And there should be an actual address where that person is located—at very least a postbox. It’s the ones who give no address at all you should avoid at all costs. (Even responsible professionals who work out of their homes may be understandably hesitant to put their home address on the site. A postbox is at least traceable to a real person, unless they go to some effort to conceal themselves.)
If it’s a company rather than a person, it should be very solid-looking indeed, with a definite physical location (not a postbox—try Google Street View), and a traceable company name that will almost certainly include a corporate designation such as LLC or Inc.
If you want to shop local, remember this: Just because a business shows up when you search for “resume services [yourtown]” doesn’t mean they’re located within a thousand miles of you. Appearance in organic search results with a town as a search term is very easy to game on Google, for resumé mills that have lots of money to spend. If you check, you’ll see that many of them show neither address nor anything about who owns them. Google’s separate local section, the one with the map, is much more reliable—but you have to click on “More Results” to see them all.
However, as long as you know where they actually are, consider not limiting yourself to local ones, especially if you’re looking for the best you can get. There aren’t many really first-rate resumé services, and I doubt very much that there’s one in every major metropolitan area, let alone in every core city.
If you’re shopping for a resumé service, you’re looking to hire someone to help present you to a prospective employer. You should look closely at how they present themselves to you.
Especially for experienced job-seekers, and for the more expensive resumé services, you should ask yourself: “Does their site and presentation make them look like they’re in my league (or the league I want to get into)?”
(By the way, I designed, and produced this site myself. The reason for the plain-vanilla look is that, for technical reasons, a resumé has to be plain vanilla. “Visually distinctive” resumés are another red flag, discussed below. With the right typographic skills, plain vanilla can look surprisingly good. This site is meant to show what I can do with it.)
ONE LOW PRICE FITS ALL
Some resumé services have a single price for all resumés, whether you’ve had one year’s experience or thirty. It’s usually a price that should excite the suspicions of a smart shopper, even one with only entry-level background. You should expect a resumé service’s prices to vary depending on your level of experience. The longer you’ve been working, the more information has to be presented in your resumé. And as you climb higher in the ranks, there’s a bigger payoff for carefully tailoring your presentation to your market and your specialty.
For much more about price and value in resumé services, see Price/Value Realities, below.
Many one-price resumé services also tout the “one-page resumé” myth. That’s another red flag, discussed in the next entry.
The one-page resumé is the single most pervasive and dangerous myth about resumés. “Keep it on one page” is good advice for someone who’s just entering the job market, or for people who have only a few years of experience in jobs with fairly straightforward responsibilities. In some fields, a significant number of the people who read entry-level or junior resumés will literally throw out any resumé that runs longer than one page. For those job seekers, I write one-page resumés.
For other job seekers, however, few things will sink your job search faster than a one-page resumé.
But there are some resumé services that do only one-page resumés, whether you’re entry-level or executive level. Often, these are the same low-end services that charge the same price for all resumés. (That’s a separate red flag by itself, discussed in “One Low Price Fits All”, above.
For more about the one-page resumé myth, and about how long your resumé should be, see “Killer Myth #1: ‘Keep It On One Page’” in the “Killer Myths” section of the TIPS & FAQ page.
“FUNCTIONAL” (OR “SKILLS-CENTERED”) RESUMÉS
When people call us and say that they’ve sent out lots of resumés and gotten no response whatever, the usual reason is that they’re using a “functional resumé.”
“Functional resumés” (also called “skills-centered” resumés) don’t show skills and experience in connection with your job history—what you did for each employer. Instead, they give only a list of employers, job titles, and dates, and put everything else—skills, experience, projects, etc.—in a separate skills section, with no chronological framework, no clues to when or where the skills were exercised.
HR people and hiring managers HATE these resumés, since they don’t back up your claims with a concrete, verifiable history, don’t allow readers to form a picture of what you did at each job, and give no idea of how recent is your experience in any particular skill or subspecialty. There’s not even any assurance that the skills listed were ever exercised in a professional context at all. Functional resumés go straight into the trash—there are always many more resumés in the pile.
But there are still resumé services that push functional resumés. It’s an old, old buzzword, a concept that keeps getting repeated in books and articles by people who just copy from older sources and don’t check their facts.
For more about this, see “The Functional Resumé” in the “Killer Myths” section of the TIPS & FAQ page.
DO THEY DO SERIOUS, INDIVIDUALIZED INTERVIEWING?
