TIPS & MYTHS

“YOUR RÉSUMÉ HAS 15 SECONDS* TO MAKE THE CUT”

 

(*Or 8 seconds, or whatever number the writer happens to have found and copied.)

 

You hear this one a lot, mainly from low-end and mediocre résumé services, but also from many “experts” who just repeat what they’ve seen elsewhere. However, if you think a bit about how the early stages of the selection process must work, you’ll probably start to smell the BS, and realize that it can’t be that simple.

SUMMARY:

In fact, there are only two kinds of résumés that don’t make the first cut:

1. The ones from people who are very obviously unqualified.

2. The résumés that have been so “creatively” formatted that they either don’t make it through the normal electronic processing at all, or come through so messed up that no one will bother to read them.

In almost every hiring situation, a surprisingly large proportion of the résumés received will fall into one of those two categories.

Those résumés are very easy to spot. It doesn’t take even fifteen seconds. That’s why a very fast initial sorting is a normal part of the screening process. It’s just clearing out the garbage before the real screening begins.

Any conventionally formatted résumé from a qualified applicant will make the first cut. It’s no big deal.

The real job for your résumé is passing the rest of the screening process, and showing that you are more promising than the rest of the applicants.

If you’re applying for a more senior position, and especially for upper management and executives, the screening process will involve a number of people—not only HR people, but the people who will be working with and managing the new hire. This means that a number of highly able people who have a lot at stake will be reading the résumé even after the first interview. They will read it very carefully. Your résumé will be read and re-read right up until the final choice is made.

It’s not easy to write a résumé that will get even a well-qualified applicant through the later stages of the hiring process. That’s why most résumé services prefer to talk about getting through the early stages: the automated résumé processing, and that much-touted first cut.

 

THE STORY:

No-one is going to take a stack of several hundred résumés or more and, after the first sorting, come up with a short-list of people who will be interviewed—much less the final choice. It’s only common sense that screening résumés will normally take several stages.

The ones that get weeded out are mainly those who are very obviously unqualified. A few may be résumés whose visual or verbal presentation is so screamingly bad that no-one would possibly want to hire the person responsible. A few may show that the applicant has some sort of severe problem with attitude, language skills, or mental capacity. Or perhaps substance abuse.

It usually doesn’t take 15 seconds to pick those out, if the person doing the screening knows what they’re doing. Obviously unqualified people, and cringeworthy résumés, do not in fact get more than 15 seconds. That’s all they deserve, and more than they deserve. It’s not the fault of the person doing the screening. In the majority of cases, where the applicant is obviously unqualified, it’s not the fault of the résumé.

Any but the most obviously unqualified applicants, or the most horrible résumés, will go on to the next stage. At that stage, the screener will have considerably more time to look over the few that remain.

When I had a job that gave me a say in hiring the people I’d be managing, I sorted through piles of résumés sent in by applicants. In that business the typical scenario was that you’d get about 200 résumés for a job that required scarce skills and above-average intelligence (but no credentials). If you knew the job, you knew what to put on the résumé. In that field, if an employer were lucky, they might get, out of 200, one applicant who could probably do the job really well, and one or two more who might be passable, plus maybe another half dozen who were probably no good but whose résumés needed a more careful read to be sure. Good people were painfully scarce, and you wouldn’t take a chance on missing one.

In other fields, especially where people are allowed to hide their shortcomings behind credentials and the names of hot technologies, hot fads, or well-known companies, a larger proportion of applicants will have at least the credentials and some of the hot technologies, and will use the all the fad words they know, so a larger proportion may make the first cut, because it will take at least a bit more time to look closely enough to eliminate bad prospects from among the ones who have the right credentials and buzzwords.

But in any case, it’s a question of several successive screenings, each one giving more time to each résumé, until you have a small number that are worth reading carefully. The first screening may be left to an assistant or other junior person, the later screenings may be done by someone who knows more, is better able to make fine distinctions, and whose time is more valuable.

Finally, the screening will get down to the short list of people who will be called in for an interview. Those who pass the interview may get hired then and there, or they may go on to a second interview. At higher organizational levels, there may be further interviews and meetings. At every one of those stages, your résumé will be read or re-read, usually carefully, by hiring managers, division managers, potential colleagues, or, for executive positions, an entire executive team.

Your résumé has to work at these stages too, and work much harder. This is where a full picture of your skills and experience is critically important, to answer the questions that might come up, while reading a résumé, in the minds of a variety of highly experienced people. And all the details need to work together as much as possible to create an impressive picture without excessive wordage. A résumé like that requires a lot of time, and exceptional skill, to write. This is why so many résumé services prefer to talk about automated résumé processing and the first “15-second” screening by a human.

It is, however, perfectly possible to write a résumé that will power through the first screening and work effectively at all later stages of the hiring process. The résumé services who concentrate their talk on the first screenings are implying that there’s some sort of contradiction between effectiveness in the first screenings and effectiveness at later stages. Why should you even think that that’s true?

At the first stages of screening, it’s the profile or summary at the beginning of the résumé that carries the most weight (unless it turns off the reader with fluff), along with the company names, dates, and job titles in your work history, and any lists of qualifications at the end of the résumé. At later stages, it’s the details of the work history that get the most attention. There’s no contradiction involved in doing all of these things well. But, once again, doing it all well takes time and skill, so lower-end résumé services prefer to focus your attention on the early stages of the hiring process.

I’ve written a lot of information-rich three-page résumés for executive, management, and tech clients who got hired. (And a lot of successful shorter résumés for others doing all sorts of work.) Their résumés obviously got past the first cut—and then succeeded at all the other stages too.

And back when I was on the job market, as a freelancer or staffer, I had a lot of experience with the initial reactions to my own tightly packed three-pager. I once handed it to a recruiter and saw her jaw drop in less than five seconds. The top half of the first page did that. My three-pager got me hired as a freelancer or staffer at dozens of places.

WHAT ABOUT WHEN THE PERSON DOING THE SCREENING REALLY IS THE PROBLEM?

The above scenarios, of course, assume that the person doing the screening at each stage knows enough to make competent decisions. It is true that this is not always the case. But what is the best way to get past uninformed or incompetent screeners? You can’t predict what will or won’t cause them to reject a résumé.

The only thing you can do is to make your résumé as informative, effective, and accessible as possible, in the hopes of showing them more evidence that you’re qualified, so as to overcome their other uncertainties.

When the person doing the screening is incompetent, uncertainty is often, perhaps usually, the issue—when someone doesn’t know their job, their first concern is being absolutely certain that their ass is covered. This is true whether they realize it or not.

The best way to overcome uncertainty is an effective résumé. If your résumé includes some piece of information that lets them cover their ass, and gives them enough reason to think that you’re qualified for the job, that may well be enough to tip the balance in your favor. You’ll never know what that piece of information might be. So you need a meaty résumé—informative, but with no wasted words.

As for the screeners who are positively incompetent, because they are very certain of things that happen not to be true, your chances may not be good, but they’re at least better with a better résumé. Unless you happen to know which delusions the screener holds, you can’t do anything else about it. And in some industries, at any rate, it may be possible to identify the employers at which such people are most likely to work, and to allocate your effort accordingly—a question of strategy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Facts are ventriloquist’s dummies.
Sitting on a wise man’s knee they may
be made to utter words of wisdom;
elsewhere, they say nothing,
or talk nonsense.”

— Aldous Huxley,   
(Time Must Have a Stop, 1945)

 

 

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