Nothing in the resumé business varies more than the level of service. One of the clearest and most important indications of service level is how much time they spend digging for individualized information.
The real key to an effective resumé is concrete information—with enough detail to make you stand out from similarly qualified people. Generic questions don’t provide that. Further, the types of information needed, and the emphasis given to each, will vary from one specialty to another.
For mid- to upper-level job seekers, a resumé service that can make a big difference in your job search will spend two or three hours just on interviewing. Even for people just entering the job market, a good writer will usually find about forty-five minutes worth of questions—the less experience you have, the harder they have to dig for things that will make employers take you seriously. They’ll also need some lead time before the interview to sit down and examine your basic information and work on interviewing strategy and specific questions.
A resumé service’s website should tell you where they stand on this essential issue.
Many resumé services really just do Word formatting for people who can’t do it themselves. They re-work whatever basic information you think to give them, in your existing resumé, or in a brief phone conversation or a standardized online form. In other words, they’re just secretarial services.
Especially if they want to charge more, they’ll try to add some glamor to the reworking. They’ll talk as if there are some magic phrases and formatting techniques, known only to resumé writers, that they can add to your basic information to make a killer resumé. Many of them may actually believe this. There’s been a lot of hype about that sort of thing in circulation for a long time.
A smaller number will make a stab at active information-gathering. Often, though, that amounts to no more than the “free initial consultation”—whatever questions they ask during your brief initial phone conversation.
Scripted interviews don’t add much either. They’re typically done from a list of generic questions, and the same list is used for everyone, with no consideration for conditions in different industries, or for the client’s unique background, objectives, and situation. Often, they may just be aimed at getting a little more detail on what you did in each job.
“VISUALLY DISTINCTIVE” RESUMÉS
Even seemingly simple “visual enhancements” put a surprising number of resumés in the electronic trash bin before anyone sees them. Yet some resumé services even make a selling point of counterfunctional eye candy.
There are inescapable technical reasons why resumés have to be pretty much plain vanilla. Resumés are subject to all sorts of electronic handling by programs other than Word. Word features that don’t work with such programs can make a resumé unreadable and unprocessable. And Word is a pretty clunky tool for visual refinement—especially if you have only a superficial knowledge of the program, and no knowledge at all of real-world typography. Quality typographic work is done with programs much more powerful and better-designed than Word. (It's done mainly with InDesign.)
With resumé formatting, the art is to make plain vanilla look good. That’s why this site is plain vanilla. We can apply professional knowledge of typography, production technology, and editing to make plain-vanilla stand out for appearance and functionality.
There are many Word “features” that cause technical problems. Other technical and visual problems are caused by common techniques people use to tart up a resume. (Even Word’s automatic bulleted lists are a minor problem. Virtually everyone uses them, but there are safer ways to do this job, that also look a lot better.)
GENERIC COVER LETTERS
A good cover letter has to be carefully individualized, and anticipate tailoring for each job application. Generic cover letters don’t cut it—the say nothing at all about the fit between a particular applicant and a particular job, and employers see thousands of them, all essentially alike. It’s quite difficult to write a cover letter that will actually be useful—especially since it has to be done in advance, and for someone else. It takes time and skill, and should cost extra.
But many resumé services produce generic cover letters, and many even throw them in for free. That says a lot about how they approach their work.
OTHER FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Many resumé services deliver resumés only in Word. But Word resumés are not good for pasting into online forms, or for sending in the body of an e-mail. The visual formatting of Word resumés involves extra computer code that often shows as garbage text when pasted into other applications. (And the way most resumé services construct Word documents causes far worse problems—see the section on “Visually Distinctive” Resumés, above.) That’s not a problem you want to deal with when you are in the middle of filling out an online form.
What’s needed for online forms is a plain-text version of your resumé: a separate document with no formatting of any kind. (That means it’s not the best document to present to humans, so you still need the Word version, of course.) The plain-text version may be an actual .txt document, for use with text processors. Or it may be a Word document, which more people are familiar with, but with all formatting stripped, so it looks like a typewritten document. (For more about plain-text resumés, see the Plain Text entry in our Resumé Glossary.)
One of the commonest uses of online forms in today’s job market is in filling out LinkedIn profiles, so plain text, not Word, is the best format for your LinkedIn profile.
Plain-text resumés, though not the best for human reading, should also be specially arranged so that they are as human-readable as possible. That will also make them much easier for you to handle when you are pasting them into online forms. And sometimes people on the employer’s end will read them too. This most often happens when they are sent in the body of an e-mail.
There are two other useful file formats in which resumés may be provided:
The most common of these is PDF. But PDF resumés must be used with care: HR departments and computerized resumé processing systems don’t like them. (For more about the nature and use of PDF resumés, see the PDF entry in the Resumé Glossary.)
The RTF format was once commonly needed for resumés, but is not likely to be needed today for sending resumés to employers. It still has some value as a last-resort archival format, because it can be opened in any word processor, and won’t become obsolete in the foreseeable future. (For more about the RTF resumés, see the RTF entry in the Resumé Glossary.)
With resumés, you don’t always get what you pay for. That’s why you have to shop for much more than price.
But you’ll never get anything you don’t pay for, so price can give you some important clues. Resumé-service prices are all over the place.
At the low end, some resumé services will charge you $50—whether you’ve had zero years of experience or thirty. (The “one-price-fits-all” business is a red flag by itself, discussed above.) At the high end, fees range from several hundred dollars, for entry-level people, to well over a thousand. (The rough rule of thumb is about one percent of your annual salary. It’s less towards the high end, as there’s a point of diminishing returns.) Top-quality work isn’t sustainable at lower prices than that. Those who deliver top quality have learned that the hard way. In a business crowded with low-ballers, quality can’t compete on price.
$50 is likely to get you just the information that you yourself provide, with minimal modification, slapped into a one-size-fits-all resumé template, with no quality control. However, there’s a nationally-known service that charges $800 for the same thing. Often, though, at higher price points, a generic scripted interview may be added.
Still, if you shop around using the guidelines on this page, you’ll find that price roughly correlates with the level of services offered. But even if the service menu is the same, some resumé specialists will put more time and knowledge into the job than others. That investment has to be reflected in the price, and people with exceptional skills command a high price for their time.
SIZE (AND “PARTNERSHIPS”)
Size is no guarantee of quality. The biggest can be remarkably shoddy, while some of the best are successful small shops—often one-person operations.
In fact, small is often better, for a simple economic reason. On the one hand, it doesn’t take much money to get into the resumé business. On the other hand, given quality work and competitive prices, the profit margin isn’t high enough to make a profit while paying competitive salaries to skilled employees. So volume isn’t an option, because the really good writers, if they have any sort of head for business, can do better working for themselves and keeping the whole fee. In addition, there just aren’t that many skilled people. That’s why your best bet may be a small firm—often a one-person operation. (Of course, that’s what Crystal Resumés is.)
There are plenty of small and shoddy operations too. A lot of people think that preparing resumés professionally, for others, is something that anyone can easily learn to do. Quite a few people go into the resumé business in that belief.
“Partnerships”— affiliations with nationally-known job sites, media, or employment firms—are no guarantee of quality either. When these firms look for resumé services to “partner” with, size is an essential criterion—they’re getting a cut of the fees, so they want a “partner” who does a large volume of business.
There’s lots of detail hype about resumés at all price levels, including the high end. Much of it comes from low-grade literature on job-hunting—see our #1 Resumé Tip on the Tips & FAQ page. Some originated as resumé-service sales hype—which was then picked up by writers on job-hunting topics.
If you spend some time looking through resumé-service websites, you’ll find that even basic terminology is often used inconsistently or just erroneously. Often, simple things (especially technological novelties and basic writing techniques) are given high-sounding names—different names by different people, so you won’t know they’re talking about the same thing unless you’ve done some research. (Our Resumé Glossary is a good place to start on the basics.)
Keywords and related matters have given rise to a lot of hype and some dangerously misleading ideas. For this, see SEO, Keywords, Search-Engine Optimization: Hype & Misconceptions on the Tips & FAQ page. Keywords are important, but they’ve been an essential element of any good resumé for many years, and knowledgeable resumé writers aren’t inclined to make a fuss about them.
Another revealing example of terminology hype is talk about “functional” versus “chronological” resumés. In this case, a trivial theoretical distinction was magnified in importance until the “functional resumé” came to be perceived by the ill-informed as a new approach to writing resumés. For the serious problems with this, see “Functional” (or “Skills-Centered”) Resumés, in the Red Flags section, above. For the history, see Killer Myth #2: The Functional Resumé on the Tips & FAQ page.
Technological terms and concepts sometimes continue to be used for years after the technology has become obsolete. In some such cases, the terms will be confusingly misapplied to newer technology. (A comprehensive example of this is the history of the term “scannable resumé.” Morbidly curious researchers may contact us for a detailed history.)
“FREE RESUMÉ CRITIQUES”
Beware the “free resumé critique.” These are usually just a sales tool—the people who offer them give you an awful review of whatever you send—spouting lots of buzzwords and bogus “rules”—hoping you will then hire them to fix it up. (If an auto mechanic offered free oil changes to all comers, you’d be suspicious, wouldn’t you?)
There are some resumé services that offer free critiques in good faith. But those critiques are apt to be superficial—anything more would take more time than a serious business can afford to give away. At best, they’re just small free samples of what the resumé service can do for you.
In fact, the practice of offering free resumé critiques is not well regarded among better resumé writers. Most resumé services don’t offer critiques even as a paid service, because providing a really useful, thorough, professional critique is more work than just re-doing the resumé, and they’d have to charge more for it. Even so, it wouldn’t cover all the points on a given resumé: nothing less than a book-length critique could possibly cover the hundreds of little details that go into creating an effective resumé.
All resumé services require payment in advance, with no refunds. If you see what looks like an exception, look closer, and you’ll see the catch.
No experienced professional, and no business, does first-rate work unless they’re certain they’re going to be paid for it.
How do the services who offer “guarantees” work it?
Occasionally, you’ll see something like this: “$300 in advance, and $300 on delivery.” From what I’ve seen, this means you’re getting a $300 resumé (at best), and if they collect the other $300, it’s gravy.
Perhaps there are some that offer a real guarantee—but add a large premium to all fees to cover the risk of non-payment.
But almost always, the “guarantee” takes this form: “Guaranteed interviews in 30 days or we re-write your resumé for free!”
If you call them on the free rewrite guarantee, you’ll have to submit a lot of documentation in support of your claim. And then you’ll have to put up with a bureaucratic runaround designed to make you give up.
And the free rewrite doesn’t mean much in any case, if you think about it. If their quality was poor in the first place, it’s not likely that the same people are going to make much improvement on the second go-round. They might just quickly rephrase things, differently but not better, so they can say they’ve rewritten. That’s just part of the runaround.
If your resumé was written by a resumé mill with a revolving door stable of cheap writers, and one of their writers really did botch it, it will give them a chance to give it to another writer—who may or may not do much better.
Meanwhile, you’re wasting job-search time and blowing opportunities.
Resumés are just not a product for which meaningful guarantees of results are possible.
Job searches are too variable, and there are many factors other than the resumé. A lot depends on the particular field, the overall job market at the time, the market for someone’s particular specialty at that time and in their location, and sometimes on the time of year. In many fields, it could easily be more than 30 days before you get an interview, or even before you find someone with a job opening. And in the end, your own experience is a big factor, too. And the hiring process itself is too uncertain and often quite irrational.
If you send in your resumé and don’t get a response, it’s quite possible that the reasons had nothing to do with your resumé. The employer may have been looking for someone with different experience, or more experience—or less. Many employers won’t consider applications from people who aren’t currently employed. (That’s stupid, but that’s the way it is.)
Certifications for resumé writers mean very little one way or the other. At most, they’ll help you avoid the very lowest level of practitioners—the ones who are both totally incompetent and lazy—the ones you would recognize in any case from what shows on their websites. But there’s a lot of certified mediocrity out there, and some energetic sleazeballs boast certifications too. I’ve seen some awfully bad work from certified resumé writers. You’ll see it too, soon enough, if you actually read the samples on the Web sites of certified resumé services.
It’s actually pretty easy to get some sort of certification if you want it. Of the several certification programs out there, the most demanding represents at most perhaps a few weeks worth of work. (So few people completed that program that the organization that offers it stopped listing the graduates on its site.)
On the other hand, many of the best resumé writers are successful practitioners with long records who see no need to get “certified.” There are good reasons for this. For one, the certifying organizations are run by people who own resumé services. Getting members to submit their work, and answer detailed questions about it, is a great opportunity to pick people’s brains.
I wouldn’t mind sharing some information about the business and administrative side of things with my competitors, or sharing other things with people I know and respect. That sort of thing is good for the whole business. But when people who claim the authority to certify me haven’t taken the trouble to learn how to (for example) format a Word document so it will get through electronic resumé processing, I see no reason to hand them the information. Doing so would not be good for the whole business, since it would give people with superficial, borrowed knowledge the advantage over those who take the trouble to learn things well.
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